Monday, 30 April 2012

Spiritual angst at 20

I was intrigued, on delving into a couple of old notebooks in which I worked my way through 'Search the Scriptures' in my university days, to find the following:

'O Lord, you know that now I am utterly confused about my spiritual condition. But you have given me certain lights to follow in my reading and talks I have heard.
1. My salvation is an objective fact, not a subjective feeling. I AM dead to sin.
2. My sanctification will only follow by God revealing to me more of His Son.
3. I can do nothing to precipitate this revelation; it can only come as a sequel to faith.
4. I can do nothing to generate faith; it will only come by God's Grace.
5. God's Grace will only have effect as long as I realise and act on the fact that I am saved and believe and trust in His Word. I do have the power to conquer sin through Jesus Christ; I must open my soul to that power, and rejoice in the love that makes it available to me. Only thus, can I, as salt, not lose my taste...'

A mixture of the good and slightly ambiguous so far as theology is concerned. Indeed considering the lack of any real teaching I was getting then, apart from Christian Union Bible studies and my own reading, I am surprised it is not worse. I had been a Christian about 12-15 months at this time but had not learned the importance of going to a good 'Bible teaching' church, much less did I have any clue about 'Reformed' things or even what a Calvinist was as opposed to an Arminian. I was, I think, instinctively, by my Calvinist-Methodist (though theologically very liberal) upbringing and by common grace a Calvinist, if such a thing is possible - is it truer for Celts? -, and the experience of regeneration by grace made this spiritually real and developed it. I remember over a college lunch once defending Calvin against a rabid Arminian supporter of Roger Forster (of Ichthus Fellowship fame - remember?)even though I had read nothing by Calvin at that stage. It wasn't until I went to L'Abri in 1981 that I really appreciated what Calvinism meant biblically, theologically and spiritually. I read the 'Institutes' in 1981-82.

A couple of pages/studies later in the same notebook I found the following:

'I realise that this parable [I think it must have been the parable of the 'dishonest steward' in Luke 16] speaks to me. I am not trustworthy with the riches that God showers on me, I spend too extravagantly on myself, to enjoy myself or to boost my ego (e.g. clothes)... At the moment I have a big question mark looming over my head as to whether I should spend £10 on a pair of jeans. I honestly do not know whether it is just a fad - an expensive, selfish desire - or whether it is justified i.e in accordance with God's will...'

Over-scrupulous perhaps?

Friday, 27 April 2012

The anchor to the gospel

‘Do this and live’

Every gospel preacher, wanting to emphasise that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, will have contrasted this gospel with the attempt to gain salvation by works. It is worth reflecting, therefore, on the fact that when the Lord Jesus Christ is asked by a lawyer ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ he answers, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ When the lawyer repeats the two great commandments, concerning loving God and loving your neighbour, Jesus says, ‘You have answered correctly; do this and you will live’ (Luke 10: 25-28). When a rich young man asks him virtually the same question, Jesus tells him ‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments’ (Matt 19:17). He then, in the one case by a personal challenge and in the other by a parable, quickly reveals the spiritual bankruptcy of both men. However valid the principle, they cannot fulfil it.

Why does Jesus start here? He is referring to Leviticus 18:5; ‘You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.’ Paul quotes this verse in Romans 10:5 in contrasting a righteousness of the law, which the Jews pursued, with a righteousness of faith which the gospel provides; and again in Galatians 3:12, also to contrast justification by faith with reliance on the law and its works.
Further, in Romans 2:6-10 Paul states as a general principle that ‘to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality he will give eternal life’. In Romans 7:10 Paul talks of the ‘commandment that promised (“is unto”) life’. In Romans 8:3,4 he says that God did ‘what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do’ and sent his Son, that ‘the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us’. What, however, gives the expectation (not, it seems, betrayed by any failure in the law itself) that the law could do something for us anyway?

Some basic principles

Certain things appear to follow. First, there is a connection between doing good works, or obeying the law, and eternal life. It is not self-evident that obedience should receive a reward of that nature. We tend to assume it, but there is no automatic nexus between obeying God’s commands and attaining eternal life. Why should there be? As creatures we are duty bound to obey God with or without reward. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 7:1, ‘The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant’. If reward there is, and particularly a reward of this magnitude, God must have so determined it at some point. When was that?

