Friday, 10 July 2015

From Heaven He came and Sought Her

This 660 or so page volume, edited by David and Jonathan Gibson, teaches you all you will ever need to know about particular redemption / limited atonement.

Numerous excellent contributors cover the ground under four sections - historical, biblical, theological and pastoral.

Some essays are of the sort where one says - well, yes, if I need it I know where to find it. Others were more compelling and helpful to read. Foremost for me was the second of Garry Williams' two contributions, in which he deals with the nature of punishment and argues very clearly that if the atonement is not penal it is not a true atonement and if it is not particular it cannot be penal. Garry helpfully draws on John Owen and shows how God gives faith in the covenant of grace along with forgiveness.

Also helpful was John Piper's closing essay, in which he deals with Bruce Ware's idea, in defending an universal atonement, that double punishment is possible, because , after all, the elect are under wrath before they are converted, and so they are being punished for their sins as well as having Christ being punished for them.

I did a 'double take' when I read this - can he be serious? Piper does a good job of the (not really difficult) task of showing that the position of the elect, who have been relieved of final eschatological punishment, is very different, in the period until they are actually converted, from that of the non-elect who live under the wrath of God eternally, and for whom it cannot be argued in any meaningful way that Christ died for their sins.

All in all a very useful book - Paul Helm, Robert Letham, Henri Blocher, Donald Macleod, Daniel Strange, Michael Haykin, Sinclair Ferguson and others constitute a formidable array of talent and make it treasury of scholarship on this subject.

Keller: The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness

This booklet from Keller is an exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7.

‘What are the marks of a heart that has been changed by the grace of God?’ asks Keller. Paul condemns pride and boasting. We are after the trait of humility. Until the 20th century people said high self-esteem (pride) was the source of social and personal problems. More recently it has been low self-esteem that is seen as our big problem. This has been debunked by experts but is still deeply engrained in us. 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7 gives us a different approach to self-regard.

Keller looks first at ‘the natural condition of the ego’. Problem: he does not define ego and nowhere relates it to anything biblical – is it the soul? The flesh? The unregenerate heart? But he goes on: it has certain features: it is empty, painful, busy and fragile. [Not, note, anything necessarily sinful.]

Secondly Keller looks at ‘the transformed view of self’. Paul’s freedom is that he does not care what the Corinthians think of him, nor what he thinks of himself. He has found the secret of true gospel humility that doesn’t think of self so much as of others. ‘Both low self-esteem and pride are horrible nuisances to our own future and to everyone around us’.

[Notice: the emphasis is not on what God might think, but on the unpleasant effects of sin on ourselves and others.]

Wouldn’t you like to be the kind of person who comes second but is just glad for the person who comes first, without fretting about how it reflects on you? asks Keller.

Thirdly, how to get that transformed view of self. ‘What Paul is looking for, what Madonna is looking for [he has used a Madonna illustration early on], what we are all looking for, is an ultimate verdict that we are important and valuable.’

[Is that really what Paul, a first century pharisee, was looking for? Does the context of this passage even suggest that?]

However Paul has found the secret – the trial is over for him – he says that what counts is that it is the Lord who judges him. With Jesus Christ you get the verdict before the performance. In every other religion and in the secular worldview, performance leads to the verdict. Because in Christ God has imputed Christ’s perfect performance to me, I am free of having to perform to be accepted. I simply ask the Lord to accept me because of what Christ has done.

Now I may just be unlucky with Tim Keller. I remain disappointed. I have read a few of his books and there is much that is helpful, but the abiding impression is that the weight of his focus is on our psychological problems and the personal and social consequences of sin rather than the fact that we have offended a holy God.

This little piece is no doubt helpful in a way – but it is not the gospel. It is at best an application of one aspect of the gospel. The danger is that many might think it is the gospel. It treats Jesus as the great release mechanism from the performance treadmill (performance induced not even by a misguided desire to please God but to please others). Just as a few decades ago Jesus was preached as the ‘best trip’ now he is the best way of finding psychological freedom from the rat-race.

No doubt these may be the problems that Keller’s congregation faces on the surface, but books like this are not the gospel – not even the gospel articulated for a particular congregation. There is no mention of sin as against God, no mention of his displeasure and wrath against sin, no mention of the propitiation (even in modern language) needed by sinners and provided by the cross; no mention (in a booklet heavy on human judgements) of the great judgement to come.

I remain, shall we say, unconvinced by Mr. Keller.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Sri Lanka April - May 2015

It has been my privilege to travel three times to preach and teach in Sri Lanka, the last two occasions with the Grace Fraternal group of churches.

My hosts have been pastor Benet Surendran (‘Suresh’) of Grace Evangelical Church, Colombo (a church of three congregations, English, Tamil and Sinhalese, each with its own pastor) and pastor Huthin Manohar, a former LTS student, who is principal of Baldaeus Theological College, Trincomalee.

