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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.

Spurgeon on the Christian Life (2018 Release)

May 31, 2018 2 comments

The topic of Charles Spurgeon — books published by him, and about him — continues to hold great interest, from the renewed interest begun in the second half of the 20th century and increased especially in our day via the Internet.  The distant future (from Spurgeon’s day) has arrived, and it has vindicated Spurgeon:

I am quite willing to be eaten by dogs for the next fifty years,” Spurgeon said, “but the more distant future shall vindicate me.”

Crossway’s “Theologians on the Christian Life” series includes an offering, published this spring (2018), about Spurgeon’s theology:  Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ — a book I received from a free book giveaway (from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals; Meet the Puritans blog).  With a series preface by Stephen J. Nichols and Justin Taylor, this book considers Spurgeon as a theologian.  True, Spurgeon is known best as a preacher, with great evangelistic zeal and pastoral concern; he never wrote a systematic theology, and shunned speculation and peripheral matters.  Yet for all that, his many writings cover theology in its many aspects and its relevance and application to Christian living.

… Spurgeon was, quite self-consciously, a theologian.  Avid in his biblical, theological, and linguistic study, he believed that every preacher should be a theologian, because it is only robust and meaty theology that has nutritional value to feed and grow robust Christians and robust churches. … That combination of concerns, for theological depth with plainness of speech, made Spurgeon a preeminently pastorally minded theologian.  He wanted to be both faithful to God and understood by people.  That, surely, is a healthy and Christlike perspective for any theologian.

After a basic overview of Spurgeon’s character and personality (biographies have already been done on Spurgeon’s life), the focus soon comes to actual points of theology (on the Christian life), and Spurgeon’s views are described with numerous quotes from him, making this book also a great source for Spurgeon quotes on various doctrinal topics.    Spurgeon’s theology is presented in three parts: Christ the Center (the Bible; Puritanism, Calvinism; Preaching), the New Birth, and the New Life.  These sections include chapters on topics including the new birth and baptism, sin and grace, the Holy Spirit and sanctification, prayer, pilgrim army (the Christian as a soldier), suffering and depression, and final glory.

Much of the material was already familiar to me, from my ongoing chronological reading through Spurgeon’s sermons over the last several years (starting in volume 1, 1855, and now I’m currently in the 1868 volume) – presented in summary fashion rather than a complete exhaustive concordance of everything Spurgeon said on every topic.  Spurgeon’s textual preaching style is also well described.

Among the interesting points brought out — from previous sermons I had come across Spurgeon’s variation on trichotomy: that the believer has a soul, spirit and body, contrasted with the unbeliever having only two parts, soul and body.  Spurgeon on the Christian Life adds that Spurgeon’s view here, a unique one, is similar (probably unintentionally so) to that of Irenaeus of Lyon; Michael Reeves also briefly deals with the actual theology, noting the problem with Spurgeon’s idea here:

Yet, in order to underline human inability and God’s grace, he [Spurgeon] also developed a more peculiar opinion with greater similarities (almost certainly wholly unintended) to the theology of Irenaeus of Lyons.  As Spurgeon saw it, man naturally consists only of a body and soul, but when he is regenerated, there is created in him a third and wholly new nature: the spirit.  This is a higher nature, beyond anything in creation; it is a supernatural, heavenly, and immortal nature… Such a spiritual nature must be the gift of God.  Yet is this redemption?… To be sure, we gain more in Christ than ever we lost in Adam, but Spurgeon seems to overstate his case here, temporarily losing something of the restorative and reconciliatory aspects of salvation.

I especially appreciated the chapter on Spurgeon and “Suffering and Depression,” a feature of Spurgeon that has often been observed and discussed (reference, for example, this recent post and also this post).  This chapter includes a good summary of Spurgeon’s personal suffering, his seeking to understand theologically the reasons for his suffering —  along with explanation of the reasons for suffering, replete with many excellent Spurgeon quotes about suffering, including this selection (from sermon #692):

In your most depressed seasons you are to get joy and peace through believing. “Ah!” says one, “but suppose you have fallen into some great sin—what then?” Why then the more reason that you should cast yourself upon Him. Do you think Jesus Christ is only for little sinners? Is He a doctor who only heals finger-aches? Beloved, it is not faith to trust Christ when I have no sin, but it is true faith when I am foul, and black, and filthy; when during the day I have tripped up and fallen, and done serious damage to my joy and peace—to go back again to that dear fountain and say, “Lord, I never loved washing as much before as I do tonight, for today I have made a fool of myself; I have said and done what I ought not to have done, and I am ashamed and full of confusion, but I believe Christ can save me, even me, and by His grace I will rest in Him still.