Second, the life of which Jesus and Paul are speaking is ‘eternal’. It is probable that in the context of the Sinai covenant, ‘you will live’ means, or at least is applied to, continued enjoyment of the land. Leviticus 18:5 is quoted in Ezekiel 20:11,13,21. Both in the wilderness and while in the land the people rebelled against God and did not obey his laws ‘which, if a person does them, he shall live’ (v 21), and were in the first case kept out of the land for forty years and then experienced exile. A similar use of Leviticus18:5 is made in Nehemiah 9:29. The ‘life’ which is the reward of obedience seems in these cases to mean ‘life in the land’ but in the New Testament it is clearly the eternal life of which ‘the land’ is a type. Where did the wider scope of the promise (eternal life), to which Jesus and Paul allude, come from? Some suggest it was from Jewish traditions in the intertestamental period , but it seems highly unlikely that the Lord and Paul would base something so important on the traditions of the Jews without Scriptural warrant. We are still looking therefore for a convincing answer to the question: since when did obedience lead to eternal life?

Third, the principle is universal and not just applicable to Israel – this is clear from its use in the New Testament.

Fourth, the nature of the obedience required was perfect. It is difficult to see why there should be any doubt about the need for the obedience to be perfect in view of the character of God, his assessment of his creation as ‘very good’ and his later commands to ‘be holy as I am holy’ . The consequence of the one sin of Adam was death; the curse of the law attaches to any who do not do all of it (Deut. 27: 26; Gal 3:10); if one breaks the law at one point one is accountable for all of it (Jas.2:10).

We are therefore in search of the source of the principle whereby eternal life on the condition of perfect obedience should be universally promised to humanity, such that Jesus can use it in his evangelism and Paul cite it in his expositions of the gospel.

Where the connection?

Was the connection made at some point during the Old Testament era? The most obvious choice, and probably the one to which people instinctively turn to see a ‘salvation by works’ principle established, is the context of Leviticus 18:5 itself, the Mosaic covenant. Yet we must remember that Leviticus is addressed to those who already belong to the Lord. They are the people whom God has chosen because he loved them, for no reason in them (Deut. 7:6-8). The required response of obedience is not a way of salvation but a grateful response to what God has already done, as the preface to the Ten Commandments makes clear (Exod 20:1,2). For the ‘works principle’ we need to go further back in biblical history.

In the beginning

Adam was obliged, as a creature, to obey perfectly. Why should even perfect obedience be considered worthy of eternal life? The most obvious place to look is God’s prohibition to Adam in Eden, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die’ (Gen 2:16,17). The Creator, having made his human creature upright and given him everything good, now stoops to him again and makes an agreement, couched in concessive (‘you may surely eat…’) and prohibitive (‘you shall not…’) terms, with a warning (‘you shall surely die’). The question is: is there also a positive promise here – a promise of life as opposed to death, and life of a different order from that which Adam already enjoyed?

Remember the context. God has created all things ‘good’. The Sabbath has been declared. The garden has been prepared. Eve will shortly be provided. Adam has been given his mandate to rule, with Eve, over creation for God. This prohibition is then issued, with a sanction. Why should God do this? Is it likely that he would do this without something better in mind? If that were the case, the prohibition is a distinctly retrograde step. Is it God’s plan that Adam and Eve live forever under the possibility of losing their happiness, and that observance of the prohibition changes nothing even over aeons of time? This is theoretically possible, but it seems unlikely from what we know of God. Can it be that ‘this is as good as it gets’: to live under the threat of losing paradise, with no compensating thought of either that threat coming at some time to an end, nor of anything better (if only a ‘threat free’ existence’) being held out to Adam and Eve on keeping the law?

The conviction that God is good, that to live in this way is not the fulness of perfection and that Eden was not the apogee of blessing, are some of the considerations that persuade Reformed theologians that there is an implied promise made to obedience to this prohibition. Obedience embraces observance of the ‘creation mandate’ and of course all the other laws of God, written on their hearts, such obedience being literally ‘second nature’ to the pristine pair.

A further consideration is the purposive nature of God’s dealings with his creation. Geerhardus Vos puts it like this: ‘The principle of God’s relation to the world from the outset was a principle of action or eventuation. The goal was not comparative (i.e., evolution); it was superlative (i.e., the final goal).’ To see Eden as a static condition is greatly to underestimate the purposes of God for creation, and for his Son. The implied promise in the garden is part of that.

