Gentle Heresy-Hunting with Paul

correctopponentsHeresy-hunting gets a bad rap nowadays. If there’s one thing that nobody wants to be, it’s a “heresy-hunter.” And who can blame them? I mean, cruise around the Internet and you’ll find any number of “discernment” ministries dedicated to finding anybody who doesn’t line up with their particular, historically-contingent, possibly cultish understanding of Christianity and placing them on the “list” with a page dedicated to listing their dubious tweets.

Or again, there’s that guy (and it’s almost always a guy) who spends his time listening to local pastors’ sermons just so he can find that damning 2-second analogy he can email you five pages of footnotes about. Nobody wants to be him, so there’s an understandable recoil. And this is on top of our general cultural aversion to being doctrinaire about matters of religion (unless it’s a food religion, in which case we’re simply being “healthy,” and one can do no evil in the name of health).

All the same, one of the interesting fruits of reading G.K. Beale’s New Testament Biblical Theology a while back, was realizing that there’s a proper place for heresy-hunting in the church. In fact, we have a church office whose task is, in large part, to oversee, guide, and prevent against creeping false doctrine in the church: the Elder. According to Beale, Paul’s teaching on the office of elder in the Pastoral Epistles, is connected to the reality of false-teaching in the end times or “latter days” (p. 820).

Of course, in Beale’s telling, “the latter days” is a description of this time between the first and second coming of Christ. In other words, the many exhortations to guard against false teaching are a permanent and essential function of the elder in Christ’s church (Titus 1:5-16; 1 Tim 1:3-7, 19-20; 4:1-7; 2 Tim. 2:14-18; 23-26; 3:1-13). Shepherds keep sheep from wandering astray, and they guard the sheep against wolves who would ravage them with cunning and destructive teachings about Jesus that would rob them of comfort, joy, holiness, and peace.

I go into how to do that wisdom and gentleness like Paul does over in the rest of the article at For the Church. If you haven’t checked them out, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a great new resource site.

How Does God’s Wisdom in Salvation Display the Glory of All of God’s Attributes and Each of The Persons?

edwards2Good theology texts usually point you to other good theology texts. Recently, Adam Johnson’s little book Atonement: A Guide to the Perplexedtipped me off to Jonathan Edwards’ fascinating collection of sermons The Wisdom of God, Displayed in the Way Salvation. The title basically says it all. Taking his cue from Ephesian 3:10 (“To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places, might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God“), Edwards sets himself investigate in just what way the multifaceted wisdom of God is displayed before the angels and heavenly authorities in the way of salvation.

This is a particularly creative work because, as Johnson notes, the emphasis on the display of wisdom presses Edwards to look at the work of God in salvation in a holistic way extending beyond the narrow focus on sin, guilt, wrath, satisfaction, and forgiveness (important as that is). In one section, for instance, Edwards expounds the wisdom of God in everything, including his choice of the person of Christ, and the way he is particularly suited as the Godman to be our Redeemer. Not only that, he examines the necessity and wisdom of the various dimensions of Christ including his birth, his life, his teaching, his death, his resurrection, and even his exaltation. Each of these facets is shown to be an important component for our reconciliation, growth in holiness, and restoration to God.

Commenting on the exaltation, he writes:

As it is wonderful, that a person who is truly divine should be humbled so as to become a servant, and to suffer as a malefactor, so it is in like manner wonderful that he who is God-man, not exclusive of the manhood, should be exalted to the power and honor of the great God of heaven and earth. But such wonders as these has infinite wisdom contrived, and accomplished in order to our salvation (emphasis added).

Attributes and Glory. The section that most caught my attention so far is the second in which he discusses the way God’s wise procurement of our of salvation in Christ points us to the glory of God’s being and attributes with particular force:

God has greatly glorified himself in the work of creation and providence. All his works praise him, and his glory shines brightly from them all. But as some stars differ from others in glory, so the glory of God shines brighter in some of his works than in others. And amongst all these, the work of redemption is like the sun in his strength. The glory of the author is abundantly the most resplendent in this work.

