Rob Sturdy: The Knowledge of God in the Christological Thought of John Owen

20 12 2011

The essay below is about the knowledge of God in the Christological thought of John Owen.  Thanks again to Colin Burch for graciously reviewing this essay!   Footnotes and bibliography are at the bottom of the paper in case you want to chase anything down.

How do we know God?  Can we have an experience of God?  Can we be in relationship with him?  These questions will no doubt be familiar to the philosopher and theologian.  But perhaps that vocation most intimately familiar with such questions is the pastor, whose responsibility it is to provide adequate and honest responses to such questions.  The 17th-century Puritan, John Owen, was a man who at one point or another found himself occupying each of the roles of philosopher, theologian, and pastor.  Yet it was the last decade of his life, which he devoted to the pastoral ministry, that he engaged the above questions with the most depth and attention.  Owen concluded that knowledge of God depended upon an infinite condescension of God towards his creatures.  This condescension in the theology of John Owen took the form of a covenant, whereby man learns who God is by virtue of his covenant relationship with God.

Owen notes that two things are necessary for a proper revelation of God to a finite creature in the context of a covenant.  First, that “all the properties of the divine nature…be expressed in it, and manifested to us,” and second that “there be, therein, the nearest approach of the divine nature made unto us, whereof it is capable, andwhich we can receive (emphasis mine).”[1]  As will be shown, a simple covenant between God and man is insufficient for the type of revelation which Owen describes in the above quote.  For a full and proper revelation of God, Owen believes that God himself must draw as near as possible, so near in fact, that he must become a man himself.  This happens in the person of Christ, whereby the divine Son of God assumes the human nature unto himself.  Christ being fully God is the nearest manifestation of God imaginable.  Christ being fully man is the nearest manifestation of God which is nevertheless fit for the human capacity.  Owen believed that it was the rational, human mind of Christ which ultimately accommodated the knowledge of God to the capacity of human comprehension.  This paper will argue that it is only through the mediation of the human mind of Christ that full communion with God is possible.  This will be done by examining the transcendence of God, his condescension in entering into covenant relationship, and the full manifestation of his glory through the Triune God’s covenant with the person of Christ. Read the rest of this entry »





What does it mean to be a Reformed Christian part IV

20 12 2011

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?” That question sparked this most recent series on AwakeningGrace which I suspect will go on for several weeks if not months.

Access Part I 

Access Part II

Access Part III

In my last post I noted that there are many sources from which the Christian can learn about God.  The Christian can learn about God from his pastor, from friends, from thoughtful Christian writers, and of course from the Bible.  The Bible then is but one of many sources we can go to in order to learn about God.  What then differentiates the Bible from these sources?  In the last post I cited the Apostle Peter who writes that in the Bible we have something “more sure” than anywhere else.  He goes on to say that only in the Bible do men speak “from God” (2 Pet 1.19-21).  This is essentially what distinguishes the Bible from all other sources.

What are we then to make of those other sources?  The answer of the Reformed Christian is complex, however I will try and distill my answer to three easy headings.  In short, those extra-Biblical sources which speak about God are (1) helpful, (2) flawed, (3) need to be tested against Scripture.

Helpful:

Extra-Biblical sources can be helpful in learning about God.  If one were to look to certain sources over others, historically the Reformed Church has shown a preference for the early church fathers and the ecumenical councils as particularly helpful sources of guidance in understanding the Scriptures and learning about God.  For example John Calvin writes:

I venerate them (the fathers and the councils) from my heart, and desire that they be honored by all (Inst IV.IX.I).

So too, John Owen, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University (1652-1659) writes:

they (the fathers) loved not their lives unto death, but poured out their blood, like water, under all the pagan persecutions, which had no other design but to cast them down and separate them from the impregnable rock, this precious foundation.  In defense of (Christ) they did conflict in prayers, studies, travels, and writings against swarms of seducers by whom they were opposed.  (Owen’s Works, Vol I pg 6)

Owen goes on to show the high esteem by which he held the early church fathers by claiming to confirm his writing by their testimony, which he does by citing the fathers extensively (Over 50 references to the fathers in the first 10 pages).

The point I’m eager to make here is that the early Reformed had a very high view of tradition and its importance.  They didn’t see themselves in discontinuity with historical Christianity, but in continuity with it.

Alongside tradition, the early Reformed had a high regard for the voice of the gathered church.  It was for this reason that Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury pleaded for an ecumenical council in London, where the Protestant Churches of Europe could gather together to seek God’s will for the reformation of the church.  Though this large ecumenical gathering never occurred, small gatherings such as those at Dordt, Westminster, Heidelberg and many others produced a “common mind” on several important theological issues.

