The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘John Owen

Preparing sermons with John Owen

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After a cracking day on Monday at the Evangelical Library in London on “Reading John Owen” (opening, it has to be said, with Nigel Graham giving what may be one of the finest popular introductions to the life of Owen that it has been my privilege to hear – lively, careful, engaging, insightful) I want to do more reading and re-reading of John Owen. I was reminded, by my own efforts and those of others, why I do and may and must enjoy the privilege of reading such profound theology.

One of the works that piqued my fancy afresh was Owen on The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded (in volume 7 of the collected works). This was in Robert Strivens’ section of the works, and what prompted me to turn there again was the warning that preachers, accustomed to handling and speaking God’s Word, can develop a facade of spirituality which masks a spiritual dryness. Conscious that one can do much apparent working for God without much genuine walking with God, I thought it would be good to dip again into this work.

Re-reading can be as fascinating as reading. I am sometimes struck by what struck me the first time, or what failed to strike. The passage of time and the expansion of experience makes one wish, perhaps, that one could be as freshly excited as one was before, and one must learn to be more deeply excited than one was. Or, perhaps, some things have simply become more relevant because of the reader’s different circumstances while reading. On this occasion, I was struck by something in the preface to the work.

Owen, as you may know, had been unwell before preaching and preparing this material. He was so sick that not only was he unable to serve others, but he feared he might be taken by death and never able to serve again. Under such circumstances, he began to meditate on the grace and duty of spiritual-mindedness from Romans 8.6, where the apostle says that “to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Later, Owen took the fruit of his sickbed meditations and turned them into sermons. “And this I did,” he says,

partly out of a sense of the advantage I had received myself by being conversant in them, and partly from an apprehension that the duties directed and pressed unto in the whole discourse wore seasonable, from all sorts of present circumstances, to be declared and urged on the minds and consciences of professors: for, leaving others unto the choice of their own methods and designs, I acknowledge that those are the two things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry. (7:263)

I am, I confess, sometimes amused by the homiletical handbooks that pass for pastoral theology in our day. Some of the guidance given for the preparation of sermons seems entirely out of touch with the life of local churches. I am amused when I hear the big cheeses of the evangelical world assure congregations that they prepare their sermons, or perhaps know what they will be preaching on on any given Sunday, a year or so in advance. As the pastor of a small congregation, preaching and teaching several times a week, that seems to me to be ludicrous, even dangerous. I do not think I could do that even if I were in circumstances that seemed to allow it.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that pastors preach on a whim or without a plan. I am not against systematic, sequential expository preaching. But I do wonder how much even Owen’s aside might teach us here. This work of his springs from what I would call a topical expository series. But how did Owen come to it? And why did he choose to preach it?

He has those two answers: first, because it did much good to his own soul when he had considered it for himself; and, second, because he perceived that the same truths which had helped him would, with the blessing of God, prove a timely and profitable study for other believers under his care.

However, he goes on to confess that those two principles are the “things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry.” That, in itself, is fascinating. Here is the great theologian and the profound scholar, sitting down as a pastor of God’s people, and asking, first and foremost, what has blessed me, and will it bless others also?

If you are a preacher and teacher, however far you are willing and able to plan ahead, do such considerations have a place in your own preparation? Are you so soaking in God’s truth that you can assess what has been of particular blessing to your own soul? Are you so attuned to and concerned for the saints that you can discern what would prove particularly timely and profitable for them? Are you visiting the congregation regularly and getting to know their lives and their needs so as to be able to make such a judgment? Are you prayerfully thinking of the particular congregation before whom you will stand, converted and unconverted, more and less mature, more or less wounded and wearied, more or less hale and hearty? Are you willing to put in the effort to invest in such ministry? Are you willing to get off the treadmill of your regular or scheduled course of exposition, perhaps to plough fields that would otherwise have remained unbroken, to invest in hours of composition that you had not scheduled into your work patterns? Are you improving your own studies and sufferings to this end?

Such an approach might require that you prepare far in advance a particular course of systematic and sequential exposition, compelled by the fact that this book or section of Scripture will serve those to whom you preach. It might keep you from changing to other, apparently easier or more palatable potions of the Bible, held fast by a sense of responsibility. It might demand that you drop such a long course of sermons and preach for a few weeks on a particular portion of God’s Word. It might compel you to preach a single sermon on a single text. It might prompt you to develop what you thought was a one-off into a shorter or longer series. Again, it is no excuse for a pastor-preacher simply riding his hobby-horses to death. You will note that Owen does not manipulate his hearers by the claim that the Spirit imposed the duty upon him, though I do not think anyone can fail to see the hand of God at work in the matter. This is a man who is sensitive to the truth, sensitive to the operations of the Spirit of God, sensitive to the circumstances and needs of the saints, sensitive to the spirit of the age, sensitive to the demands of a particular place and people, and deeply concerned to be a means of blessing to those to whom he speaks.

This, I would suggest, is pastoral preaching of the highest order – ministry of God’s truth that flows from the heart of a true shepherd of souls, a man who has drunk deeply of the sweet waters of the gospel, and is persuaded from the depths of his being that others need to taste and see that the Lord is good, and to obtain the blessing designed for those who trust in him.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 25 October 2016 at 18:41

The Westminster Conference 2015: “The Power of God for Salvation”

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Brochure 2015The Westminster Conference will take place later this year, God willing, in central London at Regent Hall on Oxford Street. As usual, there are two days of lectures and discussion, Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th December. The outline for the two days is below, and the brochure can be downloaded to obtain the booking form. More information can be found at the conference website.

Sin and sanctification in John Owen (Sinclair Ferguson ~ Elder at St. Peter’s Free Church, Dundee). John Owen is one of the monumental figures of the seventeenth century. His profound scriptural sensitivity to sin and understanding of sanctification form some of the deepest currents of his work both as a theologian and as a pastor. This paper will explore these complementary and contradictory elements of Christian experience through the lens of Owen’s wrestling with the issues.

“On the side of God”: Andrew Fuller’s pastoral theology (Jeremy Walker ~ Pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley). Andrew Fuller is recognised as a theologian and for his friendship with and support of William Carey. However, these labours cannot be divorced from his principles and practices as a pastor and a preacher. This was his primary calling. It informed and was expressed in everything else in which he was involved. This paper will draw together some of the convictions recorded, conclusions reached and counsels expressed by Andrew Fuller in the realm of pastoral theology.

The atonement and evangelistic preaching in John Owen (David Pfeiffer ~ Minister of Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church). Apparent tensions between convictions about the definite extent of the atonement joined with commitments to the freeness of the gospel offer are perennial issues in Christ’s church. Few men have contended for the former more effectively than John Owen and his works breathe a lively and transparent concern that lost men should trust in the only Saviour of sinners. David Pfeiffer will help us to see these elements of Owen’s labour in healthy parallel.

Erasmus and the Greek New Testament (Peter Hallihan ~ retired from pastoral ministry; Editorial Consultant for TBS). Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469–1536) was the genius sometimes described as the prince of the humanists. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to learning and religion was his edition of the Greek New Testament of 1516, which became the basis of most vernacular translations of the Scriptures for the next three centuries. Peter Hallihan will give us insights into the man and his work, tracing some of his influences and influence.

Jonathan Edwards and the religious affections (Paul Helm ~ formerly Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London). The name of Jonathan Edwards, together with select elements of his theology, have become more prominent in the thinking and practice of Reformed evangelicals in recent years. Ready reference is made to well-known but not always well-understood works such as Edwards’ study of the religious affections. Paul Helm will take a fresh look at this book, emphasising its setting and its sources, helping us grasp the substance and application of Edwards’ work.

Isaac Watts and the gift of prayer (Benedict Bird ~ ThM Student and Greek Teacher at London Theological Seminary). Best known for his hymnody, Isaac Watts was also an influential theologian. He considered prayer to be not only a duty but a precious privilege, and he wrote to assist the saints in learning to pray. He showed that prayer is a gift, but one that can be developed. Prayer is not always high on the agenda in the church of Christ, and not often developed to a high degree when it is. In his Guide to Prayer, Watts directs us still to cultivate “this holy skill of conversation with God.”

The shepherd’s soul

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At the recent “The Call” Conference, I was preaching on the shepherd’s concern for his own soul. For the main thrust of that address – the need for elders to take heed to their own souls if they are to be truly profitable in serving God and men – I had a number of quotes from the great and the good, as well as a number of examples, which – for the sake of time – I was obliged to leave out. However, for those who are interested, here are the quotes I had at my disposal (I think I used about two or three during the sermon). Here is the truth of Scripture confirmed by men of God.

John Bunyan (describing the true pastor): “It had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon its lips, the world was behind its back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head.”

