The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘Martin Downes

Educating our children

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Martin Downes posts an article from The Evangelical Magazine (I presume he wrote it, but he doesn’t say – self-effacing chap, he is!) about the primary role of the parents in teaching children the fear of the Lord (and not sloping shoulders and expecting the church to act as some kind of surrogate in the process).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 18 September 2009 at 09:46

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Aberystwyth 2010

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Gary Brady informs us that next year’s Aberystwyth Conference should have the following line-up: “Dale Ralph Davies [sic] and Gareth Williams (Bala), (Heresy Huntin’) Martin Downes, Bill James and Stuart Olyott.”

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 17 August 2009 at 08:04

“The Marrow of Modern Divinity”

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Marrow of Modern Divinity (Fisher)

Martin Downes lets us know that a new edition of this classic work is being published by Christian Focus:

A dialogue between a minister of the gospel and a young Christian. Both legalism and antinomianism are perennial dangers for the church and for individual Christians. When we begin to think of the Christian life primarily as a list of ‘do’s and ‘dont’s’, we are under the sway of legalism. When we begin to think that it is okay for us to go ahead and sin because God will forgive us anyway, we are feeling the temptation of antinomianism. The Marrow of Modern Divinity proclaims a gospel that can rescue us from both of these dangers.

After many years of being out of print this work is coming back in a clearly laid out edition, with explanatory notes by Thomas Boston and an introduction by Philip Ryken.  He has been blogging Boston for those who want more.

Martin also reminds us of a series of addresses on the neglected but vitally important pastoral issues in the Marrow controversy by Sinclair Ferguson.  I can heartily second Martin’s recommendation.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 25 June 2009 at 13:09

“Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church”

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Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church by Martin Downes

Christian Focus, 2009 (247pp, pbk)

As a reasonably dedicated follower of Ferguson, the misguided counsel given by the normally erudite Scot in the foreword to this volume left me profoundly uncomfortable:

So, put some logs, or coal, or peat, on the fire; make (or fix) yourself a pot of tea or coffee; settle back into your favorite chair – and spend an evening or a rainy afternoon in the company of Martin Downes (11-12).

All well and good, Sinclair, but I read this book during the warmest day of the year in the UK so far.  Whatever one thinks about the British weather (which Prof. Ferguson knows well), I can give assurance that roaring fires and warm drinks are far from what is required under such circumstances, and you can wait a good four or five days for a rainy afternoon during some of our summers.

Most of the other advice in this book you can safely take.

My only minor gripes are a number of editing glitches, and the fact that almost all the quotes in the book come without references, which can be frustrating if you wish to read more, or put the words in context.  Neither is there an index.

Risking the Truth (Downes)Those slight grievances aside, this is an outstanding book, characterised by clear thinking and straight talking.  Its basic premise is simple: the compiler, Martin Downes, conducted a series of interviews with some well-known senior statesmen of Christ’s church, most of whom are serving God in the UK or the US, with the exception of Conrad Mbewe (Zambia) – his environment reminds the reader that different situations involve different challenges, and we should beware an oversimplification of ‘the issues facing us today.’  Each contributor was asked questions concerning false teaching and flawed living with a view to instructing today’s church about prevalent errors and heresies.  The conversations focus on appropriate ways of handling and responding to these poisons.  Downes sets the scene in his introduction, explaining the apostolic concern that false teaching and false teachers be identified and addressed, lest damage be done to the body of Jesus Christ.  There follows a brief overview of the nature, origin, attraction, effects and persistence of heresy, setting us up for the interviews themselves.

As one reads through these dialogues, a number of distinctions become apparent.  Some of these are reflective of the character of the contributor.  Although there is often a pleasantly chatty, even casual tone to all the conversations, some interviews have longer, more developed answers and others quite terse responses.  In only a few of the conversations is there much technical language, but in general the language is clear and popular.

