Saturday, May 31, 2008

The end of the beginning

Earlier on today I sat my final Oak Hill exam and thereby completed (pending results!) three years of formal theological education. Obviously that will mean some changes are ahead over the course of the next few months, one of which will be that this blog will be coming to an end (since I won't be at college anymore). For the moment I'll keep posting here, but I'll move somewhere new at some point over the summer, watch here for details.

My final exam was on 'Puritan Perspectives on Ministry.' Despite the small amount of time available to cram it in, I really really enjoyed my revision, and constantly found myself making mental notes, storing away various nuggets and valuable insights for future reference. One of them (William Perkins) closes his book on preaching with some words which seem to me a pretty good summary to have in my mind as the next few months unfold [in fact, they're pretty similar to some words the Principal gave to us leavers this evening].

"Preach one Christ by Christ for the praise of Christ"

Friday, May 23, 2008

Church-centred Change

The church is the place where God is working in new creation power. The church is the outpost of the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the future, a society of resident aliens gradually filling the earth with the citizens, values, laws, and life of heaven.

Which means that all our plans for transforming human society must be church-centred. Reform the church, change the world. Not the other way round. The church models what it means to be the city of God to the city of man, pointing to a better way of life, a better King.

Which is why one of the primary ways we should respond to the HFE bill disaster this week (and it is a disaster, how else can we describe the willful abandonment of God's structure for the family and the destruction of precious human life?) is to build, in the church, a strong counter-culture where children are accepted, honoured, disciplined and loved in the Lord, an alternative society where godly fathers serve through loving headship. We have to reform ourselves according to the word, pursue deeper levels of faithfulness, study and pray harder, evangelise, serve, weep, disciple the next generation. We change the world by growing, being, reforming the Church.

So, we must continue the campaigning and the lobbying. Christians should be committed to speaking the mind of God on public issues where we can, doing what good we can, serving, loving, arguing. Those of us unable to do so in person should pray and support financially those who can. But long-term deep change will come, by the grace of God, in the gospel, through the Church.

[DF has some thoughts on the link between the state of the church and the state of the nation HERE]

Monday, May 19, 2008

Nehemiah 9 Chapel Preach

I preached in Oak Hill chapel (for presumably the last time) on Nehemiah 9:22-31 last friday. This is a brief outline of what I said.

Two points to aid our life of repentance

1. Grace is the context for extraordinary sin.

Israel’s chief sin across history, from the perspective of this prayer at least, was to take take take grace from God and yet return that with disobedience and rejection of his laws.

E.g. see use of ‘gave’ in 22, 24, 27, 29 & 30.

The contrast is seen most clearly there in the transition from 25 to 26. They gorged themselves on grace. Yet threw the law behind their backs. Hence v25. great goodness of YHWH, and v26. great blasphemies of Israel.

God’s grace highlights the heinousness and unwarranted nature of the sin.
To sin against a gracious God is a terrible thing.
To gulp down his grace and cast away his covenant instructions is a terrible crime.

If for them, how much more for us living AD not BC?

Interesting that it’s this sin of license that they chose to focus on. As they looked at Israel’s history this was the way they chose to epitomise the nation’s sins that had gotten them into the mess they were now in. This was the nature of their covenant-breaking.

That should lead us to consider whether it might not be the same amongst us, God's covenant people today. E.g. Liberalism. E.g. various forms of Evangelical antinomianism.

We would do well to consider whether we need to repent of the same sins as Israel. We must not think we can take grace with one hand and cast aside our Father’s commands with the other. It’s a non-starter. It’s a road that leads straight to judgment.

2. Sin is the context for extraordinary grace.

E.g. God’s patience: ‘Testified/ warned’in 26, 29, 30. Also 'many mercies/ times' in 27, 31, 28, 30.

Three cycles, (26-27, 28, 29-30/31). Sin – handed over – cry out – saved. First two cycles follow the pattern, but third only has no cry, and no salvation. Because this prayer is the cry (32-37). This prayer is expecting salvation. They were expecting God to complete the cycle, to act as he’s acted before.

As they looked back on their history Israel saw the need to repent, for taking grace for granted.
But they also saw the basis for that repentance. v31.

You could say that where sin abounded grace superabounded.

If for them, how much more for us living AD not BC? What extraordinary grace to send His Son to be all that Israel failed to be, to restore, resurrect Israel even and give to his people, Jew and Gentile, the gift of the Spirit.

