If we have sinned, it is wonderful consciously to say, ‘Thank you for a completed work,’ after we have brought that specific sin under the finished work of Christ. The conscious giving of thanks brings assurance and peace. We say, ‘Thank you’ for work completed upon the cross, which is sufficient for a completely restored relationship.
This isn’t on the basis of my emotions, any more than in my justification. The basis is the finished work of Christ in history and the objective promises of God in the written Word. If I believe Him, and if I believe what He has taught me about the sufficiency of the work of Christ for restoration, I can have assurance, no matter how black the blot has been. This is the Christian reality of salvation from one’s conscience.
For myself, through the thirty years or so since I began to struggle with this in my own life, I picture my conscience as a big black dog with enormous paws which leaps upon me, threatening to cover me with mud and devour me. But as this conscience of mine jumps upon me, after a specific sin has been dealt with on basis of Christ’s finished work, then I should turn to my conscience and say, in effect, ‘Down! Be still!’ I am to believe God and be quiet.
— Francis Schaeffer True Spirituality
(HT: Of First Importance)
Wisdom for a tender conscience from Martin Luther:
“It is the supreme art of the devil that he can make the law out of the gospel. If I can hold on to the distinction between law and gospel, I can say to him any and every time that he should kiss my backside. Even if I sinned I would say, ‘Should I deny the gospeI on this account?’ . . . Once I debate about what I have done and left undone, I am finished. But if I reply on the basis of the gospel, ‘The forgiveness of sins covers it all,’ I have won.”
Martin Luther, quoted in Reinhard Slenczka, “Luther’s Care of Souls for Our Times,”Concordia Theological Quarterly 67 (2003): 42.
(HT: Ray Ortlund)
Gospel Centred Teaching by Trevin Wax.
Sin being removed, and righteousness bestowed, we have peace with God—are continually accepted before him.
There is not any thing to charge us with: that which was, is taken out of the way by Christ, and nailed to his cross—made fast there; yea, publicly and legally cancelled, that it can never be admitted again as an evidence.
What court among men would admit of evidence that has been publicly cancelled and nailed up for all to see it?
So has Christ dealt with that which was against us; and not only so, but also he puts that upon us for which we are received into favor.
He makes us comely through his beauty; gives us white raiment to stand before the Lord.
This is the first part of purchased grace wherein the saints have communion with Jesus Christ. In remission of sin and imputation of righteousness does it consist; from the death of Christ, as a price, sacrifice, and a punishment—from the life of Christ spent in obedience to the law, does it arise.
The great product it is of the Father’s righteousness, wisdom, love, and grace—the great and astonishable fruit of the love and condescension of the Son—the great discovery of the Holy Ghost in the revelation of the mystery of the gospel.
—John Owen, Communion with the Triune God, 290-91.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
With lots of books and blog posts out there about law and gospel, about grace and effort, about the good news of this and the bad news of that, it’s clear that Christians are still wrestling with the doctrine of progressive sanctification. Can Christians do anything truly good? Can we please God? Should we try to? Is there a place for striving in the Christian life? Can God be disappointed with the Christian? Does the gospel make any demands? These are good questions that require a good deal of nuance and precision to answer well.
Thankfully, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The Reformed confessions and catechisms of the 16th and 17th centuries provide answers for all these questions. For those of us who subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity or to the Westminster Standards this means we are duty bound to affirm, teach, and defend what is taught in our confessional documents. For those outside these confessional traditions, there is still much wisdom you can gain in understanding what Christians have said about these matters over the centuries. And most importantly, these standards were self-consciously grounded in specific texts of Scripture. We can learn a lot from what these documents have to teach us from the Bible.
Sometimes the truth can be seen more clearly when we state its negation. So rather than stating what we should believe about sanctification, I’d like to explain what we should not believe or should not say. Each of these points is taken directly from one or more of the Reformed confessions or catechisms. Since I am more conversant I will stick with the Three Forms of Unity, but the same theology can be found just as easily in the Westminster Standards (see especially WCF Chapters 13, 16, 18, 19; LC Question and Answer 75-81, 97, 149-153; Shorter Catechism Question and Answer 35, 39, 82-87).
Error #1: The good we do can in some small way make us right with God.This is a denial of the gospel. The good we do is of no use to us in our justification because “even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin” (HC Q/A 62). We “cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment” (BC Art. 24).
Error #2: We must be good Christians so that God will keep loving us. To the contrary, the good news of justification by faith alone means that we can now “do a thing out of love for God” instead of “only out of love for [ourselves] and fear of being condemned” (BC Art. 24). In the midst of daily sins and weakness the struggling Christian should “flee for refuge to Christ crucified” (CD 5.2), truths that “it is not by their own merits or strength but by God’s undeserved mercy that they neither forfeit faith and grace nor remain in their downfalls to the end and are lost” (CD 5.8).
Error #3: If sanctification is a work of divine grace in our lives, then it must not involve our effort. We are absolutely “indebted to God for the good works we do” (BC Art. 24). He is the one at work in us both to will and to do according to his good pleasure. At the same time, “faith working through love” leads “a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word” (BC. Art. 24). Our ability to do good works “is not at all” in ourselves, but we still “ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in [us]” (WCF 16.3).
Error #4: Warning people of judgment is law and has no part to play in preaching the gospel. Actually, “preaching the gospel” should both “open and close the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is opened by proclaiming to believers what God has done for us in Christ. The kingdom of heaven is closed by proclaiming “to unbelievers and hypocrites that, as long as they do not repent, the anger of God and eternal condemnation rest on them. God’s judgment, both in this life and in the life to come, is based on this gospel testimony” (HC Q/A 84).
Error #5: There is only one reason Christians should pursue sanctification and that’s because of our justification. The Heidelberg Catechism lists several reasons—motivations even—for doing good. “We do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (HC Q/A 86).
Error #6: Since we cannot obey God’s commandments perfectly, we should not insist on obedience from ourselves or from others. While it is true that “in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience,” that’s not the whole story. “Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments” (HC Q/A 114). Because we belong to Christ and our good works are “sanctified by his grace” (BC Art. 24), God “is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (WCF 13.6).
Error #7: The Ten Commandments should be preached in order to remind us of our sin, but not so that believers may be stirred up to try to obey the commandments. The Heidelberg Catechism acknowledges that “no one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly,” but it still insists that “God wants them preached pointedly.” For two reason: “First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.” And “Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection” (HC Q/A 115).