The modern Reformed continue to look to the early church and the Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries as excellent extra-Biblical sources.  Reformed Christians at their best have recognized the helpful contributions of fiction, poetry, music, art, philosophy and science as good tools for reflecting on God and humanity as well.

Flawed:

I venerate them (the fathers and the councils) from my heart, and desire that they be honored by all.  But here the norm is that nothing of course detract from Christ.  Now it is Christ’s right to preside over all councils and to have no man share his dignity.  But I say that he presides only when the whole assembly is governed by his word and Spirit. (Inst IV.IX.I).

The full quote from Calvin above indicates that while Calvin had a high view of the fathers and the councils, he nevertheless placed limits upon their authority.  This is fairly typical of the Reformed approach to tradition, as Article XXI of the Church of England’s Articles of Religion makes clear:

Councils…may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

Here we are reminded that it is in Scripture alone where it is believed that words are uttered “from God.”  All other words uttered about God are subject to the words uttered from God.  The two quotes above indicate that sometimes the former fails to measure up.

The caution expressed towards councils in the above quote from the Thirty-Nine Articles accomplishes two things.  First, it forces the institution of the church to take on a posture of humility.  After all, if we are ready to admit that the great Christians of the past may have made mistakes, what will prevent us from making mistakes as well?  This is why the Reformed Christians long ago adopted the slogan Semper Reformanda or “always reforming.”  When this becomes more than a slogan, when it becomes a deeply held principle, it ideally works humility and introspection at an institutional level in the life of the church.

The second thing that the above quote accomplishes is that it works humility and introspection within the life of the individual Christian and makes us aware of our need for the larger Body of Christ.  If great theologians, gathered in prayer and study of scripture can make mistakes, then surely it is more than a possibility that I will make mistakes as well in my private Bible study!  In the awareness of my own weak grasp of scripture, and the fallibility of my mind and heart, I’m driven towards the church and its councils not away from it.  Far from “it’s just me and my Bible,” I’m driven to say me, my Bible, and the church of God!

Must be tested against Scripture

If extra-Biblical sources are helpful, and yet can be flawed, how then are we to use them?  The short answer is that all sources must be measured against the bar of Scripture.  This means that Christians must endeavor to become more familiar with the Word of God than they are with words about God.  J.C. Ryle compares the person who spends more time reading words about God than God’s words to a ship without ballast, “tossed to and fro, like a cork on the waves” (Practical Religion pg 135).  So extra-Biblical sources must be read in such a way that their claims are continually brought before Scripture.  However, I would hasten to add, that extra-Biblical sources must be approached with the charity of mind that the author, not yourself, may have something admirable to contribute to your understanding of God.

Historically, the received tradition of the Reformed have been contained in the historic creeds (Apostles, Nicean) and Ecumenical Councils as well as the confessions of the Reformation.  A nice summary list with links can be found here.

If you’re wondering what extra-Biblical sources may prove helpful to you, I humbly offer the following.  The list below is not meant to be exhaustive.   I simply wanted to give a little head start without being overwhelming.  Also, by and large I wanted the works to be accessible and devotional in nature.  As best as I can remember, I’ve endeavored to put these in chronological order, although I make no promises:

Early Church

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans:  Note that this is not a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, but is actually a letter from Ignatius to the Church in Rome.  Utterly humbling.  Written on the eve of his martyrdom, Ignatius has given himself over to the glory of Christ.  He instructs his church not to rescue him and rob him of the martyr’s crown.

Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word:  Perhaps one of, if not the most important work of the early church on Christology.  Not the best start for the beginner but definitely worth working up to.

Ambrose On Repentance:   A beautiful, devotional work that is both memorable and highly accessible for the lay person.   It is also relatively short!  This was personally helpful to me as I was struggling with sin after conversion.

Augustine, Confessions:  What can I say?  I’ve read, re-read, and re-read this worship inspiring work of Augustine.  One of the few works of the early church that I have memorized large portions of.

Middle and Medieval:

Anselm Why God Became Man:  At times a bit tedious for the beginner, it is nevertheless worth digging into for its novel understanding of how Christ satisfies our debt to God.

Dante Alighieri The Inferno:  Undoubtedly his most famous, this is nevertheless part one of his three part Divine Comedy.  As I read this the first time I could not help but notice it is highly Augustinian in its approach to salvation, which makes it a striking precursor of the Reformation several hundred years earlier than expected.  You must put this book on your “bucket list.”

Pearl:  The name of the author is unfortunately lost to us.  This medieval poem is highly complex, touching on issues of grief, grace, redemption, and reward.  In one memorable scene, the narrator resists the idea that God’s grace freely and equally rewards all who receive it.  All in all a tremendous read from this period.

Reformation:

Martin Luther Commentary on Galatians:  Accessible, Gospel centered, offensive, over the top, amazing!  Read, re-read, re-read.

