Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God – Brian Zahnd (2017)

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Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017, 210 pp. $10.19

COMMENDING JONATHAN EDWARDS

I will never forget a very special evening with a small group of Christ-followers at the McLean home.  My good friend, Don suggested that we read Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards in one sitting – on our knees.  And so a group of middle-aged adults gathered in Don’s living room alongside several children (whose knees were much more nimble) – and we read Edward’s classic sermon – on our knees.  It is a moment I will not soon forget.  We were humbled.  We were drawn into the very presence of God.  And like the 18th-century congregation in Enfield – we were cut to the quick.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is not only one of the most well-known sermons in American history; it is one of the most powerful sermons ever preached on American soil.  In one sermon, the Puritan divine highlights both the awesome wrath of a holy God and the matchless grace and tenderhearted love of Jesus Christ.

The sermon is derived from Deuteronomy 32:35 – “Their foot shall slide in due time.”  The doctrine that Edwards sets forth is simple: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”

Edwards concludes with a strong application which is meant to awaken sinners and flee from the wrath of God.  Current readers (along with the original Enfield congregation) are faced with a momentous decision as Edwards warns them to the sobering reality of God’s wrath: “There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.”

Readers are challenged to take advantage of “the door of mercy wide open” which beckons them to receive the grace of God in Christ. The concluding words of the sermon leave sinners with an important decision; the most decision they will ever make: “Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.  The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation.  Let every one fly out of Sodom: “Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed.”

CONDEMNING JONATHAN EDWARDS

The congregation in Enfield was humbled and mercifully drawn to the Savior as literally, thousands have since been Edwards first preached his sermon on July 8, 1741. But not everyone is eager to receive the biblical message that Edwards preaches. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God has received a fair amount of criticism over the years.  It has been and continues to be maligned and caricatured.  Often found on a list of required reading for college English courses, the sermon is mocked for its candid language and scary images.  Many readers simply cannot stomach the God that Edwards presents or submit to the God that Edwards loves and serves.

Brian Zahnd’s new book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News is the latest thunderbolt against the Edwardsean vision of God. Zahnd argues that Edwards depicts God as a “sadistic juvenile dangling spiders over a fire.”1 He likens Edwards’s vision of hell to “the Almighty’s eternal Auschwitz.”2 And Edwards’s vision of God is compared to a “sadistic monster.”3

Zahnd’s work is a best-selling release in the Christology category on Amazon. It has been highly touted by well-known authors. And it has received rave reviews on Amazon as readers are drawn to a softer version of God and a worldview which is miles away from Reformed theology. But does this popular book stand up to the scrutiny of Scripture? Does Mr. Zahnd’s critique of Reformed stalwarts like Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin have any merit? At least four major concerns surface in Mr. Zahnd’s book.

CONCERNS WITH SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF A LOVING GOD

The Portrait of God

The first concern is regarding the portrait of God. Readers will quickly discover that the portrait of God in this book is painted with a different kind of brush which renders an altogether different portrayal of God. What we find is a God utterly devoid of wrath. To be fair, Mr. Zahnd affirms the existence of God’s wrath and divine anger in Scripture but maintains these biblical realities are only metaphors, none of which are designed to be taken literally. And “liberalizing a divine metaphor,” according to Zahnd “always leads to error. We easily acknowledge that God is not literally a rock and not literally a hen, but we have tended to literalize the metaphor of divine anger.”4 But Zahnd confuses anthropomorphic language that attributes body parts to God or compares him to a rock or a hen or an eagle with the reality of God’s wrath. Instead of affirming the plain teaching of Scripture, Zahnd simply says, “God is not wrath.”5

Once the author dispenses with any literal notion of God’s wrath, he is able to make the following sweeping statement about God’s character: “The revelation that God’s single disposition toward sinners remains one of unconditional love does not mean we are exempt from the consequences of going against the grain of love. When we live against the grain of love we suffer the cards of self-inflicted suffering. This is the ‘wrath of God.’”6

So instead of facing God’s all-consuming wrath, unrepentant sinners are merely enduring a season of “self-inflicted suffering.” Time does not permit a detailed examination of the myriad of passages that point to God’s wrath. But notice, for example, a holy God’s response to sin in Psalm 5:5-7.