Wilhelmus à Brakel: “He must have the heart of a preacher; that is, he must stand in awe of the God in whose Name he preaches, and with love seek the welfare of the souls to whom he preaches. He must know himself to be entirely undone in himself and have a lively impression of his own inability, so that he will not trust too much in having studied properly. He ought to pray much beforehand, not so much to get through the sermon, but for a sanctified heart, for a continual sense of the presence of God, for suitable expressions, and for a blessing upon his preaching to the conversion, comfort, and edification of souls. His concern ought not to be whether the congregation will be pleased with him and will praise the sermon, but his motive must rather be a love for the welfare of the congregation.” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:138)

William Arnot: “The more that the teacher absorbs for himself of Christ’s love, the more benefit will others obtain from him. . . . Those who drink in most of the Master’s spirit are most useful in the world. Those who first take heed to themselves will be most effective in caring for the spiritual weal of those who look up to them.” (Studies in Acts, 380)

Charles Bridges: “Upon the whole, therefore, our personal character must be admitted to have weighty influence upon our Ministrations. ‘Simplicity and godly sincerity,’ disinterestedness, humility, and general integrity of profession – are an ‘epistle known and read of all men.’ Indeed character is power. The lack of it must therefore blast our success, by bringing the genuineness of our own religion, and the practical efficacy of the Gospel, under suspicion. Apart also from the natural effect of our public consistency, there is also a secret but penetrating influence diffused by the habitual exercise of our principles. Who will deny, that – had he been a more spiritual Christian – he would probably have been a more useful Minister? Will not he, who is most fervent and abundant in secret prayer, most constant in his studies, most imbued with his Master’s spirit, most single in his object, most upright and persevering in the pursuit of it – be most honoured in his work? For is not he likely to be filled with an extraordinary unction? Will not he speak most ‘of the abundance of his heart?’ And will not his flock ‘take knowledge of him,’ as living in the presence of his God; and ‘receive him’ in his pastoral visits and pulpit addresses, ‘as an angel of God – even as Christ Jesus?’” (The Christian Ministry, 164-165)

John Owen: “Sundry things are required unto this work and duty of pastoral preaching; as, . . . . (2.) Experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls. Without this they will themselves be lifeless and heartless in their own work, and their labour for the most part will be unprofitable towards others. It is, to such men, attended unto as a task for their advantage, or as that which carries some satisfaction in it from ostentation and supposed reputation wherewith it is accompanied. But a man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us. And no man lives in a more woful condition than those who really believe not themselves what they persuade others to believe continually. The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit. And let any say what they please, it is evident that some men’s preaching, as well as others’ not-preaching, hath lost the credit of their ministry.” (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, 76)

Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “. . . do not forget the culture of the inner man, – I mean of the heart. How diligently the cavalry officer keeps his sabre clean and sharp; every stain he rubs off with the greatest care. Remember you are God’s sword, – His instrument, – I trust a chosen vessel unto Him to bear His name. In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” (To the Rev. Dan Edwards, in Memoir and Remains, 282)

Attr. Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.”

Robert Traill: “What use the Lord may make of the gifts (for great gifts he gives to the worst of men) of ungodly men, even in the ministry of the gospel, is one of his deep paths. But no man can reasonably imagine, that a walker in the way to hell can be a fit and useful guide to them that mind to go to heaven. If a man would have peace in his conscience, and success in his work of the ministry, let him take good heed to this, that he be a sound Christian. . . . It is found by experience, that as it fares with a minister in the frame of his heart, and thriving of the work of God in his soul, so doth it fare with his ministry both in its vigour and effects. A carnal frame, a dead heart, and a loose walk, make cold and unprofitable preaching. And how common is it for ministers to neglect their own vineyard? . . . Your work is full of danger, full of duty, and full of mercy, You are called to the winning of souls; an employment near a-kin unto our Lord’s work, the saving of souls; and the nearer your spirits be in conformity to his holy temper and frame, the fitter you are for, and the more fruitful you shall be in your work.” (Works, 1:239, 241, 250)

Charles H. Spurgeon: “Moreover, when a preacher is poor in grace, any lasting good which may be the result of his ministry, will usually be feeble and utterly out of proportion with what might have been expected. Much sowing will be followed by little reaping; the interest upon the talents will be inappreciably small. In two of three of the battles which were lost in the late American war, the result is said to have been due to the bad gunpowder which was served out by certain ‘shoddy’ contractors to the army, so that the due effect of a cannonade was not produced. So it may be with us. We may miss our mark, lose our end and aim, and waste. our time, through not possessing true vital force within ourselves, or not possessing it in such a degree that God could consistently bless us. Beware of being ‘shoddy’ preachers. . . . Recollect, as ministers, that your whole life, your whole pastoral life especially, will be affected by the vigour of your piety. If your zeal grows dull, you will not pray well in the pulpit; you will pray worse in the family, and worst in the study alone. When your soul becomes lean, your hearers, without knowing how or why, will find that your prayers in public have little savour for them; they will feel your barrenness, perhaps, before you perceive it yourself. Your discourses will next betray your declension. You may utter as well chosen words, and as fitly-ordered sentences, as aforetime; but there will be a perceptible loss of spiritual force. You will shake yourselves as at other times, even as Samson did, but you will find that your great strength has departed. In your daily communion with your people, they will not be slow to mark the all-pervading decline of your graces. Sharp eyes will see the grey hairs here and there long before you do. Let a man be afflicted with a disease of the heart, and all evils are wrapped up in that one stomach, lungs, viscera, muscles, and nerves will all suffer; and so, let a man have his heart weakened in spiritual things, and very soon his entire life will feel the withering influence. Moreover, as the result of your own decline, everyone of your hearers will suffer more or less; the vigorous amongst them will overcome the depressing tendency, but the weaker sort will be seriously damaged. It is with us and our hearers as it is with watches and the public clock; if our watch be wrong, very few will be misled by it but ourselves; but if the Horse Guards or Greenwich Observatory should go amiss, half London would lose its reckoning. So is it with the minister; he is the parish-clock, many take their time from him, and if he be incorrect, then they all go wrongly, more or less, and he is in great measure accountable for all the sin which he occasions.” (Lectures to my Students, 3, 10)

Thomas Murphy: “It is beyond all question that this eminent piety is before everything else in preparation for the duties of the sacred office. It is before talents, or learning, or study, or favorable circumstances, or skill in working, or power in sermonizing. It is needed to give character and tone and strength to all these, and to every other part of the work. Without this elevated spirituality nothing else will be of much account in producing a permanent and satisfactory ministry. All else will be like erecting a building without a foundation. This is the true foundation upon which to build – the idea which is to give character to all the superstructure. Oh that at the very beginning this could be deeply impressed upon the hearts of young ministers! Oh that they would take and weigh well the testimony of the most devoted and successful of those who have served God in his gospel! A man with this high tone of piety is sure to be a good pastor; without it success in the holy office is not to be expected.” (Pastoral Theology, 38)

Owen electrified

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 10 January 2012 at 13:30

Posted in Book notices

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Finding the centre

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I need not tell you of this who knew him, that it was his great Design to promote Holiness in the Life and Exercise of it among you.

So said David Clarkson, but of whom? Who, it is suggested, focused all his understanding, all his learning, all his labour to this end? Find out here.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 1 December 2011 at 08:29

Posted in Christian living

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Preach and pray

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To preach the word, therefore, and not to follow it with constant and fervent prayer for its success, is to disbelieve its use, neglect its end, and to cast away the seed of the gospel at random.

John Owen, Works, 16:78

Pray, preach, pray, ad infinitum.

HT: 9Marks.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 19 November 2011 at 08:41

Broken-hearted evangelists

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I have been listening to the latest Connected Kingdom podcast from “the odd couple,” David Murray and Tim Challies. I was intrigued to hear them discussing the fall-out from Rob Bell’s new book, and asking whether or not the wider church really believes in hell anyway. Surely, they reason, if we really believed in hell we would be doing more to take the gospel to the lost?

Over the last few days I have been putting the finishing touches to the manuscript of what I hope will be my next book, with the working title The Broken-Hearted Evangelist. I finally submitted that manuscript to the publisher yesterday, and – though I have no idea how long it will be before it is available – it is intended, at least in part, to address the issue of a right response to the realities of judgement and salvation.

As a taster, here is the draft preface of the current manuscript. Not sure how much of it will survive the editing process, but hopefully it will give a sense of the nature and scope and direction of the book. I will keep you posted on progress, God willing.

There is nothing that more glorifies God than the accomplishment of His saving purposes in His Son, Jesus Christ. Do you know and believe that? There is nothing more important to a man than the destiny of his immortal soul. Do you know and believe that? There is a heaven to be gained and there is a hell from which to flee, and our relationship to the Lord Jesus is the difference between the two. Do you know and believe that? Only those who repent of their sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved. Do you know and believe that? The saints of God are sent by God into the world in order to preach that gospel by which sinners are saved. Do you know and believe that?

