CORNERED IN A CASTLE: THE RESOLVE OF MARTIN LUTHER

IMGP0693The Protestant Reformers were men of unbending principle. They were men of unyielding conviction. These men fought relentlessly for the truth. Some of the battle took place privately as godly men wrote books and treatises, which magnified the mighty work of the gospel.

The story is well-known about how Frederick the Wise arranged to have Martin Luther “kidnapped” and secretly transported from the city of Worms to the Wartburg castle where the Protestant Reformer would spend the next ten months in seclusion. These days were spent largely in isolation under the pseudonym, Junker Jörg.

Luther made good use of his time at Wartburg, translating the Greek New Testament into German, the language of the people. Leather spent hour after hour, laboring over the text and translating God’s Word for the common man. Soon, thousands of people would read the Word of God in their mother tongue for the first time. They would hear the Word of God thunder from the pulpit in their heart language.IMGP0676

After his brief stop in Wartburg, Luther made his way back to Wittenberg where his reformation efforts continued. Indeed, the Reformation tides continued to swell as the Word of God grew and people were transformed by God’s Spirit.

For more on this topic, see David Steele’s new book, Bold Reformer: Celebrating the Gospel-Centered Convictions of Martin Luther.

Dr. David Steele is the Senior Pastor at Christ Fellowship in Everson, Washington.

CHARLES HODGE: The Pride of Princeton – W. Andrew Hoffecker (2011)

0875526586_bWho says reviews don’t matter?  “I could not put Hoffecker’s book down.”  Seven simple words uttered by Dr. John Frame prompted me to pick up Charles Hodge: The Pride of Princeton by  W. Andrew Hoffecker.  The author makes a solid contribution in P & R’s American Reformed Biographies Series.

I first encountered Charles Hodge in Seminary.  His piece on the decrees of God made an indelible imprint on my mind and has influenced my thinking since those early days.  Hoffecker’s work puts skin on the bones that I was confronted with in my Seminary days.  Here we find a man of courage and a man of deep conviction.   Charles Hodge was a man willing to put his neck on the line and battle for truth.  He laid the groundwork for men who would follow and continue to fight on the theological battlefield; men like B.B. Warfield and Gresham Machen.

A few highlights worth mentioning include Hodges’ faithful fight against liberalism.  Like today, the liberalism of the 19th century was popular and would influence young minds if left unchallenged.  Hodge was not content to sit by idly.  He boldly confronted the pernicious error of 19th century liberalism (which oddly enough is seeking to permeate the church once again – primarily through many emergent sympathizers).

The second highlight is Hodges’ unwavering commitment to Reformed theology.  Call him a guardian, a defender, an apologist – or just a diehard Reformed theologian.  Hodge may have been willing to sacrifice certain negotiable doctrinal points.  But he drew the line in the sand when it came to the doctrines of grace.

Charles Hodge is a model of teaching excellence.  He is a worthy example of what it means to stand for the truth in a dark world.  Young pastors and seasoned pastors alike would do well to emulate the courage and conviction of the Pride of Princeton – Charles Hodge.

4 stars

KINGDOM THROUGH COVENANT – Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum (2012)

One of the thorniest theological dilemmas in my mind concerns two systems of thought, namely, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology.  God found me and saved me by his grace in a Conservative Baptist Church that was heavily influenced by Classical Dispensationalism.  With the arrival of the third pastor, I learned the distinction between the church and Israel, various dispensations, two peoples of God, not to mention the so-called carnal Christian theory.  These notions particular to Classical Dispensational thought were fairly commonplace at the time and I accepted them uncritically.

My time in a well known Christian University continued to engrain dispensational distinctives into my mind.  But in 1988,  the theological tides began to shift.  It began with the publication of a book by John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus.  MacArthur delivered a death nell to the so called “carnal Christian theory” and distanced himself from some of the primary tenets of dispensational theology.  At the same time, MacArthur was writing as a committed Dispensationalist, what we refer today as Progressive Dispensationalism.  The Gospel According to Jesus not only refuted some of the errors in Classical Dispensationalism; it also introduced readers to the Puritans and spoke in positive terms about Reformed theology – both subjects that were frowned upon by several professors in the Christian University I attended.