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

R.C. Sproul helps dismantle the idea that God loves all sinners unconditionally:

I can think of no more pernicious lie to destroy people’s souls than this, which some preachers are spreading around the world: God loves you unconditionally. No, he does not. If we do not meet the conditions that he established for us in creation, then God will send us to hell forever. That is what the Bible says, even though the culture does not. He requires perfect obedience. Unless that condition is met, none of us will ever step inside the courts of heaven. Unless the terms of the covenant of creation are kept perfectly, we will rendezvous in hell, where we justly belong because of our disobedience.7

God’s response to sin in Psalm 5:5-7 may sound severe to the typical postmodern ear. But the Scriptural reality of God’s wrath stands. Despite the overwhelming biblical evidence, though, Zahnd categorically rejects the wrath of God. He argues, “You have nothing to fear from God. God is not mad at you. God is never going to be mad at you.”8

“The true biblical test of any theology,” writes Stephen Wellum, “is whether it accounts for all of the biblical data.”9 While a few select passages that concern God’s wrath are selected from the Old Testament in Zahand’s work (and ultimately explained away as “metaphors”), the New Testament reality of God’s wrath is simply set aside. Passages such as Matthew 3:7; John 3:36; Romans 1:18-19; 2:5; 5:9 and Colossians 3:6 are strangely missing. One wonders how 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 would be explained in a book that discounts the wrath of God:

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed because our testimony to you was believed.

A.W. Tozer was deeply concerned about views concerning God that failed to match the teaching of Scripture. He writes, “It is my opinion that the Christian conception of God current in these middle years of the twentieth century is so decadent as to be utterly beneath the dignity of the Most High God and actually to constitute for professed believers something amounting to a moral calamity.”10 The pattern that Tozer identified in those days continues in our day, even among people who bear the name of Christ. That pattern is repeated in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.

The Prescription for Forgiveness

Like many other popular pastors and teachers, Zahnd repudiates penal substitutionary atonement. Influenced by Jürgen Moltmann’s, Crucified God, the author makes these general assertions:

  • “The cross is many things, but it is not a quid pro quo to mollify an angry God.”11
  • “Yes, it was a murder that God knew would happen – because of our addiction to sin and violence – but God’s foreknowledge of this killing doesn’t mean that it was God’s will for Jesus to be murdered.”12
  • “The cross is not a picture of payment; the cross is a picture of forgiveness. Good Friday is not about divine wrath; God Friday is about divine love.”13
  • “The cross is not the place where God vents his wrath on Jesus. The cross is the place where human fear and anger are absorbed into God’s eternal love and recycled into the saving mercy of Christ.”14

All these statements are clear indications that the author rejects penal substitutionary atonement. Zahnd echoes the rantings of Steve Chalke who has likened penal substitution to “cosmic child abuse.” Zahnd writes, “The cross is not where God finds a whipping boy to vent his rage upon; the cross is where God saves the world through self-sacrificing love. The only thing God will call justice is setting the world right, not punishing an innocent substitute for the petty sake of appeasement.”15

Zahnd agrees with the conclusion of Tony Jones’ book, Did God Kill Jesus? Both writers agree and emphatically declare that God did not kill Jesus. Zahnd continues, “Among the many problems with Calvin’s theory of the cross is that it turns God into a petty tyrant and a moral monster. Punishing the innocent in order to forgive the guilty is monstrous logic, atrocious theology, and a gross distortion of the idea of justice.”16 Zahnd continues, “A theory of the cross that says it was God who desired the torture and murder of Jesus on Good Friday turns the Father of Jesus into a cruel and sadistic monster. It’s salvation by divine sadism.” 17

What are we to make of these revealing statements which ridicule penal substitutionary atonement? To begin with, anyone who compares God to a “sadistic monster” should rethink their strategy and repent. The reality is this: “Penal substitution,” writes Roger Nicole, is the vital center of the atonement, the linchpin without which everything else loses its foundation.”18 Emil Brunner cuts through the theological fog and offers this timely advice: “… He who understands the Cross aright – this is the opinion of the Reformers – understands the Bible, he understands Jesus Christ.”19

Zahnd maintains that God knew about the cross but never “willed” the horrific events of the cross. However, two passages in the book of Acts show the sovereignty of God in salvation and demonstrate God’s involvement in the cross from start to finish:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:22–23, ESV).

for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:27–28, ESV).

Affirming the love and mercy of God at the cross but discounting his wrath is wrongheaded, dangerous, and unbiblical. R.C. Sproul laments, “A god who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol.”

Finally, the reckless abandonment of penal substitutionary atonement undercuts the gospel of Jesus Christ. Penal substitutionary atonement is not an invention of Calvin – it is the plain teaching of Scripture. Christ bore the penalty for our sins. Christ was the substitute for every sinner that would ever believe.

