The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘B. B. Warfield

Review: “Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers”

with 23 comments

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Dane C. Ortlund
Crossway, 2020
224pp., hardback, $19.99

ISBN 978-1-4335-6613-4

Some assured me that it was the greatest book they had read in years. Others warned me that it was profoundly dangerous. Reviewers have largely fallen over themselves to commend it. It is a topic which I need to grasp personally and pastorally. So I took it up and read it. The book is from Dane Ortlund, is called Gentle and Lowly, and is—more or less—an attempt to rework Goodwin on the heart of Christ (available as a Puritan Paperback from the Banner of Truth) for a modern audience, with primary assistance from Sibbes, Owen, Flavel, and Bunyan, and occasional contributions from Edwards, Warfield, and one or two others.

In style, it is interesting, at times combining Blairite sentence fragments with complex and lengthy sentences that would make a Puritan blush. It is generally accessible, but some of those heavier sentences are like steamrollers. I wonder if people are so persuaded that the seventeenth-century authors are unreadable that they never bother finding out if they are at least as clear as some of our more modern writers? That is true, not just of Ortlund’s style, but also in his substance.

So what of the substance? ‘This book,’ says the author, ‘is written for the discouraged, the frustrated, the weary, the disenchanted, the cynical, the empty.’ Its message is ‘that we tend to project our natural expectations about who God is onto [sic] him instead of fighting to let the Bible surprise us into what God himself says’ (13, 155). If the message so stated seems to fall a little short of the target audience, then we need to dig a little deeper.

Ortlund is addressing a genuine and proper pastoral concern, and one which may well be more pressing in his circles than in those of some readers. Most pastors will recognise the malady when he writes that ‘many of us tend to believe [that God’s love in Christ] is a love infected with disappointment’ (189). Ministers wrestle with men and women, believers and otherwise, persuaded that they are utterly unloveable and entirely beyond love. In part, like Ortlund, I am persuaded that this probably reflects a failure properly to appreciate and appropriate the incomparable depths of God’s love toward us in Christ Jesus, and—perhaps, therefore—further reflects a fear of preaching the heart of Christ in all its fulness of love. After all, what if people got the wrong impression and thought that they could sin and get away with it? But, on the other hand, what if people concluded that, because they had sinned, they were helplessly and hopelessly done for, because Christ would quickly become frustrated with us and leave us to our own wretched devices? It may be that Ortlund is conscious of an excessive intellectualism in his own circles, a technical grasp of what Christ is and does without an experimental acquaintance with our Lord’s heart toward us that spills over in our lives and from our lips. Whatever the case, he is quite right to quote Jeremiah 31:20 about the yearning of God’s heart, and challenge us, ‘Does your doctrine of God have room for him speaking like that?’ (164).

In the course of the book there are moments of penetrating insight into the Scriptures (such as the developed parallel between God’s self-revelation to Moses on the mountain and the actions of our Lord Jesus with his disciples), or points at which his apposite quotation of the Puritans, or communication of their sense, leaves the heart singing.

The book as a whole consists of twenty-three reasonably brief chapters, with an introduction and an epilogue. It concentrates more on the character of Christ, although his nature as the God-man is used to elaborate on the depths and demonstrations of his heart toward us. While the first chapter picks up the language of Matthew 11:29, which supplies the title, every chapter takes a verse, or more often a phrase, as its point of departure. The author wants us to understand the depths of Christ’s sympathy for and with sinners, his readiness to receive the penitent wanderer returning home, his patience and gentleness with his erring people, his intercession and advocacy for us in his glory, his perfect emotions in his dealings with us, his persevering affection, and the way in which his heart beats in time with the Father and the Spirit, revealing the Father’s heart and exemplified in the Spirit’s presence and operations. Ortlund labours constantly to overcome our sinful suspicions of the Lord, the twisted pride that assumes we are actually too bad to be saved, or the fear that we have messed up and have put ourselves if not beyond the power then perhaps beyond the patience of a loving Saviour. Some chapters rely more heavily on his source material. Goodwin ties the whole together, but specific chapters owe more or less to other authors, and one or two—such as the chapter on the emotional life of our Lord—are largely summaries of longer pieces by older authors.

As a whole, the theme is wonderfully sweet and absolutely vital. Ortlund’s emphases are sadly missing in too many churches. (It is worth remembering that not everything that he sees as missing has been or is being missed in every church and by every preacher.) For many a battered and bruised soul, either wondering if God could ever love them or keep loving them, there is much truth here to instruct and to comfort, truth presented with a necessarily emphatic edge. Sinners coming to Christ for the first time need not only to be persuaded of their own emptiness and weakness, but also persuaded that the Redeemer is not only absolutely able but eminently willing to save them—he delights to glorify God in receiving the most wretched of sinners. Further, saints need to enter ever more fully into the depths of Christ’s love, never despairing of him and therefore over themselves, but confident (without carelessness) that this fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness will ever be accessible to them, that their Lord and Saviour is more willing to forgive their sins than they might be to come to him for forgiveness. It is a truth that is intended to draw us to Christ and keep us near Christ, and should we ever drift away from him, to bring us back, more fully persuaded of his abounding and enduring love.

So persuaded am I of the need for more such preaching and teaching that I am borderline desperate to be able to commend this book without reservation as a remedy for some of the spiritual ills that afflict far too many doctrinally-sound but experientially-shrivelled Christians and congregations.

I cannot do that. I cannot commend it without reservation, despite my appreciation of the overarching thrust and intent, because I have three particular areas of significant concern. The first has to do with the overstatements that unbalance the book, including some false absolutes and false dichotomies; the second has to do with what seem to be certain subtle misrepresentations or reworkings of the Puritans and their emphases; the third has to do with a lack of clarity in theology proper and Christology.

With regard to overstatement, I mean a tendency—all too frequent both in books and pulpits—to make a point by absolutising one’s statement, or by seeking to throw truth into sharpest relief by setting it in contrast to other statements. This is proper when the other statements are false, but when it leads to the presentation of false absolutes or false dichotomies it undoes itself. I fundamentally agree with Dr Ortlund when he asserts that ‘it is impossible for the affectionate heart of Christ to be overcelebrated, made too much of, exaggerated’ (29, original emphasis). That does not in itself remove the danger of subtly misrepresenting Christ and his heart, even with the best of intentions. I am not sufficiently familiar with Dr Ortlund’s writings to know whether or not other books or articles offer further perspectives that together provide a more complete and balanced presentation of the points he makes here. Neither am I demanding a constant stream of deadening nuance, in which every writer or preacher must identify the seventeen things he does not mean before he says what he does. If we deal every absolute statement the death of a thousand qualifying cuts we are likely to undo our usefulness. That does not, though, suspend the duty for careful precision in the statements themselves. I would not try to cripple any communicator of truth, but we are most free when truly precise, working within the carefully-defined limits of our whole theology and the analogy of Scripture. There are moments at which I think Dr Ortlund either goes beyond himself in his understandable enthusiasm, or fails to be as careful as he might need to be when dealing with some details. Virtuosity is still jarring when in the wrong key.