Kingdom Through Covenant by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, is in many ways the book that I have been waiting for.  The authors strive to forge a path between dispensationalism and covenant theology.  Their two-fold purpose is set forth at the beginning of the book: “First, we want to show how central the concept of ‘covenant’ is to the narrative plot structure of the Bible, and secondly, how a number of crucial theological differences within Christian theology, and the resolution of those differences, are directly tied to one’s understanding of how the biblical covenants unfold and relate to each other” (p. 21).

The thesis of Gentry and Wellum is that “the covenants constitute the framework of the larger story.  They are the backbone of the biblical narrative” (p. 138).  As such, God would sovereignly choose Israel to be his covenant representatives, “a light to the world of what it means to be properly related to God and to treat each other properly according to the dignity of our humanity” (p. 138).  But Israel failed.  They did not keep the Mosaic Covenant.  As a result they were cursed for their disobedience.  However, the Scripture speaks of a new covenant; a day when it would be possible to keep the covenant.  Jesus fulfilled prophecy and rescued Israel from the curse: “Then as King of Israel, he had to do what the nation as a whole had failed to do: bring blessing to the nations.  He accomplished both by dying on the cross” (p. 296).

In presenting the via media between dispensationalism and covenant theology, the authors aim to strike a biblical balance while paying a certain degree of homage to each respective school of thought.  In a pivotal moment, the authors appear to strike the necessary balance with a great deal of precision: “Contrary to covenant theology, which has a tendency to speak of God’s one plan of salvation in terms of the ‘covenant of grace,’ or ‘dispensational theology,’ which tends to partition history in terms of dispensations, it is more accurate to think in terms of a plurality of covenants, which are part of the progressive revelation of the one plan of God that is fulfilled in the new covenant” (p. 602).  The authors continue add, “In contrast to the other theological views, our proposal of ‘kingdom through covenant’ wants consistently to view and apply the previous covenants through the lens of Jesus’ person and work and the arrival of the new covenant age.”

Kingdom Through Covenant is written by two godly men who are fair-minded in their approach and careful to accurately describe their theological opponents.  While their proposal is fresh and bold, they in no way claim to have the final answer on this disputed matter.  Rather, this 716 page tome serves as the entry point for meaningful discussion.  Their approach is light years away from some of the mean-spirited polemics that took place between the proponents of covenant theology and dispensationalism in the 70-‘s and 80’s.  The church should receive the work of Gentry and Wellum as a gracious gift that will spark meaningful discussion for decades to come.  A fine work, indeed!

4.5 stars

GOD’S PASSION FOR HIS GLORY – John Piper (1998)

Some books are worth reading again and again.  John Piper’s excellent work is such a book.  God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards is composed of two parts.  Part One is a Personal Encounter with Jonathan Edwards.  Part Two is a republication of Jonathan Edwards magisterial work, The End for Which God Created the World.

The Personal Encounter with Edwards includes the rationale behind Piper’s book, a brief but powerful biography of the Puritan divine, a survey of Edwards’s inner life as it relates the life of the mind, and the relationship between Edwards and culture.

Central to the thought of Part One is the Piper’s assertion (that he credits to the hard work of Edwards) is this: “the exhibition of God’s glory and the deepest joy of human souls are one thing.”  Or to state it another way, “God’s passion for his own glory and his passion for my joy are not at odds.”  Piper builds on this reality by presenting fifteen critical implications that he has drawn for Edwards’s life and writing.  The final Edwardsean insight is in reality that thesis of Part Two, namely – that “God created the world to exhibit the fullness of his glory in the God-centered joy of his people.”

Part Two, then, is the complete text from Edwards book, The End for Which God Created the World.  The complex argument may be summarized in one critical sentence: “Hence it will follow, that the moral rectitude of the disposition, inclination, or affection of God CHIEFLY consists in a regard to HIMSELF, infinitely above his regard to all other beings; in other words, his holiness consists in this.”  Readers should struggle through the text to see the weight of biblical evidence that Edwards provides.  It is a humbling, earth-shattering, Christ-exalting stick of dynamite.  I first read this tremendous book over fifteen years ago in seminary at Starbucks – in one sitting.  It continues to affect me the same way it did so many years ago.  Readers will be struck with the depth of insight that emerges from the pen of the Puritan divine.  But readers will mostly be in awe at the glory which belongs to God and God alone!