We deserved wrath – yet Jesus stands in as our substitute (Heb. 9:26). We were the enemies of God and separated from him because of our sin – yet Jesus reconciled us to God (Isa. 59:2; Col. 1:20-22; 2 Cor. 5:18-19). We were slaves to sin, yet Jesus was our redeemer (John 8:34, 36; Mark 10:45; Col. 1:13; Eph. 1:7). We deserved the wrath of God – yet Jesus was our propitiation (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10) and satisfied the righteous demands of the law by absorbing the white-hot wrath of the Father.

We have an unshakable hope because we are saved from the wrath of God and saved through the Son of God. These realities give rise to a new way of living. These realities spark new motivation. These truths propel us into the future and enable us to live our lives to the glory of God!

The Paltry Nature of Scripture

The problems in Zahnd’s book intensify when one considers his view of Scripture. To be clear, the author claims to have a high view of Scripture. However, his view must be clarified:

When I point out that the Bible is the penultimate word of God that points us to the ultimate Word of God who is Jesus, I do so as a person with a high view of Scripture and a lifelong commitment to the Bible. When we speak of the Word of God, Christians should think of Jesus first and the Bible second. It’s Jesus who is the true Word of God, not the Bible.20

Earlier, in an attempt to strip the Bible from any kind of wrath, Zahnd writes emphatically, “The Bible is not the perfect revelation of God; Jesus is.” This convenient hermeneutic allows the author to bypass any form of divine wrath and bears a strange resemblance to the neo-orthodox notion that the Bible is not the Word of God; rather it contains the word of God.

“Jesus is greater than the Bible,” according to Zahnd. Indeed, “Jesus is the Savior of all that is to be saved … including the Bible. Jesus saves the Bible from itself! Jesus shows us how to read the Bible and not be harmed by it.”21 This unwarranted pitting of the Bible against Christ is a subtle move that opens a Pandora’s box which only invites doctrinal error and confusion. It is an unnecessary hermeneutical hurdle that trips the unsuspecting and ultimately undermines the authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture. Paul clearly affirms that Scripture is “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16).

We believe, however, that the Bible is God’s absolute truth for all people, at all times; it is our final authority for discerning truth. And we reject any clever hermeneutical hurdles the minimize doctrinal propositions, even realities that make us uncomfortable.

The Preoccupation with Mystical Experience

The final concern in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God makes sense of the previous unsettling theological problems, namely, a preoccupation with mystical experience. Listen to the author as he explains the pathway that led him away from the biblical vision of God: “But it wasn’t primarily reading theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri Nouwen, and Stanley Hauerwas that led me away from an angry-God theology; it was mostly mystical experiences in prayer …”22 Zahnd continues, “… But having learned to sit with Jesus in contemplative prayer, I have discovered by my own experience (emphasis mine) that what John said is true: God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. God is the eternal life of self-giving love. There is no darkness. No anger. No violence. No retribution. Only love.”23

But do we come to understand the purposes, plans, and attributes of God through contemplative prayer? Certainly not! There are only two clear routes to knowing God. First, we come to a knowledge of God through general revelation (Ps. 19:1-4). General revelation will not lead people to a saving knowledge of Christ but it makes them sufficiently accountable to God (Rom. 1:19-20).

Second, we come to a knowledge of God through special revelation. We know God through the Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:3). We come to know him by becoming familiar with his attributes. Thomas Watson says, “God’s glory lies chiefly in his attributes, which are the several beams by which the divine nature shines forth.”24

And we come to know God through the Scriptures. It is the Bible that reveals an accurate portrait of God for us. One must never make human experience the starting point in theology. “To do so,” Louis Berkhof warns, “drags God to man’s level. It stresses God’s immanence at the expense of his transcendence. The final result is God made in the image of man.”25 This is exactly what emerges in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Whenever experiences trumps Scripture, the inevitable result is theological error.

HOW SHALL WE THINK ABOUT GOD?

A false representation of God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is simply unacceptable. Yet, false views of the living God continue to be proclaimed and variations of the gospel continue to be propagated. A.W. Pink lamented, “How vastly different is the God of Scripture from the ‘god’ of the average pulpit!”26

I offer three important principles that will help shape the Christian mind and enable readers to approach God with reverence and worship him in a way that is consistent with Scripture.