The implied promise is that, on obedience, Adam would enter into enjoyment of eternal life which could not be lost, ever.
Moreover, this is an obedience that would have implications for the whole human race descended from him and Eve. He is a representative man. This is clear from the parallel Paul draws between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12-21.
If this is correct, then by definition, his obedience under the prohibition would be for a limited time. He would be a man on probation.
The name given to this arrangement is a covenant. By virtue of the arrangement entered into between God and himself in Genesis 2:16,17, Adam has moved from creature to covenant partner. What could not be assumed from his mere obedience in the former role, is his by promise in the latter - that is, now, obedience will be rewarded by eternal life.

Covenant in Eden?

Covenant, representation and probation are the three key features of Adam’s relationship to God (and his own descendants) in Eden. The concept of ‘covenant’ here however needs further justification.
Is ‘covenant’ a good term for the ‘arrangement’ in Eden? In particular should it be called by its most common title, the ‘covenant of works’? It is variously called the covenant of life, of nature, of creation, of law. The name is not crucial; the virtue of ‘works’ is that it does focus on that element which distinguishes it from other covenants. For the sake of convenience I shall use it here. Perhaps the ‘covenant of Adam’ would be the best alternative.
Should it be called a ‘covenant’ at all? One of the famous objectors to the terminology ‘covenant of works’ is John Murray who prefers to call it ‘the Adamic administration’ It hardly needs to be pointed out that the word ‘covenant’ (berith) does not appear in the text until Gen 6:18 in the account of Noah. Yet this is not decisive. The word covenant does not appear in the promise God makes to David in 2 Samuel 7 either, yet that is called a covenant in Psalm 89:28-39. Scholars will point out the two parties in Eden, a promise (of eternal life, implied) and a condition (perfect obedience). A penalty is stipulated and there is a ‘sign’ or ‘sacrament’ if that is how we interpret the tree of life. More recent authors following Meredith Kline point to the elements of ‘suzerain-vassal’ covenants in Genesis 1-3 and in the arrangement with Adam in particular – a preamble and prologue introducing the Sovereign in relationship to the vassal, the promises and obligations, and the blessing and curse for fidelity or infidelity . One further textual witness to the covenant is Hosea 6:7 which is not as weak as is sometimes made out: ‘But they like Adam have transgressed the covenant…’ is a translation with plenty of pedigree even if one would not rest a case for the Adamic covenant on it alone . If ‘a bond in blood sovereignly administered ’ is a fair definition of a covenant, a bond including promises and obligations, and ‘blood’ signifying life or death issues, then it is not unreasonable to call the arrangement in Eden a covenant.

Arguments against the concept (not just the title) of the covenant of works have come from a number of directions in recent years.

Two criticisms that regularly surface might be called the ‘pro-grace’ argument and the ‘anti-merit’ argument. Really they are two sides of the one coin. The ‘pro-grace’ argument argues that the idea of a covenant of works obscures the grace of God in the administration in Eden. But this is unfounded. Perhaps the words of two staunch proponents of the covenant of works will help to allay fears of obscuring God’s grace: ‘This promise was also in its essence a covenant of grace, in that it graciously promised life in the society of God as the freely granted reward of an obedience already unconditionally due. Nevertheless it was a covenant of works and of law with respect to its demands and conditions’ . Again, J.H. Thornwell insists, ‘Surely, God is love; creation shows it as well as the cross! Surely, our God is grace; the first covenant proves it as truly as the second!’ Some authors prefer to follow the reserve of the Westminster Confession is speaking of God’s ‘condescension’, or similar term, rather than ‘grace’, before the Fall, and we might truly call redemptive grace ‘grace properly so – called’; but there is no objection to seeing God dealing graciously with Adam in the garden.

The other (‘anti-merit’) criticism is the notion that any idea of man gaining salvation by obedience is inherently unworthy of God; the concept of ‘meriting life’ is almost contemptuously ruled out. Typical of this approach is John Piper who asks rather dismissively, ‘Has God ever commanded anyone to obey with a view to earning or meriting life? Would God command a person to do a thing he uniformly condemns as arrogant?’ He quotes Romans 11:35-36 ‘Who has given to [God] that it might be paid back to him?’ and argues that ‘You can’t earn from God by giving him what is already his.’ Conceding that God did command Adam to obey on pain of death for disobedience, he asks, ‘What kind of obedience is required for the inheritance of life – the obedience of earning or the obedience of trusting?’ The former way Piper says is legalism, the second is the way of faith. ‘God does not command us to pursue obedience by works. That is legalism’ . He goes on to the work of Christ: ‘Should we think of the Son of God relating to his Father as a workman earning wages? Are we to think of the role of the “second Adam” as earning what the “first Adam” failed to earn? Is his role not rather to glorify the trustworthiness of his Father, which Adam so terribly dishonoured?’

