The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

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Divine sovereignty & human responsibility

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Tim Challies quotes two of my favourite pastor-theologians on the tension between and reconciliation of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

Andrew Fuller:

A fleshly mind may ask, “How can these things be?” How can Divine predestination accord with human agency and accountableness? But a truly humble Christian, finding both in his Bible, will believe both, though he may be unable fully to understand their consistency; and he will find in the one a motive to depend entirely on God, and in the other a caution against slothfulness and presumptuous neglect of duty. And thus a Christian minister, if he view the doctrine in its proper connexions, will find nothing in it to hinder the free use of warnings, invitations, and persuasions, either to the converted or the unconverted. Yet he will not ground his hopes of success on the pliability of the human mind, but on the promised grace of God, who (while he prophesies to the dry bones, as he is commanded) is known to inspire them with the breath of life.

Charles Spurgeon:

That God predestines, and yet that man is responsible, are two facts that few can see clearly. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory, but they are not. The fault is in our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one part of the Bible that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and I find that in another Scripture, that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is only my folly that leads me to imagine that these two truths can ever contradict each other. I do not believe they can ever be welded into one upon any earthly anvil, but they certainly shall be one in eternity. They are two lines that so nearly parallel, that the human mind which pursues them farthest will never discover that they converge, but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 10 January 2012 at 19:33

Book blizzard

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Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation (Volume 2: 1552-1566) compiled and introduced by James T. Dennison (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), is the second volume in this excellent series.  Here, each with a lucid and brief introduction, are a further 35 confessions, including both the Forty-Two and the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, the Heidelberg Catechism, and such lesser-known works as the Geneva Students’ Confession (1559), Beza’s Confession (1560), productions from Tarcal and Torda and Enyedi, and the delightfully named Synod of Gönc (1566).  Particularly fascinating are those truths which our forefathers thought primary (and therefore worthy of confessing), and which today are often discounted as secondary (and vice versa).  One of the values of such a study is to send us back to our Bibles to recalibrate our sensitivities, informed both by the necessities of the present and the instruction of the past.  Well-bound and clearly printed, this series provides an excellent resource for those interested in examining and learning from the Reformed confessional heritage.

James M. Renihan puts 1 Corinthians 13 firmly in its context to explore True Love: Understanding the Real Meaning of Christian Love (Evangelical Press, 2010).  Beginning with God’s love for us in Christ, and the law and gospel of love, Renihan also situates chapter 13 in the epistle as a whole and then – without dealing with other contentious issues – focuses on this love, its importance and its outworking.  Given how misunderstood and abused the whole notion of love is both within and without the church, and how often abused and sentimentalized this chapter can be, this is a powerful corrective to shallow and errant views, providing us with a solid, careful, and challenging study of this most vital Christian grace and duty.

Along the lines of Banner’s ‘Puritan Paperbacks’ series, Reformation Heritage Books has begun a ‘Puritan Treasures for Today’ line.  First up is George Swinnock with The Fading of the Flesh and the Flourishing of Faith (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).  The aim of the series is to provide an easy way in to Puritan writings by making available a briefer work in updated English.  In this volume Swinnock expounds Psalm 73.26, demonstrating and applying the fact that man must die, and must therefore prepare to die, and that the immortal God is man’s only true happiness, and so the best preparation for the soul is to take God as its chief treasure.  With holy warnings and enticements, Swinnock addresses both believers and unbelievers with that warm exhortation and vivid illustration characteristic of Puritan preaching at its best.  Well-edited and well-presented, this volume (and the projected series) would provide a helpful gateway to the riches of the Puritans.

In this volume, we are Heading for Heaven (Evangelical Press, 2009) under the safe guidance of that Greatheart, J. C. Ryle.  A previously published and nicely redesigned (but not reset) selection from Ryle’s sermons on The Christian Race, here we see Ryle as a preacher rather than an essayist.  Leaving behind all the finery of eloquence, Ryle deals with the heart to urge the reader to ensure that they are on the right path, and then to pursue that path to the end.  Homely and earnest, these sermons on various texts will serve to stir and warm the heart, and any reader would be well-served by investing the time to digest these addresses.

