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Thoughts on John Bunyan and Charles Spurgeon

July 30, 2020 2 comments
Going through my ChristianAudio collection of past free monthly offers, I recently read the audio version of John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.  It is also available online in text format, such as this one at monergism.  (The audio version ends with the Conclusion, and does not include the supplemental material, starting with the November 1660 imprisonment, continuation of the author’s life, through to the postscript.)  I’ve previously read short excerpts or heard about it, including — as for example, in several of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons — Bunyan’s time of great anxiety and fears, before God brought him to full sense and assurance followed by his later usefulness to the church in Bedford.

The audio book divides the work into chapters, different mp3 tracks; apparently such chapter division was not original to Bunyan’s work but added later.  The section dealing with his doubts and dark times of heavy conviction is here in ‘chapter 3,’ the longest section.  A few interesting observations:  from early in the book, Bunyan observes the idea of the clean and unclean animals, in reference to “chewing the cud” and people who “chew on” the word of God.  Bunyan also, in his early days, observed in people what we see in all ages: professed believers, who were very concerned with their fortunes in this world, and who also greatly grieved the loss of their loved ones,  who had their focus on this world rather than the next.

Bunyan shared his desire to read old books, from long ago and before his day–and then acquired a copy of Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians which he especially liked.   It’s interesting that in his day, which we look back on as the golden era of Puritanism, he wanted to read books from an earlier time.  Luther’s time to his was still relatively recent, about 130 years past.  The Reformers evidently had access to the really ancient books, of Augustine and the early church–because they knew Latin.  Presumably, the writings of the Patristic and medieval years had not — at Bunyan’s time — yet been translated into the common language of English, and so Bunyan and other laypeople had limited access, to a few of the Reformers’ works translated into their own language.  What a blessing and privilege it is to us in our day, to have ready access to English translations of so many early authors, going back 1500+ years.

The audio book ‘Chapter 3’ is the section often mentioned by others, Bunyan’s years of dark fears and heavy conviction.  For a period of a few years soon after coming to salvation, Bunyan seemingly obsessed over various biblical texts, identifying himself with profane Esau, or Judas Iscariot, fearful of having committed the unpardonable sin, and finding that somehow every other godly character in the Bible who had greatly sinned at some point in their life — such as David, Solomon, Manasseh, and Peter — was somehow of a different case and classification from his, one that seems to have included some confusion (at the time) regarding the continuity of scripture from Old to New Testament:  “these were but sins against the law, from which there was a Jesus sent to save them; but yours is a sin against the Saviour, and who shall save you from that?”

This lengthy section recalled to mind the important teaching, that I’ve read from Charles Spurgeon and elsewhere, that God’s people have differing experiences, and it is not necessary, and indeed not at all to be expected, that every person who comes to Christ should have the same lengthy, dark and strong convictions as Bunyan had.  Spurgeon mentioned this in several of his sermons, responding to people who held off from coming to saving faith because they were waiting to have this special ‘preparation’ similar to Bunyan’s.  A few excerpts on this point, from Spurgeon:

From sermon #1490 (August 1879)
Upon certain strong minds God lays a heavy load of conviction, as, for instance, upon John Bunyan, whose five years of inward contention you will find mapped out in his, “Grace Abounding.” But these cases are not the rule and in such instances the Lord means to make a peculiarly useful and experienced man. In the formation of a competent leader and a spiritual champion, the Lord exercises the man to make him expert in dealing with others. But He does not do this with poor, weak minds which are rendered still weaker by the assaults of Satan and their inward fears. “He gathers the lambs in his bosom, and does gently lead those that are with young.”

From sermon #1555 (August 1880)
John Bunyan gives a long story in “Grace Abounding,” and I am thankful that he does, but he never meant that we were to imitate him in his unbelief and harsh thoughts of God. Those hideous doubts and horrible fears were not the work of the Spirit of God. They were the work of John Bunyan’s vivid imagination and the devil together. They had nothing to do with the pardon of his sin except that they hindered him from finding it month after month. Your business, poor guilty sinner, is to believe that mercy is dealt out by God to sinners, not according to their despair and remorse, but “according to the riches of His grace.” Where has God commanded us to despair? Does He not command us to believe? Where has He ever commanded remorse? Does He not bid us hope in His mercy? We are to come to Jesus just as we are and trust Him and we shall be forgiv all trespasses in a moment by our loving, waiting Father.
From sermon #1824 (March 1885)
Therefore do not judge yourself by any man’s biography. Do not condemn yourself if, after reading John Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding,” you say, “I never went into these dark places.” Be glad that you never did.

A similar point is made in the 1689 London Baptist Confession chapter 15.1 in the teaching regarding those of ‘riper years’.  As noted in this post from a few years ago, this paragraph (copied from the Savoy Confession) addresses the more outwardly noticeable salvation experiences of older believers.  Again, we are not to compare our own conversion experience to that of other believers, for God works in different ways.  Arden Hodgins here mentioned the example of David Brainerd, who like John Bunyan had an especially strong and intense experience of his sinful condition; all believers will experience something of this in repentance, but not necessarily to the same depth; or sometimes the understanding is unfolded later throughout the believer’s life of ongoing repentance.