In a short article it is not possible to give a full answer on these matters, and I have great respect for John Piper, but he does seem here to be misrepresenting the covenant of works somewhat. First, why, if God enters into covenant with man for reward, is that objectionable? Even in the new covenant there are promises of rewards for obedience (Matt 6:6; 25:29; John 14:21). Adam was not ‘earning his life’ but obeying God’s gracious stipulations by which he could attain eternal life that was inalienable. Second, Adam was to exercise faith – his obedience was ‘obedience of trusting’ – no responsible proponent of the covenant of works would assert otherwise. We could add too that it was only with God’s help that he could obey, not in his own strength. Third, the antithesis between ‘earning’ and ‘glorifying the Father’s trustworthiness’ is false. Adam’s sin was disobedience, as Romans 5:18,19 makes clear. The Son obeyed. In the course of it he certainly glorified the Father, but we must not lose sight of the focus on the transgression in the one case and the obedience in the other.

The bogeyman for many seems to be the idea of ‘merit’. Put ideas of sinners earning salvation, however, out of your mind. The ‘covenant of works’ is a formulation to describe God’s dealings with unfallen man; what is obnoxious in ‘earning’ is not the principle of covenant and reward in itself, but the idea of a sinner being able to obey perfectly and thereby ‘putting God in his debt’. Adam’s perfect obedience in the covenant of works was no more ‘putting God in his debt’ than prayer on the basis of God’s promises to answer is ‘putting God in our debt’. The fact that after the Fall ‘by works of the law no human being will be justified’ (Rom 3:20) does not mean it was impossible, much less objectionable, for Adam to be so justified by virtue of a covenant initiated by God.
Adam and Christ

Perhaps the strongest argument for a covenant of works is Romans 5:12-21. Adam and Christ are the representative men; as Thomas Goodwin said, ‘In God’s sight there are two men, Adam and Christ – and these two men have all others hanging on their girdle strings’ . If Christ is representative man, so was Adam. If Christ is covenantally bound to his people, surely Adam was so bound. If the Last Adam’s obedience was the key to his work, then so was that of the First Adam. In relation to God, Christ was in a covenant of works for us; he obeyed where Adam disobeyed. God has made a covenant of grace with us in Christ, and from his obedience we all benefit, as Romans 5 makes clear; but his own task was to stand in the shoes of the First Man and do what he failed to do.

The Law and the Gospel

The benefits of keeping the concept of the covenant of works clearly before us are several:

1. The principle of the covenant of works is theologically fruitful. For example, we can understand the other covenants of the Old Testament better in relation to it. In particular we are helped to see why the Mosaic covenant while at times sounding like a covenant of works, actually is not. The ‘works principle’ is in that covenant (i) to teach the people how to respond gratefully to their Redeemer God; (ii) to remind the people, with expansion on the nature of the law and of the consequences of obedience (blessing) and disobedience (curses), of God’s requirement for perfect obedience, and to reward (even imperfect) obedience temporally ‘in the land’; (iii) to teach them nonetheless the impossibility of perfect obedience but also of God’s grace through the provision of a sacrificial system and (iv) to lead, as a ‘pedagogue,’ the people to Christ. It is in this context that the negative approach to the Mosaic covenant in Galatians is to be understood. Thus the works principle is said to be ‘republished’ in the Mosaic covenant; the ‘teeth’ of the covenant of works however are in the Adamic covenant, not in the Mosaic; and there, not at Sinai, is where eternal life is promised to works. Genesis 2:16,17 is behind the ‘legal’ aspects of the Mosaic covenant as Genesis 3:15 is behind the promise of the Abrahamic.

2. The principle is hermeneutically useful in that we are better equipped to understand Paul’s teaching on the law. He never says anything directly negative about the law itself; it is holy and righteous and good; it even promises life (Rom 7:12,10). Within its remit it does its job perfectly. But it has negative aspects in two directions: (i) the flesh: the law is weakened by the flesh (Romans 8:3), for no sinner can keep the law; and (ii) the relation in which people stand to God. From the perspective of the covenant of grace, in Christ (for those not under law ‘as a covenant of works’ ) the law has a positive function; from that of the covenant of works, a negative. In the latter covenant, one is under the law’s curse and condemnation. The negative comments about the law should be traced back ultimately not to Sinai but to Eden. The curse of the law in Moses, as it applies universally and eternally rather than temporally and typologically, is not inherently from Sinai but from Eden. The covenant of works does not answer all the issues about the law in the New Testament, but it sheds light on much and in particular helps us to harmonise ‘Paul on Moses’ .