How does salvation highlight the being and nature of God so well? Far too often, we think of God’s salvation involving only one or two of his attributes. Well, it turns out that if we pay requisite attention to the shape of reconciliation, we would see that “Each attribute of God is glorified in the work or redemption.” Edwards backs his claim in this stunning section by examining the way the salvation wrought in Jesus displays or glorifies five of God’s attributes, with the understanding that he could just keep going down the line.

1. Power. First, it clearly displays God’s power (Edwards dwells on this more than any other attribute). I mean, how powerful do you have to be to unite both God and man in one person? “This is a greater and more marvelous work than creation.” Not only that, for God to save humanity in this way shows a greater power involved than in creation for two reasons. Creating a glorified creature is better than a mere creature. Also, creation involved bringing something into being out of nothing, but redemption means making something beautiful out of something already spoiled. Beyond that, God did all this in the face of the opposition of Satan and his minions, whom Christ the mighty triumphed over (Col. 2:14-15).

2. Justice. Second, it’s a beautiful work of justice. In salvation, we see God’s unfailing will that, “Justice should take place, though it cost his infinitely dear Son his precious blood, and his enduring such extraordinary reproach, and pain, and death in its most dreadful form.”

3. Holiness. Third, God’s holiness is displayed in the salvation of sinners. He is too pure to make peace with sin and so wills to save us in a way that makes clear “his hatred of sin” in the cross and suffering of his own Son.

4. Truth. Fourth, his truth is glorified and displayed, “both in his threatenings and his promisings.” The life, death, and resurrection of the Son prove God’s commitment to the curses and the blessings of his covenant in the Garden. “God showed hereby, that not only heaven and earth should pass away, but, which is more, that the blood of him who is the eternal Jehovah should be spilt, rather than one jot or tittle of his word should fail, till all be fulfilled.”

5. Mercy. Finally, his mercy is most gloriously manifested in the redemption. Here Edwards points out something interesting. Before the work of redemption, yes, we’d seen God’s goodness, his power, his truth, and yet no one had seen him exercise mercy until the coming of sin and our liability to judgment:

But now God has shown that he can find in his heart to love sinners, who deserve his infinite hatred. And not only has he shown that he can love them, but love them so as to give them more and do greater things for them than ever he did for the holy angels, that never sinned nor offended their Creator. He loved sinful men so as to give them a greater gift than ever he gave the angels; so as to give his own Son, and not only to give him to be their possession and enjoyment, but to give him to be their sacrifice. And herein he has done more for them than if he had given them all the visible world; yea, more than if he had given them all the angels, and all heaven besides. God has loved them so, that hereby he purchased for them deliverance from eternal misery, and the possession of immortal glory.

Persons and Glory. Obviously, Edwards could go on through attribute after attribute. Instead, he turns his attention to the glory that the work of salvations brings by displaying the particular work of the persons of the Trinity. In fact, it’s not just that he thinks the persons are shown to be glorious in redemption, but that they are specifically shown as glorious in a way that they are not in other works:

The attributes of God are glorious in his other works. But the three persons of the Trinity are distinctly glorified in no work as in this of redemption. In this work every distinct person has his distinct parts and offices assigned him.

In the work of salvation, Edwards thinks the works of the Trinity in the economy–the historical outward work of salvation–display in a fitting way the “distinct, personal properties, relations, and economical offices” in a way that just isn’t as clear in, say, creation. And this brings them particular glory and us a greater sense of worship each particular person.

So what does that look like? Well, it’s hard to communicate this any more elegantly or tightly than Edwards himself, so I’ll just quote him at length:

The Father appoints and provides the Redeemer, and accepts the price of redemption. The Son is the Redeemer and the price. He redeems by offering up himself. The Holy Ghost immediately communicates to us the thing purchased. Yea, and he is the good purchased. The sum of what Christ purchased for us is holiness and happiness. But the Holy Ghost is the great principle both of all holiness and happiness. The Holy Ghost is the sum of all that Christ purchased for men. Gal. 3:13, 14, “He was made a curse for us, that we might receive the promise of The Spirit, through faith.”

For Edwards, then, we have a distinct reason to depend on, praise and glorify each of the Persons: “the Father, as he provides the Redeemer, and the person of whom the purchase is made, — the Son as the purchaser, and the price, — the Holy Ghost, as the good purchased.”

