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The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson (Review)

November 20, 2017 Leave a comment

My recent reading includes a book featured this year in both Kindle format (sale), and as an audio book free monthly offer (from Christianaudio.com):  Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ:  Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters.  A straightforward reading, this book delves into all of the topics included in the title, to bring out many interesting points of both history and doctrine.  The main point throughout is the historical setting of the “Marrow Controversy” in early 18th century Scotland:  the controversy between the “Marrow Men” including its main player Thomas Boston, and those who had twisted the essential grace of the gospel to the preparationist error.  I’ve briefly looked at this error before, including this post about Spurgeon’s response to it and this later post in reference to Spurgeon and preparationism.  Here we see a historical situation that had developed, among those from a Reformed, Westminster Standards background who yet erred in their confused ideas regarding legalism and antinomianism.

Many important truths are brought out in the subsequent chapters:  why it is that repentance logically comes AFTER faith, as a fruit, and not before faith/regeneration; that legalism and antinomianism are not complete opposites but actually closely related, as “non-identical twins” of the same root – not antithetical to each other but both antithetical to grace; and how to compare John Calvin and the Westminster Standards on assurance, seeing them as not in conflict but as coming to the same problem from different angles and arriving at the same middle-ground.

In reference to the initial Marrow conflict and preparationism itself, William Perkins link: post about him (the beginning of the Puritan era) and John Bunyan (late 17th century) manifest the doctrinal shifts during the century between them. Perkins’ “golden chain” includes a “gospel spine” that links each aspect of the application of salvation …to a central spine representing Christ in terms of the various clauses of the Apostles’ creed. … But Bunyan’s map has no Christ-spine… the various aspects of salvation applied are related to each other, not directly to Christ.  Preparationism came about as a result of separating the benefits of salvation to be found in Christ, from Christ Himself.

The book includes many helpful analogies and illustrations, references to Thomas Boston, John Calvin and other teachers, as well as helpful quotes in poetic verse that describe the intricacies and detail of legalism and antinomianism, as with this wonderful piece from Ralph Erskine about grace and law:

Thus gospel-grace and law-commands
Both bind and loose each other’s hands;
They can’t agree on any terms,
Yet hug each other in their arms.
Those that divide them cannot be
The friends of truth and verity;
Yet those that dare confound the two
Destroy them both, and gender woe.

This paradox none can decipher,
that plow not with the gospel heifer.
To run, to work, the law commands,
The gospel gives me feet and hands.
The one requires that I obey,
The other does the power convey.

The beauty of this book is how it relates these doctrines to current-day questions and objections.  The heart issues underlying the “Marrow controversy” and the Westminster Standards are still with us today.  The chapters on legalism and antinomianism go beyond the surface level, of what many people suppose, to address the underlying issue and current-day issues such as doctrinal antinomianism and anti-confessionalism.  One such example is consideration of the “proof-text” mentality — of those who suppose that the Reformed Confessions came from proof-texting – by noting that:

First, the Westminster Divines were deeply opposed to producing a confession with proof texts and did so only under duress at the command of the English Parliament.  But, in addition, biblical theology itself is much older than its history as an academic discipline.  As C.S. Lewis well notes, we moderns can all too easily be like people entering a conversation at eleven o’clock not realizing that it began at eight o’clock.  The truth is that there is an intricate weaving of exegesis and biblical and redemptive historical theology behind the wording of the Confession, and this is nowhere more certain than in its treatment of the law of God.

The Whole Christ provides many quotes and insights into the doctrines of God’s law, such as this quote from B.B. Warfield on the topic of the law and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments:

The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what was in it but was only dimly perceived or even not at all perceived before. … Thus the Old Testament revelation of God is not corrected by the fuller revelation which follows it, but is only perfected, extended and enlarged.

Ligonier is now offering a full teaching series on Ferguson’s book, with the first lesson available for free.  As I near the end of the audio-book edition, while referring also to the Kindle version for rereading and reference (including the footnotes, not included in the audio book edition), I appreciate and recommend this book as a very helpful addition to my theology library.