The last chapter, “Final Glory,” touches on Spurgeon’s eschatological views, correctly noting that Spurgeon held to historic premillennialism and that he did not value the time spent on speculative matters of prophecy.  Here I would only add, from my observations of actual Spurgeon sermons, that Spurgeon did not consider premillennialism itself to be a matter of speculation.  It was his frequent practice (within the textual style sermon) to first speak to the literal, plain meaning of a text before turning aside to his own exploration of the words of a text.  So here, too, Spurgeon’s sermon introductions — to texts such as Revelation 20, and Old Testament prophecies about the regathering of national Israel — included very strong affirmations of his beliefs: a future millennial age, Christ’s premillennial return, and a regathering of national, ethnic Israel, to be saved at the time of Christ’s return.

Spurgeon on the Christian Life is another great addition to the collection of material about Charles Spurgeon, a good reference for quotes from Spurgeon as well as to showcase Spurgeon’s theology on Christian living.

A Theology of Suffering: Mark Talbot Lectures

April 10, 2018 Leave a comment

From last fall’s free special from Reformed Resources, a series done a few years ago by Mark Talbot is very helpful, a five-part series on Trusting God When We Suffer.  These lectures look at what suffering is, within the plan of God: a divine, though unsought gift.  Yes, we do not seek suffering – but it is still a gift from God.  So much information is presented, and presented clearly with the challenge for us to really think hard about it, to think through it.

Talbot mentioned a book he was working on, not yet published; this book is apparently still unpublished, but one free book resource from John Piper includes a chapter from Talbot: Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.

Talbot responds to apostate agnostic Bart Ehrman, who has claimed that the Bible has nothing to say about the reality of suffering by believers; according to Ehrman, the Bible depicts a loving God who rescues His people and does not allow suffering, but instead provides good and prosperity not only in the life to come, but in this life also.  By contrast, scriptural examples of suffering (many to pick from) include the stories of Naomi (Ruth 1), Job, and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20).  Profound suffering sometimes involves the person coming to have false beliefs about God, such as Jeremiah in chapter 20; in other cases such as Naomi, the person maintains their basic belief in the goodness of God, while seeing no possibility of any further good in their own life.

Suffering includes physical and mental, and sometimes both, as well as many levels and degrees. It is person-relative, such that the particular suffering one person endures, would not necessarily affect another – an adolescent being bullied online versus an adult’s more mature response, for example.  An overall definition of suffering:  from the sufferer’s standpoint, all suffering involves something disrupting his/her life’s pleasantness, to the point where that disruption feels disagreeable enough that he/she wants it to end.  Suffering can be considered on a sliding scale, from minor (such as Talbot’s wife, who dislikes Wagner and Opera, having to listen to it) through more intense, chronic, or other types of suffering.   For scriptural support, Hebrews 12:1-13 deals with this in the abstract, the definition. For experience of it, we can turn to many places in the Bible, including the Psalms – such as Psalm 126, which contrasts positive and negative events.

A solid theology of suffering includes application from the many Bible accounts of actual suffering, “breathing” the promises of God, and a robust understanding of God’s sovereignty over everything – including our next breath, and even our thoughts.  How many times in everyday life do we start to say something and then realize we don’t know the words to express it, or forget what we were about to say?  God is sovereign over our thoughts.  Theological anthropology is another term, the biblical understanding of what it means to be human—and applied to suffering.

