Self-Righteousness Can Feed Upon Doctrinal Beliefs (Newton)

Select Letters of John Newton (This is re-blog from February, 2012)

There are some areas of the Christian faith that are not matters of chief importance.  They are important, but not essentially or fundamentally important.  For example, there are different views of Christian schooling, different views of the elements of the Lord’s Supper (grape juice or wine), different views of how deacons should function in a church, and so forth.  Too often, these things sadly split Christians and even churches.  Some Christians become so hardened in these non-essentials that they are not even pleasant to be around.  So how can we discuss and debate these secondary or tertiary issues in a Christian way?

John Newton wrote a great letter on this topic.  The letter has been called, “Controversy” and it’s found in his Works and in Select Letters of John Newton.  Here are some slightly edited excerpts.

“The whole time you are preparing your answer to the person you disagree with, commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing.  This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him, and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.”

“[Assuming he’s a Christian], the Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him or treat him harshly.  The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself.”

“Of all people who engage in controversy, we who are called Calvinists are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation.”

“If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, abusive speech, or scorn, we may think we are doing service to the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit.”

“I would be glad if this were true: that to embrace what are called the Calvinistic doctrines was an infallible token of a humble mind.”

“Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as works, and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace.”

To sum up: when we get into a disagreement with another Christian about these issues, we should pray for the other person, love him, bear with him, and maintain a spirit of true humility while fighting against self-righteous doctrinal pride.  These things are good for us to remember whether we’re speaking face to face, via email/Facebook, or on blogs like this one.

I strongly recommend this entire letter (which is quite brief): “Controversy” by John Newton.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Cancer, Grief, and God (Groves)

I’m nearly finished reading an excellent book that honestly walks through the suffering of cancer while resting in the hope of God.  It’s called Grief Undone and it was written by Elizabeth Groves whose husband, Alan, died from cancer in 2007.  As some of our readers may know, Alan Groves served in various departments at Westminster Theological Seminary.  This book is something like an autobiography (Elizabeth’s) and a biography (Alan’s) together in one, but ultimately it is a testimony of God, our only rock and refuge in time of storm.

I appreciate this book because it is a real-life account of dealing with cancer.  Having children of my own, I could totally relate to many stories Elizabeth told – the stress, the sweetness, and the bitterness involved.  Elizabeth didn’t just say everything was fine since her and Alan were Christians; she tackled the hard issues of pain, broken hearts, questions, uncertainty, and so forth.  Here’s one way Elizabeth put it:

“Daily and hourly we set our hope in the certainty of our Father’s love in the midst of uncertainty about what would happen to Al.  I don’t know that that was a measured, intellectual decision on our part as much as it was just the natural cry of desperate children who know their Father is the only one who has answers and help” (p. 18).

Or, as Alan said it before he died,

“It is not being healed from cancer in this life in which I ultimately hope.  Rather, it is in Christ now and forever that I find my hope.  I have been healed and raised in that ultimate sense by all that Christ has done.  Blessed be his name” (p. 43).

You can’t read this book without being moved.  Having lost friends and family to cancer,  I had to put the book down a few times because it squeezed tears from my eyes as I remembered the suffering of it all.  But in the midst of suffering there is hope that shines brightly through.  It’s not a false, flimsy, or “better place” type hope.  It’s the hope that Elizabeth leaned upon, that Alan rested in, and that all Christians can take comfort in.  It’s a “living hope” that we have through the resurrection of Jesus, a hope that we can hold fast to because “he who promised is faithful.”  It’s the hope of eternal life in Christ; the hope of a renewed, resurrected, and imperishable body; the hope of being with the Lord forever in the new creation where there will be no more tears.  This book testifies of that hope!

Elizabeth Groves, Grief Undone (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2015).

Shane Lems

Definite Atonement and Christian Comfort (Owen)

In Chapter seven of The Death of Death John Owen showed how Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (his “oblation”) is tightly connected with his intercession.  Owen argued that rather than say Jesus died for all and failed in his aim and design, we should agree with Paul, “grounding the assurance of our eternal glory and freedom from all accusations upon the death of Christ, and that because his intercession for us does inseparably and necessarily follow it.”  Owen then quoted Rom. 8:33-34 and wrote,

“Here is an equal extent of the one and the other; those persons who are concerned in the one are all of them concerned in the other.”

In other words, those for whom Jesus died are the same people for whom he intercedes.