 

 

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William Perkins and the Puritans

July 24, 2017 Leave a comment

From the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary comes this recent conference — about the life and works of William Perkins.  This set of five messages, including one from Sinclair Ferguson and another from Joel Beeke, considers Perkins’ life, writings, and the great influence he had on the English Puritan era.

Perkins’ life was relatively short – died at age 44, apparently from kidney stones – yet spanned the years of the Elizabethan age (1558 – 1602) as a transition between the 16th century Reformation on the European continent and the later English Puritan era.  The conference lectures consider the historical period, including Perkins’ own life – a rather rough person in his youth, similar to the young John Bunyan, but then saved and greatly used of God – and the chain/link of believers who were influences on Perkins, then to Perkins’ students and down to the next generation.  Perkins, a late 16th century supralapsarian English theologian and Cambridge scholar, wrote many early Puritan writings, which have recently been published in electronic format.  Several volumes are available now in Kindle format on Amazon; earlier this year, Challies’ Kindle deals  listed the first volume on special sale, and so I have this volume in my queue for future reading.  Sinclair Ferguson noted the relative scarcity of Perkins’ works in the late 20th century, as he described his trip to South Korea in 1990, meeting believers there — and his amazement at finding Perkins’ books available there but not to be found in Great Britain.

I previously learned of William Perkins from a J.I. Packer series on the Puritans which I listened to a few years ago.  These five conference lectures provide much more information, to build on that summary overview from Packer.  Perkins’ works include his perhaps best-known “golden chain,” as well as “a case of conscience” about the believer’s assurance, and “The Art of Prophesying” (the term used in the sense of preaching, the proclamation of the Word of God).  Conference lectures even include a “15 reasons for why you should read William Perkins.”  He especially influenced the Puritans, and is worth our reading as well.  A 2015 article from the Australia Gospel Coalition even lists William Perkins among the “Five Theologians You Should Know.”

 

 

Challies’ 2017 Reading Challenge: Scripture’s Attributes and Importance

July 7, 2017 2 comments

In doing the 2017 Challies reading challenge, I’ve been going through my inventory of various free and low-cost books I have acquired over the last few years.  These include a free audio recording of Kevin DeYoung’s “Taking God at His Word,” a past selection from Christian Audio’s monthly free downloads (the Kindle version is currently on sale for $3.99); a recent Christian Audio free offer (The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd Jones, by Steven Lawson); and a Kindle book that was free at the time of its publication a few years ago, The Fallible Prophets of New Calvinism.  From reading these three books, plus the latter part of Iain Murray’s The Forgotten Spurgeon, I notice one common theme, expressed in different ways: the importance of Scripture.

Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word:  I had occasionally read blog posts from DeYoung, but not any books from him yet.  The reading style is easy and straight-forward, and the introduction gave me the impression of a too-easy, too-light book.  Yet the chapters of the book – though for a general  layperson audience — provide solid material, a good overview of the Attributes of Scripture.  I especially like his acronym SCAN:  Sufficiency of scripture, Clarity (or perspicuity), Authority, and Necessity.  Four different groups of people show a weakness in one of these attributes:  Sufficiency – the “Rank and file Christian;” Clarity – Post-Moderns; Authority – Liberal Christians; and Necessity – Atheists and Agnostics.  DeYoung’s popular style relates important ideas and responses to criticism of specific scripture accounts  with current-day analogies, including reference to popular fiction such as the characters from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.  A notable example here is the book of Jonah, which Jesus refers to in statements that make it clear that Jonah was not merely a nice, moral literary story, but refers to actual historical events.

Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd Jones:  The latter part of The Forgotten Spurgeon addresses the downgrade controversy and the issue at stake — the authority of the Bible and the attack from increasing liberalism/modernism.  Lawson’s The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd Jones, in dealing with London during Lloyd Jones’ preaching ministry in the mid-20th century, serves as a type of sequel to the condition of churches in London, the result several decades after the downgrade controversy that had begun in the late 1880s.