Error #8: Being fully justified as Christians, we should never fear displeasing God or offending him. The promise of divine preservation does not mean that true believers will never fall into serious sin (CD 5.4). Even believers can commit “monstrous sins” that “greatly offend God.” When we sin in such egregious ways, we “sometimes lose the awareness of grace for a time” until we repent and God’s fatherly face shines upon us again (5.5). God being for us in Christ in a legal and ultimate sense does not mean he will never frown upon our disobedience. But it does mean that God will always effectively renew us to repentance and bring us to “experience again the grace of reconciled God” (5.7).
Error #9: The only proper ground for assurance is in the promises of God found in the gospel. Assurance is not to be sought from private relation but from three sources: from faith in the promises of God, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying to our spirits that we are children of God, and from “a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works” (CD 5.10). Assurance is not inimical to the pursuit of holiness, but intimately bound up with it. We walk in God’s ways “in order that by walking them [we] may maintain the assurance of [our] perseverance” (5.13). Personal holiness is not only a ground for assurance; the desire for assurance is itself a motivation unto holiness.
Error #10: Threats and exhortations belong to the terrors of the law and are not to be used as a motivation unto holiness. This is not the view of the Canons of Dort: “And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments” (CD 5.14). Notice two things here. First, God causes us to persevere by several means. He makes promises to us, but he also threatens. He works by the hearing of the gospel and by the use of the sacraments. He has not bound himself to one method. Surely, this helps us make sense of the warnings in Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament. Threats and exhortations do not undermine perseverance; they help to complete it. Second, notice the broad way in which Dort understands the gospel (in this context). In being gospel-centered Christians, we meditate on the “exhortations, threats, and promises” of the gospel. In a strict sense we might say that the gospel is only the good news of how we can be saved. But in a wider sense, the gospel encompasses the whole story of salvation, which includes not only gospel promises but also the threats and exhortations inherent in the gospel.
Clearly, different sermons, different passages, and different problems call for different truths to be accented. One is not guilty of these errors simply by not saying everything that can be said. And yet, in the course of faithful preaching and teaching all the positive truths found in a robust, thoughtful doctrine of sanctification should be publicly declared. Likewise, although we may feel called to trumpet a certain truth about the gospel or sanctification—which certain times and certain texts call for—this in no way excuses the ten errors listed above. It is never wise to celebrate the truth by making statements that are false.
In an essay on “John Owen on Spiritual Gifts” in A Quest for Godliness, J. I. Packer points that spiritual gifts were not much debated in Puritan theology and that Owen’s Discourse on Spiritual Gifts (published posthumously) is the only full-scale treatment of the subject by a major writer. Some of the questions we are asking today were not even raised at this time. For example, Packer writes, “Seventeenth-century England did not, to my knowledge, produce anyone who claimed the gift of tongues. . . .”
So how would the great John Owen have interacted with our contemporary debates? Packer writes: “it may be supposed (though this, in the the nature of the case, can only be a guess) that were Owen confronted with modern Pentecostal phenomena he would judge each case a posteriori, on its own merit, according to these four principles:”
1. Since the presumption against any such renewal is strong, and liability to ‘enthusiasm’ is part of the infirmity of every regenerate man, any extra-rational manifestation like glossolalia needs to be watched and tested most narrowly, over a considerable period of time, before one can, even provisionally, venture to ascribe it to God.
2. Since the use of a person’s gifts is intended by God to further the work of grace in his own soul (we shall see Owen arguing this later), the possibility that (for instance) a man’s glossolalia is from God can only be entertained at all as long as it is accompanied by a discernible ripening of the fruit of the Spirit in his life.
3. To be more interested in extraordinary gifts of lesser worth than in ordinary ones of greater value; to be more absorbed in seeking one’s own spiritual enrichment than in seeking the edifying of the church; and to have one’s attention centred on the Holy Spirit, whereas the Spirit himself is concerned to centre our attention on Jesus Christ—these traits are sure signs of ‘enthusiasm’ wherever they are found, even in those whom seem most saintly.
4. Since one can never conclusively prove that any charismatic manifestation is identical with what is claimed as its New Testament counterpart, one can never in any particular case have more than a tentative and provisional opinion, open to constant reconsideration as time and life go on. Owen was deeply concerned to bring out the supernaturalness of the Christian life, and to do justice to the Spirit’s work in it, but whether he could have felt close sympathy with any form of modern Pentecostalism is a question about which opinions might differ.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
Just started Mike Bird’s superb ‘Evangelical Theology’. In the front-piece he quotes John Calvin:
Without the gospel
everything is useless and vain;
without the gospel
we are not Christians;
without the gospel
all riches is poverty,
all wisdom folly before God;
strength is weakness,
and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God.
But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made
children of God,
brothers of Jesus Christ,
fellow townsmen with the saints,
citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven,
heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom
the poor are made rich,
the weak strong,
the fools wise,
the sinner justified,
the desolate comforted,
the doubting sure,
and slaves free.
It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe.
It follows that every good thing we could think or desire is to be found in this same Jesus Christ alone.
For, he was
sold, to buy us back;
captive, to deliver us;
condemned, to absolve us;
made a curse for our blessing,
[a] sin offering for our righteousness;
marred that we may be made fair;
he died for our life; so that by him
fury is made gentle,
darkness turned into light,
sadness made merry,
misfortune made fortunate,
force forced back,
war warred against,
the abyss sunk into the abyss,
mortality made immortal.
mercy has swallowed up all misery,
and goodness all misfortune.
For all these things which were to be the weapons of the devil in his battle against us, and the sting of death to pierce us, are turned for us into exercises which we can turn to our profit.
If we are able to boast with the apostle, saying, O hell, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? it is because by the Spirit of Christ promised to the elect, we live no longer, but Christ lives in us; and we are by the same Spirit seated among those who are in heaven, so that for us the world is no more, even while our conversation is in it; but we are content in all things, whether country, place, condition, clothing, meat, and all such things.
And we are
comforted in tribulation,
joyful in sorrow,
glorying under vituperation,
abounding in poverty,
warmed in our nakedness,
patient amongst evils,
living in death.
This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.
From the preface to Pierre Robert Olivétan’s French translation of the New Testament (1534).
Posted by Tullian Tchividjian and arranged by Justin Taylor.
Off to Tanzania today. Travelling with my son-in-law, Dan Gower. It will be a privilege to serve along side him. We’ll be hosting and teaching at several conferences for pastors in Mbeya and Tukuyu. Later next week, more of the same in Nairobi, Kenya, with young aspiring leaders. I’ll get some research done too, hopefully!
Home safely from a wonderful trip. One of the most challenging and blessed times I’ve known in Africa.