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36, ESV)

A RESPONSE TO PASTOR ED YOUNG: “COOL-AID: HOMEBOY”

Reformed theology has been on the rise for several years now.  Some pastors are discovering the doctrines of grace for the first time; others are waking up to the beauty of Calvinism, the dogma that Spurgeon called a “nickname for biblical Christianity.”  However, whenever a movement of God ascends, opposition tends to rise.  Consider the push-back from the Roman Catholic Church during the days of the Reformation.  Or who can forget the negative reaction to the work of God’s Spirit during the Great Awakenings.

While a new Reformation is afoot in the contemporary church, there appears to be opposition at every juncture.  The newest public attack on Reformed theology comes from the pulpit of Ed Young, Senior pastor of Fellowship Church.  Several days ago, Young took the last twelve minutes of his message to unleash a vicious attack on Reformed theology.  This assault was not only directed at the doctrine; he also set his sights on churches and pastors committed to Calvinism.

This venom is nothing new.  Spurgeon was constantly attacked for his preaching that was soaked in the doctrines of grace.  Jonathan Edwards was scorned for his Calvinistic framework.  And most recently, the Southern Baptist Convention is showing signs of division on matters that pertain to Soteriology.

But what is most troubling about Pastor Young’s rant is the personal nature of the attack. His chief contention: “Reformed theology leads to a deformed  ecclesiology” – strong words, especially in light of Calvin’s strong ecclesiology.  It was Calvin who rightly argued that the true church includes three critical components, namely – the right preaching of God’s Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and church discipline.  So Young’s words should not be taken lightly.  The essence of his charge is that Reformed-minded churches have distorted the truth, a serious accusation to be sure.

Pastor Young essentially argues that Calvinists have placed “God in a box.”  He says, “Most of the Calvinistic churches don’t reach anybody …”  He accuses Reformed believers of being apathetic at the plight of people who have yet to meet Jesus: “They pimp God not to reach people who are dying and going to hell.”   He warns the young people in his church, “You are prey for these churches … It’s sexy, it’s cool, you’ve got God in a box.”

Additionally, Young accuses Calvinists’ of being arrogant:  “Why are these people so mean-spirited, most of them?  Why are they so Pharisaical?”  This banter continues as Young fires his guns directly at the Reformed community: “Don’t you blaspheme the name of God and use God not to reach people for Jesus Christ.  And if you don’t like the message, there’s the exit.

But the accusation that will draw some of the greatest heat is Young’s contention that Calvinism presents a different gospel.  He instructs his congregation, “When they say gospel [speaking of Calvinists], they don’t mean the same gospel that we do …”  Young’s contention is this: Reformed theology is “ruining the church.

Reformed is deformed, most of it” argues Young.  Pastor Young obviously has a twisted perception of Reformed theology.  That much is true.  But as I listened to his message, I wondered, “How shall the Reformed community respond to Pastor Young?”  “What would be the most fruitful way to counter some of the claims that reflect poorly on Christ-followers who embrace a Reformed approach to Scripture?”  Note three specific responses.

We must respond with graciousness and humility

The Scripture is clear on this point: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness …” (2 Tim. 2:24-25a).  Roger Nicole wisely writes, “We have obligations to people who differ from us.  This does not involve agreeing with them.  We have an obligation to the truth, and that has priority over agreement with any particular person.”  We must be careful that our response is bathed in prayer and soaked in humility.  It would be so easy to “lob a bomb” over the fence.  But the Scripture demands a different kind of response.  Ad hominem  attacks are cowardly and lack the force of biblical conviction. The Word of God demands a gracious and humble response.

We must clear up any misunderstandings

First, historic Reformed theology does not limit God.  Young is quick to accuse Calvinists of having “God in the box.”  But nothing could be further from the truth.  It is true that Calvinists are careful to worship God in a way that is prescribed in Scripture.  It is true that they vigilantly guard the attributes of God and promote his character in a way that is in keeping with Scripture.  But Calvinists do not limit what God can do.  Young’s “God in the box” accusation does not square with the facts.

