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Posts Tagged ‘work of Christ’


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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Visual Theology by Tim Challies and Josh Byers is an attempt to present basic doctrine for the purpose of growth in godliness using not only the written word but also diagrams so people can see the connections that Challies and Byers want them to see.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive systematic theology. It is meant to help you “see and understand the truth about God”. They avoid academic issues but focus on the issues and doctrines that promote godliness.

I purchased the book for two reasons. These reasons direct my review of the book. The first was an interest in materials for discipleship, particularly of men. Many of the men I work with are very busy (and often have tons of books already in their queue). So the prospect of a relatively short book that has diagrams is appealing.

I also wanted access to the diagrams, or at least some of them, for SS lessons since I often use Power Point. Some of the diagrams are quite helpful. I found some of them to be “over-stimulating” or too busy. Some just didn’t connect with me. Overall the diagrams are a help to the book.

I don’t envy Challies & Byers, or their editor. I’m sure there were difficult questions about what doctrines to discuss, and which ones to leave out.  In the introduction they lay out the purpose and methodology. They offer the material in four sections: Grow Close to Christ, Understand the Work of Christ, Become Like Christ, and Live for Christ. Under the first they cover the Gospel, Identity and Relationship. The second covers the Drama, or Story of the Bible, and Doctrine. The third covers sanctification: putting off the old life and putting on the new life. The last section hits Vocation, Relationships and Stewardship.

What isn’t here is any meaningful discussion of doctrines like the incarnation and theories of the atonement, which I think would be considered central to “the work of Christ”. But there are topics often missing in discussions of discipleship,  like vocation and stewardship. This meant there were times I was frustrated, and times when I was grateful they addressed something. It is not meant to be a theology book so much as a book about how to grow which includes some theology. So, in a sense, the book’s title doesn’t really help you understand what the book is about.

Much of what is written is good, if perhaps too brief. Challies is part of the neo-Calvinist movement. He’s Calvinistic in his soteriology (doctrine of salvation), but baptistic in his understanding of ecclesiology and sacraments. I suspect he is also in the New Covenant Theology camp based on some recommended books, and from his blog. As a result, at times there were ideas I thought were incomplete, lacking or just too baptistic.  In terms of the latter, on the first page of chapter 1 in discussing our need for regular reminders of the gospel we see this:

“The reason we celebrate the Lord’s Supper is to remind ourselves of what Christ has done and what he has promised to do.”

That is certain one of the reasons, but not the only reason (which is implied by the definite article). It communicates a memorial view of the sacrament that I find less than fully biblical. It is not less than that, but thankfully so much more. I found a similar sentiment later in the book as though “take and eat” and “take and drink” are unimportant. We need Christ like we need bread and wine. In his section on “ordinances” (pp. 25-26) this plays out in a focus on us, and then Christ in the sacraments. Historically, Reformed Theology has pointed to Christ and then us in the sacraments. The objective is the grounding the subjective elements. Instead They focused on the subjective elements first. The real issue in the sacraments is union with Christ, not the pledge of a good conscience. God’s work produces any work on my part, even in the sacraments. The section ends saying “In the celebration, Christ is present, you are present, and your shared relationship grows.” In the margin I wrote, “So, what does that mean?” It is a profound but largely unexplained statement.

In an otherwise very good chapter on identity, they discuss justification. They don’t do it justice: “You have been declared innocent.” Not less than that, but more. We have been declared righteous!! Innocent people still need positive righteousness. Merely innocent people aren’t accepted by God, righteous people are. I don’t think I’m nitpicking. This is something young Christians need to know precisely because it is intended to shape their life in the face of God. I am always and only acceptable because of Christ and His righteousness imputed to me. It is humbling and yet provides confidence. It frees me from my own paltry attempts at self-righteousness.

One disconcerting note was a relative absence of the Holy Spirit and His work, particularly in sanctification. This shows up in the chapter on the Bible, and the chapters on putting off and putting on. Their thesis on page 53 is “The Bible makes you godly.” To explain they say “To be godly is to be God-like in your character. The Bible enables you to live according to God’s standards and to reflect his character.” I wrote two things in the margin: “What does this mean?” and “Necessary but insufficient for sanctification.” The Holy Spirit makes us godly, and He uses the Bible to do it. The power (what I’d mean by “enables”) is the Spirit. He is the engine car to the Bible as tracks. This is fodder for the “radical grace” guys. Clarity matters, and sometimes the quest to be succinct means important distinctions are left out, distinctions that can create other big problems down the road.