1. Always distinguish between the Creator and the creature

Tozer writes, “To think of the creature and Creator alike in essential being is to rob God of most of His attributes and reduce Him to the status of a creature. It is, for instance, to rob Him of His infinitude: there cannot be two unlimited substances in the universe. It is to take away His sovereignty: there cannot be two absolutely free beings in the universe, for sooner or later two completely free wills must collide.”27

2. Banish idolatrous thoughts of God

Tozer adds, “Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them.”28 We must strive to worship God rightly and maintain steadfast allegiance to his Word, which is our reliable guide for determining his plans, purposes, and attributes. For “among the sins to which the human heart is prone, hardly any other is more hateful to God than idolatry, for idolatry is at bottom a libel on His character. The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than He is – in itself a monstrous sin …”29

3. Commit to thinking biblically about God

Steven Lawson offers a fitting challenge that every person needs to hear: “I believe that the greatest issue facing the church in any century is a proper understanding of who God is. What is needed in the contemporary church today is a steady diet of the attributes and perfections of God. It is our high theology that produces high doxology … Until there is a right knowledge of God, there will never be the right knowledge of self, nor the proper remedy applied to our own inners lives.”30

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God will no doubt attract the attention of many people. It will be received by people who are unwilling to submit to the biblical portrait of God. My desire is not to be argumentative or divisive but to invite Brian Zahnd to reconsider his assertions concerning God. For Zahnd’s views lead the unsuspecting down a path that rejects a biblical portrait of God and repudiates penal substitutionary atonement. Such views lead readers on a trajectory that will, in the final analysis, lead to a spiritual wasteland. These views are bolstered by other popular writers. But truth is not a matter of majority rule – Truth is determined by God and his infallible Word.

CONCLUSION

God is still angry with sinners. His wrath is being revealed from heaven against ungodly people (Rom. 1:18). And the wrath of God will be unleashed on every person who refused to turn from sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ: “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts” (Ps. 8:12-13).

The words of Jonathan Edwards were true on July 8, 1741. And Edwards’ words remain true today: “The bow of God’s wrath is bent and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart and strains the bow; and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”31

But Edwards was never content to leave his hearers without hope. He was always eager to draw the attention of people to the saving grace and mercy that flows freely from the cross: “God has magnified his free grace towards you, and not to others; because he has chosen you, and it pleased him to set his love upon you. O! what cause is here for praise! What obligations you are under to bless the Lord who hath dealt bountifully with you, and magnify his holy name! What cause for you to praise God in humility, to walk humbly before him.”32

The lament of A.W. Tozer gives us pause and instructs us in a day which is fraught with theological error: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”33 May be bow low in humility before this great and awesome God. May we delight in him and affirm each attribute that the Scriptures reveal. May our minds be ignited with zeal for his name. May our hearts be filled with joy as we contemplate his majesty. May our lips proclaim his goodness and his glory. And may our hands and feet be mobilized to share the saving message of the gospel for the joy of the nations!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

  1. Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2017), 3.
  2. Ibid, 5.
  3. Ibid, 11-12.
  4. Ibid, 17.
  5. Ibid, 202.
  6. Ibid, 18.
  7. R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith – Volume One: The Triune God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006), 216-217.
  8. Ibid, 19.
  9. Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 228.
  10. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Lincoln: Back to the Bible, 1961), 2.
  11. Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, 82.
  12. Ibid, 84.
  13. Ibid, 86.
  14. Ibid, 115.
  15. Ibid, 86.
  16. Ibid, 101.
  17. Ibid, 102.
  18. Roger Nicole, Cited in Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior  (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 194.
  19. Emil Brunner, Cited in Ibid, 195.
  20. Ibid, 50.
  21. Ibid, 57.
  22. Ibid, 204.
  23. Ibid, 205.
  24. Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, reprint 1692), 55.
  25. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 54.
  26. A.W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 11.
  27. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 8.
  28. Ibid, 3.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Steven J. Lawson, Expositor: A Conversation on Preaching – Preaching the Pastoral Epistles (May/June 2015), 39.
  31. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, ed. Edward Hickman (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834), 9.
  32. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1, The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners, ed. Edward Hickman (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834), 679.
  33. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Lincoln: Back to the Bible, 1961), 1.
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Why We’re Protestant – Nate Pickowicz (2017)

why we're prot

“Justification is the article upon which the church stands or falls.” So said Martin Luther as he battled for reform in the eye of the sixteenth-century storm that we know as the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers rediscovered the truth and beauty of the gospel message and proclaimed it faithfully and forcefully. Their allegiance to the gospel inform and inspire us as we strive to follow in their footsteps.