Talbot references studies that conclude that most people are happy most of the time – when accounting for all other factors such as age, gender, and economic situation – as long as a few basic physical and social needs are met.  Thus we find that poor people in third world countries are happier than some wealthy, successful people in developed countries.  Again we can return to biblical proof:  Acts 14, Paul’s speech to the people who attempted to offer sacrifices to him and Barnabas (as Hermes and Zeus); verse 17,  “Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

We view life within the bookends of scripture, the first two and the last two chapters of God’s word.  Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 both describe a time – past and future – of undisturbed peace and pleasantness.  Everything in between these two times will be a mixture of pleasant and painful experiences.

Another area where people get tripped up is in their view of God as our Father.  Viewing this from a bottom-up expansion, of how good human fathers are and thus how much more God is this way, sufferers have trouble with Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7-11.  Instead we need to see God as Father from a “top-down” view:  God is the starting point, all goodness is in Him; when we happen to see some goodness in human fathers, that is a derivative or shadow of the reality in God.  Further analysis also brings out the reality of even human parenting: children cannot see the future, long-term good of certain things done by their parents – who have long-term goals for their children such as a good education and life-skills.  Mark Talbot as a child could not understand the value of the restriction his mother placed on him, requiring him to read for a certain amount of time every day before going out to play; the child who wants to have the same “popular” shoes as every other kid cannot appreciate the value of a different, higher quality shoe.

This series is very helpful, with a lot of information to think through – and held up to a second round of listening a few weeks later.  For further study of the theology of suffering, the above-mentioned book by John Piper looks interesting.  The Tabletalk issue from April 2007 (the same calendar year as 2018) also featured a study on Grief, with several articles on suffering and grief.  A good quote from one of the articles, ‘From Grief to Glory’:

God will birth His glory in us as we allow ourselves to honestly and passionately face our most terrible losses. To live honestly is to admit the pain and sadness of the loss. There is no reason to live in denial — Jesus did not die on the cross so we can pretend. … We must embrace God and the mystery of His provision and His sovereignty in the midst of our suffering. Through the pain, God is birthing a child who depends upon Him more and knows that He is good even in the most difficult of times.

All of us will experience loss. We will either withdraw from our loss with creative repressive strategies, or we will embrace our loss with faith in God. God is continually birthing renewed, revitalized, and dependent believers, but the road to hope often navigates through despair.

The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson (Review)

November 20, 2017 2 comments

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 (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.

 

 

The Puritan Papers: Five Volumes About the Puritans and Their Theology

July 6, 2015 2 comments

From my recent reading: volume one of a collection called “Puritan Papers,” which I first learned about through a special offer from Westminster (WTS) publications, then available for reduced price in Kindle format; at the time I did not have a Kindle, but found a good price on a used copy of volume 1. These volumes come from a series of conferences, which took place from 1956 through 1969, with many essays that highlighted the Puritans and their theology. Edited by J.I. Packer, this volume includes many informative essays from the years 1956 through 1959 – a few authored by J.I. Packer, also Iain Murray, though most of the names are less known. (Each of the five volumes is available in used-print and Kindle format.)

The topics include important Puritan doctrines: sovereign election, assurance and the witness of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life, law and the covenants, as well as essays explaining the Puritan view of the Sabbath and Puritan worship and “daily life.” Several essays feature particular Puritan writers, names I had not heard of, including “Mrs. Hutchinson and her teaching” (not the notorious Anne Hutchinson of American Colonial history, but English Lucy Hutchinson, author of “On the Principles of the Christian Religion” and “Of Theology”), plus an overview look at the writings of Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, Richard Baxter and others. The 20th century writers also note areas where particular Puritans erred, such as Welsh Puritan Morgan Llwyd (who believed in free will, the possibility of Christian perfectionism, and ideas that were favorable to the Quaker position).  Especially helpful in this area (where certain Puritans erred) is J.I. Packer’s analysis of observations made by Charles Spurgeon in an 1863 sermon (one I have read), “The Warrant of Faith.”  Packer acknowledges some areas of valid criticism, concerning the three men Spurgeon named — John Rogers, Thomas Hooker, and Thomas Shepard — who over-emphasized and went beyond scripture in the matter of “qualifications for coming to Christ.”

