Archive for the ‘Errors & heresies’ Category
How does 2000 years of Christian consensus on the doctrine of the Godhead get sent to the back of the bus so blithely in the name of unity and racial reconciliation?
PS Just realised. Even saying this proves that everything McDonald and company said to be true, and shows that Phil Johnson is, indeed, a racist. Allegedly.
PPS Voddie Baucham is helpful. Unfortunately, he’s a sell-out and a traitor. Allegedly.
The fact that the world is not ending today does not mean that the world will not end. As the apostle Peter writes in his second letter:
Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Saviour, knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” For this they wilfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. (2Pt 3.1-10)
Quite rightly, genuine Christians repudiate the nonsensical numerology of Harold Camping, knowing from the Scriptures that the day has not been revealed and will not be revealed to men. Peter makes that very point above: the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. A thief does not inform you in advance of the precise date on which he intends to pay a visit.
The Lord Christ himself assured us both of the coming end and of the impossibility of knowing when it will come, even as he warned us that it will come:
Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. (Mt 24.35-39)
So, to quote the over-used and much-abused billboard, the end is nigh, and, if we are Christians, we have a difficult task. We must at once prove from the Scriptures that there is a day of judgment at hand, and also that there is no way of knowing when that day will be. We must expose the foolishness of false predictions, and at the same time expose the folly of those who imagine that there is no such day. Furthermore, we must ourselves remember that such a day is coming, and that it should have a profound, pressing and perpetual impact upon the way in which we live. We must not allow the scorn of the world nor the errors of those who take the name but not the truth and the life of Christ’s disciples to dull our awareness. We must take pains that our distaste for such false teachers does not become a carnal scorn that actually undermines our own faith and the platform from which we must warn all men. Peter goes on:
Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation– as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.” (2Pt 3.11-18)
So our preaching and our living must reflect the uncertain certainty of the last day, and we must think and speak and act with that edge that comes from the fact that we know that such a day is coming, and that we cannot know when it will come.
There may well be rapture parties held before the day is out, where men will be “eating and drinking” as if there was nothing to fear, and some will pillow their heads tonight full of scorn and perhaps, even, in their heart of hearts, relief. People will go on living as before. That would be foolish. It is not today. It may well be tomorrow. Faith in Christ, lived out every day, is the only way to be ready.
I am sure it has been noticed a thousand times before, but I have noticed it again. We need to listen to the gaps. Let me explain.
Error and heresy are not always immediately obvious. To be sure, they can be. Some problems are glaring, and ought to require only that you have a functioning pair of eyes and ears in order to determine the problem (though we know that those things spiritually discerned need more than mere physical perception). God says that something is white; a man says it is black. QED.
But very often error and heresy masquerade under the appearance of, or – perhaps more insidiously – alongside a seeming orthodoxy. A man seems so reliable and gifted. Perhaps he has a genuine gift of oratory – he speaks and writes and preaches with acknowledged clarity and potency in so many ways. He develops a reputation. People want to know what he says. In so many respects he seems spot on. He seems so effective, perhaps even fruitful. And then you begin to listen to the gaps.
And as you open your ears to the silences, something disconcerting becomes apparent. When he is asked that question, he fudges the answer. When he preaches on that text, you are waiting for the insight or application that seems obvious, even necessary, not least in the context of the day, and he skates past it. An opportunity is given in which you think the moment has arrived for a clear declaration, and the man flits over the surface. He mumbles and stutters when the moment calls for clarity and force; he evades and declines when the time is right for courage and forthrightness. Then you add up the gaps, and begin to realise that there is a truth or truths that the man will neither commend nor defend.
He may never have said that what God says is white is, in fact, black. And yet he has consistently and repeatedly failed to acknowledge or has avoided acknowledging that God declares something is white, or he fails to deny or he avoids denying that it is, by way of contrast, black.
The problem lies not in what he says, but in what he fails to say. And in failing to say it when it could and should be said, he establishes a space, an error- or heresy-shaped space. It takes form over time, gradually delineated by what he actually does say, leaving the hole where what he could and should say might exist. The trumpet makes an uncertain sound when it hits certain notes. It warbles and wobbles where it might ring clear. The symphony of truth develops small but jarring emptinesses.
Perhaps it is carefully veiled. There are certain truths that are more important than others, he says. Certain things need to take priority – can’t we all see that? He refuses to major on the minors. Some things are not the crying need of the hour, and he does not need to deal with them. He has no interest in disputes – he is, rather, a peacemaker. He would like to reformulate something, not to change it. He would rather say this than that. We need to be sensitive to the culture in which we find ourselves. We must speak in love. Others are painted (perhaps, again, in the gaps between such statements) as narrow, bigoted, obsessive, heresy hunters, out of tune, outmoded, and – worst of all – unloving and divisive.
Such a man may, before the end, break cover. Error and heresy have a way of hardening into shape, sometimes even of demanding a hearing. The gap becomes compelling, and something must fill the vacuum. Or, it may be that he himself will live and die without being pinned down. He grows old and gray leaving that silence, employing his gifts of insight and oratory, refusing or refuting all attempts to obtain clarity. But then you listen to the disciples. What once was a silence has become a whisper, and the hole is being slowly filled in. Something unpleasant and ugly begins to coalesce in the space left in the first man’s teaching. Over time its features become increasingly plain, and error and heresy take form. And as months and years roll on, in perhaps two or three generations, there is a scream where once was a silence, and error and heresy are rampant. The church may sit in stunned sterility as God and his gospel, entangled in the filth of error and crippled by the impotence of untruth, are derided and denied until God is pleased to raise up men to declare the truth again in all its splendour, in all its scriptural substance and biblical balance.
And that is why we must listen for the gaps, and why it is incumbent upon us to declare all the truth we know. We may accept that some truths are more central than others, some more critical, some more applicable and necessary in our age, but let us never imagine that there is some truth which God has been pleased to reveal which we can then dismiss as unimportant or avoidable. Such sentiments too easily provide the holes where error and heresy can take shape. Often Christians who hold to an orthodox confession of some sort are dismissed as de facto schismatics, men who make too much of lesser things, who draw lines where others eradicate boundaries, who foster division where others promote peace. But these solid, time-proved confessions, expressing “the things most surely believed among us,” as the 17th century Baptists had it, paint a fuller picture of the main things (they never pretended that it was all things), and leave less space for these crucial gaps. But still we must watch. Confessions do lay a foundation for a full-orbed unity, in which there can be intelligent and rich agreement between brothers who can see all that there is in common, even where they recognise that there is sincere disagreement at points. However, a confession of faith is not a panacea; there are matters that our confessions do not explicitly address, issues in the application of their principles that their signatories did not face in their day. There are matters, for example, to do with our essential humanity – with gender identity and relationships between men and women – that lie subsumed within the general declarations of the confession but need to be made explicit in the present hour.
And so we continue to listen, we continue to watch, we continue to speak. We should tremble to add to what God speaks, to trample upon true Christian liberty or to add the commandments of men to the Word of God. That is not our place. But we tremble, too, to be silent where God speaks, to be less precise and less careful, less full and less clear, when God – for the glory of his name and the good of men’s souls – has seen fit, in his infinite wisdom, to make known the truth as it is in Jesus. We cannot be ashamed to say all that God says, in its proper place and proportion. That is our calling. We cannot fail to commend and defend the truth, nor to expose and identify the error. And so we must watch the holes. And so we must listen to the gaps.
What is justification?
Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners effectually called to Jesus Christ, wherein He pardons all their sins, and accepts them as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to them, and received by faith alone.