In Spectacular Sins and their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ (Crossway, 2008), John Piper wades carefully into murky water to address the thorny issue of God’s sovereignty over and in the very worst events that have taken place and will take place in this world.  Familiar Piper themes and phrases pepper the book as the author spends time establishing the absolute supremacy of the Godhead over all things, including sin, and then begins to look at concrete examples that demonstrate both God’s sovereign power and his sovereign and good purposes even in the most grim events.  Satan’s existence, Adam’s fall, Babel’s rise, Joseph’s slavery, Israel’s monarchy, and Judas’ betrayal all provide opportunity to demonstrate how such apparent catastrophes served God’s purposes to glorify his Son and save his people.  Walking and sometimes wobbling along a tightrope between seeking to bring Scripture light to bear on the darkest matters and the danger of peering into things which God has intentionally left dark, Piper’s purpose is to equip the saints for the hard times that always come.  Given the nature of the case, it is invariably hard to bring the general lessons down to the particulars when one is overwhelmed with pain and grief, but this is nevertheless a clear and courageous reminder that God is never absent nor ignorant, but actively working all things together for good.

Part of the continued fall-out from the Calvin quincentennial is Calvin: Theologian and Reformer (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), a collection of papers from the John Owen Centre conference at London Theological Seminary, edited by Joel Beeke and Garry Williams.  The collection is divided into three sections – Calvin’s life and work, then doctrine and experience, and finally Christian living and ministry – and include contributions from Sinclair Ferguson, Ian Hamilton, and Joel Beeke.  Maintaining something of the style and sense of conference addresses, those who attended will enter again into the spirit of the meetings, and those who did not will get a taste of it.  As a brief introduction to Calvin’s life with God, thought of God, and pursuit of godliness, this is very helpful.

God’s sovereignty and God’s grace walk hand in hand through A Long Line of Godly Men (Volume 1, 1400BC – AD100): Foundations of Grace by Steven J. Lawson (Reformation Trust, 2006).  That complex title points to the structure of this projected five-volume series in which our author intends to survey history from a divinely-appointed perspective.  This first volume lays the foundation with a canter through the entire Bible seeking to establish, from first to last, the coherent and consistent and credible testimony of Scripture to God’s saving purposes.  From Moses to John, Genesis to Revelation, Dr Lawson traces his theme with penetrating insight and profound understanding.  With helpfully-flagged ‘Doctrine in Focus’ sections littered through the pages and a series of study questions at the end of each chapter, this is a book intended to address the whole man.  Sympathetic readers might query certain details while enjoying the very broad sweep of this thematic study as Lawson skips across the high hills of our Bibles in an attempt to link up and light up the peaks by firing the beacons of God’s grace at each point.  Do not misinterpret the title: this book is not about men but about their God and his glorious dealings with sinful men.  With an extended introduction by John MacArthur, this is no light read but it should prove an immensely profitable one.

In 2009, Joel Beeke was the main preacher at the Aberystwyth Conference, and addressed the theme of Contagious Christian Living, which sermons are now gathered into this slim volume (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).  Desiring that the people of God will learn to live lives of godliness that have a profound and lasting impact on the people around them, Beeke presents four lives and their lessons: Jephthah’s daughter teaches us sacrificial submission (the author takes the line that she was consecrated to God and not sacrificed); Bartimaeus instructs us in Christ-centredness; Jacob, in contagious blessing; and, Daniel, consistent integrity.  The teaching is simple, earnest, and pastoral, and the spirit of it is the very one which Beeke wants to encourage others to cultivate.  There is vigorous challenge here, to be certain, but also direction and encouragement which will benefit every humble believer ready to learn contagious Christian living.

John D. Currid portrays for us The Expectant Prophet: Habakkuk Simply Explained (Evangelical Press, 2009).  Presenting the dialogue between the bewildered prophet and his all-seeing, all-knowing, all-guiding God, he guides us to and through the prophet’s closing psalm in which his expectant dependence upon the Lord comes gloriously to the fore.  Currid directs us sensitively, simply and wisely through this short but too-often-neglected portion of God’s Word, his often stimulating perspectives and insights making Habakkuk a truly profitable prophet for readers who, in the face of similar challenges and questions, need to find and rest in Habakkuk’s answers.