Repentance is based on grace. We repent because we know God to be a gracious and merciful God. We repent in the expectation of forgiveness and salvation and blessing.

Friday, May 16, 2008


This is great news (and in no way representative of how word-studies should be done).

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament tells me that the Hebrew verb for 'grow old' (zaqen) is probably derived from the Hebrew word for beard (zaqan). Which presumably means that in one sense to grow old is 'to be/become bearded.' Even when applied to females.

It gets better though.

The LXX (greek trans. of OT) translates the Hebrew word for an old man (derived from zaqen) as presbuteros. Which we all know is the word commonly translated 'elder' in our english translations of the NT (cf. Titus 1:6-9).

Which means, surely, that to be an elder of the Church you must be bearded.


1. This solves the 'women elders' issue once and for all?
2. There's just enough time for men leaving college this year to grow a beard before their ordination/ commissioning.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Covenant/Election and 'just getting wet' in Baptism

David Field has been imagining a world where the new covenant is co-terminous with eternal decretal election and seeing what happens, here, here and here. It's not pretty.

Particularly worth some thought is what happens when you try to move from the (alleged) unbreakability of the new covenant to antipaedobaptism:

You'd have to think that you could identify the big-E Elect by their faith. But that would exclude the possibility of false faith or temporary faith. And since you can't know for sure that someone's faith isn't false faith or temporary faith then you'd never baptise anyone at all.

If the response is, "we're not claiming to baptize the Elect, only those who look like the Elect because they have faith" then you've just separated out baptism from the New Covenant and said that baptism is for "those who look like the Elect to us".

Which is fine, because that's what paedobaptists / covenantalists are claiming: that we operate at the level of the "look like Elect to us" and that's how God intends it to be.

Mind you, if baptism is then the initiation rite for the New Covenant then you've just said that there are people who rightly receive the New Covenant sign but who are not big-E Elect. But if they rightly receive the New Covenant initiation rite then they break the New Covenant then the New Covenant is breakable.

So if you want to argue that everyone in the New Covenant is a big-B believer (decretally Elect) and yet that we rightly give the New Covenant initiation rite to those little-b believers (non-Elect, those with false faith / temporary faith etc) then you must deny that the New covenant initiation rite actually initiates people into the New Covenant. That is, that the baptism of the non-Elect isn't baptism, it's just "getting them wet". And the NT evidence for that is what precisely? Non-existent, that's what.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Calvin and Covenant/Election

Some quotes from Calvin on covenant and election issues.

"So it was in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and England after the Lord established his covenant there. When those countries were oppressed by the tyranny of the Antichrist, the Lord used two means to keep his covenant inviolable. First, he maintained baptism there, a witness to this covenant; consecrated by his own mouth, it retains its force despite the impiety of men. Secondly, by his own providence he caused other vestiges to remain, that the church might not utterly die.”
[Calvin, Institutes, IV.II.11 (2:1051-1052)]

“But there is also another reason in our case, when God receives us into his favour; for we were covenant-breakers under the Papacy; there was not one of us who had not departed from the pledge of his baptism."
[Calvin, Commentaries, (13:115)]

“For when they claimed for themselves the name “church,” they wanted belief in the gospel to depend upon their decision. Today, in like manner, the papists with this false pretext would willingly substitute themselves for God. Paul, although he admits that, by virtue of the covenant, the offspring of Abraham are holy, still contends that many among them are outside of it. And that is not only because they degenerate from legitimate children to bastards but also because God’s special election towers and rules over all, alone ratifying his adoption.”
[Calvin, Institutes, III.XXI.7 (2:931)]

So, for Calvin,

a. Baptism does something - it witnesses to the covenant and brings with it the obligation to abide by the terms of the covenant.
b. By virtue of the covenant someone can be 'holy' in a way but really be an outsider from the perspective of special election.
c. There is such a thing as covenant-breaking in the new covenant.
d. God's special electing grace is sovereign over adoption and apostasy.


Friday, May 09, 2008

Law and Gospel

Stumbled across this helpful, sensible, simple introduction to the law-gospel issue:

Law and Gospel by John Frame

A particularly good paragraph says

So gospel includes law in an important sense: God’s kingdom authority, his demand to repent. Even on the view of those most committed to the law/gospel distinction, the gospel includes a command to believe. We tend to think of that command as in a different class from the commands of the decalogue. But that too is a command, after all. Generically it is law. And, like the decalogue, that law can be terrifying to someone who wants to trust only on his own resources, rather than resting on the mercy of another. And the demand of faith includes other requirements: the conduct becoming the gospel that I mentioned earlier. Faith itself works through love (Gal. 5:6) and is dead without good works (James 2:17).