After preaching at Grace on Sunday 26th April I travelled with a group from the church to Trincomalee for a three-day youth conference. About 29 youngsters from five churches attended; I preached once and spoke four times on ‘Thinking Biblically’ from Romans 12:1,2. Three other speakers, including Suresh, covered different topics including very practical ones like how to apply for jobs. After a day’s rest back in Colombo I spoke at Grace church’s own three-day Family Conference at a centre near Colombo. I preached three times and gave a variety of papers including two on ‘parenting’ (a brave thing to do, as I discovered, in a different culture).

Back, then, to Trincomalee (I think I spent 33 hours on this road in all!) for a course in New Testament Introduction with 25 students at Baldaeus. Not all are Reformed but it is exciting to see those from different theological traditions coming to appreciate the richer teaching of the Calvinistic heritage. Some of the young men here will be pastors; all are committed to working in their churches in Sri Lanka. I flew home on 8th May.

All my preaching was translated into Tamil and in some cases into Sinhalese as well. It is precious to enjoy fellowship with these kind and generous believers but language is a real barrier with most. It is good to see the ravages of war receding and the economy appearing to pick up, including the all important tourist industry. The election of a new President has given the Tamils at least a new optimism politically.

Spiritually there is much to give thanks for; pray for the fruit of the ministry of the word; for the overcoming of divisions and rivalries; and that our God ‘may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of the Lord Jesus may be glorified’ in Sri Lanka (2 Thess 1:11,12).

Overseas trips (especially on my own) give me a chance to catch up on reading too. I am having a crusade at the moment to read books which have been sitting on my shelves for a while. So I took with me 'A Pair of Blue Eyes'(a lesser known novel of Thomas Hardy); 'The Weight of Glory', a selection of C.S. Lewis essays, which I read twice; 'Travelling to Infinity', Jane Hawking's memoirs of her life with Stephen, made more piquant by the fact that I watched the film version, 'The Theory of Everything' on the flight to Colombo; Bradley Green's 'Covenant and Commandment'; Tom Lennie's 'Glory in the Glen' (revivals in Scotland 1880- 1940) and I began to read before coming home 'The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism'.

Two other films I was able to watch, this time on the way home (well, it is an eleven and a half hour flight), were the third in the 'Hunger Games' series, 'Mockingjay I', and the film version of the musical 'Les Miserables'.
Reviews some other time may be...

Friday, 27 March 2015

The Bible among the Myths

David Green of LTS recommended this book by John Oswalt a few years ago at a John Owen Conference and I have just got round to reading it.

Oswalt sets about convincing the reader that the religion of the Bible is not in the same category as pagan religious and its contents are not to be classed alongside myths (and he has a concise but useful discussion about what 'myth' is. He also points out that the Bible's approach to, and use of, history is not just different from but out of a different worldview from pagan religions.

His basic contention is that the bible is defined by transcendence, mythical approaches to religion and revelation by continuity (or we might say pantheism or panentheism).

It is a thoroughly stimulating work, useful at the level of apologetics in a world which is rapidly departing from transcendence, as well as being useful in its own field of Old Testament studies.

I read the book through and then read it again quickly to get hold of his main points. I would thoroughly recommend this for any minister or thoughtful Christian - or non-Christian - as a powerful antidote to the creeping pantheism of the age and to a diminishing grasp of the Bible's uniqueness.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Role of Works at the Final Judgment

I have just read this 'Four Views' book edited by Alan Stanley.

Robert Wilkin gives the Dispensational View: works will determine rewards but not salvation. At the judgement seat of Christ (not the Great White Throne judgment) each believer will be judged by Christ to determine his eternal rewards, but they remain eternally secure even if the judgment reveals they have failed to persevere in good works, or even (apparently) in faith.

Tom Schreiner gives the more or less Reformed view - he makes a good fist of presenting the case for works being evidence that one is saved. Works provide a necessary condition, but not the final ground or meritorious ground, of salvation. The trouble is he does this without any reference to Romans 5:12-21 or even mentioning the word 'imputation' . It is all based on the New Testament text (or some of it) without reference to the riches of systematic theology (which of course is also based on the Bible's text) so it all seems a but thin even though correct as far as it goes.

James D.G. Dunn gives a 'New Perspective' view - that judgment is according to works, meaning based on works, but also according to faith. His very postmodern view is that since the New Testament appears to hold together 'justification by faith and not by works' alongside 'judgment according to works' (by which he means not what the Reformed view does, but that works have some merit) we should not blend them in such a way that one diminishes the force of the other. He is happy to allow Scripture to contradict itself.

Michael Barber gives the Roman Catholic view, that works merit eternal life, but that they are only possible because of the grace of God and though union with Christ by faith.