The Holy Spirit is often described as light. He shines into the dark places of the heart and convicts us of sin (John 16:7-11). He is a lamp to illumine God’s word, teaching what is true and showing the truth to be precious (1 Cor. 2:6-16). And the Spirit throws a spotlight on Christ so that we can see his glory and be changed (John 16:14). That’s why 2 Corinthians 3:18speaks of becoming more like Christ by beholding the glory of Christ. Just as Moses had his face transfigured when he saw the Lord’s glory on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:29; 2 Cor. 3:7), so will we be transformed when, by the Spirit, we behold God’s glory in the face of Christ.
The Spirit, then, is a light to us in three ways: by exposing our guilt, by illuminating the word of God, and by showing us Christ. Or to put it another way, as Divine Light, the Holy Spirit works to reveal sin, reveal the truth, and reveal glory. When we close our eyes to this light or disparage what we are meant to see by this brightness, we are guilty of resisting the Spirit (Acts 7:51), or quenching (1 Thess. 5:19) or grieving the Spirit (Eph. 4:30). There may be slight nuances among the three terms, but they are all speak of the same basic reality: refusing to see and to savor what the Spirit means to show us.
There are, then, at least three ways to grieve the Holy Spirit—three ways that may be surprising because they correspond to the three ways in which the Spirit acts as light to expose our guilt, illumine the word, and show us Christ.
First, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we use him to excuse our sinfulness.
The Spirit is meant to be the source of conviction in the human hearts. How sad it is, therefore, when Christians try to use the Spirit to support ungodly behavior. We see it when people—whether genuinely deceived or purposeful charlatans—claim the leading of the Spirit as the reason for their unbiblical divorce, or for their financial impropriety, or for their new found sexual liberation. The Holy Spirit is always the Spirit of holiness. He means to show us our sin not to excuse it through subjective feelings, spontaneous impressions, and wish fulfillment disguised as enlightened spirituality. If the Holy Spirit is grieved when we turn from righteous into sin, how doubly grieved he must be when we claim the Spirit’s authority for such deliberate rebellion.
Second, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we pit him against the Scriptures.
The Spirit works to reveal the truth of the word of God, not to lead us away from it. There is no place in the Christian life for supposing or suggesting that careful attention to the Bible is somehow antithetical to earnest devotion to the Holy Spirit. Anyone wishing to honor the Spirit would do well to honor the Scriptures he inspired and means to illuminate.
Sometimes Christians will cite the promise in John 16:13 that the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth” as reason to expect that the third person of the Trinity will give us new insights not found in the Scripture. But the “truth” referred to in John 16 is the whole truth about everything bound up in Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life. The Spirit will unpack the things that are to come, insofar as he will reveal to the apostles (see v. 12) the significance of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation. The Spirit, speaking for the Father and the Son, would help the apostles remember what Jesus said and understand the true meaning of who Jesus is and what he accomplished (John 14:26).
This means that the Spirit is responsible for the truths the apostles preached and that in turn were written down in what we now call the New Testament. We trust the Bible—and do not need to go beyond the Bible—because the apostles, and those under the umbrella of their authority, wrote the Bible by means of the Spirit’s revelation. The Bible is the Spirit’s book. To insist on exegetical precision, theological rigor, and careful attention to the word of God should never be denigrated as stuffing our heads full of knowledge, let alone as somehow opposed to the real work of the Spirit.
Third, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we suggest he is jealous of our focus on Christ.
The Holy Spirit’s work is to serve. He speaks only what he hears (John 16:13). He declares what he is given; his mission is to glorify another (John 16:14). All three persons of the Trinity are fully God, yet in the divine economy the Son makes known the Father and the Spirit glorifies the Son. Yes, it is a terrible thing to be ignorant about the Spirit and unwise to overlook the indispensable role he plays in our lives. But we must not think we can focus on Christ too much, or that when we exalt Christ to the glory of God the Father that somehow the Spirit is sulking off in the corner. The Spirit means to shine a light on Christ; he is not envious to stand in the light himself.
Exulting in Christ, focusing on Christ, speaking much and singing often of Christ are not evidences of the Spirit’s dismissal but of the Spirit’s work. If the symbol of the church is the cross and not the dove, that’s because the Spirit would have it that way. As J. I. Packer puts it, “The Spirit’s message to us is never, ‘Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me,’ but always, ‘Look at him, and see his glory; listen to him, and hear his word; go to him, and have life; get to know him, and taste his gift of joy and peace.’”
Again, to know nothing of the Holy Spirit is a serious mistake (cf. Acts 19:2). But when Christians lament an over-attentiveness to Christ or moan about too much emphasis on the cross, such protestations grieve the Spirit himself. The Holy Spirit is not waiting in the wings to be noticed and lauded. His work is not to shine brightly before us, but to shine a light on the glory of Christ. To behold the glory of God the Father in the face of Jesus Christ the Son is not to sideline the Holy Spirit; it is to celebrate his gracious work among us.
Whether we are talking about holiness, the Bible, or Jesus Christ, let us never set the Spirit against the very thing he means to accomplish. We do not honor the Spirit by trying to diminish what he seeks to exalt. And we do not stay in his step by pushing others (or ourselves) in the direction of the very things that grieve him most.
Sometimes a whole world — a whole theology — hangs on a word.
Consider the word “this” in Ephesians 2:8. Does it refer to “faith” or “grace” or both? Is faith a gift of God?
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not from you; it is the gift of God.
What does “this” refer to? “And this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” What is its antecedent? The question is not settled by the fact that in Greek “this” is singular and neuter, while “grace” and “faith” are both feminine. “This” is just as ambiguous in Greek as it is in English.
Faith As a Gift
But consider these four pointers to seeing faith as a gift in Ephesians 2:8.
1. When Paul says “this is not from you, it is the gift of God,” he seems to be referring to the whole process of grace-faith-salvation. That may be why “this” is neuter and not feminine.
2. But more important than that is the way Paul uses the phrase “by grace you have been saved” back in verse 5. In verse 8, he says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Back in verse 5, he said, “When we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him.”
This is striking. Paul breaks the flow of his sentence in order to insert “by grace you have been saved.” And he does it precisely after saying, “When we were dead, God made us alive.” Why does he insert “by grace you are saved” just here?
Is it not because he wants to make clear the true nature of grace? He made you alive when you were dead — by grace you are saved! This grace is God’s free act of giving life to the dead. By inserting “by grace are you saved” immediately after saying “when you were dead, God raised you,” he shows that this saving grace is not caused by our participation. We are dead when it happens to us. This saving grace is resurrection of the dead.
So when Paul gets to verse 8, one of the reasons he repeats, “By grace you have been saved,” is to describe how we experience this divine miracle of being raised from the dead. He adds “through faith.” “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” In other words, the life God creates by grace out of death is experienced in our believing. Our believing is what this new life does that grace creates. So faith is the creation of grace. Therefore, it is part of the gift in verse 8 that is not from ourselves.