Throughout, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is filled with scripture quotations, the evidence of a godly man fully acquainted with scripture, and a similar feature that I so love in Spurgeon’s sermons, the continual interaction with and use of scripture.  Bunyan’s Conclusion contains some excellent thoughts to consider, applicable to all of us in our walk with God:
I have sometimes seen more in a line of the Bible, than I could well tell how to stand under; and yet at another time, the whole Bible hath been to me as dry as a stick; or rather, My heart hath been so dead and dry unto it, that I could not conceive the refreshment, though I have looked it all over.
I find to this day seven abominations in my heart: 1. Inclining to unbelief; 2. Suddenly to forget the love and mercy that Christ manifesteth; 3. A leaning to the works of the law; 4. Wanderings and coldness in prayer; 5. To forget to watch for that I pray for; 6. Apt to murmur because I have no more, and yet ready to abuse what I have; 7. I can do none of those things which God commands me, but my corruptions will thrust in themselves. When I would do good, evil is present with me.
These things I continually see and feel, and am afflicted and oppressed with, yet the wisdom of God doth order them for my good; 1. They make me abhor myself; 2. They keep me from trusting my heart; 3. They convince me of the insufficiency of all inherent righteousness; 4. They show me the necessity of flying to Jesus; 5. They press me to pray unto God; 6. They show me the need I have to watch and be sober; 7. And provoke me to pray unto God, through Christ, to help me, and carry me through this world.

Studying the Confessions: Chapter 1 and Scripture

January 16, 2020 1 comment

As I mentioned last month, one major study for this year is the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms.  Going through the Westminster Daily, the first few days’ readings are in the beginning questions and the first chapter, on Scripture.  I’ve added a few commentaries, including A.A. Hodge’s “The Westminster Confession: A Commentary” and Thomas Boston’s commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

I’ve also found out that many commentaries exist for the WSC, but very few (really only two) for the WLC; one of the two is reportedly suspect as having some Socinian tendencies; the other is only available in print, apparently no e-book.  Through some exploration of Sermon Audio for a few Reformed names I’ve heard recently, I came across one sermon series (with 104 sermons) on the Westminster Larger Catechism, from Daniel Hyde, which covers at least some of the WLC, and several other series from various Presbyterian churches posting to SermonAudio.

Along the way I’m also reading the ‘scripture proofs’ and noting any differences between the Westminster standards and the 1689 Baptist confession and catechism.  The scripture references remind me of what Carl Trueman has well explained: the Assembly was asked by the Parliament to provide these references, so the scripture verses were an ‘add on’; also, the scripture references there are to prompt the reader to go read not only the verses but the commentary books written by the Puritan Westminster Divines.  Well, at this point I am mainly reading the actual Confession and Catechisms along with the verses, as I don’t necessarily have the particular commentaries from Puritan authors on any or all of the particular verses.  Yet I find the Confession and Catechism commentaries helpful.  In reading some of the Bible verses, though, I am reminded of a few Charles Spurgeon sermons I’ve read and especially liked, such as Psalm 16’s ‘the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance,’ (referenced in the first question in both the WSC and WLC) and a verse that Spurgeon often referenced.

The Heidelberg Catechism also has a yearly plan, the Lord’s Day weeks 1 through 52 as outlined in the actual catechism, and Zachary Ursinus’ commentary is in the public domain and available at sites including Monergism.

The main focus of these first daily readings is on Scripture, and natural revelation as contrasted with special revelation.  Here, A.A. Hodge provides some interesting points, noting the difference between what natural man came up with in the early pre-Christian era, as contrasted with the supposed ‘natural theology’ of the German enlightenment rationalists of the 19th century, living in and experiencing the benefits of a Christianized society:

We must, however, distinguish between that knowledge of the divine character which may be obtained by men from the worlds of nature arid providence in the exercise of their natural powers alone, without any suggestions or assistance derived from a supernatural revelation — as is illustrated in the theological writings of some most eminent of the heathen who lived before Christ — and that knowledge which men in this age, under the clear light of a supernatural revelation, are competent to deduce from a study of nature. The natural theology of the modern Rationalists demonstrably owes all its special excellences to that Christian revelation it is intended to supersede. …

That the amount of knowledge attainable by the light of nature is not sufficient to enable any to secure salvation. ….    From the facts presented in the past history of all nations destitute of the light of revelation, both before and since Christ. The truths they have held have been incomplete and mixed with fundamental error; their faith has been uncertain; their religious rites have been degrading, and their lives immoral. The only apparent exception to this fact is found in the case of some Rationalists in Christian lands; and their exceptional superiority to others of their creed is due to the secondary influences of that system of supernatural religion which they deny, but the power of which they cannot exclude.

In the early questions, the Westminster and Baptist confessions and catechisms are very similar, yet I notice some interesting differences, particularly in the ‘scripture text’ references, with the WCF/WLC/WSC generally providing more scripture references including key texts such as Isaiah 59:21 and overall more references to Deuteronomy and the Old Testament.

Hodge’s commentary is good overall for the Westminster Confession, at a general level; it includes good explanations regarding natural and special revelation, and the difference between spiritual illumination and inspiration.  Hodge keeps to this basic level, though, not an expanded scope (or length required) for all details.  For example, January 10’s reading on WCF 1.6 includes the doctrine of ‘good and necessary consequences’.  (The LBCF equivalent has slightly different wording, ‘necessarily contained in Scripture’, which I wondered about–and from googling found the explanation for the different wording, that its writers held to the same concept just with different wording a generation later.)  Hodge provides a general overview of the paragraph, but nothing specific to the understanding of good and necessary consequences.  Online articles abound, though, on this specific topic, such as these helpful ones, which give interesting historical and scriptural explanation, including a few examples of this principle in scripture–such as Jesus’ inference, upholding the truth of the Resurrection from Exodus 3:6.

Thomas Boston’s commentary on the WSC is good and fairly in-depth, as far as I’ve read into the first volume and just the first three questions, as is Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg catechism.

On Church Statements of Faith (and Historic Creeds)

April 27, 2018 9 comments

My appreciation for the Reformed confessions continues to grow, especially from interacting with the anti-creed, anti-confession attitude — and the consequent superficial, shallow and even false teaching — so prevalent in evangelicalism today.