The reading content assumes at least basic understanding of the Puritans, from a Calvinist/Reformed background, and from that starting point, these are quite helpful, a good overview and introduction to the subject. The various 1950s authors were interested in returning evangelical Christianity to what it now lacks and has forgotten, the depth of theology and experience from the Puritan age, thus teaching the current generation about this great Christian era, for what we can learn from them. Considering the state of American Christianity over the last 50 years since then, the Puritan understanding of the Christian life is even more needed today.

J.I. Packer’s introductions (which were written some time after the conference, date uncertain) include some great quotes about the contrast between our generation and the Puritan era, as with these excerpts:

Whereas the Puritans demanded order, discipline, depth, and thoroughness in every department of the Christian life, the modern evangelical temper is rather one of casual haphazardness and restless impatience. We crave for stunts, novelties, and entertainments; we have lost our taste for solid study, humble self-examination, disciplined meditation, and unspectacular hard work in our callings and in our prayers. … Whereas the Puritan outlook had God and His glory as its unifying center, and was in consequence a broad, balance, biblically proportioned whole, its modern evangelical counterpart has a different center. It revolves around the individual man, as if he were the real hub of the universe. . . .

and

In teaching the Christian life, our habit is to depict it as a life of thrilling feelings rather than of working faith. We stress supernatural experiences at the expense of rational righteousness. And even in dealing with Christian experience we are one-sided, for we dwell continually on the themes of joy, peace, happiness, satisfaction, and rest of soul with no balancing reference to the divine discontentment of Romans 7, the fight of faith of Psalm 73, or any of the burdens and strains which the responsibility of living as a child of God brings with it. Thus the spontaneous jollity of the carefree extrovert comes to be equated with healthy Christian living, so that jolly extroverts in our churches are encouraged to become complacent hypocrites, while saintly souls of less sanguine temperament are driven almost to distraction because they find themselves unable to bubble over in the prescribed manner. From “Puritan Papers Volume 1” (introduction to the 1958 articles).

I also appreciated the sampling of quotes from Puritan authors, such as the following from Stephen Charnock:

To dispossess man of his self-esteem and self-excellency, to make room for God in the heart where there was none but for sin, as dear to him as himself, to hurl down the pride of nature, to make stout imaginations stoop to the cross, to make desires of self-advancement sink under a zeal for the glorifying of God and an over-ruling design for His honor, is not to be ascribed to any but an outstretched arm wielding the sword of the Spirit.

The “Puritan Papers” are good reading (at least the first volume, what I’ve read so far), informative and instructive, for anyone interested in learning more about the Puritans.

Hymns and Poor Theology: Holy God “Became Perfect Man”? (Modalism)

June 8, 2015 7 comments

It’s time again for a topic I occasionally write about (see previous posts):  Hymns and wrong/bad theology.

At least some churches now frequently sings a simple, one paragraph song called “The Gospel Song,” with the following lyrics:

Holy God, in love became Perfect Man to bear my blame
On the cross He took my sin. By His Death I live again.

No doubt the people singing it understand the real doctrine of the trinity, and just don’t think about what song lyrics actually say – and might claim I am being too picky. If so, I am in good company, following the example of the late S. Lewis Johnson, who often pointed out the wrong theology in hymns, as for example with one of the phrases in the chorus of “One Day” (“living He loved me, dying He saved me, buried He carried my sins far away, Rising He Justified, Freely forever”):  I don’t sing that, “Rising, He justified,” because it seems to me that what the apostle teaches here is that the resurrection of Christ is the evidence that the justification has been completed.  We’re not justified by the resurrection.  We’re justified by His death.

The simple “gospel song” above has a much more obvious problem, in that by its simple lyric, leaving so much of Christian truth out, it actually teaches modalismHoly God … became Perfect Man(?)

The early church, responding to the many errors and heresies regarding the nature of God and Christ, would have found such a song quite unwelcome. Modalism — one God who becomes different members of the Trinity at different times — appeared by the early 3rd century and was strongly denounced by early leaders including Tertullian. The Church, in its creeds and confessions, carefully worked out its statements about the Triune nature of one God in three persons, and Christ having two natures in one person.