3. This is confirmed in verse 10 when Paul actually uses the language of “creation” to describe our new life as believers: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.” The language of “creation” confirms that when God “made us alive” (verse 5), we were not part of the cause.
Things that are created do not cause their creation. The existence of a new believer is a “creation in Christ Jesus.” And that confirms that this new believing is part of the gift in verse 8. Our faith is a gift of God.
4. Finally, consider that Paul says the same in Philippians 1:29 — that our faith is a gift: “It has been given to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Literally: “It has been given to you to trust him.”
A Different World
So when Paul says, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you, it is the gift of God,” part of his meaning is that our faith is a gift of God. It is a divine creation. It is the work of grace when we were dead. It is not “from ourselves.” Therefore, our faith is the mark of being chosen by God. He chose to give us faith.
A whole world — a whole theology — hangs on a word. “This is not from yourselves.” “It is the gift of God.” That is, faith is not from yourselves. Faith is a gift of God.
To believe this changes everything. You live in a different world if you believe this. We will be discovering the wonders of this world for all eternity.
While Halloween can often be a time associated with ghosts, devils and darkness, this video is designed to share the good news that Jesus is the light of the world!
We are making this film available for free and encourage you share it with your friends via social media as well as showing at church events. Please feel free to download the video for use however you like.
This is the script used on the video:
Vast armies undead do tread through the night and
In hordes march towards hapless victims to frighten.
They stumble in step with glass-eyes on the prizes;
Bunched hither, hunched over in monstrous disguises;
In sizes not lofty but numb’ring a throng;
To unleash on their prey the dreaded DING DONG.
Small faces with traces of mother’s eye-liner,
Peer up to the resident candy provider.
And there to intone ancient threats learnt verbatim;
They lisp “TRICK OR TREAT!” Tis their stark ultimatum.
Thus: region by region such legions take plunder.
Does this spector-full spectacle cause you to wonder?
Just how did our fair festive forebears conceive,
Of this primeval practice called All Hallows Eve?
The answer, if anyone cares to research,
Surprises, it rises from old mother church.
On the cusp of the customary All Saints Day
The Christ-i-an kinsfolk made mocking display.
These children of light both to tease and deride;
Don darkness, doll down as the sinister side.
In pre-post-er-ous pageants and dress diabolic,
They hand to the damned just one final frolick.
You see with the light of the dawn on the morrow,
The sunrise will swallow such darkness and sorrow.
The future is futile for forces of evil;
And so they did scorn them in times Medieval.
For this is the nature of shadow and gloom;
In the gleaming of glory there can be no room.
What force is resourced by the echoing black?
When the brightness ignites can the shadow push back?
These ‘powers’ of darkness, if such can be called,
Are banished by brilliance, by blazing enthralled.
So the bible begins with this fore-resolved fight;
For a moment the darkness…. then “Let there be Light!”
First grief in the gloom, then joy from the East.
First valley of shadow, then mountaintop feast.
First wait for Messiah, then long-promised Dawn.
First desolate Friday and then Easter Morn.
The armies of darkness when doing their worst,
Can never extinguish this Dazzling Sunburst.
So… ridicule rogues if you must play a role;
But beware getting lost in that bottomless hole.
The triumph is not with the forces of night.
It dawned with the One who said “I am the Light!”
“Even when we pray for the blessing of God’s own glory to rest upon us, we find the fulfillment not by thinking about ourselves but by looking to Jesus. Likeness to God’s beauty comes by reflection. We are conformed to his image as we look at the original. It is the Spirit-given vision of the beauty of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ that transforms us to share in thatbeauty.”
— Edmund P. Clowney Christian Meditation (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2002), 88
(HT: Of First Importance)
Andrew Wilson‘s excellent reponse to the “Strange Fire” conference:
It’s good to face robust challenges to what you believe, every now and then. The more deeply held a belief is, the harder it is to think it through afresh, and the more possibility there is that you will become hardened in a wrong position. To that extent, I’m grateful for John MacArthur and co for putting on “Strange Fire”, an anti-charismatic conference which is nothing if not robust, even if I remain convinced that the tone in which MacArthur in particular has spoken of hundreds of millions of Christians has not been especially helpful. Wrestling with the content of the sessions has been sharpening and illuminating, although admittedly difficult and painful in places.
In this post I want to respond specifically to one of the more measured messages to emerge from the conference: Tom Pennington’s admirably clear case for cessationism. There are two reasons for this – firstly, it is easier to respond to a logically laid out case than a rhetorical appeal, and secondly, it is the foundation for all the other sessions, since (as I’m sure MacArthur and others would agree) if cessationism is not demonstrably biblical, then many of the criticisms of charismatics in the conference carry less weight. (There may be weight to some of them, of course, because one does not need to be a cessationist to be troubled by much of the contemporary charismatic movement. I am myself, for example, for reasons that will become clear if you read this). An extremely helpful and sympathetic summary of all the messages, including the one I’m quoting from here, can be found at Tim Challies’ excellent website.
Pennington begins by explaining what cessationism is: the belief that the miraculous gifts have ceased, including tongues, prophecy and healing. This is clarifying, because often the discussion involves all sorts of misunderstandings about exactly what different groups affirm and deny. The debate is not about “the gifts”: cessationists believe many of these (teaching, leadership, government, etc) continue. Nor is it about “miracles”: salvation is itself a miracle, for most if not all cessationist thinkers, and God also answers prayer. Rather, it is about “miraculous gifts”: tongues, prophecy and healing, and presumably also the gift of miracles, which Paul distinguishes from the gift of healing in 1 Corinthians 12. That’s what the debate is about.
Pennington then summarises what he believes are the four chief arguments for the continuation of the gifts, and comments on each:
(1) The New Testament doesn’t say they have ceased. But then again, it doesn’t say that they won’t either.
This sounds like a brilliant leveller: since the New Testament doesn’t make explicit statements either for or against the continuation of the gifts, its silence doesn’t suggest anything. This, however, is clearly fallacious. The burden of proof is firmly on the shoulders of the one who would place a break at the end of the New Testament period, for the simple reason that, throughout Scripture, substantial changes in the way God communicates with people – and cessationism posits a substantial change, from “eagerly desire to prophesy” to “none of that here, please” – are clearly communicated. God, we all agree, speaks clearly. If we imagine the Corinthian church in the late first century, still cherishing, copying and publicly reading Paul’s letters to them, it is easy to see that they would have no way of knowing his instructions to them (1 Cor 14:1 is a particularly clear example) no longer applied. Unless the covenant between God and man has since changed (which it hasn’t), and/or there are clear indications that certain instructions no longer apply (which there aren’t), we should assume that New Covenant imperatives apply to New Covenant believers.
