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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.

Scripture Interpretation, and Occam’s Razor

April 6, 2020 8 comments

I’m continuing through Zacharias Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, along with the Westminster Daily calendar readings.  In this first quarter of the calendar year, both of these teach about the person of Christ, the Trinity, and the Mediator, with some excellent material.

Along the way I have also discovered some additional online resources, as I continue to think through the implications of Reformed PaedoBaptism, and understanding its differences from the Particular Baptist/1689 Federalism version of Covenant Theology.  For one thing, though Facebook has a large, active group for 1689 Reformed Baptists, the best online forum for serious discussion of Westminster theology is the Puritan Board.  Though as some people have described, that its ‘heyday’ is past, 10-12 years ago — as Facebook has replaced it in sheer numbers and volume of group conversations — yet it still has good, in-depth discussion on a lot of theology topics.  Over the last several days, I’ve been reading through a recent lengthy thread in the Paedo-Baptism answers forum, learning a lot, and noting additional links to online material mentioned in the conversation.

A few other helpful resources I’ve found, for Paedobaptist articles interacting with and responding to 1689 Federalism:

One overall impression I now have, goes back to Occam’s Razor and the layman term description, that the simplest answer – the answer with the fewest assumptions – is generally the correct one.  Certainly it proved true for Copernican Astronomy (contrasted with Aristotelian), and I’ve seen that principle at work also in understanding Creation Science as contrasted with the complexities and ever-changing theories of old-earth/evolutionary views.

This same principle plays out in comparing the presentation of 1689 Federalism, with standard Reformed Theology.  As observed in the Puritan board comment thread — and I find agreement, from my reading a few years ago of several online articles as well as Denault’s The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (2013 Kindle edition) – the presentation is very difficult to follow and understand.  During my study of 1689 Federalism I grasped the basic idea, similar to the usage of terms by Charles Spurgeon, that “the Covenant of Grace = the New Covenant,” and that the New Covenant was ‘in promise form’ throughout the Old Testamant era, a separate promise running through yet distinct from the actual historical covenants (Abrahamic, Davidic, etc.).  Beyond that level, though, the explanations become verbose and tedious.  As one comment described, the writers of an RB essay seek to bolster their position from so many sources, and redefine so many terms (Old Testament, Old Covenant, New Testament, New Covenant, Covenant of Grace, Abrahamic Covenant, Mosaic or Sinaitic Covenant)—as does Pascal Denault in his, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, that one would almost have to write a book, or at least a lengthy essay in reply. And each of hundreds of points could then be argued and wrangled about! Also, “it is troubling to see the tortuous—one could almost call it labyrinthine—argumentation of their presentation on the covenants and the resultant disallowance of baptism for believers’ infants. Why can’t plain teachings of the Bible be presented simply?”

While granting that some paedobaptist explanations of Reformed Covenant Theology may also be presented in a complex way, overall I have found that online articles about Reformed paedo-CT are presented in a simpler, clearer way along with the scripture evidence.  The continuity and scriptures make sense, and without lengthy explanations to redefine terms. (It is also worth noting that not all Reformed Baptists follow 1689 Federalism; the third view, sometimes called ‘Modern RB,’ keeps the Westminster Standards version of Covenant Theology but with believers’ baptism instead of paedo.)

Further, the 1689 Federalism splitting of the Abrahamic covenant into two parts, to effect two covenants, one spiritual and one carnal/physical only, seems unnecessary complexity.  The attitude toward the Abrahamic land promises, the strong amillennial ‘replacement’ motif is also troubling; during my 1689 RB years, I identified instead with Charles Spurgeon’s beliefs, in the basic 1689 London Baptist Confession while strongly affirming the Old Testament’s prophecies regarding the future regathering of ethnic, national Israel and the land promises for Israel’s future.

As with science theories, and the plain language/normal reading hermeneutic applied to God’s word, the simpler explanation, “the answer with the fewest assumptions – is generally the correct one.”

