The Radical Duality of Anabaptist Ecclesiology (Bavinck)

(This is a repost from August 2015)

One thing that Herman Bavinck did so well was put his finger on the pulse of the radical Anabaptist theology in the post-reformation era.  Here’s one of his many penetrating insights into the Anabaptist dualism.

“Anabaptism proceeded from the premise of an absolute antithesis between creation and re-creation, nature and grace, the world and the kingdom of God, and therefore viewed believers as persons who in being born again had become something totally different and therefore had to live in separation from the world.  Its program was not reformation but separation: Anabaptism wanted a separated church.  For centuries [they said] there had been no church but only Babel, and Babel had to be abandoned and shunned.  In Munster it was said that there had been no true Christian in 1,400 years.  The true church was a church of saints who, after making a personal profession of faith, were baptized, and who distinguished themselves from others by abstaining from oaths, war, government office, and a wide assortment of worldly practices in food and drink, clothing, and social contact” (Reformed Dogmatics, IV.292).

This is pretty significant to understand, especially in light of an earlier post here concerning the conversion experience.  Over and over Bavinck reminds us that grace restores nature; it does not work against or remain outside, above, or beside nature “but rather permeates and wholly renews it.”  In other words, conversion experiences are as diverse as the scores of people who have been converted: there is no one conversion that trumps the others.

This is where the conversion experience and the doctrine of the church go hand in hand: if one sharply distinguishes grace from nature, he sees conversion as a separation from (or destruction of) nature instead of a renewal/reformation of it.  When it comes to the church then, it has to be made up of only those who are separated from nature and show it by their sharp distinction between themselves and everything else.  In pretty blunt terms, it is as if conversion is a lightning-bolt-supernatural-shock which results in something totally different, and those who are totally different make up a totally different church (almost an a-natural church).  In Reformed terms (and Bavinck’s terms), this is a dualistic principle that underlies more than a few sects that emerged within Protestantism following the Reformation.

What is the Reformed response?  It is quite detailed, but the first thing to note with Bavinck is the organic working of grace, the way grace restores and works through, in, and with nature.  We see this principle 1) in the writing of Scripture (God didn’t destroy the personalities of the author, but used them for his purposes), 2) in the unfolding promises of his covenant of grace (his ordinary way of working is through the natural means of parents and their seed), 3) in conversion (which is a renewal [not destruction] of the imago dei), 4) in sanctification (God reforming his people – including their various personalities and emotions), and 5) in the church (he uses natural things like speaking, bread, wine, and discipline – the 3 marks of a true church – to help his people).  These are just five areas – there are more.

There is a pastoral side to this.  Just as with conversion we don’t always need to see the “hell to heaven” experience that one can pinpoint (though those are fine), so too with sanctification and the doctrine of the church.  In a church, we’re going to find a whole bunch of people with different personalities, different ways of struggling with sin, different methods of speaking about Jesus, and so forth.  Since grace renews nature, we should expect to see one parishioner fight sin with tears, another fight it with a more upbeat attitude, and yet another fight it quietly behind the scenes while a fourth sings a favorite Psalm to combat sin.  When I counsel a believer who struggles with some type of addiction, for example, though we follow general Scriptural principles, he may not fight that addiction like I would.  This sometimes frustrates me, since I tend to be Luther-like, fighting sin with fists flying.   When Bavinck reminds me that grace restores nature, I can rest at night knowing that God’s gracious renewal gives us the same weapons to fight, but we all use those weapons in different ways.   Just because the sinner-who-is-a-saint doesn’t throw fists at sin like I do doesn’t mean he isn’t fighting it!  Just because a church is made up of people who are at different stages of struggling and have different methods of struggling doesn’t mean the church is impure!   A church is made up of sinners using the same weapons to fight sin, only they wield the weapons differently.  Grace renews nature!

This post is too long already, but this topic also has implications for preaching.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI


When The Rebellious Will Is Renewed… (Murray)

I always enjoy reading John Murray’s sermons.  I recently read a brief sermon Murray gave on John 6:37, where Jesus said, “All those that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (NIV).  Here’s a helpful section in which Murray talks about the Father’s donation (gift) to the Son (…”those that the Father gives me…”):

“We are sometimes amazed at the conversion of certain people.  They seem to be the most unlikely people to be savingly affected by the gospel, the most unlikely candidates for discipleship.  In the first century when the early church began to feel the full brunt of opposition to the gospel, there was one man who breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.  This man went to the high priest and asked of him letters to Damascus that, if he found any of this way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.”