Nate Pickowicz beautifully summarizes the spirit of the Reformers in his most recent book, Why We’re Protestant: An Introduction to the Five Solas of the Reformation. First, the author clearly describes the “gospel crisis” that emerged in the sixteenth century. The crisis involves a fundamental disagreement on how sinners are justified. The answers proposed by Rome and the sixteenth century Protestants are clear. The answer proposed by Rome falls short of the biblical benchmark and leads sinners to a pathway of destruction. The Protestant reply is faithful to Scripture and leads sinners on a pathway to the Celestial City.

The essential message of the Reformation is captured in the five solas – grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, and to God alone be the glory. Pickowicz guides readers on a journey that unfolds these remarkable truths in a way that is winsome, historically accurate, and faithful to Scripture.

Why We’re Protestant is a veritable battering ram and a boon for the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we draw near to the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, I commend this fine work and trust that God will use it to fortify a new generation of reformers who exalt the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ!

What Can a 508-Year Old Man Teach Us?

July 10, 2017 marks the 508th birthday of John Calvin.  But the streamers and balloons are nowhere to be found.  Simply put, we live in a day that is so wrapped up in technology and new inventions that we tend to forget the lessons of the past, especially the lessons of dead guy.

Calvin’s life was a pilgrimage that was characterized by God’s providential grace.  It was God’s providential grace that led him from place to place, equipping him for a lifetime of ministry.  It was God’s providential grace that sustained him during his period of exile and sheltered him through the storm.  It was God’s providential grace that empowered him to write and preach and shepherd the people of God for the glory of God.  It was God’s providential grace that brought Calvin “through many dangers, toils and snares.”  Indeed, it was God’s providential grace that rescued his soul from hell and seated him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).  And it was God’s providential grace that led Calvin to assume a particular posture that is best articulated in Isaiah 66:1-2.

Notice three things about the Genevan Reformer.  First, Calvin was a humble man.  C.J. Mahaney lays bare the heart of a humble man: “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.”  And the Scriptures demand this kind of humility.  “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Pet. 3:8, ESV).

Calvin was humble before his God.  He understood that he was a recipient of God’s grace (Rom. 3:24) and that he had been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9).  Consequently, he understood that his only boast was in the cross-work of Christ (1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 6:14).  Calvin understood the absolute contrast between the sinfulness of man and the majesty of God, what many have referred to as the Creator-creature distinction.  He writes, “Men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.”

Calvin was humble before people.  He understood that humility is the foundation of Christian character.  The libertines of the 16th century were naming their dogs after Calvin – but Calvin remained humble despite the hatred hoisted upon him.  Calvin opines, “I have always been exceedingly delighted with the words of Chrysostom, ‘The foundation of our philosophy is humility’ and still more with those of Augustine.  If asked, ‘What are the precepts of Christianity?’ I will answer, ‘First, humility, second and third humility.”

Second, Calvin was a contrite man.  The contrite is one who is “stricken, smitten, or crushed in spirit.”  John Calvin was a man of Christ-exalting contrition.  His contrition was Christ-exalting because he knew that Christ was the One he had offended and that Christ alone could free him from his sin.  No work could forgive him, no prayer could forgive him; no priest could forgive him.

As beneficiaries of the Protestant Reformation, this is a truth we too often take for granted.  Even worse, some professing Evangelicals have begun to subtly fall under the spell of the Roman Catholic Church and either forget free grace or ignore it all together.  Perhaps it is time for a new Reformation; a radical rekindling of the precious truths that drove Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and Knox to their knees in contrition as they celebrated the free grace that was theirs in Christ alone!

Third, Calvin trembled at God’s Word.  He revered the truth of God’s Word.  Steve Lawson adds, “Calvin stood firmly on the chief cornerstone of the Reformation – sola Scriptura, or ‘Scripture alone.’  He believed Scripture was the verbum Dei – the Word of God – and it alone should regulate church life, not popes, councils, or traditions.  Sola Scriptura identified the Bible as the sole authority of God in His church, and Calvin wholeheartedly embraced it, insisting that the Bible was the authoritative, inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God.”

Calvin responded to the truth of God’s Word.  He was a sinful man who had a heart that desperately sought to respond obediently to the Word of God.  To that end, he preached the Word of God faithfully with all the passion he could muster!

Calvin rejoiced in the truth of God’s Word – even difficult doctrines.  He rejoiced in difficult doctrines like predestination and conscious eternal punishment.  He rejoiced in mysterious doctrines like the Trinity and the hypostatic union.  And he rejoiced in paradoxical doctrines like the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.

So what can a 508-year-old man teach us?

