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Studying the Confessions: Chapter 1 and Scripture

January 16, 2020 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Review)

January 6, 2020 2 comments

From free books provided (for this one, free copies provided at the local church), I recently read Mark Jones’ Antinomianism:  Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (from 2013).  Online articles at the time, including these two from Kevin DeYoung (this one and also this one), recommended it as one of a few books responding to the modern-day antinomianism error.

My study on this topic over the last few years has included some online sermon series including a 1689 confession series, Reformed articles and a few books such as Barcellos’ Gettting the Garden Right and R.C. Sproul’s Crucial questions booklet How Does God’s Law Apply to Me?.  Jones’ book covers a lot of similar Reformed understanding, with reference to the moral law and the third use of the Law and other doctrines that are taught in the Reformed confessions (and included in SermonAudio confession-study series).  Jones’ book is at a more academic level, with many quotations and footnotes, and especially looks at the historical situation in England in the 17th century.

Among the highlights:  discussion of Christ’s intercessory work and the importance of strong Christology, as well as the Reformed understanding of rewards (good works, chapter 16 in the 1689 LBC and the Westminster Confession of Faith), assurance, gospel threatenings (as different from Law threatening, the type to bring unbelievers to see their need of Christ, as the first use of the Law).  This book also covers the differences between Lutheran and Reformed views; though the Lutheran view includes the third use of the law, it emphasizes the first use, in contrast to the Reformed (Calvinist) emphasis on the third use.

Many good Puritan quotes are sprinkled throughout, such as this one from John Flavel:

I will further grant, that the eye of a Christian may be too intently fixed upon his own gracious qualifications; and being wholly taken up in the reflex acts of faith, may too much neglect the direct acts of faith upon Christ, to the great detriment of his soul.

But all this notwithstanding, the examination of our justification by our sanctification, is not only a lawful, and possible, but a very excellent and necessary work and duty.  It is the course that Christians have taken in all ages, and that which God has abundantly blessed to the joy and encouragement of their souls.

The discussion about law obedience versus gospel obedience reminded me of the first time I read this, and the encouragement in this explanation, well described by J.C. Ryle (excerpts from Holiness) — that the believer’s works (though imperfect) are yet acceptable and pleasing to God the Father:

Sanctification is a thing which cannot justify a man, and yet it pleases God. The holiest actions of the holiest saint that ever lived are all more or less full of defects and imperfections. They are either wrong in their motive or defective in their performance and in themselves are nothing better than “splendid sins,” deserving God’s wrath and condemnation. To suppose that such actions can stand the severity of God’s judgment, atone for sin and merit heaven is simply absurd. …

For all this, however, the Bible distinctly teaches that the holy actions of a sanctified man, although imperfect, are pleasing in the sight of God. “With such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Hebrews 13:16). “Obey your parents . . . for this is well pleasing unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:20). “We . . . do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22). Let this never be forgotten, for it is a very comforting doctrine.
Just as a parent is pleased with the efforts of his little child to please him, though it be only by picking a daisy, or walking across a room — so is our Father in Heaven pleased with the poor performances of His believing children. He looks at the motive, principle and intention of their actions — and not merely at their quantity and quality. He regards them as members of His own dear Son, and for His sake, wherever there is a single eye — He is well pleased.

This book includes a quote from Thomas Shepherd that well summarizes the difference between gospel obedience and law obedience:

the law calling and urging of it that so hereby we may be made just, it therefore accepts of nothing but perfection; but the gospel requiring it because we are perfectly just already in Christ, hence, though it commands us as much as the law, yet it accepts of less, even the least measure of sincerity and perfection mixed with the greatest measure of imperfection.”

The book is applicable to us in our day, in which antinomian teaching is quite common.  Jones interacts with current-day teaching, with quotes from and responses to Tullian Tchividjian (reference also old articles such as this one):

According to Tchividjian, ‘We’ve got work to do—but what exactly is it?  Get better? Try harder? Pray more?  Get more involved in church?  Read the Bible longer? …. God works his work in you, which is the work already accomplished by Christ.  Our hard work, therefore, means coming to a greater understanding of his work.’  How does this fit with Paul’s exhortation to work out our salvation with fear and trembling?  Paul surely did not reduce Christian living to contemplating Christ—after all, in 1 Thessalonians 5, toward the end of the chapter, Paul lists over fifteen imperatives.  But Tchividjian’s type of antinomian-sounding exegesis impacts churches all over North America.

The book covers many other interesting topics as well, even some quotes from Puritan writers about the ‘boring’ limited-selection preaching of the Antinomians.  The whole counsel of God includes so much more, the many doctrines set forth in the Reformed Confessions, beyond this limited issue that the antinomians wanted to continually ‘harp on’.  Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? is another great and very informative book in the Reformed tradition, well researched and addressing this issue and how the Puritans responded to it.