(2) 1 Corinthians 13:10 – they say this means that only when Christ returns will the partial gifts of tongues and prophecies cease. This implies that the gifts continue. But this is an uncertain interpretation.
It really isn’t, though. We may not put things as bluntly as Mark Driscoll, who described the cessationist exegesis of this chapter as the second worst he had ever seen next to that of a Canadian nudist arsonist cult he once did some research on, but the charismatic case here is immensely strong (and the overwhelming scholarly consensus in the commentaries would confirm this). For Paul, the imperfect (prophecy, tongues, knowledge) will cease at the arrival of the perfect (the return of Christ, when we shall see him face to face). Not much uncertainty there.
(3) The New Testament speaks only of the church age, and so, they argue, the gifts that began the church age should continue throughout it. They say we artificially divide it between apostolic and post-apostolic eras. But they do this, too, by not believing that the apostolic office still continues.
Actually, a huge number of charismatics don’t believe this at all. Many believe, for reasons outlined in my recent article inJETS, that even in the New Testament period there were eyewitness apostles (the twelve, Paul, James) and people who never witnessed the resurrection but were referred to as apostles anyway (Apollos, very likely Barnabas, Silas, possibly Timothy, and so on), and that while the eyewitness category ceased with Paul, the other category didn’t. But even where that is what charismatics believe, the difference between this and the cessationist position makes the continuationist case brilliantly: the resurrection appearances of Christ are explicitly said to have ended with Paul (1 Cor 15:8), whereas there is no such statement concerning the miraculous gifts, despite the obvious relevance this would have for Christian communities within a few years of the epistles. There is a huge gulf between saying “eyewitnesses of Christ have ceased, because the NT says so” and “all miraculous gifts have ceased, despite the fact that the NT doesn’t say so”.
(4) 500 million professing Christians who claim charismatic experiences can’t all be wrong. But if we accept this, then logically we should accept the miracles attested to by one billion Catholics in the world. The truth is that 500 million + people can be wrong.
This is not really a fair representation of any responsible charismatic argument. Of course billions of people can be wrong: billions of people do not believe the gospel, and virtually no charismatic would contest that. A fairer representation would be to say that, in order to explain the enormous number of miraculous experiences testified to by charismatics (see Craig Keener’s recent book on Miracles for some well-documented examples), a cessationist has to resort to an awful lot of accusations of fraud, deliberate deceit and delusion amongst some extremely level-headed, critical and theologically informed individuals, many of whom used to be cessationists themselves.
Pennington’s list ends with those four, but he omits what is perhaps the most compelling argument for continuationism, which is eschatological. Joel 2, which clearly played a hugely important role in the pneumatology (and Christology, given Romans 10) of the early church, famously speaks of the “last days” as being an era when God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and they would prophesy, and see visions, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord would be saved. For Peter on the day of Pentecost, and for Paul in numerous places, the eschatological, miracle-working, prophecy-bringing Spirit had been poured out, as Joel 2 (alongside Ezekiel 36-37, and Isaiah 32-35, and so on) predicted he would be. So it places unbearable strain on the text of Joel, let alone biblical theology, to suggest, as Liam Thatcher neatly tweeted this morning, that it actually means, “In the last days, I will pour my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams – but in the days directly after that, I won’t, and they won’t.” The eschatological age of the Spirit is accompanied by prophecies, signs, wonders and visions; we still live in the eschatological age of the Spirit; so we should expect prophecies, signs, wonders and visions. Like New Testament churches apparently did (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12-14; Gal 3:3-5; 1 Thess 5:19-21; not to mention pretty much all of the book of Acts).
Pennington then moves on to make a positive case for cessationism:
(1) The unique role of miracles. There were only three primary periods in which God worked miracles through unique men. The first was with Moses; the second was during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha; the third was with Christ and his apostles. The primary purpose of miracles has always been to establish the credibility of one who speaks the word of God—not just any teacher, but those who had been given direct words by God.
Crumbs. The crucial word here, which appears twice and is somewhat mysterious on both occasions, is “primary”. Where in the Bible does it say that the miracles of Moses, Elijah or Elisha are more “primary” than those of Joshua (opening the Jordan and stopping the sun in its tracks isn’t bad), or Samuel (who had the odd prophecy), or David or Solomon, or Isaiah, or Daniel, or for that matter any of the canonical prophets (who, by Pennington’s definition, are exercising miraculous gifts)? And where does it say that the “primary” purpose of a miracle is always to establish the credibility of the one who speaks the word of God? One might have thought the primary purpose of the exodus was to lead Israel out of slavery, and the primary purpose of the fall of Jericho was to defeat God’s enemies, and the primary purpose of the destruction of the Assyrians was to preserve Jerusalem, and so on. And even if the “primary” purpose of all miracles was authenticating a preacher, which cannot be shown, it would by no means indicate that this was the only purpose, and therefore that miracles were unnecessary once that had ended. If an argument this weak was advanced in any other context, I suggest, it would be laughed off the stage.
(2) The end of the gift of apostleship. In two places in the New Testament Paul refers to the apostles as one of the gifts Christ gave his church (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4).
See my comments on #3, above. This argument takes us nowhere: all agree that the eyewitness apostles have ceased, and all agree that (say) pastors and teachers have not ceased. Only if we can show that all New Testament miracles, prophecies, tongues and healings came via apostles – which is patently not the case – would this hold any water at all.
(3) The foundational nature of the New Testament apostles and prophets. The New Testament identifies the apostles and prophets as the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20-22). In the context, it is clear that Paul is referring here not to Old Testament prophets but to New Testament prophets. Once the apostles and prophets finished their role in laying the foundation of the church, their gifts were completed.
This runs aground on the sandbanks of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 in particular, in which it is assumed that local churches experience prophecy in their meetings, yet without such prophecy serving as foundational for the church for all time, or being written down in the canon. Clearly, there is a foundational role for the apostles and prophets of whom Paul speaks in Ephesians (2:20; 3:6), but this in no way implies either that all prophecy has now ceased, or (obviously) that tongues or healings have now ceased.
(4) The nature of the New Testament miraculous gifts.If the Spirit was still moving as he was in the first century, then you would expect that the gifts would be of the same type. Consider the speaking of tongues. At Pentecost, the languages spoken were already existing, understandable languages. The New Testament gift was speaking in a known language and dialect, not an ecstatic language like you see people speaking in today. Prophecies (which were then infallible) and healings are also different in character today from the NT period.