Calvin understood that people are transformed by truth

We live in an age where technique is king and pragmatism is queen.  The church has fallen prey to this vicious cycle.  We tend to do what works and invest in what brings results.  Steve Lawson writes, “The church is always looking for better methods in order to reach the world.  But God is looking for better men who will devote themselves to his biblically mandated method for advancing his kingdom, namely, preaching – and not just any kind of preaching, but expository preaching.”  In a day when preaching is being downplayed and theology is being ignored, we need to remember what Calvin understood, namely, people are transformed by truth.

Calvin understood and modeled the need for courage in times of adversity and persecution

Calvin lived in a time when Protestants were being burned at the stake because they were being transformed by the truth.  He was committed to boldly proclaiming the truth no matter what the cost.    Calvin adds, “If, while conscious of our innocence, we are deprived of our substance by the wickedness of man, we are, no doubt, humanly speaking, reduced to poverty; but in truth our riches in heaven are increased: if driven from our homes, we have a more welcome reception into the family of God; if vexed and despised, we are more firmly rooted in Christ; if stigmatized by disgrace and ignominy, we have a higher place in the kingdom of God; and if we are slain, entrance is thereby given us to eternal life.  The Lord having set such a price upon us, let us be ashamed to estimate ourselves at less than the shadowy and evanescent allurements of the present life.”

Calvin reminds us of the sinfulness of humans and the utter need for God’s grace

The flaws in Calvin himself remind us of the sinfulness of sin.  He was deeply aware of his own sin.  But he was also acutely aware of the reality of grace.  His life bears witness to this: He was simul iustus et peccator – simultaneously righteous and sinful..

Calvin reminds us what one man on a mission can accomplish in Christ’s strength

My good friend and colleague, Pastor Wayne Pickens rightly says, “God uses people to reach people.”  God used an ordinary man for an extraordinary purpose.  Or as David Hall writes, “A single man with heart aflame changed the world.”

Calvin reminds us of the sufficiency of Christ and his work on the cross for sinners

The cry of Calvin’s heart was the Lord Jesus Christ.  He constantly pointed sinners to Christ and his cross.

May the life of John Calvin serve as an inspiration to live the Christian life with vibrancy to the glory of God.  May his courage embolden each of us in the difficult days ahead.  When the days grow dark, persecutions escalate, and our freedoms begin to erode, may we remember the motto still etched in Genevan stone, “post tenebras lux,” after darkness light.  May his humility, contrition, and trembling before the Word of God mark our lives as well.  And may the contemporary pulpit be a reflection of Calvin’s pulpit; may men of God stand behind the sacred desk and faithfully deliver to unchanging truths of Scripture so that saints might be strengthened, edified, convicted, encouraged, and equipped!

Calvin agrees, “Let them edify the body of Christ.  Let them devastate Satan’s reign.  Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious.  Let them bind and loose, thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the Word of God.”

CALVIN ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE – Michael Horton (2014)

143353956X_bJohn Calvin is numbered among the maligned.  He was a target in the 16th century and he continues to attract the attention of the uninformed today.  Yet Calvin’s life was a pilgrimage characterized by God’s providential grace.  It was God’s providential grace that led him from place to place, equipping him for a lifetime of ministry.  It was God’s providential grace that sustained him during his period of exile and sheltered him through the storm.  It was God’s providential grace that empowered him to write and preach and shepherd people for the glory of God.  It was God’s providential grace that brought him “through many dangers, toils and snares” to coin a phrase by John Newton.  Indeed, it was God’s providential grace that rescued his soul from hell and seated him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:6).

Michael Horton beautifully records the life, legacy, and pastoral ministry of the Genevan reformer in his latest work, Calvin on the Christian Life.  Horton honestly assesses Calvin’s role both theologically and pastorally in categories that are unique to the one of the world’s most well-known leaders.  Horton’s work is readable without being simplistic and alerts readers to some of the defining moments of Calvin’s life.   Calvin on the Christian life is a welcome guest in the ever-expanding books which survey the Protestant Reformation.

 

DEAD MEN TALKING – Part 6

8. Dead guys remind us about the power of the gospel and in so doing, lead us to the cross

calvin-john-reformed-theology-common-graceThe heroes of church history can rightly inspire us, motivate us, challenge us, and fuel our resolve for living the Christian life.  But in the final analysis, these godly people remind us about the power of the gospel, and in so doing, lead us to the cross of Christ.  “For in the cross of Christ, as in a splendid theater,” Calvin says, “the incomparable goodness of God is set before the whole world.  The glory of God shines, indeed, in all creatures high and below, but never more brightly than in the cross.”  Nothing would please the French Reformer more than when followers of Christ stand humbly at the foot of the cross.