John Calvin Institutes on the Christian Religion:  It will take monumental effort on your part to wade into this heavy, two volume theological masterpiece.  It was the number one bestselling Christian book of Reformation Europe.  I’ve been compelled to memorize large portions of this as well!

John Bunyan The Pilgrim’s Progress:  It is embarrassing to admit that I read this for the first time only recently.  If my memory serves me correct, it is the best selling book of all time apart from the Bible.  You should pick it up and see what all the fuss is about.  I couldn’t put it down and this Citadel grad found himself fighting back tears at the end of Christiana’s journey.

Post Reformation:

John Donne The Complete English Poems:  O.k., some of the poems in this volume are XXX rated and you shouldn’t read them unless you have a bucket of cold water handy.  However, towards the end of this volume you will encounter his Divine Poems, which make my heart ache for God.  Apparently Donne underwent a conversion experience that turned his intense passion for women to an intense passion for the Triune God.

John Milton Paradise Lost:  If nothing else read it for your own good!  I re-read this in 2008 for the 400th anniversary as I’m sure you all did.  If you haven’t bought a copy, make sure you get the edition with C.S. Lewis’ preface and accompanying essays.

Modern:

G.K. Chesterton Orthodoxy:  A wonderfully engaging book that admirably defends the Christian faith against the growing secularism in Europe.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Discipleship:  Though not personally my favorite Bonhoeffer book, I think it is the most easily recognized.  I cannot recommend it without a word of caution.  I’ve known many Christians who have picked this book up as a call to Discipleship, thus turning it into a tool for legalism.  Read the first chapter more closely, you’ll see that only the Lord himself can call disciples, thus discipleship is always and can never be anything more than a gracious gift from Jesus Christ.

C.S. Lewis The Space Trilogy:  O.k., perhaps I’m not playing fair.  I listed Bonhoeffer’s most popular book but failed to do so with Lewis.  Oh well!  I listed the Space Trilogy because I find it terribly engaging.  The second volume of Lewis’ three volume trilogy is essentially a reflection on Gen 1-3.  You will learn much about God, yourself, and the devil by reading these books.  They are highly neglected in my opinion.

I’m afraid to go further I would have to list living authors and theologians.   I’ve already broken my rule by listing theologians who were alive in the past three hundred years so I must stop now.  The point of this post ultimately is to get you in the Scriptures but also engaging with God glorifying extra-Biblical sources that I have found personally helpful.  To that end, I hope I accomplish my goal!





What does it mean to be a Reformed Christian? Part III

20 12 2011

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?” That question sparked this most recent series on AwakeningGrace which I suspect will go on for several weeks if not months.

Access Part I by clicking here

Access Part II by clicking here

In the previous post I examined how an individual’s experience of the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ creates a desire in the human heart to live for the glory of God.  In this post I would like to examine a bit more closely the most common means by which this happens.

Forty days after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead he appeared for the last time to the disciples.  He gave them one final note of encouragement and instruction before he ascended into Heaven.  Luke records it in his book, The Acts of the Apostles.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  (Acts 1:8-9 ESV)

There is much that could be said regarding this little excerpt from Acts but for our present purpose I will zero in on two things.  First, Jesus has promised that the Holy Spirit is coming and more than that, he will “come upon you.”  Second, Jesus will no longer be physically present with the disciples as the following exchange with the disciples makes clear.

And while they (the disciples) were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  (Acts 1:10-11 ESV)

The very simple point following from this is that Jesus is not physically present with us any longer.  There was a time when people experienced the sovereign grace of God in a very earthy, physical way.  For example when the Son of God placed his hand on a sick person, called the dead out from their grave, and spoke a word of pardon over desperate sinners.  But Jesus was “taken up from you,” and though there are notable exceptions in the unreached places of the world, by and large we should not expect to have a personal visitation from Jesus.  That is, we should not expect to have an experience of sovereign grace in the same way as those who walked the earth with Jesus did 2000 years ago.

So how then can we, who can no longer enjoy the direct benefit of Jesus’ physical presence, experience the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ?  While in college I remember reading an excellent book by Civil War historian Shelby Foote.  The book was called Shiloh and I found it to be a real page turner.  Foote had such a vivid style about him that at times I was convinced I could feel the wet, spring dew of the Tennessee countryside and smell the pungent stink of black powder spewing from the Enfield rifled muskets of the combatants.  The point I’m trying to make is that if you can’t be present at an event one of the best ways to experience the event is through a well written book.  You and I cannot see the miracles of Jesus however much we wish we could have.  You and I cannot see the savior’s eyes when he says “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  Nor can we behold the man on the cross, who gave up his life with the cry “It is finished!”  But just because we can’t see these things doesn’t mean we can’t have some experience of them.  One way by which people for thousands of years have experienced the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ has been through a good book, a book so vivid that the characters and events within its pages spring to life.