Lest I seem to tilt at windmills, let me offer a concrete example from the opening lines of Chapter 20: “There are two ways to live the Christian life. You can live it either for the heart of Christ or from the heart of Christ. You can live for the smile of God or from it. For a new identity as a son or daughter of God or from it. For your union with Christ or from it.” On the surface it reads well, and sounds deeply ‘spiritual.’ But put those phrases in parallel and there are some category confusions: are the heart of Christ, the smile of God, a new identity, and union with Christ all precisely identical under all circumstances? What do the prepositions ‘for’ and ‘from’ mean in connection with those particular phrases? Does it make any difference if you are already a believer or not? Ortlund makes clear he is talking about the Christian life. So, for example, if you had asked the apostle Paul whether or not he first obtains union with Christ and a new life by his own efforts, he would have denied it from his soul. However, had you asked Paul if, as a Christian, he lived for the smile of God or from it, he would cheerfully have answered, “Yes!” (based on 2 Corinthians 5:9–11, Galatians 2:17–21, and Philippians 3:7–14, to take three prominent examples). Paul might also have insisted, using careful language, that—having begun in the Spirit, but not now being made perfect by the flesh (Gal 3:3)—we nevertheless go on demonstrating our union with Christ and enjoying the smile of our heavenly Father by way of a life of principled obedience.

On another occasion, in order to make a point, Ortlund insists that “justification is largely a doctrine about what Christ has done in the past, rooted centrally in his death and resurrection” (78), quoting the first half of Romans 5:1, emphasising thus: “we have been justified” (ESV). However, the whole verse reads tells us that since we have been justified by faith, we have a thoroughly present and enduring peace with God as justified men and women, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Ortlund’s characterisation of justification allows him then to insist that ‘intercession is the constant hitting “refresh” of our justification in the court of heaven’ (80). It is not that all this is entirely wrong; it is, though, unbalanced or incomplete in its presentation. Such overstatements can become unhelpful. Should we insist that ‘the Christian life is simply the process of bringing my sense of self … into alignment with the more fundamental truth’ of how Christ feels about us (187)? If I make that my working definition of the Christian life I think I am likely to leave people confused and misdirected.

This isolation of justification comes out in another curious way, and in another direction. Anyone who reads the mainstream Puritans will appreciate their emphasis on the application of truth to the heart. There is distinction but no distance, let alone divorce, between the elements of their soteriology. But, in his epilogue, Ortlund hammers home that his book is about the heart of Christ and of God, and then asks and answers the question, ‘But what are we to do with this? The main answer is, nothing.’ According to Ortlund, to ask, ‘Now how do I apply this to my life?’ would be ‘a trivialization of the point of this study. If an Eskimo wins a vacation to a sunny place, he doesn’t arrive in his hotel room, step out onto the balcony, and wonder how to apply that to his life. He just enjoys it. He just basks.’ The only thing we need to do is go to Jesus, and ‘all that means is, open yourself up to him. Let him love you. The Christian life boils down to two steps: 1. Go to Jesus. 2. See #1.’ All of this is supported with a quotation from Goodwin that, slightly disingenuously, does not actually come from the book, The Heart of Christ. What Ortlund does not say is that Goodwin actually finishes his work on Christ’s heart with four uses (the Puritan language of application). I acknowledge that this is slightly shoddy from Goodwin; if he were on form, we might expect a good forty or so! Also, taking into account the applications and exhortations sown by Goodwin throughout the whole, let us note that it is not just unlike the Puritans, but unlike Goodwin himself, to suggest that our only response is to bask in this truth. Goodwin, in keeping with the emphasis of the best of Puritanism, includes stirring exhortations alongside sweet encouragements. His third use is that, ‘As the doctrine delivered is a comfort, so the greatest motive against sin and persuasive unto obedience, to consider that Christ’s heart, if it be not afflicted with—and how far it may suffer with us we know not—yet for certain hath less joy in us, as we are more or less sinful, or obedient’ (Goodwin, 4:150). At this point you might appreciate why Ortlund sometimes paraphrases Goodwin, so let me do the same. Goodwin is simply pressing home the fact that Christ grieves over our sin and rejoices over our obedience, and that should make a difference to our pursuit of godliness. ‘Take this,’ says Goodwin, ‘as one incentive to obedience, that if he retained the same heart and mind for mercy towards you which he had here on earth, then to answer his love, endeavour you to have the same heart towards him on earth which you hope to have in heaven.’ The proper response to Christ’s heart is not simply basking in his love, but also responding to it with a love of our own that manifests itself in cheerful obedience.

Sometimes, Ortlund simply needs to be more careful with his language. For example, he asks, ‘Do you know what Jesus does with those who squander his mercy? He pours out more mercy. God is rich in mercy. That’s the whole point’ (179). One understands what he is trying to say, but there will be many on the day of judgment who are cast into the Pit precisely because they have squandered (recklessly wasted and cast away) the real and offered mercies of the Lord Jesus. Such imprecision opens the door to potentially dangerous misunderstandings.

Such examples could be repeated several times over. Many such sweeping statements sound clever and are catchy. Digging deeper, though, one finds that they are not properly compelling, and some effectively downplay other necessary or complementary emphases. All this is fine when we are carried along on the wave, less satisfying should we be only temporarily lifted up by the froth. While we do want people to grasp the heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers, that must be a well-grounded and accurate grasp. Overstatement for effect will ultimately hinder or even cripple our efforts to communicate the truth.

This concern bleeds, second, into the way in which Ortlund handles and riffs off the Puritans and others. To be fair, his selection of their quotations is typically judicious, and there are several moments at which one reads a few lines from Goodwin or Bunyan and wants to shout, ‘Nailed it!’ When our author gets it right, he often gets it delightfully right (aspects of his treatment of Warfield on the emotional life of our Lord, for example). However, as we have said, he is making a selection, and selection is often, by definition, interpretation. Sometimes Ortlund takes it upon himself to explain or develop what these other authors have said. In doing so, he seems sometimes to leave out important elements, or to go beyond his sources, or to rephrase them to say something slightly more, less or different. What you have here is essentially Goodwin mediated by Ortlund, not unlike the way in which many read Edwards as mediated by Piper. There is a selective emphasis that necessarily reflects the convictions and priorities of the mediator, and may—inadvertently or otherwise—skew the force of the original to some extent. As so often, it is important to listen to what is not being said, as well as the things that are being said. See, for example, the comments above about the way in which Goodwin applies these truths to God’s people, which is largely missing from Ortlund’s treatment.

Some of this is a matter of vocabulary. Ortlund tends to default to the language of love for the disposition of Christ toward us. It becomes a catch-all cognate for the disposition and all the affections of Christ as they are manifested towards us. While that is sometimes equally true of the Puritans he quotes, they are typically a little more precise. For example, even in the quotations he selects, the Puritans upon whom he relies often use the notions of pity or mercy not as simple synonyms for love, but as functions of love, love responding in certain ways to certain situations. Would it be better, rather than simply to say that Christ loves us all the more, the more we sin, to say that—because of the great love with which he loves us—our sin only draws out the more pity and mercy from his loving heart? Ortlund often hits that sweet spot, as when he assures us that ‘as [God’s] love rises, mercy descends. Great love fills his heart; rich mercy flows out of his heart’ (174). On other occasions, one wonders if a more careful definition of love and its manifestations might have been helpful, rather than assuming that we all instinctively grasp what love is and ought to be, and how it ought to act.