The Fallible Prophets of New Calvinism focuses on a quite recent attack on scripture, this one especially concerned with the sufficiency of scripture.  Specifically, this book is one of several from the last few years that address the error of fallible prophecy, promoted by Wayne Grudem.  A detailed and informative book, it considers several scriptural passages and interacts with and responds to Grudem’s errors regarding Agabus as well as many other problems with Grudem’s handling of scripture.  The New Calvinist continuationist view, with new revelation that is vague and unclear, “fallible prophecies,” considers scripture as insufficient in itself.

 

The Forgotten Spurgeon: The Controversy of 1864

June 27, 2017 4 comments

From the recent donation of free Christian books, I have been reading Iain Murray’s classic The Forgotten Spurgeon, a second-edition paperback (reprint from 1994).  As I have learned from reading it, it is not so much a biography of Spurgeon as a look at Spurgeon’s preaching ministry, centered around three major controversies he was involved in: his early years, then “the controversy of 1864,” followed by the later down-grade controversy.  At the time of Murray’s book (second edition 1973), Spurgeon certainly was more “forgotten,” especially the Spurgeon revealed in his sermons, and the 40+ years since then have benefited from the republication of Spurgeon’s writings – plus now especially our Internet age access to the complete collection of his sermons, all available free in PDF format at Spurgeon Gems.

From my continued sequential reading through Spurgeon’s sermons over the last 8 years (now reading the 1867 volume), much of what Murray brings up is already familiar territory, and much of the work consists of direct quotations from Spurgeon’s many sermons.  What I especially appreciate is Murray’s own commentary, providing more of the historical context of what was going on in England, and London specifically, during these years—beyond what Spurgeon directly mentioned in his sermons;  I have now reached the part dealing with the second controversy.  Less than two years ago, I read the actual sermons noted here:  #573, “Baptismal Regeneration” from June of 1864, #577, “Let Us Go Forth” later that month; and #591, “Thus Says the Lord—Or, the Book of Common Prayer Weighed in the Balance of the Sanctuary” from September of that year.  Much of the controversy is explained in the sermons themselves – the inward creeping of Roman Catholicism and formalism, and the teaching of baptismal regeneration of infants, in the Anglican “Book of Common Prayer;” sections of it directly quoted by Spurgeon.  The notes at the end of these sermons, listing the sermon numbers and dates as being a part of a series, brought to my attention that these sermons were considered of special importance at the time.  The references to the Book of Common Prayer, I connected in my own understanding, to my previous reading from Puritan writers, recalling especially the story of John Bunyan and some of his objections to the “Book of Common Prayer.”  In reading again about it now, it also relates to my recent reading about the Scottish Covenanters of the 17th century (Sketches of the Covenanters, by J.C. McFeeters).

Iain Murray here contributes more of the historical background, which is quite interesting as a follow-up to the story of the Puritans and the Reformation in England.  The strife of the 17th century, between the Anglicans and the non-conformists, had been eradicated by the close of the 18th century.  A new controversy arose, beginning in 1833 (the year before Spurgeon was born) with the publication of tracts, ‘Tracts for the Times’, from Oxford; the initial excitement over the tracts died down by 1841.  The Tractarian view advocated apostolic succession from the times of the apostles, and appealed to the content in the Anglican Book of Prayer for its Anglo-Catholicism.  The weakness in the 19th century came from Evangelical Protestants who used the Book of Common Prayer understood in a non-Romanist way, and who even tried to argue for consistency between the two 16th century documents: The Anglican 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.  As Murray notes:

Significantly, the debate over Tractarianism demonstrated that the wheel had come almost full circle since Puritan times.  In the 17th century the prelates and authorities in the Church had complained that the Puritan scruples over full conformity to the Book of Common Prayer were groundless, seeing there was nothing in the Book which supported the errors of Rome.  To this the Puritans replied by pointing out the very things which – for an altogether different purpose — the Tractarians pointed out in the mid-nineteenth century.  The Puritans claimed that the Prayer Book revealed the insufficiently Reformed character of the Church of England; it allowed nests of Popery to remain, and to these, they prophesied, ‘the rooks’ would one day return.  But the strange thing was that it was now evangelicals who asserted that there were no ‘nests’ in the Prayer Book, whereas dignitaries and bishops began to talk about the ‘Catholic’ character of the Book.  Either the Puritans or the 19th century evangelical churchmen were wrong.