As noted in Brian Borgman’s series (sermon audio here) from 18 years ago, the historic creeds and confessions provide valuable information to the church as Christ’s body, teaching preserved for future generations.  These statements were carefully developed to refute various heresies, and down through the centuries, the next generation of the church learned its doctrine from the wisdom of past ages.  Then, the 19th century American pioneering culture of ‘rugged individualism’ along with the bad part of the Second Great Awakening revival movement (Charles Finney and others) started us down the wrong path: a view that thinks what is new and modern is better than what came before, a view that does not learn from history, and instead proclaims “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible” (originally said by Alexander Campbell of the “Disciples of Christ” group in the early 19th century).

Christians in the 20th century did provide several Christian declarations, often focused on particular causes/issues of our day, such as the 1974 Lausanne Covenant on World Missions, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and the 1980s Danvers Statement (Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood).  Then came the controversial, doctrinal compromising ECT and ECT II (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) in the 1990s.  Since 2000 we have seen more of the specific purpose statements such as the Manhattan Declaration  and now the Nashville Statement.  Borgman’s series from 2000 ended the final lesson (about modern day creeds) on a positive note: the Cambridge Declaration of 1996, the origin of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

In response to the increasing anti-creedal attitude prevalent today, Founders.org has provided a few recent articles that make the positive case for why churches should (still) use creeds and confessions, as with these two:

The problem that comes up in churches that do not reference the historic creeds and confessions can be seen when an independent church with a relatively small congregation attempts to come up with its own “statement of faith” — a (supposedly) simple, not complex or lengthy, original document.  In desiring to use their own statements – apart from the careful analysis and wording used by the large assemblies and church councils in years past – and trying to say things briefly in their own words, their resulting statements have a tendency to be incomplete, misleading, and in some cases stating actual error.  (I realize that this is not their intent; they believe that they are trying to be faithful in expressing Christian truth.  It is their method, and the underlying presupposition to not reference historic creeds, that is problematic.)

As an example, a local church’s statement of faith mentions the inerrancy of scripture “in the original writings” – yet is silent on the related issue of scripture in translations, leaving the topic open to be challenged by others.  Since the original writings are not in common use by most of us, the Reformed confessions, as well as the recent Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, felt it was important to address the attributes of scripture in our translations.  From the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article X (emphasis added):

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

The Reformed confessions of a few centuries ago also expressed the point, in language less technical, for the purpose of the edification of the saints.  From the 1689 London Baptist Confession, chapter 1 (Of the Holy Scriptures, paragraph 8):

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.

More troubling is when a church’s statement of faith includes faulty hermeneutics, with sentences such as since all Scripture points to Christ, the Old Testament should be interpreted through the New Testament.  Such an idea has serious implications:  if the Old Testament cannot be understood on its own, apart from the New Testament, then no one who lived in the Old Testament age, or in the early church before the NT was written — when the Old Testament was their Bible – could possibly have understood God’s word on its own basis, since the ‘key’ to explaining what the Old Testament ‘really means’ did not yet exist.  Consider that the apostle Paul himself taught the truth of Christ and the resurrection by directly quoting from the Old Testament.  What about the believers in the book of Malachi (Malachi 3:16-18), or any of the other believers who lived before the New Testament was written?

Here again, we do not have to look back very far in history, as the Chicago statement also was clear regarding the hermeneutic of how we understand and interpret scripture.  As Article V explains (emphasis added):

We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.
We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it. 

The 17th century Reformed confessions (including the WCF, the Savoy Declaration and the 1689 London Baptist Confession) were written by those who saw the importance of doctrine for all of life, those who saw the need to provide detailed answers to the many questions, and to provide instruction to the common people.  The first chapter provided many paragraphs on Scripture , and these hold up very well, to this day, as excellent summaries of the faith, useful for instructing local congregations in Christian truth.  The modern-day attempt to “reinvent the wheel” regarding definition of doctrine manifests the very problem with trying to do so – belief statements lacking in detail and with faulty doctrine.  We would all do well to remember church history, and learn our doctrine — and how to say it clearly and accurately — from those who went before us.

Baptist Covenant Theology: Coxe and Owen, ‘From Adam to Christ’

August 28, 2017 2 comments

Continuing in the 2017 Challies’ Reading Challenge, I’m now reading another theology book: a second one about Baptist covenant theology.  The first book I read, back in January, was A.W. Pink’s The Divine Covenants  (see previous post); this time, a recent publication and reprint of two 17th century works,  in Covenant Theology: From Adam To Christ.  The first part is Nehemiah Coxe’s views of the first covenants:  the Adamic/covenant of works, plus the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants.  A selection from John Owen’s commentary on certain verses of Hebrews 8 follows. The original language of both Coxe and Owen has been modernized and edited for easier reading; footnotes have been added for words uncommon today, and section headings added to guide the reader.  It has often been said that Owen in particular is hard to follow, but this version of Owen is readable (and quite insightful).

The book was not quite what I expected – a discourse regarding each of the historical covenants in sequence from Adam through the Davidic and New Covenants, the approach taken by Pink’s book.  Instead, Coxe starts with the Covenant of Works with Adam, followed by the Noahic covenant, and lastly discourses at great length on the Abrahamic covenant, which he actually divides into two separate covenants:  the covenant of promise with the spiritual blessings, and a separate “covenant of circumcision” linked to the later law added by Moses and specifically for the Jewish economy.  So the discussion on the Abrahamic “covenant of circumcision” relates to the later Mosaic covenant.  Coxe ends at this point, without comment on the Davidic or New Covenant; the history notes that he agreed with John Owen’s exposition of Hebrews, and thus never completed his own exposition of the New Covenant.  Thus the next section is John Owen’s treatment of Hebrews 8.

Whereas A.W. Pink’s The Divine Covenants includes responses to classic dispensationalism and antinomianism, Coxe’s primary focus is the dominant view of his day – paedobaptism and the related construction of the covenant of grace as including the children of believing parents.  At times he speaks against the view of unbelieving Jews, switching his hermeneutic approach to the general spiritualized amillennial view – missing the point of the Jews’ belief of a future millennial age by seeing it as “their view” as something that pertains to carnal unbelieving Jews; of course the true premillennial view fully affirms a future millennial age, as a both/and that includes believing Jews.

