J.I. Packer, 1926-2020

J.I. Packer, an English-Canadian evangelical theologian, died today. His clarity of writing was unsurpassed. Knowing God is perhaps his best-known work and was required reading for one of my theology classes. My copy, now over 40 years old is pictured here.

As I said, it was required reading for a class, but because there weren’t any specified reading assignments, many of us blew it off during the spring semester, hoping that the prof wouldn’t remember it. Alas, at the end of the term, he reminded us of the requirement, and many of us (including me) had to sign pledge cards that we would complete the reading over the summer. This I did, and it became one of the enduring titles I’ve read in my lifetime. It’s a Top 5 book of all time for me.

Two chapters in particular left a lasting impression on me. “The Heart of the Gospel” crystalized my understanding of the biblical concept of propitiation and its necessity to having a correct understanding of the atoning work of Christ.

“God’s Wisdom and Ours” highlighted for me the role of suffering in the life of a believer and how the wisdom of God is not necessarily understanding the why of a given trial, but trusting in God’s sovereign plan for our lives.

And speaking of the sovereignty of God, his Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is indispensible for answering objections to the doctrines of sovereign grace.

His voice will be missed, but hopefully never silenced in the Church.

Sovereignty on the back end needs sovereignty on the front end

What follows is part of an ongoing series of articles that discuss places in Scripture where the sovereign plan and working of God are clearly seen to intersect with time.  Rather than trying to fit these descriptions into a pre-determined theological understanding, I aim to let these revealed descriptions stand for themselves. See other posts in this series here and here.

A number of us were conversing, and someone noted that God had worked some good things in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, if it also wasn’t true that God had worked to bring the pandemic. As usual, they rolled their eyes and sighed at my theological intrusion. “The same God who has worked good from the pandemic is the same God who could have prevented it, but didn’t,” said I.

We often look at various disasters as bad things, and something about our mindset will not allow us to attribute those to the divine Hand of Providence. We recoil at saying that God brings disaster. But the Bible does not. Amos 3:6 says, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” Such directness is hard for us, who may want to soften the blow by affirming that God may “allow” such disaster but not actively cause it.

We tend to speak in terms of God doing good things, and allowing bad things, all the while retaining for ourselves the right to define what’s good and what’s bad. We even take a promise such as Romans 8:28 (“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”) to mean something like, “here’s this bad thing, and God turns it into good.” Kind of a lemons-lemonade dynamic.

Again, this is not the biblical perspective. One of the greatest examples of a biblical understanding is found in the life of Joseph, whom his brothers planned to murder, sold into slavery instead, and then years later were rescued from starvation by this very brother. In the end, they worried that Joseph, now Pharaoh’s #2 in Egypt, would exact vengeance on them for past wrongs. Instead Joseph said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Not, “you meant evil, God turned it to good.” But, “you meant evil, God meant good.” Equal agency. In fact, I would say that God was the primary agent. The God who orchestrated Joseph’s rise to power in order to save people from famine could have ordained that there was no famine to be saved from.

All this to say that God is sovereign over and ordains all that comes to pass (Ephesians 1:11). The greatest sin ever perpetrated in human history was the crucifixion of Jesus, “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” yet the Bible is clear that he was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). It would be completely unbiblical to say that God only “allowed” the crucifixion of Jesus, and then turned it into something good.

We love the promises and provision of God in the midst of trials, but the sovereign care that comes in trial has been there all along, even over the occurance of the trial. If God is to work all things for good for his people, it is necessary that he be sovereign over all things. Sovereignty on the back end requires sovereignty on the front end.* May we affirm this; may we trust this.

*This is an expression that I’m pretty sure I heard from John Piper. I cannot locate the source.

John MacArthur on COVID-19, church closures, NT Wright, God’s sovereignty in pestilence

There is a fair amount of posturing and hysteria online these days. As usual, pastor John MacArthur has a biblical, measured response (originally posted 4/23/20) on the issues facing the Church and Christians in these days. Fair warning – there is a small tipping of his pre-Tribulational views. If you don’t buy into that, don’t let that keep you from this excellent analysis. The first 15 minutes or so covers the questions surrounding the closing of churches on the recommendation/mandate of the State. Theological and pastoral.