Murray also here contributes quotes from Spurgeon’s contemporaries, including J.C. Ryle, and indicates his own disagreement with Spurgeon here (regarding the position of infant baptism) while noting the distinction between his own (covenantal) view of infant baptism and certain ideas of baptismal regeneration that are indeed found in the Prayer Book:  evidence indicates that “a number of those associated with the formulation of the 1552 Prayer Book did believe  that an efficacy accompanied infant baptism at the time of its administration and it is very hard to deny that this belief is taught in the Catechism.”  Murray further adds that the “warrant for the administration of baptism to children is not qualified in the Prayer Book in terms of the covenant promises of God to believing parents.”

The reading here is interesting, both in terms of Spurgeon’s part and the overall situation, this part of church history that he was a part of. After this section in “The Forgotten Spurgeon” comes the “Down-Grade Controversy,” which I have only read a little about.  I look forward to reading this as well, in reference to Spurgeon’s later years (sermons I will eventually get to in the Spurgeon sermon volumes).

Reformation History Reading: D’Aubigne’s Classic, Volume 1

June 19, 2017 Leave a comment

For the 2017 Challies Reading Challenge, and especially appropriate for this the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, I have read the first volume (out of five) of J.H. Merle D’Aubigne’s “History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century.”  Available free in the public domain, Librivox recording has recently completed a full audio recording of the first volume; the complete work is also available in PDF format, 1137 pages plus footnotes.

The reading is straightforward and clear, and a good selection for audio listening.  Though of great length and detail, the material is interesting as it tells the story of the early years of the 16th century, especially with reference to Martin Luther and his life, but also including the major players in Luther’s life.  Chapters introduce and provide details concerning Melancthon and Erasmus, as well as lesser known figures such as Reuchlin, Spalatin, and Staupitz.  (Here the PDF version is helpful, for spelling so many German names.)  D’Aubigne’s narrative combines his own commentary on the important events, along with many personal letters of Luther and his friends, and interesting anecdotes, to provide a detailed picture of what was going on in early 16th century Germany.  The focus is mainly on Luther, but we also see the many influences on his life, the friends placed in his life at various points, and the rising support from the leaders, students and the common people of Germany.  The section on Tetzel, the itinerant indulgences merchant, provides rich details and humorous accounts, such as “the trick of a nobleman,” who obtained an indulgence for a future crime to be committed:

A Saxon nobleman, who had heard Tetzel at Leipsic, was much displeased by his falsehoods. Approaching the monk, he asked him if he had the power of pardoning sins that men have an intention of committing. “Most assuredly,” replied Tetzel, “I have received full powers from his holiness for that purpose.” — “Well, then,” answered the knight, “I am desirous of taking a slight revenge on one of my enemies, without endangering his life. I will give you ten crowns if you will give me a letter of indulgence that shall fully justify me.” Tetzel made some objections; they came however to an arrangement by the aid of thirty crowns. The monk quitted Leipsic shortly after. The nobleman and his attendants lay in wait for him in a wood between Juterbock and Treblin; they fell upon him, gave him a slight beating, and took away the well-stored indulgence-chest the inquisitor was carrying with him. Tetzel made a violent outcry, and carried his complaint before the courts. But the nobleman showed the letter which Tetzel had signed himself, and which exempted him beforehand from every penalty. Duke George, whom this action had at first exceedingly exasperated, no sooner read the document than he ordered the accused to be acquitted.