I also particularly liked his statement that 'law itself in Scripture comes to us wrapped in grace.' [emphasis mine]

It's amazing where you find the law-gospel antithesis crop up, even among those who should really know better . Frame is writing in disagreement with some US Reformed theologians who think unless you buy their sharp distinction between the law and the gospel you've lost the gospel.

I blogged on the law a while ago here.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

More on Covenant/Election in Hebrews

Q: Does Hebrews distinguish types of covenant membership?

I think it does:
  • You can be a son or an illegitimate child (12:8).
  • You can fall away from the living God (3:12)
  • You can be the sort of land that drinks in the rain but produces thorns and thistles (6:8)
  • You can drift from what you've heard (2:2)
  • You can be Esau and sell your birthright (12:16).
  • It’s possible to leave Egypt but fail to enter the land (Chapters 3-4).
  • You can be enlightened, taste the heavenly gift, share in the Spirit, taste the goodness of the word and the powers of the age to come, and yet fall away irrevocably (6:4-6)
  • You can shrink back and be destroyed (10:39)
  • You can have come to Zion but refuse to listen to the one who speaks from heaven (12:25).
  • You can show contempt for the blood of the covenant that sanctified you (10:28-29).
  • And yet, it's only if we endure that we are his house/ partakers of Christ (3:6, 14).

Q: But isn't some of this 'you're in the covenant' language hypothetical?

Well, take a particular example - one of the warning passages in Hebrews.

Heb. 10:28-29: Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

I must admit to finding this passage still fairly difficult, (especially since I'm convinced of limited atonement, which closes down the options for interpreting this verse). But, the trouble with ‘sanctified’ being hypothetical is that wouldn’t that mean everything else is hypothetical too? So the passage would be saying something like this:

"The bad news for apostates is that they profane [but they don’t really profane] the blood of the covenant [which covenant they were never a part of] by which they were sanctified [though they were never actually sanctified by it]. Man, someone who has done [i.e. not really done] any of that will face a far worse punishment than the Israelite under the old covenant who disobeyed the law [which they actually were obliged to obey as part of the old covenant, because the old covenant did have members who were not decretally elect to eternal salvation, unlike the new covenant]."

In short, the new covenant brings worse punishments for non-members who disobey its terms than the old did for those who really were members and disobeyed. Which doesn't make sense to me.

It could be, of course, that the passage does not mean 'sanctification' in the exact same way that some other parts of the bible and some confessions of faith and various (important) theological discussions mean it. In that sense they were never sanctified, sure. But maybe that’s not the only thing signified by 'sanctified,' nor is it the only kind of sanctification the covenant has on offer.

Which means we're back to distinguishing (though not separating) covenant and election, and discussing types of covenant membership.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Covenant and Election in Hebrews

Hebrews is also of help to us in thinking about the whole covenant-election thing.

Q: Is the new covenant unbreakable? [i.e. are the only people in the covenant those who cannot fall from it]

If yes, then you’d expect the logic in Hebrews to be: The new covenant is unbreakable, so you can’t break it, so you’re fine. In others words, to argue from the covenant to security, but not from the covenant to the danger of falling.

So, how come the logic is: Jesus brings in a new covenant, so don’t be a covenant-breaker, because that’s far worse than being a covenant-breaker under the old [Hebrews 2:1-4, Hebrews 12:18-29]. That is, Hebrews is written to people in the new covenant warning them not to become covenant-breakers.

Ok, so maybe therefore you could put it like this:

The new covenant is unbreakable, so make sure you don’t break it, because if you break it you prove that you’ve never been in it (because, after all, the new covenant is unbreakable). After all, doesn't Hebrews say something like this in 3:6, 14.

Which is fine, but only if we are able to distinguish types of being ‘in’ the covenant. Otherwise I don’t think it works. They’re spoken to on the basis of being in the covenant, not on the basis of maybe being in the covenant. They have come to Mount Zion where they can hear the voice of the Son of God speaking to them.

And if we’re able to distinguish types of being ‘in the covenant’ then it is possible to be a covenant-breaker.

[More to come later...]