Friday, August 30, 2013

Henry Scougal and The Life of God in the Soul of Man

My mom has often said that church cookbooks contain the best recipes because you can be sure that they've stood the test of time and use. They are tried and shown themselves true. I think the same principle applies to what we've been talking about here in this space over the course of the last month. We're highlighting dead guys, theologians and pastors whose words are tried and true. They've stood the test of time and examination.

In my earlier post in this series I told you I emailed a pastor blogger years ago to ask his recommendations on this very topic of reading works by dead theologians. Reading any sorts of theological works, by guys dead or alive, was something of a novel endeavor for me so I had no idea where to even begin. In true pastoral fashion, my friend sent me a list of six or seven titles, some small and seemingly innocuous, some large and rather intimidating. Two weeks ago I wrote about one of his recommendations to me, The Autobiography of George Mueller.

Included on his list was The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal. Scougal lived in the seventeenth century (1650-1678). He was a pastor and a professor who died at the young age of 28. Scougal wrote this particular work to a friend to explain true Christianity--the life of God in the soul of man as it were. Directed to a friend from a friend, it is a short and personal book.

The first part of the book examines the nature of genuine religion. From there Scougal discusses the "excellency and advantage of religion" meaning religion in its truest sense. The greatest advantage? knowing divine love. The last part of the book explores the difficulty and struggle which can accompany Christian discipleship and the importance of meditating on the truths of the gospel and the future grace that awaits.

Here are a few quotes to pique your interest. On the love of God...
The love of God is a delightful and affectionate sense of the divine perfections, which makes the soul resign and sacrifice itself wholly unto him, desiring above all things to please him, and delighting in nothing so much as in fellowship and communion with him, and being ready to do or suffer anything for his sake, or at his pleasure. Though this affection may have its first rise from the favors and mercies of God toward ourselves, yet doth it, in its growth and progress, transcend such particular considerations and ground itself on his infinite goodness, manifested in all the works fo creation and providence. 
On the satisfaction that is ours in Christ...
Behold on what sure foundation his happiness is built whose soul is possessed with divine love, whose will is transformed into the will of God, and whose greatest desire is, that his Maker should be pleased! Oh! the peace, the rest, the satisfaction that attendeth such a temper of mind!
And the secret to genuine humility...
[T]he deepest and most purest humility doth not so much arise from the consideration of our own faults and defects as from a clam and quiet contemplation of the Divine purity and goodness. Our spots never appear so clearly as when we place them before this Infinite Light...
I find Scougal's prayers to be particularly encouraging.
Fill our souls with such a deep sense, and full persuasion of those great truths which thou hast revealed in the Gospel, as may influence and regular our whole conversation, and that the life which we henceforth live in the flesh, we may live through faith in the Son of God. Oh! that the infinite perfections of thy blessed nature, and the astonishing expressions of thy goodness and love, may conquer and overpower our hearts, that they may be constantly rising toward thee in flames of devoutest affection, and enlarging themselves in sincere and cordial love toward all the world for thy sake, and that we may cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in thy fear, without which we can never hope to behold and enjoy thee. Finally, O God, grant that the consideration of what thou art, and what we ourselves are, may both humble and lay us low before thee, and also stir up in us the strongest and most ardent aspirations toward thee. 
George Whitefield (another dead theologian) reportedly claimed that he never knew what true religion was until he read Scougal's treatise. I wonder if you would agree? The Life of God in the Soul of Man is available in several places across the internet as a free download. I encourage you to read it, particularly if you are new to the whole reading-dead-guys deal. I think you'll be glad you did. And, please, be sure to let us know what you think!

This is last post in our dead guys series. I know we on the writing end enjoyed it and we hope you, our readers, did as well. We'd love to know what dead guys you would recommend. Did we highlight a book or author that was new to you? Have you read any of our recommendations? Comments and conversation are always welcome; we'd love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

John Owen on Regeneration

Sometimes the Christian life can be discouraging. We take baby steps. We sin. We repent. Rinse. Repeat. During these cycles, it's easy to wonder if anything has really changed deep down inside. You may not have had these thoughts run through your head, but I have.

Here are a few passages from John Owen on regeneration - what happened when we were born again. I hope they will encourage you as they have me. When the doubts come, there's nothing better than looking away from my present condition and being reminded of how God raised my spiritual corpse to life.

God began the work of salvation. He will finish it, and He gets all the glory.