Volume 1 book 4 deals with the events shortly after October 31, 1517, through the friendly session at Heidelberg in the spring of 1518 and the beginning persecution in Augsburg that fall.  This section shows Luther’s desire to remain loyal to Roman Catholicism and the Pope –even writing a respectful letter to the Pope, thinking that the Pope would agree with him—yet, in the face of unexpected opposition, his courage and boldness.  The Roman Catholic leaders expected a simple case of a humble Augustine friar who would quickly recant, and soon became impatient, seeing an unexpected quality in Luther.

A sample from Luther’s letters, shortly after the theses were nailed to the church door in Wittenberg:

They require moderation in me, and they trample it under foot in the judgment they pass on me!……We can always see the mote in our brother’s eye, and we overlook the beam in our own……Truth will not gain more by my moderation, than it will lose by my rashness. I desire to know what errors you and your theologians have found in my theses? Who does not know that a man rarely puts forth any new idea without having some appearance of pride, and without being accused of exciting quarrels? If humility herself should undertake something new, her opponents would accuse her of pride! Why were Christ and all the martyrs put to death? Because they seemed to be proud contemners of the wisdom of the time, and because they advanced novelties, without having first humbly taken counsel of the oracles of the ancient opinions.” –late 1517. From Volume 1 Book 3 Chapter 6.

Volume 1 is a great beginning to this History of the Reformation.  Since Librivox has now completed volume 1, I hope that they will soon add volume 2 and beyond.  Either way, I plan to read Volume 2 by next year, possibly in next year’s reading challenge.

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.

Carl Trueman on John Owen

November 30, 2015 2 comments

Following the topic of church history and the Puritans, and having enjoyed Carl Trueman’s Reformation History lectures, I have now listened (available on sermon audio here to a 5-part series (with two additional messages after these five) from Trueman, on John Owen.

Much of the content is actually about the Puritans generally, with some overlap of the Reformation series as to the overall historical setting, along with descriptions of Owen’s theology in particular. Of note, Reformed theology in Owen’s day was more complex, more developed than in the 16th century, in part due to the heresy confronted in the 17th century: Socinianism. Owen’s view of the atonement comes out in a more detailed response to Socinianism. While John Calvin, Samuel Rutherford and Twisse (the chairman of the Westminster Assembly) saw the atonement as not necessary–God COULD have provided redemption in another way, but He chose to do it that way—for Owen the atonement had to be done in that way, the blood sacrifice of the God-man, as necessary due to the character of God.

Among other interesting points: the Puritans, as authors of the Westminster Confession, did not hold to the idea of “proof-text scriptures.” The Westminster Confession document originally did not have scripture verses associated with the confession statements. They added these only at the request of Parliament. Still, their thinking was more the idea of, look at the scripture reference, and then refer to the 100+ commentaries that had ever been written on that text. As J.I. Packer also noted (in this series), here also from Trueman, the Puritan era was one of strong expository preaching, of very strong exposition of biblical texts.

The idea of the Covenant of Redemption (the agreement in eternity past, between the Father and the Son) first showed up, in Puritan writing, in 1638. Yet a criticism of that covenantal structure has been that the idea is “not very Trinitarian.” Here John Owen contributed and expanded the Trinitarian view of the Covenant of Redemption: the Spirit’s role also in this covenant. Trueman recommends reading this work, Owen’s Of Communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, even before reading Owen’s other works such as “the Death of Death in the Death of Christ” or “Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.”

Also generally recommended, especially for laypeople, are the Banner of Truth reprints, abridgements of John Owen’s works.  For people with more limited time (non-pastors, those busy working other jobs in the world), Trueman notes that the abridgements will at least give you Owen’s conclusions (without reading the many hundreds of pages of reasoning to how he got to those conclusions). As a beginner-level, Trueman suggests J.I. Packer’s “Knowing God,” which includes Packer’s quotes from Owen.

As with previous material from Trueman, this “John Owen conference” series provides good and helpful material, a good introduction to the overall Puritan authors and particularly the key features of John Owen and his writings.