Again, this hits serious problems when it comes to 1 Corinthians 12-14, which scholars widely agree refers to ecstatic speech rather than known earthly languages, and to prophetic revelation which needs to be weighed or judged, rather than instantly being added to the infallible canon of scripture. To say, further, that healings are different in character is to beg the question: there are numerous testimonies out there (I have heard many personally) of blind eyes seeing, deaf ears opening, the lame walking and even the dead being raised, unless one prejudges the veracity of such testimonies by assuming cessationism (or, of course, naturalism).
(5) The testimony of church history. The practice of apostolic gifts declines even during the lifetimes of the apostles. Even in the written books of the New Testament, the miraculous gifts are mentioned less as the date of their writing gets later. After the New Testament era, we see the miraculous gifts cease. John Chrysostom and Augustine speak of their ceasing.
There are two errors here. The first is that miracles are mentioned less in New Testament books that are written later; the book of Acts is certainly written after the books of 1 Thessalonians and James, and very probably after the other Paulines and Petrines, yet contains far more miracles (and John, among the latest books, has one or two miracles in it as well!) The second is that we see the miraculous gifts cease after the New Testament; again, this begs the question by assuming that subsequent accounts of and responses to miraculous or prophetic activity, from the Didache and the Montanists onwards, are inaccurate or exaggerated (see David Bentley Hart’s scholarly and excellent The Story of Christianity for all sorts of examples). In any case, this sort of argument – that, since something gradually disappeared from the church over the course of the first two or three centuries, it must therefore be invalid – should strike any five sola Protestant as providing several hostages to fortune.
(6) The sufficiency of Scripture. The Spirit speaks only in and through the inspired Word. He doesn’t call and direct his people through subjective messages and modern day bestsellers. His word is external to us and objective.
This is not so much an argument for cessationism as a restatement of it. Suffice it to say that James and Paul, to mention just two apostles, envisage Christians being given wisdom by God, experiencing the Spirit crying out “Abba!” in their hearts, and being given spontaneous revelation during church meetings, none of which conflict with their high view of the scriptures.
(7) The New Testament governed the miraculous gifts.Whenever the New Testament gifts of tongues was to be practiced, there were specific rules that were to be followed. There was to be order and structure, as well as an interpreter. Paul also lays down rules for prophets and prophecy. Tragically most charismatic practice today clearly disregards these commands. The result is not a work of the spirit but of the flesh.
I’m not qualified to comment on whether this is true of “most” charismatics, rather than “some”, but to the extent that this is true, I wholeheartedly agree with Pennington that miraculous gifts need to be governed and practiced wisely, in line with the New Testament. Clearly, however, this is not an argument against using charismatic gifts – it is an argument against using charismatic gifts badly.
This has been a long post, and if you’ve stuck with it this far, well done. I am grateful to Tom Pennington, and Tim Challies, for laying the cessationist case out so clearly and without rancour; although finding the arguments unconvincing, I appreciate the spirit in which they have been communicated here, and the desire for biblical faithfulness that pervades what has been said. As will now be clear, I think that the cessationist position is biblically distorted, theologically confused and historically exaggerated, and that a number of the comments being made about charismatics at Strange Fire have been unrepresentative and unfair, and have failed to engage with the opposing position in its strongest form. Nonetheless, Pennington has done us a service by expressing his position with clarity and grace, and that can only be a good thing as we work towards unity in the global church. I sincerely hope that this response comes across in the same spirit.
(For further reading, I recommend Don Carson’s Showing the Spirit, Wayne Grudem’s The Gift of Prophecy, Gordon Fee’sGod’s Empowering Presence, and the commentaries on 1 Corinthians by Fee, Anthony Thiselton, and Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner.)
The spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians
Paul paints a picture for us in 1 Corinthians 12–14 of what continuationist pneumatology might look like in the New Testament church. The passage is not primarily designed to explain individual gifts of the Spirit, but rather to place their usage in the context of the larger picture of local church worship. Continuationist pneumatology is about more than our corporate worship; it carries implications for how we live life with others, and that includes our times together as a local church.
Today’s church culture tends to highlight the theatrical. The music, drama and preaching all seem to be directed at an audience. The goal seems to be a good experience, including moving, engaging entertainment.
As someone recently said to me after visiting a church, “I felt more like I was at a good Christian concert than a time of worship.” I don’t know how conscious church leaders are of this, but the reality of it is undeniable. Today’s churches are competing for the affections and attention of a culture characterized by fast-moving images and slick technology. It’s not that God’s active presence can’t intersect with “cool”—but what Paul is encouraging is something mysterious and clearly supernatural.
Engagement with God
When contemplating the importance of maintaining our “charismatic distinctives,” it’s tempting to focus on what makes us unique as a network of churches. We all know that engaging with God is not unique to Sovereign Grace churches. In reformed circles, recognizing that utilization of all the spiritual gifts in the church today is not a secondary issue, but gets at the very mission of the church and how we live out our calling, may be. How we engage the world, deal with the enemy, minister in a broken world, and effectively engage God in worship needs an infusion of the utterly awesome activity of God.
At the heart of Spirit-filled worship is the desire to cultivate corporate interaction with God “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4). Paul states that the diversity of spiritual gifts are given by God “who empowers them all in everyone.” Whether these expressions of God’s activity are utilized in the corporate worship, in the dynamic of biblical fellowship in our small groups, or in sharing the gospel in the marketplace, they are designed to bring healthy engagement with God. Spiritual gifts are not God bestowing to his people something external to himself. They are God himself in us working his sovereign and gracious purposes through us. Sam Storms calls the charismatic gifts of the Spirit “God going public.”
Experiencing and welcoming the presence of the Spirit
Most of us have experienced it at one time or another. A prophetic word discreetly whispers to shamed secrets a woman has never disclosed, and as tears falls she’s reminded that a holy God knows, accepts and loves her. A message in tongues peeks the interest of a man who has never heard this before, and the interpretation draws his heart to a powerful God who has everything under control (including his wife’s cancer). An impression that someone is battling guilt over unconfessed sin results in a teen confessing her sexual compromise to her parents. An exhausted and discouraged former youth leader shuffles into a meeting and receives personal ministry that addresses struggles the person praying for him could never have known without the Spirit’s prompting. These stirring stories are real life examples I have been privileged to witness in our new church plant by the moving of the Holy Spirit who knows, sees, and loves all.
The Holy Spirit moves in our churches and changes lives primarily through His powerfully efficacious word. Yet as reformed “charismatics,” we have both the awesome privilege and responsibility to robustly welcome rather than politely endure the mysterious yet life-changing and active presence of the Spirit of God in our churches.
