Archive for October, 2010

“The Grammar of the Holy Spirit”

October 30, 2010

Here is Samuel Rutherford facing the question – if all are not elected, redeemed, loved savingly, how can I trust in Christ, is it not presumption unless I know I am elect?

“In this grammar of the Holy Ghost, observe we, by the way, for resolution, The wisdom of God, in framing the words of the gospel. It cannot be said that God loved all the world, in Christ his beloved; and all, and every sinner, and all the race of mankind. Yet, laying down this ground, that God keepeth up in his mind, the secrets of election and reprobation, till he, in his own time, be pleased to reveal them; the Lord hath framed the gospel-offer of Christ in such indefinite words, and so general (yet without all double-dealing, lying, or equivocating; for his own good pleasure is a rule both of his doings and speeches.) As, 1. Seldom doth the Lord open election and reprobation to men, till they, by grace, or in the order of his justice, open both the one and the other, in their own ways; and therefore he holdeth out the offer of Christ, so as none may cavil at the gospel, or begin a plea with Christ. 2. Seldom doth the gospel speak, who they be that are elect, who reprobate; yet doth the gospel offer no ground of presuming on the one hand, or of despairing on the other. For if thou be not a believer, nor a weak reed, nor a saint, yet thou art a sinner; if not that, thou art a man; if not that, thou art one of the world: and tho. the affirmative conclude not, I am a sinner, I am a man, I am one of the world, but it followeth not, therefore I am elected to glory, or, Ergo, I am ransomed of the Lord; Yet the negative, touching reprobation, holdeth, I am a sinner, I am of the world, I am a man; hence it followeth not, therefore I am a reprobate, and therefore I have warrant to refuse the promise, and Christ offered in the gospel. It followeth well therefore, I must be humbled for sin, and believe in Christ. There is room left for all the elect, that they have no ground of standing aloof from Christ, (and the rest never come, and most willingly refuse to come) nor have the reprobate ground to quarrel at the decrees of God; tho. they be not chosen, yet they are called, as if they were chosen; and they have no cause to quarrel at conjectures, they have as fair a revealed warrant to believe, as the elect have; they are men, sinners of the world, to whom Christ is offered: why refuse they him upon an unrevealed warrant?”

I’ve been writing up the last chapter of the dissertation this past fortnight – it focuses on Sedgwick, Manton, Rutherford and Dickson.  A bit to go yet but lots of good material on the free offer from these four individuals to include.

As an aside Rutherford’s statement that the reprobate have “as fair a revealed warrant to believe, as the elect have” was well used by the Marrowmen in their defence of the gospel offer.

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“Mystery is the Lifeblood of Dogmatics”

October 22, 2010

So wrote Herman Bavinck.  In more detail:

Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics. To be sure, the term “mystery” in Scripture does not mean an abstract supernatural truth in the Roman Catholic sense. Yet Scripture is equally far removed from the idea that believers can grasp the revealed mysteries in a scientific sense. In truth, the knowledge that God has revealed of himself in nature and Scripture far surpasses human imagination and understanding. In that sense it is all mystery with which the science of dogmatics is concerned, for it does not deal with finite creatures, but from beginning to end looks past all creatures and focuses on the eternal and infinite One himself. From the very start of its labors, it faces the incomprehensible One. (Bavinck, RD, 2:29)

This is very helpful, and much-needed antidote to rationalism.  I was struck by a similar passage in the writings of the great Scottish systematic theologian, John Dick:

…it is objected against revelation, that it contains mysteries and doctrines contrary to reason.  (JD) What do you object to mysteries?  (Objector) It is that they surpass our comprehension.  (JD) Well, but you are not required to understand them.  Have you anything further to say?  (Objector) Yes; it is absurd to suppose that a divine revelation would propose, as objects of belief, articles of which we cannot form an adequate conception.  They must be useless, as they are unintelligible.  (JD) No; I answer, it is by no means follows that a fact is useless because I cannot explain it … the mysteries of religion may have, and are proved to have, a powerful influence upon the devotion, the consolation, and the obedience of those who believe them.  Nothing can be more unreasonable than to object to mysteries in religion … it is so far from being true that religion ends where mystery begins, that all religion begins with mystery, and is accompanied by it throughout its whole progress.  What is a more mysterious subject than God, a being without beginning, infinite but not extended, comprehending all things at a glance, upholding all things without labour or perplexity, and infallibly accomplishing his purposes, yet leaving his creatures in possession of liberty?  Is there, in fact any thing which man thoroughly knows? … does it follow, that because he [God] has been pleased to speak to us, all the secrets of his Essence shall be disclosed, and his transcendent Majesty must be brought down to our capacity? … The objection against revelation on account of its mysteries, is utterly contemptible… (Dick, ST, 1:175-6)

Reformed theology, of course, is not contrary to reason, but neither is it rationalistic.  And that is a happy balance.

