Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category
It would be unfair to say that I am plotting my own demise. It may be that there are plenty of people more than willing to plot that on my behalf. However, I do think it makes sense to take full account of my own expected and intended dispensability. The fable of indispensability afflicts most of us almost naturally. We come to see ourselves at the centre of a particular web, the one without whom some sparkling edifice will most assuredly collapse. If God gifts one or another with an unusual measure of gift or degree of grace, paradoxically, that one can be all the more inclined to imagine themselves irreplaceable. Some learn it a hard way: try falling sick for a couple of months, and watch the kingdom of God stutter and stumble along without you … or not. Even Paul, lest he be exalted above measure, was blessed with a thorn in the flesh.
To be sure, we must take account of certain realities. By the grace of God, each of us is what we are, formed, forged, fashioned by a sovereign God for his wise and perfect purposes. We must not deny that it is for the Lord to appoint those formed, forged and fashioned instruments for particular purposes in particular times under particular circumstances, to raise up men to meet the needs of the hour. At no point can we or need we trespass upon the divine prerogative. God employs us in his kingdom for his glory; he does not rely on us.
And yet, this confident humility and humble confidence should not prevent us using the means that God has provided to do and to continue the work he has appointed for us and others to do. Paul might have been considered indispensable in a robust sense of the word, and yet, with confidence in God’s means to accomplish God’s ends, Paul began to invest in men who would follow after him. We see him taking the Marks, Timothys, Tituses, Demases, and others, under his wing. Some of them disappoint him rapidly or eventually. Some of them are subsequently rehabilitated. Some of them depart, having loved this present world. Others always were and remained like sons to him. Some went on to break new ground. Some cultivated what had been planted. In his relationship with them, he models the principle that he impresses upon Timothy: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2Tim 2:2).
We know that there are always those who will hang upon a personality, and cultures and circumstances in which that disposition seems more ingrained. When the personality fades, so does the commitment and attachment of the mere hanger-on. This can happen in a church or in any other institution. Someone or someones build the momentum around himself or themselves, or allow that to happen. There is no investment in those immediately behind, and a yawning gap begins to develop. When the figurehead droops, the work drops into the chasm, or is barely rescued from it. In such a way begins a dreadful cycle of progress, collapse and recovery, the whole stilted and staggering. In a church, it can happen when one man is seen as the key figure. Sometimes he preaches the place full and then empty again, or builds the behemoth, only to see it begin to wane. Sometimes the work continues to advance, but everyone is fearful of the moment when the leader is taken away. Wittingly or unwittingly, the leader and those around him buy into the myth that it hinges upon him; structures are put in place to keep the figurehead propped up, postponing the inevitable. Acolytes rally round to try to maintain the progress that the Great One had when his energy levels were higher and his gifts not quite so worn. Churches that should be and in many ways are healthy roll on until the inevitable rolls in. Then there is almost of necessity a painful period in which a variety of men prove that they are not up to scratch. They cannot match the great personality, and too often there is despondency, despair and desertion before enough time passes and enough people leave to pick up the threads once more and to build again from the ground up.
But where is the investment in succession? I happen to be persuaded that the scriptural model for church rule involves a plurality of elders, under Christ exercising an equal authority while manifesting a diversity of gifts. Ideally, even where that diversity of gifts allows for greater public prominence or usefulness for one or some, or the guidance of God’s Word and Spirit directs the church into certain avenues of service which puts a greater onus on certain men, this provides for a measure of real stability and continuity. Of course, sinful men can and do conspire to muck up the best system, but the principle is sound. When the church in Antioch sent out Barnabas and Saul, they sent away two of the five prophets and teachers that the Lord had gifted to the church there. Paul himself took pains to invest in those who followed him, taking Timothy and Titus and others with him, discipling them, acting as a mentor in word (spoken and written) and deed (seen and reported). When Paul was directing Titus in his work in Crete, he directed him to appoint elders in every city, men who would take up and pass on the baton of apostolic truth and labour: “Titus, make yourself effectively redundant; prove you are ultimately dispensable.” When you pass from the scene, moved on, sent on, pulled on, taken away, make sure that – under God – you have invested in those equipped to follow you. This does not sap the energy. It need not encourage armchair Christianity. It is not building for retirement, but providing for future investment. We should wish to be part of a line, not the end of one. Even once-in-a-lifetime men (and who, at best, is not that?) can make sure that when the curtain falls on a particular scene, or on the whole play of life, there are other players already stepping into the roles that they have played. Even the inimitable do not have to be irreplaceable. They still play Hamlet though Gielgud is no more.