Thoughts on Contentment, and Zeal for Truth and Righteousness

October 15, 2019 2 comments

As I look back now on the last several years and God’s amazing work of Providence, I consider two issues that need balance:  godly contentment on the one hand, and the desire for what is right and true on the other; or, experiencing true contentment and gratitude to God for what He has done, while recognizing the evil in the world, including the major problems that occur at local churches among professed believers; rejoicing in the Lord in spite of the evil, recognizing what part each of us is responsible for– and leaving the rest, including the hearts and repentance of others, in God’s hands.  It is also the call to keep the long-term perspective, that we and everything around us are completely in God’s care and control, while still living in a very broken world.

I’ve seen God answer and resolve a situation that had continued for many years, something that appeared to be an unchanging, insurmountable circumstance (that I was just going to have to live with).  The original (major) issue has indeed been answered (along with many other unexpected blessings, side benefits);  as typically happens, one set of problems has been replaced with another, different set—albeit the new situation is more tolerable, a lesser degree of suffering and affliction.

A thousand years is as one day to God, and yet we get impatient when we don’t see change and results immediately.  Through this, though, I’ve come to realize that God is more interested in the process of our sanctification, our spiritual growth and maturity, our becoming more Christ-like, than in providing the immediate “fix” to our problems:  even when those problems involve truth and righteousness.  Yes, God is also very concerned about truth and righteousness as well – and yet there is His forbearance, that He puts up with so much evil and wickedness in the world, and He does not always change hardened hearts, even those of professed believers in a local church.  Reference 1 Corinthians 11, that there must be differences to show who has God’s approval.

Again I’m reminded of the reality that throughout church history, a lot of what happens within the professing visible church is a great disappointment.  Yet God allows it to occur, allowing wicked and unjust rulers within the church as well as in the secular government.  The churches in the 1st century were far from perfect; Christ had charges to bring against several of them (Revelation 2-3).  Many Christians today do not live near any decent church, and with others God has so ordered the circumstances to include attending less-than-ideal churches.  God’s word even addresses that point: the exhortation in Rev. 2:24-25

But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come.

and Malachi 3:16-18

16 Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. 17 “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. 18 Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.

It also comes back to the handling of desires that are normal and good in themselves, such as the desire to attend a biblically solid, strong Reformed church.  Yet when God decrees otherwise, to then accept the negative answer and be content in God’s will, and to “hold fast what you have until I come.”  (Along the way comes the discovery, too, one that Spurgeon noted as well:  when God does not answer a prayer in one way, He provides the blessing in a different, unexpected way.)  Where possible, to push for change (so much as it lies within our own power to do so), yet still being thankful and praising God in the trial, as Habakkuk prayed and praised God, even though God’s answer wasn’t what he wanted.  Any desire that is proper in itself, becomes sinful (an inordinate desire) when placed above God and His will.  Here I also think about Daniel and his friends living in Babylon.  No doubt they would have preferred to be back in their homeland, to worship God at the temple.  Perhaps while in exile they experienced early-synagogue-type worship with other deported Jews, but maybe not.  All we are told about are the persecution experiences and Daniel’s private worship, how he worshiped in his own home.

I have also found my recent studies, such as Richard Baxter’s The Godly Home  very instructive, with a lot of great practical advice for dealing with less-than-ideal situations.  For instance, Baxter wrote at length about cases where spouses are not equally yoked, along with application to recognize what things we as individuals are responsible for versus what things are beyond our control, even describing some extreme (real or hypothetical) situations of his day.

A few selections:

if the husband is ignorant or is unable to instruct his wife, she is not bound to ask him in vain to teach her what he does not understand.  Those husbands who despise the Word  of God and live in willful ignorance do not only despise their own souls but their families also… for God has said in his message to Eli, “Those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed”

. . .

and the woman if she follows him must leave all those helps and go among ignorant, profane, heretical persons or infidels.

Answer: If she is one who is likely to do good to the infidels, heretics, or bad persons with whom they must converse.. or if she is a confirmed, well-settled Christian and not very likely, either by infection or by want of helps, to be unsettled and miscarry, it seems to me the safest way to follow her husband.  She will lose God’s public ordinances by following him, but it is not imputable to her, as being outside her choice.  She must lose the benefits and neglect the duties of the married ordinance if she does not follow him….

… What if a woman has a husband who will not suffer her to read the Scriptures or go to God’s worship, public or private, or who beats and abuses her….