As a book explaining Baptist covenant theology, and especially in response to the paedobaptist idea – a parallel between circumcision as a sign of the covenant of grace and thus infant baptism in our age – Coxe’s work is very helpful.  One problem with the idea of circumcision=infant baptism:  the pre-Israel saints, God’s people going back to Enoch and Noah, as well as other believers in the same time period as Abraham’s family, were not under the covenant of circumcision.  Melchizedek and others, even Lot, were believers and yet not included in the promises to Abraham and not bound to the covenant of circumcision.  (He does not mention Job or his friends, but the point includes them as well.)

Melchizedek was alive about this time. … it was  he who was the priest of the most high God and King of Salem.  In both respects he was the most eminent type of Jesus Christ that ever was in the world; a person greater than Abraham, for Abraham paid tithes to him and was blessed by him.  Now considering that he was both king and priest, there is no doubt that there was a society of men that were ruled by  him and for whom he ministered.  For a priest is ordained for men in things pertaining to God.  This society was as much a church of God as Abraham’s family was and as truly interested in the covenant of grace as any in it.  Yet they were not involved as parties in this covenant of circumcision nor to be signed by it.  And so it is manifest that circumcision was not at first applied as a seal of the covenant of grace, nor did an interest in it presently render a man the proper subject of it.

… there was a positive command which made it necessary to circumcise many that never had interest in the covenant of grace.  So, on the other hand, from the first date of circumcision there were many truly interested in the covenant of grace who were under no obligation to be circumcised.  This is how far from truth it is that a new covenant interest and right to circumcision may be inferred the one from the other.

Another consideration is Paul’s debate with the Judaizers, as explained in the book of Galatians.

There the apostle tells them if he still preached circumcision, then the offence of the cross was ceased and he might have lived free from the persecutions he now suffered from the unbelieving Jews.  … For if the controversy has been about the mode of administering the same covenant, and the change only of an external rite by bringing baptism into the place of circumcision to serve for the same use and end now as that had done before, the heat of their contests might soon have allayed.  … But he will certainly find himself engaged in a very difficult task who will seriously endeavor to reconcile the apostle’s discourse of circumcision with such a notion of it.  Circumcision was an ordinance of the old covenant and pertained to the law and therefore directly bound its subjects to a legal obedience.  But baptism is an ordinance of the gospel and directly obliges its subjects to gospel obedience.

Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ is quite informative and helpful for its response to the more well-known paedobaptist covenant theology.  The reprinting with modernized language makes Baptist covenant theology more accessible to the readers of our day, and helpful for discussing with today’s “Calvinist Baptists” who reject Covenant Theology by only interacting with the paedobaptist form of it and thus coming up with their own new teaching while yet ignoring the historical Christian teaching, that believers’ baptism and covenant theology do go together.

Reformed Baptists, Charles Spurgeon, and Israel

April 11, 2017 1 comment

 

A recent article, What is a Reformed Baptist, makes some good points as to the defining characteristics of Reformed Baptists, as distinguished from Reformed non-Baptists on the one hand, and non-Reformed (Calvinist) Baptists on the other hand.  Five distinctives are noted:  the regulative principle of worship, Baptist Covenant theology, Calvinism, the Law of God, and Confessionalism.  Overall, I agree with it and find it a helpful article.

Yet one point (under the second heading of Covenant Theology) provides an example of modern-day overreaction against one error (traditional dispensationalism), to the point that would negate the actual beliefs of at least some (pre-20th century) 1689 Baptists.  From the article:

According to the New Testament, the Old Testament promise to “you and your seed” was ultimately made to Christ, the true seed (Gal 3:16). Abraham’s physical children were a type of Christ, but Christ Himself is the reality. The physical descendants were included in the old covenant, not because they are all children of the promise, but because God was preserving the line of promise, until Christ, the true seed, came. Now that Christ has come, there is no longer any reason to preserve a physical line. Rather, only those who believe in Jesus are sons of Abraham, true Israelites, members of the new covenant, and the church of the Lord Jesus (Gal 3:7).  …

Baptists today who adhere to dispensationalism believe that the physical offspring of Abraham are the rightful recipients of the promises of God to Abraham’s seed. But they have departed from their historic Baptist roots and from the hermeneutical vision of the organic unity of the Bible cast by their forefathers. Baptist theologian James Leo Garret correctly notes that dispensationalism is an “incursion” into Baptist theology, which only emerged in the last one hundred fifty years or so.

Dispensationalism is indeed an “incursion” (introduced in the mid-19th century, as even its early teachers acknowledged) but that is a different issue from the question regarding any future purpose for physical, national Israel.  As I’ve noted a few times in previous posts, the doctrine of a future restoration of ethnic, national Israel to their land, to have a significant role as a nation during the future millennial era, is not limited to dispensationalism, nor a distinctive unique to dispensationalism.  The 19th century covenantal premillennialists, who predated dispensationalism (certainly before it was well-known and had gained popularity), taught the same idea which today is often dismissed out of hand (as being dispensationalism) – as for example, Andrew Bonar’s remarks in the introduction to his 1846 Commentary on Leviticus.

True, some of the covenantal premillennialists were from the paedo-Baptist form of covenant theology – notably, Horatius and Andrew Bonar, and J.C. Ryle.  But what about Charles Spurgeon, a well-known Baptist who affirmed and taught the 1689 London Baptist Confession at his church?  Several of his sermons specifically addressed the future state of Israel, and his sermon introductions (on prophetic texts that pertain to Israel’s future) included such comments – his brief exposition of the primary meaning of the text, before taking up his own textual-style approach in a different direction regarding the words of a text.