Thinking Biblically About the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Interview with John MacArthur

Embrace mystery: thoughts on Ephesians 1:3-14

The following is a portion of a chapter I have written on Ephesians 1:3-14. It is a part of a book I am writing: Framework: Passages That Teach Theology (working title).

There is mystery in these verses; embrace it! Whenever I discuss the issue of the sovereignty of God with other believers, invariably objections are raised. If God has predestined us for salvation, then what about free will? Why should we share the gospel? Why should I even pray? These are all good questions, but I urge you to pump the brakes a little on those questions and simply meditate on the truths that are plainly stated. “The words speak of a mystery, but words could not be plainer.”

All too often, believers look at a passage like this and immediately go in to denial-mode. “Since I know this is true, then that can’t mean…” And what ends up happening in our thoughts is that the truths about God we see plainly stated are mitigated and softened. And before you know it, we’ve created a mental picture of God that we can be comfortable with but is a distortion of what the Bible reveals.

The closer we come to truths about God, the more mystery there is. We will not be able to “figure it out.” If you can’t reconcile God’s sovereignty with mankind’s being held responsible for their sins, then you’re in a good place! Don’t try to reconcile two irreconcilable truths. Embrace the mystery.

Five Intelligible Words to Instruct

I was reading in 1 Corinthians 14 the other day, and I came to Paul’s words comparing and contrasting speaking in tongues vis a vis speaking in prophecy, one being unintelligible and the other being understandable and therefore edifying to the church. In verse 19, he says, “Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand in a tongue.”

Now, I know that Paul is speaking in hyperbole in order to make the point of his preference for prophecy, but my literal mind questioned, “What could you possibly say in 5 words that could instruct?” And my mind answered, “Challenge accepted!”

So, I began to list some 5-word sentences/phrases that are rich in doctrinal truth and teaching, some directly from Scripture and others inferred from the Bible. Any of these would make for some great self-talk or preaching-the-gospel-to-yourself talk.

May these 5 words spur you on to deeper thinking and talk.

In the beginning God created. (Gen. 1:1)

The Lord is my shepherd. (Ps. 23:1)

God sovereignly saves believing sinners. (Eph. 2:1-10)

In all ways acknowledge him. (Prov. 3:6)

All things work for good. (Rom. 8:28) This cannot stand alone, without the surrounding context to show for whom all things work for good – namely, “those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Without those qualifiers, this would be sentimentalism.

I am crucified with Christ. (Gal. 2:20)

God so loved the world. (John 3:16)

There is now no condemnation. (Rom. 8:1)

We have peace with God. (Rom.5:1)

He chose us in Christ. (Eph. 1:4)

He predestined us for adoption. (Eph. 1:5)

Put off your old self. (Eph. 4:22)

We groan as we wait. (Rom. 8:23)

Maybe 5 words is all you need. For all the volumes of books and blogs, 5 words can say much.

What are some truths you can express in only 5 words?

Thoughts on the Sovereign Sender

What follows is part of an ongoing series of articles that discuss places in Scripture where the sovereign plan and working of God are clearly seen to intersect with time.  Rather than trying to fit these descriptions into a pre-determined theological understanding, I aim to let these revealed descriptions stand for themselves. See other articles in this series here.

When we discuss the sovereignty of God in salvation, an objection is usually quickly raised. “If God has determined who will be saved, why should we bother to evangelize and preach the gospel, if it’s going to happen anyway?” Such a question, while understandable, exhibits a deficient knowledge of both the Bible’s teaching and the doctrine of sovereignty itself.

As the 1689 London Baptist Confession states, “As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so He hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto.” (Chapter 3, “Of God’s Decree,” paragraph 6, emphasis added) God has ordained that he will save the elect by the preaching of the gospel, and not apart from it. We read in Romans 10: 14-15a, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?”

