Archive for October, 2008

Preaching and Application (again!)

October 30, 2008

It would grieve one to the heart to hear what excellent doctrine some ministers have in hand, while yet they let it die in their hands for want of close [searching] and lively [living] application.
Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 147

Reformation Trust recently published An Introduction to CalvinismJoel Beeke’s Living For God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism.  I have not read most of this work yet but my eyes were immediately drawn to a chapter entitled “Applying the Word” in the section Calvinism in the Church.  In  this chapter Beeke highlights 10 elements of true “Calvinistic” preaching one of which is that “experiential Calvinistic preaching is applicatory.”  At which point I said “amen” and read on with enthusiasm.

Beeke’s desire in raising this point is that “it could be said of more ministers’ preaching today what has been said of Jonathan Edwards preaching: all his doctrine was application and all his application was doctrine.”  It is Beeke’s conviction that a “sermon that lacks application may be good teaching, but it is not preaching.”  Strong words, but fair.

He goes on to identify seven kinds of application (six from the Westminster Directory of Public Worship and one of his own):

  • Instruction: Doctrinal application
  • Confutation: Refuting contemporary error
  • Exhortation: pressing and admonishing the sheep to obey the imperatives and duties set forth in the text being preached, as well as expounding “the means that help to the performance of them.”
  • Dehortation: rebuking sin, stirring up conviction of its heinousness and hatred for it, as well as declaring its dread consequences and showing how to avoid it.
  • Comfort: encouraging believers to press on in the good fight of faith…
  • Trial: preaching standards and marks of grace for purposes of self examination and correction so as to stir up believers to do their duty…
  • Doxological: [To] bring people to sense the beauty and glory of God and his truth and to move them to praise Him…

This is the kind of preaching we need today.  Beeke also notes that preaching that is full of application “is often costly preaching.”  He continues, “As has often been said, when John the Baptist preached generally, Herod heard him gladly.  But when John applied his preaching particularly, he lost his head.”  But despite the cost that can be associated with faithful application the preacher can not simply avoid application because “every preacher will stand before God’s judgement seat  to give an account of how he handled God’s Word among the flock of sheep entrusted to him.”

Beeke concludes: “Preachers, I urge you to remember not to speak before people but to people.  Application is not only critical; it is the main thing to be done.”  Indeed, it is the main thing to be done, so that Spurgeon could say, “Where the application begins, there the sermons begins”.

Beeke’s other nine points are important too but I’ll only comment on one more (and only one element of that) and that is point eight: “Calvinistic preaching is sincerely earnest.”  Here Beeke makes the statement that “earnest experiential preaching avoids all levity.”  He quotes Baxter, “Of all the preaching in the world, I hate that preaching which tends to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with tickling levity … instead of affecting them with a holy reverence for the name of God.”  There is much in Baxter I dissent from, but that quote is not one of them.  The tendency for inappropriate humour in the pulpit is another feature of modern preaching (and especially pasts of services devoted to children) I wish would change.

[All quotes, including Puritan ones, from Chapter 19 of Dr. Beeke’s book (p255-274)]

Catch the Vision?

October 25, 2008

My dear former pastor John J. Murray recently published a brief history of the recovery of Reformed thought that occurred largely in the early 1960s.  He looks at men like Lloyd Jones, Geoffrey Williams, James Packer, Iain Murray and Prof. John Murray.  The book is well written and an enjoyable and informative read but the most important section is right at the end when Murray picks up on “the vision unfulfilled,” highlighting where the vision of the early 1960s has not come to pass and what is required to recover it.  Murray highlights three points in particular where recovery is necessary:

First Murray highlights that it is vital to maintain “a full-orbed witness to the Reformed faith.”  That is, the church has a duty to confess the whole counsel of God and can not be satisfied with doctrinal minimalism.  Here he quotes Prof. John Murray who asked the question, “Is it sufficient to have a common denominator confession, general and broad enough, to express the faith of all true evangelicals, but lacking in the specifics on which such evangelicals are divided?”  Prof. Murray answered his own question by noting, “the confession to be made is the whole counsel of God.  There is no restriction that may properly be devised, proposed or imposed.  Its faith is the whole counsel of God.”