Of course, we may want to be careful to run this through the recent posts by Fred Sanders and Scott Swain on the unity of divine actions of the Trinity. Nonetheless, Edwards’ careful attention to the shape of salvation and desire to explore its beauty in light of the nature and character of God in his triunity does two helpful things. First, he gives us very specific reasons to praise and worship our God. I don’t know how anybody could read that text and not simply marvel at the wisdom of our God. Second, Edwards serves as a role model for our own study of the Scriptures. In every work of God, we ought to be diligent to stop, meditate, and seek out the multi-faceted wisdom of God, and the multi-dimensional glory that pours forth from all of his mighty works.

Soli Deo Gloria

Torrey on the Trustworthy Temple of Scripture

torreyFred Sanders put together a nifty little collection of evangelist, expositor, Bible college dean, and pastor R.A. Torrey’s sermons entitled How God Used. R.A. Torrey. Sanders introduces the work with a little bio, then adds brief introductory commentary before 13 representative sermons and addresses by Torrey. I’ve been reading it for a couple of days between other works and it’s been a fun little work so far. The preaching is dynamic, personal, and spiritually compelling. Also, as a preacher, it’s just interesting to see how much the game has changed, so to speak, since Torrey was calling people back to faith.

One address I enjoyed, in particular, was his famous “10 Reasons Why I Believe the Bible is the Word of God.” Torrey, of course, famously edited the collection of essays in defense of orthodoxy known as The Fundamentals at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies, so it’s unsurprising he dedicated significant preaching to the subject of the trustworthiness of the Scriptures.

Well, the whole sermon holds up remarkably well 100 years later on, but the section I enjoyed most was his argument about “the unity of the book”:

This is an old argument, but a very satisfactory one. The Bible consists of sixty-six books, written by more than thirty different men, extending in the period of its composition over more than fifteen hundred years; written in three different languages, in many different countries, and by men on every plane of social life, from the herdman and fisherman and cheap politician up to the king upon his throne; written under all sorts of circumstances; yet in all this wonderful conglomeration we find an absolute unity of thought.

A wonderful thing about it is that this unity does not lie on the surface. On the surface there is oftentimes apparent contradiction, and the unity only comes out after deep and protracted study.

More wonderful yet is the organic character of this unity, beginning in the first book and growing till you come to its culmination in the last book of the Bible. We have first the seed, then the plant, then the bud, then the blossom, then the ripened fruit.

Suppose a vast building were to be erected, the stones for which were brought from the quarries in Rutland, Vermont; Berea, Ohio; Kasota, Minnesota, and Middletown, Connecticut. Each stone was hewn into final shape in the quarry from which it was brought. These stones were of all varieties of shape and size, cubical, rectangular, cylindrical, etc., but when they were brought together every stone fitted into its place, and when put together there rose before you a temple absolutely perfect in every outline, with its domes, sidewalls, buttresses, arches, transepts–not a gap or a flaw anywhere. How would you account for it? You would say:

“Back of these individual workers in the quarries was the master-mind of the architect who planned it all, and gave to each individual worker his specifications for the work.”

So in this marvelous temple of God’s truth which we call the Bible, whose stones have been quarried at periods of time and in places so remote from one another, but where every smallest part fits each other part, we are forced to say that back of the human hands that wrought was the Master-mind that thought.

How God Used R.A. Torrey, pp. 23-24

I have to tell you, this “argument” isn’t one that you just trot out in the middle of an apologetic dispute, especially with someone predisposed to disbelieve or be hostile to Scripture. Still, year after year, this insight into the unity of Scripture–it’s ability to consistently point to Christ through Law, Prophets, and Gospels, across various genres, generations, authors, and centuries is a continuous marvel. This is especially the case when you take off the modernist blinders and begin to pour over the various narratival and typological continuities.

The Scriptures truly are a marvelous Temple of God’s truth. But Torrey is right–it’s not a unity that just lies there on the surface. It’s the kind of thing that you come to see once you give it the sustained attention and care that it deserves. But once you see it, much as Moses face coming down from Sinai, it shines with the reflected glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

In What Ways Is God our God in the Covenant of Grace?