Paul final question in that series takes the sovereign work of God back to the very sending of the messenger. We don’t often ponder this, that the Sovereign Lord is working not only in the calling and saving of the elect, but also in the sending of those through whom the gospel is proclaimed.

When Jesus saw the crowds that his preaching and healing were drawing, he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37) I’ve often found this fascinating. Why didn’t Jesus just say that the workers are few, so GO! Why did he instruct them to pray for the Lord of the harvest to SEND workers? As I considered this recently, it became clear to me that the emphasis here is that God is the Sovereign Lord of the harvest, and this includes not only the reaping of elect souls but also the very sending of the messengers.

Paul echoes these thoughts in 1 Corinthians 3:5: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” The Sovereign Lord has not only chosen his elect but also assigned those through whom the Word is preached.

This is an amazing truth and so necessary for our thinking. It is only in this way – that God is sovereign over every step in the chain of redemption – that we can maintain the glory going to Christ. If we only understand the ends being foreordained but not the means, then we rob God of his glory. And God will not share his glory with another. (Isaiah 42:8)

So ponder these truths. Praise the Sovereign Sender, who in his grace appointed the preachers, the parents, the Sunday School teachers, the youth pastors, the friends who would boldly proclaim the gospel to you and reap the harvest.

Question: Who in your life was instrumental in bringing the gospel to you? Have you thanked them? Have you thanked God for them?

A set of good books

After many years of wanting this set, I was finally able to pull together used hardcovers from Amazon. I can’t tell you how much of an influence Francis A. Schaeffer was/is to me. Perusing these texts affirms their relevance even today. So much of his vocabulary has entered my own. “the God who is there,” “infinite-personal God,” “the mannishness of man,” “upper-story,” “space-time Fall,” “abnormal world.” So many others. The first piece I read of his long ago was the little booklet, “Two Contents, Two Realities.” This awakened in me a love for philosophical thinking that hasn’t quit. A giant in the 2nd half of the 20th Century, most evangelical believers have little idea of the debt we owe to this saint.

Have you read Schaeffer? What are your favorite books? Which concepts influenced you?

Why are new Calvinists so…enthusiastic?

 

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Comic by Adam Ford. Used by permission

Calvinism has been on the ascendance in the last couple of decades of American Christianity. More and more young pastors are part of a group of “new Calvinists.” Reformed theology has taken hold of more and more evangelical seminaries as professors have taught the “doctrines of grace.” Almost 10 years ago, even Time Magazine took notice.

One of the anecdotal results of this has been the rise of the sometimes-tongue-in-cheek identification and designation of a “Cage Stage Calvinist.” This is supposedly the phenomenon of a believer who has come to grips for the first time with the ideas of human depravity, God’s sovereign choice, and Christ’s atoning work for his people. Enamored with these new-found discoveries, and arrayed in his favorite Depraved Wretch t-shirt, he proceeds to badger every poor believer he encounters to proselytize them into affirming these once-hidden, now-obvious truths. And since his understanding is not nuanced at all, he comes across like a sledgehammer. Older, wiser Calvinists roll their eyes and quietly wish they could assign him to a cage for a couple years until he settles down.depraved

There is something that happens during this learning process that excites the mind and causes one to want to share this knowledge with others. What is it?

I was Reformed before Reformed was cool, and I don’t recall any cage stage in my life. But I do remember the growth in knowledge as I studied the Scriptures in my journey toward the doctrines of grace.  Over the years I’ve come to realize in a meta-cognitive way what these truths have meant to my understanding. My theology was deepened in 3 significant ways.

God

 “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” (Psalm 115:3)

Perhaps most foundational to my thinking was the emphasis on God being God. I suppose to some degree I related to God as if he and I were in some sort of partnership in my life and salvation. Encountering God as sovereign lifted my understanding of him to heights previously unknown. “Let God be God” has become my mantra as I promote the doctrines of grace.

