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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.”

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David’s Doubting in 1 Samuel 27: Observations from Spurgeon

October 9, 2013 2 comments

From this week’s Spurgeon reading, sermon #439 “The Danger of Doubting”.  Spurgeon here focused on 1 Samuel 27:1, “And David said in his heart, I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul.”   I have briefly considered this text before in this post, in thoughts from Bible reading.

I also remember this passage, from an example (several years ago) of bad preaching: a pastor preaching through a “David” series, came to this passage and proclaimed the natural man’s way of thinking (and thereby revealing his own superficial and “natural man” thoughts):  that David did this because he didn’t have any other choice, and how hard-pressed and in danger David really was that he had to do this.  Nothing was said about the true significance of what happened here, this as one of several times that we observe of David’s declension.

Within the overall context of David’s life in 1 Samuel this is one of many times of his up and down times, of David’s experiences in and out of fellowship with the Lord — and sixteen months later (1 Samuel 30:6) we see David back in fellowship, after the Amelekites raided Ziklag and the people talked of stoning him:  “But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.”  Spurgeon’s sermon gets more specific, noting several ways in which David erred here, and how applicable it is to us as well:

1. The thought of David’s heart was false. There certainly was no evidence to prove it. On no one occasion had the Lord deserted His servant; he had been placed in perilous positions very often, but not one single instance had occurred in which God’s strength was not sufficient for him. The trials to which he had been exposed had been varied; they had not assumed one form, only, but many; yet in every case He who sent the trial had also graciously ordained a way of escape. David could not put his finger upon any entry in his diary, and say of it, “Here is evidence that God will forsake me.”

2. It was contrary to evidence:  What reason had he to believe that God would leave him? Rather, how many evidences had he to conclude that the Lord neither could nor would leave him? “Your servant slew both the lion and the bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them.” That was good reasoning. Why not reason like that now, David?

3.  It was contrary to God’s promises.  Here Spurgeon notes the Davidic covenant:  Samuel had poured the anointing oil on David’s head—God’s earnest and promise that David would be king. Let David die by the hand of Saul, and how can the promise be fulfilled? Many times had God assured His servant David that He had chosen the son of Jesse to be the leader of His people; let him die, and how can that be true? It was, therefore, contrary to the promise of God that David should fall by his enemy’s hand!

4.  It was contrary to what David himself had often said.  A great observation here from Spurgeon’s own personal experience:

I remember on one occasion, to my shame, being sad and doubtful of heart, and a kind friend took out a paper and read to me a short extract from a discourse upon faith. I very soon detected the author of the extract; my friend was reading to me from one of my own sermons! Without saying a word he just left it to my own conscience, for he had convicted me of committing the very fault against which I had so earnestly declaimed. Often might you, Brothers and Sisters, be found out in the same inconsistency.

Romans 9-11 with S. Lewis Johnson: The Middle Chapter

May 14, 2012 Leave a comment

In going through S. Lewis Johnson’s Romans series, from 1980-81, I’m now in the great section of chapters 9-11.  Romans 9 and 11 have been familiar material for quite a while.  The local “Sovereign Grace” church, where I first learned of Calvinism and Arminianism (and the names of the terms), the great Doctrines of Grace, has provided ample emphasis (even over-emphasis, in a church that tends toward hyper-Calvinism and neglect of human responsibility) through the years to Romans 9 and God’s sovereignty in election.  Romans 11 is material that comes up often in the various sermons, eschatology series and articles concerning Israel’s future and the issue of supersessionism; Barry Horner’s Future Israel book and related teachings in particular include great exposition of Romans 11.

From my own studies, Romans 10 is an area previously neglected.  This SLJ series is my first for going through the full set of chapters 9 through 11, and SLJ devotes three great messages to Romans 10:  Christ, the End of the Law (Romans 10:1-4), Salvation and Confession (Romans 10:5-13), and Israel’s Inexcusable Unbelief (verses 14-21).  Romans 9 highlights God’s Sovereignty in Election, the divine viewpoint, whereas Romans 10 gives the human reasons involved in salvation, as well as the human reasons for Israel’s rejection of their Messiah.

The first message in Romans 10 looks at three ways in which Christ is the end of the law: all three ways are scripturally valid and supported elsewhere.  Christ is the fulfillment of the law, the anti-type of the law, and the end point termination of the law.  SLJ discusses each in detail, concluding with his own view, that this verse specifically refers to Christ as the end point termination of the law, while noting it’s nothing we can be completely certain of.