Nothing downright heretical here. Just some troubling imprecision that would lead me to not accept these answers on an ordination exam. If given to a younger Christian, I would strongly suggest they read it with a more mature Christian who can fill in some of the gaps.

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The final view of sanctification addressed in Christian Spirituality is that of the contemplatives. The Church has a long history with contemplatives, or mystics, that transcends geography and denominations. Some well-known names were contemplatives: Bernard of Clairvoux, St. John of the Cross, Teresa Avila, Thomas Merton and more. In my younger days as a Christian I read Brother Lawrence and The Great Cloud of Unknowing. How does E. Glenn Hinson describe contemplative Christianity?

Contemplatives try to balance the inner and outer life. They usually assert that being will result in doing (which is a far more biblical idea than doing will result in being). They do spend most of their time addressing the inner life: being. Its focus is on communicating, communing and contemplating with God internally. Like Wesleyian sanctification the focus is on one’s love for God. Instead of gaining this thru a second blessing, one pursues it, so to speak, through a series of activities that leads one thru the stages of increasing communion with God. I’m trying to do this justice on its own terms.

“Contemplation has to do with this loving attentiveness to God.”

In contemplation there is an assumption that God is immanent in the created order. He is inescapably near to us. There is no disputing this, the question is “how is He near?”.

In Hinson’s description, there is a “naturalness” to this pursuit of the Divine Lover. He does not clarify and it can sound awfully Pelagian to many ears. Since contemplatives typically eschew theological distinctions, lots of things are vague enough to be misunderstood. Or properly understood.

At the very best, it is typically Arminian. God is a gentleman who never knocks our door down but respects the freedom He gave us. There is a resistibleness to this “grace.” Let me clarify: in Reformed Theology God does not violate the will of the creature, but in regeneration changes the character/nature of the creature so the person’s will is changed. We cannot thwart God’s purposes and plan. In most contemplative theology we, not God, are in the driver’s seat.

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Everybody has done it. No, not that it. I’m talking about gossip, and while I’m sure a couple of people in addition to Jesus haven’t partaken of gossip, the number is quite small. Even little children gossip; we call it tattling. Elderly women are known for being busy bodies. We do it at lunch with co-workers, over dinner with friends and over the phone with other members of our church. Gossip is such a part of us we usually don’t know that we are doing it. There are whole industries devoted to feeding our appetite for gossip. But when we are caught we feel nearly as much shame as if we were doing the other thing.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. Romans 1

There aren’t many books that deal with gossip which is strange for such a common sin. We minimize how serious it is, but it shows up in the list of sins found in Romans 1. Often we focus on the sins of others, especially those outside of the church, and neglect those sins that have a serious foothold among those in the church.

Resisting Gossip by Matthew C. Mitchell is not only a much needed contribution but an excellent contribution that should be read by church leaders and …. well, just about everybody (see my intro above, and note the questions at the end of each chapter). Mitchell always keeps an eye on the gospel as he exegetes our hearts and shows us how to fight the war of the wagging tongue (to play on his subtitle). He also follows a thoughtful plan in laying out the book.

Mitchell begins with a definition of sinful gossip. His working definition is “the sin of gossip is bearing bad news about behind someone’s back out of a bad heart.” This recognizes a few things. There are times in which it is okay to bear bad news about a person. Church discipline would be impossible if we could not do that. It has to do with the motivation. The motivation of gossip is usually to either be “in the know” or to harm the other person’s reputation.

Like the author, I am an information junkie. In my counseling classes we often talked about “the vows” that people make to never be hurt again. Or look stupid again. Or …. I remember a time when I was about 12. A teammate’s father was giving me a ride home from a basketball game. He asked if I liked BTO (Bachman-Turner Overdrive for those of you not in the know). Clueless as to what he meant. I felt embarrassed, and didn’t want to feel that again. It begins to dominate you life, and it knows no bounds. You move from facts about stuff to the dirt on people. It feels good to be in the know. It feels horrible to be the last to know.

“There are a number of sinful heart motivations that can produce sinful gossip. The good news is that the gospel of Jesus Christ has answers for them all.”

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Recently there have been books released that deal with the heart of the pastor. They aren’t books about how to do ministry but how a minister should be. Jared Wilson’s The Pastor’s Justification is the second of these books I have read. Earlier I had read Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling.