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.

The Decalogue as a Unit (All Ten Commandments)

May 3, 2016 6 comments

Further thoughts from continued study in the 1689 Confession series, regarding the Law of God as a unit – we cannot separate one from the rest and say that only nine are still in effect.  It is a package set, not individual parts that we can “pick and choose” from.

In response to those who try to claim that Jesus’ summary statement regarding the two “greatest commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40)  is NOT actually a summary of the Ten Commandments (but really something else unrelated to the Decalogue): further New Testament scripture does provide that direct connection, with Paul’s words in Romans 13:8-10, where he first mentions several of the Commandments from the second table (the 7th, the 6th, the 8th, and the 10th) to show what he has in mind, adding “and any other commandment,” are “summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The claim that all of the commandments are repeated in the New Testament “except the fourth” also does not hold up to sound hermeneutics.  As noted in this lesson from the 1689 Confession exposition series:

No, the fourth commandment is not omitted in the New Testament.  There are some who would say that the ten commandments are all reiterated in the New Testament, except the fourth   one.   You can only say that if you believe that the first four books of the New Testament are not the New Testament.  You can only say that if you make Matthew, Mark, Luke and John something other than applicable to Christians today.  That is impossible to do hermeneutically, because the disciples were being trained by Jesus to be WHAT? To be authoritative teachers in the New Testament church.  He was laying the foundation of the New Testament church.  And so the question is, why would Jesus have spent SO MUCH TIME, talking about the Sabbath day and its Pharasaical abuses, merely to say, a few months later, ‘well, guys, all that teaching I gave you was really for nought, because it’s over and done with now, there’s no such thing as the fourth commandment.’ That doesn’t make sense.

It’s like what J.C. Ryle says, it’s sort of like a person who cleans off the roof of their house, takes all that time and energy to make sure that he has a pristine roof–only to burn his house down the next day.  Why would he do that?  The Sabbath day IS very clearly reiterated, and taught very extensively and perhaps even more so than the others in the New Testament.

The J.C. Ryle reference comes from this J.C. Ryle article, Sabbath: A Day to Keep, a helpful resource that points to many scriptural reasons for the continuing 4th commandment, including observations from the book of Ezekiel, what I had noted from my own reading through that prophet:

I turn to the writings of the Old Testament Prophets. I find them repeatedly speaking of the breach of the Sabbath, side by side with the most heinous transgressions of the moral law (Ezek. 20:13, 16, 24; 22:8, 26). I find them speaking of it as one of the great sins which brought judgments on Israel and carried the Jews into captivity (Neh. 13:18; Jer. 17:19-27). It seems clear to me that the Sabbath, in their judgment, is something far higher than the washings and cleansings of the ceremonial law.  I am utterly unable to believe, when I read their language, that the Fourth Commandment was one of the things one day to pass away.

The contrast between someone cleaning their roof and destroying their house:

I turn to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ when He was upon earth. I cannot discover that our Savior ever let fall a word in discredit of any one of the Ten Commandments. On the contrary, I find Him declaring at the outset of His ministry, “that He came not to destroy the law but to fulfil,” and the context of the passage where He uses these words, satisfies me that He was not speaking of the ceremonial law, but the moral (Matt. 5:17). I find Him speaking of the Ten Commandments as a recognized standard of moral right and wrong: “Thou knowest the Commandments” (Mark 10:19).  I find Him speaking eleven times on the subject of the Sabbath, but it is always to correct the superstitious additions which the Pharisees had made to the Law of Moses about observing it, and never to deny the holiness of the day.He no more abolishes the Sabbath, than a man destroys a house when he cleans off the moss or weeds from its roof.

Much more could be said, and has been said by others, but the above observations and references are for today’s consideration.