Chapter 10 also tells us that zeal is not enough, that zeal misplaced is in fact very wrong.  Here we also read the five-link chain (verses 14-15).  First, some must be sent by God; they preach; the people hear (in an understanding way), then they obey and believe, and call upon the Lord. S. Lewis Johnson devotes attention to ways (again from the side of human responsibility) in which people come to have faith and grow in faith, with good discussion of the importance of studying the Bible – and not by mere reading or memorizing it, but going beyond that to ponder it:

that’s the way that some people treat the Bible, believe it or not.  This is just something that they read in order to memorize, or read in order to say, “I have read something from Scripture.”  But they’ve never really sat down and pondered some things that are in the Bible.  The danger of Bible reading and the danger of Bible memorization is not in reading and memorizing.  Those are excellent things.  That’s the place to begin.  But the danger is in not reflecting on the significance of the things that we are reading.  There are some people, who because they see that, say, “Let’s go read the Bible.  Let’s go memorize the Bible.  Let’s go study the Bible.  But we don’t want the doctrine.”  That’s foolish, that should go with the other three.  What we want is the word of God.  We want to memorize it, and we want to hide it.  But we also want to ponder it, because it is through pondering it that we come to faith; the faith that saves and the faith also that sustains us.

Also here, the ways that people do not come to have faith:  the hereditary defense (through Christian parents), or the sacraments, or through dreams, the eloquence of the preacher or even through some therapy.

Mr. Spurgeon pointed out (reference this Spurgeon sermon) that men like Nebuchadnezzar had dreams, and Balaam had a visit from an angel, but he was a man who died saying, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my latter end be like him,” but he perished, fighting against the God of Israel.  “Listen,” he said, “though you should see all the angels in heaven, it would not prove that you would go to heaven any more than my having seen the Pope’s body guard is proof that I shall be made a Cardinal.”

In Romans 10:18 (“But I ask, have they not heard?”), the texts cited here indicate that Paul specifically means: have they (Israel) not heard that they would be rejected because of unbelief.  Not only has the gospel been preached extensively and universally (throughout the Roman empire in Paul’s day), but the scriptures themselves make it abundantly clear, and they should have known their scriptures well enough to realize, that there would come a time when they would be rejected.  By the end of Romans 10, the apostle has stressed the universality of the gospel, the availability of this good news.  The responsibility has been set forth.  We are to believe the gospel. 

Hebrews 11: The Characteristics of Faith

December 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Listening to S. Lewis Johnson’s teachings, I am continually impressed by the richness and depth of good expository teaching.  Consider the first verses of Hebrews 11, a familiar chapter with familiar verses about faith.  SLJ neatly summarizes some interesting points.

The chapter includes several contrasts, showing a faith that operates in several directions:

  • faith in God, against the world

verse 7:  Noah; verse 38: Of whom the world was not worthy

  • faith in the invisible, against the visible:  the conviction of things that we do not see
  • faith in the future, against the present

verse 10, Abraham waiting for the city which has foundations
verse 13, these all died in faith, not having received the promises
verse 20, “concerning things to come”

So these are the characteristic things of faith.  It has to do with belief in the certainty of the divine future.  The verdict of history is, of course, that this is true.  That those who do trust in the Lord God, ultimately, win out.

Verse 1 includes the word “assurance” (ESV), also translated “substance” (KJV).  Interesting to note, here, is that the Greek term is one that could mean “substance” but can also mean “assurance.”  Those words convey different ideas:  substance is in reference to objective realities, that which we look toward.  Assurance is subjective, the inward sense.  So is faith “that which gives us an inward sense of assurance, for the fulfillment of the promises?  Or, is faith itself the substance of the things hoped for?”  As S. Lewis Johnson notes, some of the distinction here may be the quibbling of theologians, because both are true:  faith involves objective reality, the “substance,” as well as our own subjective assurance.

Habakkuk the Minor Prophet: How to Solve Our Problems

July 21, 2011 Leave a comment

From S. Lewis Johnson’s four-part series through the minor prophet Habakkuk, I offer the following overview of the book Habakkuk and its major themes.

This three chapter book teaches two great ideas:  individual salvation (the just shall live by faith, Habakkuk 2:4), and the problem of history — God’s dealings with His chosen people and His dealings with the non-elect.

Habakkuk chapters 1 and 2 records a colloquy, a conversation between God and Habakkuk, and chapter 3 gives a theophany.  Or, Habakkuk contains a dialogue in the first two chapters, and a song of God’s intervention in history in the third chapter.

Habakkuk can also be called the great book of faith:

  • Habakkuk 1:  Faith is Tested
  • Habakkuk 2:  Faith is Taught
  • Habakkuk 3:  Faith Becomes Triumphant

Habakkuk’s problem is expressed in simple terms of “how long?” and “why?”  It is the age old question, often asked by Job and the psalmists:  why do the evil prosper, why is the law ignored, and why does wickedness rule?  God’s ways are often mysterious, and His inaction puzzles us.  His instruments are unusual; in Habakkuk’s case He uses the wicked Chaldeans to accomplish His purposes. Yet we observe Habakkuk’s manner, that he gets away from everyone and everything else, and spends time with the Lord.  We take our problems to God (not to others).