In an interview with Albert Einstein first published in the Saturday Evening Post, Oct 26th1929, the famed theoretical physicist had this to say of his experience reading the New Testament:

“No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus.  His personality pulsates in every word.  No myth is filled with such life.”

Einstein’s experience reading the New Testament is worth drawing particular attention to two features.  First, he said that reading the Gospels made him feel “the actual presence of Jesus.”  Second, he remarked that no matter how well told the story, “no myth is filled with such life.”  What are we to make of this?  What we might ask is whether or not the Bible is more than just a good story.  No matter how engrossed I was in Shelby Foote’s Shiloh, never for a moment did I feel the actual presence of General Ulysses S. Grant, or any of the protagonists at Shiloh for that matter.  And yet, when I read the Bible I find that I have an experience remarkably similar to what Einstein described.  Why is this?

The night before Jesus was murdered he spoke of his “going away.”  He said that it was necessary that he go away so that something special would happen.  Here’s what he said:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7 ESV)

What does this mysterious “Helper” do?  Jesus said that the Helper would come and convict us of sin (John 16.8), of righteousness (John 16.10) and judgment (John 16.11).  Also, Jesus said that the Helper would come and lead us into all truth (John 16.13).  As a crescendo to this whole section, Jesus said that the Helper would “glorify me,” that is the Helper in a very special way brings glory to Jesus (John 16.14).  I would suggest, if you wanted to simplify the work of the Holy Spirit, you could say that everything he does can be summed up under the banner of bringing glory to Jesus.

So the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ “Helper” has a job to do.  Most jobs require tools.  The doctor uses the scalpel.  The construction worker uses the hammer.  The writer uses the pen.  The Holy Spirit in this regard is no different.  He has a job to do and he has a tool.  The Holy Spirit’s tool for bringing glory to Jesus is principally done through Scripture.  Paul says in 2 Tim 3.16 that all Scripture is “breathed out” by God.

This is why when Einstein read the Gospels it felt to him as if a living, breathing Jesus was present alongside of him.  This was nothing short of the Holy Spirit of God, playing the chords of the reader’s heart like a skilled musician gently pulls on strings to make a beautiful melody.

This not only gives us a way of thinking through why the Bible has a vitality which other books do not, but it also gives us an important clue as to how we are meant to read the Bible.  If the Holy Spirit’s principle work is to bring glory to Jesus, then this must also be the principle work of the Bible.  The concept is put well in the Jesus Storybook Biblefrom which I excerpt a long quote from their introductory chapter:

Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do.  The Bible certainly does have some rules in it.  They show you how life works best.  But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing.  It’s about God and what he has done.

Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy.  The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all.  They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose).  They get afraid and run away.  At times they are downright mean.

No,  the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes.  The Bible is most of all a Story.  It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far away country to win back his lost treasure.  It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne- everything- to rescue the one he loves.  It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life

You see, the best thing about this story is- it’s true!

There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story.  The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.

One more thing remains to be said.  The Bible is but one of many voices that proclaim the wonderful story of “how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.”  C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one such voice that proclaims the Gospel story through allegory.  Your Pastor may be another voice that proclaims the Gospel story through preaching.  And of course the church, throughout the centuries has endeavored to be a voice for this wonderful story of how God “loves his children and comes to rescue them.”  What, if anything, differentiates the voice of the Bible as it proclaims the Gospel from the voice of the church, or your pastor, or C.S. Lewis?  To answer this most important question we turn to Jesus’ trusted disciple Peter who had this to say of the Bible:

And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV)

Lewis is helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  Your pastor may be helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  The Church has indeed throughout history been very helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  What is this that we have?  The “prophetic word,” which Peter here understands to the be the Scriptures.  He says that in the Bible men speak, but they speak as “from God,” because they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  In no other book, speaker, or institution is the promise to hear directly from God attached.  Thus it is in Scripture alone, or as the Reformers said Sola Scriptura, that one has the assurance that he hears from God.  And because it is in Scripture alone that we have the promise that God himself speaks “you will do well to pay attention to is as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”  Thus the Reformed Christian pays attention to the Scriptures like a man lost in a mine will look for sun’s light.  Here are three quick applications in closing.