The Law: Seven Different New Testament Uses/Meanings

April 19, 2016 1 comment

Continuing through the 1689 Exposition series, in chapter 19 on the Law of God, comes this lesson: a look at the different ways in which the word “law” is used in the New Testament.  Our English words can have various meanings depending on the context (as for example the word “set,” many different meanings); a look at New Testament scriptures shows seven different uses/meanings of “law.”

  1. To refer to all of the scriptures (which at that time was the OT). Here, consider John 10:34 —   Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? – Yet He quotes from a Psalm.  Also Romans 3:10-21:  quotations of numerous Old Testament scriptures, including several from the Psalms; then Paul refers back to these quotes:  Now we know that whatever the law says.  Both Christ and Paul in these texts are using the term law in its broadest sense, all of scripture.
  2. To refer to the Pentateuch (the books of Moses, which are not all actual laws), as seen in wording of “the Law and the Prophets.” Examples here include Luke 24:44 and Romans 3:21.
  3. To refer to the time period of the Old Covenant, the whole Mosaic economy. Examples here include Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3 – note Galatians 3:17-24, and references to “the law” as that time period when the law was a guardian.
  4. Referring to the ceremonial / sacrificial law: Hebrews 10:1   “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come”
  5. As the penalty of the law – similar to how we refer to a fugitive, that “the law is after him,” or “his is running from the law.” Romans 6 includes this use of the law.  Per Romans 6:14 we are “not under law but under grace.”  But as 1 John says, sin is lawlessness.  Paul is not saying we are not “under law” in any sense, that we are lawless.  The context of Romans 6 is the penalty of the law.
  6. The word “law” as a rule, principle, or an axiom. Romans 7 contains multiple meanings of law, and in some of these verses “law” is an axiom.  Consider Romans 7:21-23:  in verse 21, “So I find it to be a law” (a principle or axiom), and again in verse 23, “but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind.”
  7. To refer to the moral law, the Decalogue. This is seen in passages which cite one or more of the moral laws, as in Romans 3:19-21:  Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  Other references to the law as the moral law:  Romans 7:22 (I delight in the law of God, in my inner being), also Romans 7:7-14 (reference to the commandment about not coveting), Romans 13:8-10, and Ephesians 6:1-4.

Current Views About Charles Spurgeon

March 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Spurgeon is of course well known as one of the great Reformed/Puritan-style preachers that still has influence today, and his name frequently comes up in theological discussions.  Seemingly every position wants to claim him as one of theirs—even Arminians like him; the Seventh Day Adventists cite Spurgeon for “support” from his use of types regarding Jesus and the archangel Michael; and amillennialists/postmillennialists to this day want to have Spurgeon on their side (he was historic premillennial, of the classic type with future restoration of Israel, as well documented in Dennis Swanson’s essay here) or at least claim that Spurgeon was inconsistent and “optimistic like a postmill.”

Those well-studied in Spurgeon – his preaching, writing, and overall life – recognize that even Spurgeon was not perfect; he had his weaknesses.  Arden Hodgins, in one of the 1689 Confession series lectures, observed that Spurgeon so over-worked himself and neglected his own physical health—(from the human perspective) had he not neglected his own health, he would have lived longer, for more years or service.  I can certainly see some validity in that observation, having read for myself places where Spurgeon – still in his late 20s – was so focused on doing God’s work that he disdained the idea of even any time on the Sabbath being put to simple physical rest; he must be busy doing the Lord’s work on that day as well, to not allow any time to go to waste.

Similarly, Tom Chantry, in a blog series dealing with one of the points in the 1689 London Baptist Confession, addressed Spurgeon’s weaknesses and limitations—in response to others who brought Spurgeon into the discussion of Divine Impassibility.  Examining Spurgeon’s contradictory statements at two different points of his life, Chantry well observed the following regarding Spurgeon:

Yet knowing that no man is perfect, we know on some level he must be worthy of criticism. He rejected consecutive exposition, choosing instead to preach on random verses each Sunday. His sermon preparation was no model for young preachers, relying on his copious memory and prodigious talents rather than on careful, disciplined labor. As a result, probably, of both of the above, he occasionally dabbled in fanciful exegesis; read through Morning and Evening and see if you don’t repeatedly come to entries of which you say, “That cannot be what that text means!”…
… Spurgeon had certain disadvantages in his use of the Confession. He did not live in the London of the 17th century, when men from many congregations gathered to discuss the doctrines found in the confession. He did not even live in our day, when a resurgence of confessionalism has led to similar discussions. Instead, he labored more or less alone. It is hard to imagine who could have been Spurgeon’s peer, given his unique influence. He had many disciples, but few teachers. On the other hand, he observed the collapse of Baptist doctrine during his own lifetime. By the time he was called home, the Baptist movement was a ruin of its former self.

While reading one of Spurgeon’s sermons this last Lord’s Day (sermon #626, The Waterer Watered, from April 1865), I was reminded of another type of Spurgeon-criticism I observed a few months ago in a pastor’s sermon remarks.  I say “another type of criticism” because the comments simply do not ring true–comments which instead indicate very superficial and incorrect understanding regarding this subject (Spurgeon and his ministry).  This false criticism was the idea that “Spurgeon was such a genius,” and everyone just loved to hear him, and because he was so gifted, so extraordinary, thus Spurgeon was the cause for the idea that “everything centers on the preacher” instead of recognizing that all of the people in the church need to do their part.

That people by nature do tend to focus on the church leader, of course did not begin with Spurgeon.  Yet Spurgeon’s own view was quite the contrary, and he frequently exhorted his people to action and praised them for the work they were already doing: the Sunday School teachers and other laborers at the church, as well as their outreach in the community.  He fully recognized that the success of his church was due not only to himself, but to the work of many others there with him, including the many young men raised up to plant other churches.  The people in attendance at Spurgeon’s church likewise would not have believed such–as evidenced from Spurgeon’s own words to his congregation, about the great outreach done by people at his church.  Sermon #626 is not the first one in which Spurgeon spoke of this, but here are excerpts from this sermon, words specifically directed to the people at his church:

Now, dear friends, up to this time the policy which we have pursued has been this—if members of other churches want to know, we tell them, we have endeavored to water others. Your minister has journeyed all over the three kingdoms preaching the word, and you have not grumbled at his absence. We have undertaken many enterprises for Christ; we hope to undertake a great many more. We have never hindered our strength; we have undertaken enterprises that were enough to exhaust us, to which, by God’s grace, we became accustomed in due season, and then we have gone on to something more. We have never sought to hinder the planting of other churches from our midst or in our neighborhood. It is with cheerfulness that we dismiss our twelves, our twenties, our fifties, to form other churches. We encourage our members to leave us to found other churches—no—we seek to persuade them to do it! We ask them to scatter throughout the land to become the goodly seed which God shall bless. I believe that as long as we do this, we shall prosper. I have marked other churches that have adopted the other way, and they have not succeeded.  This is what I have heard from some ministers—“I do not encourage village stations or, if I do, I do not encourage their becoming distinct churches and breaking bread together. I do not encourage too many young men going out to preach, for to have a knot of people who can preach a little, may, very soon cause dissatisfaction with my own preaching.” . . .

While I speak thus much in your praise, my brethren, let me say, we must keep this up. We must not say, “We have the college to support, and we do as much as other churches for various societies, and we can be content to sit still.” This church will begin to go rotten at the core the moment we are not working for God with might and main. Sometimes I get a pull at my coattail by very kind, judicious friends, who think I shall ask you to do too much. My brethren are welcome to pull my coattail, but it will come off before I shall stand back for a moment!

So let us continue to appreciate Spurgeon and his remarkable insights–while recognizing that he did have faults.  Yet we should understand his actual weaknesses–instead of superficial, incorrect ideas which miss the real story regarding Spurgeon.