So says the Shorter Catechism. Believing that to be an accurate summary of Scripture truth, in our men’s meetings at the church I serve we have just finished working through The Marrow of True Justification by one of the early Particular Baptists, Benjamin Keach (recently republished by SGCB, and also available as an audio recording beginning here). Keach was one of the men who made it his business to stand against false teaching on this matter at the end of the seventeenth century, in company with such men as John Owen and Robert Traill, to mention only two. Keach’s work demonstrates again, if nothing else, that there really is nothing new under the sun. If you follow anything of the debates about the nature of justification and all that flows from it, Keach’s ‘Dedicatory Epistle’ will show you that the issues today, though sometimes clothed in new language and updated phrases, are really just what they always were:
As I was put upon preaching on this great Subject; so I am satisfied it was at a very seasonable Hour, that Doctrine being greatly struck at by too many Persons, though of different Sentiment: in many Points of Religion. And as it was well accepted by you, who heard these Sermons (and the other: that followed) when preached; and having been prevailed with to publish these in the World, so I hope some may receive Advantage hereby: Though for the meanness of the Author, and weakness of the Work, they may not meet with that Entertainment from some as the Subject deserves; yet for your sakes whose Souls are committed to my Charge, and for whom I must give Account to the great Shepherd of the Sheep at the last Day, I readily consented to this Publication; as also that all may see that we are in this, and in all other great Fundamentals of Religion, established in the same Faith with our Brethren, and all Sound and Orthodox Christians in the World: And cannot but look upon our selves greatly concerned, to see how Men by Craft and Subtilty endeavour, through Satan’s Temptations (though I hope some do it not wittingly) strive to subvert the Gospel of Christ, and corrupt the Minds of weak Christians. An Error in a Fundamental Point, is dangerous and destructive; but should we mistake some Men we have do with, we should be glad: The Lord help you to stand fast in the Truth, as it is in Jesus (in which through Grace you are well established:) Our Days are perilous; Satan seems to be let loose upon us, and is in great Rage, but Time being but short. Brethren, ’tis a hard Case that any of those who maintain the Old Doctrine of Justification, should be branded with the black Name of Antinomians. As for my part, if Dr. Crisp be not misrepresented by this Opposers, I am not of the Opinion in several respects; but I had rather err on their side, who strive to exalt wholly the Free Grace of God, than on theirs, who seek to darken it and magnify the Power of the Creature, though we fear the Design is to wound the Truth and us, through that good Man’s sides, who, I doubt not is come to heaven: O when shall we see that Truth, Peace, and Union longed for?
My Brethren, the Doctrine we preach does not open a Door to the least Licentiousness: (as ’tis unjustly said to do by some, who are either willfully or ignorantly blind.) No, God forbid. Nothing can promote Holiness, and Gospel-Sanctification like unto it, only it teaches us to act from high, sublime, and right Evangelical Principles: It shows the only way to attain to Gospel-Purity, flows from our Union with Christ, and that no Man can arrive to any degree of true Holiness, or expect to meet with any Success therein, without a Principle of Spiritual Life, or saving Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The Nature of Men must first be changed, and that Enmity that is in their Hearts against God, be removed, before they can be holy: The Tree must first be made good, or the Fruits will be evil. The Image of God must be formed in our Souls, which puts the Creature into an actual bent and propensity of his Heart to the Practice of Holiness. If a Man hates not Sin, be not out of Love with Sin, How should he be in love with God and Holiness? Now because we say Sanctification is not necessary, as antecedent to Justification, but is the Fruit or Product of Union with Christ; though we deny not but the Habits (of Holiness) are infused at that same Instant that Faith is wrought in the Soul, Must we be looked upon as Promoters of a Licentious Doctrine? Must we make our own Performances, or Observance a Condition of Justification, or be laid under infamy and Reproach? ‘Tis by Faith only, that we come to have actual Enjoyment and Possession of Christ himself, and of Remission of Sin; and not only so, but of eternal Life; and so of Holiness also, and no other ways. The good Lord help you to a right Understanding of these things, and make you all a holy People, to the Praise of his Glory, and Honour of your Sacred Profession.
The Holy Apostle having asserted Justification by the Righteousness of God, which is by Faith in Jesus Christ, desired to know him and the Power of his Resurrection, etc. which he did not to be justified thereby, but as a Fruit flowing therefrom, or as a further Evidence thereof. The first he had attained; but there was a higher degree of Sanctification in his Eye, which he pressed after, as then not having attained: Whose Example let us follow.
I shall say no more: You own a Rule of Gospel-Holiness; Let me exhort you to labour after sincere Obedience: And pray forget me not in your Prayers, that God would graciously help me through all my Troubles and Temptations, and preserve me and you to his Heavenly Kingdom; who am your Servant for Jesus’ sake, and so shall abide till Death.
Keach introduces his topic, and then gets down to business:
And thus I come to my Text, Romans 4:5. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that jusfifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for Righteousness.
To him that worketh not; That is, worketh not, thinking thereby to be justified and saved. Though he may work, i.e. lead a holy and righteous Life; yet he doth it not to merit thereby; nay, though he be wicked, and an ungodly person, and so worketh not, or hath no Moral Righteousness at all; yet if he believeth on him that justfieth the ungodly, his faith is counted or imputed for righteousness; Not as a simple Act, or as it is a quality or habit, or in us, as the Papists teach; ipsa fides, saith Bellarmine, censetur esse Justitia, Faith itself is counted to be a justice, and itself is imputed unto Righteousness; No, nor in respect of the effects or fruits of it; for so it is part of our Sanctification.
In this first sermon, Keach identifies two doctrines from the text: (1) That all works done by the creature are entirely excluded in the matter of the justification of a sinner in the sight of God, and (2) that justification is wholly of the free grace of God, through the imputation [putting to our account] of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith.
He proceeds to expose some of the mistaken notions about justification that were current in his day and, sadly, have not withered away with the passing of time. In the second sermon, he returns to his key text – “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom 4.5) – and his aim is to show the Scriptural evidence and arguments for the first point of doctrine above viz., that all works done by the creature are entirely excluded in the matter of the justification of a sinner in the sight of God.
Because Keach’s language is sometimes antiquated, and his use of punctuation quite fascinating and occasionally misleading, we produced an outline of his twelve arguments, with a summary (Keach’s kernel) and précis (our own attempt to reword the basic point) of each as appropriate. In the hope that they might be helpful, here they are:
First argument: “Taken from the very letter and express testimony of the Holy Scripture” (54). “That doctrine that gives the Holy Scripture the lie, is false and to be rejected. But the doctrine that mixes any works of righteousness done by the creature with faith or the free grace of God, in point of justification, gives the Scripture the lie; therefore that doctrine is false, and to be rejected” (58).
Précis: The Scriptures clearly and repeatedly state that no works (however considered) of a sinner have any place in his justification by God (Rom 4.2; Gal 2.16; Eph 2.8-9; Phil 3.8-9).
Second argument: “That all works done by the creature, are utterly excluded in point of justification appears from the different nature of works, and grace; ’tis positively said, we are justified by grace” (58).
Summary: “That which is of the free grace of God, is not by any works done by the creature. But justification is of the free grace of God; therefore not by any works done by the creature. That being justified by his grace we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life, Tit. 3.5” (59).
Précis: The principles of grace and works are utterly opposed to each other, and cannot be mixed. Justification is either by works (law, merit, debt) or by grace (free, gift). If works is involved then grace is no longer grace, but the Bible says we are justified graciously (therefore works cannot be involved).
Third argument: “Faith is the way prescribed in the gospel in order to justification” as opposed to any and all works (29).
Summary: “That doctrine which confoundeth the terms of the law and gospel together in point of justification, is a false and corrupt doctrine. But the doctrine that mixeth sincere obedience, or works of any kind done by us, with faith in point of justification, confound the terms of the law and gospel together in point of justification; therefore that doctrine is false and a corrupt doctrine” (60).
Précis: Only faith takes the sinner from himself to Christ, the only Saviour. Works says, “Do this and live.” Faith says, “Believe and be saved.” These two principles are entirely opposed and cannot be mixed.