Regarding the specific view of “Abraham’s seed” and its meaning, a search through the Spurgeon sermon archives (at Spurgeon Gems) brings forth several sermons where Spurgeon addressed this.  Consider the following selection of sermons:

The following are a few excerpts which explain Spurgeon’s view of Abraham’s seed – a “both/and” view that includes believers in our age as well as a future group of literal Israel.

From #1369:

Now, our Lord Jesus has come to proclaim a period of jubilee to the true seed of Israel. The seed of Abraham now are not the seed according to the law, but those who are born after the promise. There are privileges reserved for Israel after the flesh, which they will yet receive in the day when they shall acknowledge Christ to be the Messiah, but every great blessing which was promised to Abraham’s seed after the flesh is now virtually promised to Israel after the Spirit, to those who by faith are the children of believing Abraham.

From #1962:

More than that, the Lord kept His friendship to Abraham by favoring his posterity. That is what our first text tells us. The Lord styled Israel, even rebellious Israel “The seed of Abraham My friend.” You know how David sought out the seed of Jonathan, and did them good for Jonathan’s sake, even so does the Lord love believers who are the seed of believing Abraham, and He still seeks out the children of Abraham His friend to do them good. In the latter days He shall save the literal Israel; the natural branches of the olive, which for a while have been broken off, shall be grafted in again. God has not forgotten His friendship to their father Abraham, and therefore He will return in love to Abraham’s seed, and again be their God.

Thus, a 1689 confessional, baptist covenant theology view does not necessitate a removal of one group (ethnic Israel).  Nothing here requires an “either/or” approach that removes and precludes a national future for Israel, as demonstrated in the “both/and” approach taken by Spurgeon (and other covenantal premillennialists).

The Reformed Confessions: Balance and Structure

March 20, 2017 3 comments

Following up from the last post, some more thoughts concerning the use of confessions in understanding Christian doctrine.  As I mentioned last time, it is actually the person learning individual doctrines apart from the confessions (which are a type of systematic theology, doctrinal summary) who is more likely to become proud,  full of head knowledge, and to have an imbalanced view concerning Christianity.  For the confessions provide a balance and a structure, considering all the doctrines and the proper view of them.

One example of this is the doctrine of predestination, which is addressed in the third chapter of the 1689 Baptist Confession.  The Credo Covenant blog  provides a good daily devotional study, a new post every day in the series “A Little Time with the 1689.” Each day’s post provides a look at a phrase or sentence from the 1689 Confession, in sequence through each chapter.  Recent posts addressed the end of the third chapter, on the doctrine of predestination.  Here the confession even has a response, from hundreds of years ago, to the common modern-day problem of “cage stage Calvinism.” So many today learn the Doctrines of Grace (aka the Five Points of Calvinism), outside of its original context (Old Calvinism; the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms) – and thus this one doctrine, learned by itself without proper perspective regarding other doctrines, often leads to pride and arrogance.  Yet the confession itself, in chapter 3 paragraph 7 well summarizes how we should handle the teaching of predestination:

The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election; so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.

Other examples of this include the understanding of different measures/levels of faith, and the balance between man as a fallen sinner and yet made in the image of God.  Without the confessions as a framework, too much emphasis may be given to the teaching that we are such wicked, depraved sinners (LBCF chapter 6) – while completely ignoring that we are also made in the image of God (LBCF chapter 4), and what it means to be image bearers of God.  Another common imbalance, often seen in “Sovereign Grace” New Calvinist churches, is to over-emphasize the sovereignty of God to the point of hyper-Calvinism and a passive approach to the Christian life, which thus reasons that since faith is all from God, everything comes from God, then “how can there be any difference between believers, such that some have ‘little faith’ and others have ‘great faith’?”  Again, the confessions – which themselves affirm the highest priority to scripture (chapter 1), and provide the detailed summary of what scripture teaches – provide in summary form the details of saving faith.  From the 1689 Baptist Confession, these excerpts from chapter 14 on saving faith:

The grace of faith…  is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened.

14.3 — This faith, although it be different in degrees, and may be weak or strong, yet it is in the least degree of it different in the kind or nature of it, as is all other saving grace, from the faith and common grace of temporary believers; and therefore, though it may be many times assailed and weakened, yet it gets the victory, growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

Reference the full chapter, including scripture references for each point, here.

So, with the structure, balance and depth of the confessions as excellent summaries of Christian truth, we can heartily agree with and appreciate Charles Spurgeon, including what he wrote in his “Morning and Evening” devotional regarding faith (the March 7 entry):

The best servants of God are those who have the most faith. Little faith will save a man, but little faith can not do great things for God. Little faith is powerless to fight against the Evil One. Only a faithful Christian can do that. Little faith is enough to get to heaven most certainly, but it often has to travel the road in fear. It says to itself, “Oh, it is such a rough road, filled with sharp thorns and full of dangers; I am afraid to go on.” But Great faith remembers the promise, “Your shoes will be like iron and brass; and your strength will be with you all of your days,” and so she boldly pushes forward.

Do you want to be happy? Do you want to enjoy your relationship with Christ? Then “have faith in God.” If you don’t mind living in gloom and misery, then be content with little faith; but if you love the sunshine and want to sing songs of rejoicing, then earnestly desire to have “great faith.”

The Reformed Confessions and Evangelical Anti-Creedalism

March 15, 2017 4 comments

From my recent studies and conversations with others, I continue to notice and appreciate the amazing detail and depth in the Reformed confessions; these great statements of faith  encompass everything related to each doctrine, even our proper attitude towards the doctrines.  The anti-confession (really, a lazy and anti-intellectual) idea that people who know their confessions inside and out may just have a lot of head knowledge, and that we shouldn’t be so concerned about systematic theology – because it’s more important to have Christ in our hearts, and communion with Him – is misguided on several points.