Other differences have to do with the nature of the interview.  In some, various specialists are quizzed on particular topics: Ligon Duncan deals almost exclusively with the New Perspective; Kim Riddlebarger addresses eschatology; Gary Johnson is quizzed about Norman Shepherd’s initial exposure and subsequent effect; Robert Peterson discusses the doctrine of hell; and, Greg Beale answers questions on inerrancy.

Other interviews are more general, and often have the same basic framework (and even identical questions).  Sometimes, the interviewee’s individual concerns provide shifts of focus; on other occasions, perceptive questions highlight a particular area of expertise.  In these more wide-ranging discussions it is the varied emphasis and nuance of answer that interests: there are few outright contradictions of other contributors, but a variety of perspective that is illuminating.

In reading, one senses care, insight and structure in the questions – whether they are more generic or directed at specific issues – with a view to drawing out relevant and helpful answers.  The reader is reminded that wise men can differ.  For example, some advocate that the pastor take pains to keep abreast of theological developments and deviations, others dismiss making too much of such a practice.  Sometimes shared principle gives rise to subtly-differentiated practice, demonstrating legitimate variety as to how one goes about the business of feeding the sheep while driving off the wolves.

However, there are also clear patterns in the book.  Along the way there are some brilliant gems to be collected, pithy nuggets of truth dropped almost casually into the individual conversation, including a good number of practical, pastoral counsels to be gleaned.  While these random jewels are worth collecting, it is the developing seams of emphasis that are more worth tracing.  Several notes are sounded repeatedly: the importance of firmly grasping the cardinal doctrines of Christian orthodoxy; the value of the historic confessions of faith that have served past generations so well as frameworks of truth; the need of clear conviction regarding the Scriptures as the very word of the living God; the helpfulness of a genuine historical awareness and insight – a clear and sound sense of where the church has come from and what she has already encountered along the way; the significance of the local church, and the part that membership of a healthy local congregation plays in preserving truth, and preserving from error; the value of clear, systematic, expository ministry.  That these notes chime so often, in different language, in different contexts, from different men, in response to different questions, suggests the weight that ought to be attached to these issues.

With regard to error itself, there are also valuable patterns to observe.  It is interesting that only Conrad Mbewe (with R. Scott Clark receiving an honourable mention) highlights the issue of charismatic teaching: is this an indication of a change of stance or emphasis further west?  Has the prominence of ‘Reformed Charismatics’ in the resurgence of ‘the New Calvinism’ had an effect?  For most of these men, the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision are at the forefront of the issues that need to be confronted in the church today (including on the ground in the life of local churches).  These issues, and the related web of errors that sit within and alongside them, crop up repeatedly.  What distresses without particularly surprising is how many of the cardinal doctrines of historic Reformed Christianity are once more considered up for grabs.  These are not new battles, though, and much is to be learned from those who have gone before.

Another thread concerns the shortness of the distance from orthodoxy to heterodoxy: no chasm this, but rather a hair’s breadth.  Falsehood is most effective when it is perverted or exaggerated truth.  The ease with which it is possible to slip into error is a constant warning, and the necessity of sometimes fine and accurate distinctions is always before us.

One helpful emphasis concerns the purpose of confronting error: it is not point-scoring, nor scalp-hunting.  Rather, we are to seek, in love, to win back the wanderers.  While we find a fundamental hope that all can be recovered, there is a note of practical pessimism as several experienced men lament how few individuals and institutions, once they have left the old paths, have been recovered to them.  Alongside of this is another warning note: the dangers of pride on account of an orthodox reputation, and therefore the need to walk closely with God if we are not to slip into error or heresy ourselves, or to become calloused and crass, making ourselves more an aggressive watchdog than a righteous watchman, notching our belts over how many errorists we blew out of the water with our last sermonic broadside.