The woman must at necessary seasons, though not when she would, both read the Scriptures and worship God and suffer patiently what is inflicted on her.  Martyrdom may be as comfortably suffered from a husband as from a prince.  But yet if neither her own love, duty, and patience, nor friends’ persuasion, nor the magistrate’s justice can free her from such inhumane cruelty as quite disables her for her duty to God and man, I do not see why she may not depart from such a tyrant.

Regarding things in our power to change, versus what is not in our power, he lists several limitations, when something is not in our power to change:

First, it is not lawful either in family, commonwealth, church, or anywhere to allow sin or to tolerate it or to leave it uncured when it is truly in our power to cure it.  … It is not in our power to do that which we are naturally unable to do.  No law of God binds us to impossibilities.  …

When the principal causes do not cooperate with us, and we are but subservient moral causes.  We can but [attempt to] persuade men to repent, believe, and love God and goodness.  We cannot save men without and against themselves.  Their hearts are out of our reach; therefore, in all these cases we are naturally unable to hinder sin.

Those actions are out of our power that are acts of higher authority than we have.  A subject cannot reform by such actions as are proper to the sovereign or a layman by actions proper to the pastor, for want (lack) of authority.

This section lists many other scenarios, as pertaining to authority, or what a superior forbids us to do, and even cases where “great and heinous sins may be endured in families sometimes to avoid a greater hurt and because there is no other means to cure them.”

Experience through the difficulties, along with wisdom gleaned from books such as the Puritans (including the above writings from Richard Baxter), are the things that God uses in our lives as we prayerfully look to Him for guidance every day, as we learn to keep the proper balance and to praise and thank God while desiring a change in the circumstances.  Above all, we pray the Lord’s Prayer and for His will to be done in and through the situations.

Suffering, Affliction, Regrets — and the Larger Perspective

September 11, 2019 Leave a comment

Continuing through the collection of free used books received, I’ve started reading Richard Baxter’s The Godly Home —  a recent publication with modernized language and introduction by J.I. Packer, covering a portion of Baxter’s Christian Directory from the 17th century.  Even in the current form, it’s not always the easiest to follow, as it describes situations unfamiliar to us, in the Puritan-era writing style (wordiness).  This selection from his larger work includes chapters on marriage, children, family worship, and several other topics — Baxter’s wisdom and guidance to Christian laypeople regarding their daily life and life decisions.  As a guide to those facing such decisions it excels, well describing the hardships to be experienced from a wrong choice, descriptions of the experiences that others have had to “learn the hard way.”

A sampling from the first chapter, Directions About Marriage:

If you should marry one who proves to be ungodly, how exceeding great would the affliction be!  If you loved such persons, your soul would be in continual danger by them; they would be the most powerful instruments in the world to pervert your judgements, to deaden your hearts, to divert you from a holy life, to kill your prayers, to corrupt your lives, and to damn your souls.  If you should have the grace to escape the snare and save yourself, it would be by so much the greater difficulty and suffering since the temptation is greater.  What a heartbreak it would be to converse so nearly with a child of the Devil; it is like living forever in hell.  The daily thoughts of it would be a daily death to you.

Another short sample, a description of an ungodly person:

To habitually prefer things temporal before things spiritual in the predominant acts of heart and life is the certain character of a graceless soul.

Thus is the ideal (Baxter’s “Directions About Marriage”), and when followed to prevent poor life-decisions, all is well.  Yet as I have observed, in the Christian life and experience in this fallen world, those who “get it right” and make wise relationship choices on the front end will experience some other type of suffering and disappointment later in life—perhaps with children, or health, or financial or many other possibilities.

But what about those on the other side, who have already made poor decisions?  Here we must turn to other wise counsel, regarding the sovereignty of God.  Ed Welch in Depression: Looking Up From the Stubborn Darkness (see this previous post), well stated an important point to continually remember:

Although life before a sovereign God assures us that God is in control, accomplishing His good plans even through our poor choices, it is easy to lose sight of this reality.  When we do, we can feel as if an unwise decision has forever doomed us to a path that is second best. … in view of God’s sovereign control, God will accomplish His purposes in our lives even when we make decisions we later regret.

Indeed, when the Bible speaks of “all these things,” or “in all things,” and the trials and tribulations of the Christian life, those trials can include the problems noted above that may come to those who at least have their “relationship-act together”; yet for some the trial does include relationship difficulty, even within marriage.  Here I also recall the great application from past Tabletalk devotionals, in this previous post, and relating to the “day to day” life experienced by Abraham and Sarah, by Isaac and Rebekah, and then Jacob.