It is easy to answer such questions with a gutless orthodoxy. Lively faith in Christ grasps spiritual realities in a way that galvanizes the believer. All truth – whether of God’s grace to us or of our duty to God – bears fruit in us only insofar as we are connected to Christ by faith. This being so, says John Owen,

he alone understands divine truth who doeth it: John vii.17. There is not, therefore, any one text of Scripture which presseth our duty unto God, that we can so understand as to perform that duty in an acceptable manner, without an actual regard unto Christ, from whom alone we receive ability for the performance of it, and in or through whom alone it is accepted with God.

John Owen, Christologia in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 1:82.

We cannot pretend that we have understood divine truth unless we are living it. We cannot pretend that we know and believe the truth about men and souls and heaven and hell and salvation unless it is making a difference to the way in which we think and feel and pray and speak and act.

A vigorous and practical concern for the lost, growing out of a desire for God’s glory in man’s salvation, is an eminently Christlike thing and a hallmark of healthy Christianity. By such a standard, there are many unhealthy churches and unhealthy Christians; by such a standard, and to my great grief, I am not well myself.

While I accept that there can be an unbalanced and crippling expectation and even unbiblical obsession with some aspects of evangelism and “mission” (as the portentous modern singular would have it!), there is an opposite and perhaps, in our day, greater danger that believers and churches enjoying possession of a great deposit of truth nevertheless do not know it. If they did, they would be doing something.

It is very easy to be up in arms, for example, about current assaults on what can so calmly be described as the doctrine of hell. “Of course there is a hell!” we protest, offended and disturbed that someone could deny what is so plainly written in the Word of God. Is there a hell? What difference has it made? What have you done differently because there is a hell? Is its reality driving our thoughts, words and deeds? Many of us who have entered the kingdom have come perilously close to the flames of the pit. We have felt its fire, and yet we have, perhaps, forgotten that from which we have been delivered. The urgency with which we fled to Christ ourselves has perhaps been replaced with a casual awareness of spiritual reality that never energizes us to do anything for those who are themselves in danger of eternal punishment.

The same could be said of heaven, of Christ’s atonement for sinners, of God’s grace and mercy, of the freeness of the gospel, of the excellence of salvation. “Yes, yes, yes,” the monotonous ticking off of doctrines received continues. But what difference does it make to you and to me?

It is my heartfelt contention that the truths we believe ought to make the people of God broken-hearted evangelists. My prayer for this book is that the Lord Christ would make its author and its readers truly to understand the gospel duty which God has laid upon His church, and therefore to make us willing to perform the work we have been given to do, and by His strength to make us able to do it, to the praise of the glory of God’s grace.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 11 March 2011 at 12:12

Preaching and its purpose

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The Exiled Preacher quotes John Owen discussing the worship of images with Franciscan Friar John Vincent Cane in A Vindication of the Animadversions of Fiat Lux. His opponent alleged that the one end of preaching is to “work upon the minds of men so as to stir up their affections.” Owen exposes the hopeless inadequacy of such a definition  in fairly plain terms:

Did never any man inform you that the one end of preaching the word was to regenerate the whole souls of men, and to beget them anew unto God? that it was also to open their eyes, and to illuminate them with the saving knowledge of God in Christ? that it was to beget and increase faith in them? that it was to be a means of their growth in grace, and in the knowledge of God? that the word preached is “profitable for reproof, correction, doctrine, and instruction in righteousness?” that it is appointed as the great means of working the souls of men into a likeness and conformity unto the Lord Jesus, or the changing of them into his image? that it is appointed for the refreshment of the weary , and consolation of the sorrowful, and making wise the simple?

Did you never hear that the word preached hath its effect upon the understanding and will as well as upon the affections, and upon these consequently only unto its efficacy on them, if they are not deluded? Is growth in knowledge, faith, grace, holiness, conformity to Christ, communion with God, – for which end the word is commanded to be preached, – nothing at all with you? Is being made wise in the mystery of the love of God in Christ, to have an insight into, and some understanding of, the unsearchable treasures of his grace, and by all this the building up of souls in their most holy faith, of no value with you?

Are you a stranger unto these things, and yet think yourself a meet person to persuade your fellow countrymen to forsake the religion they have long professed, and to follow you they know not whither? or do you know them, and yet dare to thrust in your scurrility to their exclusion? Plainly, sir, the most charitable judgement that I can make of this disclosure of yours is that it proceeds from ignorance of the most important truths and most necessary works of the gospel. (Works of John Owen, 14:445-446)

For some help from Sinclair Ferguson on reading Owen, try here.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 28 July 2010 at 10:06

Posted in Pastoral theology

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The new Calvinism considered

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Note: for those interested in a more developed treatment of this same issue, you can find it beginning here.

A year or two ago it seemed that ‘the new Calvinism’ was all the rage.  Perhaps it has already reached and passed its peak.  Maybe the mission has already become a movement and will shortly become a museum.  Only time will tell.  Certainly the wild rush of the past few years has slowed a little; the river seems broader and flows more gently.  Consolidation has occurred around such organisations as the Gospel Coalition and there are nexuses (nexi?) like Together for the Gospel (T4G) and Acts 29 that also function as anchor points.  Not so long ago you could not read a book, website or news article in some Christian circles without coming up against one of a range of personalities.  The new orthodoxy needed one of a string of names to back it up: “Piper/Grudem/Carson says . . .” almost became the equivalent in some circles of, “The Holy Spirit told me . . .”  It seemed as if the new Calvinism was sweeping the board.  More conservative evangelicals felt the pressure, often ‘losing’ their young people to the heady atmosphere of the new movement.  There was a certain triumphalism in some quarters, a sense of having seen the working future.  In others, there was a sometimes uninhibited aggression.  However, there seemed to be little middle ground: you were either for or against, a committed friend or a committed foe.

I tried to understand what was taking place by immersing myself in the stream for a while: I read the books and the blogs and listened to the sermons and addresses.  I hoped that I got a fair and accurate understanding of this movement.  I found things that were attractive and stimulating and provocative and controversial and worrying.

At a little distance from the swirling storm of popularity and controversy, I recently saw a very brief list of those things which characterise the new Calvinism, written very much from within the movement.  Looking at that list, I thought, “Yes, but . . .” and began to sketch out some other qualities that, it seems to me, are embedded in the mass of new Calvinistic identity.  The list got reasonably long in the end, but I thought that I would work it up and put it out.  It may prove useful, or interesting, or controversial, or pointless.  I think that some new Calvinists would acknowledge and admit much of what follows, sometimes quite cheerfully, but not always.  They might not agree with all the labels I use, or with my own stance on them, but I have set out to be fair and accurate.

Some caveats: I have attempted not to identify and discuss individuals (except where obvious and necessary, and for occasional examples) because this is not about supporting or attacking any one individual.  I also recognise that there are exceptions to most if not all of these rules, hence the introductory wording to each suggestion: I am not trying to make out that the movement is more monolithic than is in fact the case.  Furthermore, I have not attempted to distinguish between the positive and the negative (which will differ depending on where you stand anyway!) but have rather lumped them all in together.  I have not attempted to list these characteristics in order of priority or significance.

That will probably do by way of introduction.  So, then . . .

1.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a desire for the glory of God.  In this sense, I do not think one can legitimately deny that this is a Reformed resurgence.  There is an evident, open, sincere aim at the glory of God in all things, and I think that God is much glorified in many ways by the words and works of many of my new Calvinist brothers and sisters, and I rejoice at it.

2.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by deep-rooted spiritual joy.  This may be one of the reasons why it is so attractive to so many, perhaps especially to those from more conservative Reformed circles who feel that this is one of the things that has been lacking in their spiritual experience.  It flows, no doubt, in large part from the emphasis on the grace of God (see below) and it may flow into some of its more exuberant expressions of worship.  Again, the public face of the new Calvinism is one in which men and women with their hearts made clean through the blood of the Lamb rejoice in their so-great salvation.

3.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by missonal zeal.  As with any vibrant gospel movement, the desire to take the good news into all the world is central.  Evangelising.  Witnessing to Christ.  Church strengthening.  Church planting.  Church rejuvenation.  Training pastors and preachers.  There is a Scriptural readiness to overcome or ignore the boundaries too readily established in the mind and the heart and to preach the gospel to every creature, and to use as many means as possible (although the Biblical legitimacy of some might be questioned) to promote the truth, propagate the gospel, and advance the kingdom of Christ Jesus.  As the movement has advanced, neither the local nor the international elements of this have been left behind.

4.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an emphasis on the gospel of grace and the grace of the gospel.  Everything is ‘gospel’: New Calvinists do ‘gospel-this’ and ‘gospel-centred that’ and ‘gospel-cored the other’, sometimes to the point of inanity.  By that, I do not mean that the gospel ought not to be at the heart of things, but if we are genuinely evangelical then by definition the gospel should be at the heart of things, and the tendency to badge everything with the word ‘gospel’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it is gospel-soaked and gospel-centred, nor does it guarantee that it will be.  That aside, this is a movement that desires to preach the good news as good news, to proclaim the free and undeserved favour of God to sinners in a way that is engaging, fresh, real and powerful.  One of the great anathemas of new Calvinism is legalism.  Whether or not this is rightly or fully understood I will not argue here, but these friends are desperate to highlight and declare the primacy of grace.  Of course, this is intimately related to the joy they feel and the glory of God they pursue.