  1. The Reformed Christian loves the Scriptures as a man lost in a mine loves sun’s light.  It is after all through seeing the sun’s light that the lost man is given hope for a way out.
  2. The Reformed Christian follows Scripture in the same way that a man lost in a mine will follow the path laid out for him by sun’s light.  It is after all through following this light that the man has a course charted for his own salvation.
  3. The Reformed Christian adheres to Scripture in the same way that a man lost in a mine will adhere to sun’s light.  Other voices may encourage the lost man.  Other voices may seek to guide the lost man.  Those voices that encourage the man to love and follow the light he listens to.  Those voices who seek to guide him closer to the light he is grateful for.  Those voices who cause him to stray from the light he disregards.  He disregards these voices because he adheres to the light, and he judges every encouragement, suggestion, claim, and guidance by how well it too adheres to the light.

In closing, I will say that just because we have something “more helpful,” does not discount other things from being helpful.  It simply means that whatever help you do find, you will find nothing as helpful as the Bible for it is the only place where we are spoken to as if “from God.”  In my next post, I would like to identify some helps and spell out exactly how they are helpful.  Topics I will address in the next post will be the Church in general, the role of tradition, and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.





What does it mean to be a Reformed Christian? (Part II)

20 12 2011

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?” That question sparked this most recent series on AwakeningGrace which I suspect will go on for several weeks if not months.

Access Part I by clicking here

In the first post I noted that the Reformed faith is not nearly as much a way about thinking through the faith as it is a way of living life. I noted that the life of the Reformed Christian is lived out in a theocentric manner. Theocentric simply means God-centered. I noted that this is not merely an intellectual commitment, though it is certainly that. More than that however, this commitment to theocentricity is a matter of the heart, a matter of worship. In the last post I reflected on the desire of the Reformed Christian for God alone to have the glory in all things. In this post I would like to focus on what creates this desire in the first place.

We might begin this discussion using a simple metaphor. Picture a magnetic compass. If you were to shake the compass or spin it around the needles would spin as well. However, once you quit shaking the compass and the needle settled it would undoubtedly be drawn to the strong magnetic field of the North Pole. In the same way that the needle on a compass is drawn by a strong magnetic field, to be theocentric means that your heart has been drawn to God. But what draws a heart to God?

The fact that God is powerful is certainly a drawing force. Powerful people are used to others being drawn to them like moths to a flame. The wealthy, the influential, and the famous all know what its like to have groupies. Power itself and powerful people can be intoxicating. But just as power can draw, so too can power drive away. It was at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after the redemption of Israel that the people of Israel were confronted with an all powerful God. It was of course nice to know that this super powerful deity was on their side, nevertheless being in such close proximity to something so powerful was also unimaginably terrifying. We read in Exodus:

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:18-19 ESV)

If the only thing to God was his mighty power, this would be a hard case for leading a theocentric life for a theocentric life demands that one not only love God but also draws near to God. But as the reading from Exodus illustrates, it is hard to draw near raw power. The sun is nice to look at from a distance but no one wants to travel to its surface! You would be destroyed.

So the Reformed Christian recognizes that God is powerful, but the Reformed Christians knows more of God than his power. The Reformed Christian also recognizes that God is gracious. Shortly after the raw power of God was revealed at Sinai another glimpse of God was given to Moses. Moses begged God “Show me your glory!” To which God replied “I will cause all my goodness to pass before you.” And here’s what happened next:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:5-6 ESV)

God is power. There is no denying that. But his “goodness” is not merely his power, but his mercy. Charles Spurgeon combines the two describing God as powerfully merciful, or to use Spurgeon’s own language “Sovereignly Gracious.” Rather than try and describe it myself, I’ll let Spurgeon speak with his own pen.

Put the two together, goodness and sovereignty, and you see God’s glory. If you take sovereignty alone, you will not understand God. Some people only have an idea of God’s sovereignty, and not of his goodness; such are usually gloomy, harsh, and ill-humored. You must put the two together; that God is good, and that God is a sovereign. You must speak of sovereign grace. God is not grace alone, he is sovereign grace. He is not sovereign alone, but he is graciously sovereign. That is the best idea of God. When Moses said, “I beseech thee, show me thy glory,” God made him see that he was glorious, and that his glory was his sovereign goodness.

Thus it is the sovereign goodness of God that trains the heart of the Reformed Christian to desire to live in a theocentric way.  When the Reformed Christian speaks of God’s “sovereign goodness,” or “sovereign grace” this can be a term that can be applied exhaustively. Because the Reformed Christian views all of life through the lens of the glory of God, the Reformed Christian sees God’s sovereign goodness exhibited in just about everything. For example, it is God’s sovereign grace that causes the rain to fall and water the crops for the food we eat. It is God’s sovereign grace that has equipped humans with creativity to produce art, film and theatre to delight and inspire us. It is God’s sovereign grace that granted biological organisms the ability to reproduce life, which most recently has been cause for thanksgiving in my own family. However, there is a way to speak more specifically about God’s sovereign grace if we wish and that is by speaking of the person of Jesus Christ.