Regeneration is the putting into the soul of a new, real, spiritual law of life, light, holiness and righteousness which leads to the destruction of all that hates God and fights against him.
Regeneration produces an inward miraculous change of heart. "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation." Regeneration is not produced by the outward signs of a moral change of heart and is quite distinct from them (Gal. 5:6; 6:15)
Regeneration is a creating act of almighty power. A new principle or law is created in us by the Holy Spirit (Ps. 51:10; Eph. 2:10). This new creation is not a new habit formed in us. but a new power and ability. So it is called "the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4). This new creation is a habitual new power and ability created in us by God and it bears his image (Eph. 4:22-24).
Regeneration renews our minds. Being renewed in the spirit of our minds means that our minds now have a new, saving supernatural light, to enable them to think and act spiritually (Eph. 4:23; Rom. 12:2). The believer is "renewed in knowledge according to the image of him who created him" (Col. 3:10).1
All this is the work of the Holy Spirit. He brings us who were dead in trespasses and sins to life. He gives us a new heart and puts a new spirit within us. He writes his laws in our hearts, so that we may know and do the will of God and so walk in his ways. He works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. He makes them who were unwilling and obstinate to become willing and obedient, and that by their freedom of will and choice.
In the same way, he implants in our heart a prevailing love for God, causing the soul to cling to him, and his ways with delight and satisfaction (Deut. 30:6; Col. 2:11).
By nature, the heart is depraved so that the mind and will desire to fulfill the lusts which are in it (Gal. 5:24; James 1:14,15), but the Holy Spirit circumcises the heart with its lusts and desires, and fills us with holy, spiritual love, joy, fear and delight. The Holy Spirit does not change the essence of our desires, but sanctifies them by his saving light and knowledge. By this he unites the desires to their proper object which is Christ.2
                                                                                                                                      
1. The Holy Spirit, John Owen, R.J.K. Law editor, Banner of Truth Trust, 2006, pp. 48-49.
2. Ibid. pg. 93.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Kingdom of God

I shared my affinity for Martyn Lloyd- Jones in my last post, by introducing you to his first work that I read, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure. As I wrote, Lloyd-Jones' sermons are as applicable today as they were 50 years ago. I found that to be true not only of Spiritual Depression, but also of The Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God is a series of 12 sermons that begins with Lloyd-Jones' exposition of Mark 1:14-15. The passage "is such a perfect summary of Christianity and what it stands for and of what the message of the Gospel really is." (p. 8) He goes on
...there is, perhaps, nothing that is so sadly needed in this modern world as just to get a simple, direct, unvarnished statement as to what the Gospel is about. Indeed, this is to me the standing and almost perpetual problem. How does it come to pass that, with open Bibles before them, men and women should be wrong not so much about certain details with respect to the Gospel, but about the whole thing, about the very essence of the Gospel? It is quite understandable that there should be certain points, certain facets of truth about which people are not clear and about which there may be division of opinion. This Gospel is many-sided, it has many aspects, so that is not surprising. But I do suggest that it is indeed very surprising that at the end of the twentieth century, men and women should still be all wrong about what the Gospel is; wrong about its foundation, wrong about its central message; wrong about its objective and wrong about the way in which one comes into relationship with it. And yet, that is the very position by which we are confronted at the present time. (p. 8)
It seems that not much has changed since 1963. Our postmodern society urges us to seek our own truth, one that is relevant and meaningful to us. Sadly this line of thought has infiltrated the church, as is evidenced by the abundance of churches that lack Biblical theology and lack a true understanding of the Gospel. Instead of boldly proclaiming truth, these churches encouraging members to find whatever truth works for them.

Lloyd-Jones battled this trend 50 years ago, firmly stating that preachers have a duty to point people to God's truth which He made known from the foundation of the world (see Heb. 1:1-2).  God has a plan and He has done the work to accomplish it.
...because He has already done it I need not waste a second in trying to discover truth. All I need to do is to pay attention to the truth that God has already revealed through the prophets, through the teachers of the Old Testament, through His Son, through the apostles of the New Testament. It is all here. I do not need anything fresh or new; all I need has already been given.  And, of course, that is why preaching is possible. If it were anything else it would not be preaching, it would be a sort of philosophical or semi-political ethical society... (p. 16)
Remind you of anyone?

Martyn Lloyd-Jones' passion for the truth of the Gospel shines through The Kingdom of God, as it does in his other works. If you're not familiar with his work, I encourage you to read one of his books. I bet you'll love his preaching as much as I do.