“In that day people might well have said: ‘If anyone is to be one to the faith of the gospel, it is not Saul of Tarsus.’  And the enemies of the gospel might well have said: ‘If there is anyone on whom we can rely for persecution of the church, it is Saul of Tarsus.’  For this man verily thought with himself that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.”

“But, behold, it was Saul of Tarsus who was converted.  And the history of the church of Christ is marked by similar surprises for the people of God and the enemies of the gospel.  Why have such people become partakers of saving grace and trophies of redemption?  Why have they become the called of Jesus Christ?  The text gives the answer.  God the Father has drawn them and donated them to his Son.”

“Think of it.  When a sinner comes to Christ in the commitment of faith, when the rebellious will is renewed and tears of penitence begin to flow, it is because a mysterious transaction has been taking place between the persons of the Godhead.  The Father has been making a presentation, a donation to his own Son.  Perish the thought that coming to Christ finds its explanation in the sovereign determinations of the human will.  It finds its explanation in the sovereign will of God the Father.”

“When a sinner comes to Christ, this event is the reflex of effectual donation of that person by the Father to the Son.  And if any person has that child-like faith in Christ whereby Christ is made wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, whereby he is made precious as all in all, be assured that God the Father took delight in you and took delight in causing raptures of joy to spring up in the breast of his own Son.  The Father presented you to Christ in the effectual donation of his grace.  And take no credit or glory to yourself.”

John Murray, Collected Writings, volume 3, page 206.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Various Ways to Faith

I’ve often heard it said that though there is only one way to the Father – through Jesus – there are many ways to Jesus.  In other words, there are various ways people come to faith in Christ.  Therefore, we should never make our experience of coming to Christ a paradigm for others when they come to Christ.  Nor should we rigidly follow others when they make their experience of coming to Christ a paradigm.  The stories in Scripture prove that conversion experiences are quite different!

Now, it does sometimes happen in Christian circles, when a preacher talks about his feelings and experience of coming to Christ and he makes it sound like you must have the same feelings and experience or you might not be a true Christian.  This kind of emotional preaching can leave Christians depressed since they don’t share the same feelings and experiences as the preacher does.  I’ve even had it myself years ago when listening to a popular preacher share his Christian feelings; mine didn’t match, so I wasn’t sure what to do with that.  Thanks to  John Newton I have a better idea about it now:

“It would be well if both preachers and people would keep more closely to what the Scripture teaches of the nature, marks, and growth of a work of grace instead of following each other in a track (like sheep) confining the Holy Spirit to a system, imposing at first the experience and sentiments of others as a rule to themselves, and afterward dogmatically laying down the path in which they themselves have been led, as absolutely necessary to be trodden by others.”

“There is a vast variety of the methods by which the Lord brings home souls to himself, in which he considers (though system-preachers do not) the different circumstances, situations, temperament, etc. of different persons.  To lay down rules precisely to which all must conform, and to treat all enquiring souls in the same way, is as wrong as it would be in a physician to attempt to cure all his patients who may have the same general disorder (a fever for instance) with one and the same prescription.  A skilful man would probably find so many differences in their cases, that he would not treat any two of them exactly alike.”

These are wise words.  If you don’t have the exact same emotions, feelings, and experiences as others in coming to Christ (and following him), don’t doubt your faith and repentance.  Don’t try to get the same emotions, feelings, and experiences of others, even if they are of a popular preacher.  Here’s Newton’s advice:

“I hope the Lord has made me willing to learn (if I can) from all, but ‘Nullius in verba jurare’ is my motto (take no one’s word as final; examine for yourself).  If you read Scripture and your own heart attentively, you will have greatly the advantage of those who puzzle themselves by too closely copying the rules they find in other books.”

John Newton, Wise Counsel, p. 120-121.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Fanaticism Is Not Faith (Or: One Conversion Will Suffice)

Ichabod Spencer’s A Pastor’s Sketches is an excellent resource of a 19th-century pastor’s deeply spiritual conversations with various people in his ministry.  In one journal entry, Spencer talked about a young woman who claimed to have been converted three times in a church that emphasized revivals, emotions, and experiences.  Her emotions and affections were excited, but she had little understanding of the Christian faith and her conscience had not been touched.  Spencer called this “fanaticism.”

The heart that has once been drunk with fanaticism is ever afterwards exposed to the same evil.  It will mistake excitement – any fancy – for true religion.  Fanaticism is not faith.