Opening his lengthy treatment of the covenant of grace in the Institutes, Francis Turretin notes that getting this right is of central importance to theology because it is “the center and bond of all religion, consisting in the communion of God with man and embracing in its compass all the benefits of God towards man and his duties towards God” (Top. 12, Qu. 1, par. I). That certainly doesn’t leave much out does it? But that’s not surprising, is it? Turretin is right. Looking at the biblical storyline, it’s a matter of covenants made, broken, renewed, enforced, and ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

Of course, the central covenant promise in the Scriptures is that “you will be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer, 30:22′ cf. Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12). God’s gift to us, in the covenant, is quite simply himself. We will be his and he will be ours. But that raises the question, “How is God our God in the covenant of grace?” not in the sense of, “How is this accomplished?”, but “What is the result?” What goes into God becoming our God? What are the “benefits” of God being our God, so to speak?

In the next section (Top. 12, Qu. 2), among other things, Turretin goes ahead and tries to outline four ways in which God becomes our God in the promise of the covenant. God becomes ours: (1) according to his nature & attributes and persons; (2) according to the communication of goods; (3) according to our conformity to God; and (4) according eternity of good things. The section is rather stunning (and lengthy). While I can barely scratch the surface, in what follows, I’ll try sketch what a blessings Turretin outlines in our possession of God according to these four categories. And when I do, we’ll hopefully begin to see how he can say that the covenant encompasses “all the benefits of God towards man.”

1. According to Nature and Persons. For all Turretin’s strengths as a theologian, he rarely waxes poetic, but this next section is beautiful, so I’ll end up quoting him at length a couple of times. Turretin notes that in reconciliation, we are brought into communion with God. We move from a relationship of opposition to love, we relate to God no longer as an angry judge to us but a Father. In the covenant, we are betrothed to him as a husband and brought under his protection as a King protects his people. Because of this, we receive him as our God according to his attributes. But what does that mean?

God so gives himself to us as to be ours as to all the attributes (conducing to our advantage and salvation). They are well said to be ours by fruition and use because their salutary effects flow unto us. Ours is the wisdom of God for direction; the power of God for protection; the mercy of God for the remission of sins; the grace of God for sanctification and consolation; the justice of God for the punishment of enemies; the faithfulness of God for the execution of promises; the sufficiency of God for the communication of all manner of happiness. And as sin brought innumerable evils upon us, we find a remedy for all in the divine properties: wisdom heals our ignorance and blindness, grace our guilt, power our weakness, mercy our misery, goodness our wickedness, justice our iniquity, the sufficiency and fulness of God our poverty and indigence, fidelity our inconstancy and fickleness, holiness our impurity and life our death.

Okay, so that’s the attributes. But what does it mean for God to be given to us “personally”, or according to the persons of the Trinity? Again, Turretin, at length:

God is ours personally, inasmuch as the individual persons are ours and give themselves to us for accomplishing the work of redemption: the Father electing, the Son redeeming, the Holy Spirit sanctifying. He becomes our Father by adoption when he receives us into his own family and regards, cherishes and loves us as sons (1 Jn. 3:1). The Son becomes ours by suretyship when he offers himself as the surety to make satisfaction for us and as the head, to rule over and quicken us. He becomes ours as a Prophet, revealing salvation by the light of his doctrine; our Priest, who purchases it by his merit; and our King, who applies it (when acquired) by the efficacy of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit becomes ours when he is sent to us and gives himself to us as sanctifier and consoler that he may dwell in us as his temples and enrich us with his blessings, light, strength, joy, liberty, holiness and happiness. Thus our communion is with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 1:3; 2 Cor. 13:14). Hence, baptism, which is a seal of the covenant, is administered in their name so that we may be consecrated as sons of God, the Father, as members of the Son and as temples of the Holy Spirit and enjoy the blessings flowing from each person–the mercy of the Father, the grace of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.*

Already, it becomes apparent what Turretin means when he says that all of the benefits and blessings of God towards humanity are seen in the benefits of the covenant in communion with God. But wait, there’s more!