This leaves us sometimes reading Ortlund’s elucidation of Puritan teaching and finding it less clear or crisp than the Puritans themselves. At one or two points he lacks the happy ruthlessness of Puritan logic or precision of language, and, on occasion, the consistent and comprehensive grasp of truth that keeps them from going too far or not far enough in making a certain point. To be fair, there are times when Goodwin and company make assertions that take the breath away, and leave you feeling as if you are teetering on the edge of heresy, so bold are their declarations of the readiness of Christ to receive and go on receiving sinners. However, I do not recall reading the men and works that Ortlund quotes with quite so many questions or niggles. Again, I am not pushing for endless qualification (if that were so, this book would be three times as long as the weightiest Puritan tome!), but for precision and carefulness in the foundational statements. Perhaps I am just more conscious of the issues of the modern day, better attuned to the current issues and the way they are framed, but I don’t recall raising these issues with Goodwin, Owen, Sibbes, or Bunyan. These men seemed better able to address the ‘yes, buts’ or pre-empt the ‘what ifs’ of their magisterial declarations. Some of that breadth and balance is missing in Ortlund’s recapitulation of Goodwin.

Finally, there is the concern of his theology proper and his Christology. I do not envy Ortlund here, and I am deeply conscious that I am picking holes in a game effort to accomplish something at which I constantly fail. He is sailing deep waters, and makes a good fist of seeking to take account of the fact that he cannot deal with the incarnate Son without addressing the persons of the Father and the Spirit, and that the incarnate Son himself is indeed the God-man, two distinct natures in one person forever. I applaud the preacher or writer who manages a lifetime of addressing such things without a moment’s deviation or confusion!

Ortlund is himself deeply aware of that danger. He reminds us that J. I. Packer ‘once wrote that “a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” This is an especially sensitive point when we are talking about the Bible’s revelation of Christ’ (28). Shortly after, he warns that ‘we should beware a one-dimensional portrait of Christ that elevates one [dimension] to the neglect of others’ (35). Awareness of the trap does not prevent one slipping into it, if not quite becoming entirely caught up in it. Again, some of this may be a function of Ortlund’s enthusiasm, his working assumption that some things cannot be over-exaggerated. He is also trying to push back at some common misconceptions, such as the sense of some believers that ‘the Son of God came down from heaven in incarnate form, spent three decades or so as a human, and then returned to heaven to revert back to his preincarnate state’ (103). To be fair, across the book there are attempts to ensure that a properly scriptural balance is maintained, but balance is not necessarily the same as correctness and correction.

As the book’s own title makes plain, the focus is on the heart of Christ. There are, then, particular dangers in setting, or seeming to set, the heart of the person of the Son apart from the other persons of the Godhead, and so potentially disrupting the Trinity, or the heart of Christ-as-God apart from the heart of Christ-as-man, and so potentially disrupting the person of Messiah. There are challenges both in positively presenting all that, and in preventing or countering potential confusion about it.

For some, the difficulty might lie in the fact that Ortlund appears to go quite readily down Rob Lister’s route on anthropopathism (God’s ascription of human affection or emotion to himself as a way of accommodating himself to our understanding in making himself known). Ortlund seems quite dismissive of any attempt to discern between emotions or affections in our speaking of God, and perhaps feels that this book is not the proper place to explore fully the ways in which the God-man has sinless human emotions as well as divine affections (his chapter on Warfield is good in this respect). Again, the book is not a contribution to recent debates on divine impassibility (which Ortlund refers to, in connection with Lister as a helpful resource to ‘explore the way God is both impassible and yet capable of emotion’, in a substantial footnote on page 73). However, it is obviously not an issue that can be side-stepped when dealing with the heart of our Lord. Ortlund takes pains later in the book to make clear that Christ’s heart is not apart from the Father’s, still less against it, in his disposition toward us; this can feel more of a balancing act than a correction. We are still left with a danger at earlier points of not so much dividing as isolating the heart of Christ from the heart of the Father. Confusion on impassibility may lie behind statements such as the assertion that God ‘is—if I can put it this way without questioning his divine perfections—conflicted within himself when he sends affliction into our lives’ (138). Is that the safest way of putting it? Does that qualification keep us clear about whether or not the God of all the earth can be self-conflicted?

Again, Ortlund himself warns against the danger of being carried too far in seeking to go far enough. No preacher would begrudge him a proper enthusiasm, but not at the price of necessary precision. In an attempt to show us something great in Christ, there is that constant danger of presenting a one-dimensional Christ. I am not sure that he always stayed on the right side of that line. There are nuances and qualifications, for example, about Christ’s holy hatred of sin, but perhaps not sufficient, or sufficiently clear, to keep some from concluding that we are free to squander present mercies with the confidence that more mercies will come. In Sinclair Ferguson’s language, we need to preach a whole Christ. We cannot always (ever!) say everything, but we might need to say enough, in context or over time, manifestly to keep from preaching less or other than a whole Christ.

Anyone who raise such concerns needs to be aware of at least two dangers for themselves. The first is that, in attempting to keep from error, we will not state the whole truth with the fulness and freeness of the Scriptures themselves. So fearful might we be of legalism that we become antinomians, so fearful of antinomianism that we become legalists, or seek to counter the one with a dash of the other. In the same vein, men constantly on the lookout for even the most minute error in speaking of divine affections might find themselves unable or even unwilling to give free rein to Scriptural language or proper vent to their own souls in seeking to communicate the sweet wonders of the heart of God in Christ toward his beloved people. We cannot afford to be ashamed of or to draw back from biblical truth presented in biblical language.

To conclude, and without wishing to overstate it myself, I am persuaded that this theme is often and tragically overlooked or undercooked. For whatever reasons, the heart of Christ is too often clouded to us and by us. Lost sinners need to be confident that a saving Christ will receive them with infinite readiness and tenderness. Christians need to know Christ’s disposition of love toward us, and to feel it, and to understand the ways in which it is manifested toward us. Because of my delight in the topic, I wanted to love this book, and at points I did. Nevertheless, I too often felt I needed subtly, internally, to rework a phrase, to introduce a nuance, to press further a point, or to adjust an assertion. I still think that for some whose spiritual diet has been lacking this emphasis, Gentle and Lowly could be like a cup of cold water to the soul. For some who preach a known Christ competently, this book might help to preach a felt one earnestly. We need all that is true in this book. Even so, I think there is a danger that it might not so much correct certain imbalances as introduce different ones. I understand why some recommended it with almost no reserve, while some were so reserved they felt that they could not recommend it. That might depend on their circumstances and the people to whom they minister. I am quite confident that, if I preached Christ in all his fulness, I might eventually be accused both of antinomianism and legalism, depending on which truth I happen to be emphasising. That is why a bit more Puritan precision without any loss of Puritan passion (emotion? affection?) would be welcome. That carefulness needs to become second nature to the theologian, so that our language more instinctively, regularly and carefully reflects the whole truth of the whole Christ. I write all this not to be wilfully contrarian, or simply pernickety, but because I think that there are not so much flaws in the diamond itself, but rather genuine concerns about its presentation.