From Habakkuk 2:1 we can learn how to solve problems

    1. Put away panic.  Don’t start talking and get upset.
    2. Reflect upon the basic principles, the fundamentals.
    3. You are the eternal God, the Lord Jehovah, the Creator of All, the Holy God, and my God, the covenant keeping God.

    4. Put to use the principles that we learn.
    5. Reference James 1:22 — prove yourselves doers of the word and not merely hearers.

    6. Leave it in the hands of the Lord, and expect an answer.

    The ultimate example from scripture is our Lord’s prayer to His father, in the garden of Gethsemane.  Also, the answer may be yes, no, or even wait.  Sometimes we don’t receive the answer to our prayer in this lifetime.

    Other relevant scripture:  Philippians 4:6-7 expresses this attitude of prayer and dependency on God.

    The Old Testament shows examples of the wrong and right ways of dealing with our problems: Jacob meeting Esau is an example of the wrong way, and Daniel 6 (Daniel in the Lions Den) the right way.

Faith is the Hand of the Heart: How to Increase in Faith

February 18, 2011 Leave a comment

As a follow-up to a previous post on this topic, Increase Our Faith, come these great words from S. Lewis Johnson.  (reference: Matthew 9:27-31)  Here is the response to those who would say the words “give us more faith” in a prayer (even a prayer said by a preacher in a church service).

Faith determines the measure and often the manner of the gifts of our Lord.  According to your faith, be it unto you.  Professor Goday used to like to say that “faith is the hand of the heart.”  Now, if faith is the hand of the heart – that by which we receive the blessings of God – then it would seem from this statement that the larger our hands, the bigger our gifts.  According to your faith, be it unto you.

I want to say, O God, give us more faith!  You want to tend to fall down on your knees and say, O God, give us this faith to believe; pray prayers like, help Thou mine unbelief!  But you know, that would be the wrong reaction.  If you want faith, you don’t have to crawl down on your knees and say, “O God, give me faith.”  You know what you do?  You open your Bible and begin to read.  The Bible says faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.  That’s how faith comes.  So if you want faith, you don’t get on your knees and pray, “O God, give me faith.”  If an angel were there, he would say, stand up and open your Bibles and begin to read.  That’s how you get faith.

Faith comes from companionship with the Lord Jesus, and acquaintances with his promises, and that comes from Scripture.  Your faith will grow as you grow in the knowledge with our Lord. You have confidence in men because of your acquaintance with them.  I had confidence in my father, and you had confidence in your parents, and confidence in your friends by virtue of your acquaintance with them.  I had confidence in my father because I knew him.  We were that close; I knew I could count upon him, because I knew him.  Now he would fail because he was a human being, of course, but our Lord never fails, and confidence comes from acquaintance with him.  If I could just urge you so that you would turn to the word of God, we all would be so much better.

Faith That The Lord Jesus Praises

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

From S. Lewis Johnson’s message on Matthew 8:5-13  (Healing of the Centurion’s Servant), some great thoughts concerning  praise:   the faith that the Lord Jesus praises is the faith that praises Him.

the more you praise him, the more you please him, the more he will praise the faith that praises him.  And so we must conclude that either he has an exorbitant appetite for adulation, as McLaren has said, or else in this we see the manifestation of his conscious divinity.  So the faith that praises him is the faith that pleases him.  Thomas Watson said, “Other graces make us like Christ.  Faith makes us members of Christ.”  And of course, the application of that is simply this:  if we are to come to a true faith in the Lord Jesus that saves, we must come to this faith in him that acknowledges him as the Son of God who is the Messiah and the Redeemer.  That’s the faith that unites to him.

Spurgeon, in the morning devotional for February 1, has this excellent thought also related to our praise of the Lord:

The time when Christians begin to sing in the ways of the Lord is when they first lose their burden at the foot of the Cross. Not even the songs of the angels seem so sweet as the first song of rapture which gushes from the inmost soul of the forgiven child of God. …
When the Lord first pardoned my sin, I was so joyous that I could scarce refrain from dancing. I thought on my road home from the house where I had been set at liberty, that I must tell the stones in the street the story of my deliverance. So full was my soul of joy, that I wanted to tell every snow-flake that was falling from heaven of the wondrous love of Jesus, who had blotted out the sins of one of the chief of rebels.

But it is not only at the commencement of the Christian life that believers have reason for song; as long as they live they discover cause to sing in the ways of the Lord, and their experience of his constant lovingkindness leads them to say, “I will bless the Lord at all times:  his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” See to it, brother, that thou magnifiest the Lord this day.