Fourth argument: “All works done by the creature are excluded in point of justification of a sinner in the sight of God, because we are justified by a perfect righteousness: if no man is in himself perfectly righteous, then no man can be justified by any works done by him” (63).
Summary: “If we are justified by a complete and perfect righteousness; then an imperfect though a sincere righteousness, doth not justify us, but we are justified by a complete and perfect righteousness” (67-68). “We can only be justified . . . by that righteousness which is universal and complete. . . . Our obedience, though sincere, is not universal nor complete; therefore our sincere obedience or righteousness justifies us not in God’s sight” (68).
Précis: For a man to be justified requires a perfect righteousness: that is the demand of God’s holy law, which does not change. In order to be justified, we must either provide that perfect righteousness ourselves, or receive it from another. But no sinner is capable of producing or providing perfect righteousness for himself, and therefore it is not possible that we can ever be justified by any works of ours, and so we must find that perfect righteousness outside of ourselves.
Fifth argument: “All works done by the creature are excluded in point of justification of the sinner before God, appears because justification is a great mystery” (68).
Précis: A ‘mystery’ here is truth that we could not have known unless God had revealed it. The idea that we can be justified by sincere obedience suits the wisdom and nature of fallen men: humans readily conclude that the way to obtain God’s favour is to do good and so earn his smile. The doctrine of justification by faith is not unreasonable, but it is above natural (i.e. fallen) reason. It is the wisdom of God revealed from heaven.
Sixth argument: “If when we have done all we can do, [we are] are unprofitable servants; then by our best works of obedience and services under the gospel, we cannot be justified” (71).
Précis: If your works justify you, then you are not an unprofitable servant and have done all that God requires of you, and your sins are not sins, but only minor imperfections. But Jesus shows that by all our efforts – however sincere – we cannot come to deserve the blessings of salvation, which comes only by grace.
Seventh argument: “Because we are said to be justified by the righteousness of God: hence it follows that all our works of obedience are excluded, Rom 3.21, 22. ’Tis called the righteousness of God in opposition to the righteousness of the creature” (72).
“If that righteous which is the righteousness of God, which is by faith, in opposition to the righteousness of the creature doth justify us; then all works done by the creature are excluded in point of justification in God’s sight: but the former is true; ergo [therefore], all works done by the creature are excluded, etc.” (76).
“If Paul, nor no other child of God durst, or dare to be found in any righteousness of their own at death or judgment; then works done by us, or sincere obedience justify us not; but the former is true; therefore no works of ours, nor sincere obedience doth justify us in God’s sight” (77).
“That doctrine that holds a Christian down under slavish fear, by grounding his justification on his own works of holiness and sincere obedience, is not of God; but the doctrine of justification by our own work of holiness or sincere obedience, holds a Christian down under slavish fear, by grounding his justification on his works of holiness and sincere obedience; therefore that doctrine is not of God” (77).
Précis: God in his infinite wisdom has provided his perfect righteousness in Christ as the means of forgiving and justifying guilty and condemned sinners like us. This was Paul’s refuge and must be ours (Phil 3.8-10): Paul excludes all his past and present efforts, however sincere, from his standing with God and relies on the righteousness of Jesus Christ alone for his hope.
Eighth argument: “All works done by the creature are excluded in point of justification of a sinner in the sight of God, because we are justified by that righteousness by which the justice of God is satisfied, and his wrath appeased” (77).
Summary: “If by that righteousness of Christ which is out of us, though imputed to us, the justice of God is fully satisfied, we are justified; then all works done by us, or inherent in us, are excluded in our justification before God: but by that righteousness of Christ which is out of us, though imputed to us, the justice of God is satisfied; therefore all works done by us, or inherent in us, are excluded in our justification before God” (80).
Précis: The only righteousness that delivers us from condemnation and the curse of the law is the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us [put to our account]. We need no other righteousness to accomplish this, and there is no space for any other righteousness in the matter of justification. Our works of righteousness as believers do not justify us, although they are necessary in us, being fruits of our saving union with Jesus Christ. Our personal righteousness apart from Christ gives us nothing in which to boast, either with regard to justification or sanctification.
Ninth argument: “All works done by the creature, are excluded, etc. because ’tis by the obedience of one man that many are made righteous, that is Jesus Christ, he is made of God unto us righteousness, etc. Rom. 5.18,19. 1 Cor. 1.30. But our own inherent righteousness is of many; i.e. every man’s own sincere obedience that obtains it” (81).
Précis: If our justifying righteousness comes by the obedience of one man, then there is no room in justification for the obedience of a second man (ourselves) or any number of other men.
Tenth argument: “All works done by the creature, are excluded in point of justification, I prove thus; if any one man was justified without works or sincere obedience, or through faith only, then all works of obedience, etc., are excluded” (81).
Précis: The thief on the cross, and saved infants dying in infancy, are saved without works of obedience, and yet still justified. This is because the remedy is always the same for every person for the disease of sin: Christ’s atoning death and imputed righteousness. Like our spiritual father, Abraham, as well as other heroes of faith, it is the righteousness that comes by faith (not by works) that justifies.
Eleventh argument: “Is, because Christ is tendered or offered to sinners as sinners” (82).
Précis: Christ is not offered to those who are good or who are trying to be good, but to men who must come to Christ for the righteousness which justifies and for the new life of holiness which invariably follows. We have no qualifications for salvation apart from our need. It is as sinners trusting in Jesus alone that we are justified: where, then, is there room for our own works, either before or after salvation?
Twelfth argument: “It is, because if a man should so walk as to know nothing of himself, i.e. be so righteous, or so sincere in his obedience, as not to have his conscience to accuse, or reproach him; yet he cannot thereby be justified.”
Précis: The holiest men (Job, for example) utterly renounce all their own obedience and righteousness before God, abasing themselves and confessing themselves great sinners. The only plea of the godliest man before the judgment seat is Christ’s blood, death and righteousness. In the day of judgment, we will not plead our works but renounce and be ashamed of them (Mt 25.37). All our good works will be swallowed up in our admiration of God’s free and infinite grace.
Caution: “Do not think, O Soul, that thy own Righteousness doth justify thee, through Christ’s Merits; or that Christ’s Righteousness is thy Legal Righteousness, and not thy Evangelical. No, no, he is thy whole Saviour . . .”
Comfort & instruction: “This Doctrine will support you that are weak, and doubt for want of inherent Righteousness, take hold of it, A Robe of Righteousness, Put it on, Believe on Christ, as poor Sinners come to him . . . if thou can’st not come to God as a Saint, come as a Sinner; nay, as a Sinner thou must come, and may’st come. . . . We are for the Law as Paul was, and for Holiness and sincere Obedience, as any Men in the world; but we would have Men act from right Principles, and to a right end: We would have Men act in Holiness from a Principle of Faith, from a Principle of Spiritual Life. . . . You must first have Union with him, before you can bring forth Fruit to God; you must act from Life, and not for Life.”
Entreaty: “To you that are Believers, Oh! admire Free Grace; lift Christ up who died for you, the Just for the Unjust, who bore your Sins, who was made sin for us that knew no Sin, that we might be made the Righteousness of God in him. He gave himself for you, and has given Grace, the Fruit of his Death, and himself to you. O labour to be a holy People; live to him that died for you, and rose again. To conclude. Is there any Sinner here? Are you ungodly, and in a wretched Condition (in your own Eyes)? Are you weary and heavy laden? Come to Christ, lift up your Heads: For to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifies the Ungodly, his Faith is counted for Righteousness.”
It has been a little interesting to watch not just the immediate engagement over Rob Bell’s Love Wins but also the spread of it and the reaction to it. Some of it has been useful, but some of it has been a little desperate. It is as if some of the people with a reputation for being cutting-edge, relevant, front-line, ahead of the game, theologically savvy, culturally aware, movers and shakers in the Great Game of modern evangelicalism, are trying with all their might to prove that they are just that, and orthodox to boot. Recycled material, obvious material, lists of material (with their own contributions prominent in them) – all of it looking more like an attempt to surf the wave and demonstrate engagement than anything else.