Amazing Conversions: John Ashworth and His Strange Tales (Tentmaker Publications, 2009) is a book for weeping over.  There will be tears of shame, that we are not more persuaded of and acting upon the saving mercies of God; tears of pity, for the fearful condition of the lost; and, tears of joy, for God’s goodness in bringing those under the power of darkness into his Son’s kingdom.  A brief biography of Ashworth, founder of the “Chapel for the Desitute” gives way to his records of God’s gracious dealings with needy sinners.  While all conversions are amazing, Ashworth – not neglecting to tell of difficulties and disappointments – nevertheless focuses on some of the more distinctive and unlikely (humanly speaking) regenerations he saw, accomplished by ordinary means, applied faithfully, prayerfully, winsomely and patiently.  This is a book to stir the soul, give confidence in God, and set the Christian, and especially the preacher, about his regular business with zeal and hope.  I commend it vigorously.

Perhaps concerned at being undersold, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne give us The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift that Changes Everything (Matthias Media, 2009).  The book is built around the metaphor of the relationship – and often the imbalance – between the trellis (the structures and supports of church life) and the vine (the conversion and growth in grace of the people who make up the church).  In essence, it is a plea to focus on the growing of the vine and not the building of the trellis, investing in people rather than structures.  There is much to appreciate, especially the concern to see Christian maturity that enables them to invest in the lives of others.  At the same time, the authors occasionally present some false dichotomies in trying to distinguish their approach from others, and run into self-contradictions on several occasions.  In attempting to encourage the saints to employ their gifts, there is a danger of flattening out Christ’s own structures in the church, especially when the notion of vocation (pastoral or otherwise) is fairly swiftly dismissed.  Certain assumptions evidently lie behind some of the teaching here.  A very worthy and entirely laudable aim, together with some helpful and insightful suggestions, can still leave one feeling that, for a book that wants to be about vines, there is an awful lot of trellis being constructed, not least in the sustained advertisement of other programmes and materials available from the same publisher.

Wayne Grudem’s Business for the Glory of God: The Bible’s Teaching on the Moral Goodness of Business (Crossway, 2003) is a kidney-punch of a book: 91 pages of to-the-point striking.  Developed from an address at a conference for entrepreneurs, it is an unapologetic hymn to the positive moral goodness of ownership, productivity, employment, commercial transactions, profit, money, inequality of possessions, competition, and borrowing and lending.  Grudem is not blind to the temptations in and potential abuses of these things, and seeks to address them, albeit briefly.  He also has short sections on heart attitudes and world poverty.  Concerned to encourage those in business to use their calling to glorify God, it is less about doing business in a godly way, and more about the inherent goodness of business in itself.  Loaded with assumptions, pithy rather than profound in its employment of Scripture, and provocative in its absoluteness, some will be tempted to wonder if this book could have come out of anywhere but 21st century America.  Businessmen and women will find every encouragement to continue in and pursue their callings here.  However, the claim for fundamental and inherent goodness in some of these aspects of our culture raises questions that the book itself does not answer.  A vigorous book to be read vigorously, and requiring determined engagement.

Rest in God & A Calamity in Contemporary Christianity (Banner of Truth, 2010) is a pithy contribution to debates over the Lord’s day by Iain Murray.  Beginning in Genesis 2.3 and working through the ceremonial law, with a brief excursus on the earlier and later Calvin’s thoughts on the matter, we arrive at length in the New Testament and then take a short survey of post-apostolic church history.  Five terse conclusions draw this booklet (35 pages) to a close.  There is nothing new here, but a simple and earnest rehearsal and representation of the Scriptural and historical orthodoxy of the Lord’s day.  The subtitle and the tone of the book make plain that this is no take-it-or-leave-it matter, but a battle of vital importance for the present and future health of Christ’s church.  Many will no doubt dismiss or despise Murray’s assessment, but many more will join with him in recognising an area in which contemporary Christianity badly needs to set its house in order.

In The Breeze of the Centuries: Introducing Great Theologians from the Apostolic Fathers to Aquinas (IVP, 2010), Michael Reeves provides us with the first book of an intended two-volume set giving an overview of major contributors to theology during the first thirteen post-apostolic centuries.  He surveys the apostolic fathers, moves on through Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, before spending some time on Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas.  The aim is to provide a straight report – with a good smattering of original material, and surveys of major works –though our author occasionally breaks cover to add a little spice of his own.  Helpful recommendations and timelines add usefulness, although the lack of an index is a problem with a book that many would find a handy ready-reference.  Written with verve and respect, this should prove a very helpful introduction to novices and a good overview for more experienced readers.