Second, Young accuses Reformed-minded churches of neglecting the plight of the lost and remaining passive in the evangelistic enterprise.  This accusation has some validity to be sure.  Indeed, some of these churches are content to sit on the sidelines and as a result are marginalized.  In these cases, then, Young’s charge should be taken into account.  However, many Calvinistic churches are reaching people by the droves.  This notion that the doctrines of grace discourages evangelism must be dismantled and cast aside.  Some of the most mission-minded evangelists in church history were Calvinists including William Carey and George Whitefield.

David Mathis, a committed Calvinist, is passionately committed to world missions and evangelism: “Missions is about the worship of Jesus.  The goal of missions is the global worship of Jesus by his redeemed people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.  The outcome of missions is all peoples delighting to praise Jesus.  And the motivation for missions is the enjoyment that his people have in him.  Missions aims at, brings about, and is fueled by the worship of Jesus” (John Piper, Ed. A Holy Ambition: To Preach Where Christ Has Not Been Named).  Mathis continues, “Our churches should both pursue mission among our own people as well as missions among the world’s unreached peoples.  One way to sum it up is to say that we can’t be truly missional without preserving a place for, and giving priority to, the pursuit of the unreached.”  This sentiment is expressed in Reformed-minded churches around the globe.  So let us dispense with the notion that Calvinism discourages evangelism.

Third, a belief in predestination does not preclude choice.  Young quips, “I believe in election.  I also believe in choice.”  This subtle jab promotes a common caricature that Calvinists reject the notion of free will.  But Reformed thinkers have held a robust theory of free will since the days of the Reformation.  Jonathan Edwards held that one chooses according to his “strongest inclination.”    Herein lies the essence of free will!  Edwards held, “A man never, in any instance, wills anything contrary to his desire, or desires anything contrary to his Will.” So the unregenerate choose freely.  The unregenerate chooses according to his strongest inclination.

But here is the rub.  Freedom does not imply ability.  And this appears to be the main bone of contention between Arminians and Calvinists.  G.I. Williamson adds, “With sin’s entrance man lost ability to do good, not liberty.”  For example, sinful creatures are free to fly – but they are unable to do so.  Sinful creatures are free to swim under water without oxygen for an extended period of time – but they are not able to do so.  A paralyzed man  is free to jump out of his wheel chair and dance – but he is utterly incapable of performing this activity.  Most important, sinful creatures are free to come to God – but they are not able apart from God drawing them.  J.I. Packer writes, “We have no natural ability to discern and choose God’s way because we have no natural inclination Godward; our hearts are in bondage to sin, and only the grace of regeneration can free us from that slavery.”  So totally depraved people are free to do good or evil but only able to do evil due to the radical nature of his sinful condition (John 6:44; 8:34).

Fourth, God’s election takes place in eternity past.  Several Scriptures bear this truth out:

“even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,” (Ephesians 1:4–5, ESV)

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,” (Ephesians 1:11, ESV)

“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you,” (1 Thessalonians 1:4, ESV)

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29–30, ESV)

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” (John 15:16, ESV)

Yet Young maintains in his sermon, “We keep on nominating them and God keeps electing them.”  Even an Arminian would reject this kind of thinking.  At least an Arminian embraces election according to foreknowledge, namely – God elected some in eternity past on the basis of foreseen faith.  While clearly distinct from the Calvinistic understanding of unconditional election, it must be admitted that in both schemes, election takes place in eternity past.  God’s electing grace is not carried out as the people of God “nominate” people that appear to be fit for the kingdom.

We must respond decisively

One of Young’s chief arguments is that “Reformed theology is deformed.”  He adds the disclaimer, “most of it” [speaking of Reformed theology].  But the most distressing aspect of this sermon concerns the heart of the gospel.  He charges Calvinists with believing a different gospel.  Young says, “When they say gospel, they don’t mean the same gospel that we do.  Its different.” This kind of preaching is simply indefensible.  Calvinists and Arminians have been debating theological matters for almost 500 years.  However, this kind of banter crosses the line.