Is it genuine concern for the glory of Christ? Is it pastoral concern for the flock of God? Is it genuine interest in the kingdom of Christ?
Or might there be a danger that at least some of it is an attempt to make sure that those writing and speaking are not left out, and that people remember that they are the great guides, the ones who speak truth, the almost-omniscient gurus who can be relied upon to keep their finger on the pulse and tell us how to think, or – at least – that they are still there and saying something also?
I am grateful for the men who saw this coming and blew the trumpet of warning. I think it is often helpful that others have spread the word. I am not so sure about all those who have joined the ruckus, as if merely to demonstrate that they have a horn, too.
Kevin DeYoung follows Tim Challies in giving a review of Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. Whereas Tim’s review is reasonably brief and popular, Kevin’s is much longer and more developed, so much so that the Gospel Coalition has made it available as a pdf (21 pages).
While Rob Bell is not going to overturn the church and prevent the advance of Christ’s kingdom, and is simply one in a long line of worryingly popular errorists, it may prove no bad thing in itself for an assault on the doctrine of hell to promote some careful, Biblical thinking about this truth, and what it means, and how it is to be taught and preached.
(By the way, I have not read Love Wins so I link to this at one remove on the basis of Kevin’s good reputation and with the intention of getting the right end of the stick. It is a thoughtful, gracious review, showing a great deal of understanding and insight.)
Here is Kevin’s précis:
Love Wins, by megachurch pastor Rob Bell, is, as the subtitle suggests, “a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” Here’s the gist: Hell is what we create for ourselves when we reject God’s love. Hell is both a present reality for those who resist God and a future reality for those who die unready for God’s love. Hell is what we make of heaven when we cannot accept the good news of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But hell is not forever. God will have his way. How can his good purposes fail? Every sinner will turn to God and realize he has already been reconciled to God, in this life or in the next. There will be no eternal conscious torment. God says no to injustice in the age to come, but he does not pour out wrath (we bring the temporary suffering upon ourselves), and he certainly does not punish for eternity. In the end, love wins.
Bell correctly notes (many times) that God is love. He also observes that Jesus is Jewish, the resurrection is important, and the phrase “personal relationship with God” is not in the Bible. He usually makes his argument by referencing Scripture. He is easy to read and obviously feels very deeply for those who have been wronged or seem to be on the outside looking in.
Unfortunately, beyond this, there are dozens of problems with Love Wins. The theology is heterodox. The history is inaccurate. The impact on souls is devastating. And the use of Scripture is indefensible. Worst of all, Love Wins demeans the cross and misrepresents God’s character.
Then, the bulk of the review is divided up into sections.
I want to approach Love Wins by looking at seven areas: Bell’s view of traditional evangelical theology, history, exegesis, eschatology, Christology, gospel, and God.
It is hard not to notice the Bell-shaped brouhaha brewing on the other side of the Atlantic (see Taylor, DeYoung and Johnson) and probably intending to blow east at some point. In terms of accessible Biblical resources for thinking through the issues of heaven and hell and the false teachings of universalism and annihilationism, I could not recommend a better beginning than Ted Donnelly’s Heaven and Hell (Banner of Truth, buy at Westminster Bookstore/Amazon.co.uk/Amazon.com): it really is outstanding as a clear and straightforward introduction to the realities, issues and applications.
But this is not about Bell or the brouhaha, though prompted by it. While I was unwell over the last few days, one of the things I read was From Death Into Life by William Haslam, an autobiographical volume of a 19th century High Churchman who came under powerful conviction of sin and was converted in the act of preaching a sermon in which his nascent grasp of evangelical truth was beginning to show.
There is no doubt that Haslam was quirky, and had some interesting notions and practices. Nevertheless, he was a man who came to know and feel the awful weight of a condemnation that could be escaped only through fleeing in faith to Jesus. It is was in the context of the building storm about the eternal destiny of souls that I read this powerful passage in which Haslam has an interview with a man who believes the truth about the absolute necessity of true conversion but is not prepared to state it plainly:
“Well,” he said, “but think of all the good men you condemn if you take that position so absolutely.”
Seeing that I hesitated, he went on to say that he “knew many very good men, in and out of the Church of England, who did not think much of conversion, or believe in the necessity of it.”
“I am very sorry for them,” I replied; “but I cannot go back from the position into which, I thank God, He has brought me. It is burned into me that, except a man is converted, he will and must be lost for ever.”
“Come, come, my young friend,” he said, shifting his chair, and then sitting down to another onslaught, “do you mean to say that a man will go to hell if he is not converted, as you call it?”
“Yes, I do; and I am quite sure that if I had died in an unconverted state I should have gone there; and this compels me to believe, also, that what the Scripture says about it is true for every one.”
“But what does the Scripture say?” he interposed. “It says that ‘he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed’ (John 3:18); and in another place, he that believeth not shall be damned’ (Mark 16:16). As surely as the believer is saved and goes to heaven, as surely the unbeliever is lost and must go to hell.”
“Do you mean Gehenna, the place of torment?”
“Yes, I do.”
“This is very dreadful.”
“More dreadful still.” I said, “must be the solemn reality; and therefore, instead of shrinking from the thought and putting it off, I rather let it stir and rouse me to warn unbelievers, so that I may, by any means, stop them on their dangerous path. I think this is the only true and faithful way of showing kindness; and that, on the other hand, it is the most selfish, heartless, and cruel unkindness to let sinners, whether they are religious, moral, reformed, or otherwise, to go on in an unconverted state, and perish.”
“I do not know; I do not wish to know anything about it. I suppose material fire, like every other material thing, is but a shadow of something real. Is it not a fire which shall burn the soul – a fire that never will be quenched – where the worm will never die?”
“Do you really believe all this?”
“Yes,” I said, “and I have reason to do so.” I remembered the anguish of soul I passed through when I was under conviction, and the terrible distress I felt for others whom I had misled.
“When our blessed Lord was speaking to the Jews, and warning them against their unbelief and its fearful consequences, He did not allow any ‘charitable hopes’ to hinder Him from speaking the whole truth. He told them of Lazarus, who died, and went to Paradise, or Abraham’s bosom; and of Dives, who died, and went to Hell, the place of torment” (Luke 16).
“But,” he said, interrupting me, “that is only a parable, or figure of speech.”
“Figure of speech!” I repeated. “Is it a figure of speech that the rich man fared sumptuously, that he died, that he was buried? Is not that literal? Why, then, is it a figure of speech that he lifted up his eyes in torment, and said, ‘I am tormented in this flame’(Luke 16:24). My dear friend, be sure that there is an awful reality in that story – a most solemn reality in the fact of the impassable gulf. If here we do not believe in this gulf, we shall have to know of it hereafter. I never saw and felt,” I continued, “as I do now, that every man is lost, even while on earth, until he is saved, and that if he dies in that unsaved state he will be lost for ever.”
My unknown visitor remained silent for a little time, and I could see that he was in tears. At last he burst out and said, “I am sure you are right. I came to try you upon the three great “R’s” – ‘Ruin,’ ‘Redemption,’ and ‘Regeneration,’ and to see if you really meant what you preached. Now I feel more confirmed in the truth and reality of the Scriptures.”
I thought I had been contending with an unbeliever all along, but instead of this I found that he was a man who scarcely ventured to think out what he believed to its ultimate result – he believed God’s Word, but, like too many, alas! held it loosely.
William Haslam, From Death Into Life (London: Morgan and Scott, n.d.), 74-77.
Holding loosely the Word of God with regard to ruin, redemption and regeneration will cut the nerve of true gospel endeavour. It will remove our urgency, enervate our efforts, and dilute our message. If there is no hell, then there is no need for men to be saved, and the death of Jesus was a monstrous waste. Whoever believes otherwise, and however many ‘good men’ may seem to be condemned, we must cling to and proclaim – with tears – God’s glorious and terrible truths concerning eternity, and concerning the Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1Thes 1.10), if we are to be faithful both to the Lord whose people we are and to the lost whose souls we seek.