Much good will have been done if this book drives us back to the Puritans. In many modern editions, the Puritans are at least as accessible as this book, or become so for those willing to put in a little effort. Those Puritans also tend to be, I think, more complete and careful. For many, one of the better responses to this book will be to read Goodwin for themselves. However, more will have been done if Gentle and Lowly, with the men upon whose shoulders it stands, drive us back to our Bibles to search out and see these things in Christ for ourselves. If nothing else, it should remind us of the need to grasp these truths in our souls, and to tell them to others, even if we believe that we could and should tell them better. The great tragedy would be to conclude that we have nothing to learn in this matter. If so, it might either be because we have advanced beyond many of our contemporaries in our exceeding zeal for the honour of Christ and the good of his people, or—more likely—because we have not grasped the greatness of this theme, the glory of God revealed in it, or the good that comes to God’s people from a firmer grasp on the loving heart of the Altogether Lovely One.

The avalanche of evidence

leave a comment »

But avalanches, unfortunately, do not come upon us, stone by stone, one at a time, courteously leaving us opportunity to withdraw from the pathway of each in turn: but all at once, in a roaring mass of destruction.

Dan Phillips reminds us of Warfield’s illustration about the textual evidence for inspiration.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 27 April 2012 at 08:33

Posted in Revelation

Tagged with ,

Warfield on the essence of Christianity

leave a comment »

Carl Trueman passes on a recommendation from a nameless Warfield aficionado. Warfield said:

It belongs to the very essence of the type of Christianity propagated by the Reformation that the believer should feel himself continuously unworthy of the grace by which he lives. At the center of this type of Christianity lies the contrast of sin and grace; and about this center everything else revolves. This is in large part the meaning of the emphasis put in this type of Christianity on justification by faith. It is its conviction that there is nothing in us or done by us, at any stage of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all. This is not true of us only “when we believe.” It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relation to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in Christian behavior may be. It is always on His “blood and righteousness” alone that we can rest. There is never anything that we are or have or do that can take His place, or that can take a place along with Him. We are always unworthy, and all that we have or do of good is always of pure grace. Though blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ, we are still in ourselves just “miserable sinners”: “miserable sinners” saved by grace to be sure, but “miserable sinners” still, deserving in ourselves nothing but everlasting wrath. That is the attitude which the Reformers took, and that is the attitude which the Protestant world has learned from the Reformers to take, toward the relation of believers to Christ.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 16 March 2012 at 14:23

Posted in Christian living

Tagged with


leave a comment »

I remember the first time I read Warfield on what it meant for Christ to redeem his people, to be our Ransomer:

There is no one of the titles of Christ which is more precious to Christian hearts than “Redeemer.” There are others, it is true, which are more often on the lips of Christians. The acknowledgment of our submission to Christ as our Lord, the recognition of what we owe to Him as our Saviour, – these things, naturally, are most frequently expressed in the names we call Him by. “Redeemer,” however, is a title of more intimate revelation than either “Lord” or “Saviour.” It gives expression not merely to our sense that we have received salvation from Him, but also to our appreciation of what it cost Him to procure this salvation for us. It is the name specifically of the Christ of the cross. Whenever we pronounce it, the cross is placarded before our eyes and our hearts are filled with loving remembrance not only that Christ has given us salvation, but that He paid a mighty price for it.

B.B. Warfield, “Redeemer and Redemption” in The Person and Work of Christ (P&R), 325, via The Old Guys.

If your would like to do your soul a little good, read the whole piece.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 2 February 2012 at 18:40

Introducing Benjamin

leave a comment »

John Starke interviews Fred Zaspel in the light of Zaspel’s work on the Lion of Princeton:

Zaspel has produced his new The Theology of B. B. Warfield, and in reading Warfield – all of Warfield – he found that many interactions with the “Lion of Princeton” have either misread him or failed to read him fully.

Fans of Warfield will find this interesting, and those who aren’t may be stimulated to discover more. The interview is a 30 minute recording here. For what it is worth, Zaspel makes the good suggestion that a fine place to get to grips with Warfield is his excellent little volume of sermons, Faith & Life. I heartily concur.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 28 October 2010 at 21:50

Unmissable Warfield

with 3 comments

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 15 September 2010 at 20:07

Posted in Book notices

Tagged with

Warfield’s insights on inerrancy

leave a comment »

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 12 February 2010 at 22:14

Posted in Revelation

Tagged with ,

“Man’s husbandry and God’s bounty” by Benjamin B. Warfield

leave a comment »

Benjamin B. Warfield 2The address that follows comes from B. B. Warfield’s Faith & Life (Banner of Truth, 1974), a collection of discourses delivered at Sunday afternoon classes with the students of Princeton Seminary intended to explore the deeper currents of Christian faith and life.  This is a challenging and encouraging piece based on 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 that I read while preparing for a sermon a few weeks ago.  The repeated refrain of Warfield’s address is that God gives the increase.

Man’s husbandry and God’s bounty

1 Cor. 3:5-9: – “What then is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Ministers through whom ye believed; and each as the Lord gave to him.  I planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.  So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.  Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: but each shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.  For we are God’s fellow-workers; ye are God’s husbandry, God’s building.”

These verses form a natural section of this Epistle.  The Corinthians had sent a letter to the Apostle, making inquiries on several important matters.  But when the Apostle came to make reply, he had matters to speak to them about which were far more important than any of the questions asked in their letter.  Trusty friends had reported to him the serious deterioration which the Corinthian Church was undergoing, the strange, as we may think them, and certainly outbreaking, immoralities into which they were falling.  Chiefest of these, because most fundamental and most fecund [fruitful] of other evils, was the raging party spirit, which had arisen among them.  Greek-like, the Corinthians were not satisfied with the matter of the simple Gospel, in whatever form, but had begun to clothe its truths (and to obscure them in the act) in philosophical garb and rhetorical finery; and had split themselves into factions, far from tolerant of one another, rallying around special teachers and glorifying each, a special mode of presentation.  So far has this gone that the rival parties had long ago broken the peace of the Church, and were threatening its unity.

Paul devotes himself first of all to the shaming of this spirit and the elimination of its results.  In doing so he cuts to the roots.  He begins with a rebuke of the violence of the Corinthians’ party spirit, sarcastically suggesting that they had made Christ, who was the sole Redeemer of God’s Church and in whom were all, a share; and so parcelled Him out to one faction – as it others had had Paul to die for them and had been baptized in his name, and so on.  He then sets himself seriously to refute the whole basis of their factions and to place firmly under his readers’ feet the elements of the truth.  To do this, he first elucidates the relation of wisdom – philosophy and rhetoric, we would say now – to the Gospel; pointing out that the Gospel is not a product of human wisdom and is not to be commended by it; although, no doubt, it proclaims a Divine wisdom of its own to those who are capable of receiving it.  Thus he destroys the very nerve of their strife.  Then, with our present passage, he turns to the parallel occasion of their strife and explains the relation of the human agents through which it is propagated to the Gospel.  This he declares to be none other than the relation of hired servants to their husbandry of the good-man of the farm.  Proceeding to details, Paul and Apollos, he declares, are alike but servants, each doing whatever work is committed to him, work which may no doubt differ, externally considered, in kind, though it is exactly the same in this – that it is nothing but hired service, while it is God that gives the increase.  There is no difference in this respect; not that the work is not deserving of reward; reward, however, not as if the increase was theirs but only proportioned to the amount of their work as labour.  The harvest is God’s; that harvest which they themselves are.  They, the labourers, are fellow-labourers only, working for God.  They, the Corinthians, do not belong to them; they are God’s husbandry, God’s building.