First, we all have a creed.  The question is not whether to have a creed — but the content of that creed.  The earliest belief statements arose in response to heretics who said they believed the Bible, but who clearly did not have in mind the same definitions of basic orthodoxy.  The many statements of faith that have come down through church history contain excellent summaries of the Christian faith.  As S. Lewis Johnson well observed:

Now remember, everybody has a creed, and in fact the person who holds up the Bible and says, “I have no creed, I simply have the Bible,” well, that’s his creed; that’s precisely his creed. We all have a creed, but the Christian church has been characterized by some outstanding creeds. The Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran church is an outstanding Christian statement. The Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian churches is an outstanding statement. Other statements come to mind immediately such as the thirty-nine articles of the Anglican church, also an outstanding statement. The Heidelberg Catechism of the Reform churches is an outstanding statement. These are great Christian creeds, you should study them. You should know them. They are not creeds that were constructed by half a dozen fellows who met over the weekend in order to give us a statement, but most of those creeds were the product of the study, debate, discussion of outstanding leaders of the Christian church over, sometimes, lengthy periods of time. As you well know, some of those creeds are the product of years of study and labor by men who were very competent in the word of God.

Also, in response to the anti-intellectual idea that belittles serious study of God’s word, because it might lead to puffed-up head knowledge:  as Dan Phillips expressed (in his book on the Proverbs), our nature is such that anything can make us proud; he observed that he could just as easily become proud of nothing, of not knowing, as with having knowing.  As has also been observed by many: just because a particular doctrine (any doctrine, and including the study of systematic theology) has been abused or misused by others, is NOT an excuse for YOU to not study God’s word for yourself.  This view is actually a form of post-modernism/ deconstruction – here, as Dan Phillips describes it:

In God’s eyes, there simply is no greater arrogance than rejecting Yahweh’s viewpoint in favor of my own. It is grimly fascinating that some Christians abhor the believer who dares to think that he or she knows something from the Word. To such folks, claiming certainty on any given issue is the height of arrogance. They are certain that certainty is certainly bad. By contrast, it is the height of arrogance to have a word from God and refuse to trust it by incorporating it into our way of thinking and living.

Thirdly, I would suggest that it is the non-confessional Christian – rather than the one who understands and has studied the confession statements – who is more likely to have his or her doctrinal perspective out of balance.  I’ll expand on this in the next post, but to state it briefly here:  the confessions themselves include statements about how we are to view certain doctrines.  Reference the LBCF chapter 3 paragraph 7, for instance, as an answer to the all-too-common “cage stage Calvinism” among today’s non-confessional “Sovereign Grace” Calvinists.  A full reading and study of the LBCF (or any similar confessions) will address all the doctrines, not just one’s own “pet doctrine” to the neglect of other doctrines.  God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, and the distinction between justification and sanctification, are a few examples of this – where non-confessional Calvinists tend to go astray, emphasizing one doctrine and neglecting or simply not understanding the other.

More next time, with a look at specific doctrines and how they are explained in the 1689 Confession.

2017 Challies’ Reading Challenge: Theology, A.W. Pink’s “Divine Covenants”

January 10, 2017 1 comment

I’m still listening to James White’s “Holiness Code for Today” series, but have now begun the 2017 Challies Reading Challenge for electronic (non-audio) books. I prefer to skip around in book order, and so the first book I’m reading is one about theology:  A.W. Pink’s “The Divine Covenants.”

awpinkIn the past I’ve read Pink’s well-known The Sovereignty of God, a short but helpful one on that topic, but generally have avoided him, instead reading other authors on topics I was more interested in.  Also, what I knew of him –particularly his life story of one who isolated himself, ending up as a  recluse, not participating in any local church, including what is well summarized in Dan Phillips’ post a few years ago  — was another reason to “return the favor” since he had no interest in the church.  The premillennialist part of me also has avoided one who had switched from classic dispensationalism, to amillennialism, and who is known for  some excesses of over-allegorization.

Yet in my studies over the last few years, confessional Baptist theology (1689 London Baptist Confession), Pink’s name has come up as one who held to 1689 Federalism.  The recommended book list from the online Reformed Baptist group includes a few recent ones, as well as Pink’s “Divine Covenants,” which is available free online here. The book is organized in chronological sequence of the theological/biblical covenants: the everlasting covenant (often called the “covenant of redemption”), then the Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Sinaitic, Davidic, and Messianic (New Covenant), followed by a concluding section called “The Covenant Allegory.”  I’m now about halfway through, in part 5, the Sinaitic covenant, and find the book very instructive.  A few parts I disagree with, particularly his hermeneutic and treatment of the land promises, a few chapters in the Abrahamic covenant part.  Here I agree with covenantal premillennialists such as Horatius Bonar, whose “Prophetic Landmarks” book responded with sharp criticism to the spiritualizers of his day, and particularly Patrick Fairbairn; and Fairbairn is one of the scholars frequently quoted by Pink.

Of note, each section includes good background material regarding the individuals and the setting (Adam, Noah, Abraham), along with excerpts from previous commentators and Pink’s own views at particular points; as one example, Pink believed that Adam remained lost, an unregenerate person, contrary to the more common view about Adam.

Pink goes beyond the usual more superficial look at the covenants as “unilateral, unconditional,” to emphasize three important parts of each covenant, which reveal both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.  Each covenant features 1) divine calling, grace, election;  2) obedience; and 3) the reward / God fulfilling His promises.  In the Noahic covenant:

God maintained the claims of His righteousness by what He required from the responsible agents with whom He dealt. It was not until after Noah “did according to all that God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22) by preparing an ark “to the saving of his house” (Heb. 11:7), that God confirmed His “with thee will I establish my covenant” (Gen. 6:18) by “I establish my covenant” (9:9). Noah having fulfilled the divine stipulations, God was now prepared to fulfill His promises.