Let us believe God’s Word and hold it fast. No one can afford to play with this fire.
John MacArthur has been taking some flak for what he said about Darrin Patrick recently, but here is a critique from the same interview with Phil Johnson in which he also did some pretty straight talking about the charismatic movement:
The charismatic movement is largely the reason the church is in the mess it’s in today. In virtually every area where church life is unbiblical, you can attribute it to the charismatic movement. In virtually every area — bad theology, superficial worship, ego, prosperity gospel, personality elevation — all of that comes out of the charismatic movement.
You can read the whole transcript at The Thirsty Theologian.
The Exiled Preacher gives us a snippet from the good Doctor concerning the need to preach the whole truth in its proper context and proportion, equipping the saints of God to prevail against false teaching:
[Rome] is indeed a form of the antichrist, and it is to be rejected, it is to be denounced; but above all it is to be countered. And there is only one thing that can counter it, as I said at the beginning, and that is a biblical, doctrinal Christianity. A Christianity that just preaches “Come to Christ” or “Come to Jesus” cannot stand before Rome for a second. Probably what that will do ultimately will be to add to the numbers belonging to Rome.
We must warn them. There is only one teaching, one power, that can stand against this horrible counterfeit; it is what is called here “the whole armor of God”.
It is a biblical, doctrinal, theological presentation of the New Testament truth. That was how it was done in the sixteenth century. Luther was not just a superficial evangelist, he was a mighty theologian; so was Calvin; so were all of them. It was that great system of truth, worked out in its details and presented to the people, that undermined and even shook the Church of Rome. Nothing less than that is adequate to meet the present situation. Christian people, your responsibility is terrible. You must know the truth, you must understand it, you must be able to counter false teaching.
Christian people, your responsibility is terrible. You must know the truth, you must understand it, you must be able to counter false teaching.
Too often while reading contemporary authors on the law in the life of believers, I find myself asking the question, “Haven’t these guys read the great minds of the past on this issue?”
So asks Rich Barcellos, before supplying a few key statements from some of the theological giants who have wrestled with these issues before.
UPDATE: And there’s more.
UPDATE: More again.
Regular readers of this blog will know that both neonomianism and antinomianism are bugbears of which we are much aware. The quote that follows is from The Marrow of True Justification by Benjamin Keach (Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007). The first part is his eleventh argument for the exclusion of all works done by the creature, or any obedience of his, in the matter of our justification with God. Keach explodes all attempts to make our own works any part of our standing righteous before God with regard to our justification with the true doctrine of God’s grace in Christ, while making plain that such grace has nothing to do with antinomianism. Rich stuff!
11 Arg. Is, because Christ is tendered or offered to Sinners as Sinners; not as righteous persons, but as ungodly ones, without any previous Qualifications required of them to set themselves to receive Christ; they are all as poor, lost, undone, weary, and heavy laden Sinners required to believe in Christ, or venture their Souls upon him, though they have no Money, no Righteousness; if they have, they must cast it away, in point of Dependence, Trust, or Justification: These are they, Christ came to call; these are they he invites to come to him, these are they he came to seek and to save, who see nothing of Good in themselves; but contrariwise, are sensible of their filthy Hearts and abominable Lives: And yet though it be thus, if they come to Christ, they shall be at that very instant justified, which Faith or Divine Grace will soon make them holy and sanctify them; for holy Habits are at that very instant infused into them, though Sanctification is a gradual work: This being so, it follows all Works done by the Creature are excluded, in point of Justification of a Sinner before God. What said Paul to the ungodly Jailor, when he cried out, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved and thy house, Acts 16.31. The Apostle did not put him upon doing to be saved, but upon believing. But O how contrary is this to the Doctrine some Men preach now-a-days; they tell Sinners what they must do, what good Fruits they must bring forth, and this before the Tree is good, or they have closed with Christ, or have real Union with him; nay, bid the People take heed they do not too soon believe on Christ or venture on Christ. Sirs, you cannot too soon believe in Christ, I mean truly believe; I don’t say you should get a presumptuous Faith, but true Faith: But is it not strange a Minister should be heard lately to say, A Man must get a new heart before he can be justified. I though a Man could not have a new Heart before he had true Faith: Is not a new Heart one of the absolute Promises of the New Covenant, Ezek. 36.26. Can any thing, short of Almighty Power, make the Heart new, or for the Image of God in the Soul; or can a Man that hath a new Heart be under Condemnation, for are not all in that Condition who are not actually justified? Or can a dead Man quicken himself, or dead Works please God? Or the Fruit be good before the Tree is good? Are not all that are new Creatures in Christ Jesus, and have union with him, 2 Cor. 5.17? (82-83)
A little later, he urges the comfort of these things for sinners before raising and answering an objection:
Here is Comfort for Sinners; but if you are self-righteous Persons, or go about like the Jews of old, to establish your own Righteousness, down to Hell you will fall, Rom. 10.2. This Doctrine will support you that are weak, and doubt for want of inherent Righteousness, take hold of it, A Robe of Righteousness, Put it on, Believe on Christ, as poor Sinners come to him, you that have no Money, no Worth, no Merit, no Righteousness, this Wine and Milk of Justification and Pardon is for you: Cry to God to help you to believe; Christ is the Author of your Faith, ’tis the Gift of God, ’tis a grace of the Spirit; Do you see you are wounded? Look to Christ, Believe, and thou shalt be saved, Mark 16.16. John 3.15, 16. If thou can’st not come to God as a Saint, come as a Sinner; nay, as a Sinner thou must come, and may’st come.
Obj. But this Doctrine is decried for Antinomianism.
Answ. They know not what Antinomianism is, that thus brand us, as here-after I shall God-assisting prove. If this is to be an Antinomian, we must be all such, and let them mock on; the Lord open their Eyes: We are for the Law as Paul was, and for Holiness and sincere Obedience, as any Men in the world; but we would have Men act from right Principles, and to a right end: We would have Men act in Holiness, from a Principle of Faith, from a Principle of Spiritual Life, be first married to Christ that they may bring forth Fruit to God, Rom 7.4.
We preach to you, Sinners, that Jesus Christ will entertain you, if you come to him, bid you welcome, and not cast you off, because of the Greatness of your Sins, though you have no Qualifications to recommend you to him. Would you wash your selves from your Sins, and then come to the Fountain of his Blood to be washed; we hold forth Christ to be your whole Saviour, and that he is set forth as the Propitiation through Faith in his Blood; whom if you close with, and believe in, you shall be justified. We tell you God justifies the Ungodly, i.e. that they are so before justified. (88-89)
Martin Downes quotes from and points to a helpful analysis of Brian McLaren’s latest deviation. They really are quite fearful, and not remotely Christian.
Several men of note have been falling over themselves to commend John Sailhamer’s The Meaning of the Pentateuch. David Murray applies a necessary brake to the adulation by identifying a significant problem. He quotes an early paragraph:
The Pentateuch is a lesson drawn from the lives of its two leading men, Abraham and Moses. The Pentateuch lays out two fundamentally dissimilar ways of “walking with God” (Deut. 29:1): one is to be like Moses under the Sinai law, and is called the “Sinai covenant”; the other, like that of Abraham (Gen.15:6), is by faith and apart from the law, and is called the “new covenant” (page 14).
I read the passage again and again, just to make sure I had not misunderstood. How can you write 600+ pages on the Pentateuch and go so wrong in such a fundamental way at the very outset? Sailhamer is saying that there were two ways to be saved in the Old Testament. Like Moses, you could be saved by obeying the law. Or, like Abraham, you could be saved by believing in the Gospel.