5.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by complementarianism.  We are told by these friends to distinguish between the theological equivalents of national boundaries and state boundaries, to appreciate the different between distinction and division.  At the same time, it appears that complementarianism is one of the new Calvinist shibboleths.  That does not mean it is wrong, of course, but it is interesting that of all the things that we are told do not matter in the consideration of unity and separation, complementarianism has become something of a sine qua non.

6.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a return to a more Biblical masculinity.  One could argue that at times this has almost become a caricature (and I would agree, and it has indeed been parodied and caricatured), but it is a welcome if sometimes extreme reaction to the anaemic and limp manhood too often displayed elsewhere in the nominally or actually Christian world.  Alongside and arising from the complementarianism, dignified and vigorous male leadership has received a welcome fillip from the new Calvinism.  Like many gospel movements of the past, this one has been characterised in many respects by the salvation of men (often young men), the calling of men to preach, and a readiness by men to take the brunt and lead from the front.  This is not to say that women are excluded from the movement, but the Scriptural emphasis on male leadership has seen a welcome return.

7.         Again related to complementarianism, it seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the promotion of the family as a basic unit of church and social life.  Once again, such an emphasis can easily become an over-emphasis, but the evident loving affection for wives and sons and daughters that is characteristic of many of the leaders of the movement is an excellent testimony.  The re-establishment of the God-ordained family unit, the outworking of masculinity and femininity in the family sphere, an encouragement to family worship, a readiness to discuss and instruct concerning relationships between men and women, single and married, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers and children, and the like, is often part and parcel of new Calvinism.

8.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by charismatic convictions with regard to spiritual gifts.  It seems as if the nature, extent and degree of the Spirit’s work in what some would say we cannot call post-apostolic times has become almost a moot point in new Calvinism.  What was for so long a genuine line of divide between Christians has seemed to be smoothed over with the rise of the so-called ‘Reformed Charismatic’, a label willingly embraced by many if not all of the leaders of new Calvinism, most of whom would be happy – to various degrees and in different ways – to acknowledge themselves to be continuationists, as the lingo has it.  Interestingly, this is one of the fault lines that seems likely to become apparent again, not least because of its significance.

9.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by Calvinist soteriology, with some departures and aberrations.  Again, here is one of the areas where the claim to the name ‘Reformed’ is at stake and much debated.  Generally speaking, in line with the emphasis on the gospel of grace and the glory of God in salvation there has been a distinctively Calvinist take on this issue, and it is here – probably more than anywhere else – that the movement derives the ‘Calvinist’ part of its name.  At the same time, there is – in many of those who are at the forefront of this group – more than a hint of Amyraldism, so I am not sure to what extent this is going to hold water for long.  You will also note that I identify Calvinist soteriology as apart from other elements of historic Calvinism, many of which I think one could argue have been neglected, ignored, or abandoned by new Calvinists.

10.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a generally thoughtful ecumenism.  You only need to look at or think about the names that are at or clustering about the centre to see how broad a movement this is.  It has genuinely united Christians from a variety of backgrounds, and garnered sympathy from many who would nevertheless be unable to share all the distinctives of the movement as a whole.  Issues such as baptism, ecclesiology, the spiritual gifts, and worship have – to some extent – not been allowed to prevent the coming together of believers to serve God either in community or at the very least in co-operation.  Interestingly, though, this ecumenism seems to reach over the middle ground.  By this I mean that there is a readiness to receive and relate to (and receive critique and input from) those close to the inner core of the movement, and then a readiness to reach quite far out from that core for critique and input and relationship, leaving those in the middle ground somewhat isolated.  So, for example, consider the speaking list at some of the last few Desiring God conferences: where else would you find Piper, Dever, Driscoll, Warren, Wilson, Keller, Baucham, MacArthur, Sproul, Storms and Ferguson.  At points on that list you are moved to cheer.  At others, a very Scooby-Dooish cry of “Yoicks!” – mingled alarm and distress – rises from the lips.

11.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an often pragmatic ecclesiology.  I am glad that it is characterised by ecclesiology at all, that the church of Jesus Christ is in many respects given its rightful place in his plans and purposes for the kingdom.  At the same time, there is often more of the light of nature than the light of Scripture in some of the decisions that seem to be made.  This, then, is a movement in which statistics matter.  This is a movement in which, if you cannot keep up, you have to drop off.  Are you in the way of progress?  Then you are fired.  We are moving onward and upward, so we will hire a worship pastor used to larger crowds or able to generate them; we will hire a technology deacon to take our presentations within and without the services to a new level.  Are you not willing or able to move this fast?  Then goodbye, because you are holding up the advance.  Multi-campus doctrine is one of the examples of this pragmatism; branding and advertising are given a prominence beyond anything the Scripture provides for.  Everything is made to serve the growth of the church numerically and the advance of the mission as stated by the church.  At times the church seems less and less like an organic whole in which every member has her or his part and more like a business in which the chief executive and his team get to hire and fire at will, moulding the structure and its activity according to human will and purpose.  If the church were a business, would I fire some of her workers?  Sure.  But it is not, and I am not at liberty to decide who I want or do not want in or working for the advance of a kingdom that belongs to and is ruled by a sovereign King.  I should, however, add – in fairness – that perhaps at times others outside the movement have not been pragmatic enough, or dynamic enough, in seizing opportunities for gospel advance and employing means about which the Scriptures are silent (this comment is not about the regulative principle, by the way).  By the way, you have to love the names of the churches: all portentous, bastardised Greek or catchy, thrusting urban vim?  Fantastic!

12.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a neo-Kuyperian view of culture.  Here the mantra is that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”  There is much to be said for such a declaration, but it also needs to be read in terms of the already/not yet dichotomy.  In new Calvinist orthodoxy, it seems to be very much ‘already’ and this often means that culture is considered neutral, and all to be claimed for Jesus.  By extension, nothing seems to be out of bounds, and much that the world says and does can be tidied up, baptised, and brought into the service of Christ’s church.  Of course, it tends to be the culture from which the converts are drawn (see below) that comes into the church, and so we get our reference points and illustrations from all the hip and cool sources, or those made trendy by the movers and shakers.  Star Wars?  Check.  Lord of the Rings?  Check.  The Matrix?  Check.  So we get to be all funky and populist.  Then we get to name check Lewis and Chesterton and Dostoevsky and O’Connor and come over all literary and high-brow.  By and large, the new Calvinism seems ready to co-opt, co-operate with, and/or capture this culture now, without always making assessments about the origin, tendency and direction of particular elements.  Under this heading I am willing to place the whole issue of contextualization, although it might be considered worthy of its own heading.

13.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by doctrinal if not practical antinomianism.  Most of the movers and shakers appear ready to align themselves with New Covenant Theology in some form or other.  As so often, the Lord’s day Sabbath is the first point of contact and conflict on this issue.  However, the default position here, as – I believe – across broad evangelicalism as a whole – is that the moral law has no abiding relevance in the life of the new covenant believer.  That assumption is woven throughout many of the key texts and declarations of the new Calvinism, from the ESV Study Bible downwards (for example, consider these comments in the ESVSB on Romans 14.5: “The weak thought some days were more important than others. Given the Jewish background here (see v. 14), the day that is supremely in view is certainly the Sabbath. The strong think every day is the same. Both views are permissible. Each person must follow his own conscience. What is remarkable is that the Sabbath is no longer a binding commitment for Paul but a matter of one’s personal conviction. Unlike the other nine commandments in Ex. 20:1–17, the Sabbath commandment seems to have been part of the “ceremonial laws” of the Mosaic covenant, like the dietary laws and the laws about sacrifices, all of which are no longer binding on new covenant believers (see also Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16–17). However, it is still wise to take regular times of rest from work, and regular times of worship are commanded for Christians (Heb. 10:24–25; cf. Acts 20:7)”).  This is having and will continue to have implications perhaps not so much in the sphere of justification (though that will follow) as in the sphere of sanctification.  It is going to mean much for the development of true holiness, and it is only in the next two or three generations of the new Calvinists that these chickens will come home to roost.  Key names among the new Calvinists have laid the foundation for this widespread antinomianism, and it is for me one of the most concerning aspects of the whole movement.

14.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by contemporary worship.  By definition, all of the service ought to be worship, and by definition, anything done today is contemporary, however old-fashioned or new-fangled it may be considered, but you know what I mean.  I personally have no difficulty with songs and music written in the present day, but that is not the same as a willingness simply to co-opt the forms and patterns of the entertainment of the world for the worship of the church.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the sung worship of the church.  Into the mix here also come the charismatic and cultural convictions of many of the key figures.