Every one of the dead guys we have learned about over the last several days lived a long time ago; a time when everything was different.  Cultures were different.  Dress was different.  Technology was virtually non-existent, at least by our standards.  There was no internet, no television or radio.  No motor cars or airplanes.  Almost everything was different.  But there are two things that have not changed since those days: the sinful hearts of men and the grace of God expressed most vividly in the work of his Son on the cross.

The Bible says that every man will face eternal death apart from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Scripture says emphatically, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11–14, ESV).

My prayer is that people will learn to love the dead guys.  May you learn from them, be inspired by them, be challenged by them.  When you run across a new name, dig in and learn something new about one of the great heroes of the Christian faith.  But ultimately, my encouragement is this: Follow the dead guys to the cross.  The cross is where they want us to go!

Dead men are talking.  Numbered among these giants of the Christian faith are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Ruth, David, Solomon, Jeremiah, John, Paul, and Peter.  Gone are Augustine, Polycarp, Hus, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Owen, Spurgeon, Bunyan, Lloyd-Jones, and Schaeffer.   They all worshipped and served the same God.  They all bear witness to the Lord Jesus Christ.   And each of them have a story to tell that tell of a glorious gospel.  Are you listening?

THE JOY OF CALVINISM – Greg Forster (2012)

The title of Greg Forster’s book will prompt one of two responses: People will mutter inappropriate words under their breath or they will rejoice in the truthfulness on the cover.

The Joy of Calvinism is meant to be a buffer to the traditional arguments that have ransacked Calvinistic theology for decades.  And Forster accomplishes his task with a great deal of skill.

The thesis: “Real Calvinism is about joy.”  But the author essentially argues that Calvinism has been poorly explained and even misrepresented – especially in the twentieth century.  An example is the acrostic, TULIP which he rightly notes is not a formulation of the famous Synod of Dort (1618-1619).  Rather, it is more of an expression that was popularized by Lorraine Boettner in his book, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.  While Forster’s argument is a bit overstated, it carries a certain amount of weight.  He suggests a new formulation as outlined below:

State of man before salvation: wholly defiled

Work of the Father in salvation: unconditional choice

Work of the Son in salvation: personal salvation

Work of the Spirit in salvation: supernatural transformation

State of man after salvation: in faith, perseverance

The book responds well to the classic arguments that emerge from  Arminian and Roman Catholic perspectives.  Forster’s writing is humble, thought-provoking, challenging, and affirms historic Calvinistic theology with warm-hearted enthusiasm.  It is a welcome addition to a growing number of books that eagerly promote Calvinism – what Spurgeon called, “a nickname for biblical Christianity.”

4 stars

What Can a 508-Year Old Man Teach Us?

July 10, 2017 marks the 508th birthday of John Calvin.  But the streamers and balloons are nowhere to be found.  Simply put, we live in a day that is so wrapped up in technology and new inventions that we tend to forget the lessons of the past, especially the lessons of dead guy.

Calvin’s life was a pilgrimage that was characterized by God’s providential grace.  It was God’s providential grace that led him from place to place, equipping him for a lifetime of ministry.  It was God’s providential grace that sustained him during his period of exile and sheltered him through the storm.  It was God’s providential grace that empowered him to write and preach and shepherd the people of God for the glory of God.  It was God’s providential grace that brought Calvin “through many dangers, toils and snares.”  Indeed, it was God’s providential grace that rescued his soul from hell and seated him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6).  And it was God’s providential grace that led Calvin to assume a particular posture that is best articulated in Isaiah 66:1-2.

Notice three things about the Genevan Reformer.  First, Calvin was a humble man.  C.J. Mahaney lays bare the heart of a humble man: “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.”  And the Scriptures demand this kind of humility.  “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Pet. 3:8, ESV).

Calvin was humble before his God.  He understood that he was a recipient of God’s grace (Rom. 3:24) and that he had been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9).  Consequently, he understood that his only boast was in the cross-work of Christ (1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 6:14).  Calvin understood the absolute contrast between the sinfulness of man and the majesty of God, what many have referred to as the Creator-creature distinction.  He writes, “Men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.”

Calvin was humble before people.  He understood that humility is the foundation of Christian character.  The libertines of the 16th century were naming their dogs after Calvin – but Calvin remained humble despite the hatred hoisted upon him.  Calvin opines, “I have always been exceedingly delighted with the words of Chrysostom, ‘The foundation of our philosophy is humility’ and still more with those of Augustine.  If asked, ‘What are the precepts of Christianity?’ I will answer, ‘First, humility, second and third humility.”