And so we should plot our own demise, plan for our obsolescence. Our inimitability is, for most if not all of us, a mercy of God. Really, does the world need anyone else like you? But we should never plan or hope to be irreplaceable. In fact, we should cultivate and establish our own dispensability. I think I can genuinely say that it would be a moment of profound pastoral thankfulness for me to say, “I hope these saints still want me, but I do not believe that they need me in any pressing sense.” I hope that before then we have already sent the painfully but joyfully dispensable out as investments into other work in other places. That is likely to involve real sacrifice, but be a mark of real progress. Perhaps there will come a moment when they will send me on to other things? In this way the church of Christ can send out its ones and twos and threes, and see other disciples made, other churches established, other efforts undertaken, without the compromise or collapse of those who began that work.
Are you planning your demise? Have you learned and embraced the lesson of your own dispensability? By God’s grace, you might even at some point become properly superfluous where you are, and be the one who gets sent away to do something else, where you may seem briefly and uncomfortably indispensable until you are able once more to establish afresh your own dispensability.
Some readers of the blog might be interested to know of an upcoming study day at London Theological Seminary on Baptist covenant theology. The day is planned for Monday 23 November, to run from 10am to 4pm. If you are interested in coming, please book by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and registering your name for the day. There is a fee of £5, payable on the day itself if you wish. Lunch is not included in that fee, but tea and coffee will be available.
If you need a little more information, here’s a taster from the blurb:
Who or what are Reformed Baptists? Are they the same as Particular Baptists? Confessional Baptists? Calvinistic Baptists? Independent Baptists? Grace Baptists? Covenantal Baptists? Can Baptists even be Reformed?
More importantly, perhaps, who am I and what do I believe? What does it mean for me to be a Reformed Baptist, or whichever one of these other labels is used? Is that what I am? What about the church to which I belong? Does it make a difference? Ought it to make a difference?
The purpose of this study day is to introduce the topic of covenant theology in a Baptist context. We need to consider the matter historically and practically, but primarily biblically and theologically. Seeking to ground our studies in the Word of God, we will consider the various expressions of covenantal thought of Reformed or Particular Baptists as it began to find particular expression in the 17th century in the writings and confessions of our spiritual forefathers. From there, and taking account of how other Baptists addressed these issues, we will look at how modern Reformed Baptists of various stripes have wrestled and continue to wrestle with these issues. Along the way, we will, in some measure, be interacting with our paedobaptist brothers (Presbyterians, Congregationalists and others), as well as taking some account of Dispensationalism and New Covenant Theology (all of whom and which, in some measure, stand apart from the mainstream of Reformed Baptist thought, which is itself not monolithic).
Our goal is a positive declaration and discussion, grounded in the Scriptures. We will be less interested in figuring out which camp one ought to belong to, more interested in identifying and clarifying the issues that need to be addressed, and the lines along which our thoughts should run. The pastoral and practical implications of the principles and patterns understood and embraced will be at the forefront of our thought.
So, if you’re interested, please sign up and I shall look forward to seeing you there, God willing.
Jonathan Leeman can take care of himself. I will not pretend or imply that I know well enough to agree with everything, more plain or more nuanced, in Brother Leeman’s ecclesiology, though I know we have much in common. However, it is still worth reading his initial piece on the baptism of disciples in full in order to understand what he said and did not say. Not all of that comes across in Mark Jones’ response.