Important post from Sam Storms:
Most are aware of the Strange Fire conference currently underway at John MacArthur’s church in California. It is specifically designed to argue that charismatics, broadly conceived, are guilty of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Yes, you read that correctly.
Today, my friend Michael Patton wrote an excellent article that can be read at the blog for Parchment and Pen (www.reclaimingthemind.org). Michael Brown also made an appeal to MacArthur on the Charisma News website. Although I’m tempted to throw in my ten cent’s worth, I defer to J. I. Packer.
J. I. Packer is not your typical cessationist. That he is a cessationist is beyond question. But the wise, gentle, biblical, and loving way in which he responds to those in the charismatic movement is a model of Christian maturity and depth of character.
In one place Packer responds to those who are offended by charismatic phenomena by pointing out that “we are very apt to respond by abusing the whole movement and denying that there is anything of God in it at all. But how silly! And how nasty! This is a reaction of wounded pride and wilful prejudice, and as such is bad thinking in every way” (“Piety on Fire,” in Collected Shorter Writings, 2:104). Yes, it is silly and nasty. Of course, Packer is not endorsing, any more than I would, the fanatical excess of those in the so-called “health and wealth” or “Word of Faith” movements. But to argue that such theological abuse discredits the charismatic world as a whole is worse than silly and nasty; it is . . ., well, the better part of wisdom restrains me from using the words that come to mind!
Again, Packer argues that when we test the charismatic movement by biblical standards and the fruit that it bears “it becomes plain that God is in it. For, whatever threats and perhaps instances of occult and counterfeit spirituality we may think we detect round its periphery (and what movement of revival has ever lacked these things round its periphery?), its main effect everywhere is to promote robust Trinitarian faith, personal fellowship with the divine Saviour and Lord whom we meet in the New Testament, repentance, obedience, and love to fellow-Christians, expressed in ministry of all sorts towards them; plus a zeal for evangelistic outreach which puts the staider sort of churchmen to shame” (“Theological Reflections on the Charismatic Movement,” Collected Shorter Writings, 2:125).
What, then, does Packer conclude?
“Laying aside matters of detail, I believe that God has generated it [the charismatic movement] in order to counter and correct the death-dealing fashions of thought which, starting with theologians and spreading everywhere, for the past century have done damage by demurring at the truth of the trinity, diminishing the deity of Jesus Christ, and for practical purposes discounting the Holy Spirit altogether” (Rediscovering Holiness, 52-53).
Would that God might raise up more men and women like J. I. Packer. He is a model of how to promote dialogue without division. May we all learn from his example of how to humbly and lovingly disagree with our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
From Justin Taylor:
Vodie Baucham Jr.’s new book is Joseph and the Gospel of Many Colors: Reading an Old Story in a New Way (Crossway, 2013).
Here are a couple of commendations from biblical theologians:
“Here is a popular-level reading of the life of Joseph as it is found in Genesis—an approach that reads the narrative both within the framework of Genesis and within the framework of the entire Bible. It avoids mere moralism, but does not overlook the morals implicit in the story; it avoids finding Jesus hiding behind every verse in some earnest but skewed and uncontrolled appeal to typology, yet it shows how the narrative prepares the way for Jesus. In many ways these chapters foster quiet, patient, faithful Bible reading, while driving readers toward the gospel.”
—D. A. Carson, Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
“Voddie Baucham has thrown a spanner in the works of those writers and preachers who see little more in the biblical narratives than unrelated moral and spiritual lessons that are ingeniously applied directly to us. By identifying vital theological dimensions that unite the whole Joseph story within Genesis, he steers us towards the christological significance of this much loved, and much misapplied, account of the sons of Jacob.”
—Graeme Goldsworthy, Former Lecturer in Old Testament, Biblical Theology, and Hermeneutics, Moore Theological College
For more information, including an excerpt go here.
“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
Define “Christian”. What does it mean? Shift your mind out of neutral for just a moment and think. What is the essence of Christianity? When the secondary issues are set aside, when the extra baggage is eliminated, when all the superficial junk so often associated with Christianity is done away, what is left? What does it mean to be a Christian? Define it in the purest, simplest, most basic and foundational terms.
I suspect that if we actually did that and you each turned in your answer on a piece of paper, we’d have an incredibly enlightening experience reading them aloud. More than enlightening, it might even in some cases prove shocking.
I ask this question of you simply because I believe Peter provides an answer in the passage before us. I have a theory about v. 8 of 1 Peter 1. I believe that what is being described here is quintessential Christianity. Don’t you just love that word: quintessential! Love it? Sam, I don’t even know how to spell it!
If you look it up in a dictionary, quintessential means “the pure and concentrated essence of a substance,” or “the most perfect embodiment of something.” So, what is quintessential Christianity?
Going to church? Tithing? Not getting drunk? Being baptized? Praying? Is that the purest and most concentrated essence of Christianity? Is that “the most perfect embodiment” of what it is to be a Christian? I certainly hope not. That’s not to say those things aren’t important, but there has to be something more basic and fundamental in being a Christian.
And Peter tells us what it is, right here in v. 8. Now, why do I say that? Where do I get off making such a grandiose claim? My justification for making this claim is the context in which v. 8 is found, more precisely, vv. 6-7. Let me explain.
The recipients of this epistle were enduring “various trials” (v. 6): persecution, oppression, slander, and affliction. One need only glance at 1 Peter 1:6; 2:20-21; 3:17; and especially 4:12-18 to see this is true. He makes it clear here in chapter one that our ability to rejoice simultaneously with the anguish of trials and troubles is based on several things.
Peter first reminds his readers of the duration of trials and suffering. He says in v. 6 that they are “for a little while.” In other words, they are temporary, not eternal. Trials and pain will pass. No matter how bad it gets here on earth (and yes, it can get incredibly bad), one day it will give way to the glory and pleasure of heaven (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Knowing the duration of trials and suffering gives us strength to endure without taking offence at God.
He then points, secondly, to the design of trials. In v. 7 he says that suffering works to purify our faith. His point is that God never wastes pain, and therefore neither should we. The trials and tribulations of this life serve to sanctify us and to conform us to the image of Jesus himself. 1 Peter 1:7 thus reminds me of two verses in Psalm 119.
“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Thy word” (119:67).
“It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes” (119:71).
Such experiences have a unique capacity to highlight the differences between what is true and sincere in the heart of a person as over against what is false and hypocritical. They cause the genuine beauty of true spirituality to appear more clearly. Do you not find it to be true that when you suffer you either become embittered toward God or press into his heart more fervently? In other words, it’s really hard to be a hypocrite when you are hurting. Pain and suffering and hardship tend to expose the true state of your soul. They expose your heart and its affections and your faith for what they really are.