When the affections or mere sensibilities of the heart are excited and the understanding and conscience are but little employed, there is a sad preparation for false hope – for some wild delusion or fanatical faith. The judgment and conscience should take the lead of the affections; but when the affections take the lead, they will be very apt to monopolize the whole soul, judgment and conscience will be overpowered, or flung into the background; and then, the deluded mortal will have a religion of mere impressions – more feeling than truth – more sensitiveness than faith – more fancy and fanaticism, than holiness. Emotions, agitations, or sensibilities of any sort, which do not arise from

Emotions, agitations, or sensibilities of any sort, which do not arise from clear and conscientious perception of truth will be likely to be pernicious. The most clear perception of truth, the deepest conviction, is seldom accompanied by any great excitement of the sensibilities.  Under such conviction, feeling may be deep and strong, but will not be fitful, capricious and blind. To a religion of mere impressions, one may be “converted three times,” or three times three, but to a religion of truth, one conversion will suffice. In my opinion, my young friend was all along misled by the idea, that religion consisted very much in a wave of feeling. Her instructors ought to have taught her better.

Ichabod Spencer, A Pastor’s Sketches, p. 175.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Openness Unhindered: A Review

Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ I recently read Openness Unhindered by Rosaria Butterfield.  This book is a sequel or follow-up to her previous title, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. In fact, the first chapter is a summary of her first book which gave the story of her conversion to Christianity.  The rest of the book gives more detail on what conversion is all about, specifically in light of homosexuality and sexual issues.

Here’s an outline of the book, starting with chapter two:

Chapter Two: Identity. 1) Who am I? United to Christ.  2) What am I like? Fallen, depraved, and sinful. 3) What do I need? Union with Christ and sanctification.
Chapter Three: Repentance. What is sin? What is true repentance? More on original sin and a discussion of temptation.  How to mortify sin.
Chapter Four: Sexual Orientation. Sexual orientation in the 19th century (Freud, German Romanticism, Foucault).  Natural revelation and orientation.  Heterosexual blindness.  Use of terms.
Chapter Five: Self Representation. What does it mean to be gay? What does the word gay mean? What is biblical sexual identity?
Chapter Six: Conflict: This chapter is about Butterfield’s disagreement about sexual issues with a female Christian friend.
Chapter Seven: Community.  What is community?  How to make your home a ‘hospitality home’ – seven steps.  Neighborhood community.
Epilogue: Marriage, ministry, and children.  A few more personal notes about the Butterfields.

So what did I think of the book?  Well, honestly, it wasn’t a huge page-turner for me.  Why?  1) A decent part of the book was very similar to her first book; several times I found myself thinking, “I’ve read this before.”  2) The book was rather wordy and dense.  I realize this is subjective, but in my opinion Butterfield used too many words to make her points.  Again, some readers may enjoy the extra words and phrases, but I’m the kind of reader who gets bogged down by wordiness and lengthy descriptions/analogies.  3) Big sections of the material in this book are not unique to it. For example, Butterfield’s discussion of sin and repentance is a summary of several Puritan’s writings and her discussion of “gay” and “identity” is similar to that in other Christian books I’ve read on those issues (for example, Sam Allberry, Wes Hill, and Albert Mohler to name a few).

Basically, I don’t think the book was “bad” at all.  It’s just that for me it wasn’t overly groundbreaking.  If you’ve not read many books that deal with (sexual) sin, temptation, sanctification, and homosexuality, I do recommend this book.  As a side, it may be too thick and detailed for some readers: there were some terms and big sections of this book that “average” readers might not follow (e.g. Rousseau’s philosophy, ontology, platonic, semantic range, lengthy doctrinal discussions, etc.).  It’s not “light” reading at all – it’s very academic reading for those familiar with some philosophy and Reformed theology.  Back to the point : I’m glad we have solid Christian books like these that speak biblical sanity in the confusion of the sexual revolution!  I hope (and believe) it will be helpful to many who read it with attention.

Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant, 2015).

shane lems

A Review of Washer’s “Gospel Assurance”

Gospel Assurance & Warnings by Paul Washer Paul Washer’s book, Gospel Assurance & Warnings (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014) is the third book in the “Recovering the Gospel” series.  Basically, it is a collection of Particular/Strict Baptist sermons on the themes of true and false assurance and conversion found in 1 John and Matthew 7:13-27.  The book has two main parts: 1) Biblical Assurance (1 John) and 2) Warnings to Empty Confessors (Matt. 7:13-27).  There are a total of 19 chapters covering 252 pages.  The book doesn’t contain a Scripture or topical index.

I appreciated the fact that Washer explained the gospel clearly in this book.  He mentioned the deity of Christ, the redemption we have in Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, and the truth of the forgiveness of sins.  There are several clear presentations of the gospel in this book.