3. It is evangelically powerful in that we are in a better position to make and maintain a clear distinction between law and gospel. This vital distinction is under threat from the well-intentioned attempts to subsume all God’s dealing with man under one arrangement from Adam onwards – sometimes called ‘monocovenantalism’. There is, rather, one principle in God’s dealing with man – that eternal life is consequent on obedience - but there are two covenants under which that is expressed – a covenant of works, and of grace. Where Adam failed in the first, Christ succeeded. What the covenant of grace provided was not, in the first place, a new way of relating to God, but a new Man who would fulfil the basic principle. In the covenant of grace, we come to God through faith on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. This is the gospel.

4. It is Christologically rich for we understand better the work of Christ and why obedience had to be the heart of his work (John 4:34; 17:4; Phil 2:5-11; Heb 10:7). If there is no covenant obligation to be righteous, what did Christ gain for us and why? If there is no reward for obedience, then how did he gain it?

5. It is evangelistically penetrating as we see in the teaching of the Lord Jesus, in opening up the human heart, in exposing self- righteousness and in driving home the essential nature of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The Law prepares for the Gospel.

6. It is pastorally beneficial as Paul’s letters confirm, in helping people to see where they stand in relation to Christ and the law, and to trust Christ and his righteousness alone. The doctrine of justification by faith stands in no small measure on the contrast between the covenants of works and of grace – that is between Law and Gospel.

Christ, therefore, is not lying or joking when he says to the lawyer ‘Do this and you will live’. He is simply prefacing the gospel with the law. The purpose is (i) to point you to yourself as weak and unable to fulfil that basic principle of relating to God; and (ii) to point out that your relationship to God (the covenant under which you are living) must be changed for you to be saved. You can only live, now, through faith in Christ and his perfect obedience. The covenant of works is truly the background to – even the anchor for - the gospel. We lose touch with it at our peril.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Francis Schaeffer: a new biography

'When Francis Schaeffer was converted to faith in Christ he did not at first call himself a Christian because, to him, Christianity was the 'unreal stuff' he had experienced at church. What he discovered was, for him, a whole new way of thinking and of life. From then on his great desire was to tell people about God, that the Bible is true, and that it answers the big questions of life that philosophy can only raise.

'Schaeffer trained for the ministry and was sent, with his wife Edith, to Europe. They established child evangelism work and he developed a profound understanding of contemporary culture and the state of the church. He experienced a spiritual crisis which made faith and prayer more real to him, and founded the L'Abri Fellowship. Here, thousands of people have heard about the God who is Creator and Saviour. In his last decade Schaeffer became famous for his Christian film series and his anti-abortion stance.

'As Mostyn Roberts reviews the life of this man of God, variously called a prophet for his prescient analysis of trends in culture that explain where we are today, an apologist, and even a philosopher, he shows us that fundamentally Schaeffer rejoiced, to the end, in being a pastor and evangelist'.

"This is a masterful introduction to Francis Schaeffer. In one concise summary you get both the biographical outline as well as a comprehensive overview of the ideas that this remarkable man communicated and lived out. My hope is that Mostyn Roberts’ book will enable a present generation of Christians to grasp these vitally needed truths."
Andrew Fellows
(Director of the English L'Abri Fellowship)

This new addition to Evangelical Press's 'Bitesize Biography' series should be available towards the end of May. My hope is that it will introduce Schaeffer to a new generation of Christians, and also refresh the memories of older Christians about his value for us today.

(This feels like blowing my own trumpet; in fact I want to make Schaeffer known, not myself, but I have been told by more than one source that the best publicist for a book is the author!)

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Dear Prime Minister - again: a reply to a response

Dear Prime Minister,

RE Same-sex marriage

Thank you for the response of 19th April to my letter of 23rd March, written on your behalf by a correspondence officer.

It is sadly apparent that writing to MPs, to the government, or its officers quickly becomes an exercise in talking past each other.

I would like to make the following points in response to your letter.

