Friday, July 27, 2007

The Preaching of the Puritans

The English and American Puritans heavily emphasized preaching. They believed that preaching drives all of the other ministries and activities of the church and argued that preaching is primary because God's Word is primary. Puritan preaching was characterized by a number of qualities.

1. Godliness in the preacher. Above all else, preachers must know the God they proclaim. Puritan preachers knew the paths of sin as they ran in their own hearts and they sought to overcome it with the grace of the gospel of Christ. They understood the law-gospel contrast in justification and the gospel-law continuum in sanctification and the significance of that distinction to their own souls.

2. Sincere and personal. Puritan preaching was often characterized by an intense and sincere personalism. It was direct, conversational, naturally impassioned, and sincere. The preacher did not put on a preaching brogue, eliminated rhetorical flourish, spoke in plain vernacular English, and sought to communicate as a whole person. Puritan preachers wanted to preach the whole gospel to whole men, addressing the minds, hearts, and wills of their hearers.

3. Aims for the conscience. Puritan preachers were not lecturers. They moved easily from doctrine to experience, seeking to engage both the head and the heart, to expose sinful habits and patterns of thought and to exhort with the gospel of free grace.

4. Teases Christ out of every text. The Puritans were intensely Christ-centered. That is, they preached the whole counsel of God in every sermon, and did not rip any pericope from its whole Bible context. Every sermon at some level included the grand themes of divine sovereignty, creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

5. Aims at replacing counseling. Puritan preachers wanted to teach men to pastor their own souls, to learn how to apply the gospel to their own hearts and to deal with whatever sin or situation might present itself. They believed that if they faithfully expounded the whole counsel of God and really aimed at the lives of those in the congregation, then the need for extra counseling would largely subside.

6. Considers all sorts in the congregation. They were always aware that a great diversity of people sat under their preaching, which is why they addressed unbelievers, doubters, atheists, the downcast, the sluggish, the proud, and maturing believers in their preaching applications. They sought never to ignore any category of hearer.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

True or False: People can make the Bible say whatever they want.

I remember having a discussion with someone and presenting that person with biblical evidence for a biblical doctrine. The person’s objection to my argument was, “You can’t use the Bible to prove your point of view because people can make the Bible say whatever they want it to say.” Now, at the time, I didn’t actually say all of this, but here is what I might have said.

1. So, what you really mean is the opposite of what you just said. “NO ONE can make the Bible say anything other than what it says." Why do I say that? Because the presupposition underlying the notion that a person can make the Bible say whatever he wants it to say is that language can be legitimately interpreted in any way the interpreter (reader/hearer) wants to interpret it – i.e., that language does not have a definite meaning. If that is a true presupposition, then I should be allowed to interpret the objector’s words in a manner that directly contradicts what the objector intended by his words. I should be able to say, "NO ONE can make the Bible say anything other than what it actually says," and the objector should have no objection. But, of course the person making the objection would have an objection to my contradicting his statement and therefore the objector doesn’t really believe that language can be legitimately interpreted however the interpreter wishes. Therefore, the objection itself is self-contradictory and self-refuting.

2. Don't you believe the Bible is clear? The Bible declares that it is clear. Scripture makes wise the simple minded (Psa 119:130). Not everything in the Bible is equally clear to the “ignorant and unstable” (2 Pet 3:16), but careful and faithful study of the Scripture yields the mind of God (2 Cor 1:13; 2 Tim 2:15).

3. Either you don’t believe that the Bible is God’s Word or you don’t believe that God is good. If the Bible is basically unclear, then it must not be God’s Word, since our good God would never speak in a confusing or unclear way to his children. Or, if the Bible is unclear, and if the Bible is God’s Word, then God himself must not be good, since he speaks in such a way as to confuse his very own children, causing strife and division among them about what he himself has declared to be true. Only a cruel God would speak confusing words (or choose an inadequate vehicle to communicate himself) and then hold people accountable to believe and obey what is impossible to understand.

4. Are you willing to study the Bible for yourself? It is possible that our objector notices that apparently sincere and studious Christians disagree on some important matters of doctrine and that this objector is unwilling to roll up his sleeves and study the Scriptures for himself to see what it says. Some people have remarkable trust in the notion that Bible students who disagree on various important doctrines have all actually studied equally and faithfully. But that would be a mistake. Even Bible scholars sometimes believe what they want the Bible to say rather than what the Bible actually says.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Covenant of Works

Over at the Thomas Goodwin blog, Mark has an entry arguing that the covenant of works is essential to confessional Reformed orthodoxy and to a fully orbed covenant theology. I couldn't agree more. There are several reasons that the covenant of works is important.