That brings us to the final chapters, in which Martin Downes returns to warn against making the hunt for heresy the defining feature of any ministry.  This is developed in a brief treatment of 1 Timothy, reflecting on dealing with false teachers and teaching.  In the face of errors connected with revelation and interpretation, Downes marshals the apostolic evidence for making our ministries substantively positive.  Singular truth, identified and displayed in all its beauty, by its very nature exposes and condemns multiform and manifold error.  Here, the identification and exposure of error becomes almost incidental, natural, appropriate, and balanced.  Constant controversy is a bad school for character development: far better to bring the truth always to light, and let that light fall as required into the dark places.  John Owen concludes with typically wise and weighty counsel: it is one thing to be against heresies, but it is essential that we be for truth, not in a merely intellectual sense, but with a true apprehension of that truth in our minds and hearts:

Let us, then, not think that we are any thing the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel, for which we contend with these men, unless we find the power of the truths abiding in out [sic] own hearts, and have a continual experience of their necessity and excellency in our standing before God and our communion with Him (247).

There are few volumes around that have this book’s distinctive character and purpose.  An impressive variety of men of God bend their collective minds to a single concern of broad relevance and great importance, and – prompted by some careful probing – give us the concentrated fruit of their thinking in clear and robust terms.  It is a repository of much wisdom, but of a certain kind.  You will not find here a Wallace sword 2catalogue of errors and heresies with cross-referenced responses.  Neither will you find all-out attacks on particular issues in the church.  What you will find is counsel as much on the method and manner of holding to truth and assaulting falsehood as the matter of truth itself.  You will not agree with all the details, but you will find a swathe of common opinion that is vigorously orthodox.  You will be stimulated, pointed in the right direction, made aware of issues and helped in where to start with and how to handle those issues.  Above and behind all, there lies a clear desire for the glory of God and the good of the church, a love for the truth and a concern for the lost and confused, and a clear-sighted awareness of what is at stake with a calm determination to hold the line and help others to do the same.  Whether already engaged in fighting a particular battle, or simply seeking to keep honed the edge of your Jerusalem blade, here you will find a good whetstone.

Penal substitution

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

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

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 14 April 2009 at 16:29

“Risking the Truth”

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 7 April 2009 at 19:51

Socinus redivivus

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Martin Downes has an insightful post on the methodological heritage that open theists derive from Socinianism.  He quotes from Clark Pinnock denying that there can be such a thing as true freedom of will if there is a “fixity of future” known in concrete terms by God, and then points us to Charles Hodge and Herman Bavinck.


The Socinians, however, and some of the Remonstrants, unable to reconcile this foreknowledge with human liberty, deny that free acts can be foreknown. As the omnipotence of God is his ability to do whatever is possible, so his omniscience is his knowledge of everything knowable. But as free acts are in their nature uncertain, as they may or may not be, they cannot be known before they occur. Such is the argument of Socinus. This whole difficulty arises out of the assumption that contingency is essential to free agency. (Systematic Theology Vol. 1, p. 400-1)


In a later period the Socinians taught the same thing. God knows all things, they said, but all things according to their nature. Hence, he knows future contingent (accidental) events, not with absolute certainty (for then they would cease to be accidental), but as contingent and accidental; that is, he knows what the future holds insofar as it depends on humans, but not with infallible foreknowledge. If that were the case, the freedom of the will would be lost, God would become the author of sin, and he himself would be subject to necessity. (Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation, p. 197. Emphasis added)

Martin’s helpfully lucid conclusion is as follows:

The connection between open theism and Socinianism is not literary but methodological. They share the same convictions and have arrived at the same conclusions concerning the relationship between human freedom and divine foreknowledge.

Sound reasoning, a sombre conclusion, and a sober warning.  All are needed in days when the old errors once more stalk the land.

(More on this from Martin here.)