Another book I’m reading ties into this in a rather unexpected way:  The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien  (a past Kindle deal); this book’s main focus is on Tolkien’s letters as related to his writings of The Hobbit and then the Lord of the Rings.  I first read it 15-20 years ago from the library, but through the years since and the maturing process of life, I now notice another aspect brought out: Tolkien’s own personal trials and difficulties in the day to day of life, during the years while he was still (slowly) writing the Lord of the Rings.  The letters reveal a life with its share of great afflictions and trials—along with hope, the times of looking beyond the present life to the glory yet to be revealed.

In a letter from August 31, 1938, he even notes that he had come close to a breakdown:

I am not so much pressed, as oppressed (or depressed).  Further troubles which I need not detail have occurred, and I collapsed (or bent) under them.  I have been unwell, since I saw you—in fact I reached the edge of a breakdown, and was ordered by the doctor to stop short.  I have done nothing for a week or two—being in fact quite unable.

Elsewhere, in writing and providing wisdom to one of his then-young adult sons regarding marriage (from the human side of events), he offered this:

Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgement concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably to have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates.

And to another son during the son’s experiences in World War II:

If you cannot achieve inward peace, and it is given to few to do so (least of all to me) in tribulation, do not forget that the aspiration for it is not a vanity, but a concrete act.

As I’ve seen before, so again: a complete, well-rounded perspective regarding life in this fallen world requires multiple inputs, and truth, love, and encouragement come to us in many different ways, including from reading many different books and even types of books.

The Fourfold State of Man: Overview of a Thomas Boston Classic

December 3, 2018 3 comments

Another year is coming to an end, and the Challies 2018 Reading Challenge along with it.  I just finished an audio re-read of The Lord of the Rings, and  an interesting worldview book (from previous Kindle deals), Understanding the Times: A Survey of Competing Worldviews, with interesting material for some future blog posts.  For this time, though, a brief look at an interesting topic highlighted by Dr. Philip Ryken in a four part series available from Reformed Resources (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals): The Fourfold State.  In these four straightforward lectures, Ryken provides an overview of a classic early 18th century Reformed work from Thomas Boston, a book that in its day was “the” book to read for evangelical Christians, one read by the later 18th century preachers (the time of Whitefield and Wesley)–the equivalent of, for example, the late 20th century Knowing God, by J.I. Packer.  The original text of Boston’s work, over 500 pages, is now available in electronic format, such as at Amazon for 99 cents.

I first learned about Thomas Boston from reading Sinclair Ferguson’s The Marrow Controversy, a controversy in which Boston was a key player, followed by a section on him in Joel Beeke’s Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer.  Ryken provides additional material on this great preacher who spanned the time between the end of the Puritans and the later Great Awakening of the mid-18th century.  These lectures from Ryken provide additional information beyond the Marrow Controversy–more about Boston’s life and teaching, including an overview of Boston’s personal life and suffering (including losing six out of ten children in infancy, and particularly regarding two infant sons both named Ebenezer, among those six), followed by two lectures on the fourfold teaching itself, and a last lecture with great application of the four stages to several Christian truths.

Boston’s approach with these four stages of human nature serve as a type of systematic theology:  1) creation, man before the fall; 2) nature; the unregenerate, fallen human nature; 3) grace, the experience of regenerate believers in this life; and 4) glory, including the condition of all humans after this life, the eternal condition of both believers and the lost.  This fourfold approach did not originate with Boston — actually going back to Augustine – but Boston exposited it in great detail, with some variations from Augustine’s teaching.

Of course, our actual human experience involves primarily the second and third states, with the fourth one to look forward to, the glorification and complete removal of sin that will not occur in this life.  Yet Boston developed all four of these points from an in-depth study of scripture, starting with the pre-fall condition of Adam and Eve.  These four states can also be applied to our experience in this life regarding important doctrinal truths and issues in the world today, such as our work/labor and gender roles—both of which involve creation ordinances.

Work itself is what God planned for us:  the original work of Adam and Eve in the garden; then corrupted into the drudgery of stress and never-ending work in this fallen world – the curse was on the ground, not on work itself, but sin makes work more difficult and a burden. Ecclesiastes well describes this situation: people toil, yet “all is meaningless” and the value ends when a person dies, for all the wealth to go to whoever comes after us.  Yet as Christians, we can now bring the concept of work into a redeemed, biblical view, as Paul described regarding Christian daily life roles and how we do all our work, including our secular vocation, to the glory of God.  Our fourth state (for believers) will also involve work, much of that the work of worship; the Bible also tells us that we will rule and reign with Christ in the age to come.  A similar approach can be taken with gender, and society’s fallen views (the second state), versus the renewed understanding (third state) and in the future state of glory.