John J. Murray argues that being satisfied with minimalistic doctrinal confessions simply to achieve unity is to “go back on what has been a development of creeds and confessions of faith over the centuries and … discard[s] the work of the Holy Spirit in the generations of Christian history.”  He further argues that a “full-orbed witness safeguards against the danger of doctrinal indifferentism” quoting Carl Trueman to the effect that minimalistic statements of faith imply “important areas of doctrine, such as sacraments, salvation and the last things are marginalised, relegated to irrelevancies and sometimes all but forgotten.”

So to recover the Reformed faith a desire to recover and confess the whole counsel of God is required.

Second Murray argues “it is vital to maintain zeal for church reform.”  He quotes Packer who stated that “Puritanism was essentially  a movement for church reform, pastoral renewal and evangelism and spiritual revival…”  Murray notes that the reformed recovery of the early 1960’s was largely lead by parachurch organisations (in which Murray himself was involved) whose expectation “was that as a result of the new understanding, new church life and order would arise.”  Highlighting Westminster Chapel as an example Murray notes the movement never really became embedded in the church.  The Chapel itself “resembled more a preaching station than a church.”  Murray’s solution is a return to doctrinally rich church centered reform, “It is clear that the way of trying to unite evangelicals by common adherence to a minimum of essential scriptural truths has not been a success.  The only way that this can be done is through the restoration of a fuller, stronger testimony to the New Testament concept of the church.  She has been formed as a visible, corporate entity under the Headship of Christ and in submission to his Word as her only rule.  She has no authority to limit her corporate testimony to the truths essential to be believed in order to be saved … Is the teaching on government, worship and ministry vital to the well-being of the church?  If we are convinced that they are, we will hold them and seek that the church be restores as near as possible to the pattern set out in Scripture.”

So to recover the reformed faith we must be willing to be reformers and to be reformed.

Third Murray believes the vision of the early 60’s stalled is because “it did not reach down to the level of the family in the way that it did in the Puritan era.”  Murray believes we have essentially lost a robust doctrine of the family, “Reformed Christians, whatever our view on baptism, must place greater emphasis on the solidarity of the family.  The family is a God-given pattern and forms an essential feature of God’s created order.  The created order of the family is not ignored but taken up in God’s redemptive provision.  How good it would be to see that vision restored to church life today!”

So to recover the reformed faith we must take our family responsibilities seriously.

It is not surprising that some evangelical reviews of Murray’s book have been lukewarm as in his concluding diagnosis he points out the great weaknesses of contemporary evangelicalism.  For my part, Murray’s analysis is accurate.  Whilst we may have seen a revival of interest in the doctrines of grace and an abundance of good literature reprinted we have seen a corresponding collapse in any doctrine of the moral law, a revolution (for the worse) in worship practices and have reached a stage where even ‘reformed’ evangelicals can openly question the infallibility and inerrancy of scripture.  We do desperately need to “catch the vision” that Murray outlines, but I suspect for most of evangelicalism that will involve a 180 degree turn from the direction they are headed in.

Does Particular Redemption destroy the Well Meant Gospel Offer?

October 18, 2008

As I’ve mentioned before John Murray is one of my favourite theologians.  His positions on the free offer of the gospel, the fourth commandment and worship need to be heard and recovered by reformed and evangelical churches today. 

Recently while looking through some old Banner of Truth magazines I came across an article by him where he notes, “It is sometimes objected that the doctrine of limited atonement makes the preaching of a full and free salvation impossible.”  Murray does not give this objection much weight stating that it is “wholly untrue.”  What follows are his more detailed thoughts on the matter:

“The salvation accomplished by the death of Christ is infinitely sufficient and universally suitable, and it may be said that its infinite sufficiency and perfect suitability grounds a bona fide offer of salvation to all without distinction.  The doctrine of limited atonement any more than the doctrine of sovereign election does not raise a fence around the offer of the gospel.  The overture of the gospel offering peace and salvation through Jesus Christ is to all without distinction, though it is truly from the heart of sovereign election and limited atonement that this stream of grace universally proffered flows.  If we may change the figure, it is upon the crest of the wave of divine sovereignty and of limited atonement that the full and free offer of the gospel breaks upon our shores.  The offer of salvation to all is bona fide.  All that is proclaimed is absolutely true.  Every sinner believing will infallibly be saved, for the veracity and purpose of God cannot be violated.