1. It clarifies that the most basic relationship between God and his created image bearers is one of works and strict justice. Perfect holiness was legally necessary for Adam to continue in fellowship with God and for Adam to receive the future blessing of eschatological life. Without the requirement of perfect holiness for life, it would not be clear why Adam's sin (de)merited divine judgment and death. The fact that God delights only in perfect holiness and abhors any and all impurity upholds divine justice and is the basis of the gospel.

2. Without the covenant of works in its classical formulation, both Christ's negative and positive obedience in the covenant of redemption become unnecessary. If the strict justice of the covenant of works didn't require Adam to be perfectly holy for eschatological life and make the death penalty legally necessary for sin, then Christ would not have had to fulfill all righteousness or die on the cross to redeem his people. The redemptive work of Christ would not be a legal/judicial necessity at all, but something like a Grotian governmental/rectoral expedient designed to show that God takes sin seriously.

3. Without the work-for-life/sin-for-death principle in the covenant of works, all imputation is unnecessary for our justification. If Adam's single sin didn't necessarily demerit his condemnation, then there is no need for our sins to be literally imputed to Christ on the cross for our justification. And, if Adam didn't have to work for life in the covenant of works, then why should Christ's righteous works in the covenant of redemption have to be imputed to us for our eschatological life in justification? Put differently, if death isn't the legally necessary penalty for sin and if life isn't the legally necessary reward for perfect obedience, then we don't actually need any of Christ's substitutionary work to be justified. God may justly choose to forgive our sins and declare us righteous, to justify us, without a substitute at all.

The covenant of works, legal substitution in the covenant of redemption, and justification on the ground of Christ's righteousness alone by faith alone all stand or fall together.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Suffering is a Gift

Many folks in our churches who consider suffering in the life of a Christian to be God's punishment of sin. Then, there are some who think of all suffering as a form of divine discipline by which God chastises Christians for specific sins in their lives. I've also heard it said that suffering is just part of the order/structure/system of the universe so that it has no specific meaning: bad things just happen. So, how should we think about suffering as Christians?

1. Suffering cannot be punishment because Christians cannot be punished. This is true if we define "punishment" in terms of penal justice. Christ was punished in the place of Christians and fully satisified divine justice. "Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died" (Rom 8:33-34). There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). Christ has become a curse for us (Gal 3:13). Suffering cannot be punishment in the life of the believer.

2. Suffering isn't necessarily "discipline." Now, if we define "discipline" in the broadest terms, then everything that happens to a believer is discipline. Everything works for our good and serves to rid us of sin and make us more like Christ in the end. However, if we define discipline as chastisement for specific sins, then there is no reason to conclude that all suffering is discipline. Job is a great example of this principle. His sufferings were not a disciplinary response to specific sins. Certainly, sometimes specific sins have specific consequences, and that is discipline, but so much of suffering is not the direct result of a Christian's particular sins.

3. Suffering isn't just a part of the mechanics of the universe. God said, "Who has made a man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord" (Exod 4:11)? He says, "I kill and I make alive; wound and I heal" (Deut 32:30). Scripture says, "The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts" (1 Sam 2:7). "If a disaster occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it" (Amos 3:6)? God brings about suffering for his own good purposes. While suffering is the result of specific sin and sin in general, suffering itself is always good, because it punishes evil in unbelievers, disciplines sin in believers, and/or allows believers to trust in the midst of hardship, making them more like Christ.

So, what is suffering in the life of the Christian? It is a gift. Philippians 1:29 says, "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake." From the perspective of the Christian, suffering is a blessing. It is divine grace, which is intended for our good. "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Rom 8:28).

Now, in saying this, I'm not suggesting that we go into the hospital rooms of suffering Christians with party hats on rejoicing in their suffering, thanking God for the blessing of suffering. While suffering is good, it is the result of sin at some level, and it is painful. Suffering in the life of the believer is God's tough love, and while God brings it into the lives of believers for thier own good, he does not delight in their suffering for its own sake (Lam 3:31-33). I admit that I haven't suffered in the way that many people have suffered. But, I have known people who have suffered very severely. The only hope and encouragement I know to give Christians who suffer is to remind them that Christ is no stranger to suffering. He understands the pain of terrible suffering. And, in bringing suffering into the lives of Christians, he is giving his people the opportunity to walk in the way of the cross, to be like their Savior, to be a present display of Christ's sufferings, and to trust the Lord in the midst of it all for his glory. God nevers asks his people to suffer beyond what he has suffered himself in the person of Jesus Christ. And, Christ suffered so that ultimately, we won't have to suffer what we really deserve, and he suffered so that one day all suffering will be eradicated. In heaven, there will be no more pain and no more sorrow. It will be a world of infinite delight. Maranatha!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Problems with Paedobaptism

Many in the church today think of baptism as relatively unimportant or as a tertiary matter of conviction. Others understand baptism's importance but urge that we respect all of the historic traditions regarding baptism because Christians have been unable to reach any unified consensus on this question. Let me say that I love and respect many paedobaptists and that some of my greatest heroes of the faith have been paedobaptists. They are beloved brothers in the faith. But, I believe baptism is important and that the Bible is clear about how we should practice it. Here are some of the problems with paedobaptism.