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 17 January 2009 at 22:50

False dichotomies

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In the last couple of days a list of qualities in communities of performance and communities of grace has been floating around the interweb (e.g. here).  It apparently comes from an address by Tim Chester at the Total Church Conference, and also appears on Tim’s blog.  I recently read Total Church by Tim and his colleague, Steve Timmis, and found much that was provocatively helpful and challenging, and a few things with which I disagreed or about which I had questions (I may try to review this book shortly).  Here is the list:

Communities of performance

  • the leaders appear sorted
  • the community appears respectable
  • meetings must be a polished performance
  • identity is found in ministry
  • failure is devastating
  • actions are driven by duty
  • conflict is suppressed or ignored
  • the focus is on orthodoxy and behaviour (allowing people to think they’re sorted)

Communities of grace

  • the leaders are vulnerable
  • the community is messy
  • meetings are just one part of community life
  • identity is found in Christ
  • failure is disappointing, but not devastating
  • actions are driven by joy
  • conflict is addressed in the open
  • the focus is on the affections of the heart (with a strong view of sin and grace)

We are asked to assess the churches of which we are a part and to which we belong, and to see whether we belong to a community of performance or a community of grace.

However, what we are presented with here is a series of false dichotomies: this is a logical fallacy in which two options are given on the premise that the one is mutually exclusive of the other, and that there are no other alternatives.  But it is a false dichotomy because the contrast is either not jointly exhaustive or not mutually exclusive.  Put more simply, you are being told that this is an ‘either-or’ choice when it really is not.

So, are your leaders sorted or are they vulnerable?  These are not mutually exclusive choices.  Is it wrong for leaders to be competent?  Is that the same as sorted?  What does ‘vulnerable’ mean?  Does it mean that their fallen though redeemed humanity is apparent, that they evidently are earthen vessels (2Cor 4.7)?  Webster’s Dictionary suggests that a vulnerable person is “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded” – what does that have to do with grace?  If it means that the leaders of a church don’t pretend to be superhuman, all well and good.  But how does that contrast with ‘sorted’?  A lot of people who like to appear sorted are actually prone to being wounded – vulnerability is often part of the package, because it’s the very thing that the performer is trying to deny.  Furthermore, a leader who is not only capable of being physically or emotionally wounded, but who is constantly wrecked by it and made incapable of serving others through it (e.g. curling up in self-centredness) is not really a demonstration of grace.  Only where one’s vulnerability works itself out in, for example, a Pauline dynamic does it prove a demonstration of grace.

The community appears respectable or it is messy?  If by this we are called to distinguish between a Pharisaic outward morality and a readiness to acknowledge the realities of remaining sin and the imperfections of sinners wrestling toward holiness, fine.  But is messy the opposite of respectable?  If we are beacons of gospel light in a fallen world could we not appear – or, indeed, be – ‘respectable’ to a twisted and miserable world without being Pharisees?  And does messy require that we not make progress toward godliness, even while we recognise that God’s grace is not always the neat and streamlined thing we would like it to be?  Are we being told to oppose messy with orderly?  After all, things in the church are to be done decently and in order (1Cor 14.40).  Is there something ungodly about being like God?

Again, if a polished performance is the be-all-and-end-all of a meeting for worship, then clearly we are in trouble.  But how is that opposed to a meeting that is one part of community life?  The whole life of a community could be the pursuit of a polished performance.  What does it become then?  Again, could a meeting that is decent and orderly be a genuine arena for true grace?  Paul evidently thought so.

Is your identity found in ministry or in Christ?  Surely and fundamentally, it is in Christ.  But is knowing and labouring in one’s calling and service the opposite of finding one’s identity in Christ?

Is failure devastating or disappointing?  Well, it depends on the nature of the failure.  When Peter failed to own Christ, he was more than disappointed.  He was, of course, restored by God’s grace, but he was devastated.  Are we called to distinguish between the demand for sinless perfection and the recognition that there is a constant battle against sin and for godliness?  Amen!  But surely it is not the necessary mark of a mere performer to be profoundly grieved over sin (one’s own or that of others), and some of the most gracious men are much more than disappointed by their sin and those of others, while recognising that where sin abounds grace much more abounds?