That leaves me with three possible conclusions. First, Moses is in hell, having tried and failed to be saved by keeping the law. Or, second, there are two groups of people in heaven who have been saved in totally opposite ways. There are those like Moses who were saved by the works of the law, and there are those like Abraham who were saved through faith in the Messiah. Hard to see how there can be much fellowship when some are praising themselves and others are praising Christ. The third possible conclusion is that Sailhamer is wrong.
Ouch. Murray runs with the third conclusion for a few more paragraphs, then concludes:
I’m going to force myself to keep reading, hopefully to the end of the book, as I’m sure that there is much to learn from Sailhamer’s extensive work. But it’s hard to see how Sailhamer can correct this fundamental error without contradicting himself or greatly confusing his readers.
I was hoping to get hold of Sailhamer. I may still do so, as there will doubtless be vast quantities for me to learn. However, I am not now half so eager, as this seems like a disastrous stance, and – as Murray says – surely such a fundamental error does not leave much to build on.
Stuart Olyott has an excellent short article in the December 2009 issue of the Banner of Truth Magazine (information and subscription here – warmly recommended), reflecting on Luther’s retrospective on the progress of the Reformation. Luther said:
I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble . . . I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.
Stuart is dealing with the error of ‘mediate regeneration’, an error which he perceives gripping a vast swathe of British evangelicalism. (Incidentally, my interest in this article was piqued because I was thinking of preaching on the Spirit’s illuminating work this Lord’s day – I may not, but I should like to soon.) Stuart describes this error in this way:
Mediate regeneration teaches that when the Holy Spirit transforms somebody into a new creature in Christ, he uses an instrument to bring this about. That instrument is the Word—the Holy Scriptures. The work of the Spirit is so intimately connected to his instrument, that we can say that the Word of God actually contains the converting power of the Holy Spirit. If you let the Word loose, you are letting the Holy Spirit loose.
To put it another way: the Spirit, or the principle of new life, is shut up in the Word, just as the life-giving germ is shut up in the dry seed. Just sow the seed and people will get converted! If they don’t, it will be because they have persistently resisted the appeals of God’s Spirit coming to them through that Word. His power is resident in the Word, but that power has been resisted. Where the gospel has little success, there is a human explanation.
So Luther should not have baldly said, “I left it to the Word” because the Word, apart from the Spirit (who is not bound to the word in the way wrongly suggested) accomplishes nothing.
Stuart’s point is that the Spirit works with the word (cum verbo) and not simply through the word (per verbo). While it is and always remains the true Word of the living God, yet without the operation of the Spirit on the heart of the man reading it, it remains as dry as a stick to him. Regeneration is an immediate operation of the Spirit of Christ on the heart of a man making him spiritually alive and aware, and therefore able to comprehend the truth. But the Spirit does not use the truth to accomplish that regeneration; the effect of regeneration is spiritual comprehension of the truth.
Isn’t this splitting hairs? No, says Mr Olyott:
A biblical mind-set ticks completely differently. It goes like this:
- Although the Word can bring a new spiritual life to birth and visibility, it can never bring about the generation of that new life. God himself must do that, by a direct action of his Spirit within the human soul.
- We can preach, teach, persuade and print until we are blue in the face, but nothing will get done unless the Lord himself accompanies the Word. All men and women are spiritually dead, and will remain so for ever, unless the Lord brings them to life.
- It is not enough then to sow the Word, making its meaning plain while we do so. We must have dealings with God, pleading with him to do what only he can do, that is, to work by direct action within people’s souls.
What will be the effect of such a Biblical state of mind?
Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find preachers who ‘pray through’—men who strive and agonise and prevail in prayer, until the Lord accompanies their preaching in an obvious way.
- Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find crowded prayer meetings filled with believers who storm the throne of grace, determined that by sheer importunity they will persuade God to accompany the word to be preached.
- Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find gatherings of Christians beseeching the Lord to pour out his Spirit in awakening power. Of course you will! They understand all too well that no spiritual work will get done anywhere, however much sowing takes place, unless the Lord himself changes rebellious hearts and gives to them spiritual life and appetite.
- But the biblical mind-set does not rule. Most British preachers study more than they pray. Countless believers do not go regularly to church prayer-meetings, or, if they do, fail to plead with God for his blessing upon the preaching. Prayer for revival has almost left us. The error of mediate regeneration is slowly but surely strangling us, and things will go from bad to worse unless we repent.
Stuart is not saying anything new. The 1689 Confession of Faith contains a chapter on the gospel and its gracious extent. The fourth paragraph, in its usual pithy and dense fashion, makes the same point as Stuart, which I give in a slightly modernised format:
The gospel is the only outward [external] means of revealing Christ and saving grace, and, as such, is fully sufficient for this purpose. However, in order that men who are dead in trespasses may be born again, quickened or regenerated, there is also necessary an effectual, insuperable [irresistible] work of the Holy Spirit upon the whole soul to produce in them a new spiritual life.8 Without this, no other means will accomplish their conversion unto God.9
8 Ps 110.3; 1Cor 2.14; Eph 1.19-20 9 Jn 6.44; 2Cor 4.4, 6
I feel the charge of spending more time bending over a commentary than bending my knees in prayer. I see all around me men and women who have heard and are hearing the truth as it is in Jesus without any spiritual comprehension of that truth, and I see the desperate necessity of a direct work of God’s Spirit upon their hearts if they are to believe. They are, many of them, competent, intelligent professionals, some eminent in their spheres, but they cannot see the truth. They never will, unless the Holy Spirit opens their blind eyes.
The story is told of how William Wilberforce once took William Pitt, Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister, a man of intellectual penetration and brilliance, to hear Richard Cecil, an evangelical minister of the gospel with a reputation for sweetness and clarity. As the brilliant Pitt came out of the church, having heard the gospel plainly and powerfully declared, he blinked in the sunlight. “You know, Wilberforce,” he said, “I have not the slightest idea what that man has been talking about.” What was missing? The blessing of spiritual enlightenment for which Wilberforce had been praying, a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit enabling even the most humanly brilliant of men to grasp the simple truth of the good news in Jesus Christ. Truly, the kingdom advances “’Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zec 4.6).
Let us not, then, fall into the sterilising error of mediate regeneration, but pray for the Spirit powerfully and savingly to accompany the Word preached.
Martin Downes posts and suggests some helpful material rebutting the “openness of God” heresy.
He explains graciously and winsomely why he does not own a television and go to see films.
He explains graciously and winsomely why he has invited Doug Wilson to speak at a Desiring God conference. Scott Clark – who manages to get in another dig at everyone he considers not “Reformed”! – rightly takes Piper on, graciously and winsomely, with regard to the broad assertion that Doug Wilson is orthodox in certain vitally important issues. I don’t see all the issues precisely the way Clark does, but I agree with the fundamental assertion that the Federal Vision theology is not the gospel.
I guess the good Piper/bad Piper thing depends on which angle you are looking from. But then, from whichever angle some of us are considered, there is little good to see.
Guy Prentiss Waters offers a historical, exegetical and theological assessment of N. T. Wright’s latest work on justification. Here is his conclusion:
Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision is the most comprehensive and current statement of N. T. Wright on justification to date. Justification is largely a restatement of Wright’s views, with some amplification and rhetorical refinement. It is not a detailed textual and theological interaction with his Reformational readers’ concerns and objections. To the degree that Justification summarizes and synthesizes nearly three decades of Wright’s publications on justification, the book is useful to the student of Wright’s work. To the degree that Justification has failed to engage criticisms of Wright’s formulations on justification in such a way as to advance the discussion, the work is a missed opportunity. What is clear from Justification is that the fundamental concern of Wright’s Reformational readers remains unallayed and firmly in place: Wright’s views on justification have parted company with the teaching of the apostle Paul.
Professor Waters has been at the forefront of addressing the flaws in Wright’s argument in recent years, and the whole thing is worth reading carefully (although it is, to me, the sort of piece that is easier to read on the printed page than in the distracting environs of the interweb).