Myself

 “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Romans 3:10-11

When one realizes the radical nature of sin that has affected everyone, there’s no room for pride and ability – ever. Where my testimony might have once hinged on “my decision” to follow Jesus, it now glorifies the God who saved me not only when I couldn’t save myself but when I couldn’t even know I needed saving, and wouldn’t want it if I did.

Grace and Christ’s work on the cross

 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

I memorized that verse as a child, long before embracing the doctrines of grace. But “it is the gift of God” took on a much deeper meaning as I realized that I was incapable of generating my own faith apart from his definitive work for me as a chosen child of God. If there is to be any salvation for me, it must be because of his gracious gift.

Obviously, these are things to get excited about. And when one’s doctrine causes a deeper understanding and appreciation of these truths, it’s bound to result in some enthusiastic bubbling over. So, forgive the Cage Stage Calvinist; just hand him a Charles Spurgeon bobblehead and tell him to sit in the corner. He’ll calm down after a while.

Meritorious Self-Faith

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I was a believer in Jesus before I knew about the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereign hand in my salvation. That was something that, over time, I grew into. So it is helpful to me to remember that many who are not in step with me doctrinally are in fact, brothers and sisters in Christ, even though we don’t share similar theological persuasions, no matter how foundational those doctrinal truths have come to be in my thinking.

Specifically, I recognize that my Arminian/free-will friends affirm, like me, that salvation is by grace through faith, apart from works, and that there is nothing meritorious about our great salvation.

The difference between us, of course, is in our understanding of faith and the role of the will in believing in Christ. My understanding is that apart from Christ we are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), unable to respond to God with anything other than rebellion, and that before we can believe, we must be made alive (Eph. 2:4-5), and thus it can be said that the entire process, including our response of faith, is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8-10).

Now, an Arminian doesn’t cut this passage from his Bible; he just sees it differently. His understanding is that before Christ, we have the innate ability to believe in Jesus, to freely “choose” or reject Christ. Some men believe, some don’t, but this believing is a result of that individual making a free choice of his own accord, apart from any efficacious drawing by God.

This understanding of autonomous faith or choosing of God leads me to ask, if this is so, why do some believe and others don’t? And if the faith comes from the unfettered “free will” of the individual, how is it not considered meritorious?

While an Arminian evangelical would never consider the exercise of his free will in believing in Jesus as a meritorious act, it’s difficult to see it as anything but that when you consider it more deeply. [I owe a debt to author John Samson in his book, Twelve What Abouts: Answering Common Objections Concerning God’s Sovereignty in Election, for these thoughts.]

If self-generated faith, apart from God’s sovereign quickening activity on the heart of spiritually dead sinners, were possible, then the believer could claim some measure of superiority over non-believers, and this could lead to meritorious thinking.

  1. Meritorious intelligence – A believer could think himself to have more “intelligence (that we somehow worked out who Jesus was for ourselves)” (Samson, p.28).
  2. Meritorious humility – A believer would have more “humility (we having conquered our own pride, were able to humble ourselves to be able to respond in faith to the Gospel)” (Samson, p.28). In self-humility, the believer would, of his own free will, be able to give up all self-effort.
  3. Meritorious submission – Having once been hostile in mind toward God (Rom. 8:7), the believer would be able to turn that enmity by himself into surrender, which is impossible (vs.7-8).
  4. Meritorious love for God – If autonomous faith were possible, a person could, of his own ability, take what was despised and rejected and instead desire and treasure Christ as Savior.

So my question becomes, if divine regeneration is not a sovereign act of God leading to repentance and faith as a gift (2 Tim. 2:25; Eph. 2:8-10), how is autonomous free will not meritorious?

While my so-called “Free Will” brothers and sisters would never consider that they have earned their salvation in any way, I encourage them to think about how their doctrine might somehow subtly lead them into a measure of pride and merit (that they were smarter, more humble, more submissive, more loving than one who does not choose Jesus). I encourage them to think deeply about the implications of their doctrine, and to “watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim. 4:16 NIV).