Similarly in the Abrahamic covenant:

The order there is unmistakably plain. First, God acted in grace, sovereign grace, by singling out Abraham from his idolatrous neighbors, and by calling him to something far better. Second, God made known the requirements of His righteousness and enforced Abraham’s responsibility by the demand there made upon him.  Third, the promised reward was to follow Abraham’s response to God’s call. These three things are conjoined in Heb. 11:8: “By faith Abraham, when he was called [by divine grace] to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance [the reward], obeyed [the discharge of his responsibility]; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.” . . .

Many scriptures indeed indicate Abraham’s obedience, and show the moral law and obedience to God present in and required by the patriarchs, long before the Mosaic/Sinaitic covenant.  Here I also think of a similar text (not specifically mentioned yet relevant)—Ezekiel 33:24-26, which marks a contrast between Abraham and the idolatrous Israelites of Ezekiel’s day, and the moral difference:

 “Son of man, the inhabitants of these waste places in the land of Israel keep saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess.’ Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord God: You eat flesh with the blood and lift up your eyes to your idols and shed blood; shall you then possess the land?  You rely on the sword, you commit abominations, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife; shall you then possess the land?

Pink well summarized these features of the later covenants, as “nothing new” but true throughout God’s covenants, including the everlasting covenant (Covenant of Redemption):

The above elements just as truly shadowed forth another fundamental aspect of the everlasting covenant as did the different features singled out from the Adamic and the Noahic. In the everlasting covenant, God promised a certain reward unto Christ upon His fulfilling certain conditions—executing the appointed work. The inseparable principles of law and gospel, grace and reward, faith and works, were most expressly conjoined in that compact which God entered into with the Mediator before the foundation of the world. Therein we may behold the “manifold wisdom of God” in combining such apparent opposites; and instead of carping at their seeming hostility, we should admire the omniscience which has made the one the handmaid of the other. Only then are we prepared to discern and recognize the exercise of this dual principle in each of the subordinate covenants.

“The Divine Covenants” is well-written, looking at the different views of commentators and responding to various errors that have been taught, noting the scriptures that do not  agree with those ideas.  Throughout, too, are great quotes affirming the importance of scripture and refuting wrong attitudes that some have toward God’s word; the following excerpt I appreciate, in response to an idea still popular with many evangelicals today:

There is a certain class of people, posing as ultraorthodox, who imagine they have a reverence and respect for Holy Writ as the final court of appeal which surpasses that of their fellows. They say, ‘Show me a passage which expressly states God made a covenant with Adam, and that will settle the matter; but until you can produce a verse with the exact term “Adamic covenant” in it, I shall believe no such thing.’ Our reason for referring to this paltry quibble is because it illustrates a very superficial approach to God’s Word which is becoming more and more prevalent in certain quarters, and which stands badly in need of being corrected. Words are only counters or signs after all (different writers use them with varying latitude, as is sometimes the case in Scripture itself); and to be unduly occupied with the shell often results in a failure to obtain the kernel within.

Prayer According to God’s Will: 1689 Confession Study (Chapter 22)

September 15, 2016 1 comment

The 1689 Baptist Confession exposition series is currently in chapter 22 – the chapter on worship and its elements.  Two paragraphs here address the specifics of prayer – both corporate and private – and thus the 1689 study includes a mini-series on the elements of prayer.  (Now I am caught up to the latest available message in the series; this will continue with future lessons as they become available on Sermon Audio.)  A few thoughts here, regarding the issue of ‘praying according to God’s will,’ from this lesson (March 13, 2016) — three common errors, or points of misunderstanding, regarding interpretation of 1 John 5:14:

  • The “Room Service” view interprets 1 John 5:14 with over-emphasis on the ‘ask.’ Asking is what matters, and therefore to ask about anything is in itself according to God’s will.

A well-known scripture example that refutes this error, is the apostle Paul’s request (three times) for God to remove the thorn in his flesh; the answer was no.  Another incident I recall here, brought up in Tom Chantry’s recent Deuteronomy series: Moses’ pleading with God to be allowed to go into the promised land—that too was not allowed, and was not according to God’s will.

  • The “name it and claim it” view, one we’re familiar with from all the false teaching on Christian television, takes the scriptural reference that “if two or more people agree” and concludes that therefore, if at least two people agree to pray about something, God will do it.

R. C. Sproul has referred to this idea as, God as our “celestial bellhop,” at our beck-and-call for anything we want. As Sproul observed (quote available at this blog link):

We are reminded of statements like “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7); “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19); and “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). Shorthand summaries like these have provoked bizarre theories of prayer where people have violently isolated these passages from everything else Jesus and the Bible say about prayer. Distortions also abound when we approach these aphorisms simplistically. Consider the earlier statement about any two people agreeing. It would not be difficult to find two Christians who agree that ridding the world of cancer or wars would be a good idea. Their prayer in this matter would not automatically accomplish their desire. The Word of God indicates that wars, poverty, and disease will be present at the time of Christ’s return. To expect their absolute elimination before the appointed time is to grasp prematurely the future promises of God.

The third idea is not so much error, but partly true combined with a misunderstanding regarding God’s decretive versus perceptive wills.  The “Submissive but unsure” doubtful view, submits to God’s will, but remains uncertain as to whether the request being made is according to God’s will.  Here we consider God’s two wills: 1) His decretive will regarding everything that happens, everything that will occur; and 2) His perceptive will, that which is revealed throughout scripture as God’s precepts, God’s moral law, how we should live as Christians.  When we pray for things regarding our future – things not specifically revealed in God’s word – we submit the request to God and His will, with that uncertainty as to what the answer will be.  But when we pray for things that pertain to God’s perceptive will, we know that He will answer. Prayers for greater patience and endurance, for more peace, and other Christian “fruits of the spirit” ARE according to God’s will, prayers that we can have confidence that God will answer.  Indeed it is so, as Hodgins related, that often we can look back at a particular situation and realize, that yes, in this situation, this time I was more patient, this time my temper didn’t flare up – continuing answers to prayers that are according to God’s will.