1. Nowhere do you attempt to deal with the points I made about the inconsistent nature of your case based on equality. You are not treating people equally if you draw moral boundaries eg in relation to polygamy or paedophilia. I have yet to see or hear from the government or its supporters a justification for taking a moral stance on these areas, while trampling over the centuries old moral stance that marriage is to be only between a man and a woman. I would not want to see ‘marriage’ in these cases of course; but I can’t see why the government feels able to claim it is for ‘equality’ if it makes these distinctions. Does the government deal in principles at all? Or are you purely guided by pragmatism and expediency?

2. You repeat the mantra that you are not changing anything to do with what you call ‘religious marriage’. But where does ‘religious’ marriage come from? Marriage, as I said in my letter, is marriage. Christians and others who oppose the current changes are not doing so we because we are protecting our little ‘patch’ of religious rites and rituals. We are campaigning because marriage between a man and a woman is a bedrock of society, not just for those who are religiously inclined. Your rather patronising utterances about the ‘vital role’ religious organisations play in society is beside the point. Society cannot afford to be schizophrenic on such a vital issue, distinguishing between ‘civil’ and ‘religious’ (or ‘gay’ and ‘straight’) marriage in this fashion. Moreover, in view of the haste and the determination with which the present change is being introduced, your assurances of no further changes that will affect churches are not comforting.

3. You say that you want to encourage commitment. Why, though, is marriage for gay people necessary for this end? In your letter you state specifically that ‘the commitment made by same-sex couples in a civil partnership is the same as the commitment by opposite-sex couples in a civil marriage’. If the commitment is the same, why do gay couples need marriage? Why is civil partnership not enough? Why, for the sake of a small minority, change an institution which has been honoured throughout the centuries and throughout the world?

4. Nowhere do you even try to square this present policy with your views on the importance of the Bible, expressed in December. But perhaps I am hoping for too much.

Your argument is riddled with inconsistencies, one fears, because basically the change is driven not by principle but by politics. As I said in my first letter: the government (despite the sop of a ‘consultation’ which is really an opportunity for us merely to express our opinions – more a public counselling service than a true consultation) is not engaging with valid arguments and gives every appearance of being in the clutches of a disproportionately powerful group of fashionable opinion-formers. I doubt very much if the public would be clamouring for this change if the government had not introduced it.

Yours sincerely,

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Passion of the Impassible?

After months in which Mel Gibson's film The
Passion of The Christ
has been breaking box office
records and hitting the headlines in both secular and
Christian papers, it seems almost impertinent to
pose the question: 'Does God suffer?' The Christian
wants to shout out 'Of course! What gospel would
there be if he did not?'

Such a response is more readily given today and with fewer qualifications
than in previous generations. The doctrine of divine
impassibility, which is often taken to be the
antithesis of the idea that God suffers, has taken a
dreadful battering in the last century or so. Yet
many Christians who have no desire whatsoever to
create an unfeeling, impersonal God in what
J.I.Packer calls an 'eternally frozen pose'(l) will
nonetheless feel the need to protect God from the
instability attendant on being able to suffer. We
want a God who loves and relates - this is the drive behind much of the attack on impassibility - yet we
are not convinced that the suffering God is entirely
- well, God.

Does God suffer? And if so, does it make sense to
describe him as 'impassible'?

For more of this article see the 'Foundations Archive' for Autumn 2004 at

Sanctification: indicatives and imperatives

At the Banner of Truth conference Maurice Roberts gave a helpful paper on 'God's Way of Holiness' - sanctification. He made no mention however of 'definitive sanctification' which is how Professor John Murray describes the change from death to life set out by Paul in Romans 6.

Murray is very clear that this is a radical and irreversible change of 'sphere', the believer crucified with Christ and raised to new life in Christ, dead now to sin so that sin shall no longer have dominion over him, and alive to God; the 'old man' (Adam) is dead in him and he is dead to the old Adam, though indwelling sin remains and will be in him till his dying day. This indwelling sin will cause the believer to have to struggle to obey, even though obedience to God's law comes naturally to the regenerate man; and he will have to struggle against the flesh and against sin, even though he is a new creature. The old man however can no longer tyrannize over the believer ; sin shall have no dominion. The Christian warfare is fought against the backdrop of the great and definitive victory that Christ has accomplished for him and participation in which has been effected by union with Christ. There may be many battles lost, but the war is won; there may be many falls along the way, but not so as to be lost; or many stumbles, but not so as to fall eternally.