A few pages later Owen noted that if a person separates and divides Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (oblation) from his intercession, that person cuts off all comfort the Christian has of assurance that Christ died for him.  Positively speaking,

“The main foundation of all the confidence and assurance whereof in this life we may be made partakers (which amounts to ‘joy unspeakable, and full of glory’) ariseth from this strict connection of the oblation and intercession of Jesus Christ – that by the one he has procured all good things for us, and by the other he will procure them to be actually bestowed, whereby he does never leave our sins, but follows them into every court, until they be fully pardoned and clearly expiated (Heb. 9:26).  He will never leave us until he has saved to the uttermost them that come unto God by him.”

This isn’t theological nitpicking or dry, dusty doctrine that is irrelevant.  To say that Jesus’ death is tightly connected with his intercession echoes biblical truth, glorifies Christ and his saving power, and it gives the Christian firm comfort and assurance that Jesus who died for us will also intercede for us, that our faith will not fail (Lk. 22:32).

The above quotes are found in John Owen’s The Death of Death (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), chapter 7.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WZI

Worship: What If The Problem Is Me?

Many churches bend over backwards to make their services an exciting and entertaining event.  I don’t have to make a list of worship innovations – most readers are familiar with them.  Basically, in order to fight boredom and to be on the cutting edge of worship experience, churches go all out in thier services.

But as Michael Horton notes well, being bored in worship isn’t the end of the world.  It’s not necessarily a horrible evil.  Horton says,

It is okay to be bored sometimes: ‘no pain, no gain.’  …If we don’t do anything that sometimes bores us, we will miss out on some of the most important things in life!  …Although we like to be entertained, we know that our parents, siblings, or children will render us disillusioned if we thought for one moment that they existed to keep us occupied.  And yet, few of us would suggest that the family institution needs to be radically altered in order to make it more interesting….

“Too often we are impatient with progress and we have come to expect worship to be exciting, so if it isn’t, we are disappointed.  The fault must lie with the service and not with us.  Perhaps we need a new sound system, a new choir, a new pastor.  Radical moves may be necessary, because I’m losing my interest.  But what if the problem is with me?  And what if, by virtue of our continuing struggle with sin and the fact that we do not yet behold God face-to-face, excitement in worship is the excitement rather than the rule?  Many of the most exciting things in life are the ephemeral, bubbles that delight only to disappear when captured, while many of the most enduring and ennobling ventures are driven along by quite ordinary habits – commitments – of mind and body.”

“The most valuable things in life must be won by active struggling, not by passive stimulation.  Whether due to the weaknesses of our finitude or our own sinful hearts (‘prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love’), our boredom must be acknowledged as a real struggle and yet as a doomed foe because we will not surrender the gold for the glitter.”

Michael Horton, A Better Way, 234.

Shane Lems

History Taken Out Of God’s Hands: Middle Knowledge

Reformed Dogmatics : Volume 2: God and Creation by [Bavinck, Herman] Reformed Christian theology teaches that God, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordained everything that comes to pass (Ps. 33:11, Heb. 6:17, etc.; see also WCF 3.1).  In other words, all things come to pass because God decreed them.  He works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:11 NIV).  God predestined some unto salvation because it was his good pleasure, not because he foresaw some choosing Christ.

Not everyone agrees with this view.  Some people say that it detracts from human freedom, so they speak of God’s middle knowledge.  That is, although God knows all the possibilities of what might happen in the future, his decree depends on man’s choices and actions.  In this view, God decreed that which he foresaw would happen.  For a simple example, long ago God knew every possible action and choice Billy might make, but he only decreed that which he foresaw Billy actually doing.  God’s decree comes after his foreknowledge of Billy’s actions.  His decree is dependent upon Billy’s actions.  This view is an attempt to harmonize freedom of the will and God’s omniscience and sovereignty.

Reformed theology strongly opposes this teaching of middle knowledge.  Herman Bavinck critiqued this well as he explained middle knowledge:

[Middle knowledge teaches that] God does not derive his knowledge of the free actions of human beings from his own being, his own decrees, but from the will of creatures. God, accordingly, becomes dependent on the world, derives knowledge from the world that he did not have and could not obtain from himself, and hence, in his knowledge, ceases to be one, simple, and independent—that is, God.

Conversely, the creature in large part becomes independent vis-à-vis God. The creature did indeed at one time receive “being” (esse) and “being able” (posse) from God but now it has the “volition” (velle) completely in its own hand. The creature sovereignly makes it own decisions and either accomplishes something or does not accomplish something apart from any preceding divine decree. Something can therefore come into being quite apart from God’s will.