Conflating Preparationism With the Second Use of the Law

July 18, 2016 4 comments

I recently came across an online discussion that revealed some people’s misunderstandings about the law and another term, preparationism.  For consideration was the following quote from Spurgeon.  (The full quote is available in this sermon, from January of 1886.  The conversation included only the bolded parts of the full quote — but the excerpt still makes Spurgeon’s point well enough):

I do not believe that any man can preach the gospel who does not preach the law. The book of Leviticus and all the other typical books are valuable as gospel-teaching to us, because there is always in them most clearly the law of God. The law is the needle, and you cannot draw the silken thread of the gospel through a man’s heart, unless you first send the needle of the law through the center thereof, to make way for it. If men do not understand the law, they will not feel that they are sinners; and if they are not consciously sinners, they will never value the sin offering. If the Ten Commandments are never read in their hearing, they will not know wherein they are guilty, and how shall they make confession? If they are not assured that the law is holy, and just, and good, and that God has never demanded of any man more than He has a right to demand, how shall they feel the filthiness of sin, or see the need of flying to Christ for cleansing? There is no healing a man till the law has wounded him, no making him alive till the law has slain him.

Clearly, Spurgeon is here referencing the “second use” of the law (the pedagogical use): to point out to sinners what God’s holy standard is, to show that they are sinners and that they cannot keep God’s law on their own and they need a savior.  Yet the people in this conversation instead concluded (incorrectly) that this is an example of preparationism — which they defined as, that a certain “work” of preparation needs to be done in a person’s heart, or else the Holy Spirit is not able to bring conviction of sin to that person.

Such reasoning shows two problems: first, an incorrect definition of what preparationism is; and second, attributing that error (preparationism) to Charles Spurgeon.  As explained in this lesson in the 1689 Baptist Confession exposition series, as well as in this previous post about one of Spurgeon’s sermons, preparationism is the idea that a sinner must show a certain amount of repentance, a certain level of sorrow for his sin such as some of the “great saints” experienced, before he can come to Christ — an error that amounts to “justification by repentance” rather than “justification by faith.”

Quoting Spurgeon again on the error of preparationism:

In our day the evil has taken another, and that a most extraordinary shape. Men have aimed at being self-righteous after quite an amazing fashion; they think they must feel worse, and have a deeper conviction of sin before they may trust in Christ. Many hundreds do I meet with who say they dare not come to Christ, and trust Him with their souls, because they do not feel their need of Him enough; they have not sufficient contrition for their sins; they have not repented as fully as they have rebelled! Brothers and Sisters, it is the same evil, from the same old germ of self-righteousness, but it has taken another and I think a more crafty shape. Satan has wormed himself into many hearts under the garb of an angel of light, and he has whispered to the sinner, “Repentance is a necessary virtue. Stop until you have repented, and when you have sufficiently mortified yourself on account of sin, then you will be fit to come to Christ, and qualified to trust and rely on Him

The post about Spurgeon, linked above, includes additional quotes from Spurgeon in which he “named names” of specific Puritan authors who taught preparationism.  So it is established that Spurgeon did not teach preparationism; the original Spurgeon quote above is instead in reference to the second use of the moral law, that which is clearly taught in the New Testament – the law as our teacher, to teach us the knowledge of sin.

For some reason, many evangelicals today, especially of the New Calvinist group, dislike any mention of “law,” as though the gospel is all and only about grace; to suggest anything about “the law” gets a response of “legalism!” and rhetoric about how we’re saved by grace and “not under law.”  Much of this attitude, directed at those in the Reformed Covenant Theology camp, comes from failing to distinguish and to understand the difference between the second and third use of the law; an article from a couple years back well notes this problem as seen in actual posts from the Gospel Coalition blog (Tullian Tchividjian’s misunderstanding).

As seen with the above example conversation, some within New Calvinism are taking their anti-law idea even further, going to the extreme of rejecting not merely the third use of the law, but even the second use of the law – and equating it with the unrelated error of preparationism. To reject both the second use and the third use is to take a position outside of the Christian Protestant tradition.  For all evangelical groups – Reformed/Calvinist, Reformed/Lutheran, and even classic, revised and progressive dispensational Calvinists – have affirmed at least the second use of the law.  To reject the second use, and misunderstand what Spurgeon was saying as legalistic error, is to join company with the early Protestant-era antinomians and their leader John Agricola, a position described in this article about the 16th century antinomian controversy:

This Lutheran confessional consensus concerning mandata dei as guides for sanctified living nearly crumbled in the mid sixteenth century amid the Antinomian Controversy. Antinomianism, or a rejection of any use of the Law for Christians, found a prominent spokesperson in John Agricola. While serving as an instructor in Eisleben during the 1520s, Agricola taught that the mercy of God revealed in the Gospel alone suffices to cause a person to repent of his sins. In addition to rejecting the second use of the Law, he also discarded the third. Agricola, who had trouble accepting that Melancthon, rather than he, received an appointment to the new theology post at Wittenberg in 1526, criticized the distinction that Melanththon made on these points between Law and Gospel. “Agricola took an extremely antinomian position, virtually rejecting out of hand the whole Old Testament, as well as injunctions of the Law in the lives of the regenerate.” Confusion compounded the controversy when Melancthon’s followers noted that their teacher had, at times, ascribed a Law function to the “Gospel,” using that term in its broader sense to include both the Law and the narrow definition of the Gospel. “But Melancthon’s followers did not make this distinction. They insisted that the Gospel in its narrow, proper sense worked contrition and rebuked sin.” Luther and Agricola argued back and forth in print during the late 1530s. After Luther’s death, Agricola took major part in drafting the Augsburg Interim (1548), which forged a compromise between Rome and the Lutheran theologians by equivocating on the distinction between Law and Gospel.