I have been digging around in the 17th century recently, and have – not deliberately, but of necessity – found a number of treatments of the issue among the early Particular Baptists. In particular, there’s a lovely little piece by Edward Harrison called Paedo-baptisme Oppugned that I had the pleasure of reading. We’re also working in our adult Bible class through the Appendix to the 1677/1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, which raises and answers very similar questions. It really is refreshing how crisply and scripturally these Baptists worked through and addressed the issues.
However, in connection with this altercation, I came across the following in John Spilsbery’s Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptism, which I thought helped the discussion forward quite neatly. Spilsbery declares that
all that I intend by opposing Infants Baptism, is but onely to forbear and wait upon God in the use of means, untill faith appears to meet with God in his holy Ordinance, without which the same is voyd and of no effect; but prophaned, God provoked, and the party indangered.
Of course, Splisbery’s little “only” is quite weighty and far-reaching, but it does clarify the question.
A couple of times a month, as God enables us, the church which I serve attempts to proclaim the gospel in the centre of our town, preaching in the open air, handing out tract-invitations, and engaging in conversation with those who have a few moments to spare. Today was one of those occasions, and it gave a fairly representative glimpse into the spiritual battleground on which we are fighting.
On our arrival, we found the Jehovah’s Witnesses established just along from our usual patch. They have been unusually active in our area recently, and have begun to employ some new techniques and hardware – well-designed portable leaflet stands which are put up in prominent or busy places (just outside bus, train and tube stations seem to be favourites, though obviously not limited to them) with a couple of well-spoken Witnesses manning their stations.
As we began to set up and hand out our invitations some distance away, a passing gentleman pointed out to me that we had a little competition. Trying to seize the opportunity, I plunged into what became a conversation with a French philosopher of sorts (literally French, philosophical by inclination), a thoroughgoing humanist for whom all was relative and death alone was absolute. We ranged hither and yon, with the usual shoal of red herrings as I tried to address his objections and bring him back always to the scriptural realities of sin and salvation. He parted with my contact details, and expressed a willingness to consider getting in touch so that I could speak with him further. I hope, too, that he will accept the invitation to come to our church services and to see what kind of people are true Christians, and so learn the character of the God we serve.
His claim that we had competition (to which I will return) was further and sadly enhanced by the arrival of another local group, wild-eyed Arminians with a thoroughly worldly programme and a range of heresies to proclaim and a great deal of health and wealth to promise. They saw us, sounded us out, got their gear out about twenty yards away and planted themselves all around us. Their basic approach is to set up something like a street party, invite people to another party, and then try to sweep people further into their clutches on a wave of emotions. There is a lot of Bible speak, but not a great deal of biblical truth. The noise of their contribution bordered on the overwhelming.
Interestingly, they were drowned out by about forty devotees of Hare Krishna who were making their way into and around the centre of the town with drums, bells and cymbals. We heard them coming a way off. Given that our Arminian friends had bordered on the aggressive in their locating of themselves, a troupe of orangey chanters trampling pretty much through and over them might have caused a snigger in less high-minded chaps than ourselves. One quick-witted of our number managed to get in amongst them and hand out a few tracts, but the poor fellow was almost drowned in the tangerine tide.
It did not appear, on the surface of things, to be our most successful endeavour. It certainly underlined to us the nature of the battle. As we prayed, we asked the Lord to save those who are trapped in these godless and heretical environments, and to bring all these systems of error to nothing. As one of our number pointed out, there was something Athenian in the situation: our spirits were provoked as we saw our town given over to idols (Acts 17:16) and so we tried to reason with them, preaching to them Jesus and the resurrection by means of tracts and conversations (less so by open proclamation on this occasion, given the nature of the environment). It is interesting that all the artwork I have found of Paul in Athens gives the impression of a rapt audience seemingly enamoured of a potent speaker who has his hearers in the palm of his hand. I wonder how near or far those images are from the reality? We are not Paul, we know that, but maybe it was not quite as neat and pleasant there as some of our imaginations make out.