Thus the Apostle not only intimates but emphatically asserts that the Church of God is not the product of the ministry; no, nor is any individual Christian.  Every Christian and the Church at large is God’s gift.  God sets workmen to labour in His vineyard; and rewards them richly for their labour, paying each all his wages.  But these labourers, it is not theirs to give the increase, nor even to choose their work.  It is theirs merely to work and to do each the special work which God appoints.  The vineyard is God’s and so is the increase, – which God Himself gives.

Now, looking at this general teaching of the passage in a broad and somewhat loose way, we see that the following important truths are intimated.

(1) Christianity is a work which God accomplishes in the heart and in the world.  It may even be said to be the work of God: the work that God has set Himself to do in this dispensation, and hence the second creation.

(2) Shifting the emphasis a bit, we perceive that the passage emphasizes the fact that Christianity is a work which is accomplished in the heart and in the world directly by God.

(3) Men are but God’s instruments, tools, “agents” (ministers) in performing this work.  They do not act in it for God, that is, instead of God; but God acts through them.  It is He that gives the increase.

(4) All men engaged in this work are in equally honourable employment.  If one plants and another waters and another reaps, it is all “one.”  They are all only fellow-labourers under God; equal in His sight and to be rewarded, not according to what they did, but according to how they did it.  This would not be true if man made the increase; but the reaper no more makes the harvest than the sower.  Nor would it be true if the reaper had the increase.  But it is not the reaper’s “field.”  He is a hired labourer, not an owner.  It is God’s field.  Each gets his wages; little or much according to the quality of his work.  Wages are measured by labour, not results.  And therefore it is all one to you and me, as labourers in God’s field, whether He sets us to plough, plant, water or reap.

Looking at these truths in turn:

What an encouragement it is to the Christian worker to know that Christianity is, so to speak (in the figure of the text), the crop which God the great husbandman has set Himself to plant and to raise in this “season” in which we leave.  Therefore this dispensation is called “the year of salvation.”  And therefore, when pleading a little later with these same Corinthians to receive the grace of God not in vain, Paul clinches the appeal with the pointed declaration that now, this dispensation, is that accepted time, that day of salvation, at last come, to which all the prophets pointed, for which all the saints of God had longed from the beginning of the world.  It is therefore again, leaving the figure, that this same Apostle declares that our Lord and Saviour has for the whole length of this dispensation assumed the post of the Ruler of the Universe, in order that all things may be administered for the fulfilment of His great redemptive purpose; in order that all things may, in a word, be made to work together for good to those that love Him.  In a word, God is a husbandman in this season which we call the inter-adventual period; and the crop that He is planting and watering and is to reap is His Church.

No wonder our Saviour declared the Kingdom of Heaven like unto a sower who went forth to sow; who spread widely the golden grain, and reaped it too, a harvest of many-fold yield.  For God’s husbandry cannot fail.  Other husbandmen are not in this wholly unlike their hired servants: they plant and water, – but they cannot compel life; and what may be the results of their labour they know not.  The floods may come, the winds may blow, the sun may parch the earth, the enemy may destroy the grain.  But God gives the increase.  It is therefore that the Redeemer sits on the throne, that floods and rain and sun – all the secret alchemy of nature – may be in His control, that “all things shall work together for good to them that love Him.”  There, I say, is our encouragement.  Christianity is the work of God, the work He has set Himself to do in this age in which we live.  As we go forth as His servants to plant and water, we may go upheld by a deathless hope.  The harvest cannot fail.  When the sands of time run out and God sends forth His reapers, the angels, there will be His harvest thick on the ground – and the field is the world.  The purpose of God stands sure.  We may not be called to see the end from the beginning.  But if God calls you and me to plant or to water, it is our blessed privilege to labour on in hope.

All this is just because the result is not ours to produce or to withhold.  It is God that gives the increase.  As Christianity is the work which God has set before Himself to accomplish in this age; so Christianity in the world and in the heart is a work which God alone can accomplish.  It is not in the power of any man to make a Christian, much less to make the Church – that great organized body of Christ, every member of which is a recreated man.  Why, we cannot make our own bodies; how much less the body of Christ!  If in this work Paul was nothing and Apollos nothing, what are we, their weak and unworthy successors!  This is the second great lesson our passage has to teach us; or, rather, we may better say this is the great lesson it teachers, for it was just to teach this that it was written.  The fault of the Corinthians was that they had forgotten who was the husbandman, who alone gave the increase.  Hence their divisions, making Christ only the share of one party, while others looked to Paul or Apollos or Cephas, just as if they stood related to the harvest in something of the same way as Christ.  Nay, says Paul, Christ alone is Lord of the harvest.  It is God alone who can give the increase.

Paul had reason to know this in his own experience.  He knew how he had been gathered into the Kingdom.  He was soon to acquire new reason for acknowledging it, in that journey of his from Ephesus to Macedonia, in which, while his heart was elsewhere, all unknown to himself God was leading him in triumph, compelling ever-increasing accessions to his train.  Nor did he ever stint his declaration of it.  Thus, take that passage (Eph. 2:10), where he, completing a long statement of God’s gracious dealings with Christians in quickening them into newness of life, without obscurity or hesitation outlines the whole process as a creative work of God.  “For it is by grace that ye are saved, through faith: nor is this of yourselves, it is God’s gift; not of works, lest some one should boast.  For we are His workmanship – creatures – created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath afore prepared that we should walk in them.”  This is Paul’s teaching everywhere: that as it is God who created us men, so it is God who has recreated us Christians.  And the one in as direct and true a sense as the other.  As He used agents in the one case – our natural generation (for none of us are born men without parents), so He may use instruments in the other, our spiritual regeneration (for none of us are born Christians where there is no Word).  But in both cases, it is God and God alone who gives the increase.

Let us not shrink from this teaching; it is the basis of our hope.  Though we be Pauls and Apolloses we cannot save a soul; though we be as eloquent as Demosthenes, as subtle as Aristotle, as convincing as Plato, as persistent as Socrates, we cannot save.  And though we be none of those, but a plain man with lisping lips, that can but let fall the Gospel truth in broken phrases – we need no eloquent Aaron for our prophet.  We need only God for our Master.  It is not we who save, it is God; and our place is not due to our learning or our rhetoric or our graces, it is due to the honouring of God, who has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardens.