This is a good summary series about an interesting topic, as well as a good sampling of Ryken’s preaching, part of the “Every Last Word” series, from the years that Ryken preached at Tenth Presbyterian Church (1995-2010); he was also James Boice’s successor, from 2000 to 2010.  A good follow-up to this series, which I’ve just started listening to, is Ryken’s 26 part series on the book of Ecclesiastes.  (Note: Ryken’s teaching on Ecclesiastes is also available in book form, Why Everything Matters: The Gospel in Ecclesiastes.)

Christian Theology and Classics: Augustine, William Perkins, and Millennial Views

February 13, 2018 3 comments

In the 2018 Challies Reading Challenge, my recent reading has included writings from the 4th and the 16th centuries:  Augustine’s Confessions as a book about the early church, and Volume 1 of the Works of William Perkins, as a book by a Puritan.

Both of these were featured in Puritan Reformed Seminary’s 2017 conference:  Carl Trueman’s talk about Augustine’s Confessions  and Joel Beeke’s summary of William Perkins.  Augustine’s Confessions was an interesting read, my first such reading of early church writings, and I noted the parts mentioned by Trueman:  Augustine as a youth stealing figs from a fig tree; and a much later event that happened to one of Augustine’s friends (who resolved to never go to the gladiatorial games, was taken there by force by his friends; he kept his eyes closed, determined not to look; but the sounds aroused his curiosity so that he looked –and was then ensnared again in the games).  Trueman had noted here, the power of the visual image.  Other interesting parts included references to the other Christian leaders of the time including Ambrose of Milan and his role in Augustine’s later conversion, as well as descriptions about worship services including the singing of hymns.

As others who have read Augustine’s Confessions have noted, the last few chapters are strange, getting into Augustine’s Platonic philosophy, with a lot of repetitive thought as Augustine considered the meaning of time, memory and forgetfulness.  In this tedious reading, I also observed that the Librivox volunteer readers must have had similar difficulty; the majority of the recording, through Augustine’s conversion, was read by one or two authors. Then, for each ‘track’ section of the last few (weird) chapters, it was a different reader for each segment.

William Perkins

Volume one of Perkins is over 800 pages and three treatises. I read a little of the first treatise, all of the second one, and about a third of the last and very lengthy treatise (the Sermon on the Mount).  The first treatise was about biblical chronology and dating of early Bible events; after a while it was too detailed and tedious.  Here I first learned the idea that the Israelite stay in Egypt may have been only 215 years instead of 430 years—the 430 years starting from the time of Abraham instead of the actual time in Egypt.  I have always thought that the stay was 400 years in Egypt, from the narrative reading and my old NIV Study Bible dates.  From checking online articles, though, apparently this is an area of differing views, and some do take the 215 years view regarding the Egypt stay.  At this point, the 430 years in Egypt seems more reasonable to me, given the large population at the time of the Exodus and allowing for gaps in the genealogies, which occurs often even in later Old Testament genealogies.  For further reading and study on this, are these two articles:

The second treatise was of a manageable length and more interesting:  Perkins’ exposition of Matthew 4:1-11 and the parallel account in Luke, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Good points brought out here include Perkins’ look at the scientific understanding of the human ability to live without food and water, that the human body has a limit of about 14 days­.  This event was supernatural, and necessary for Christ to experience, in similar fashion to the previous 40 days and 40 nights fastings of both Moses and Elijah.  Perkins adds, to any who might reason that ‘why did Christ not do double the length of time, 80 days?’, that Christ also must be shown to be human, and a fast of 80 days would have us question His humanity.  Another of Perkins’ ideas, though, seemed rather strange (again, the first time to hear this idea, for me):  the temptation of Jesus standing on the top of the temple in Jerusalem, was accomplished by Satan’s moving Christ’s body, slowly through the air, from the desert to the actual temple location.  Here again Perkins considers the known natural laws, and reasons that a human body could not physically withstand such flight movement through the air at very high speeds, but that Satan certainly could physically carry Christ a short distance at a slow speed.  I haven’t read other commentaries on this matter, but have always thought of this temptation as done in a vision, not actually there; if Christ were actually there, surely there would have been other people around to notice a man standing up on the top of the temple structure.   But Perkins reasoned that a temptation by vision would not be a real temptation.