Note: this post has been revised in the light of comments received (see below) and subsequent posts on David Anderson’s blog retracting the tone but not the substance of his original material. This revision of mine is not meant to be an underhand evasion. My personal exposure to the errors of the Federal Vision has been somewhat prolonged and profoundly distressing, and that experience perhaps betrayed me into a bluntness that was unfair. That does not mean that much of the distinctive teaching of the Federal Vision does not need a blunt rebuttal, but it does mean that I should do so in a more irenic spirit. I am grateful to Amanda Robbie for “calling me out” on this one, and ask forgiveness for unnecessary offence caused by the tone in which I spoke what I still believe to be the truth, although I cannot and will not retract what I consider to be the truth, however offensive that might be considered. I retain some of David’s original material, while seeking to take into account his concerns over its tone. If I have failed to do so to his satisfaction (was I deemed to be the aggressive voice of the blogosphere?), perhaps David will get in touch and let me know?
You might have seen the blurb for a new webzine, Ecclesia Reformanda. I had, and I looked over, and thought with some positive feeling, “I shall have a better look at that at some point.”
That positive feeling has been somewhat allayed by what was posted by David Anderson concerning what he fears to be part of the magazine’s agenda. David knows some of the key figures behind this magazine, and has suggested that there may be more to this magazine than meets the eye. I quote the essence of David’s piece (with some minor excisions):
The advertising blurb for the magazine tells us that its purpose is to promote historic Reformed theology, and mentions no other distinctives – the “best of British Reformed thinking”. And yet…
- All four of the editorial board are convinced Federal Visionists, as a quick look over their blogs will show.
- The synopsis of the first issue also gives it away very quickly… Jim Jordan’s hermeneutics, the place of children in the New Covenant.
- As does the list of book reviews and book reviewers. Doug Wilson, Peter Leithart, Alastair Roberts… (And of those not so well known there is more than one FV advocate). Books on the nature of the New Covenant and the church, infant baptism…
- The editorial for issue 1 lists some things that ought to be allowed points of difference within the Reformed community. And… it’s pretty much a shopping list of the key questions raised by the Federal Vision controversy or viewpoints espoused by FV advocates. And predictably (since these are FVers) absent… infant baptism, of course, is not an allowed point of controversy, despite the majority of real-life Reformed believers in the UK being baptists!
- Do a blog search to see who’s recommending this new magazine – yup, it’s a list of FV advocates. The blurb many of them reproduce again, though, tells us that the magazine’s distinctive is to be presenting “Reformed Theology”, rather than that its distinctive is to promote the FV…
All this, and not one mention of the “Federal Vision” on the website. No mention that the editorial board are – despite the blurb about representing British Reformed theology – all from one single college: Oak Hill (Anglican), and that three of them were (as were some of the book reviewers), whilst there, taught the Federal Vision by the fourth (David Field). All we’re told is that the stated aim is promoting Reformed theology.
I note the intention to promote “the best of British reformed thinking” and I am grateful for it. However, while I have not personally subscribed to the magazine yet, I have looked more carefully into David’s claim that the key players subscribe, in various degrees, to Federal Vision theology, and I think it holds water. Both perusing the blogs of the key men and women and looking at some of the themes and material most prominent in the first edition, I would suggest that David’s fears have some substance.
While it is right to accept the intention of those involved to be as stated – promoting the best of British reformed scholarship – it is also fair to imagine that one’s perspective and convictions on what is the best of British reformed scholarship will profoundly influence the tone and direction of the magazine. If, as David suggests, that perspective and those convictions carry the taint of the Federal Vision then readers and subscribers would therefore do well to engage with discernment.
I do not use the word ‘taint’ lightly. I have had personal and fairly prolonged contact with advocates of Federal Vision theology. I have read some of the material being disseminated by its proponents, engaged in lengthy conversations (some of them written) about some of the distinctives of the Federal Vision, seen others engage with some of the same things, and watched with a profound sadness the fearful trajectory of some avowed Federal Visionists (which has caused deep personal grief to friends close at hand). It is my conviction that many of the particular distinctives of the Federal Vision are unscriptural and strike at the very essence of true Biblical Christianity with regard to such matters as the nature of justification; the nature of the covenant; the nature of baptism (its objects and effects); the nature of the church; and, the principle and effects of Christian obedience, to name a few of the key issues that spring to mind.
Please be clear: I am not attributing all of this to the editors of Ecclesia Reformanda. Indeed, I should be happy – not necessarily to enter into a prolonged debate with advocates of the Federal Vision on this blog, but – if any of the key players should like to disavow the distinctive and dangerous perspectives of the Federal Vision in some public forum. That would set my mind at rest to some degree.
I still intend to have a better look at this magazine at some point. Nevertheless, if it is the case (as David fears) that Ecclesia Reformanda has as part of its unstated agenda – and why should anyone state it if they simply believe it is the best of British reformed thinking? – the promotion of the Federal Vision theology in the UK, then we must read with care, watch with wariness, and observe with discernment. I hope and expect that there will be many tonics for the soul, but it would be extremely dangerous should there prove to be an occasional bottle of poison among the tonic.
This week, Affinity will be hosting a conference under the title, The End of the Law? It is a clever title – clever in its calculated ambivalence.
I had hoped to attend, but am unable to do so because of other pressing commitments. As regular readers of this blog will know, I have profound concerns over what is called New Covenant Theology, and the antinomianism which I am persuaded is inherent in it. I am concerned that the calculated ambivalence of the Affinity conference points to a talking shop in which various perspectives on the law of God will be propounded. That is not to say that there is not some scope for discussion about the precise nature of the covenant of grace (for example, while it looks as if there will be a robustly Reformed Presbyterian perspective delivered, I am not sure that an equally robust Reformed Baptistic view will be presented), but the enduring validity of the moral law must not be put up for grabs. The abiding nature of God’s law is not an in-house discussion: it is a matter of truth and error (albeit not, in every manifestation, heresy). That said, I have a book by a ‘New Covenant’ theologian on my shelf in which his best arguments against bestiality are that you cannot have sex outside marriage, you cannot marry an unbeliever, it is almost universally illegal in the eyes of the civil magistrate to marry an animal (or vegetable), and therefore the latter two considerations make sex with an animal a breaking of God’s law (because those latter two principles of marriage to an unbeliever and obedience to the civil magistrate are mentioned in the New Testament). However, if you and your sister are both Christians and you live in a country which permits marriage between siblings, then there is apparently nothing in the ‘new covenant’ to keep you from marrying. I kid you not.
I am not suggesting that this is where all participants in the Affinity conference are heading, or even those who will be setting forth a less than Scriptural perspective. However, it indicates the trend and tendency of this teaching, and where the next generations will be taking it. We are already seeing a casual and widely assumed antinomianism characterising evangelicalism: the working assumption seems often to be that the ten commandments are passé.
Over the last few weeks, several blogs have been quoting from the great believers of the past. Again, there is not absolute uniformity, but – despite the various currents – there is a plain river of orthodoxy which we must not pollute.
Gary Brady on Calvin and the third use of the law.
Martin Downes on Thomas Boston; Calvin on being confronted by the law; Calvin on the first use of the law; on the righteousness of the law; Bolton on law and gospel and assurance; Bolton again on the substance of the moral law.
This is a point for holding fast in our day, with a love and affection for those with whom we differ, but with a love and reverence for the heavenly Father whose character is made known in the law; for the Son who obeyed and honoured and fulfilled the law in his life and death; and for the Spirit, whose office is to write that law upon the fleshy tablets of our renewed hearts. This is no time for ambivalence, clever or otherwise.
Martin Downes has an insightful post on the methodological heritage that open theists derive from Socinianism. He quotes from Clark Pinnock denying that there can be such a thing as true freedom of will if there is a “fixity of future” known in concrete terms by God, and then points us to Charles Hodge and Herman Bavinck.