Of course local churches like to introduce new songs, especially ones that have a simple tune and simple words. But why not, instead, provide a song with lyrics of actual confessions or creeds from the historic church, such as the Apostles’ Creed (itself a fairly brief statement, yet far more correct and comprehensive than the above “gospel song”). Indeed, two of my favorite Christian rock groups from years past, Petra and Rich Mullins, have tunes with the lyrics from the Apostles’ Creed, as noted in this interesting article.  The Rich Mullins song stays close to the original wording of the Apostles’ creed; and put to song, this creed is easily learned — and a much better alternative to a four-line “gospel song” which omits too much, to the point that its statement about God denies the Trinity for the teaching of modalism.

Creed, by Rich Mullins

I believe in God the Father, Almighty Maker of Heaven and Maker of Earth,
And in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified and dead and buried.

CHORUS:
And I believe, what I believe is what makes me what I am.
I did not make it, no it is making me.
It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man

I believe that He who suffered, was crucified, buried, and dead
He descended into hell and on the third day, rose again.
He ascended into Heaven, where He sits at God’s mighty right hand.
I believe that He’s returning to judge the quick and the dead of the sons of men.

CHORUS

I believe in God the Father almighty Maker of Heaven and Maker of Earth
and in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, Our Lord.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, one Holy Church, the communion of Saints,
The forgiveness of sin, I believe in the resurrection.
I believe in a life that never ends.

Study: The Doctrine of the Trinity, and Its Practical Implications

February 4, 2015 2 comments

Continuing through Arden Hodgins’ exposition of the 1689 London Baptist confession, the “chapter two” content includes a helpful mini-series of 12 lectures on the doctrine of the Trinity: about the Trinitarian teaching itself, as well as implications of our understanding of the triune Godhead.

The early messages set forth the basics, addressing the common heresies of modalism, Arianism (or Unitarianism, Christ is a created being), and polytheism. Several “deep considerations” are next examined, including the truth of the Eternal Generation of the Son (sometimes called ”Eternal Sonship”), as well as the ideas described by two Latin words: filioque and perichoresis. These two points were new to me, and the study here was interesting, with discussion of the different views of the Eastern and Western church. The 1689 confession includes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, referencing this term first referenced in the Nicene creed in the 6th century. The Eastern church rejected this idea, having the Spirit proceed only from the Father. This may not seem all that much of a distinction, until we consider the implications of the Eastern church view: an imbalanced Trinity where the Son and the Spirit are seen as both subordinate to the Father, such that the three are not in equal relationship with each other. The next term, perichoresis, means that each member of the trinity is present in the activities of the others. All were involved in creation. The Holy Spirit is present in us who believe, and also the Father and the Son. Here, the Western church had erred in its over-emphasis on the different roles of each member of the trinity, whereas the Eastern church saw the balancing point that – even though each member of the Godhead has specific roles and activity, we must also see their equality, unity and agreement, that the Father and Son and Spirit are all present and involved in all of God’s activities.

The practical implications are quite interesting, especially as they relate to political government structures, as well as for the family (the biblical understanding of submission, as referenced in this previous post), the corporate church experience, our salvation itself, and our worship. Our God is a relational God, one who has within Himself the perfect balance between individuals and their unity –unity and diversity. In our own fallen world, in human history, we see the continual back-and-forth between two extremes in society: hyper-individualism (what we have in America today) versus hyper-collectivism of totalitarian regimes. Of note here: the history of Athens (hyper-individual) and Sparta (hyper-collective), two cities which clashed to the point of war with each other. In nations, hyper-individualism leads to anarchy, which is replaced by totalitarian rule. The hyper-collective of totalitarian rule leads to revolution.

We also observe Islam as an example of a Unitarian system of belief. The Muslim God is a monad, a solitary being with no relationships with others. The Islamic system acts out the ideas of that type of god, the collectivist/totalitarian mindset, demonstrating (as with so many other non-Christian religions) that people do not rise above the level of the type of deity they worship.

The trinity has implications for family and church structure, such that the healthy family and the healthy church keep proper balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. Unhealthy churches include the hyper-individualism of churches with many and diverse programs for various age groups, different social demographics, the common problem of too many churches that minister to the “felt needs” of individuals. The other extreme church type may be less common, but can be seen in churches that over-emphasize unity such that everyone must believe the same way even on secondary, peripheral ideas. Hodgins provides examples here, of churches that say “home school only,” or churches that are economically based such that everyone here is of the higher social class, or only of a certain generation (only younger people in this church).