15.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the driving force of several key personalities.  You know them: there is a centre circle reasonably well-defined, and then the concentric circles around them together and individually.  Piper.  Carson.  Mahaney.  Dever.  Mohler.  Driscoll.  Keller.  Grudem.  Chandler.  Anyabwile.  Harris.  DeYoung.  Chan.  Perhaps a little further out are Duncan and MacArthur and Sproul and Trueman.  Among the bloggers, Challies and Taylor and others.  Read long enough and widely enough and the same names will crop up time and time again.  You might place them more or less close to the centre, but they will be there or thereabouts.  My apologies to those who ought to be on the list and are not, and to the groupies who are now offended because I did not put their idol on the list.  Here you see more than a little of that ecumenism mentioned before.  No new Calvinist conference is complete without at least one and ideally more of these men on the platform.  Each is a little chief in the centre of his fiefdom, many of which overlap.  Of course, it can all seem a little nepotistic, even incestuous at times, as these figures read, invite, commend, and endorse one another in ever-decreasing circles.  Again, God usually works by men in the world, and those men naturally attain to a right and reasonable prominence, but the concentration on a few key personalities, especially in the early days of the movement, was distinctive.  Of course, some of those names are already second-generation names, and it will be interesting to see where things go from here.

16.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the ready embrace and employment of new technologies and media and the platforms that they provide.  The new Calvinism is, to a large degree, an internet phenomenon.  Sermons, videos, blogs, other social media, swirl around ceaselessly in this milieu.  The exchange and discussion of ideas takes place largely online.  Conferences are broadcast and live-blogged, and the lines and colours are laid down by a thousand artists simultaneously, often painting on the same canvas.  Cross-reference and self-reference generate a stupendous amount of traffic.  Look at some of the key blogs, for example, and you will find that they all tend to highlight the same books, events, people and things at almost precisely the same time.  All these platforms nevertheless provide a potent thrust for new Calvinist dogma and praxis, and where others are left behind, the new Calvinism is often at the cutting edge, adopting and co-opting the latest technology (hardware and software) in order to promote either Christ or his servants, depending on your take on particular individuals and circles.  Of course, we must state here that no self-respecting new Calvinist would be found dead using a PC.  The Apple Macintosh and its related accessories are the technological sine qua non of the true new Calvinist.  (I deleted the next bit because it counted as mockery, but let’s just say that it went in the direction of cool glasses and coffee shops, tattoos and T-shirts.)

17.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a concentration on a younger, more urban demographic.  I recall one new Calvinist church-planting leader voicing his concern at how many church-planter/ing applications he saw targeted precisely the same group as all the others: the young, trendy, hip (when did this admittedly serviceable but not especially remarkable joint become so popular?), urban crowd.  Although some of its leaders are getting old enough to be in them, you will not find much of the new Calvinism catering to the full range of society.  It tends to be quite selective.  I know of a number of churches that – when they began going in this direction – did begin to attract far larger numbers of a certain type and age, but they also began to lose many others.  Again, you can only ride the crest of the wave for so long: what happens to the water ahead, and the waves coming in behind?  This is one area where the willingness to preach the gospel to every creature perhaps needs to take account of the fact that every creature doesn’t like the same fashion, music, art, style, clothes, and approach as those who have made new Calvinism what it is.

18.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the desire to be big and to have a seat at culture’s table.  Bigness does seem to be a great concern for many.  Bigness – size and numbers – as a by-product of the pursuit of right things in a right way and for the glory of God is perfectly acceptable, but bigness as an end in itself is not something that the Bible promotes in isolation.  Alongside of this goes what sometimes looks like an obsession with being accepted and heard in wider society.  Consider the orgiastic and ecstatic applause and self-congratulation when the big names get on national television, or when the movement gets name-checked by Time magazine.  Is there a danger here that the movement is too concerned with the applause and adulation and recognition of the world?  Does this tie in with the attitude to culture, and what may be a failure to recognise that in this present evil age we are strangers in a strange land?

19.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an ambivalent relationship to church history.  I know we all tend to pick and choose the bits that appear or tend to support what we now believe, but it is right there on the surface of the new Calvinist vehicle.  Sometimes there is what I can only call a chronological snobbery.  This is not meant to sound as pejorative as it does.  It is part of the laudable enthusiasm of the movement.  What I mean is that there is a freshness of discovery that excites us: we feel, if I may work through Wodehouse back to Keats,

. . . like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

However, just because I have recently discovered some theological gem does not mean that it has never been discovered before, or that I therefore become the sole guardian and interpreter of the tradition.  There may be a whole bunch of trekker’s rubbish upon that peak in Darien from those who have been and camped before.  Neither does the popularity or promotion of our discovery entitle us to be the arbiters of the canon.  Anyway, there is a tendency among new Calvinists either to claim that ground long-broken has been only recently broken by them, or that it has never been broken before and now needs to be broken by them, or because they have broken it no one else is allowed to set foot on it, or that there is no other way of it being broken.  In this way, the great and the good of the past all become proto-new Calvinists.  Take a bow, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Bunyan, Cowper, Calvin, Lewis, Owen, Augustine, etc. etc.  Of course, all this demands quite a bit of historical revision, of which there is perhaps no finer example than C. S. Lewis, one of the new Calvinism’s patron saints.  I am not suggesting that these intelligent and well-read men are not aware of it, but at least let us not pretend nor give the impression that Lewis fits seamlessly into the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy!

20.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by sensitivity to the judicial and social aspects of the gospel at work in society.  Perhaps in part because there is a left-wing as well as right-wing political input to new Calvinism, it is nevertheless a recovery of emphasis on the God who defends and protects the widow and the fatherless and the stranger, who is concerned for righteousness and justice in heaven and on earth, who takes note of the presence or absence of ethical integrity in the thoughts, words and deeds of men.  Of course, this is very easily dismissed as politically correct or touchy-feely nonsense, but there is, perhaps, more of it in the Scriptures than others have always been ready to admit.  So, on such matters as abortion, adoption, euthanasia, care for the poor and hungry, help for the homeless, and so on, there is a welcome re-engagement and re-appraisal.  Confusion still exists (as, no doubt, it always will) about the relative roles of the church and the individual Christian citizen or subject (two kingdoms theology, anyone?), but there is an awareness of and sensitivity to these issues that is welcome.

21.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by Americocentrism.  Here let me bother with another caveat: this is not an instance of cultural jealousy or bitterness, nor is it in and of itself intended as a condemnation.  Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and of course the movement spills over, especially into the UK and Australia, where the linguistic heritage is shared (so perhaps I should speak more of ‘the West’ that I do of ‘the States’, although I think it is fair to say that America is probably the dominant Western culture, having more influence on others in the West than they have on it).  However, while there are adherents, some of them prominent, outside the USA, the movement has its spiritual and cultural home in the States.  Could this be where some of its cultural distinctive and pragmatic attitudes derive?  Is this part of the reason for its determination and enthusiasm and can-do mentality?  Is this driving the concentration on technology and the referents and foci of the movement?  Time after time we hear men and women happily cradled in the bosom of American/Western culture assure us that the future of the church is in the so-called Third or Developing World.  Is new Calvinism in danger of exporting more of America/the West than it is of Jesus?  By definition, we are to some extent products of our culture, and that is part of God’s sovereign design for our sphere of influence and usefulness.  But could it be that there is sometimes a lack of cultural awareness and a degree of cultural supremacism that penetrates new Calvinism further than we are aware?  This, I acknowledge, is nebulous, easy both to defend and attack precisely because it is so hard to quantify, but it seems to me that this is an inherently Western movement, if not an inherently American one, a movement very much of a certain time and place.  That does not make it inherently bad, but it certainly does call into the question the degree to which it can both last and spread beyond its immediate environs.

At this point, I see no reason to change the assessment I made several months ago, after reading Collin Hansen’s survey of the movement, although I hope I have a better grasp on the whole: “There is much that is splendid about the movement . . . 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. . . . observers and participants [need] to gauge both the trajectory and the likely terminus of this curious company, but [they] should also challenge us about the extent to which our faith and our life are keeping pace.”

So there you have it.  Do you agree or disagree?  Is there anything to add or remove?  I should be interested to know what you have to say.

Studying theology: for what and for whom?

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 18 September 2009 at 09:42

Posted in General, Theology

Tagged with , ,

I like dead guys

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Dave Bish highlights a  fairly interesting comment/complaint from Phil Whitall:

I read this morning that Josh Harris is a fan of JC Ryle, which in itself is hardly something to get upset about but it did spark this mini-rant. Good for Josh, Ryle is a worthy hero of the faith. But it seems to me that the Yanks get all excited by CS Lewis, CH Spurgeon, JC Ryle, CT Studd and other guys with initials instead of first names. Lewis and Spurgeon in particular are highly exalted, oh and Dr MLJ of course.