Another way of summarising this is to say that in the Christian way of sanctification the imperatives ('you must...' or 'must not') are based on the indicatives of the Christian life ('you are...' or 'are not...').

When Maurice Roberts was asked what he thought of the doctrine of 'definitive sanctification' he quoted an answer Professor Murray had given to him once when he asked whether definitive sanctification differed from regeneration. Murray's answer was that it was a matter of 'multiformity of aspect'. One assumes that he meant by this that it was a different aspect of the same thing. But what thing? Surely union with Christ. Definitive sanctification is an aspect of union with Christ that comes at the beginning of the Christian life; it is not the same thing as regeneration though of course inseparable from it. They are different aspects of the same union with Christ.

Maurice Roberts' presentation of sanctification was entirely based on the doctrine of regeneration with no mention of definitive sanctification. One can teach the newness of the Christian life and 'death to sin' from the perspective of regeneration, but does it really do justice to the teaching of Romans 6 as well as Professor Murray's formulation? And does it do justice to the fact that in the New Testament (eg 1 Corinthians 6:11; Heb 2:11) sanctification is often regarded as a once for all event?

This does not deny the importance of progressive sanctification, but without a clear understanding of the indicative, the imperatives will sound too much like a grim struggle without any secure foundation from which to start.

I thoroughly appreciated Rev Roberts' paper, and I am not suggesting that he does not agree that 'the imperatives are based on the indicative' but I suggest that definitive sanctification is an important aspect of 'God's Way of Holiness', to do justice to Romans 6 and other parts of the New Testament, in order to clarify the 'indicative' basis of the Christian life and warfare.

Banner of Truth conference 2012

Home from the 'Banner'. Steven Green (Hitchin) gave me a lift and I enjoyed his company as we travelled, arriving home in double quick time yesterday via the A6, A14 and A1.

What of the conference? Most men I spoke to felt it had been a good one, uplifting and encouraging. I certainly thought so, gaining something from all the sessions.

We began on a sad note, as Ted Donnelly was able to give us only a part of his sermon on 'Let us exalt his name together'. His recent serious illness took its toll and he had to stop. Yet what he gave us was good for us, and to see a great preacher reduced to a standstill made us sober and serious, remembering that we hold this treasure in jars of clay.

Maurice Roberts helped us remember the great themes of God's justice, and sanctification. These were doctrinal studies but warmly delivered. Matthew Brennan stirred us with two sessions on John the Baptist, freshly bringing home the wonderful ministry of this man, but even more, the wonder of the Man to whom he pointed. We were forcefully reminded of the liberating truth that our fruitfulness, gifts and reputations are in the hands of the Lord and we should be glad of that.

Jonathan Watson brought to us the words of Nicholas Murray of the 19th century to remind us of the kind of ministry the church needs - men of decided piety, duly qualified, preaching the whole gospel, making an impact with their preaching and entirely consecrated.

The 'main' speaker was Alistair Begg who took us in three sessions through Titus. He is a gifted communicator; his messages were easy on the ear, but I felt we could have had a bit more depth, particularly on the glorious doctrinal and gospel sections of Titus, alongside the helpful exposition of the practical sections.

Iain Murray filled in for Ted Donnelly on the last day and gave a thoughtful overview of the benefits and dangers of controversy.

We had two panel sessions, one on 'Where have all the preachers gone?' but this question-begging question itself needed clarification and the discussion never quite got off the ground despite useful introductions from Warren Peel, Gary Brady and Robert Strivens. The other panel session was a 'Q&A' and this was perhaps more helpful.

Then there are the afternoons when you can play football, or read, or sleep, or go into Leicester, or up to Oadby, and have a coffee, or prepare a sermon.

I like the Banner. In a way, nothing is new. The same exhortations to personal piety and seeking the Lord, but how busy ministers need those. The same reminders of grace, and how we need those too. The same books (give or take), and many of the same faces, the same routines and the same rooms (more or less). Yet at the same time all is new. I don't mean just the new auditorium and coffee lounge and swish biscuits and cakes, but the newness of the Spirit who takes the same truths and applies them again, afresh, to our hearts.

The Banner does not quite seem to reach the heights it once did. Am I getting more used to it? Is it us? Is it the speakers? But the spiritual fare is edifying, the fellowship refreshing. Let us not lose what we have. Let us strive, too, perhaps to recover what we may have lost.