1. The practice is never mentioned in the Bible. Paeodobaptism is neither commanded nor exampled in either the Old or the New Testaments. Some might respond to this by saying, "Of course it doesn't exist as an explicit command. Paedobaptism was an obvious implication to first century Christians." But, if that's the case, then the Acts 15 Jerusalem council would have been the perfect opportunity for the Apostles to explain the implication to those who evidently didn't get it. They could have ended the conflict over circumcision by saying, "Don't be so upset that circumcision is no longer necessary. Circumcision is changed to baptism! And, with baptism you may include your girl babies too!" The fact is that the exclusion of children from the covenant by the removal of the requirement of circumcision was very controversial, which is exactly what we would expect.

Some argue that the household baptisms in Acts are proof of infant baptism. But that's an argument of silence. The Bible never says there were infants in those households. In fact, the evidence seems to support credobaptism. Acts 16:31-33 says, "And they said, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household.' And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household." Paul required faith from the jailer and his household (v. 31), and he preached to the whole household (v. 32). Only then, after requiring faith of the whole household and teaching the whole household, was the whole household baptized.

2. The Bible only explicitly requires the baptism of disciples. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt 28:19). By "make disciples" did Christ actually mean "procreate," or did he mean "go and make conscious followers of Me?" According to Scripture, if a person cannot "bear his own cross," and "come after" Christ, he "cannot be a disciple" (Luke 14:27). Jesus says, "Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33). And, "if you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine" (John 8:31). And, "You are My disciples if you have love for one another" (John 13:22). And, "By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples" (John 15:8). Can a child do these things? Do all the children of believers believe? Many paedobaptists see these things and realize that according to Scripture, the only people who really have a right to baptism are genuine believers. This leads to the next problem with paedobaptism.

3. Paedobaptism tends to baptismal regeneration. Or, at least it tends to the view that says the infants of believers are automatically regenerate. As soon as a paedobaptist actually crosses this line, he's very quickly moving away from the biblical gospel. Faith is often re-defined in moral terms such that it has no necessary intellectual content and does not consciously grasp Christ. Being a Christian is reduced to being a church member, no matter whether one consciously trusts in him personally. Because so many who are baptized as infants fall finally away from the faith, paedobaptists who believe in baptismal regeneration typically affirm that infants can be genuinely saved, united to Christ, and justified with a right and title to heaven, but then fall finally away from Christ and go to hell, thus denying the perseverance of the saints.

4. Paeobaptism tends toward the conflation of church and state. Some paedobaptists tend toward the view that sees Christianity as a religion of family, generation, and history, from below, rather than a religion of doctrine, faith, and personal conversion, from above. Paedobaptism is a religion of generational roots rather than of personal ideals, beliefs, and affections. You're a Christian if you're born into the family, no matter what you believe and no matter whether you delight in the God of Scripture for yourself. Thus, paedobaptism fits nicely with all theonomic visions of the union of church and state. As long as you're a good citizen, in good standing with the church-state or state-church, attending public worship, practicing the right forms of religion, obeying the laws externally, you're a Christian and have no reason to doubt your salvation. It is a "form religion" more than a "heart religion."

5. Paedobaptism is not supported by history. Paedobaptism was not standardized among Christian churches until the early 400's when Augustine defended the practice and normalized it. Prior to that, the majority practice was to delay baptism. A firm assurance of personal faith and final salvation was seen as the prerequisite of baptism, which is why many (wrongly) waited until they were on their deathbeds to receive the ordinance. The earliest clear didactic reference to baptism is found in the didache, and the reference affirms credobaptism, not paedobaptism.

6. Paedobaptism tends to undermine evangelism. Rather than encouraging children to come to Christ and to embrace him personally for salvation, some paedobaptists teach their children that they are already Christians and they already belong savingly to God and that God belongs to them. Paedobaptist parents sometimes give their children an identity of faith, teaching them that they already believe and encouraging them to continue in the faith to which they already belong. But, "continuing in the faith" sadly often only means "not doing anything that warrants church discipline." The consciences of these little ones are never pressed, and they are never warned that their souls may this very moment be in danger of judgment, if they do not believe personally in Christ for salvation. Such an orientation toward the faith can produce a cold, Pharisaical externalism in which these people "honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me."

7. Paedobaptism undermines "sola Scriptura." The formal cause of the Reformation was that "Scripture alone" determines our faith and practice. In the formal corporate worship service, this means that neither the pastor nor the church can require the congregation to participate in any form or element of worship not prescribed by Scripture. The ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper are defined and prescribed by Scripture, and they are vital parts of the corporate worship service, but the Bible never even hints that infants should receive the sign of baptism. Therefore, paedobaptists are not operating on a consistent "sola Scriptura" theology because they do what the Bible never requires them to do: they baptize their infants.