Friday, August 23, 2013

John Calvin: Faith and Hope, Inseparable Companions

John Calvin
We could call John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion a theological treatise—and it is—but the word "treatise" makes me think stodgy, boring, and lifeless. So, for that matter, do "institutes" and "religion."

But once you get past the old-fashioned language of the translations, the Institutes is nothing like that. Let me show you.

Faith, writes Calvin, is "a firm persuasion of the truth of God—a persuasion that it can never be false, never deceive, never be in vain." And hope? "[H]ope is nothing more than the expectation of those things which faith previously believes to have been truly promised by God."

"Thus," he continues,
Faith believes that God is true;
Hope expects that in due season he will manifest his truth. 
Faith believes that he is our Father;
Hope expects that he will always act the part of a Father towards us.  
Faith believes that eternal life has been given to us;
Hope expects that it will one day be revealed.  
Faith is the foundation on which hope rests;
Hope nourishes and sustains faith. 
The words are Calvin's; the formatting is mine. These sentences are found in the middle of one of his long, dense paragraphs. I think of this as a piece of hidden devotional poetry.

Can you see Calvin's heart? His love for God? His love for his fellow believers, too?

[Quoting from Book 3, Chapter 2, Section 42. You'll find the Institutes online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, or better yet, buy a real book.]

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Richard Baxter on educating children

The Puritans placed a high priority on education, especially religious instruction. Richard Baxter's instructions in The Godly Home offer direction for the motive behind educating children (Chapter Five) as well as specific, practical instructions (Chapter Twelve).

Baxter points out that the primary motive for instructing our children in religious matters is love. It is a natural expression of our love for our children that we care about their souls:
Consider how deeply nature itself engages you to the greatest care and diligence for the holy education of your children. They are, as it were, parts of yourselves and those whom nature teaches you to love and provide for and take more care for, next to yourselves; and will you be regardless of their chief concerns and the neglect of their souls? Will you in no other way show your love to them until they can go abroad and shift for themselves for bodily sustenance? You do not bring dogs or beasts into the world but children who have immortal souls.
With this in mind, Baxter highlights that parents, not outsiders, should be the children's first teachers. The relationship between parent and child, one of love, is benefit for instruction. We are not to leave it entirely to the church:
The proof is undeniable: God appoints parents to teach their children of His Holy word before they come to the public ministry. Thus, parents' teaching is the first teaching; and parents' teaching is for this end, as well as public teaching, even to cause faith, love, and holiness.
Baxter also provides numerous directions for the practical aspect of teaching. There were a few that stood out to me as being very helpful. Baxter encourages teaching to their level:
The most natural way of teaching children the meaning of God's Word, and the matter of their salvation, is by talking with them suited to their capacities. Begin this while they are on their mother's laps.
He warns about making family instruction dry and cumbersome:
Take heed that you do not turn all your family instructions into a customary, formal course by bare readings and repeating sermons from day to day without personal application... awaken their consciences to know that the matter concerns them, and to force them to make application of it for themselves. (emphasis mine)
This theme of teaching through talking and relationship is also evident in Baxter's encouragement to use questions:
Let the manner of your teaching be often interlocutory, or by way of questions... first, it keeps them awake and attentive when they know they must make some answer to your questions, which set speeches, with the dull and sluggish, will hardly do. Second, it helps them in the application, so that they may more easily take it to heart and see how it applies to them.
When we homeschooled, I used a lot of dialogue like that; not giving answers but asking questions until they saw where the answers were. It was really useful, and it gave them a sense of accomplishment, mastering little chunks at a time. This method of instruction reminds me a lot of Deuteronomy 6:1-3, with its model of instruction on a daily basis, in the ordinary of life.

I found his approach a very gentle one, as demonstrated with these two directions:
Do not tire them with too much at once; give it to them as they can receive it. Narrow-mouthed bottles must not be filled as wider vessels.
... entice them with kindness and rewards. Be kind to your children when they do well, for this makes your persons acceptable at first, and then your instructions will be much more acceptable.
What I found most significant in Baxter's approach was the reality that instruction, and the way we give it, is a function of our love for our children. It is kind of like the loving way our Heavenly Father instructs us, his grown children. He teaches us because He created us, and because He loves us. He gives to us what we can handle at the moment, and He wants us to think through what He teaches us. It's a beautiful picture, really.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Bavinck on Justification

One of the most challenging teaching assignments I've ever had was when Todd and I taught basics of the Christian faith to 3rd through 6th graders. We discussed who God is and how we can know him. We talked about sin and how it separates us from God. The material wasn't easy, but the questions from the kids were especially challenging.