The third work in volume one is a detailed exposition, with many excurses, of the Sermon on the Mount.  The reading is straightforward enough to follow, and similar in style to the later Puritans (who held Perkins in great esteem and were greatly influenced by him), with the outline format of different observations and ‘uses’ for application – as noted by J.I. Packer in his summary lecture series on the Puritans .  Throughout the reading, though, at several points I was turned-off by one particular aspect of Perkins’ views: his anti-millennial interpretations.  This comes out in such places as his exposition of Matt. 5:5 (the meek shall inherit the earth), in which he cites four ways in which the meek are said to inherit the earth.  The last two of these, Perkins considered as the primary ones:  3) inheritance in Christ in which ‘all things are yours, whether it be Paul or Cephas, or the world, things present or things to come’ (1 Cor. 3:21-22) and 4) that the meek will be made kings and ‘rule and reign’ (Rev. 5).  Before that, however, he considers that “if it fall out that meek persons die in want or banishment, yet God gives them contentation, which is fully answerable to the inheritance of the earth.”  As a premillennialist (and here I recall Spurgeon’s strong words about this text) such an idea misses the mark:  to say that a poor person being contented with what God gives him or her in this life “is fully answerable to the inheritance of the earth” is to seriously underrate and misrepresent the wonderful future promise of really inheriting the earth.  Elsewhere in the exposition, Isaiah texts about the millennial era are applied to what we have spiritually here and now.  At a point about various views regarding our neighbors and revenge, Perkins writes:  “Now the devil perceiving this to be their [the Jews’] natural disposition, makes God’s doctrine of salvation seem to them a doctrine of earthly benefits, for he caused them to dream of an earthly king for their Messiah, and of an earthly flourishing kingdom under him.”  Such statements reveal the standard European anti-Semitism along with an apparent hatred of the premillennial doctrine itself, implied in the idea that an earthly kingdom is somehow evil, carnal and unspiritual.  Premillennialists recognize the both/and of a future literal, earthly kingdom that is also spiritual in character, and that both physical and spiritual can co-exist, as in us believers today; and that the Old Testament did promise a future literal, earthly kingdom. The Jews had the basic idea correct; their error was in failing to recognize the two-stage purpose of God, the cross and then the crown, what is described in 1 Peter 1:10-11: the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.”

The criticisms aside, both works — Augustine and William Perkins — are good for overall reading of classic and Reformation-era thought, as both provide interesting ideas and points for further thought.  They both serve the purpose of reading “the classics” of Christian theological works, and variety in reading, to go beyond the comparatively shallow and superficial nature of many modern-day books.

Taking Hold of God: Reformed/Puritan Thoughts on Prayer

December 14, 2017 1 comment

Continuing in the Challies 2017 Reading Challenge with book selections from recent Kindle deals, I recently completed a book about prayer:  Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer, by Joel Beeke and Brian Najapfour.

This work considers the theology of prayer, looking at several major teachers of the Reformation and Puritan era, in chronological sequence—covering two centuries, from Martin Luther through Thomas Boston and Jonathan Edwards of the 18th century.  The chapters summarize the writings of each figure, with selected quotes concerning their teachings and emphases regarding prayer, along with explanation and paraphrase of the teaching of these men: Luther’s view of all that is included within prayer; prayer as communion with God (John Calvin); teaching on the Lord’s Prayer (William Perkins); the emphasis on the Holy Spirit in prayer (John Bunyan); catechism and other practical helps for praying (the Puritans generally, and Matthew Henry); and prayer in connection with the doctrine of Adoption (Thomas Boston), are among the many topics covered.  I especially appreciated the discussion of views regarding the Anglican prayer book and liturgy; overall, the Puritans disliked such ‘formula’ prayer, yet provided their own educational material, such as the Westminster Shorter Catechism and Matthew Henry’s “A Method for Prayer” and books for family devotions.

The chapter on Thomas Boston was also quite interesting, especially as a follow-up to my recent reading of Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ which provided the historical background and setting briefly mentioned in this book’s chapter:

Boston experienced many sorrows in life. …. His first ten years of ministry at Ettrick were a long season of plowing with little yield.  His advocacy of the free grace of God put him at the center of a grievous controversy in his denomination.

Boston emphasized the doctrine of adoption in reference to prayer.  As well explained in the quotes and Beeke’s commentary:

He (Boston) says, “Our names are enrolled among those of the family; and though a new nature accompanies it, yet adoption itself is a new name, not a new nature, Rev. 2:17, though it is not an empty title, but has vast privileges attending it.”  Simply put, true spiritual adoption operates much like legal adoption in today’s world.  When a child is legally adopted, he or she is declared the child of new parents.  But legal adoption does nothing to change the cellular makeup, genes, or blood of the adopted child.  Nevertheless, adotpion places a child into a household where he may learn from his father’s love, example, instruction, and discipline to become more like his father.  Similarly, when children of Satan are adopted by God, they are no longer children of Satan but are counted as children of God, even though remnants of sin remain in them.  Yet the privileges of adoption change their lives.

The chapter on Jonathan Edwards was also interesting, a good summary (I have read of Edwards, but no actual works from him yet) as it put together Edwards’ theology of prayer from different sources (no one treatise on prayer), and include his post-millennial thoughts (eschatology does affect the content of one’s prayers).  Edwards rightly understood Old Testament passages as speaking of a future golden age, unlike our time; so post-millennials have something in common with premillennialists, recognizing the future aspect of these prophecies (and more common ground than with the amillennialists who reject any literal, future fulfillment of such texts).