On a clear day if you look up into the sky you will be overwhelmed by the light of the sun. There is a tool however that can break the light of the sun down into its particulars, or spectral colors so that it can be examined more clearly. This tool is called a prism. Light in all its glory goes into the prism and then is neatly broken down and represented in the spectral colors of the rainbow. Jesus Christ is the prism of God’s sovereign grace. All of God’s goodness passes through the prism of Jesus Christ where it is made small enough, or accommodated to our senses so that we can see God’s grace clearly, understand it well, and apply it to our lives.

For example, we know that God’s provision is part of his sovereign mercy. But when we consider the provision of God, it can be quite overwhelming? What happens when the provision of God passes through the prism of Jesus Christ? In the passage below excerpted from Mark’s Gospel we’re presented with a father whose son is demon possessed. Many have tried to cure the boy, even some of Jesus’ disciples and failed. Finally, the boy is brought to Jesus. Here’s what happened next.

And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:17-24 ESV)

Now where is God’s provision required in this story? First, both the father and the boy need a healer to come into their life to restore the health of the boy and free him from bondage. Second, the father lacks faith. “Help my unbelief!” is his cry to Jesus. The sovereignty of God in Jesus Christ is recognized. He could heal the boy, he could grant faith to the father. But, and oh what cause for great rejoicing! The grace of God in Jesus Christ is demonstrated as well! Not only can he heal the boy. Not only can he grant faith to the father. Not only can he do all these things but he wants to! Here’s how the story ends.

And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.  (Mark 9:25-27 ESV)

Thus sovereignty and grace come together in the prism of Jesus Christ, applied personally to a father and his son. Those who have had the sovereign grace of God refracted upon them through the prism of Jesus Christ are changed people. They have experienced the sovereign goodness of God. Now out of a heart irresistibly changed by this experience of sovereign grace, they will seek the glory of God first in all things, but they will seek it through the prism of Jesus Christ. He is the mediator of their experience of sovereign grace. When they need righteousness, they recognize God is sovereign and gracious. He can give them righteousness and he wants to, but he will do it through the prism of Jesus Christ. When they need mercy, they recognize God is sovereign and gracious. He can give them mercy and he wants to, but he will do it through the prism of Jesus Christ. When they need to cultivate a loving heart, they recognize God is sovereign and gracious. He can give them a loving heart and he wants to, but he will do it through the prism of Jesus Christ.

So we find that the Reformed Christian not only lives Soli Deo Gloria, that is, to the glory of God alone. But the Reformed Christian lives this way solus Christus, that is through the prism of Christ alone.

Read Part III here





Rob Sturdy: What does it mean to be a “Reformed” Christian? (Part I)

20 12 2011

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?”  Being “reformed” is currently in vogue.  That is, it’s cool to be a Calvinist.  This growing trend which has been documented by the New York Times, Time Magazine, and U.S.A. Today has produced new interest in Reformed Christianity but it has also produced much confusion about what it means to be Reformed.  So it’s currently a hot topic worth addressing.

Second, to speak of “Reformed” Christians is to speak of the heritage of the Anglican Church, which both me and my friend who asked the question are part of.  Unfortunately, just as people from Idaho will pretend they’re from somewhere else when they move to a big city so have many Anglicans forgotten where they’ve come from.  The Anglican Church was born in the fires (literal) of the Protestant Reformation, of which the Church of England adopted a fairly strict Reformed (yes Calvinist!) approach to theology in its first 100 years.  Just as visiting with your quirky friend’s parents is always an “aha” moment, so too knowing where this church has come from should prove a revealing experience.

Through several posts in the coming weeks I hope to address this question in a way that brings clarity to the term.  This might appear to be solely an academic exercise, but it most assuredly is not.  The clergy at Trinity Church consider those doctrines known as “Reformed” to be closest to the heart of the scriptures and they inform every sermon, Bible study, prayer, and counselling session done by us at this church.  Perhaps more importantly, these doctrines have sunk deep into the well of our lives and affected us profoundly.  I hope in the coming weeks as I attempt to engage this question, not only will your heads grow larger with new knowledge but more importantly so would your hearts.  The Reformed Christian, if anything, is a Christian deeply concerned with the heart and its “bigness” for the glory of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

In this first post I aim no higher than a simple introduction.  So where to begin?  How about the beginning!  The first four words of the Bible are “In the beginning, God…” (Gen 1.1).  Before the larger conversation of creation, humanity, culture, sin, redemption, and restoration can begin we must first pause and acknowledge that the conversation must always begin with God.  Whatever it is that we speak of, the Reformed Christian must always begin with “In the beginning, God.”   Renowned theologian J.I. Packer in his introduction to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ puts it this way:

Calvinism is a theocentric (God-centred) way of thinking about all life under the direction and control of God’s own Word. Calvinism, in other words, is the theology of the Bible viewed from the perspective of the Bible—the God-centred outlook which sees the Creator as the source, and means, and end, of everything that is, both in nature and in grace.