My husband, who is far more insightful than I am, commented once that all the questions essentially boiled down to a couple of basic ideas. Is salvation really a gift? Isn't there something I need to do to add to it? The answer is the same: If our salvation depended on something we could do, we have no hope. It's the same question the apostle Paul dealt with, it was still being asked in Bavinck's time, and it's one we'll be grappling with until Jesus comes again.

Justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. Either we must do something to be saved, or our salvation is purely a gift of grace. If our work, our virtue, our sanctification is primary, then we remain in doubt and uncertainty to our last breath; Christ's unique, all-encompassing, and all sufficient mediatorial office is set aside and God is robbed of his honor. [1]

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

We cannot earn our salvation, but because of Christ, we can be assured of our salvation, right down to our dying breath.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Abridged in One Volume, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 563.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Autobiography of George Muller

When I first stumbled upon the wide world of blogs several years ago, I read several posts extolling the virtues of reading dead guys, much as we are doing here during the month of August. But where does one begin? I wondered. I posed that question to a blogging pastor and he responded with a list of recommendations including a few of the dead brothers already recommended here in this series.

I was then, and maybe even now, a little intimidated by dogmatics and institutes and treatises. Thus I began my foray into the realm of dead theologians with a less daunting selection, an autobiography recommended by my blogging pastor friend. The Autobiography Of George Muller is one man's account of his life of faith, its struggles, its losses, and its victories. 

George Muller was a German Christian who pastored in Bristol, England in the 1800's. His great passion was caring for the orphaned children of his country, a pervasive and nearly epidemic problem at the time. Through the course of his ministry he established homes for orphans and cared for thousands of children, doing so in full dependence on the Lord for the necessary funds. He never asked for donations nor did he take a salary. Over and over and over again he records the Lord's amazing and timely provision. His autobiography is a stirring testimony to God's faithful sufficiency!

His motivation for the establishment of the orphan homes extended beyond the practical; in meeting the orphans' needs wholly through the provision of the Lord, Muller sought to demonstrate the trustworthiness of God. He writes,

[B]y giving my brothers visible proof of the unchangeable faithfulness of the Lord, I might strengthen their faith. I want to be the servant of the Church in the particular point on which I had obtained mercy--in being able to take God at His Word and to rely on it. 
This seems to me best done by establishing an orphan house--something which could be seen by the natural eye. If I, a poor man, simply by prayer and faith obtained, without asking any individual, the finances for establishing and carrying on an orphan house, this might strengthen the faith of the children of God. It would also be a testimony to the unconverted of the reality of the things of God. 
This is the primary reason for establishing the orphan house. I certainly desire to be used by God to help the poor children and train them in the ways of God. But the primary object of the work is that God would be magnified because the orphans under my care will be provided with all they need through prayer and faith. Everyone will see that God is faithful and hears prayer.

And God was indeed faithful. I read one estimate that Muller collected close to $150 million in today's dollars. That I am writing this post proves his testimony endures.

In a passage personally encouraging to me, Muller emphasizes the priority of fellowship and intimacy with the Lord through His Word...

The primary business I must attend to every day is to fellowship with the Lord. The first concern is not how much I might serve the Lord, but how my inner man might be nourished. I may share the truth with the unconverted; I may try to encourage believers; I may relieve the distressed; or I may, in other ways, seek to behave as a child of God; yet, not being happy in the Lord and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, may result in this work being done in a wrong spirit. 
The most important thing I had to do was to read the Word of God and to meditate on it. Thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, and instructed...As the outward man is not fit for work for any length of time unless he eats, so it is with the inner man. What is the food for the inner man ? Not prayer, but the Word of God--not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe. No, we must consider what we read, ponder over it, and apply it to our hearts. 

His autobiography is not only an account of orphans and ministry, it is also a personal chronicle of the Lord's grace and His sometimes severe mercy. On June 25, 1834, Muller writes a one sentence entry, "Our little boy is so ill that I have no hope of his recovery." The next day's account relates the sobering news,

My prayer last evening was that God would support my dear wife under the trial. Two hours later, the little one went home to be with the Lord. I fully realize that the dear infant is much better off with the Lord Jesus than with us, and when I weep, I weep for joy.