Taking Hold of God concludes the Reformation and Puritan era with a look at their prayers for world missions, including mention of the early Puritan missionaries, such as John Eliot in the 17th century, and the beginning of the modern mission era in the 18th century.  The final chapter takes the lessons learned from the Reformers and Puritans, for general application to us in our lives today, with practical suggestions for how to grow in our prayer lives in realistic ways, while recognizing that these men were exceptional even among others in their day.  For how to ‘take hold of yourself for prayer’, consider the following seven principles:

  1. Remember the value of prayer. Seek to realize the value of unanswered as well as answerd prayer.
  2. Maintain the priority of prayer.
  3. Speak with sincerity in prayer.
  4. Cultivate a continual spirit of prayer. Pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17)
  5. Work toward organization in prayer. Divide prayer lists into three categories (daily, weekly, and monthly prayer needs).
  6. Read the Bible for prayer. Read the Bible with the intent of responding to God’s word with prayer.
  7. Keep biblical balance in prayer. Types of prayers include praise of God’s glory, confession of our sins, petition for our needs (spiritual and physical), thanks for God’s mercies, intercession for others

Then, for taking hold of God in prayer, these three principles:

  1. Plead God’s promises in prayer.
  2. Look to the glorious trinity in prayer.
  3. Believe that God answers prayer.

Taking Hold of God is an excellent layperson book, a summary of prayer from a Reformed / Puritan perspective along with exhortation for prayer in our own lives.

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.”

 

 

Puritan Works: Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

December 30, 2016 1 comment

jeremiahburroughsOver the Christmas weekend I finished reading another Puritan work, the last one for the year 2016 — a classic, recommended book on a topic I often struggle with:  contentment.  The complete book is available online here.

Starting from the key text of Philippians 4:11, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content,” Burroughs expands on what it means (and what it does not mean) to be content, and that it is something to be learned.  As usual with the Puritans, this work consists of a collection of sermons on the topic, with good thoughts for meditation, positive as well as negative (why not to grumble) considerations.  Much of the content references the particular hardships of the 17th century, with frequent mention of the recent plague (the plague of London), as well as the situation of discontent for people in poverty, or who once had more abundance in material benefit than they do now.  While the particular circumstances, the secondary causes of discontentment, are quite different in our age, the precepts and the heart issue are timeless, part of the fallen human condition in every age.  The lesson of contentment includes being thankful for what we have, being content with less than perhaps we once had, content with less than others have, and recognizing the perils and additional responsibilities of those who do have more in material goods.  Also, the lesson of God’s providence, that our will should be the same as God’s providential will and operative will.

Burroughs concludes by noting the tendency of that age, and thus he did not see the need to address the second part of the text, about learning to abound:

Now there is in the text another lesson, which is a hard lesson: ‘I have learned to abound.’ That does not so nearly concern us at this time, because the times are afflictive times, and there is now, more than ordinarily, an uncertainty in all things in the world. In such times as these are, there are few who have such an abundance that they need to be much taught in that lesson.

Topics addressed in this book include the difference between natural contentment and godly (gracious) contentment, noting that some people are naturally more at ease and contented than others, and the quality of difference between these types of contentment:

The one whose disposition is quiet, is not disquieted as others are, but neither does he show any activeness of spirit to sanctify the name of God in his affliction. … he whose contentment is of grace is not disquieted and keeps his heart quiet with regard to vexation and trouble, and at the same time is not dull or heavy but very active to sanctify God’s name in the affliction that he is experiencing. … the desire and care your soul has to sanctify God’s name in an affliction is what quietens the soul, and this is what others lack.

and

Those who are content in a natural way overcomes themselves when outward afflictions befall them and are content. They are just as content when they commit sin against God. When they have outward crosses or when God is dishonored, it is all one to them, whether they themselves are crossed or whether God is crossed. But a gracious heart that is contented with its own affliction, will rise up strongly when God is dishonored.”

As to motives for thankfulness, a good reminder of a most basic yet important point:

Set any affliction beside this mercy and see which would weigh heaviest; this is certainly greater than any affliction. That you have the day of grace and salvation, that you are not now in hell, this is a greater mercy. That you have the sound of the Gospel still in your ears, that you have the use of your reason: this is a greater mercy than your afflictions. That you have the use of your limbs, your senses, that you have the health of your bodies; health of body is a greater mercy than poverty is an affliction. … Therefore your mercies are more than your afflictions.