By “all life,” Packer means our work, our friendships, our creativity, our imaginations, our exercise, our marriages, our sex lives, our parentings, our youth and old age, and death itself must be acknowledged as flowing from God.  But it is not enough to recognize that these things merely flow from God.  Rather, it must be acknowledged that they are not only from him but also for him (Col 1.16).

For the Reformed Christian, worship is not something done on a Sunday but rather since all things are “from him and for him” all of life is an act of worship.  During the Reformation this came to be distilled in the Latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria, which means “glory to God alone.”  This means that all of life is invested with spiritual significance and is an act of worship.  Your job, no matter how worthless it might seem to you nevertheless has meaning because it is an act of worship aiming for the glory of God.  The intimacy between a man and a woman in marriage might seem like the farthest thing from church, but God alone will have the glory in the marriage bed.  Sex between a husband and wife is an act of worship aiming for the glory of God.  Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper puts it well when he writes:

And because God has fully ordained…all life, therefore the Calvinist demands that all life be consecrated to His service…God is present in all life, with the influence of His omnipresent and almighty power, and no sphere of human life is conceivable in which religion does not maintain its demands that God shall be praised, that God’s ordinances shall be observed, and that every labor shall be permeated with fervent and ceaseless prayer. Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of his God, he is employed in the service of his God, he has strictly to obey his God, and above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.(Kuyper, The Stone Lectures)

Thus the Reformed Christian is not satisfied with a spirituality that is confined to the church, the small group, or the fellowship hall.  The Reformed Christian brings God and his glory into every aspect of human life and makes every action an action of worship.  It is a spirituality that seeps into every aspect of the daily grind, unifying seemingly fragmented events and actions under the banner of God’s glory.

And there is one most satisfying aspect where the Reformed Christian must insist that God and God alone have glory.  This aspect is in the aspect of salvation.  I will say more (much more!) on this later, but for now one or two things will do.  Paul writes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2:8-9)

No one may boast says the Apostle.  But why would we boast?  We would boast, because in some sense we wish to glorify the object of our boasting.  And when my faith is strong, I will often boast in it!  If not to the whole world, perhaps to just myself.  When I am disciplined in scripture reading, in prayers, and in service I boast!  If not to the whole world, at least to my own conscience.  But on occasion, my faith becomes feeble.  On occasion, I do not read, pray.  On occasion the only reason I serve Christ is because I’m expected to by others.  And then where is my boasting!?!?  But more importantly, where is my assurance?

If I trust in my faith, my works, my discipline I will inevitably be disappointed.  Thus it is not merely a doctrinal concern for the Reformed Christian to say “to God alone be the glory!,” but principally it is a pastoral concern.  For you and I to have assurance, to have joy and peace before God we need something or someone more dependable than ourselves.  Thus the Reformed Christian turns to Christ.  The Reformed Christians says of his repentance. “In the beginning, God!”  The Reformed Christians says of his faith, “In the beginning, God!”  The Reformed Christian says of his prayers, study, and service, “In the beginning, God!”  The Reformed Christian says of his perseverance, “In the beginning, God!”  And as the Reformed Christian dies, his faltering life turning the page on this life and opening up the new chapter of eternal life he will say, “In the beginning, God!”  For every good thing that happens in the life of the Reformed Christian he must say “In the beginning, God!

Thus the Reformed Christian sees the initiation of every good thing, whether it be faith, or fatherhood, hard work, creativity, salvation etc. all have their initiation in God and are ultimately for him.  The Reformed Christian leads a happy, grateful life, under the knowledge that God has thought of him graciously and affectionately.   Because God finishes what he starts, we not only thank him that he began something in us but we wholeheartedly trust in him to finish it.   So I will close with a brief paragraph from Charles Spurgeon:

“ it is not prayer, it is not faith, it is not our doings, it is not our feelings upon which we must rest, but upon Christ and on Christ alone.  We are apt to think that we are not in a right state, that we do not fell enough, instead of remembering that our business is only with Christ.  O soul, of thou couldst fix thy soul on Jesus, and neglect every thing else- if thou couldst but despise good works, and aught else, so far as they relate to salvation, and look wholly, simply on Christ, I feel that Satan would soon give up throwing thee down, he would find that it would not answer his purpose, for thou wouldst fall on Christ, and like the giant who fell upon his mother, the earth, thou wouldst rise up each time stronger than before.”

Spurgeon, “The Comer’s Conflict with Satan” Spurgeon’s Sermons Vol II pg 309





J.C. Ryle: “Suppose an unholy man went to Heaven…”

19 12 2011

Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself and by whose side would you sit? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes are not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy, if you had not been holy on earth?