The Autobiography Of George Muller is an accessible, encouraging, and profoundly Biblical introduction to reading the dead theologians. It is perhaps not the most theologically dense among our recommendations, yet this small book is encouraging and thought provoking just the same. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

John Owen on Holiness

I was introduced to the Puritans five years ago. As providence would have it, I stumbled upon a blogger who was hosting the 2008 Puritan Reading Challenge - one Puritan Paperback per month. I was spiritually malnourished after a long absence from the local church. I was also in the middle of the worst trial of my life to date, so I was looking for help and encouragement wherever I could find it. Little did I know what was in store for me.

I had never read anything like this before. To the Puritans, the Word of God was a mine filled with priceless treasures, and they dug deep, far deeper than anything I had previously encountered. They didn't pull punches when it came to sin, but their view of sin was a result of a high view of God and His holiness that we seem to have lost today. But far from being cold and academic, they had a deep love for God and His grace. The Puritans rocked my theological world with their understanding of the greatness of God and their practical application of doctrine. A few authors stood out to me, and one of them was John Owen.

Owen (1616-1683) is considered by some to be "a genius with a learning second only to Calvin." He was dean of Christchurch at Oxford and preached before Parliament under Cromwell's rule. He wrote numerous books on subjects such as the perseverance of the saints, the mortification of sin, communion with the Trinity, temptation, the Holy Spirit, and the authority of Scripture. Unfortunately, Owen has the reputation of being a tad difficult to read. J.I. Packer describes his writing as having a "lumbering literary gait" and "a certain clumsy dignity." While there may be stout-hearted souls who are brave enough to tackle the original, I am thankful for the Puritan Paperback versions published by Banner of Truth Trust. They have printed abridged and easier-to-read versions of nine of his major works, which are much more accessible for the rest of us.

Here is an excerpt from The Holy Spirit, which is a treatise on the person and work of the Holy Spirit as seen in the Old and New Testaments, in regeneration, sanctification, and the believer's pursuit of holiness. The original Pneumatologia, is a hefty 650 pages, which is another reason why I am reading the abridged version. I hope Owen's thoughts on holiness will whet your appetite to read more.

What, then, is holiness? Holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing and living out the gospel in our souls (Eph. 4:24)...
The work of holiness in us is wonderful. It is a supernatural work and is known only by supernatural revelation. We must not be deceived by a false holiness. Holiness is not just a reformed life.
Holiness is not only for this life, but goes on with us into eternity and glory. Death has no power to destroy holiness. The activities of holiness are indeed momentary and transient, but their fruits last for ever in their reward (Rev. 14:14, Heb. 6:10). Holiness lasts for ever and enters into glory with us (1 Cor. 13:8).
Holiness reveals something of the spiritual and heavenly glory in this world (2 Cor. 3:18). The true believer is 'all glorious within' (Ps. 45:13). Holiness, then, is the glorious work of the Holy Spirit...
And what should be our response to the promise that God will make us holy? Firstly, we must remember our utter inability to obey the command to be holy. Then we must see that our sufficiency is in God.
Secondly, we must adore that grace which has promised to do in us what we are unable to do in ourselves.
Thirdly, we must pray in faith, believing God's promise to make us holy, and look to him to supply us with all grace necessary to walk in holiness.
Fourthly, we should pray specially for that grace to keep us holy in times of temptation and when called to carry out special and difficult duties.
Finally, we must never forget that it is the Holy Spirit who sanctifies all believers, and who produces all holiness in them. (Ps. 51:1-12; Ezek. 11:19; 36:25-27; Rom. 8:8-14; 1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Pet. 1:2, Isa. 4:4; 44:3-4, Titus 3:4-5).
The Holy Spirit by John Owen, R.J.K. Law, editor, Banner of Truth Trust, 2006, pp.100-101, 103-104.

For more information:

Why Read the Puritans Today? by Don Kistler
Biographical excerpt from Meet the Puritans by Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson 
Biographical talk by John Piper
Resources and articles at Monergism.com
John Owen web site with facts, quotes, and more

Monday, August 12, 2013

Martyn Lloyd-Jones: Spiritual Depression

As is true of many different authors I've read, my co-contributor Lisa introduced me to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Several years ago she recommended Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, for which I am forever grateful. My husband had lost his job and returned to college full-time when I first opened the pages of  the book, a compilation of 21 sermons that were the nourishment my ailing soul needed.