So different views are presented clearly, and as usual responded to by the others. Most noteworthy are: (i) the antinomian leanings of Dispensationalism, as works are not insisted upon as evidence of salvation'; (ii) Schreiner's failure to utilise the weaponry of Systematic theology and even of all of the NT to support his case; James Buchanan's 'Justification' has better arguments, written over 150 years ago; and (iii) the closeness in practice between the New Perspective (or at least Dunn's version of it) and the Roman Catholic views, even though in fact they are different in detail. Dunn makes comments actually rejoicing in ecumenical closeness between his view and the Roman view.

In the end both of them leave us leaning on ourselves rather than on Christ. It is difficult to see how either can give any assurance of faith - one is left trusting the mercy of God, not his justice in Christ; there is no assurance of judgment having already been passed on the believer in Christ. In both presentations Christ is almost finally irrelevant, certainly secondary.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Westminster Fellowship: The Law in the Believer's Life

Robert Strivens of LTS gave us today a clear introduction to this important but contentious subject.

First he outlined the more familiar Reformed view, basing himself on Ernest Kevan's 'The Grace of Law', and then outlined very helpfully the 'New Covenant Theology' (NCT) views of Wells and Zaspel, Douglas Moo and Tom Schreiner.

Robert carefully indicated where these men differ as well as where their NCT becomes clear.

Discussion ranged widely. We discussed the Sabbath issue, noting the difficulties of the Reformed view as well as its basic correctness, and the difficulties of practising this theology without becoming legalistic. The need to argue our case more exegetically and with respect for the text was urged, rather than relying too much on systematic theology, especially Confessions, which however accurate they may be do not cut much ice with a younger generation of evangelicals. 'Is it in Scripture'?" is there challenge, and it is not an unreasonable one even though it can be pushed to unreasonable lengths.

The blessing of the law and of the sabbath was stressed, as well as the importance of the Creation roots of the sabbath and the moral laws generally.

One book I have recently read and would highly recommend is Mark Jones' 'Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest?'. This is a fairly brief book (130 pages) but it covers an enormous amount of historical, biblical and theological material and I have found it immensely clarifying as well as challenging: how many times have I in an excess of zeal in one direction or another made statements in sermons that were either antinomian or legalistic? Two conclusions may be drawn: firstly, we should not judge men too harshly in their speaking or writing when they make an occasional statement which seems to be in error on either side. Secondly, we should nonetheless strive for precision of thought in preparation and of expression in preaching to avoid making mistakes. Who is sufficient for these things?

Oh yes - one major and helpful thesis of Jones' book is that the big failure of the antinomian is ultimately Christological. This is well perceived, and ironic, if true, as it is of course the mantra (which is what it can become) 'Preach Christ' is the very thing they are trying to do. Grace become their 'thing', a technique for the successful Christian life, and is divorced from the person and work of Christ in all his richness.

This was a very useful day, and it was good to see about 28 men there in the morning.

Union with Christ - Affinity Theological Study conference

About 65 of us gathered at the very ;peasant King's Park Conference Centre in Northampton last week for about 15 hours of concentrated study over three ays on the wonderful theme of 'Union with Christ.

Tim Ward, director of the Cornhill Training Programme, opened the batting (cricket metaphors were prominent during the conference) with the theme in Paul, focussing on Galatians. It was helpful to seeing the theme of 'union with Christ' as the 'webbing' against which Paul deals with particular themes e.g. justification. Even if it is not the particular theme Paul is dealing with, it is always there almost as an unspoken (though sometime every prominent) assumption in his whole schema.

Cornelis Bennema of WEST showed us the prominence of the them in John, especially in John 13-17.

Bob Letham gave us a good introduction to the theme in Calvin and spent time emphasising the importance of the Lord's Supper (or 'Eucharist' as Dr Letham likes to call it).

John V. Fesko of Westminster West provided insight into a debate that John Owen had with a William Sherlock, a Socinian (pretty much) in the 1670s, explaining why Owen had to write a vindication of his great work 'Communion with God'.

David McKay of Belfast produced a refreshingly straightforward introduction to covenant theology's understanding of justification and union with Christ, and Paul Wells formerly of Aix en Provence but now Eastbourne, produced the longest paper but a most helpful one on sanctification. But then, it is a big subject.

WE had all received the parers in advance and in theory e wet two have read them ; some had. The lecturers then give a short ( mostly ) introduction to the paper, and then we spent 45 minutes or so in discussion with set questions. These were really excellent, in my view, chaired helpfully by Paul Yeulett in our case and with Bob Letham in the group. We also enjoyed a very warm time of prayer in groups on Thursday evening.

This was a helpful conference, enhanced by excellent facilities and good food, in that something was learned from the papers, the theme of union with Christ was impressed upon us in all its importance, and the fellowship of kindred minds, albeit with some creative differences was precious.

What will we study in 2017? Someone suggested eschatology - not a bad idea and something new I think, if this were taken up.