Hence we have the great consolation of knowing that the responsibility of fruitage to our work does not depend absolutely on us.  We are not the husbandman; the field is not ours; its fruitage is not dependent on or limited by our ability to produce it.  All Christian ministers are but God’s “agents” (for that is the ultimate implication of the term used), employed by Him to secure His purposes; God’s instruments, God’s tools.  It is God who plans the cultivation, determines the sowing and sends us to do it.  Now this is to lower our pride.  Some ministers act as if they owned the field; they lord it over God’s heritage.  More feel as if they had produced all the results; made, “created,” the fruit.  They pride themselves on the results of their work and compare themselves to others’ disadvantage with their neighbours in the fruits granted to their ministry.  This is like a reaper boasting over the sower or ploughman, as if he had made the crop it has been allowed him to harvest.  Others feel depressed, cast down, at the smallness of the fruitage it has been allowed them to see from their work, and begin to suspect that they are not called to the ministry at all, because the work given them to do was not reaping.  And herein is the consolation: just because we are not doing God’s work for Him, but He is doing His own work through us; just because we do what work He appoints to us; not we but He is responsible for the harvest.  All that is required of stewards is that they be found faithful.

Hence – and this is the final and greatest consolation to us as ministers – it ought to be a matter of indifference to us what work God gives us to do in His husbandry.  Reaping is no more honourable than sowing; watering no less honourable than harvesting.  Men disturb themselves too much over the kind of work they are assigned to, and can scarcely believe they are working for God unless they are harvesting all the time.  But in the great organized body of labour it is as in the organized body to which Paul compares the Church later: if all were reapers, where were the sowing, where were the cultivating, where the watering?  And if no sowing, and no watering, where were the reaping?  It is not ours to determine what work we are to do.  It is for us to determine how we do it.  For none of us will fail of our wages and the wages are not proportioned to the kind of work, as if the reaper because he reaped would have all the reward.  The field is not his, and the harvest is not his.  He does not get the crop because he reaped it.  He gets just what the planter and waterer get, his wages.

Wages, I say, not proportioned to the kind of work, but to the labour he does.  Each one, says Paul, shall receive “his own reward” according to his own labour.  The amount of labour, not the department of work, is the norm of our reward.  What a consolation this is to the obscure workman to whom God has given much labour and few results; reward is proportioned to the labour, not the results!  And this for a very good reason.  God apportions the work on the one hand and gives the increase on the other.  But it is we that do the labour.  And, of course, we are rewarded according to what is done by us, not God.  Let us then labour on in whatever sphere God gives it to us to labour, content, happy, strenuous, untiring, determined only to do God’s work in God’s way; not seeking to intrude into work to which He has not appointed us, and not repining because He has given us this work and not that.  Each one to his own labour, and God the rewarder of all!

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 11 July 2009 at 14:46

Learning from Calvin

leave a comment »

john-calvin-3Calvin teaches us what it means to be not so much a Calvinist as a Christian in the ebb and flow of life in a fallen world.  When we read Calvin himself we find that a Calvinist is not a follower of any man, but a true disciple of Jesus the Christ and a preacher of the gospel of God’s sovereign grace.

Such a man, like Calvin, is committed to the glory of the triune Jehovah.  B. B. Warfield put it in this way: Calvinism “lies in a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature.”[1] This is the starting point of Calvin’s Institutes: Calvin is a man captured and captivated by the triune God, and who therefore sees himself also in proper and humble perspective.  Until we perceive God accurately as revealed in Christ, our eyes opened by the Spirit, we can neither be saved nor can we serve.  When God opens our eyes, then we begin to begin to know and adore him as he is.  That believing view should once and for all bind us with humble joy to the God of our salvation, recognising that what he does, he does for his glory, and that we should live to the same end.  This understanding sets our compass for time and for eternity; it will keep us faithful.

Furthermore, such a man, like Calvin, is committed to the truth of God in the Scriptures.  Calvin recognised that God was known pre-eminently through his inscripturated revelation.  He therefore set himself to know God and to obey him as he has revealed himself and his will.  We should be instructed by Calvin’s honesty in handling the Word of God, by his readiness to submit to all its nuances, and not to impose his system on Scripture, but to have Scripture fashion his system.  Calvin is always a man under authority: where he reaches the limits of his Spirit-enlightened understanding of God’s revelation, he will not press further and trespass on what God has left unrevealed.  Rather, he will pause and worship where he cannot penetrate.  There is a wonderful integrity to his teaching on this account.  When dying, Calvin could say, “I have taught faithfully, and God has given me grace to write, which I have done faithfully as I could; and I have not corrupted [mutilated] one single passage of Scripture nor twisted it as far as I know; and when in a position to arrive at an artificial meaning through subtlety, I have put all that under my feet, and have always aimed at being simple.”[2] If this was the sincere testimony of more preachers, Christ’s church would be substantially healthier than it is.  This disposition is the fountainhead of his public ministry: he sought not only to understand and follow God’s Word for himself, but to communicate its truth with simplicity and clarity to those whom he served, and to apply the Word of God to the hearts of his hearers in all the challenges that they faced in life.

Finally, such a man, like Calvin, will be committed to the service of God.  This attitude is really the outworking of the former two.  Because God is who he is, and because we know him as revealed in Scripture for our salvation, how can we but consecrate ourselves and our all to his glory?  When we learn of Calvin’s life and labours, of his Christlike willingness to serve, and to suffer in serving, we are humbled not so much by our lack of gifts as by our failure to use what we have been given.  Calvin, having been purchased entirely by Christ, offered himself entirely to God.  Again, hear Warfield: “He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing – in the entire compass of his life-activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations – is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.”[3]

The great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, situated the heart of Calvinism in the declaration, “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jon 2.9):

That is just an epitome of Calvinism; it is the sum and substance of it.  If anyone should ask me what I mean by a Calvinist, I should reply, “He is one who says, Salvation is of the Lord.”  I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this.  It is the essence of the Bible.  “He only is my rock and my salvation.”  . . . . I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism.  It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.  I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus.  Such a gospel I abhor.[4]

What is Calvinism, then, but a nickname for the biblical gospel and its right outworking in a man’s heart and life?  This being so, it should be no surprise that Calvinism is so often presented in an unbalanced caricature: Christ crucified remains a stumbling block to the self-righteous and foolishness to the would-be wise of the world (1Cor 1.21-23).  The truth of God’s word is not palatable to the unconverted man, and does not become so until God the Spirit gives him an appetite for it.  At that point the gospel is seen and known to be both the wisdom and the power of God to salvation (Rom 1.16; 1Cor 1.24): it captures the whole man, and draws him willingly to serve the God of his salvation.  This is the gospel that Calvin preached:

Let us examine ourselves closely, and inasmuch as he has come near to us out of his infinite goodness and given us the teaching about our Lord Jesus Christ his Son, who is our true light, let us make our effort to walk in the way while it is still day (Rom. 13:12-14) for fear that the night will take us by surprise and plunge us into darkness more terrible than the Papacy’s. . . . And because there is no constancy within us and we cannot continue on our own, let us learn to walk in fear and humility in obedience to our God, and let us pray that he will always guide us and strengthen us by his Holy Spirit so that we will not fail.[5]

If we would honour Calvin, then, we will not do so by parading our Calvinist credentials, parroting his name, or promoting a mere caricature of his system in our thinking and feeling and doing.  The man who insisted on being buried in an unmarked grave would not be impressed by the weak-minded adulation of a man-centred fan-base.