At the time I'd never heard of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a Welsh Protestant minister who died in 1981 at the age of 81. He was a physician, having worked in the medical field for 6 years before surrendering to the call to ministry in 1927. In 1939, he began ministry with Westminster Chapel in London, where he remained until his retirement in 1968. Afterwards he devoted his time to editing his sermons, which have been published in various volumes. His sermons are also available on audio through the Martyn Lloyd-Jones Trust.

It was through reading Spiritual Depression that I first came to realize how much Christians need the Gospel every day.
A great gospel like this takes up the whole man, and if the whole man is not taken up, think again as to where you stand. 'You have obeyed from the heart the form of doctrine delivered unto you.' What a gospel! What a glorious heart entirely and it can lead to wholehearted obedience in the realm of the will. That is the gospel. Christ has died that we might be complete men, not merely that parts of us may be saved; not that we might be lop-sided Christians, but that there may be a balanced finality about us. (p. 60)
During a time in my life when my family was at the beginning of a long, hard journey that required more faith than I could muster, Lloyd-Jones' pull-no-punches preaching exhorted me to continue.
...remind yourself that we have been given the gift of God's Holy Spirit, and to realize that because of this our whole outlook upon life and the future must therefore be essentially different. We must think of suffering in a new way, we must face everything in a new way. And the way in which we face it all is by reminding ourselves that the Holy Spirit is in us..In other words, we have to learn to say, that what matters is any of these positions is not what is true of us but what is true of Him...So do not think of your own weakness; think of the power of the Spirit of God. It is when we begin to do that that we balance our doctrine and see the whole position clearly. (pg. 100 - 101)
The Lord used words written before I was born to charge me to spend this season of my life for His glory
As we face the modern world with all its trouble and turmoil and with all its difficulties and sadness, nothing is more important than that we who call ourselves Christian, and who claim the name of Christ, should be representing our faith in such a way before others, as to give them the impression that here is the solution, and here the answer. In a world where everything has gone sadly astray, we should be standing out as men and women apart, people characterized by a fundamental joy and certainty in spite of conditions, in spite of adversity. (p. 23)
What I find most amazing about the work of Martyn Lloyd-Jones (and why I highly recommend reading him) is the timelessness of his words. His sermons are proof that man faces the same struggles today as 50 years ago, and that the same God still reigns.

Friday, August 9, 2013

John Calvin - Institutes of the Christian Religion

John Calvin
The church is not just us, the current generations of believers world-wide, but includes all the believers who lived and died before us. Christians of the past are our spiritual family, too; we come from them. In eternity we will live with them in the same way we live with our physical families now. Reading from dead theologians is one way to connect with this part of our family.

During this month we've set aside for reading the dead guys, I'm becoming acquainted with John Calvin by reading from the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin first published this work when he was in his twenties, but that edition wasn't quite like the big book we have now. It was much shorter—one piece I read called it "rudimentary"—and he revised and added content over the next twenty-four years, increasing the length from six chapters in the first edition to eighty in the final one. Calvin worked on his Institutes throughout most of his adult life—in an on and off way, I'm guessing, because he did so much other writing, too.

I've dipped into this book previously to read what Calvin wrote on this or that subject, but I've never read through it. My plan is to read from beginning to end—a long-term project—starting now.

The Institutes is a systematic theology arranged like the Apostles Creed. This creed, you remember, has four parts, starting with a statement on God the Father, and continuing with statements on the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the church. The four books included in the Institutes correspond, more or less, with these four creedal statements.