Frankly, Pastor Young’s presentation is grieving.  His arguments are not only theologically wrongheaded; they are irresponsible and careless.  The irony is that every time he steps into the pulpit he stands on the shoulders of a long line of godly men; men who fought for, taught, and preached the doctrines of grace.  Men like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Spurgeon, Edwards, Bunyan, Watson, Sibbes, and Owen raised the banner of Reformed theology which proclaims that Christ is the Savior for all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10, ESV).  They proclaimed with Christ that “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35, ESV).  And yes, they proclaimed the gospel that says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV).  These men proclaimed the sovereign grace of God – the grace that sets the prisoner free (John 8:36).  They proclaimed the sovereign grace of God that removed the enormous barrier between a holy God and sinful people (Rom. 5:10, Col. 1:19-23).  They proclaimed the sovereign grace of God that redeems unclean people from their sins (Eph. 1:7).  These men of God proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ; the gospel that tells us the good news of Christ’s incarnation and his death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-5).

When Pastor Young tosses out Reformed theology, he undercuts the very foundation of the Christian faith.  For the essence of the Reformed faith is that sinners may be forgiven their sin – by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  The challenge for Calvinistic pastors, therefore,  is to listen carefully to Young’s charges.  Perhaps adjustments can be made along the way.  If any of the accusations stick, repentance may be in order.  But we must refuse to respond to Young in a way that is arrogant or demeaning.  We must love our brother and promote a spirit of unity.  Roger Nicole writes, “It is remarkable that committed Calvinists can sing without reservation many of the hymns of Charles and John Wesley, and vice versa that most Arminians do not feel they need to object to those of Isaac Watts, Augustus Toplady, or John Newton.”  Perhaps we need a meeting of the minds – in order to generate more light than heat!

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1, ESV)

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

THE TRUTH OF THE CROSS – R.C. Sproul (2007)

The Christian publishing industry is an odd beast.  While thousands of people choke on heresy in books like Love Wins and The Shack, other books go practically unnoticed.  The Truth of the Cross by R.C. Sproul is one of those books that has gone largely undetected and has managed to avoid any kind of large-scale attention.

I first read The Truth of the Cross when it was released in 2007.  This week, I am re-reading Sproul’s excellent work in order to prepare for a sermon.  If you have neglected this book, you’re missing out – big time!

Dr. Sproul surveys the basics of the atonement in this little book.  He begins by discussing the necessity of an atonement.  Crucial to a an understanding of the atonement is a proper conception of the character of God and the nature of sin.  Sproul points to the apostle Paul in particular, whose “central point of importance was the cross … it was on the cross, through the cross, and by the cross that our Savior performed His work of redemption and gather His people for eternity.”

Sproul carefully urges readers to embrace a biblical understanding of God’s justice.  He rightly contends that many people overlook the justice of God – an attribute the makes the atonement necessary: “God is loving, but a major part of what He loves is His own perfect character, with a major aspect being the importance of maintaining justice and righteousness.  Though God pardons sinners and makes great provision for expressing His mercy, He will never negotiate His justice.  If we fail to understand that, the cross of Christ will be utterly meaningless to us.”  Having established the need for an atonement, rooted in the justice of God, the author proceeds to develop the remaining crucial components in Christ’s redemptive work.

Sproul skillfully guides readers on a journey, discussing the key features of the atonement.  Most important, however is the discussion that concerns substitution.  Sproul clearly articulates the importance of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ: “In the substitution that took place at the cross, we see the glorious grace of God – the very heartbeat of the Christian faith.”  Additionally, he distinguishes expiation and propitiation, noting the importance of each.

Dr. Sproul also includes an important discussion on the extent of the atonement.  The “L” in the tulip acrostic is carefully explained in a historical and biblical context.  As most Reformed theologians, Sproul makes a distinction between the sufficiency and efficacy of the atonement.  Certainly, Christ’s redemptive work is sufficient for every person who has ever lived.  But it is effectual for the elect of God.

The Truth of the Cross offers readers a basic look at the redemptive work that Christ accomplished.  Sproul does not intend to offer the last word – which is what makes this little book so effective.  Readers interested in delving deeper are encouraged to pick up John Owen’s, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

4 stars