Second, Calvin was a contrite man.  The contrite is one who is “stricken, smitten, or crushed in spirit.”  John Calvin was a man of Christ-exalting contrition.  His contrition was Christ-exalting because he knew that Christ was the One he had offended and that Christ alone could free him from his sin.  No work could forgive him, no prayer could forgive him; no priest could forgive him.

As beneficiaries of the Protestant Reformation, this is a truth we too often take for granted.  Even worse, some professing Evangelicals have begun to subtly fall under the spell of the Roman Catholic Church and either forget free grace or ignore it all together.  Perhaps it is time for a new Reformation; a radical rekindling of the precious truths that drove Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and Knox to their knees in contrition as they celebrated the free grace that was theirs in Christ alone!

Third, Calvin trembled at God’s Word.  He revered the truth of God’s Word.  Steve Lawson adds, “Calvin stood firmly on the chief cornerstone of the Reformation – sola Scriptura, or ‘Scripture alone.’  He believed Scripture was the verbum Dei – the Word of God – and it alone should regulate church life, not popes, councils, or traditions.  Sola Scriptura identified the Bible as the sole authority of God in His church, and Calvin wholeheartedly embraced it, insisting that the Bible was the authoritative, inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God.”

Calvin responded to the truth of God’s Word.  He was a sinful man who had a heart that desperately sought to respond obediently to the Word of God.  To that end, he preached the Word of God faithfully with all the passion he could muster!

Calvin rejoiced in the truth of God’s Word – even difficult doctrines.  He rejoiced in difficult doctrines like predestination and conscious eternal punishment.  He rejoiced in mysterious doctrines like the Trinity and the hypostatic union.  And he rejoiced in paradoxical doctrines like the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.

So what can a 508 year old man teach us?

Calvin understood that people are transformed by truth

We live in an age where technique is king and pragmatism is queen.  The church has fallen prey to this vicious cycle.  We tend to do what works and invest in what brings results.  Steve Lawson writes, “The church is always looking for better methods in order to reach the world.  But God is looking for better men who will devote themselves to his biblically mandated method for advancing his kingdom, namely, preaching – and not just any kind of preaching, but expository preaching.”  In a day when preaching is being downplayed and theology is being ignored, we need to remember what Calvin understood, namely, people are transformed by truth.

Calvin understood and modeled the need for courage in times of adversity and persecution

Calvin lived in a time when Protestants were being burned at the stake because they were being transformed by the truth.  He was committed to boldly proclaiming the truth no matter what the cost.    Calvin adds, “If, while conscious of our innocence, we are deprived of our substance by the wickedness of man, we are, no doubt, humanly speaking, reduced to poverty; but in truth our riches in heaven are increased: if driven from our homes, we have a more welcome reception into the family of God; if vexed and despised, we are more firmly rooted in Christ; if stigmatized by disgrace and ignominy, we have a higher place in the kingdom of God; and if we are slain, entrance is thereby given us to eternal life.  The Lord having set such a price upon us, let us be ashamed to estimate ourselves at less than the shadowy and evanescent allurements of the present life.”

Calvin reminds us of the sinfulness of humans and the utter need for God’s grace

The flaws in Calvin himself remind us of the sinfulness of sin.  He was deeply aware of his own sin.  But he was also acutely aware of the reality of grace.  His life bears witness to this: He was simul iustus et peccator – simultaneously righteous and sinful..

Calvin reminds us what one man on a mission can accomplish in Christ’s strength

My good friend and colleague, Pastor Wayne Pickens rightly says, “God uses people to reach people.”  God used an ordinary man for an extraordinary purpose.  Or as David Hall writes, “A single man with heart aflame changed the world.”

Calvin reminds us of the sufficiency of Christ and his work on the cross for sinners

The cry of Calvin’s heart was the Lord Jesus Christ.  He constantly pointed sinners to Christ and his cross.

May the life of John Calvin serve as an inspiration to live the Christian life with vibrancy to the glory of God.  May his courage embolden each of us in the difficult days ahead.  When the days grow dark, persecutions escalate, and our freedoms begin to erode, may we remember the motto still etched in Genevan stone, “post tenebras lux,” after darkness light.  May his humility, contrition, and trembling before the Word of God mark our lives as well.  And may the contemporary pulpit be a reflection of Calvin’s pulpit; may men of God stand behind the sacred desk and faithfully deliver to unchanging truths of Scripture so that saints might be strengthened, edified, convicted, encouraged, and equipped!

Calvin agrees, “Let them edify the body of Christ.  Let them devastate Satan’s reign.  Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious.  Let them bind and loose, thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the Word of God.”