On the other hand, if you pay close attention to the names that are bandied around amongst us Limey’s are John Piper, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, Rob Bell and whoever else is leading some very large church.

What you don’t seem to find are Brits talking about dead American Christians of any note and any Americans talking about living Brits of any note (our churches are too small).

The whole thing is fascinating and completely unsubstantiated and has the ring of truth about it (everyone should get hold of this piece of jewellery – useful in so many situations).  You should read it all, not least so that you can argue with it.

Because I beg to differ to a degree.  It depends to whom you are listening.  Yes, most of us – sometimes of necessity – interact with the Pipers, Mahaneys, Driscolls, Mohlers, etc. of the evangelical hypersphere.  Our peers and sometimes the wider church is reading them, listening to them, concerned about them, aping them.  I do think it is often the desire to find what works, to discover what will make us (read, “me”) big and successful.  But there is an undercurrent of men and women who have not entirely abandoned those who have gone before us on these shores.

You will find us quoting, at least occasionally, Charles Spurgeon, John Ryle, Matthew Henry, Robert McCheyne, John Owen, Jeremiah Burroughs, Stephen Charnock, Thomas Brooks, Hugh Latimer, Andrew Fuller, William Carey, John Bunyan, not to mention Flavel, Knox, Traill, Eadie . . . I could go on, and I could come forward to men like Poole-Connor and Lloyd-Jones, and back as far as some of the church fathers.  We love those men who have followed Christ, and whom we now follow in the path of Christian discipleship.  We have not forgotten their lives and their lessons, and – in fact – we sometimes get a little bit troubled at the selective embrace offered by some of our American brothers.  Who knew C. S. Lewis was Reformed until he was co-opted by the New Calvinists and given a fairly robust air-brushing in the process?

If we’re going to make C. S. Lewis our patron saint, we should at least listen when he is talking sense.  This is from the introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation:

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (”mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

If we followed Lewis here, perhaps we would have a little more discretion and discernment in how far we follow others, and which others we follow, and how slavishly?  In fact, when we listen too long and too hard to the old, sometimes the new get a bit annoyed with us, and accuse us of being crusty, hidebound, and reactionary.  Funny, that.

Samuel Davies (American, but with Welsh roots and long dead, so not a bad note to finish on), wrote a few lines that still decorate my study.  They are worth recalling:

I have a peaceful study, as a refuge from the hurries and noise of the world around me; the venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me, and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals.

So, Phil, come hang out with us.  We hang out with the venerable dead, often British, although if they followed hard after Jesus we’re happy to see them sitting on our shelves wherever they hail from.  We listen to them, learn from them, engage with them, debate and even argue with them.  We converse across the years, and enjoy the relief they afford us from the nonsense of surviving mortals.

We like dead guys.

Suffenus

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‘Thomas Goodwin’ draws our attention to this character.  Suffenus was an exceedingly incompetent poet, eloquent on the subject of other men’s faults and blind to his own.  He was thus a self-flatterer, making a fool of himself by his ill-founded conceit.

John Owen described young theologians who think they know it all as “Suffenuses.”  Owen writes:

It has been the presumption of some, and especially of youths who profess to have dedicated themselves to this study but who have hardly gone further in evangelical studies than the reading of three or four volumes, to behave as if they alone were experts, and to consider that they are deserving of a glorious reputation among the great scholars.  Such arrogance!  Better it would be if such Suffenuses did not also go on to despise those who are truly endowed with the wisdom that they so foolishly boast of having attained to.[1]

Owen spends a good deal of his time in his Theologoumena warning students of theology of the many dangers pufferfishthat arise from the attainment of knowledge.  I believe it was also Owen who commented of his undergraduates (and I am paraphrasing from memory) that they are doctors in their first years, masters in their second, and students only in their third.  His thrust is how long it takes the young to realise how little they know, and so come to the point at which they are ready to be taught and to learn (not necessarily the same thing!).

Goodwin himself has some pointed things to say to the young and arrogant in Three Sermons on Hebrews 1:1-2[2]:

In Christ are treasures that will hold digging to the end of the world; men would be weary if they had the same light still, therefore God goes on to discover, though the same truth, yet with new and diverse lights.  Thus God reveals himself by piecemeals.

It may humble young Christians, that think, when they are first converted, that they have all knowledge, and therefore take upon them to censure men that have been long in Christ; and out of their own experience they will frame opinions, comparing but a few notes together.  Alas, ye know but a piece of what you shall know!  When you have been in Christ ten or twenty years, then speak; then those opinions which you have now will fall off, and experience will show them to be false.  They think themselves as Paul, that nothing can be added unto them; but what says Paul, 1 Cor. 13:11?  “When I was a child,” He takes a comparison from a child, as being a man, but raised up to his spiritual estate, and thou also wilt then “put away childish things.”

If God in former ages did reveal himself but by piecemeal, and if that piecemeal knowledge, which they had by inch and inch, did make them holy; for how holy was Enoch and Abraham that had but one promise; then how much more holy should we be, that have had so full a discovery!  If one promise wrought so much on their hearts, how much more should so many promises on ours!

Paul told all believers not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think, but to think soberly (Rom 12.3).  It is a sin to which young men are particularly prone.  We ought to spend more time picking up the promises and pondering them than parading and pronouncing upon them.  The best platform for instruction is the credible holiness and spiritual maturity that comes from having been a good and humble learner in Christ’s school.


[1] Theologoumena, Book VI, Ch. 1, p. 1. / Biblical Theology, 591.

[2] Works 5:529-30.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 25 November 2008 at 19:13

Lessons from the bramble: observations of an occasional and untaught gardener #16-20

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“You must be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” – John Owen

bramble-shoot

Observations 1-5 / 6-10 / 11-15 / 16-20 / 21-25 / 26-30 / 31-35 / 36-40.

16.  Brambles often grow together.  In trying to get at one, you will often be scratched or ensnared by another.

  • So when we try to deal with one sin, we should not be surprised that we are assaulted by others.  Get into the midst of a sin, and you will find yourself ensnared, held back, or scratched by the other transgressions around it, which makes it all the harder to get to the one we are dealing with at the time.

17.  It is often easier to cut brambles back than to dig them out.  However, if brambles are merely cut back (sometimes simply because it is not immediately possible to deal with them properly), they will return.

  • So where we do not get to the root of sin, and know it, or are struggling first of all to control its outward manifestation, and then subsequently to deal with the root, we need to be aware that we have not finished the job.  We must keep a constant eye on that area of life, and not neglect it, but rather be always on the lookout for the appearance of sin.  Where the root is not dealt with, sin is not dealt with.

18.  Brambles grow in the most awkward places – in crevices and nooks, or up against trees or roots – making it very hard to spot them and get at them.

  • Sins will ingrain themselves in and intertwine themselves round fixed points in our lives, or obscure corners of our character.  They will be found in the crevices of habit and the nooks of routine, twisted round the stumps of procedure and bedded among the roots of temperament and the stones of custom.
  • A cursory glance will sometimes not reveal a sin that truly exists, but the people to whom we are closest and who know us best will be the ones who most readily see and painfully (to them, as well as to us) identify our sins.

19.  Brambles often wrap themselves around the roots of bigger, healthy plants, such as trees.  This makes their removal a back-breaking process.

  • It takes time and effort properly to identify and deal with sins.  Often we will need to spend hours digging and untwining to remove the sin without destroying something else.
  • It is better to deal with sins early, or they will make the most of their location to become embedded.

20.  When we rip out brambles, leaves and branches of other plants – sometimes whole plants – can come with it, either because the bramble is growing so closely with the plant that the latter must be sacrificed to deal with the former, or because the thorns and coils of the bramble drag other matter with it when it comes out.

  • We must expect to make sacrifices in dealing with sins.  There may be outwardly cultivated areas of our lives that will take damage when sins are removed.  We must be willing to spoil the mere appearance or reputation of godliness in order to make genuine progress in godliness.
  • If we are called upon to assist in pulling up the sins of others, we should reckon with the fact that they will often come painfully, and bring some earth and other foliage with it.  That is unlikely to be pleasant to our friend, nor comfortable for us.  We should take care to do as little damage as we can under such circumstances.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 9 August 2008 at 06:07

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Lessons from the bramble: observations of an occasional and untaught gardener #11-15

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“You must be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” – John Owen

bramble-shoot

Observations 1-5 / 6-10 / 11-15 / 16-20 / 21-25 / 26-30 / 31-35 / 36-40.

11.  When pulling out a bramble root, it seems almost inevitable that a small part will be left behind, which can of itself sprout up.  In the same way, you cannot split a bramble root and hope to kill it.