2. In the Communication of Goods. I won’t do the lengthy quote thing here. Still, Turretin moves on to point out that “He cannot be our God without all things belonging to him becoming ours.” As Paul tells us, all things are ours because we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s and so we have all things in him (1 Cor. 3:21-23). Piling up verse after verse, Turretin shows us how God’s creatures serve us, God’s angels protect us, God’s earth is our inheritance, and God’s promises (for this life and the next) are ours. Every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies is ours because God is our God through the covenant in Christ (Eph. 1:3).

3. In Conformity to God. It would be absurd, though, to believe that God could become ours without our own transformation. Turretin teaches us that God “is not satisfied with pouring upon us the salutary effects of his properties, but wishes further to impress upon us their mark and likeness (as far as a finite creature can bear it) that we may be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4) and be like to it (which is the most perfect form of communion).” Here is the beginning of what we might loosely call Turretin’s doctrine of “theosis“, only with a very careful attention to the Creator/creature distinction. Turretin says here that just as the sun shining into a diamond irradiates it with its glory, so does God’s shining splendor fill his children and “makes us shine like many suns” (Matt. 13:43). True communion through the covenant requires conformity to his holy character, as well as happiness, immortality, and glory in body as well as as the soul, which means that our conformity will include our resurrection so that “we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2).

4. For An Eternity of Good Things. Finally, Turretin tells us that none of these things could make us perfectly happy “unless perpetuity was added to them.” In other words, could you imagine being perfectly satisfied in having all of these things while knowing they that were only for a little while? Because God is unfailingly good, his promise to be our God extends into eternity. “So that as long as God will be God (and he will be so forever), he will also be our god that we may forever enjoy his communion and happiness”, as the Psalmist declares “This God is our God for ever and ever” (Ps. 48:14). And we can be confident of this, not only because of the nature of the promise, but with all the other blessings of the covenant like justification, deliverance from death, adoption, the gift of the Spirit, a new heart, and the resurrection of the body, who can imagine this continuing for only a short time?

I think there’s more than enough to meditate on here for while–actually, for an eternity–so I’ll wrap it up. The underlying point I hope you’ll come away with is this: blessing of the covenant is God. We don’t go to God for anything else because anything else we might want is already given to us with the gift of the Triune God who is the overflowing source of all good things. You will never receive a greater promise than this: “I will be your God.”

Soli Deo Gloria 

*I also found a post where Scott Swain comments on the two lengthy Turretin quotes after I decided to write this post. Not only did he save me the time of typing them out, the comments are worth your time.

Trinity and Organism in Bavinck (Or, Why Bother With Historical Theology?)

trinity and organismI’ve recently begun reading a fascinating work on the theology of Herman Bavinck by James Eglinton entitled Trinity and Organism: Towards a New Reading of Herman Bavinck Organic MotifIn his theology, Bavinck frequently appeals to the motif or theme of “organism” in relation to a number of theological issues like creation, Scripture, the church, and so forth. Regularly you’ll see Bavinck put forward some modern, mechanical conception of an issue and then suggest that, instead, one ought to think of these things in a far more “organic” manner, or something like that. Up until recently, many Bavinck scholars have chalked it up to the prevalence of the idea of “organism” in the 19th-century post-Hegelian, German Idealist climate that Bavinck was working in.

This idea goes hand in hand with a very popular understanding of Bavinck forwarded by Jan Veenhof that suggested that instead of one, there were “two Bavincks” that you could trace in his works. One was the orthodox Reformed theologian with roots in the conservative secessionist churches of his youth, and the second is the modern, scientific thinker trained in the modernist academy. Apparently, if you’re really smart, you can split Bavinck’s work up into bits according to that thesis because they’re clearly incompatible, and, Bavinck just never managed to reconcile them. The fun starts when theologians then take the thesis and use it to play Bavinck against himself and pick and choose the bits you like depending on which half you find more appealing. Now, obviously, on this reading, the “organic” motif is part of the modernist Bavinck’s bag of tricks, that sits uneasily with his Reformed orthodoxy.