A close look at v. 7 indicates that Peter wants us to envision the parallels between the effect of fire on gold and that of trials on faith. His point is that just as fire burns away the dross and alloy from gold, leaving it pure and solid, so also the flames of trials and tests and oppression burn away the dross of our faith. Hypocrisy and superficiality and self-confidence and pride and reliance on money and achievement do not easily survive the flames of persecution and tribulation (see Psalm 66:10; Malachi 3:3; Isaiah 48:10).
If we follow the logic of Peter’s thought in vv. 6-7 we discover that v. 8 describes what is left of Christian faith that has passed through the furnace of afflictions. In other words, v. 8 is Peter’s portrayal of the end product of persecution and pain. This is Christian experience in its purest and most pristine form. This is quintessential faith, first-rate faith, faith that is as free as it can be, this side of heaven, of sinful additives and preservatives! Peter has no illusions of perfection, but he does envision a relationship with Jesus absent the peripheral elements. This, says Peter, is the very essence of authentic Christianity.
Let me illustrate what Peter means. Formulate a mental picture of a solid block of granite, untouched by human hands. When a master sculptor approaches such an object, he takes hammer and chisel and, in effect, begins to chip away everything that doesn’t look like a human. He cuts, hammers, and pounds away until the finished product stands before us in all its glory. In a sense, that’s what God does with us through our trials and oppressive circumstances. He uses them like a spiritual hammer and chisel to chip away from our lives everything that doesn’t look like Jesus! The result is what Peter describes in 1 Peter 1:8.
Or consider the athlete who fails to maintain a strict training regimen. He becomes a couch-potato, eating and drinking and refusing to exercise. Over time his muscles suffer from atrophy. He gains excessive weight. His reflexes aren’t as sharp as they used to be and his lung capacity is greatly reduced. When he runs (if he ever gets off the couch), his legs feel heavy and lifeless. Then he recommits himself to a rigorous exercise program. Over the next few weeks he burns away body fat and strengthens his muscles. His endurance level increases and he returns to his former shape. The result is a finely honed body, ready for competition. The physical effect of exercise on his body is analogous to the spiritual effect of trials on our faith.
So what am I saying? Simply that 1 Peter 1:8 portrays for us what Christian faith looks like when refined and shaped and purified by the fire of hardship and tribulation. Here is Christian faith in its preeminent expression. And of what does it consist?
What is quintessential Christianity? Loving Jesus. Trusting Jesus. Enjoying Jesus.
Jonathan Edwards found human language almost inadequate to express the insidious nature of spiritual pride. It would take several metaphors even to begin describing this strategy of Satan. “This is,” he wrote, “the main door by which the Devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of religion. ‘Tis the chief inlet of smoke from the bottomless pit, to darken the mind, and mislead the judgement; this is the main handle by which the Devil takes hold of religious persons, and the chief source of all the mischief that he introduces, to clog and hinder a work of God. This cause of error is the mainspring, or at least the main support of all the rest. Till this disease is cured, medicines are in vain applied to heal all other diseases.”
Later, he writes:
“There is no sin so much like the Devil as this, for secrecy and subtlety, and appearing in great many shapes that are undetected and unsuspected, and even appearing as an angel of light: it takes occasion to arise from everything; it perverts and abuses everything, and even the exercises of real grace and real humility, as an occasion to exert itself.
It is a sin that has, as it were, many lives; if you kill it, it will live still; if you mortify and suppress it in one shape, it rises in another; if you think it is all gone, yet it is there still.
There are a great many kinds of it, that lie in different forms and shapes, one under another, and encompass the heart like the coats of an onion; if you pull off one, there is another underneath.
We had need therefore to have the greatest watch imaginable, over our hearts, with respect to this matter, and to cry most earnestly to the great Searcher of hearts, for his help. “He that trusts his own heart is a fool” [Prov. 28:26]
—Jonathan Edwards, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England,” in The Great Awakening, ed. C. C. Goen, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 4 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 414, 416-417.
“Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:24-25)
Jesus never apologized for getting on the inside with outsiders. It was his mission. What kind of doctor refuses to see patients? What kind of farmer refuses to get his hands dirty? What kind of church has no place for sinners?
People reviled Jesus. They called him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Have you ever been called names like this? Have I? Do we fear contamination from the world more than we have confidence in Christ’s power to cleanse?
Of course, I’m not encouraging people with drinking problems to go hang out in bars. I don’t expect new Christians to keep all their same friends who lead them into the same temptations. I’m not saying that if you really want to be relevant you have to watch sleazy movies so you can talk about them with the sinners in our lives. We need to use wisdom.
And we also need guts. We must not think of relationships with non-Christians primarily as dangers but as opportunities. Do we go out into the world hoping for conversion or expecting contamination?
Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4). Do we believe that?
The gospel–if we are talking about the true gospel–works through repentance and relationships. We need both. Jesus had relationships with sinners and tax collectors. And through those relationships what did he call them to do? He didn’t say call them to self-expression, or invite them to despise religious people, or summon them to eat, drink, and be merry (in our language: eat, drink, and be tolerant). He called them to repentance. One commentator says, “Jesus neither condoned sin, left people in their sin, nor communicated any disdain for sinners.” Jesus was not passive, just waiting for people to get their act together. And neither was he passive about confronting sin.
No one in the history of the world has been more inclusive of the broken hearted than Jesus. And no one has been more intolerant of the impenitent. A friend of sinners and no friend of sin.
The great gospel imperatives to holiness are ever rooted in indicatives of grace that are able to sustain the weight of those imperatives. The Apostles do not make the mistake that’s often made in Christian ministry. [For the Apostles] the indicatives are more powerful than the imperatives in gospel preaching. So often in our preaching our indicatives are not strong enough, great enough, holy enough, or gracious enough to sustain the power of the imperatives. And so our teaching on holiness becomes a whip or a rod to beat our people’s backs because we’ve looked at the New Testament and that’s all we ourselves have seen.
We’ve seen our own failure and we’ve seen the imperatives to holiness and we’ve lost sight of the great indicatives of the gospel that sustain those imperatives. Woven into the warp and woof of the New Testament’s exposition of what it means for us to be holy is the great groundwork that the self-existent, thrice holy, triune God has — in Himself, by Himself and for Himself — committed Himself and all three Persons of His being to bringing about the holiness of His own people. This is the Father’s purpose, the Son’s purchase and the Spirit’s ministry.
— Sinclair Ferguson “Our Holiness: The Father’s Purpose and the Son’s Purchase”
(HT: Of First Importance)