Endless Punishment an Essential Doctrine of Christianity

October 16, 2010

Evangelical theology has disintegrated in the past 60 years to the extent that catholic doctrines (i.e. doctrines of the church universal) can be denied, and one can remain an evangelical statesman.

One doctrine to now be regarded an “unessential” to “evangelical faith” is the belief in hell, or the eternal conscious punishment of unbelievers.  It was not always so.  The great 19th century theologian W.G.T. Shedd said “there is no doctrine more necessary in order to the integrity of the evangelical system than that future punishment is eternal”.  Why would he say this?  Because he argues (correctly) that a denial of hell entails that “the whole scheme of redemption by the sufferings of Christ falls to the ground” and that “there can be no evangelical piety without it [hell].”

Shedd states: “The Scriptures represent the sufferings and death of the Son of God as taking the place of the suffering and death due to the sinner for his sin, and in this way delivering him from his desert.  But the sufferings of Christ, it is agreed by all Trinitarians … are infinite in their dignity and value.  They are the agony, not of a creature, but of the incarnate God …  But is it supposable that such an immense oblation would have been provided to redeem man from sin, if sin does not merit the immense penalty of eternal death, and is not to receive it? … We affirm therefore that the doctrine of Christ’s atonement stands or falls with that of endless punishment.  He who denies the latter must logically deny the former.  He who subtracts anything from the demerits of man’s sin, subtracts just so much from the merit of atoning blood…”

For more on this vital topic see Shedd’s The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment.

Hell is not an easy subject, it is not a topic that should be broached without tears in our eyes and a heart that burns with evangelistic zeal (2 Cor. 5:11).  But as it is not a topic that can be avoided, or denied, without grave consequences.

PS If you have never read Shedd’s “Orthodoxy and Hetrodoxy” you are missing a treat.  Think of a 19th century collection of essays in the style Carl Trueman’s little books.  Shedd’s essay “Liberal Bigotry” is priceless.

Breakfast with John Murray

October 9, 2010

At Cambridge Presbyterian Church our Pastor recently began a Saturday morning study group where we are working through various chapters in volume one of John Murray’s collected writings – The Claims of Truth.  This Saturday we looked at chapter 9 which is entitled “The Atonement and the Free Offer of the Gospel.”

In general in the chapter Murray takes people on a journey.  He begins by defining the gospel and the scope of the gospel – which is undeniably for “all men, everywhere.”  He then explains the heart of the gospel which is the atoning death of Christ and the reason for the provision of the death of Christ – the love of God.  After considering a general love of God for all, and some general benefits with flow from the atonement to all, Murray defends the particular electing love of God and a definite (particular) redemption.  This leads to the question Murray has been building up to all along – “How can the gospel be universal when the electing love of God, and the redemption of Christ are particular?”  His answer: the gospel does not call us to faith in the electing love of God, or the extent of the atonement, but to Christ as he is offered to us in the gospel.  Anyway here are the questions with more thoughts to follow hopefully over the course of the week.

The Atonement and the Free Offer of the Gospel (Chapter 9)

Section I

Introduction

1. What is the gospel? (p59)

2. To whom is the gospel sent? (p59-60)  What are the implications of this?  How do we, and how does CPC live these out? 

3. Why might a passion for proclaiming the gospel be lost? (p59).  Do we have that passion?  What can we do to stir that passion up in us?

4. What is the basis for the universal preaching of the gospel?

The Love of God as the Source

5. What is the source of the atonement? (p62).

6. What do we mean by atonement? (p62).

The Love of God and the Non-Elect

7. Murray gives scriptural reasons for believing in “the love of God for the ungodly, the unthankful and the evil” (p66).  What does this mean for us e.g. our attitude to those outside of Christ?

The Difference in Benefits

8. Who did Christ die for as a substitute?  Is this the Scriptural meaning of “die for”? (p68-9 – see also p63)

The Difference in the Love of God

9. Does God love all equally?  What is the most convincing scriptural evidence to suggest that is not the case? (p69-72)

Disclosure of this Love in the Gospel Offer

10. Note how Murray describes the gospel offer as “the wooing appeals of love”?  How should that influence our sharing of the gospel? (p73)

Section II

Murray’s Exegesis and Definite (Particular) Atonement

11. How do these verses support a particular atonement?  Is Murray’s exegesis of John 3:16-17 correct? (p74-80)

Section III

Unlimited Overtures of Grace

12. What is freely offered in the gospel? (p82-4)

The Marrow Controversy: A Fantastic Resource

October 5, 2010

I have long been of the view that one of the most instructive controversies in the history of the Reformed churches is the Marrow Controversy in early 18th century Scotland.  The Marrow Controversy went to the heart of the gospel itself.  An excellent article from the Mid America Journal of Theology on the Marrow Controversy, as it specifically relates to the free offer of the gospel is now online:

http://midamerica.edu/resources/journal/10/hall.pdf

This is highly recommended reading.  A few important quotes from the article:

  • “The heirs of Calvin have sometimes departed from the balance of the Genevan Reformer, allowing the nerve of evangelism to be severely strained, if not cut altogether. In this way God’s gracious sovereignty is allowed to swallow up man’s responsibility. Calvin himself did not take this path. In his Institutes, after treating the doctrine of reprobation, Calvin remarkably stresses that believers should try to make everyone they meet partakers of Christ.  It is therefore lamentable that some in the Reformed churches in the past as well as today have failed to maintain the balance between an electing God whose salvation is all of grace and a gospel freely offered to all. This has been to the impoverishment of such churches and constitutes disobedience to the Great Commission of our Lord. There have been tendencies to allow the very important truth of the particularism of the covenant of grace to overshadow the free offer of the gospel. We see this not only in the Marrow Controversy of the eighteenth century in Scotland … but its reemergence in the Scottish church in the nineteenth century. In this century similar tendencies have been reflected in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the United States during the 1940s, which called for the official affirmation of the free offer of the gospel. Sadly, the denial of the free offer of the gospel has become the official position among some Dutch Reformed, especially the Protestant Reformed Churches, as well as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia.”
  • “…the Marrow men patiently affirmed, on the one hand, God’s well-meant offer of the gospel to all men universally. On the other hand, they rejected the doctrine of universal atonement or universal salvation. The “gift and grant” inherent in the gospel offer is not that of “possession,” which is given only to those actually believing in Christ. Nevertheless, the “gift and grant” is a divine, well-meant offer which warrants persons to believe in Christ. The offer is not simply a bare verbal offer, but an offer and revelation of Christ himself to be believed and received. Thus there is no separation of Christ from the offer of grace. To offer the gospel is to offer the Christ of the gospel; it is therefore to offer the grace of the gospel.”
  • “Although the Marrow men were charged with antinomianism and Amyraldianism, their teaching and preaching was, in my judgment, fully biblical and confessional. Indeed the burden of proof was upon the moderatistic, doctrinally declining Scottish Church to demonstrate that the Marrow men compromised the truth. Consequently no apodictic certainty regarding these charges ever came. By their testimony, even to the point of expulsion from the church, the Marrow men promiscuously preached and taught the gospel of free salvation, thereby restoring Reformation integrity to at least a small segment of the Scottish Church.”
  • “Particularly we must ask ourselves whether we affirm the free offer of the gospel in relation to the doctrine of predestination. Our answer is of utmost importance. Our Lutheran brothers (though not Luther himself [cf. Pieper, et al.]) are quick to charge the Reformed with rationalism and precisely in denying the free offer of the gospel the “rationalist” label sticks. Lamentably, we must own that charge if we fail to reckon God’s Word and wisdom as higher than our own (see Romans 11:33-36). Thus when God’s Word affirms both election and the well-meant offer of the gospel, proper theological methodology bids us simply to believe God’s revelation and act upon these truths according to the measure of revelation given to us. We do not claim to comprehend fully all that his Word teaches us. To fail to proceed along this path is sheer hubris. In that connection, dare we call our Lord’s tears, shed over unrepentant Jerusalem, “crocodile tears?” Dare we claim to know with certainty who are the elect, apart from their having heard the free offer of the gospel, having placed their trust in Christ, and living a credible testimony? It is much better to emulate Augustine and Calvin in their desire to see all reconciled to Christ and partakers of all his benefits. They did not arrogantly pretend to know who the elect are. Neither do we know who the elect are. Since this is so, we proceed to preach the gospel promiscuously to all people. That gospel is not a gospel, a “good message,” devoid of grace or divorced from Christ; rather, Christ is the grace offered. Christ is himself the message of the gospel; he is offered to sinners. Therefore we may not deny the offer of the gospel of grace to all sinners, for we have the warrant of God’s Word (Isaiah 55:1-3; John 3:16, passim.). Moreover, if we embrace the confessions, let us recall that our votive integrity of subscription calls us to the same faithfulness of offering the gospel to all freely (Canons of Dort, II, 5; III/IV, 8-9; Westminster Confession of Faith, 14:1-2; 15:3, Larger Catechism, Q/A 191).”

Amen, and amen.

Quotable Sedgwick

October 2, 2010

It has been a long time.  Shockingly(!) there has been no time for blogging:

But, the weekly blog should be back now, D.V.  In a hint of what may be discussed over the coming weeks here is Obadiah Sedgwick on the glory of the covenant of grace:

All the desirable delicacies of the soul are treasured up in the Covenant of God’s Grace; in it are contained all the gracious attributes in God, all the gracious affections of God, all the gracious relations of God, all the gracious promises and engagements of God. There you find the reconciled God, the merciful God, the pardoning God, the sin-subduing God, the strengthening and helping God, the guiding and upholding God, the blessing and comforting God; you cannot think of a mercy for the soul, of a mercy for the body, of a mercy for this life, of a happiness after this life, but there it is, but there it is for you, but there it is assuredly for you.