Eglinton sets himself to correct the historical record by drawing on recent work done by Brian Mattson, John Bolt, and others that scuttles the “two Bavincks” thesis. Instead of assuming Bavinck’s theology was a bundle of contrarieties that the great man sadly never managed to properly compose, Eglinton sets Bavinck back in his historical and intellectual context, compares and contrasts him with other movements and influences in Dutch theology at the time, rereads Bavinck carefully, and manages to present us with one Bavinck whose “organicism” has less to do with his dependence on the post-Hegelian theology, and far more to do with his thoroughgoing, Reformed, trinitarian theology. Bavinck’s “organicism” is drawn more from Calvin and Reformed Orthodoxy than German idealism.

According to Eglinton, Bavinck’s “organism” metaphor is a way of speaking of the unity-in-diversity in creation that flows from the reality that the Creator is not a mere monad, but Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, the diversity and unity within the divine being finds a correspondence in the unity-in-diversity of creation designed to body forth the glory of the Triune God. Organism is Bavinck’s way of picking up and retooling the patristic idea of vestigia trinitatis, or “traces of the Trinity” found in creation. The Fathers and the medievals loved finding triads in creation that pointed towards the Trinity that created it. Bavinck takes up the same idea, but instead of focusing on numerical triads, he sees traces of the Trinity in the more generalized unified pluriformity and diversity of creation.

Of course, this is just scratching the surface. Eglinton makes his case by testing his thesis across the wide range of Bavinck’s theology, examining the organic motif in Bavinck’s doctrine of God, revelation, Scripture, ecclesiology, and so forth. In each section, he continues to do careful historical work, setting Bavinck in his own context, as well as paying close attention to Bavinck’s own usage of key terms and concepts, and not simply assuming he’s cribbing his work from his Idealist neighbors. At the end of the work, if you hadn’t before, you begin to get a beautiful vision of the trinitarian shape and aim of all of Bavinck’s talk of organism.

Why Historical Theology?

Now aside from my inherent interest in everything Bavinck, why pay attention to this kind of specialized historical work? In fact, some of us might wonder, why get so heavily invested in historical theology in general? Why worry about the nuances in the theology such and such 3rd Century bishop, or which motif does what in the thought of a 19th Century Dutch dogmatician? How does that matter to theology today, or the church today? Why not just focus on the material issues of theology according to Scripture instead of worrying about the problems of historical theology?

Because there’s a danger there, right? I mean, as I’ve started to study theology more and more, you begin to see weird, internecine academic fights about the ins and outs of Barth’s doctrine of whatever, and when you stop and consider for a moment, you begin to question, “Why does this matter?” As Phillip Cary put it in one recent article, “In most places outside Princeton, judging who gets Barth right is vastly less interesting than judging what Barth gets right—a work of discernment which belongs to the ongoing life of the tradition of Christian orthodoxy.” When you put it like that, I can’t help but agree.

Why, then, should historical theology matter to (at least some of) us? I can think of at least four reasons that I’ll attempt run through briefly.

1. Truth Matters.  The first is the basic reality that truth in all its forms matters because all truth is God’s. Indeed, we serve a God who is himself the Truth. The truth of nature tells us God’s creative work. The truth of history tells us the story of God’s providential work. This reality, not to mention various others, is sufficient enough reason for us to be concerned about the truth of any issue. I mean, this is the basic assumption that funds our conviction that the sciences and the humanities matter as subjects of study beyond their immediate, practical use.

2. Bearing false testimony. Historical theology matters as an issue of Christian truth-telling about the community of saints. The fact of the matter is that theology is taught within the Christian community, and certainly in the seminaries, as the story of teachers, preachers, saints, and professors, struggling to expound the truth of God to the men and women of their time. When we get that story wrong, when we get the theology of our forebears wrong, when we present them as less competent, fair, biblical, or orthodox (or more) than they actually were, we do them a disservice by bearing false witness against them. This is especially the case when we engage in the unfair caricature of whipping-boy theologians (Augustine and Anselm come to mind) as foils against which we can then forward our own pet theories. Christian love requires truth in speaking of our theological ancestors and often-times it means rehabilitating them.