Both books are very good but quite different from one another. They form a good “Good Cop, Bad Cop Routine” when read in tandem. Tripp’s book is a dangerous read. Perhaps I should say a hard read because he is ruthless. This doesn’t mean he’s legalistic or avoids the gospel. In addressing our sin he does bring us back to the gospel regularly. His concerns, reaped from talking the numerous pastors, center on the gaps in their preparation and a sense of having arrived that cripples men spiritually. He puts his finger on many common struggles for pastors.

“The primary problem in pastoral ministry, brother pastor, is not them. It’s you. You are your biggest problem.”

Jared’s book is kinder and gentler. This doesn’t mean he ignores sin because he doesn’t (see the above quote). You will feel the sting of conviction here as well. He also keeps bringing us back to the gospel regularly. The point of Jared’s book is one that I got from Tim Keller a few years ago: preach as a justified man. Of course it is about more than preaching.

[This book is not just for pastors though. Missionaries would likely benefit and see a great deal of overlap. It would be a helpful read for elders and ministry leaders as well. They will experience many of the same temptations and need to find the same freedom in Christ pastors need.]

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Since I have benefited greatly from Sinclair Ferguson’s ministry, I decided to read what I can find from his mentor William Still. I was given a copy of The Work of the Pastor and have been working my way through that when I have time. I recently purchased Towards Spiritual Maturity: Overcoming All the Evil in the Christian Life. I had some extra time to read so I did just that. It was worth my investment of time.

It is not a long book, being less than 100 pages. But we cannot judge the significance of a book by its size. What matters is what is found inside. This is a great little book on sanctification.

He starts with a short chapter called He is Our Peace. Sanctification necessarily starts with justification. We are sanctified because we have been justified, not so we can be justified. Still notes that the greatest blessing of the gospel is peace, he calls it the foundation stone, and top stone of our Christian experience. While in justification God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, in sanctification he imparts righteousness to us. He makes us like Jesus.

“The laws tell us what God is like. They also imply that since God is like this, holy and righteous, he desires his creatures to be like this also.”

He begins to explore the three dimensions of the work of Christ in his death upon the cross. The first is the removal of sins. Jesus must deal with our guilt and condemnation. I’ve recently come across people arguing that Jesus died for sin, not sins (trying to justify an Amyraldian view of the atonement). He must deal with both, not just one or the other (as I argued back). If he only deals with our condition, we are still guilty for our actual sins which stand between us and God. We must have peace with God, which was broken by our sins, and Christ re-establishes this in dying for our sins.

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A few years ago I came across The Great Work of the Gospel: How We Experience God’s Grace by John Ensor.  It intrigued me.  John works in establishing pregnancy centers worldwide.  He lives in Boston as well.  So for years I’ve been meaning to buy and read this book.  Something always seemed to be more important at the time.  Until recently.  I picked up a copy about 2 months ago and decided to read it since I was beginning a series on the atonement for Lent.

I’m sorry I waited, but the book was timely in light of the whole Rob Bell thing.  The Christian should treat grace like a scientist treats gravity: not merely accepting its reality, but want to understand its totality.  As recipients of grace, we explore grace that our hearts might be more captured by it and more grateful for it.  To adapt an old saying, unexamined grace isn’t worth having.  This is because to understand grace is to understand Christianity.  How can you be a Christian without wanting to understand it?

“The grace of God that forgives us changes us. … The grace of God wounds our pride but then increases our confidence.  When God forgives, he exposes the most shameful things only to then cleanse them all from our conscience.”

Let’s stop for a moment.  Some personal context to lay my cards on the table.  I grew up Catholic.  I have a Ph.D. in guilt: true and false.  I am a recovering Pharisee who couldn’t keep his own high standards, much less God’s.  There are MANY things I don’t want you to know about me.  There are things only a privileged (and I use that term loosely) know about me.

But I have no interest in cheap grace, or cheap forgiveness.  I’m not trying to ignore God’s standards.  Neither is Ensor following the fashion of the day.  He structures the book on the topic of the Great Work.  When we own up to our guilt, we desire forgiveness and grace.  But if we never own up to guilt, then grace seems pretty much irrelevant.  In all of the chapters, Ensor examines a variety of biblical texts and addresses numerous misconceptions.  In the chapter on desiring grace, for instance, he tackles self-esteem and the reality of the conscience.

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