Are your actions driven by duty or joy?  Well, are not a lot of my actions duties?  Cannot my duties be driven by joy?  What sort of joy?  What is the opposite of this joy?  Distress?  Grief?  To be sure, my actions are not to be driven by guilt, or with a view to earning merit, or merely being applauded.  But to be driven (motivated?) by joy does not mean that what I am doing is not my Christian duty.

Is conflict suppressed or ignored or addressed openly?  What does openly mean?  If it means in front of the whole community, then that runs against our Lord’s injunction to go first alone to win one’s brother, and then with one or two others (Mt 18.15-17).  “Of course it doesn’t mean that!” you respond.  I know, but in terms of the false contrast supplied it could.  What does suppression mean?  If it means covering a brother’s ignorant offence with a blanket of love (in the longsuffering spirit of 1 Corinthians 13.4) because you do not need to raise it with him unless it becomes a pattern of sin, surely that is a mark of grace?  If and when a problem does need to be dealt with, do you do so frankly, transparently, openly?  Good, that too is grace.

Is the focus of your local church on orthodoxy and behaviour (allowing people to think they’re sorted) or on the affections of the heart (with a strong view of sin and grace)?  Why should an affectionate heart full of love to God and persuaded of the sinfulness of sin and the abounding grace of God in Christ lack orthodox belief and righteous behaviour?  As Martin Downes points out (just seen this!), orthodoxy is demanded in a true community of grace and a true minister of the gospel of grace (2Tim 1.13-14).  There is no necessary exclusivity between orthodox doctrine and righteous living and the affections of the heart (as the parenthetical caveats acknowledge, there is a specific context in which these qualities can become opposed, even if they not mutually exclusive themselves).

If you read Tim Chester’s own blog, you will see that he is much more nuanced than the list suggests.  This is a good thing, because the naked list is thoroughly misleading.  It sets up a series of unfair contrasts that demand a much more carefully explained context to be genuinely helpful.  The categories established and the judgments demanded by them suck the unwary reader into an ‘either-or’ quandary which is simply unnecessary, not to mention unreasonable.  The opposing lists feel edgy and radical, but – standing alone – they seem flawed and can be very easily misunderstood.  Indeed, almost all of the marks of a community of grace we are offered could very easily be ‘performed.’  I hope that by simply pointing this out, I will not be immediately consigned to one of those terrible ‘communities of performance.’

Some of the things that Tim identifies certainly can mark a community as tainted with Pharisaism and legalism and hypocrisy.  Some of the marks he suggests identify a community of grace are – rightly understood – indicative of spiritual health.  However, there is a mere surface contrast being demanded by these lists that could betray us into a denial of true grace at work.  Martin Downes makes plain that

Christ is enough. His obedient life is enough. His finished work is enough. The imputation of his righteousness is enough. It has all be done by Him for us. Grace has set us free from seeking to establish, maintain and advance our status on the basis of a false righteousness.

Where Christ is enough and known and felt to be enough, grace will reign and our communities will be awash with grace.  It will be grace in which we stand (Rom 5.2) and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.  Such realities are not advanced by false dichotomies.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 3 November 2008 at 14:24

Three things

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Three posts worth checking out:

Each of these requires significant and careful self-evaluation and self-examination.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 2 October 2008 at 14:05

Questions for reading

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Martin Downes gleans some questions from Richard Baxter to ask oneself while reading:

1. Could I spend this time no better?

2. Are there better books/blogs that would edify me more?

3. Are the lovers of such a book/blog as this the greatest lovers of the Book of God and of a holy life?

4. Does this book/blog increase my love to the Word of God, kill my sin, and prepare me for the life to come?

[From the Banner of Truth Magazine, July 1958]

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 18 July 2008 at 10:18

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