 

 

 

1689 Confession Study: The Crisis-Conversion in Riper Years

February 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Continuing in the 1689 Baptist Confession study, chapter 15 on repentance includes a look at the meaning of the first paragraph:

Those of the elect who are converted in riper years, having lived some time in the state of nature, and in this state served various lusts and pleasures, God gives repentance which leads to life, through an effectual call.

From this study I learned some new terminology: the sudden experience of adult conversions, of those who know the date when they were saved (as with my own experience), is referred to as a “crisis conversion,” as contrasted with the gradual conversion experience of children brought up in Christian homes, who cannot pinpoint a sudden, specific time of their conversion.

The audio lesson spends a great deal of time in emphasizing the point–to listeners who are of the second (gradual conversion) type–that all people who are converted experience repentance.  By mentioning the first type, the confession’s authors here were not saying that only the first type of conversion experience is a true experience. The important point is that we have continuing faith and repentance in our lives, now–and to recognize that everyone’s conversion experience is unique and so we should not expect everyone else’s experience to be like ours—or for our own experience to be like that of others. For the latter, Hodgins gave the example of reading David Brainerd’s diary– one who was extremely aware of his wretchedness – and comparing his own conversion experience to that and thinking “I must be lost, since I didn’t have such awareness of my sinful condition.” Each type of conversion has its advantages and disadvantages; the adult with “crisis conversion” lived more years in an unsaved condition, more sins (and perhaps more “baggage” of problems, less common grace than those who were saved at a younger age, a point similarly made during the chapter 13 Sanctification study). The point is well-made, for both groups. I recall from early Christian experience, that at first I assumed that all other Christians likewise had a sudden conversion experience—and only later learned that at least some Christians do not have this.

As quoted from Sam Waldron  (at this person’s 1689 Confession Commentary on chapter 15):

The Confession makes this out of a desire to distinguish repentance as a crisis experience from repentance as an ordinary grace.  All believers are marked by ordinary grace, but not all believers will know, or need to know, repentance as a crisis experience. …The practical applications of this are various and important.  Do not doubt your salvation merely because you lack a crisis experience like that of some respected brother or sister in the Lord.  Do not demand of others a certain type of conversion experience as a necessary mark of true grace.  An emotional earthquake, radical, external changes in one’s life-style, knowing the exact time of one’s rebirth, an extended work of conviction by the law, immediate sudden joy–all of these may accompany conversion, but none are necessary marks of true repentance.”

From further online reading, (courtesy of Google books) I came across a few pages of “Saved by Grace” by Anthony Hoekema, which provides further information on this topic — Variations in the Pattern of Conversion – along with Hoekema’s quotes from Herman Bavinck. The Reformers’ own conversions can be further classified in terms of contrasts: from deep feelings of guilt to the joyful awareness of forgiveness in Christ (Luther), being set free from the bondage of the law, to happiness of being a child of God (Zwingli), or “deliverance from error into truth, from doubt into certainty” in John Calvin’s conversion. The pattern of conversion thus may be predominantly intellectual, or volitional, or emotional, and Hoekema noted examples from Church History of all three: C.S. Lewis the intellectual conversion, Augustine as volitional, and John Bunyan’s as emotional.

The type of conversion experience, for Hoekema, raises the question–from the paedo-baptist covenantal perspective—of whether “covenant children” need to be converted. What he says makes sense, regardless of one’s view of covenant theology and baptism (of the paedobaptist or believer’s Baptist), in the general observation that many who are raised in Christian homes have a gradual conversion experience—yet they still need their own personal conversion, to realize their own sin, their own commitment to Christ, to personally appropriate the blessings of salvation. What Hoekema describes, I can certainly relate to:

Much variation is possible in the way in which those born of Christian parents later come to conversion. Some are led gently, with no earthshaking upheavals, growing steadily from childhood to young manhood, and from young manhood to full maturity… Others, however, who for a time lived openly sinful lives, or became alienated from their Christian upbringing, are suddenly brought to conversion, through some gripping word of arresting circumstance, often by means of a violent emotional struggle.