Pandemics, panic and peace

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Death is in the headlines.  Michael Jackson seemed to think he was God.  Bobby Robson was, in his time, as much the Geordie Messiah as Kevin Keegan.  At a Swiss clinic, Dignitas clients play God with their own lives.  And, up and down the UK, and in many other countries (some far less equipped to deal with the problem), disease runs rampant, and men panic over the pursuit or lack of God-like control over their health.

swine flu (samples)In a culture increasingly obsessed, at least in popular media, with doomsday scenarios, the swine flu statistics and reaction can be bewildering.  The country is generally described as “unprepared” (sometimes the adjective “woefully” is thrown in for good cheer).  The government seems to veer between crying “We’re coping” on the one hand, and “We’re doomed” on the other: the net effect is the agitated cry of a frantic Corporal Jones: “Don’t panic!”

In a climate of fear and uncertainty, of panic and ignorance, how should a Christian respond?  God’s voice cuts through the white noise of conflicting cries for attention and tells us how to think clearly and prepare properly.

Think clearly.

Firstly, remember that the Lord God remains in control of all things (Eph 1.11; Heb 1.3; Ps 135.6).  This may be general and basic, but it is still true and needful.  God’s knowledge and power are absolute on the grandest and most minute scales.  Isaiah 40 is true in every regard even when – like Jeremiah when ordered to buy a field in the face of the advancing armies of Chaldea (Jer 32.16-25) – we remain ignorant and confused.  Even unbelievers who would never bless God when receiving mercies are quick to blame him when trouble comes (Rev 16.9, 21) – their fallen hearts still know that someone is in charge.  God’s absolute control includes all disease and plague (Ps 39.10).  He remains the sovereign, gracious, merciful and compassionate God of Jonah 4.10-11: nothing is an aberration from his plan, there are no surprises to him, and he makes no mistakes.

swine flu (close up)Secondly, know that the Lord God has sovereignly determined the spread, effect and toll of this disease.  Scriptures often show the Lord employing disease to accomplish his purposes.  The common thread running through every instance is his absolute control over it (see Ex 6.6-7; 7.5; 9.16; Num 16.41-50; 25.1-9; Dt 28.21, 61; 2Sam 24.13-25).  Whether among peoples or with regard to individuals (Jb 2.1-10), God sets the bounds always.  His actings and permissions are absolute.  His knowledge of and control over all aspects of life is total (Ps 139.15-16).  All the days of our lives, and all their experiences, are appointed for us.  Disease is God’s creature, and he holds the reins.

Thirdly, rejoice that the Lord God in mercy and goodness has provided means to promote and secure the health of his creatures.  It is a demonstration of God’s fatherly care (Mt 5.44-45).  It is an instance of common grace.  God has put certain means of health within our hands to be gratefully received swine flu (child and pig)and trustingly employed.  So, in Isaiah 38 we find Hezekiah granted fifteen extra years of life, but the divinely-appointed ends are accomplished by divinely-appointed means (v21).  Had Hezekiah despised or ignored the means of securing his health, it would not have been restored to him.  Christians sometimes demonstrate what is imagined to be a super-spirituality.  In doing so, some neglect God’s means: “This is all in the providence of God!”  True, but so are the physicians who have concocted medicines, and so is its availability to you, and so may be the fact that your life will be secured by the use of them.  Others despise God’s means: “God can heal or preserve me without resorting to medicines!”  Yes, he can, but he also often uses regular means for the accomplishing of his sovereign purposes, and you will be the sadder for despising them.  Without overreaction to, obsession with, or idolisation of the means God provides, use them soberly, seriously, wisely, diligently and appropriately as the divinely-appointed route, in most instances, to the promotion and securing of health.