However, I hesitate to recommend this book for various reasons.  First, the overall tone of the book was too harsh in my opinion.  Over and over (and over!) Washer talked about the millions of unconverted people sitting in Church pews; over and over he attacked Christians for “carnality;” over and over he questioned whether a Christian’s conversion was true or not.  I agree that many churches proclaim a false gospel, and many people say they are Christians but they are not; however, Washer’s negative tone will turn off the very people who need to read this book (he might be preaching to the choir in this book).  I would not use this book for “outreach/evangelism” or give it to a nominal Christian because the emphasis is more on judgment than grace.  The book wasn’t even edifying for me to read since Washer made me think more about myself and my conversion than God’s grace in Christ. In fact, the book ends on the topic of Hell.

I also hesitate to recommend this book because the sermons are not at all exegetical sermons on 1 John and Matthew 7:13-27.  Rather, they are sermons that focus only on the topics of true and false assurance and conversion found in those texts.  Washer didn’t exegete the texts fully and redemptive-historically; rather, he picked a theme from the text and expanded upon it using other Scriptures.  Several times this topical approach left me with a less-than-satisfactory understanding of the text at hand.

One final note: the book is repetitious and wordy.  Washer kept saying the same things over and over; I believe the book could have covered the same points 150 pages rather than 250.  Some editing down would have been helpful.

In summary, although I agree with the doctrines of grace presented in this book, I do not recommend it because it didn’t leave me looking at Jesus with confidence in him.  Instead, it left me with the repeated reminder of the worldliness of the church and the need to examine myself and think about my conversion.  FYI, if you’re looking for Reformed resources on this topic, see Herman Bavinck’s The Certainty of Faith, Thomas Watson’s The Doctrine of Repentance, Louis Berkhof’s The Assurance of Faith, or many of John Newton’s letters.

Paul Washer, Gospel Assurance & Warnings (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014).

This book was reviewed as part of the CrossFocused Review program.  I was given the book in exchange for an honest review.

shane lems

Owen on “Enthusiastical Ecstasies”

  I really appreciate this section of John Owen’s discussion of regeneration in his book, The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power.  Since the arrival of Pentecostalism in the West around 100 years ago, some people have wrongly taught and thought that regeneration and conversion have to do with elation, ecstasy, frenzy, convulsions, or some sort of trance.  This causes a lot of problems in the Christian life.  Not only is it a distortion of the Spirit’s work, it also causes Christians who have never been “enraptured” to wonder if they’re really Christians.  Even worse, it makes some Christians fake ecstasy so they can say they had a “conversion experience.”  John Owen cuts through these unbiblical aspects of what we know today as Pentecostalism (which has roots in the radical Anabaptist movement after the Reformation).

“The work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration does not consist in enthusiastical raptures, ecstasies, voices, or any thing of the like kind.  Such things may have been pretended to by some weak and deluded persons: but the countenancing of such imaginations, or teaching men to expect them, or esteeming them as conversion to God, while holiness was neglected, is a calumny and false accusation, as our writings and preachings fully testify.”

“Therefore as to this negative principle we observe that the Holy Spirit usually exerts his power in the use of means, and that he works on men agreeably to their natures.  He does not come upon them with involuntary raptures, using their mental powers as the evil spirit wrests the bodies of possessed persons.  His whole work is rationally to be accounted for, by those who believe the Scriptures and have received the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive.”

“Indeed, the efficiency of the Spirit in quickening our souls (which the ancients always termed his ‘inspiration of grace’) is no otherwise to be comprehended than any other act of creating power, for as we hear the wind, but know not from where it came or where it goes, so is everyone that is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).  But this is certain, that he works nothing but what is determined and declared in the written word, and that he puts no force on the faculties of our souls, but works in them and by them suitably to their nature.”

In this same section, Owen later exhorts pastors to know what the Bible teaches about the Spirit’s work of regeneration (giving life to a spiritually dead person).  He says that if a pastor doesn’t know what the Bible teaches, then all sorts of things will be substituted for the truth, and everyone will be tricked into thinking they’re regenerate when their not, or think they are not regenerate when they are.  This is profound.  If a pastor thinks regeneration is about visions, emotions, ecstasy, tremblings, and tongues, he will preach towards those things and the people will attempt to get those things.  That is a seed-bed of legalism, pride, and/or despair.  Legalism because those things are said to be necessary; pride because those who have them think they are higher on the Christian ladder; despair because those who don’t have them will be unsure of their salvation.

Reformed Christians are not putting the Holy Spirit in a box when we agree with Owen above.  We are avoiding legalism, pride, and despair by focusing on the “ordinary means” the Bible emphasizes when it comes to the Spirit’s work of regeneration: preaching, repentance, faith, and the good works (the fruit of the Spirit) that follow.

The Owen quote above is found on page 133 of The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power.

shane lems