  • Dealing with a bit of sin is no way to kill sin.  Very few sins will ever be entirely eradicated in this life.  Our best efforts often leave a little of the root still in the ground, and we will generally have to go on battling with a given sin all of our days.

12.  When we clear the ground of brambles, we need to cultivate it, or brambles and other weeds will grow there first.

  • When we kill sins, it is tempting to sit back and think that the job has been done, when it has only begun.  In the place of sins, we must cultivate graces, or sins will find their way back.  There is no neutral territory: ground that does not grow graces will grow sins.
  • Do not think to deal with sin without cultivating grace.  There must be a putting on alongside of a putting off.

13.  Brambles grow among other plants, and will eventually choke or overwhelm them.

  • If you do not completely destroy particular sins, they will grow back alongside your graces, and perhaps intertwined with them.  It is grievous to see true grace so tangled up in a habit of sin as to be less distinguishable, or made worthless and ugly.
  • If sins are allowed to grow among graces, it will be that much harder to remove them.
  • Sins allowed to grow near graces and gifts will eventually choke or overwhelm them, and rob the graces of life, and the gardener of any pleasure from them.

14.  As anyone knows, brambles are painful to grab hold of.

  • Why, then, is it any surprise that sins, when grabbed hold of, cause pain and distress?  And yet it is usually necessary to grasp the bramble in order to deal with it.  The more pressure exerted, and the more robustly, the more painful it will be in the short term.  Do not expect mortification to be anything less than painful.

15.  It is wise to use at least some protective clothing when attacking a bramble patch, and yet that rarely will let you off without a few scratches.  In particular, you will find thorns breaking off in gloves, trousers, sleeves and the like, and causing minor but real distress down the line.

  • It is wise to protect yourself when dealing with sin, but unlikely that you will come away without some damage.
  • Dealing with sin can leave thorns behind.  You might have dealt with the main issue, and done it well, but there are likely to be subsequent niggles.  For example, you might do some real damage to the bramble of harsh and angry speaking, but the effects of that sin will be felt down the line, in defensiveness from those around you, or their expectations of your sin.  These might grieve you, but they are better than having the sin still rooted and growing in your heart.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 7 August 2008 at 09:39

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Lessons from the bramble: observations of an occasional and untaught gardener #1-5

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“You must be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” – John Owen

bramble-shoot

Observations 1-5 / 6-10 / 11-15 / 16-20 / 21-25 / 26-30 / 31-35 / 36-40.

1.  In dealing with brambles, you quickly discover that the smallest shoots often have the deepest roots.

  • Sins that first appear less significant, or of less immediate consequence, can be among the hardest to remove.

2.  If you clear away weeds or other rubbish, or even prune good growth, brambles are the first things to grow.

  • When efforts are made to reform our living, or we begin to deal with a new area of our character or experience, we might make good initial progress, only to discover that we have uncovered particular sins of which we might have been unaware, and which must now be dealt with.  So, for example, we might set out to be more hospitable, only to discover that we are readily critical of those whom we learn to know better.

3.  If you put down weedkiller, brambles return first; to remove them, they must usually be dug up by the roots.

  • There is no easy answer to sin.  There is no quick cure-all or five-minute fix.  The only way to destroy sin is the painful, time- and energy-consuming grind of mortification.

4.  Brambles seem to lie dormant for years (for example, if the roots are buried deep), and only need to be turned to the surface in order to grow again.

  • It is easy to think that sins have been dealt with, when in fact they have only been hidden.  Events and circumstances turn them back to the surface again, at which point we discover them to have been only dormant.  I know of one man who had been a curser in his youth, and believed – after he became a Christian – that he had defeated this habit.  When he had children, with all the frustrations that brought, he found that the temptation to swear revived.  He sincerely believed that he had dealt with the sin, but found that he had to deal with it again as events brought it back to the surface.
  • Furthermore, do not think deliberately to bury sins.  Sins buried are not sins conquered, but merely evaded, and they will simply lie there until opportunity returns.  The only way to deal with sin is to face it and remove it in the power of Christ.

5.  When attempting to remove a bramble, if you pull at the leaves, they will come off quite quickly, leaving you with apparent success, which is only apparent.

  • It is sometimes quite easy to deal with the public manifestation and outward appearance of sins, but much harder to deal with the root of the matter.  We might start to control an angry tongue, but retain an angry heart; we might give an appearance of peace and love to the brethren, but bear long grudges.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 30 July 2008 at 10:46

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The infinite condescension and love of Christ

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Hereon consider the infinite condescension and love of Christ, in his invitations and calls of you to come unto him for life, deliverance, mercy, grace, peace, and eternal salvation. Multitudes of these invitations and calls are recorded in the Scripture, and they are all of them filled up with those blessed encouragements which divine wisdom knows to be suited unto lost, convinced sinners, in their present state and condition. It were a blessed contemplation, to dwell on the consideration of the infinite condescension, grace, and love of Christ, in his invitations to sinners to come unto him that they may be saved, – of that mixture of wisdom and persuasive grace that is in them, – of the force and efficacy of the pleading and argument that they are accompanied withal, as they are recorded in the Scripture; but that belongs not to my present design. This I shall only say, that in the declaration and preaching of them, Jesus Christ yet stands before sinners, calling, inviting, encouraging them to come unto him.

This is somewhat of the word which he now speaks unto you: Why will ye die? why will ye perish? why will you not have compassion on your own souls? Can your hearts endure, or can your hands be strong, in the day of wrath that is approaching? It is but a little while before all your hopes, your reliefs, and presumptions will forsake you, and leave you eternally miserable. Look unto me, and be saved; – come unto me, and I will ease you of all sins, sorrows, fears, burdens, and give rest unto your souls. Come, I entreat you; – lay aside all procrastinations, all delays; – put me off no more; – eternity lies at the door. Cast out all cursed, self-deceiving reserves; – do not so hate me as that you will rather perish than accept of deliverance by me.

These and the like things does the Lord Christ continually declare, proclaim, plead, and urge on the souls of sinners; as it is fully declared, Prov. i. 20-33. He does it in the preaching of the word, as if he were present with you, stood amongst you, and spake personally to every one of you. And because this would not suit his present state of glory, he has appointed the ministers of the gospel to appear before you, and to deal with you in his stead, avowing as his own the invitations that are given you in his name, 2 Cor. v. 19, 20.

Consider therefore, his infinite condescension, grace, and love herein. Why all this towards you? Does he stand in need of you? Have you deserved it at his hands? Did you love him first? Cannot he be happy and blessed without you? Has he any design upon you, that he is so earnest in calling you unto him? Alas! it is nothing but the overflowing of mercy, compassion, and grace, that moves and acts him herein. Here lies the entrance of innumerable souls into a death and condemnation far more severe than those contained in the curse of the law, 2 Cor. ii. 15, 16. In the contempt of this infinite condescension of Christ in his holy invitation of sinners to himself, lies the sting and poison of unbelief, which unavoidably gives over the souls of men unto eternal ruin. And who shall once pity them to eternity who are guilty of it?[1]


[1] John Owen, Works, 1:422-23.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 20 June 2008 at 08:02

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What is faith?

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Repentant sinners sometimes agitate over whether or not they really are believing. Fearful saints often agonize over whether or not they have faith. What is it? Are they deluding themselves? Are they really trusting?

There are at least two misconceptions that often lie behind such concerns. The first is the felt need for something that feels real and definite, perhaps for something that is palpably concrete, even spectacular. “Is it real?” is the question. “Have I really put saving faith in Jesus Christ?” It has to do more with the right kind of faith, the reality of faith. The second has to do with degrees of faith. In essence, the question becomes, “Do I have enough faith?” The crisis hinges on whether or not we really are savingly attached to Jesus Christ with the kind of grip that truly delivers from sin and death and hell.

Both of these misconceptions have a common root. In both instances, the fearful one is looking at something in himself rather than at the fulness that is in Christ. Often, deeply distressed persons will assure a friend that they have no doubts whatsoever about the ability of Christ to save, but they wonder whether he has saved them, whether they really have faith. The problem may lie with false notions of what justifying faith really is, in its proper relation to Jesus Christ.

We must never forget that it is Christ who saves by faith. It is not faith in and of itself that delivers a soul from death, but Christ. Faith reaches out to Christ. Weak faith in a strong Christ saves just as well as far stronger faith! And that faith is not necessarily a spectacular event; it is not necessarily something which is felt with consistent passion and constant awareness. It is, in essence, a simple thing. In chapter 15 of his work On Justification, John Owen asks and gently answers the question, “What is faith?” The answers are drawn from the language of Scripture. It does us good to set Christ before us, and to consider the Scripture language for saving faith in all its simple sweetness, and to rest in the unchangeable Christ with confidence in him, and not in the presence of absence of felt vigour in the faith which holds fast to him.