So, are we in competition? Are we, as my Gallic interlocutor suggested, just one of a range of equally valid voices all clamouring for attention? As I pointed out to him, we are not.
First of all, we do not compete in terms of method. We are not going to attempt to out-suave, out-dance, out-shout, and out-beat those who come with their empty messages and vain offers. We are not playing that game and we do not need to. Just because the world suggests that we are one among many in the marketplace of ideas does not mean we have to prostitute our message with the same froth and filth as everyone else. We are not competing in terms of our method.
Second, as I made clear, we are not merely offering another alternative to a range of spiritual or intellectual placebos. In that sense, we are not competing in terms of our message. Every other offer he was hearing – indeed, his own notions and his own system in which he so ardently believed – called out to mankind to look to themselves, to work harder, do better and climb higher. Ultimately, and in many cases sooner rather than later, every other one of those systems and claims will crash and burn. Ours is the one distinctive message: a call to look out and up, to look to Christ who has accomplished all, finished the work, having climbed down to save his wretched and rebellious creatures by suffering and dying in their place, exhausting God’s curse against sin and providing his own righteousness in order that we might stand before him with peace and joy. We call men away from everything else to the one true and living God, and to his Son, who loved us and gave his life for us, and rose from the dead in triumph on our behalf. We see and feel and loathe and mourn the clamour of falsehood and idolatry that swirls around us, but it is not a competition between parallel vanities. It is a battle between the truth of God and the range of damnable errors and heresies and emptinesses that masquerade as hopes for the hopeless and helps for the helpless.
May God grant that within and without the walls of our church buildings, he would give us grace to give earnest, winsome and unflinching testimonies to the truth as it is in Jesus, demonstrating in our lives the truths that we confess with our lips! May God’s message and God’s method prevail, and may the light overcome the darkness!
It is too easy to make our witness to Christ programmatic and mechanical. There is no doubt that some measure of order and organisation is often profitable. There are many right and proper endeavours that demand structure, planning and management in order to do them well. People must be gathered and equipped, instructed or trained or encouraged, informed where to be and what to do, and so the programme begins. I am by no means suggesting that all such endeavours need to be culled – far from it!
However, could it be that too often we think of doing evangelism rather than simply being evangelists, of being fully and readily evangelical? We are, after all, gospel people, are we not? We are the ones who have been called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light in order that we might proclaim his praises (1Pt 2.9). In a sense, our witness to grace ought to be the most spontaneous, instinctive, natural thing in the world.
There are times when – because of fear, weariness, laziness, busyness, sickness, doubt or other reasons – we have to take ourselves in hand and stir ourselves up and spur ourselves and others on. Nevertheless, we should not need to be beaten into testifying of the grace of God in Christ. It bubbles out of a man like the apostle Paul under a variety of motivations, but it rarely seems to need to be drawn out, only directed as it flows.
Again, it is worth bearing in mind that we might wish to ensure that when speaking to unconverted men and women of the Lord Christ and his death and resurrection there are certain truths that we strike each time, every time, and time and time again over time. There is a certain core of truths that needs to be held up and pressed home. Here once more is something of fixed substance. But at the same time, there need be no rigidity, no dry formula, in speaking of him whom not having seen we love. It should be a ready, cheerful and unforced testimony – the sort of enthusiasm which we would struggle to quell in almost any other sphere.
And how do we cultivate this relatively artless and effortless expression? By meditating much upon the person and work of Christ, by walking closely with him, communing with him, and delighting ourselves in all he is in himself and to us.
Let us be less about doing evangelism and more about being evangelists. Let the truth flow from us readily as we go about our business. “Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2Cor 2:14–15).
It may have been ever thus, but there seem to be an increasing number of books – often from the fields of biblical or systematic theology – that present themselves as having discovered or provided the overarching theme of the Scriptures as a whole, the lens through which the whole should be read and interpreted. At other times, there is a supposed historical precedent which, we are informed, must govern the way in which we handle not only uninspired texts, but even the Scriptures themselves. Perhaps there is even an experimental approach: we have had such-and-such an experience, therefore it must be validated by the Word of God.