The Socinians, however, and some of the Remonstrants, unable to reconcile this foreknowledge with human liberty, deny that free acts can be foreknown. As the omnipotence of God is his ability to do whatever is possible, so his omniscience is his knowledge of everything knowable. But as free acts are in their nature uncertain, as they may or may not be, they cannot be known before they occur. Such is the argument of Socinus. This whole difficulty arises out of the assumption that contingency is essential to free agency. (Systematic Theology Vol. 1, p. 400-1)
In a later period the Socinians taught the same thing. God knows all things, they said, but all things according to their nature. Hence, he knows future contingent (accidental) events, not with absolute certainty (for then they would cease to be accidental), but as contingent and accidental; that is, he knows what the future holds insofar as it depends on humans, but not with infallible foreknowledge. If that were the case, the freedom of the will would be lost, God would become the author of sin, and he himself would be subject to necessity. (Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation, p. 197. Emphasis added)
Martin’s helpfully lucid conclusion is as follows:
The connection between open theism and Socinianism is not literary but methodological. They share the same convictions and have arrived at the same conclusions concerning the relationship between human freedom and divine foreknowledge.
Sound reasoning, a sombre conclusion, and a sober warning. All are needed in days when the old errors once more stalk the land.
(More on this from Martin here.)
My aunt died last Monday. My father’s only sibling, a few years older than him, she had a stroke at some point on Sunday. At first, the news seemed not to be so bad. Then by Monday morning things were going downhill, and continued so for a few hours. She fell asleep in Jesus at about 5.30pm on Monday evening. Although she had not been well, this was not remotely expected, and it was a severe shock for my father.
I wasn’t aware of most of this. I had been out early to pick up Rich Barcellos. We came back home, and I knew that my aunt was not well, but there was still no indication of this to come. Rich and I were meeting a friend of his in London that evening, and I gave him a 30 minute sprint from Victoria via Westminster Chapel, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Whitehall with its various sights, and then Trafalgar Square. We went from there to a restaurant, which is where my father called with the sad news about my aunt. It felt a little odd to be sitting there engaged in sometimes deep and sometimes fun conversation, with that in the back of my mind. Truth be told, my greatest grief is for my father and his grief. I immediately relieved him from all regular duties other than those which he wished to maintain, as there is a vast amount of administrative and practical work for him to do.
Our Ministerium took place on Tuesday. Rich was preaching, and several of the more senior men (like my father and Achille Blaize) were missing through other responsibilities and ill-health. Still, we had a good turnout, with several new faces there, giving us about eighteen altogether.
Rich taught in the morning, giving us a systematic, Biblical and historical theological overview of issues relating to the law. There were lots of careful distinctions that he made. One had the sense that we were getting the tip of the iceberg – there was a looming mass of study lying behind the little that he was able to deliver in the hour available. The lunch proved that many issues had been raised, and then in the afternoon he got to the meat of what I had asked him to address: the modern face of antinomianism. Here Rich focused on New Covenant Theology, and – in a very irenic spirit – outlined some of its particular features, and identified several ‘warning lights’ of which we should be aware. This was much more of a sermon, and God gave our brother measures both of light and heat as he pressed home precious truths on our hearts.
We had a very good discussion time, in which issues relating to the trajectory of the movement, the relationship between the character and will of God, the theological implications of antinomianism, and the like, were raised and addressed.
For those interested in the issues, Rich had been preaching over the weekend at Emmanuel Church, Salisbury. Those four addresses are available online, and there is – at points – a good degree of overlap with regard to some of the issues to do with antinomianism. For a more detailed record of the ministry, see Simon Musing Field for a rundown of the first session (with the second to follow in due course).
The rest of this week is ramping up. Tomorrow morning first thing I have a meeting, then in the afternoon I am off to South Wales – Brynmawr to be precise – where I am preaching in the evening. I return home late. Friday I hope to be able to start preparing for the Lord’s day (now all three ministries) before having another meeting in the evening. Saturday morning we have a special prayer meeting at church, and then again I will have opportunity to prepare for Sunday. There is lots of other stuff on the to do list, and some books that need to be read too.
Consider the man born into a family of terrorists. The man’s father had rebelled against the King of the kingdom in which he lived, and – having so rebelled – all his posterity were brought up to hate and fight the King who ruled in this kingdom. It is to this family that the man belongs. Having been falsely taught all his life that the sovereign is cruel, vindictive, proud and unjust, and hating him as a tyrant accordingly, he has racked up a long list of foul crimes and misdemeanours against the King, all of which bring him under sentence of death. This life of rebellion takes its toll on the terrorist, cut off as he is from all that makes life worth living in the kingdom. His misery and wretchedness increase day by day as he slowly loses his foolish fight. Finally, he receives an overture of peace from the King. The King knows of the rebel’s appalling condition, and has had compassion on the man. Together with his son, the Prince, and his Lord Chancellor, the King has devised a way by means of which, without any detriment to the King’s justice and glory, the rebel might be entirely forgiven, and – even more – brought into the King’s royal family. He publishes this offer by means of his ambassadors. At first, the terrorist cannot believe that such an offer can be true. After all has heard and believed of this king and his character, after all he has done to merit death, can the alleged tyrant really be ready to forgive all his sins and actually adopt him as his own? Then the Lord Chancellor himself comes to press upon him the reality of the king’s free and gracious offer: the Prince himself will take the entire punishment that the law demands and which the rebel deserves. The rebel, finally persuaded, gratefully accepts his merciful terms and embraces all that is bound up in leaving his life of crime. The Lord Chancellor conducts him back to the King’s palace, where he is inducted into the life of a true son of the King, dearly beloved of the sovereign, and heir to all that the Prince himself is entitled to receive. Overwhelmed, scarcely believing his mercies, he yet knows that to him now belongs all the freedom of the kingdom. However, it is worth noting that while his relationship to the King has altered radically in some respects, there are some underpinning realities which have not altered. The King has become his father, with all the blessings involved in his adoption. The weight of the law as an instrument of condemnation has ceased to hang over him. But has the father now ceased to be a King? By no means! And is the ex-rebel any less obliged to obedience to the law of the kingdom because he has been delivered from its condemnation? By no means! His obligations to obedience have been by no means reduced, but only heightened. He is all the more obliged – love and gratitude and position all oblige him – to embrace and obey the law of his King and his father. He has all the obligations that belong to him as one under the royal authority, as well as all the obligations that belong to him as an adopted son, overwhelmed by gratitude for the undeserved privileges bestowed upon him. It is the same law that was in place while he was a terrorist, the very same law as condemned him to death for treason. The law has not changed, and he now cheerfully obeys that law both as a subject under its royal authority and as a son in his father’s household. The royal law is still in effect, is as potent and extensive as it ever was, except that now it is profoundly, readily, willingly embraced by one who has come to have that law truly impressed upon him as the continuing standard of life in the kingdom of his father, which his father the King, his natural son, the Prince, and the Lord Chancellor have all seen fit to honour in bringing him from the condemnation of death to life and to liberty.
Allegories are imperfect, and this one no less than most, but I am that rebel. I have been condemned by God’s law. And yet, by grace, I have been redeemed from my sins through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, atoning for my ungodliness, being called by the Father and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. God having justified me through faith, I have been set apart to him, called to a life of holiness, and adopted into his family. I am no longer condemned by the law, but the law still exposes sin in me. I am no longer condemned by the law, but the law still expresses my Father’s will for what is right and holy and just. I am no longer condemned by the law, but that law no longer presses upon me from without, rather springs up from within, having been written on my heart. I am no longer condemned by the law, but have come to recognise it as good and just, and embrace it with a willingness and readiness to obey it in all its parts. It is that law that is now written not on tablets of stone, but on the fleshy tablet of my heart. It is as a son, as a redeemed man, that the law becomes my delight as well as my duty.