The first chapters concern the knowledge of God, and what I've read so far discusses how all people in every corner of the world know of God. "[T]here exists in the human minds," Calvin says, "some sense of Deity. . . ." God himself,
has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service. [Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 1]
That human beings are universally religious is a "tacit confession" that every heart is inscribed with the knowledge of God.
[E]ven idolatry is ample evidence of this fact. For we know how reluctant man is to lower himself, in order to set other creatures above him. Therefore, when he chooses to worship wood and stone rather than be thought to have no God, it is evident how very strong this impression of a Deity must be; since it is more difficult to obliterate it from the mind of man, than to break down the feelings of his nature,—these certainly being broken down, when, in opposition to his natural haughtiness, he spontaneously humbles himself before the meanest object as an act of reverence to God. [Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 1]
In addition to this heart-inscribed knowledge of God, the natural world around reveals some of God's attributes, like wisdom, for instance:
[N]one who have the use of their eyes can be ignorant of the divine skill manifested so conspicuously in the endless variety, yet distinct and well ordered array, of the heavenly host; and, therefore, it is plain that the Lord has furnished every man with abundant proofs of his wisdom. [Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 2]
The natural world teaches of God's power, too, and along with his power, all these:
From the power of God we are naturally led to consider his eternity since that from which all other things derive their origin must necessarily be self-existent and eternal. Moreover, if it be asked what cause induced him to create all things at first, and now inclines him to preserve them, we shall find that there could be no other cause than his own goodness. But if this is the only cause, nothing more should be required to draw forth our love towards him; every creature, as the Psalmist reminds us, participating in his mercy. “His tender mercies are over all his works”.  [Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 6]
It sounds like Romans 1, doesn't it?  Romans 1 also teaches us that all people suppress this universal knowledge of God and his attributes. Calvin writes of this too.
[N]o sooner do we, from a survey of the world, obtain some slight knowledge of Deity, than we pass by the true God, and set up in his stead the dream and phantom of our own brain, drawing away the praise of justice, wisdom, and goodness, from the fountain-head, and transferring it to some other quarter. [Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 6]
The Institutes of the Christian Religion is easier to read than I expected, considering it was written more than 450 years ago. If you've read anything by John Owen or Jonathan Edwards, you'd probably find Calvin's writings a walk in the park in comparison. You'll find the Institutes online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, or better yet (Who can read something so dense on a screen?) buy a real book.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Richard Baxter - A Puritan's Thoughts on Marriage Preparation

Who were the Puritans? This is a question entire books seek to answer, but the short version is that they were a group of English Protestants who wanted to return to a biblical faith, and opposed the Church of England. They later took on more political leanings, but originally, it was about returning to a evangelical faith.

Why do we care what these people of the past have to say? They live outside of our cultural context. How can they have anything relevant to say? J.I. Packer has a good answer.

In the book Worldly Saints, by Leland Ryken, Packer, who has written his own excellent volume about the Puritans, (A Quest for Godliness) introduces the book, saying why we need the Puritans:
The answer, in one word, is maturity. Maturity is a compound of wisdom, goodwill, resilience, and creativity. The Puritans exemplified maturity; we don't. A much-traveled leader, a Native American (be it said), has declared that he finds North American Protestantism -  man centered, manipulative, success-oriented, self-indulgent, and sentimental as it blatantly is - to be three thousand miles wide and half an inch deep. We are spiritual dwarfs. The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants. They were great souls serving a great God. In them, clear-headed, passion and warm-hearted compassion combined. 
Some examples of Puritans are John Owen, Richard Sibbes, Jeremiah Burroughs, William Gurnall, and the man I'll be highlighting, Richard Baxter.

Baxter lived from 1615-1691, and spent time as a pastor in the parish of Kidderminster. He also spent some time as an army chaplain during the English civil war. When the Act of Uniformity of 1662 closed down his parish, he was left with time on his hands. He turned to writing.

One of his works, A Christian Directory, is a summary of practical theology to teach Christians how to live out their faith. It is in four parts: Christian Ethics, Christian Economics, Christian Ecclesiastics, and Christian Politics.

I will be looking at the book The Godly Home (Edited by Randall J. Pederson, Crossway, 2010), which examines the second section of Baxter's book, Christian Economics. This volume deals with the Christian family. Baxter never had any children, but he was married, and though his advice may sound outdated to the skeptic, it is solid, theological, common sense advice.

In the chapter, "Directions About Marriage," Baxter encourages the reader to think long and hard about whether he wants to be married. The Puritans were family-oriented people, and valued marriage and children both, but were not insensible to the reality that not marrying was a godly choice as well. Baxter takes great pains to point out the pros and cons of being married.

However, for the one who does commit to the idea of marriage,  Baxter provides directions:
Do not think that you are entering into a state of mere delight, lest it prove a fool's paradise to you. See that you are furnished with marriage strength and patience for the duties and sufferings of a married state before you venture on. First, be well provided against temptations to a worldly mind and life; for here you are like to be most violently and dangerously assaulted. Second, see that you are well provided with marital affections, for they are necessary both to the duties and sufferings of marital life. You should not enter upon the state without the necessary preparations. Third, see that you are well provided with marriage prudence and understanding, that you may be able to instruct and edify your families and may live with them as men of knowledge (I Pet. 3:7) and may manage all your business with discretion (Ps. 112:1-5). Fourth, see that you are provided with resolve and constancy, that you do not vex yourself and your family by repenting too late. Do not say, "Had I but known," or non putaram, "I never thought of that." Levity and mutability are not fit preparations for a state that only death can change. Let the love and resolutions that brought you into that state continue with you to the last.
"Levity and mutability are not fit preparations for a state that only death can change." That advice certainly wouldn't make the pages of a bridal magazine.  Baxter does something that many often don't do: evaluate realistically what marriage will be like.