The truth which we plead has two parts:- 1. That the righteousness of God imputed to us, unto the justification of life, is the righteousness of Christ, by whose obedience we are made righteous. 2. That it is faith alone which on our part is required to interest us in that righteousness, or whereby we comply with God’s grant and communication of it, or receive it unto our use and benefit; for although this faith is in itself the radical principle of all obedience, – and whatever is not so, which cannot, which does not, on all occasions, evidence, prove, show, or manifest itself by works, is not of the same kind with it, – yet, as we are justified by it, its act and duty is such, or of that nature, as that no other grace, duty, or work, can be associated with it, or be of any consideration. And both these are evidently confirmed in that description which is given us in the Scripture of the nature of faith and believing unto the justification of life.

I know that many expressions used in the declaration of the nature and work of faith herein are metaphorical, at least are generally esteemed so to be; – but they are such as the Holy Ghost, in his infinite wisdom, thought meet to make use of for the instruction and edification of the church. And I cannot but say, that those who understand not how effectually the light of knowledge is communicated unto the minds of them that believe by them, and a sense of the things intended unto their spiritual experience, seem not to have taken a due consideration of them. Neither, whatever skill we pretend unto, do we know always what expressions of spiritual things are metaphorical. Those oftentimes may seem so to be, which are most proper. However, it is most safe for us to adhere unto the expressions of the Holy Spirit, and not to embrace such senses of things as are inconsistent with them, and opposite unto them. Wherefore, –

1. That faith whereby we are justified is most frequently in the New Testament expressed by receiving. This notion of faith has been before spoken unto, in our general inquiry into the use of it in our justification. It shall not, therefore, be here much again insisted on. Two things we may observe concerning it:- First, That it is so expressed with respect unto the whole object of faith, or unto all that does any way concur unto our justification; for we are said to receive Christ himself: “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God,” John i. 12; “As ye have received Christ Jesus the Lord,” Col. ii. 6. In opposition hereunto unbelief is expressed by not receiving of him, John i. 11; iii. 11; xii. 48; xiv. 17. And it is a receiving of Christ as he is “The Lord our Righteousness,” as of God he is made righteousness unto us. And as no grace, no duty, can have any co-operation with faith herein, – this reception of Christ not belonging unto their nature, nor comprised in their exercise, – so it excludes any other righteousness from our justification but that of Christ alone; for we are “justified by faith.” Faith alone receives Christ; and what it receives is the cause of our justification, whereon we become the sons of God. So we “receive the atonement” made by the blood of Christ, Rom. v. 11; for “God hath set him forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” And this receiving of the atonement includes the soul’s approbation of the way of salvation by the blood of Christ, and the appropriation of the atonement made thereby unto our own souls. For thereby also we receive the forgiveness of sins: “That they may receive forgiveness of sins … by faith that is in me,” Acts xxvi. 18. In receiving Christ we receive the atonement; and in the atonement we receive the forgiveness of sins. But, moreover, the grace of God, and righteousness itself, as the efficient and material cause of our justification, are received also; even the “abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness,” Rom. v. 17. So that faith, with respect unto all the causes of justification, is expressed by “receiving;” for it also receives the promise, the instrumental cause on the part of God thereof, Acts ii. 41; Heb. ix. 15. Secondly, That the nature of faith, and its acting with respect unto all the causes of justification, consisting in receiving, that which is the object of it must be offered, tendered, and given unto us, as that which is not our own, but is made our own by that giving and receiving. This is evident in the general nature of receiving. And herein, as was observed, as no other grace or duty can concur with it, so the righteousness whereby we are justified can be none of our own antecedent unto this reception, nor at any time inherent in us. Hence we argue, that if the work of faith in our justification be the receiving of what is freely granted, given, communicated, and imputed unto us, – that is, of Christ, of the atonement, of the gift of righteousness, of the forgiveness of sins, – then have our other graces, our obedience, duties, works, no influence into our justification, nor are any causes or conditions thereof; for they are neither that which does receive nor that which is received, which alone concur thereunto.

2. Faith is expressed by looking: “Look unto me, and be ye saved,” Isa. xlv. 22; “A man shall look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect unto the Holy One of Israel,” chap. xvii. 7; “They shall look upon me whom they have pierced,” Zech. xii. 10. See Ps. cxxiii. 2. The nature hereof is expressed, John iii. 14, 15, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” For so was he to be lifted up on the cross in his death, John viii. 28, chap. xii. 32. The story is recorded Numb. xxi. 8, 9. I suppose none doubt but that the stinging of the people by fiery serpents, and the death that ensued thereon, were types of the guilt of sin, and the sentence of the fiery law thereon; for these things happened unto them in types, 1 Cor. x. 11. When any was so stung or bitten, if he betook himself unto any other remedies, he died and perished. Only they that looked unto the brazen serpent that was lifted up were healed, and lived; for this was the ordinance of God, – this way of healing alone had he appointed. And their healing was a type of the pardon of sin, with everlasting life. So by their looking is the nature of faith expressed, as our Saviour plainly expounds it in this place: “So must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him,” – that is, as the Israelites looked unto the serpent in the wilderness, – [“should not perish.”] And although this expression of the great mystery of the gospel by Christ himself has been by some derided, or, as they call it, exposed, yet is it really as instructive of the nature of faith, justification, and salvation by Christ, as any passage in the Scripture. Now, if faith, whereby we are justified, and in that exercise of it wherein we are so, be a looking unto Christ, under a sense of the guilt of sin and our lost condition thereby, for all, for our only help and relief, for deliverance, righteousness, and life, then is it therein exclusive of all other graces and duties whatever; for by them we neither look, nor are they the things which we look after. But so is the nature and exercise of faith expressed by the Holy Ghost; and they who do believe understand his mind. For whatever may be pretended of metaphor in the expression, faith is that act of the soul whereby they who are hopeless, helpless, and lost in themselves, do, in a way of expectancy and trust, seek for all help and relief in Christ alone, or there is not truth in it. And this also sufficiently evinces the nature of our justification by Christ.

3. It is, in like manner, frequently expressed by coming unto Christ: “Come unto me, all ye that labour,” Matt. xi. 28. See John vi. 35, 37, 45, 65; vii. 37. To come unto Christ for life and salvation, is to believe on him unto the justification of life; but no other grace or duty is a coming unto Christ: and therefore have they no place in justification. He who has been convinced of sin, who has been wearied with the burden of it, who has really designed to fly from the wrath to come, and has heard the voice of Christ in the gospel inviting him to come unto him for help and relief, will tell you that this coming unto Christ consists in a man’s going out of himself, in a complete renunciation of all his own duties and righteousness, and betaking himself with all his trust and confidence unto Christ alone, and his righteousness, for pardon of sin, acceptation with God, and a right unto the heavenly inheritance. It may be some will say this is not believing, but canting; be it so: we refer the judgment of it to the church of God.

4. It is expressed by fleeing for refuge: Heb. vi. 18, “Who have fled for refuge, to lay hold on the hope set before us.” [See] Prov. xviii. 10. Hence some have defined faith to be “perfugium animæ,” the flight of the soul unto Christ for deliverance from sin and misery. And much light is given unto the understanding of the thing intended thereby. For herein it is supposed that he who believes is antecedently thereunto convinced of his lost condition, and that if he abide therein he must perish eternally; that he has nothing of himself whereby he may be delivered from it; that he must betake himself unto somewhat else for relief; that unto this end he considers Christ as set before him, and proposed unto him in the promise of the gospel; that he judges this to be a holy, a safe way, for his deliverance and acceptance with God, as that which has the characters of all divine excellencies upon it: hereon he flees unto it for refuge, that is, with diligence and speed, that he perish not in his present condition; he betakes himself unto it by placing his whole trust and affiance thereon. And the whole nature of our justification by Christ is better declared hereby, unto the supernatural sense and experience of believers, than by a hundred philosophical disputations about it.

5. The terms and notions by which it is expressed under the Old Testament are, leaning on God, Mic. iii. 11; or Christ, Cant. viii. 5; – rolling or casting ourselves and our burden on the Lord, Ps. xxii. 8, [margin,] xxxvii. 5 – (the wisdom of the Holy Ghost in which expressions has by some been profanely derided); – resting on God, or in him, 2 Chron. xiv. 11; Ps. xxxvii. 7; – cleaving, trusting, hoping, and waiting, in places innumerable. And it may be observed, that those who acted faith as it is thus expressed, do everywhere declare themselves to be lost, hopeless, helpless, desolate, poor, orphans; whereon they place all their hope and expectation on God alone. unto the Lord, Deut. iv. 4; Acts xi. 23; as also by

All that I would infer from these things is, that the faith whereby we believe unto the justification of life, or which is required of us in a way of duty that we may be justified, is such an act of the whole soul whereby convinced sinners do wholly go out of themselves to rest upon God in Christ for mercy, pardon, life, righteousness, and salvation, with an acquiescence of heart therein; which is the whole of the truth pleaded for.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 27 May 2008 at 09:56

“In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life”

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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

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