Fourthly, consider that the Lord God has particular regard for his people, and is able to preserve and protect them by any means he chooses.  Our use of means is never a reliance on men, but must be joined with trust in God alone.  It is God who provides and blesses those means, and apart from him the doctors can accomplish nothing in us (2Chr 16.12).  God cares for his own (Ex 12.13; Ps 91.10).  Our times are appointed by him (Ps 31.15).  To the Lord belong escapes from death (Ps 68.19-20) whether those escapes are immediate and vivid or slow and unremarkable.  This is no guarantee of health or healing to all or any of God’s children (2Cor 12.8-10; 2Tim 4.20).  It may require the believing and responsible use of less usual means (Jas 5.14-15).  It certainly is not a call to a foolish fanaticism that tests God by demanding his care for an irresponsible and unrighteous walk (Mt 4.6-7).  It simply means that, in the believing, trusting, wise, careful and legitimate use of means for securing our health, we can go about our God’s appointed business without crippling fear.  Our times are in his hands, our days appointed by him, and our end secure with him: our present and final confidence lies in the God of our salvation (Rom 14.8).  In the Black Death that devastated Europe during the 1660s it was a noticeable fact that when many others fled London, many faithful preachers remained to serve the sick and dying, and some enjoyed a preservation of life and health inexplicable apart from God’s superintendence of them.

Finally, remember that the Lord God will glorify his name in this, whether or not we ever understand how.  Who can trace his intricate designs and multiplied purposes?  Who can counsel God as to the warnings, punishments, callings, testings and proving that this pandemic will accomplish?  When we can answer God’s questions in Job 38-41 then we can challenge his wisdom in governing the world he has made.  We do know this: that whether in life or death, mercy or judgment, sickness or health, gratitude or anger, God will be glorified.  His power will be demonstrated (Ex 19.6); his love will be proved (Dt 4.37); his sovereignty will be manifest (1Chr 29.11); his people will be stirred up (Ps 78.34-25); his enemies will be cast down (Ex 11.6-8).  His name will be made known.  One way in which that will occur is through the gracious living and believing dying of his saints (Mt 5.16; Is 43.2-3, 21).

Think clearly, then, and – in the light of these things – prepare properly.

Prepare to live.  Be ready to serve (Eph 2.10), especially those who may be lonely and needy in the face of sickness (see Ps 38.11).  Whom others neglect, the Christian remembers.  When others run from danger, the Christian runs to the endangered, not taking our life in our hands, but putting it in God’s hands.  Like Christ, we are to go about doing good.  It is an opportunity to demonstrate true discipleship (Gal 6.10).  Be ready to preach.  Let your deeds be matched and explained by words.  Be unashamedly Christian as you care for others, and do not deny God even when you cannot explain all his ways.  Many may be on the brink of eternity, many might listen now when otherwise they would have scorned: declare Christ as the only one who can secure life forever.  Speak of Jesus as the one name under heaven, given among men, by which sinners like us can be saved.  Be ready to pray.  Begin now.  Pray for God’s glory, man’s blessing, and your own faith of body and soul.  Come to God for the grace and strength you will need to serve him in these days.  Ask that he might be honoured in your life and in your death.  Pray for the salvation of many.  Be ready to shine: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5.16).  Plan for, pray for, prepare for, and pursue God’s honour in all these things.

church bellPrepare to die.  John Donne wrote, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”  Take these things as intimations of your own mortality.  Heed them as a call to readiness.  Your time may be at hand; your days are expiring: learn to number them, that you may gain a heart of wisdom (Ps 90.12).  The wise man will turn to and walk with Jesus as the Christ of God when he considers these things.  There is no other sure preparation for death (Ps 49.5-15).  Sooner or later all will die and afterward face judgment (Heb 9.27).  If not today, perhaps tomorrow; if not tomorrow, then soon.  If not this disease, then something else will quickly snatch you away.  Life is brief, and eternity beckons.  That eternity will be spent by every one of us either in the hell where all sufferings here will appear light by comparison with those imposed there, or in the heaven where all sufferings here will be past, and no sorrow, pain nor tears can come, where Christ is its light, and where the exceeding weight of glory will far surpass whatever trials and tribulations the world has laid on us.

The gospel writers tell us of a woman who came sick and full of suffering to the Lord Jesus.  She reached out a trembling hand and merely touched the hem of his garment.  When Jesus turned and spoke with her, he assured her of this: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.”  There is an affliction far worse than any disease, the affliction of sin.  The one who touches the Lord Christ’s garment in faith shall indeed be made well.  That is preparation both for life and for death.

Listen to a sermon on this topic here.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 5 August 2009 at 09:32

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