Every other theme or text is then shoehorned into the grand scheme, trimmed and hammered until the squarest of pegs slide into the roundest of holes. Sometimes, there is something that is compelling about such presentations, and much light is shed on the Word of God. One might still not accept the demand that this be the point at which we stand in order to change the world, while appreciating the help given in seeing this as a weighty theme or principle. At other times, I am concerned at how blunt or even crass that process is, with some shallow little epithet becoming the cookie cutter into which every text or doctrine must be forced. We end up reading our Bibles with a combination of myopia and tunnel vision, and not just those that come of being fallen creatures.
At the same time, most of us are probably accustomed to reading the Bible through a certain set of lenses. We come to the Word of God with certain notions, and these – consciously or unconsciously, possibly even subconsciously – inform our hermeneutics. This is largely inevitable. We open the Bible with certain presuppositions, a certain system influencing if not governing the way in which we read.
As a result, we tend to find in the Scriptures what accords with our own convictions. You might recall John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan’s attempt at self-definition: “I’m first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.” I wonder if (with necessary adjustments and extensions, depending on our beliefs) we also read the Bible through those kinds of lenses, in more or less that order?
So the key question must be, who makes the lenses and sets them in the frames? Here is a great challenge for us if we are to be faithful and humble readers of the Scriptures. Prayerfully dependent on the Holy Spirit, we must adjust our lenses and our frames to ensure that the Scriptures come into focus as they are, and not adjust the Scriptures so that they can be read through our lenses and frames.
This, I think, is one of the particular things that I appreciate about the expositions of Calvin and some of the other older writers. Please understand that I am not seeking to set up a Calvin versus the Calvinists dichotomy, or necessarily trying to endorse the system that often goes by the name of Calvinism. Rather, I am talking about the way the man handles the Bible. And I think he handles the Bible humbly and faithfully. There is no doubt that he reads with certain presuppositions, as do we all. But when he reaches a given point in his handling of a text, and noticeably where it is something which pushes his system – starkly and mechanistically considered – out of shape, he does not start trying to kick the text into shape, but he takes off his shoes, for he is standing on holy ground. And that is something we all must do.
Spurgeon once said, “Brethren, we shall not adjust our Bible to the age; but before we have done with it, by God’s grace, we shall adjust the age to the Bible.” If we are to do that, we must also ensure that we do not adjust our Bible to the system, but the system to our Bible. As we read, we must allow every line to have its full and honest weight, to be interpreted historically and and linguistically and grammatically in accordance with righteous standards, and to submit to whatever we find. To be sure, we do not and cannot come nakedly to the Word of God, and it would be folly to suggest that we do and can. But let us be done with shoehorning the Bible, in the whole or in part, into a preordained system. If I find it in my Bible, I must believe it. If I do not, then I am not bound by it, and neither can I bind anyone else to it. We cannot use the Bible to legitimise what we have already decided must be true. If God’s Word declares it, I receive it and embrace it, even if – where reason fails, with all its powers – there faith prevails and love adores. We worship even when – perhaps especially when – we cannot fully comprehend. Let us make sure that – whatever we start with – we are continually adjusting our frames and refining our lenses to ensure that the fixed points of the Word of God inform everything else that we believe or do, and live and worship accordingly.
Conrad Mbewe hits hard but fair, asking about our unwillingness to face risk for the sake of the kingdom:
My argument here is that the worthiness of a cause can be seen by how much people are willing to suffer for it. Look at the price that Jesus paid when he incarnated among us. He left the splendour of heaven knowing his destiny was not only the lonely hill of Golgotha but also years of hardship and tears. Why? It was because of the worthiness of the cause. His sacrifice was going to result in the salvation of billions and, above all, it was going to bring glory to our great God.