3. Avoiding Error. It’s not just that theology happens to be taught as a story in seminaries, it’s that theology is an inherently historical enterprise. Christian theology exists only as the particular methods of reading Scripture, Creeds and Confessions drawn up around it, are passed on from generation to generation within the Church. Without historical theology, we keep ourselves from the wisdom accumulated over 2,000 years of trying, failing, and succeeding in preserving the truth of the Gospel from error and perversion. Those who ignore historical theology will almost inevitably be doomed to repeat errors the church has already discarded for some good, biblical reason or another.

4. Mining Riches. Beyond avoiding error, studies in historical theology prove that our Fathers and Mothers in the faith may still have something to new to say to us. Corrective studies like Eglinton’s have the possibility of opening up theological vistas or impasses in current theological and churchly debate because it comes from another time that’s not caught up in the assumptions we share. This is true whether it’s simply reminding ourselves of older sources we merely forgot or by gaining an understanding of their answers that weren’t properly heard the first time around. In this way, historical theology can become a timely word from another time. (Insert bit about ‘chronological snobbery’ here).

After all this, it’s wise to hear Cary’s warning stands as a valid one. Our priority as preachers, teachers, and lay (or professional) theologians is the truth about what Bavinck got right more than the truth about who got Bavinck right. Still, it would be foolish to think that our pursuit of the former won’t include an understanding of the latter.

Soli Deo Gloria

Preaching and Reversing the Polarity of the Heart

wesley on the lifeOne of the most insidious ideas we’re tempted to believe is that saving faith is a matter of the intellect alone. Obviously, it has to do with the intellect. You can’t trust something if you have no conception of it. But that reality shouldn’t obscure the fact that something of the will, the heart, is involved in receiving the grace of Christ by faith. Which is why it’s possible to sit in church your whole life, hear biblical sermon after biblical sermon on the nature of grace, Christ’s cross, the coming kingdom, the nature of a holy life–gospel presentations so clear Billy Graham couldn’t one-up them–and still never have faith, or come to a solid understanding of the good news.

Don’t believe me? This is precisely what renowned evangelist, theologian, and pioneer of Methodism, John Wesley famously reported about his own experience. He went years growing up in church, going to college, studying in seminary, getting ordained, preaching, teaching, going on mission, and yet, for the early part of his life, and yet, as Fred Sanders reports in his stimulating book Wesley on the Christian LifeWesley confessed that until a few months before his famous conversation at Aldersgate, he was “utterly ignorant of the nature and condition of justification.” (54)

But how is that possible? How can someone a couple hundred years after Luther and Calvin, coming up in a Reformation church whose basic documents and sermons affirmed the gospel, and raised in a home with a Puritan background, have never heard or understood the gospel? Fred Sanders picks up the image of a magnet to explain:

The magnet image is apt: Wesley’s mind was magnetized by the Law of God, and it drew to itself all the legalistic elements in his environment. Even when he read a good gospel-centered book, he only drew from in the legal bits. We know that Wesley read plenty of properly Protestant teaching in his earlier life. The Anglican and Puritan sources he immersed himself in included plenty of sound teaching on justification by grace alone though faith alone. Indeed, after Aldersgate, Wesley would rifle through the Anglican church’s official Homilies, Articles, and prayer book to confirm his new understanding was in fact not new to the church., but only new to him. It was an easy task, since the classic Anglican sources are packed with the gospel of justification by faith. But first the magnetic polarity of Wesley’s own soul had to be reversed. Until the principle of grace was activated in his strangely cold heart, Wesley systematically read for the message of legal performance. Until then, all the books kept pitching grace, but Wesley kept catching law. (54)

Many readers might be skeptical of this, but others will have experienced it themselves. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with students where it was clear there was this legal block on their ears. I don’t know how many sermons on justification by grace as the gospel I preached in my first couple of years–I probably bordered on Lutheranism at that point–but still, some students were still catching Law and not Grace. The polarity of their hearts was set on Law and it functioned as a hermeneutical grid through which everything was filtered. “He who has ears, let him hear.” Not everybody has the ears.

Well, what do we do with this? Does this mean that preaching the gospel clearly is of no importance because people are just going to hear what they’re going to hear? Should we not bother about striving to drive it home through solid exegesis, illustrations, stories, images, and so forth? Should we just throw up our hands and say, “Welp, I tried Lord” after a week or two of effort? Obviously not.