How often do couples marry thinking that "all you need is love?" How many courting couples think that passion and infatuation are enough to get them through? How many young couples can't imagine how tempers can flare, and how disagreements can escalate? I think some young couples may think more about having their lavish wedding (which lasts only a few hours compared to the marriage) than they are about the realities.

The purpose for marriage for the Puritans was for companionship, love, and children. But it was also for the glory of God, as the purposes of our marriages ought to be as well. Marriage is a serious thing. Their example is a good one to follow in a day when divorce rates within the church aren't much different than the rates outside of it. The Purtians are often reputed to be dour and with a hard view of marriage. It is quite the contrary. They promoted healthy, loving, solid, life long-marriages.

If you are interested in reading about the Puritans, in addition to reading their own words, do check out the two volumes I mentioned earlier. I found them both excellent introductions. Joel Beeke's book Meet the Puritans also comes highly recommended.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Herman Bavinck - Reformed Dogmatics

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was a Dutch Reformed Theologian. In 1902 he succeeded Abraham Kuyper as Professor of Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam. He is best known for his four volume work, Reformed Dogmatics (also available in a abridged version, edited by John Bolt).

I first became aware of Bavinck from my friend Gloria Furman. She kept putting these fantastic quotes up on Twitter, which made me wonder who this Dutch guy was.

We can benefit by reading all sorts of different things. Some things, like blog posts, are like salad or potato chips. Light and (sometimes) beneficial, but not always filling. A few contemporary classics, like J.I. Packer's Knowing God, are like a steak dinner, one of the heavier meals, but manageable. And then works like Reformed Dogmatics are akin to fudge or cheesecake--rich and filling. While a few exceptional people might be able to take works like Reformed Dogmatics (or foods like fudge) in large gulps, most of us have to take it slowly.

For the past few years, I've been drawn to readings on the attributes of God. People have been trying to come to God on their own terms since Genesis 3. When it comes to God's attributes, we tend to elevate the attributes we find less threatening. This leaves us with a God more akin to a kindly grandpa or Santa Claus and not the God revealed in Scripture.

I like what Bavinck has to say about the subject.
When a single attribute is chosen as foundational it affects the total portrait of God; a wrong choice here points us to a different God than the one revealed in Scripture. Choosing love, for example, exposes us to the danger of regarding other attributes of God, such as righteousness and holiness, as less real. (1)
And later:
Each attribute expresses something special about God. God himself reveals his many perfections to us; we name him with the names Scripture itself provides. No one perfection fully expresses God's being. This diversity does not clash with God's simplicity. God reveals himself to finite creatures by many names because the divine essence is so infinitely and profusely rich that we cannot grasp it all at once, and God relates to us in many ways, now in one relationship, then in another. God remains eternally and immutably the same, but our relation to him varies in the same way that the light that breaks up into many colors remains the same (Augustine), and fire does not change whether it warms us, illumines us, or consumes us (Moses Maimonides). (2)
God certainly is a God of love, but he's a holy God as well. He never changes, nor does he need anything from us. Our finite minds can never fully grasp him in his fullness, but when we reflect on his attributes as revealed in Scripture, we glimpse a holy God who could not ignore our sin, but because of his love made a way for us to come to him through the sacrifice of his Son on the cross (Ephesians 1:4-5). It reminds us what a privilege it is to be able to go to him in prayer. It shows how futile our good works are in light of his perfection and holiness. When I focus on these things, grace becomes more than just an empty word, but a beautiful, undeserved gift.

As A.W. Tozer said, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." Knowing God better helps us love him more and worship him more sincerely. Meditating on God's attributes helps us think about him rightly.

(1) Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Abridged in One Volume, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 176.

(2) Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 177.


Friday, August 2, 2013

We Read Dead People

One of the common loves all of the women here at Out of the Ordinary have is that of dead theologians. We love their wisdom, insight, brilliance, and timeless counsel.

Join us for the month of August as our content revolves around dead theologians. We will quote them, discuss them, and perhaps inspire you to love them, too.

Look for this, starting Monday, August 5th!