The creature is now creator, autonomous, sovereign; the entire history of the world is taken out of God’s controlling hands and placed into human hands. First, humans decide; then God responds with a plan that corresponds to that decision.  …What are we to think, then, of a God who forever awaits all those decisions and keeps in readiness a store of all possible plans for all possibilities? What then remains of even a sketch of the world plan when left to humans to flesh out? And of what value is a government whose chief executive is the slave of his own subordinates?

In the theory of middle knowledge, that is precisely the case with God. God looks on, while humans decide. It is not God who makes distinctions among people, but people distinguish themselves. Grace is dispensed, according to merit; predestination depends on good works

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 201 (slightly edited).

Bavinck made it clear that Reformed theology firmly rejects middle knowledge because it strays from the teaching of Scripture that God – not man! – is completely omniscient and sovereign.  He is on the throne, we are not.  We are but clay in the hands of the Potter (Jer. 18:6, Rom. 9:21).  Not to us, but to Him be the glory (Ps 115:1)!

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Operation Gravedigger (Guinness)

As many of our readers know, I (Shane) always enjoy reading Os Guinness.  One of his books that stands out for me is The Last Christian on Earth (the original 1983 title was The Gravedigger File).  This book is something like C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters – only better in my opinion because it deals with more modern cultural issues and does so with more detail than The Screwtape Letters.  Furthermore, Guinness is more theologically sound than Lewis.  Comparisons aside, here is how the demonic enemy of the church explains the strategy of “Operation Gravedigger” to his apprentice in Guinness’ book:
“The Christian faith has contributed to the rise of the modern world, but the Christian faith has been undermined by the modern world it helped to create.  The Christian faith thus becomes its own gravedigger.

The strategy turns on this monumental irony, and the victory we are so close to realizing depends on two elementary insights.  First, the Christian faith is now captive to the modern world it helped to create.  Second, our interests are best served, not by working against the Church, but by working with it.  The more the Church becomes one with the modern world, the more it becomes compromised, and the deeper the grave it digs for itself.

Having joined the Operation when it was well underway, my own contribution has all been in the execution, not in the planning.  So my use of the word ‘we’ in these memos is the broad organizational sense.  But as you will come to recognize, the very restlessness of the way the strategy is being carried out betrays its mastermind.  Only one mind is capable of such audacity of vision and sheer force of will.  ‘The devil is in the details,’ people say casually.  If only they knew.”
Shane Lems
Hammond, WI


The Saint and Satan’s Accusations (Gurnall)

Sometimes – by God’s grace and his Spirit at work in us – the Christian doesn’t give in to Satan’s crafty temptations.  One tactic the devil often resorts to in this situation is accusation.  That is, if he can’t get the Christian to sin, he tries to get the Christian to wallow in guilt.  William Gurnall explained it well:

“The devil is the blasphemer, but the poor Christian, because he will not join with him in the fact, shall have the name and bear the blame of it.  As the Jews compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry Christ’s cross, so Satan would compel the tempted Christian to carry the guilt of his sin for him.  And many time Satan doth so craftily, and with such sleight of hand, shift it [guilt] from himself to the Christian’s back, that he, poor creature, doesn’t realize the juggler’s art of conveying the guilt unto him, but goes complaining only of the baseness of his own heart.”

In other words, Satan is the guilty blasphemer who deserves condemnation.  But in his wicked deception, he makes the Christian think he or she is a guilty blasphemer who deserves condemnation.  This hurts the saint’s heart and faith.  Gurnall continues,

“And as it sometimes so happens, that an honest man in whose house stolen goods are found suffers because he cannot find out the thief that left them there, so the Christian suffers many sad terrors from the mere presence of these horrid thoughts in his chest, because he is not able to say whose they are – whether shot in by Satan, or the steaming forth of his own sinful heart. The humble Christian is prone to fear the worst of himself, even where he is not conscious to himself, like the patriarchs who, when the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack, took the blame to themselves although they were innocent of the fact.”

Like an honest man being framed for stealing something he didn’t steal, the Christian suffers because we’ve been framed by the devil even though we are not guilty.

I don’t have time to note it all here, but Gurnall does move on to say that faith helps fight and withstand this wicked assault of the devil.  Faith helps discern the guilt trips Satan puts on us; faith assures the soul that forgiveness is real, that God is merciful, that God will preserve his own and use Satan’s assaults for the good of the Christian.  In Paul’s inspired words, faith is a shield “with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph 6:16 NIV).

The above quotes (slightly edited) are found in Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armor book 2, page 99.

Shane Lems