If we would respectfully remember Calvin, we shall do it best by praying for and seeking that same all-consuming conception of the living God of heaven and earth which always issues in the pursuit of his glory.  We shall do it by embracing the Scriptures as the infallible and inerrant rule of faith and life and living and worshipping and teaching accordingly.  We shall do it by loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, and offering ourselves as living sacrifices, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service. We shall do it not by honouring a man and simply being swallowed up in his memory, but – profiting from his teaching and example – we shall do it by honouring his God and ours, and by preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its full-orbed and biblical splendour.

[1] Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvinism” in Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 5:354.

[2] Quoted by Robert Reymond, John Calvin: His Life and Influence (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2004), 129.

[3] Benjamin B. Warfield, “Calvinism” in Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 5:354-5.

[4] Charles H. Spurgeon, “A Defence of Calvinism” in Autobiography (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 1:172.

[5] John Calvin, “38: The Penalty for Idolatry” in Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters1-7), trans. Rob Roy McGregor (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 541, 549.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 10 June 2009 at 16:12

Penal substitution

leave a comment »

Martin Downes has been waxing strong concerning penal substitution in recent days: he gives us Warfield & Machen on the same; some gold from Herman Bavinck; thoughts on the victory over Satan; makes some helpful connections with the broader Biblical narrative; and, addresses its relationship to divine love.  All good and insightful stuff.

Update: John Owen and Martin Luther have joined the gang.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 14 April 2009 at 16:29

Seeking substance

with one comment

This week has been odd.  I am still snatching at that strange beast called paternity leave, while trying to cover a few bases.  My firstborn son has been having more issues at night than my newborn son, which leaves me with very broken sleep and a fair amount of weariness.  I am also trying to get ahead of the game with some tasks around the house (so the fence that got kicked in last weekend has now been fully replaced, which is nice – it’s actually a vast improvement on the old situation).

puritan-galleryAnyway, the long and short of it is that I have been feeling weary and dull this week.  I have felt the need to have my soul fed on good food.  When I am feeling flat, there is not always a great deal modern that appeals to me.  When I am looking for something to do me good, I look not for something light and quick, but substantial and solid.  I suppose it is like feeling a real hunger, when the spiritual equivalent of McDonalds or Burger King won’t cut it, neither will the new-fangled theological counterparts of an alfalfa, guava and bean-curd wrap from some recent high-street start-up.  I want meat – real spiritual steak, nourishing and dense.  It does not need to be easy to ingest and digest, but rather substantial and profitable once ingested and digested.  I do not need tonnes of the stuff, either – but enough to satisfy my heart and mind and soul.

I want something careful, reasoned, solid.  I want the truth, extensively and pithily, well-ordered and engaging, assured and enjoyed, known and felt.  I want high views of God the Father, ardent views of God the Son, devoted views of God the Ghost.  I want the overwhelming simplicities of the truth and I want its entrancing intricacies.  I want the uplifting and humbling of true worship.  I want my head in the clouds and my feet upon earth.  I want sure guides with clear eyes and warm, pastoral hearts.  I want Jesus Christ applied to my soul in the power of God’s Spirit.  I want my mind touched and my heart fired.  I want my sins exposed and rebuked, my graces cultivated and catalysed, my thoughts directed and instructed, my feelings trained and raised, my Saviour exalted and made glorious in my eyes.

Where do I turn?  Generally, to the Puritans.  I might occasionally head for their forebears – Calvin, Knox, Luther, and the like will sometimes do it for me.  I might seek out their successors – men like Fuller, Spurgeon, Thornwell, or Warfield.  But I will most usually turn to those men of God who represent, in many ways, a high water mark for Biblical Christianity in the United Kingdom.  A few pages of their Scripture-saturated prose will generally give me something to walk away with, however weary and dull I might have been.

This week, it was Stephen Charnock on regeneration with a few propositions explaining the necessity of the new birth.  Nothing staggering, but all soaked in Scripture, pressed down and running over with the realities of God himself.

When my soul desires something of God, after the Bible, I look for someone who will bring the Bible to bear on my soul.  These men of God do so time after time.  Oh, for more of their kind, and more of their spirit.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 20 November 2008 at 18:29

A short biography of Warfield

leave a comment »

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 10 July 2008 at 08:45

B. B. Warfield – “The Lion of Princeton”

leave a comment »

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 27 June 2008 at 18:27

“In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life”

leave a comment »

In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life by Sinclair B. Ferguson

Reformation Trust, 2007 (241 pp, hbk)

B. B. Warfield defines Calvinism as lying in “a profound apprehension of God in his majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly by the sinful creature.”[1] That being an accurate statement, and recognizing that true Calvinism is by definition experimental, this collection provides a simple yet profound introduction to and example of genuine Calvinism.

Fifty brief chapters – drawn from two decades of brief articles for two periodicals, Eternity Magazine and Tabletalk – lie between the covers of this book.  The whole volume centers about the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, revealing the consistently Christocentric substance of Professor Ferguson’s thought and ministry, as well as particular emphases that are plainly close to his heart.  The book is clearly and neatly set out, and well-edited, the only slight gripe being that the margins are quite narrow, leaving little space for annotated engagement with the text!

The book is split into six fairly even sections: ‘The Word Became Flesh,’ ‘The Heart of the Matter,’ ‘The Spirit of Christ,’ ‘The Privileges of Grace,’ ‘A Life of Wisdom,’ and ‘Faithful to the End.’  The weight toward the beginning seems to lie with indicatives, and shifts toward imperatives as we progress through the volume.  This slight shift in balance is sufficiently subtle that one only notices it when the holy punches start to fall harder and with greater regularity.  That is not to say that there is no application toward the beginning of the book.  On the contrary, almost every chapter ends with a single thrust, a nail driven home into the heart and mind with one swift blow.  Rather, the more the book develops, the more the author unpacks our hearts and exposes us to the truth, enforcing the quoted distinction made by John Owen between the knowledge of the truth and the knowledge of the power of the truth.

Certain notes are sounded, and certain themes develop.  Professor Ferguson has the happy knack and particular gift of being able to step back from the Scriptures and view a whole book or letter with freshness and clarity, not crippled by the uninspired chapter divisions.  At the same time, he discerns patterns and developments in thought and direction.  Taken together, these capacities allow him to throw light both on the broad scheme and the particular details of the inspired page.  The reader is led by a guide who is able to display the panorama of the whole building and identify its overall structure as well as zoom in on the detail and show its artistry and beauty, often in combination.  In this collection, the Gospel of John, and the letters to the Romans and the Hebrews, particularly benefit from this treatment, although there are also helpful insights on the letter of James.  Given the nature of the material, there is sometimes overlap between chapters, but rarely redundancy.

Neither is Professor Ferguson shy of dealing with debated issues.  In the course of the profound and gripping pneumatological section, he plainly but irenically addresses such matters as the continuity of elements of the Pentecostal realities, and the cessation of others.  At the same time, it is plain that the book is not about point-scoring: Reformed believers are presented – and often – with penetrating questions and vigorous challenges.

There is a lot of personality in the book, and an unashamed humanity.  Judicious anecdotes draw us in to the reality of the subject matter, and spark our interest.  Those who have heard Professor Ferguson preach or lecture will often hear his voice in their heads as they read.  As one would expect from a scholar of his stature, he is aided by apposite quotes from or allusions to Calvin, Owen, and Luther, as well as references to several well-known hymns.  The style is at once accessible without being condescending, intelligent without being highbrow, accurate without being pedantic.  In these respects the style of writing is eminently worthy of emulation, to say nothing of its substance.  Depth of thinking, clarity of purpose, and warmth of intent are all in evidence, without the reader feeling patronised, manipulated, or browbeaten.  The author’s learning is not paraded, but employed in servant’s garb.