The final two lessons return to more directly doctrinal teaching:

  • The Trinity in Salvation – Redemption planned (Father – pactum salutis), Redemption accomplished (Son – historia salutis) and Redemption applied (the Holy Spirit – ordo salutis)
  • The Trinity in Worship: our proper worship of the triune God.

A biblical understanding of the Trinity gives us the correct understanding of the atonement (all members of the Trinity are working together to accomplish particular redemption) and will keep us from a man-centered gospel.

Triune worship includes mainly corporate worship, but private worship also, as we recognize that preaching the Word is part of worship, as well as our private worship of prayer, praises and practical obedience in our daily lives.  The first four commandments of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) are related to worship.  In closing, some final thoughts from this series regarding the Trinity and our worship:

Even as the Godhead has a perfect balance between the one and the many, we also in our worship have to have that balance. If we emphasize the Holy Spirit so much, we will go wrong, and our Christian lives will suffer for it. If we emphasize Christ to the exclusion of the Father and the Spirit, we will go off track. If we emphasize the Father and forget about the Son and the Spirit, we will also go off track. We need to be balanced in our worship, Trinitarian in our worship, consciously so. Let us delight in the Trinity. It’s not a problem to be solved, it’s a reality to be enjoyed. It’s a truth to be defended and proclaimed. It’s a relationship to be known and cherished.

Bad Theology in Hymns: “The Earth Shall Soon Dissolve Like Snow”?

January 23, 2014 18 comments

S. Lewis Johnson often pointed out the bad theology in the hymns we sing in church, observing  that hymn writers would “get to heaven as by fire.”  Expanding on this point, he would mention specific hymns and the wrong theology, including one song he especially disliked, “One Day,” which includes in the chorus, after the words “Living He loved me, dying He saved me, buried He carried my sins far away,” the phrase “rising He justified.”  As Dr. Johnson pointed out (as in this message from the Romans series), we were not justified at His resurrection:  I don’t sing that, “Rising, He justified,” because it seems to me that what the apostle teaches here is that the resurrection of Christ is the evidence that the justification has been completed.  We’re not justified by the resurrection.  We’re justified by His death. 

I was reminded of the bad theology in hymns again this last week when the local church sang Chris Tomlin’s version of “Amazing Grace” (“My Chains are Gone.”)  The last verse is from John Newton’s poem (the origin of the bad theology here), but not in the traditional “Amazing Grace” hymn:

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow;
the sun forbear to shine.
But God who called me here below,
will be forever mine.

That lyric has bothered me for the same reason SLJ mentioned concerning other hymns: it’s not biblical. The earth will be renewed and continue forever: a renovation of the earth, but the earth itself will not be destroyed or dissolve into nothingness.  Reference also this post here from a few months ago, Robert D. Culver’s exposition of 2 Peter 3.

Thinking about this lyric in “Amazing Grace,” I found this blog article, from someone else who sees the doctrinal error here.  Here is his suggested re-wording of that verse, a true expression of biblical teaching:

The earth shall be redeemed by God;
the sun will forever shine.
And God who called me here below,
will be forever mine.

God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: Introduction to James Hamilton’s Work

January 7, 2014 2 comments

GodsGloryBookI recently purchased the Kindle version of this recommended work by Hamilton – currently $9.99 through Amazon Kindle, a 640 page book.  I had heard of Hamilton over the last year or so, from Dan Phillips’ recommendation, and have appreciated reading a few of Hamilton’s blog posts. I don’t agree with Hamilton in every area; he is historic premillennial, but of the historicist variety (the events in Revelation 6-18 are symbolic of the whole church age), but from what I’ve read in his blog posts, excerpts from his commentary on Revelation, he does understand the premillennialism in Revelation, including also the identification of the woman in Revelation 12 as Israel and with reference to Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37.

God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment is Hamilton’s biblical theology, a “center” theme of a recurring pattern seen throughout the Bible, the one unifying overall theme:

The center of biblical theology will be the theme that is prevalent, even pervasive, in all parts of the Bible. … In broadest terms, the Bible can be summarized in four words: creation, fall, redemption, restoration.