The criticism that the doctrine of limited atonement prevents the free offer of the gospel rests upon a profound misapprehension as to what the warrant for preaching the gospel and even of the primary act of faith itself really is.  The warrant is not that Christ died for all men but the universal invitation, demand and promise of the gospel united with the perfect sufficiency and suitability of Christ as Saviour and Redeemer.  What the ambassador of the gospel demands in Christ’s name is that the lost and helpless sinner commit himself to that all-sufficient Saviour with the plea that in thus receiving and resting upon Christ alone for salvation he will certainly be saved … the primary act of faith is self-committal to the all-sufficient and suitable Saviour, and the only warrant for that trust is the indiscriminate, full and free offer of grace and salvation in Christ Jesus.”

So is anyone still prepared to claim John Murray was a quasi-Arminian because of his excellent report on the free offer of the gospel?

(All quotations from The Banner of Truth, 211 (April 1981), 5)

What is Wrong with Preaching Today?

October 11, 2008

In 1980 the President of Westminster Theological Seminary sent a letter to various senior pastors/theologians asking for their views on what were “ten serious failures of the Christian pulpit.”  One of the respondents was John R. de Witt then of Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson.  His response was also published in the Banner of Truth Magazine (210, March 1981).  A number of the points he raised are of vital importance and as relevant today as they were in 1980.

De Witt’s first observation is that “the pre-eminent failing in the evangelical pulpit is a misunderstanding of the nature of preaching.”  His point here is that many preachers fail to recognise that the preacher is not to speak his own words – in the act of preaching he stands as an ambassador of Christ and should be speaking Christ’s words.  De Witt explains, “If we regard the sermon as the vehicle through which the Lord Jesus himself speaks – if, that is today, we hold that preaching in the biblical sense of the word is the principal means by which God addresses himself to sinners – this conviction cannot help but exercise a transforming influence on what we who are ministers do in the pulpit, and on how we do it.”  To me Dr de Witt’s observation here strikes a real cord.

De Witt’s second point is that he had observed “a want [lack] of ministerial earnestness”  Few preached “as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  The causes he identified were a false view that everyone in the congregation is saved, a failure to hold together “in tension” the truths of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the influence of the spirit of the age “with its tendency to undervalue the awful consequences of sin and impenitence.”  Again, I can only say that De Witt’s observation is true.

The fourth point De Witt covers (I’m not going through each of his points) is a lack of “warm, pointed, applicatory preaching” perhaps due to an over emphasis on the redemptive-historical approach to scripture [not the principle itself].  Again as someone who has spent a lot of time reading old Reformed/Puritan sermons one of the main differences that jumps out at you is the sheer volume of application relative to modern sermons.  Good, helpful, edifying application is hard work, much harder than giving a “lecture” but it is surely central to any biblical conception of preaching.

Related to the area of application De Witt’s seventh point is that “in many Reformed churches preaching is insufficiently direct.”  Perhaps, de Witt posits, this is due to ministers assuming everyone before them is saved and therefore don’t need the direct preaching of the gospel.  For de Witt this is simply wrong.  “The gospel should be preached regularly to every congregation.  Covenant children must be told what their own covenant position means for them … They have to know they dare not take their position for granted.  Those born in Christian families are to come to Christ.  My own great homiletics teacher, Dr Henry Blast, used to tell us that we were to assume nothing with respect to the spiritual situation in our congregations.  And the longer I live and the more I preach the greater is the degree of my agreement with him.”