The lesson of contentment, though, is one of those things that is easier to read and study, but harder in actual practice – as I experienced even during the weeks of reading Burroughs’ book.  Just when I think I’ve learned contentment in the overall big picture, the major areas of life outside of my control, I stumbled and fell into discontent one afternoon over a very trivial matter; the Romans 7 struggle, hating self and weeping over sin – though not despairing.  Burroughs’ conclusion also recognizes the difficulty of fully learning the lesson of contentment:

I am afraid that you will be longer in learning it than I have been preaching of it; it is a harder thing to learn it than it is to preach or speak of it. … this lesson of Christian contentment may take more time to learn, and there are many who are learning it all the days of their lives and yet are not proficient.  But God forbid that it should be said of any of us concerning this lesson, as the Apostle says of widows, in Timothy, That they were ever learning and never came to the knowledge of the truth. Oh let us not be ever learning this lesson of contentment and yet not come to have skill in it. … Here is a necessary lesson for a Christian, that Paul said, he had learned in all estate therewith to be content.  Oh, do not be content with yourselves till you have learned this lesson of Christian contentment, and have obtained some better skill in it than before.

Puritan Reading: Samuel Bolton’s The True Bounds of Christian Freedom

November 21, 2016 2 comments

trueboundsbookI’m nearing the end of an oft-recommended Puritan classic, Samuel Bolton’s “The True Bounds of Christian Freedom” (available on Kindle for 99 cents), a book that deals with issues still relevant today — the Christian’s relationship to the law. It considers and responds to many queries or objections, various antinomian or law-confusion ideas, and also provides good explanation of the difference between the Mosaic covenant and the “covenant of works,” explaining from scripture how the Mosaic covenant differed from and was never really a “covenant of works” – the way of salvation was always by grace through faith; the Mosaic covenant was brought alongside as a subservient covenant.

The book is organized as responses to these queries:

 

  1. Whether our being made free by Christ frees us from the law
  2. Whether our being made free by Christ delivers us from all punishments or chastisements for sin
  3. Whether it is consistent with Christian freedom to be under obligation to perform duties because God has commanded them
  4. Whether Christ’s freemen may come into bondage again through sin
  5. Whether it is consistent with Christian freedom to perform duties out of respect for the recompense of the reward
  6. Whether the freedom of a Christian frees him from all obedience to men.

The introduction to the book sets the solid foundation that all Christians agree upon:  the believer’s condition of grace, and the way in which we are free from the law.  He also carefully defines different types of freedom:  natural, political, sensual, and spiritual.  After this comes the heart and substance of the book, with its responses to many antinomian objections, and careful distinctions of terms, such as the difference between motivations people may have for doing their duty:

The one type of man performs duty from the convictions of conscience, the other from the necessity of his nature.  With many, obedience is their precept, not their principle; holiness their law, not their nature.  Many men have convictions who are not converted; many are convinced they ought to do this and that, for example, that they ought to pray, but they have not got the heart which desires and lays hold of the things they have convictions of, and know they ought to do.  Conviction, without conversion, is a tyrant rather than a king; it constrains, but does not persuade.

I found some sections more interesting than others.  In my own experience, Calvinistic evangelicals today generally agree on point #2, that being free in Christ does not remove all chastisements for remaining sin.  On point number 5, Bolton takes a cautious yet biblically accurate stance; at first he appears to oppose the idea of rewards as any motive for sanctification, but goes into detail as to the proper way to see this subject.

Overall I find the book is quite helpful, addressing so many of these issues and pointing out the motivation of the heart of the believer, who, as Paul expressed in Romans 7:22, “in the inner being delights in God’s law.”

A few good excerpts for consideration:

The things of this world can neither be the reason nor the object of the obedience of a gracious heart. They neither set us to work, nor do they keep us working. The enjoyment of them may come in to quicken us to work, and in work; but that is all.

If we are to learn of the ant, and from brute beasts, certainly are we much more to learn from the law, which is the image of God in man and the will of God to man. We have nothing to do with Moses, nor do we look to Sinai, the hill of bondage, but we look to Zion, the mountain of grace. We take the law as the eternal rule of God’s will, and we desire to conform ourselves to it, and to breathe out with David, ‘O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes!

And

The heart of the believer may be damped with carnal affections, or it may be pulled back by the remains of corruption. At times it may be pulled back by the remains of corruption. At times it may drive heavily under some vexatious and long-drawn-out temptation; or strange trials may intervene and occasion some sinking of the spirits. And, alas, the cause may be a relapse into sin. Yet, take the saint at his worst, and we find that he has a stronger bias God-wards than others have even when at their best. In the one case there is a will renewed, though for the present a will obscured or in conflict; in the other case there may be some move towards the giving of obedience, but the will is lacking.