The first chapter is introductory material, explaining his purpose for writing this book and arguing the case for why we should have a “biblical theology” with one central theme.  This chapter has a scholarly style, including a survey of the existing literature on this topic, including theologians (such as D.A. Carson) who argue that we should not look for one theme but a group of several main themes.  Hamilton also acknowledges that many different ideas have been suggested as the “main theme” of the Bible – leading some scholars to conclude that there really is no one central theme.  But Hamilton argues that this theme includes many sub-themes; promise-fulfillment is here, as a part of “salvation through judgment” – God promises to save and judge, and He fulfills these promises by saving and judging.  Yet promise-fulfillment is not the complete overall theme, but a sub-theme.  Salvation and judgment reveal God’s steadfast love and his holiness. God reveals his holiness and his steadfast love not as ends themselves, however, but as means to the end of displaying his own glory.

Hamilton’s overview of this recurring theme is well summarized here:

The whole cosmos is created, is judged when man rebels, is redeemed through Christ’s death on the cross, and will be restored when Christ returns, but this also happens to the nation of Israel and to particular individuals. For instance, God’s word creates Israel as a nation when, having already called Abraham out of Ur, God calls the descendants of Abraham out of Egypt and gives them his law at Sinai. The nation falls at Sinai, is redeemed by God’s mercy, and, in a sense, is restored through the second set of stone tablets. This pattern is repeated again and again in the Bible. .. God’s word creates David as king of Israel, David falls with Bathsheba, he is redeemed after coming under the judgment of the prophetic rebuke, and he is restored and allowed to continue as king.

In significant ways the Gospels interpret the death and resurrection of Jesus in these terms. It is as though his death is the climactic moment of exile, the moment when the temple is destroyed (cf. John 2:19), and his resurrection begins the new exodus (cf. Luke 9:31). This story of salvation history is a story of God’s glory in salvation through judgment. Those who believe in Jesus have been saved through the salvation through judgment of the exile and restoration he accomplished in his death and resurrection, and we are now sojourning, passing through the wilderness on our way to the Promised Land, looking for that city with foundations, where the Lamb will be the lamp.

The table of contents looks interesting: he considers this theme specifically with reference to every book of the Bible, in sequence from the Torah through the New Testament.  As he notes in the first chapter, he covers the Old Testament books in their Hebrew Bible sequence (which is different than the standard sequence in the Christian canon).  I like that approach, which agrees with my current 9 list reading plan and the OT lists in Hebrew book sequence  (see this original post and the follow-up 9 list variation).

As I read through this book I may post updates with my summary, notes and my own thoughts, concerning Hamilton’s treatment of this theme in the different sections of the Bible and specifically in each of the Bible books.

How and Why Do We Come to Christ? The Different Answers

July 5, 2013 5 comments

From S. Lewis Johnson’s Systematic Theology series, this message provides a good summary look at how different groups answer the question:   How and why do we come to Christ?  Herein we see the distinctions between Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, Arminians and other variations of belief.

Pelagians:  We come by ourselves.

  • Attributes salvation to our human will and denies total depravity.  S. Lewis Johnson observed “Adam when he fell was the first Pelagian.”

Semi-Pelagians:  I wanted to come, and God helped me.

  • Denies prevenient grace (grace exercised by God on us, before we come to Christ), but admits “cooperative grace” occurs if I choose to come.

Arminians:  God gives me sufficient grace to come, because Christ died, and I cooperate.

  •  Believes that men are depraved.  But Jesus Christ in His death provided sufficient grace for men — which becomes efficient grace when we cooperate with it.

Lutherans:  God brought me and I did not resist.

  • This variation believes that men are totally depraved, but thinks that God’s grace is resistible.  When a  man comes to Christ, he comes by virtue of God’s grace. But if he does not come it is because he resists God’s grace.

Calvinists: God brought me to Christ.

  •  As expressed by Jonah (Jonah 2:9), Salvation is of the Lord.

For all of these differences in the theology, we note, though, that “in a practical way, most genuine Christians respond the same way to the life of God.”  We pray to God believing He is able to do something.