What I do think this does is reminds us of a few key realities that we ignore at our own peril.

First, preaching the gospel is not just a matter of sound words–though it is that–but also of the Spirit’s power. It is only when the Spirit drives the message of the gospel home that the stop “catching” Law when the Gospel is being preached. Only the Spirit is able to reverse the polarity of the heart so that our hearers can hear the gospel when it’s being preached. He is the one who puts flesh on dead bones and turns hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. He is the one who testifies to Christ–yes, through the proclamation of the Word–with power.

There are at least two comforts in this first point. First, preacher, the cold hearts of your people may not and probably are not the fault of your preaching. A great many pastors suffer condemnation and anguish over their inability to bring about effects that are not entirely within their power. Second, this is a comfort because this means that the cold hearts of your people are not beyond hope. If you feel you’ve exhausted every preaching or teaching trick in your arsenal, that doesn’t mean the game’s up. The Holy Spirit specializes in stepping in when we’re at the end of our strength.

The second big point follows from this first: if the Holy Spirit is the power behind reversing the polarity of the heart, your preaching ministry will only be as good as your praying ministry. To quote J.C. Ryle:

Prayer is the main secret of success in spiritual business. It moves him who can move heaven and earth. It brings down the promised aid of the Holy Spirit, without whom the finest sermons, the clearest teaching and hardest work are all alike in vain. It is not always those who have the most eminent gifts who are most successful laborers for God. It is generally those who keep closest communion with Christ and are most constant in prayer. It is those who cry with the prophet Ezekiel, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live” (Ezekiel 37:9). It is those  who follow most exactly the apostolic model, and give their “attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Happy is the church that has a praying as well as a preaching ministry! The question we should ask about new ministers is not merely “Can they preach well?” but “Do they pray much for their people?” –The Gospel of Mark, pg. 90

Now, of course, God is merciful beyond our prayers, but how arrogant do we have to be to think we can go stand before dead men and women expecting them to come to life under our preaching, if we have not been on our knees pleading with the author of life? Only he can work such miracles.

As you practice or prepare to preach, pray, then, that the Spirit would reverse the polarity of the hearts of your hearers. Pray that their hearts would be strangely warmed. Pray that your pitching Gospel might not be in vain. And then have faith that God will do it. He is faithful.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity And Christ And Pop Culture Plug: Blind Spots w/ Collin Hansen

This week on Mere Fidelity we had the pleasure of having Collin Hansen on to talk about his new book Blind SpotsDon’t worry, though, it’s not just a book plug episode. There was plenty of feistiness, charitable but substantial engagement, and, of course, me stumbling about trying to find something intelligent to say.

But really, I think Collin’s book raises a number of important issue and so does the conversation we have with him. I hope it challenges and encourages you.

blind spotsNow, while the conversation  wasn’t a plug, I did write one for the book for Christ and Pop Culture. Here’s the intro:

ne of the reasons I hated moving from my mid-size SUV down to an old sedan after my first car died was the fact that it was so short. I was used to riding up high, feeling like I could see most things, but now, in the smaller vehicle I felt exposed and off-kilter. Driving on the freeway was particularly annoying as I would frequently find myself being surprised by cars coming up on my sides. It appeared my blind spots had expanded. Now, fortunately, I knew what was going on and so I was able to correct for it.

But what about the blind spots you don’t know you have? Those are the most dangerous of all. And they can happen anywhere, can’t they? Not only on the road, but in our daily life of interpersonal interaction with friends, family, the broader culture, and even the Church. All too often, our conversations break down, our relationships fail, and even our unity is ruptured because we’re operating without an awareness of our blind spots–so we’re not prepared to correct for them. Collin Hansen’s new book, Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church is aimed at helping the Church, which Crossway has graciously made available for free to Christ and Pop Culture members. In a nutshell, Hansen offers his readers a brief theology of the importance of respecting the diverse experiences within the Church for the sake of the Church’s ability to follow Jesus.

Many of you are probably not Christ and Pop Culture members, though you should be, but you can still read the rest of my comments here.

Soli Deo Gloria