8. Paedobaptism fails to come to grips with biblical covenant theology. In the OT covenants, God was dealing with the geopolitical, theocratic, ethnic nation of Israel, but in the new covenant, believers are the children of Abraham (Gal 3:7), the Israel of God (Gal 6:16), the true circumcision (Phil 3:3), the royal priesthood (1 Pet 2:9), the holy nation (1 Pet 2:9), and the chosen people of God (Eph 1-2). In the new covenant, circumcision is a matter of the heart, rather than the flesh (Rom 2:28-29). The new covenant promises to forgive the sins of all its members (Heb 8:12), to write the law on all of their hearts (Heb 8:10), and to make them all know God, from the least of them to the greatest (Heb 8:11). And, according to Hebrews 8:9, unlike the old covenant, the new covenant is an unbreakable covenant. Just as circumcision was a sign of the old covenant, baptism is an ordinance of the new covenant, but since the new covenant is a believers only covenant, only believers have a right to the sign.

9. Paedobaptism tends to be internally inconsistent. Many paedobaptists apply the covenant sign of baptism to their children but deny the covenant sign of the Lord's supper to their children, until they actually profess personal faith in Christ. If their children are truly in the covenant, then why deny them the Lord's table? Surely all those who could ingest food in the old covenant, children and adults alike, took the passover meal. Paedobaptists exclude unbelieving adult spouses from the covenant, but in the old covenant, every household, including both husbands and wives, was in the covenant. Paedobaptists exclude their unbelieving household gardeners from the waters of baptism. But, in the old covenant, every male among you was to be circumcised, and that included servants. Paedobaptists require a profession of faith prior to baptism among adults, but no such profession was required in the old covenant. In the old covenant, the Israelites were known to circumcise an entire household/tribe by force. Paedobaptists require a profession of faith from parents before baptizing their children. But, that requirement is not revealed in either the old or the new testaments. Paedobaptists often refuse to baptize the children of baptized church members, if those baptized church members themselves have not professed faith in Christ. There is no revealed reason to do this.

10. Paedobaptism pretends "mode" is a legitimate category distinction. From a credobaptist perspective, mode isn't an issue at all. Biblical baptism means "immersion in water." Surely there are no "modes" of circumcision! Why should there be modes of baptism?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Hermeneutics: Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology?

Last night, I was talking to a good friend of mine in the PhD program here at SBTS. We are both studying church history, both with an emphasis on Baptists. However, he is a Dispensationalist, and I am a Covenantalist. We spent a good while talking about the differences between our respective systems. I was interested to note that he didn’t really have a problem with the eternal covenant of redemption or the covenant of works. He identifies himself as a “federalist,” which means that he believes that everyone since the fall is either “in Adam” or “in Christ.” There is a lot of common ground between us in these areas.

Main Differences
The central difference between us has to do with how we interpret the Old Testament. He believes that the Old Testament was given only to ethnic Israel and that its commands and promises are not binding on NT believers in Christ. His hermeneutic is: “If an OT command or promise is not repeated in the NT, then it is abrogated."

By way of contrast, my hermeneutic is: “If an OT command or promise is not repealed by the NT, then it continues, though it is brought to redemptive historical maturity in Christ.” Another way of stating this principle is to say that the commands and promises of the OT are all abrogated in their specific “before Christ” form, but the principles of the law and the gospel that stand behind them all continue into the NT.

Arguments for Each
My friend argues for his hermeneutic of the OT by saying that the commands and promises to Israel were given only to ethnic Israel in the OT. Thus, he obtains his hermeneutic of the OT from his reading of the OT.

I argue for my hermeneutic by pointing out how the NT authors interpret OT passages. They cite the OT as authoritative in the life of NT believers, but they interpret the OT and apply it in light of the fact that Christ has already come. Thus, I obtain my hermeneutic of the OT from the NT's own hermeneutic of the OT.

Counter-Argument and Reply
He responds to my argument by saying that the authors of the NT had divine authority to interpret the OT the way that they did, while we do not.

However, there are at least two problems with that response. First, it implies that the NT authors had divine authority to mishandle the OT, since he would say it is wrong for us to handle OT texts the way the NT authors handled them. Why would God so consistently authorize sloppy hermeneutics at the hands of the NT authors? Does God have a right to mishandle Scripture?

Second, the NT explicitly teaches that the commands and promises of the OT are for us. Romans 15:4 says “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Thus, the OT “instructs,” or commands, NT believers and gives us “hope” through its promises. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Thus, without the OT instructions, the NT believer would not be equipped for “every good work.” We need the OT to teach us how to live as NT Christians.