De Witt’s eleventh point (yes he overran!) is the demise of the “prophetic element in preaching.”  By this he meant the demise of the authority of the pulpit.  He stated “I grow weary as I think about the number of times, for example, when I have heard a minister beginning his sermon by saying there was something he wanted to ‘share’ with us from the Word of God.  I believe that the word ‘share’ in this context is singularly inappropriate.”  Instead of sharing “The minister must come from God, bearing God’s message, speaking God’s Word, standing in a sense even in God’s place, addressing us with that which in no way rests on his own authority.  The minister is a herald, and his sermon is that Word which he speaks in behalf of the One who sent him.  That, after all, is the meaning of the word ‘to preach’.  The relational, psycologizing, soul-bearing so-called preaching of the present time is in no way reflective of the biblical concept of the sermon.”

De Witt also highlights helpfully the need to pay attention to the form or aesthetic quality of the sermon, the importance of appropriate illustrations, how the general decay in classical learning is harming the pulpit, how congregations often push ministers to spend their time on other things detracting from the great work of preaching, and the necessity of a minister to be godly.  All helpful but I don’t have time to comment on them here.

So it suffices to say that I think de Witt is substantially correct in his analysis.  And if anything I would imagine in the intervening 30 years things have got worse not better.  But there is no cause for despair – there are still many who are workmen who have no need to be ashamed, who rightly divide the word of truth.  And the Lord of the harvest is able to send many more into his harvest field.

Why does God find fault with men for their unbelief?

October 4, 2008

How does Durham answer the question (given without the effectual call no one can believe) “why does God find fault with men for their unbelief?”

Durham’s first answer is to assert the sovereignty of God from Romans 9. Here Paul does not set “himself to satisfy carnal reason and curiosity” (Christ Crucified, p182) but rather “there is ground given to silence us here. It is the Lord, he is our potter, and we the clay; it is he in whose hand we are, who can do no wrong…” (p182).

Durham’s second answer is that inability is mans fault not God’s. We are to “Consider whence it is this inability to believe, or turn to God comes: Not from God surely; for if he had not made man perfect, there might have been some ground of right objection; but seeing he did make man upright, and he hath sought out many inventions, who is to be blamed? Has the Lord lost his right to exact his debt, because man has played the bankrupt and debauched…” (p182)

Durham’s third answer is to consider the nature of our inability. He says, “If it were no more but simple inability among them that hear this gospel, they might have some pretext or ground of excuse…” (p182). But Durham goes on to note this is not the cause, “It is not, I cannot, but I will not. It is a wilful, and some way deliberate, rejecting of the gospel, that is the ground of folks not believing. And what excuse, I pray, can you have, who do not believe the gospel, when it shall be found that you maliciously and deliberately chose to reject it. (p182).

This unwillingness can be seen in neglecting the means of grace, not using them with enthusiasm, wilfully rejecting Christ and resisting the common operations of the Spirit. On this last point, “And may you not in this respect be charged with the guilt of resisting the Spirit of God, and marring the work of your own conversion and salvation.” p183

So that is Durham on “why does God find fault with men for their unbelief?”  I’ve been busy this week as I was speaking at the prayer meeting on Tuesday night.  It was the first time I had spoken on the Song of Solomon (see here and here) and I quite enjoyed it.  It will be Song Of Solomon part 2 this Tuesday night.  I’ve also been toying around with the structure of the main chapter of my thesis “James Durham and the Free Offer of the Gospel” and have arrived at something like the following (any comments welcome – sections 4 & 5 need more fleshing out):

1) Durham’s theology of preaching

a) Preacher as ambassador etc.

b) Centrality of the free offer to the work of a precher 

2) Preaching and Covenant Theology – the context for the gospel offer

Consideration of ecclesiology, mixed congregations, Durham did not believe all before his were saved etc

3) The free offer in the theology of Durham

a) Defining “offer”

b) Whose offer is it – man’s or God’s

c) The exegetical basis for the free offer

d) Preperationism/extent of the offer

e) Duty faith

f) The warrant to believe

g) The offer as good news

h) The gospel offer and common grace

i) The gospel offer and the will of God/desire

j) The reasons for the offer

k) Why the offer is rejected

[Further discussion of conditionality or was discussion in the section on the Covenant of Grace enough?]

4) Objections to the Gospel Offer

Inability, election, covenant of redemption, particular redemption.

5) The free offer in the practice of Durham

a) The preaching of election/particular redemption etc.
b) The preaching of the free offer – pleading, begging etc.