Now perhaps you love the company of the light and careless, the worldly-minded and the covetous, the reveler and the pleasure-seeker, the ungodly and the profane. There will be none such in heaven.

Now perhaps you think the saints of God too strict and particular and serious. You rather avoid them. You have no delight in their society. There will be no other company in heaven.

Now perhaps you think praying and Scripture reading, and hymn singing, dull and melancholy and stupid work, a thing to be tolerated now and then, but not enjoyed. You reckon the Sabbath a burden and a weariness; you could not possibly spend more than a small part of it in worshipping God. But remember, heaven is a never-ending Sabbath. The inhabitants thereof rest not day and night, saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,” and singing the praise of the Lamb. How could an unholy man find pleasure in occupation such as this?

Think you that such an one would delight to meet David and Paul and John, after a life spent in doing the very things they spoke against? Would he take sweet counsel with them and find that he and they had much in common? Think you, above all, that he would rejoice to meet Jesus, the crucified One, face to face, after cleaving to the sins for which He died, after loving His enemies and despising His friends? Would he stand before Him with confidence and join in the cry, “This is our God… we have waited for Him, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Isaiah 25:9)? Think you not rather that the tongue of an unholy man would cleave to the roof of his mouth with shame, and his only desire would be to be cast out? He would feel a stranger in a land he knew not, a black sheep amid Christ’s holy flock. The voice of cherubim and seraphim, the song of angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, would be a language he could not understand. The very air would seem an air he could not breathe.

I know not what others may think, but to me it does seem clear that heaven would be a miserable place to an unholy man. It cannot be otherwise. People may say, in a vague way, they “hope to go to heaven”, but they do not consider what they say…

read it all here





Octavius Winslow: “The Holy Spirit a Deep and Living Well of All Spiritual Blessings”

19 12 2011

Winslow was a Puritan reformer in England who appears to know the Holy Spirit well! Below is an excerpt from his work “The Holy Spirit: An Experimental and Practical View”. “Experimental theology” was quite important to the puritans of that day. In a nutshell, “experimental” is shorthand for practical experiences of grace that the believer can recognize and rejoice in. Experimental theology is somewhat of a lost discipline, and though it has almost universally fallen out of favor I find it an indispensable tool in pastoral care and discipleship. Perhaps more on that later! For now enjoy the reading!

The Spirit dwells in the believer as the ever-living Spirit of all grace and comfort. All that is really holy and gracious in a child of God is found in the work of the indwelling Spirit. All the holy breathings and desires of the soul, all the longings for God and for conformity to His will and image, all that is lovely and like Jesus in the saint, are the result of this gracious act of the eternal Spirit. The Lord Jesus Himself would direct us to this truth. John 4.14: “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” That this well of water is the indwelling of the Spirit, seems clear from the loth verse: “Jesus answered and said unto her, If you knew the gift of God,” etc.; that “gift of God” was the Holy Spirit, alluded to again still more emphatically in ch. 7. 38, 39: “He that believes on me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spoke he of the Spirit, which those who believe on him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.”)

Here is a gracious truth. The Spirit in every believer is a deep and living well of all spiritual blessings. He dwells in the soul “not like a stagnant pool, but like an ever-living fountain that flows at all seasons of the year, in heat and cold, and in all external circumstances of weather, whether foul or fair, wet or dry.” Nature could not produce that which the indwelling Spirit accomplishes in the saints of God. The hungering and the thirsting for righteousness, the rising of the heart in filial love to God, the sweet submission to His sovereign will, the longing for more knowledge of Christ, the constant struggling with the law of sin, the mourning over the indwelling principle of sin; all this is above and far beyond nature. It is the fruit, the precious fruit, of the indwelling spirit.
It may be, reader, that your heart is often anxious to know in what way you may distinguish between nature and grace, how you may clearly discern between that which is legal and that which is spiritual, between that which is the work of man, and that which is the work of God. In this way you may trace the vast difference- that which at first came from God, returns to God again. It rises to the source where it descended. Divine grace in a sinner’s heart is a springing well- “a well of water springing up into eternal life.” Did nature ever teach a soul the plague of its own heart? Never! Did nature ever lay the soul in the dust before God, mourning and weeping over sin? Never! Did nature ever inspire the soul with pantings for God and thirstings for holiness? Never! And did it ever endear the throne of grace, and make precious to the soul the atoning blood, the justifying righteousness of Jesus? Never! never! All this as much transcends the power of nature as the creating of a world. Is this your real state, reader? O look up! “Flesh and blood” did not reveal it to you- but the eternal God has revealed it and that by the indwelling of His own blessed Spirit in your heart.

read it all here