However, the simplicity of the writing and real clarity in the substance do not mask the searching profundity of the material.  The stance of the true Calvinist is plain: the author is a man unpretentiously awed by the grace of God in Christ, and we are called to the same awareness, the same profound apprehension of God as he is revealed in Christ’s person and work.  Whether teaching, reproving, correcting, or instructing in righteousness, Professor Ferguson brings us time and again to consider the excellency and wonder of Christ the Son of God, in his complete deity and perfect humanity. We come face to face with our Redeemer, the Conqueror, our Prophet, Priest and King.  We wonder at the ministry of Christ’s Spirit in his relation both to him and to us.  We marvel at what it means to be born again, and to enjoy union with the Lord Christ himself.  We feel the challenges of a life lived out as a true disciple of the Saviour.  We are faced with the realities of kingdom life in a fallen world; of pilgrims, strangers in the earth, who need to know the commandments of God, who need to have our unmortified affections for the stuff of this life drowned in the blood of Christ, overwhelmed by our ever-increasing love for him who loved us and gave himself for us.

There is no magic here.  There is nothing simplistic or shallow.  It is a simple yet profound declaration of the substantive realities of God’s truth, a call to consider with deeper insight and warmer heart the unseen and eternal verities.  Gospel ministers will wish to read this volume as Christians, as theologians and as preachers.  As Christians, for who does not need to be brought back repeatedly to first things, and to have our hearts burn within us again at the wonder of God’s grace in Christ to sinners like us?  As theologians, for who would not wish to be better instructed in God’s merciful dealings with sinners through his Son, Jesus Christ?  As preachers, for who has spoken of the person and work of our Saviour with anything like a satisfactory clarity and fullness, and does not need to learn how to do so with ever greater warmth and force?

In these respects, we would do well to spend careful and prayerful time with this book.  Pastors will find their minds and hearts enlarged, will come away prompted as to how they might preach from a particular topic or passage, will rise from their reading chairs – and perhaps from their knees – with a greater determination to be more Christlike undershepherds of the Good Shepherd’s precious flock, and to call those committed to their care to a deeper and higher appreciation of Christ the Lord than they have yet attained.  They could do worse than to begin by commending this book.

[1] B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism, vol. 5 in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (1931; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 354.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 22 May 2008 at 09:10

“Young, Restless, Reformed”

leave a comment »

young-restless-reformedYoung, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists by Collin Hansen

Crossway Books, 2008 (156 pp, pbk)

Dever; Driscoll; Duncan; Challies; Harris; Horton; MacArthur; Mahaney; Mohler; Piper; Sproul: these are the meats sometimes uncomfortably sandwiched between the pages of this book, together drenched in “Reformed” mayonnaise. Young, Restless, Reformed is the exploration by Christianity Today editor-at-large Collin Hansen of the phenomenon of the new Calvinists, the so-called Reformed resurgence.

With the exception of a few scant references, the focus is entirely on the US. Nevertheless, most of the names will be familiar to those with an interest in Reformed doctrine and practice. Hansen begins with John Piper and “the Piper fiends” (Pipettes?), before surveying “Ground Zero” (Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, where Al Mohler holds sway), then considering the Mahaney/Harris axis at Covenant Life Church and the New Attitude conference, and ending up with Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill in Seattle. In between and helping us along the way are a multitude of other movers and shakers and bit-players. Hanging over it all is the far-from-spectral but somewhat ambivalent figure of Jonathan Edwards.

It is, in many respects, a joyous read. To see a substantial recovery of Biblical truth on such a large scale cannot be anything but exciting. To see the unity and co-labouring it prompts and promotes is delightful. To read of predominantly young men and women in the modern West giving themselves to prayer and the study of the Scriptures is thrilling and humbling.

Hansen does take time to consider the detractors and the devaluers, but there is a sympathetic tone that makes plain that Hansen is fundamentally ‘on-side’ with those of whom he writes. This perhaps contributes to the fact that the book can read more like an exercise in comprehension than in analysis: it provides a snapshot rather than a vigorous assessment.

Another weakness is that the whole scene can appear somewhat incestuous and self-referential. The book is about or refers to people who endorse it in the blurb, read by them, reviewed by them (often in the Web 2.0 environment). The same people are writing books from the same publishers and referring to one another’s blogs. Is there a danger of self-congratulation, of failing to recognise that this is a much bigger community than it was, but still not that big or effective a community? Might the mutual back-slapping hide the fact of how much work there still is to do?

Furthermore, there is – if not a confusion – at least a question of terminology. Most of the subjects welcome the Reformed label, but how accurately is it being applied? It seems that most of those involved in this movement share a Reformed (or, at least, a Calvinistic) soteriology. The question is raised even in the book as to whether this really constitutes “being Reformed,” as well as how much it matters. Do we need, for example, a Reformed ecclesiology, a Reformed pneumatology, or Reformed doxology (or all of the above) in order to call ourselves genuinely ‘Reformed’? In other words, would the patron saint of the new Calvinists, Jonathan Edwards, recognise all these individuals and groups as Reformed? One could argue that this very question may be redefined by weight of numbers involved in this movement who do not embrace what has traditionally been, and been accepted as, part of the Reformed package. On this basis, there may be many who will wonder whether or not they are a part of this movement, and whether they want to be, and – if so – to what extent. This is especially so where the question is being begged over the extent to which the church is reaching the culture as opposed to the culture assimilating the church.

Finally, and leading on from this, one must ask, So what? and, Who cares? We must understand what is the trajectory of this movement, and what its terminus (or termini, if it splinters). We must watch its effects. Will the somewhat insular nature of the new Calvinist community betray it into a failure to preach the very gospel it boasts of recovering to those in need of Jesus on our doorsteps? In some circles there seems to be a very real temptation to preach to the converted (in the essential sense of that word), gaining ‘converts’ from other Christian camps rather than from the world around us, to argue other believers into our camp far more than to proclaim a saving Christ to needy sinners. Surely if we are constrained by what Warfield defined as of the essence of genuine Calvinism (of Biblical Christianity) – “a profound apprehension of God in His majesty, with the inevitably accompanying poignant realization of the exact nature of the relation sustained to Him by the creature as such, and particularly as a sinful creature”[1] – then it will work itself out in a determination to have God glorified in salvation as well as among the saved, in both reaching the lost and teaching the reached.

There is much that is splendid about the movement described by Hansen, but it contains within it some fascinating and fearful tensions, as well as some wonderful prospects. Much depends on the legacy of the present leaders, and the readiness of those who follow to pursue a comprehensive Scripturalism that will govern head and heart and hands. Reading this book will help observers and participants to gauge both the trajectory and the likely terminus of this curious company, but should also challenge us about the extent to which our faith and our life are keeping pace.

[1] B. B, Warfield, Works, vol. 5, Calvin and Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 354.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 10 May 2008 at 09:06

%d bloggers like this: