Category Archives: Church History

Church History is the discipline that investigates and describes the history of the Christian church in its original life and thought as an entity of God’s saving purposes in universal history.

Book Review on R.C. Sproul’s: Everyone’s A Theologian


Everyone's a Theologian Sproul

Book Review by David P. Craig 

This book is almost a word for word account of R.C. Sproul’s DVD teaching series entitled “Foundations: An Overview of Systematic Theology.” Having watched this video series in the past I immediately recognized the content. I’m glad this series has now been made available in book form.

R.C. is a master teacher and in this book he covers the subject of Theology in its broadest sense. Theology not only refers to the study of God, but to everything that God has revealed to us in the Bible. In sixty short, but jam-packed chapters R.C. unveils with depth and clarity a summary of what the Bible has to say about its most important themes: Theology Proper – The study of God; Anthropology and Creation – The study of man; Christology – The study of Jesus; Pneumatology – The study of the Holy Spirit; Soteriology- The study of salvation; Ecclesiology – The study of the Church; and lastly (no pun intended) – Eschatology – The study of last things.

This book is an excellent introduction to all of these subjects and the sub topics they address. As R.C. Sproul says, “Everyone, is a theologian, but either a good or bad one.” You will come away from reading this book having learned a ton of important truths that will help you become a better theologian. With profound depth, clarity, historical, and practical wisdom Sproul will delight and intrigue you in helping you grow in your journey and intimacy with God – using your head, heart, and hands for His glory and your good.


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Fortress for Truth: Martin Luther

By Steven J. Lawson

Martin Luther was a giant of history. Some believe he was the most significant European figure of the second millennium. He was the pioneer Reformer, the one God first used to spark a transformation of Christianity and the Western world. He was the undisputed leader of the German Reformation. In a day of ecclesiastical corruptions and apostasies, he was a valiant champion of the truth; his powerful preaching and pen helped to restore the pure gospel. More books have been written about him than any other man of history except Jesus Christ and possibly Augustine.

Luther came from hard-working stock. He was born in the little town of Eisleben, Germany, on November 10, 1483. His father, Hans, was a copper miner who eventually gained some wealth from a shared interest in mines, smelters, and other business ventures. His mother was pious but religiously superstitious. Luther was raised under the strict disciplines of the Roman Catholic Church and was groomed by his industrious father to be a successful lawyer. To this end, he pursued an education at Eisenach (1498–1501) and then at the University of Erfurt in philosophy. At the latter, he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1502 and a master of arts degree in 1505.

Luther’s life took an unexpected turn in July 1505, when he was twenty-one. He was caught in a severe thunderstorm and knocked to the ground by a nearby lightning strike. Terrified, he cried out to the Catholic patroness of miners, “Help me, St. Anna, and I will become a monk.” Luther survived the storm and made good on his dramatic vow. Two weeks later, he entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. His father was furious over Luther’s apparent wasted education, but Luther was determined to follow through on his vow.

Lost in Self-Righteousness

In the monastery, Luther was driven to find acceptance with God through works. He wrote: “I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me… . What else did I seek by doing this but God, who was supposed to note my strict observance of the monastic order and my austere life? I constantly walked in a dream and lived in real idolatry, for I did not believe in Christ: I regarded Him only as a severe and terrible Judge portrayed as seated on a rainbow” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 24, eds. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann [St. Louis: Concordia, 2002], 62). Elsewhere he recalled: “When I was a monk, I wearied myself greatly for almost fifteen years with the daily sacrifice, tortured myself with fastings, vigils, prayers, and other very rigorous works. I earnestly thought to acquire righteousness by my works” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 12, 273).

In 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood. When he celebrated his first Mass, as he held the bread and cup for the first time, he was so awestruck at the thought of transubstantiation that he almost fainted. “I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken,” he confessed. “I thought to myself, ‘Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God’” (Luther, cited in Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995], 238). Fear only compounded his personal struggle for acceptance with God.

In 1510, Luther was sent to Rome, where he witnessed the corruption of the Roman church. He climbed the Scala Sancta (“The Holy Stairs”), supposedly the same stairs Jesus ascended when He appeared before Pilate. According to fables, the steps had been moved from Jerusalem to Rome, and the priests claimed that God forgave sins for those who climbed the stairs on their knees. Luther did so, repeating the Lord’s Prayer, kissing each step, and seeking peace with God. But when he reached the top step, he looked back and thought, “Who knows whether this is true?” (Luther, cited in Barbara A. Somervill, Martin Luther: Father of the Reformation [Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2006], 36). He felt no closer to God.

Luther received his doctor of theology degree from the University of Wittenberg in 1512 and was named professor of Bible there. Remarkably, Luther kept this teaching position for the next thirty-four years, until his death in 1546. One question consumed him: How is a sinful man made right before a holy God?

In 1517, a Dominican itinerant named John Tetzel began to sell indulgences near Wittenberg with the offer of the forgiveness of sins. This crass practice had been inaugurated during the Crusades to raise money for the church. Commoners could purchase from the church a letter that allegedly freed a dead loved one from purgatory. Rome profited enormously from this sham. In this case, the proceeds were intended to help Pope Leo X pay for a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

This horrible abuse enraged Luther. He determined that there must be a public debate on the matter. On October 31, 1517, he nailed a list of Ninety-five Theses regarding indulgences to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Nailing such theses to the church door was a common practice in the scholarly debates of the time. Luther hoped to provoke calm discussion among the faculty, not a popular revolution. But a copy fell into the hands of a printer, who saw that the Ninety-five Theses were printed and spread throughout Germany and Europe in a few weeks. Luther became an overnight hero. With that, the Reformation essentially was born.

The Tower Experience

It is possible Luther was still not yet converted. In the midst of his spiritual struggles, Luther had become obsessed with Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.” Luther had understood the righteousness of God to mean His active righteousness, His avenging justice by which He punishes sin. On those terms, he admitted that he hated the righteousness of God. But while sitting in the tower of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Luther meditated on this text and wrestled with its meaning. He writes:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. (Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, 337)

The time of Luther’s conversion is debated. Some think it took place as early as 1508, but Luther himself wrote that it happened in 1519, two years after he posted his Ninety-five Theses. More important is the reality of his conversion. Luther came to realize that salvation was a gift for the guilty, not a reward for the righteous. Man is not saved by his good works but by trusting the finished work of Christ. Thus, justification by faith alone became the central tenet of the Reformation.

Attacking Papal Authority

Justification by faith alone clashed with Rome’s teaching of justification by faith and works. Thus, the pope denounced Luther for preaching “dangerous doctrines” and summoned him to Rome. When Luther refused, he was called to Leipzig in 1519 for a public debate with John Eck, a leading Catholic theologian. In this dispute, Luther affirmed that a church council could err, a point that had been made by John Wycliffe and John Hus.

Luther went on to say that the authority of the pope was a recent contrivance. Such religious superstition, he exclaimed, opposed the Council of Nicaea and church history. Worse, it contradicted Scripture. By taking this stand, Luther irritated the major nerve of Rome—papal authority.

In the summer of 1520, the pope issued a bull, an edict sealed with a bulla, or red seal. The document began by saying: “Arise, O Lord, and judge Your cause. A wild boar has invaded Your vineyard” (Pope Leo, Exsurge Domine, as cited in R.C.Sproul, The Holiness of God [Wheaton: Tyndale, 1998], 81).  With these words, the pope was referring to Luther as an unrestrained animal causing havoc. Forty-one of Luther’s teachings were deemed to be heretical, scandalous, or false.

With that, Luther had sixty days to repent or suffer excommunication. He responded by publicly burning the papal bull. This was nothing short of open defiance. Thomas Lindsay writes, “It is scarcely possible for us in the twentieth century to imagine the thrill that went through Germany, and indeed through all Europe, when the news spread that a poor monk had burnt the Pope’s Bull” (Thomas Lindsay, Martin Luther: The Man Who Started the Reformation [Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2004], 91). But though he was hailed by many, Luther was a marked man in the eyes of the church.

The Diet of Worms: Luther’s Stand

In 1521, the young Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, summoned Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms in Worms, Germany, in order to officially recant. The renegade monk was shown his books on a table in full view. Then Luther was asked whether he would retract the teachings in the books. The next day, Luther replied with his now-famous words: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and

contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 32, 113). These defiant words became a Reformation battle cry.

Charles V condemned Luther as a heretic and placed a hefty price on his head. When Luther left Worms, he had twenty-one days for safe passage to Wittenberg before the sentence fell. While he was en route, some of his supporters, fearing for his life, kidnapped him and took him to the Wartburg Castle. There, he was hidden from public sight for eight months. During this time of confinement, Luther began his translation of the Bible into German, the language of the commoners. Through this work, Reformation flames would spread even swifter.

On March 10, 1522, Luther explained the mounting success of the Reformation in a sermon. With strong confidence in God’s Word, he declared: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept … the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 51, 77). Luther saw that God had used him as a mouthpiece for truth. The Reformation was founded not on him and his teachings, but on the unshakeable footing of Scripture alone.

In 1525, Luther married Katherine von Bora. This amazing woman was an escaped nun committed to the Reformation cause. The two repudiated their monastic vows in order to marry. Luther was forty-two and Katie was twenty-six. Their union produced six children. Luther had an extremely happy family life, which eased the demands of his ministry.

Till the end of his life, Luther maintained a heavy workload of lecturing, preaching, teaching, writing, and debating. This work for reform came at a high physical and emotional price. Each battle extracted something from him and left him weaker. He soon became subject to illnesses. In 1537, he became so ill that his friends feared he would die. In 1541, he again became seriously ill, and this time he himself thought he would pass from this world. He recovered yet again, but he was plagued by various ailments throughout his final fourteen years. Among other illnesses, he suffered from gallstones and even lost sight in one eye.

Faithful to the End

In early 1546, Luther traveled to Eisleben, his hometown. He preached there and then traveled on to Mansfeld. Two brothers, the counts of Mansfeld, had asked him to arbitrate a family difference. Luther had the great satisfaction of seeing the two reconciled.

That evening, Luther fell ill. As the night passed, Luther’s three sons—Jonas, Martin, and Paul—and some friends watched by his side. They pressed him: “Reverend father, do you stand by Christ and the doctrine you have preached?” The Reformer gave a distinct “yes” in reply. He died in the early hours of February 18, 1546, within sight of the font where he was baptized as an infant.

Luther’s body was carried to Wittenberg as thousands of mourners lined the route and church bells tolled. Luther was buried in front of the pulpit in the Castle Church of Wittenberg, the very church where, twenty-nine years earlier, he had nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses to the door.

Upon his death, his wife, Katherine, wrote concerning his lasting influence and monumental impact upon Christendom: “For who would not be sad and afflicted at the loss of such a precious man as my dear lord was. He did great things not just for a city or a single land, but for the whole world” (Katherine Luther, cited in Martin E. Marty, Martin Luther: A Life [New York: Penguin, 2008], 188). She was right. Luther’s voice sounded throughout the European continent in his own day and has echoed around the world through the centuries since.

Source: Excerpted with edits from Pillars of Grace, © 2011 by Steven J. Lawson. Published by Reformation Trust Publishing, a division of Ligonier Ministries. 17, 2011.


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Book Review by David P. Craig

R.C. Sproul examines what the Church isn’t, and what it is. In breaking down four key words from the Council of Nicea about what the Church is, Sproul articulates what it means that the church is (1) one, (2) holy, (3) catholic [i.e., universal], and (4) apostolic. Some of the issues addressed in this helpful book are: Why are there so many denominations? What are the essential truths that unite all Christians? What is Liberalism? Why do doctrines divide and unite? What’s an Evangelical? What does it mean for the church to be holy? What is the foundation of the church? What does it mean to be “in Christ”? What is the Gospel? What are the Sacraments? and Why should the church practice discipline?

Sproul covers a lot of ground in this short book. It is full of historical and theological insights, wisdom, and biblically based. I would recommend this book especially for new Christians and as a cogent argument for so-called “Christians” who are not a part of a visible local church. It will help you appreciate what unites Christians throughout history, today, and forever.


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Luther M nailing Theses at Wittenburg

Words and Music by Martin Luther, 1483–1546

English Translation by Frederick H. Hedge, 1805–1890

God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea. (Psalm 46:1, 2)

October 31, 1517, is perhaps the most important day in Protestant history. This was the day when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and a professor of theology, posted on the doors of the Cathedral of Wittenberg, Germany, his 95 theses (complaints) against the teachings and practices of the medieval Roman Church. With this event, the 16th century Protestant Reformation was formally born.

The Protestant Reformation movement was built on three main tenets:

• The re-establishment of the Scriptures.

• Clarifying the means of salvation.

• The restoration of congregational singing.

“A Mighty Fortress” was written and composed by Martin Luther. The date of the hymn cannot be fixed with any exact certainty. It is generally believed, however, to have been written for the Diet of Spires in 1529 when the term “protestant” was first used. The hymn became the great rallying cry of the Reformation.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe—His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide our striving would be losing, were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He—Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same—and He must win the battle.

And tho this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph thru us. The prince of darkness grim—we tremble not for Him; His rage we can endure; for lo! his doom is sure—One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours thru Him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still—His kingdom is forever.

For Today: Deuteronomy 33:27; 2 Samuel 22:2; Psalm 46; Isaiah 26:4

Breathe a prayer of thanks to God for reformers such as Martin Luther, who laid the foundations for our evangelical faith. Praise Him on this Reformation Day for this truth.

*Source: Ken Osbeck. “A Mighty Fortress,” Amazing Grace–366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, October 31 entry, Kregel, 2011.

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Posted by on October 31, 2013 in Church History


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Dr. John Hannah on The Place of Theology in the Postmodern World

Is the Study of Theology and History an Antiquated Discipline?

OL Hannah

The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ 1837 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, a description of turbulent revolutionary times in France and England, seems an appropriate starting point for a description of our times. There is warrant for wondering if the era of the birth of the noble experiment in enlightened thought differs significantly from the era of its unraveling and denigration. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of darkness. It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of light; it was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,” wrote the literary craftsman and social critic.

Many in the social sciences alert us that we are living in times of upheaval, a time of transition from one system of values and assumptions to another. Some suggest that the unease will subside as we make our peace with the changes; others that we are entering a dark, glacial age and the destruction of civilization.

Comfortable or not, at least two things can be argued from all of this.

First, this is a time of rapid and often disconcerting cultural and social change; the contrasts between the world of our grandparents and ours is akin to Gulliver’s transport to the land of the Lilliputians in its newness and culture shock.

Second, no amount of wishful thinking will make the negative features of the postmodern world, or even the “modern world,” vanish as a bad dream in the night. The church will live and flourish in this era as it has in every other because its origins and power are not of this world, but from heaven; religious doomsayers will all prove as wrong as the naturalistic optimists. The former is true because we are prone to forget, in the flurry of religious activities, that behind the scene of events is the Lord of all history who “works all things according to the counsels of his good pleasure.” The latter is true because human engineering and political agendas, enhanced by vast access to new information now accumulating at a truly staggering rate, have never overcome the destructive potential of human greed from within, nor can they. It is into this world, resolving to trust in the God of the heavens, that we face with joy and delight, seriousness and pain, the challenges of the new century.

The Denigration Of Theology In The Postmodern World

In this strange new world, how much of the past is still relevant and useful? Even more strange in our times is the suggestion that history and theology are beneficial for the health of the church today; but that is exactly what the church needs.

In our day, theology is regarded as an irrelevant, even destructive topic for the health of the church. Parishioners are more attuned to quick, easy solutions to their questions—the gratification of felt-needs and slick and easily grasped answers—instead of the pain of reflection and mental exertion. Pastors, not desiring to bore the flock of God or unnecessarily divide them, seem to view theology as a subject to be broached with extreme caution, even embarrassment, while waxing eloquent on topics that are hardly the central focus of God’s revelation to us. Though perhaps a cruel judgment, it can be argued that contemporary sermonic fare deals far more frequently with self-help and psychological issues than with the knowledge of the character of God, leading to behavior that is the fruit of sound theology.

Thomas Erskine was quite correct when he argued that “religion is about grace, ethics about gratitude.” Worship is more often a celebration of personal security and temporal happiness than the frightening, yet wonderful experience of coming before a holy God whose demands are only met in his Son. “I Am So Glad I’m a Part of the Family of God” is not a song for Sunday morning; far more fitting is “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Theology is wrapped in a veil of silence, like some haunting past hurtful experience. Or we are told that theology is actually harmful for postmoderns. I reject such talk as wickedly flawed and destructive for our Lord’s church. Yet it bears asking, “What, then, is the value of theology in today’s world?” Why has so much that has been written by so many over the centuries now lying unread? Is the study of theology and history of marginal value in the Christian community today?

While there are some notable exceptions, articles on the contemporary relevance of theology seen through the lens of history have been written generally by academicians for the scholarly community. Such defenses are rarely aimed at our pastors and an inquiring laity. Largely this is the case, I suspect, because the intellectual content of the Christian faith has been diluted. Theology is not merely about the occupation of scholars; the intended audience is that of pastors, Christian workers, and the Lord’s people in general. A truly biblical theology seeks to avoid the perils of lofty but irrelevant intellectualism and mere speculation on the one hand and the often superficiality of popular literature on the other. It arises from the belief that the quest for the knowledge of God is not an idle pastime, that spiritual vitality in any era is found in people who know their God, and that the greatest danger for the church is ignorance of God. Fears and adversaries come and go, but only those who know God can change the course of human events, bring permanence from impermanence, and speak a word of peace in a world that knows only self-advancement, self-hope, and self-fulfillment. In short, theology is a call to the church to return to God and make him the center of its priorities and life.

Let’s think a moment. Has the decline of doctrinal preaching in our churches prevented the intellectual anemia and cultural irrelevancy that has marginalized the church as an advice-giver among Americans? Has the de-emphasis on God brought to the church more willing hearers and maturity to the people who are already there? No! I believe that the decline of theological content in preaching is the cause of the weaknesses of the church today. When the message of the church merely affirms the morals of the culture or makes us more culturally identifiable, the church has ceased to be the church. The essence of Christianity is not morals; morals are the fruit of a vibrant profession of it. If we aim to promote the fruit of Christian faith without its foundation in the knowledge of God in Christ, how are we any different from the moral Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, or secularist? A person can certainly have a solid home, raise good children, and contribute to the betterment of society without Christ. Those wonderful things are not what distinguishes a Christian from others.

I am asserting in this article that theology does matter in the life of the church today. Both history and theology are indispensable to the vitality of the church. Scholars have lamented the denigration of historical studies; departments of history have steadily fallen prey to budgetary restraints while investments for science and technology have mushroomed. If financial expenditure is an evidence of priorities, theology and history have hit upon hard times to say the least! Such decline of interest among our scholars and teachers has an interesting parallel to the disinterest in theology in the churches. It seems to be far easier to worship God with our emotions and affections today than it is with our intellectual energies. Did not the Lord instruct us that the foremost of the commandments is that we should “love the Lord our God with all your hearts, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30)? A fragmented society has led to a fragmented church. A culture that marginalizes rational reflection has infiltrated the church of the Savior; we live in a world that generally appreciates knowledge for its pragmatic and utilitarian ends rather than as substantive essence. The Bible asserts that the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge. The pulpit fare in our churches, at times, appears to be sending the message that what is most important is to get in contact with the innermost recesses of the self. Failure, impotency, and disappointment come from ignorance of the appropriate recovery group or the latest “secret” of walking with God.

In short, the church seems to be in a rather awkward situation. Having struggled for several centuries to deflect the intellectual attacks posed by Enlightenment rationalism, which denigrated the biblical notions of God, sin, and grace, the church shows signs of imbibing those very characteristics: the penchant for micro-management (the emphasis on procedures, “steps,” and “rules” for everything from church growth to personal happiness); pluralism; tolerance; and privitization (i.e., truth is only personal and private, not public or universal). Theology, once the “queen” of all the sciences, is rapidly becoming “an embarrassing encumbrance.” (See David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1993, 300).

Thomas C. Oden suggests that the state of the church is that of “an ecclesiastical swamp.” This has been produced, in his judgment, by three intellectual sources: first, the emergence of “an intellectual immune deficiency syndrome, a marked decline of Christian content in the churches with a corresponding emphasis on the emotions”; second, “an acceptance of many of the premises of modernity”; and, third, “an ignorance of the roots of the church in classic orthodoxy.” (See Thomas C. Oden, “On Whoring After the Spirit of the Age,” in No God but God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1963, 196).

If this is true, then the church is truly in a precarious time. The church, and I mean the evangelical portion of it, is in a strange situation. We are increasingly defined by and identified by the very movement we invested enormous energies to denounce as unbiblical and ungodly. It may be argued that modern evangelicalism stands under the same judgment as turn-of-the-century liberalism that also berated doctrine while stressing morals and culture. I write from the conviction that the church must be aroused to reinvest heart and mind in historic, Christian orthodoxy. A Christianity separated from historical credibility is not a biblical faith; a Christianity without theology is morality and not the “faith once for all delivered to the saints of God” (Jude 3).

The Place Of Theology In The Life Of The Church

While theology is not to be confused with the Bible, there is an inseparable linkage between the two. As the Spirit of God and the Word of God are never severed (that is, God speaks most assuredly through his Word to our consciences, both private and corporate), so the Word and theology are inseparable. The source of our knowledge of God, which is the meaning of the term “theology,” is fundamentally Word and Spirit related. Theology is the fruit of the study of the Word that is the voice of God.

The Role of Theology in the Church is at least Four-fold:

(1) First, the task of the skilled theologian or pastor is to gather together the knowledge of God available to us with a view to the church’s worship and service. Older theologians, particularly of the English Puritan tradition, did not seem to define theology in cognitive terms (i.e., the science of the knowledge of God) though their endeavor to understand the Scriptures was remarkable as a scientific endeavor. They often referred to it as “the art of living unto God” or “the art of living blessedly forever.” Theology was neither a mere intellectual discipline nor the attainment of a body of knowledge; it was a means to an end, a godly life. Theology, then, may be defined as the distilled knowledge of God that is the foundation of a walk with God. No one can walk with a person they do not know, neither can we say we walk with God if we do not have an accurate knowledge of him. It is not about the admiration of gathered insights, however wonderful. It is about responding appropriately and regularly to the God revealed to us. This is the task of the pastor for his people. The pastor is to lead his people to a deepening knowledge of God. His tool is a knowledge of God derived from the Bible.

(2) A second function of theology, and here I have in mind historical theology, is to preserve the church from fads and novelty Knowledge of the past keeps the church from confusing the merely contemporary with the enduringly relevant; it distinguishes the transient from the permanent. In so doing, it spares the church of harmful diversions, which at the moment may appear promising. Knowledge of the past bequeaths a stability and confidence in a world where flamboyant voices lend credibility to spurious ideas promising success. In essence, theology presents to the church a valuable accumulation of enduring insights, often acquired at an enormous price, without expense to us along with many relevant lessons and warnings. It abounds in lessons and examples, both positive and negative, for the contemporary church. It thus functions with a view to the growth and maturity of the church by increasing the church’s understanding of its teaching. The relationship between the study of systematic theology and the study of historical theology is integral. Theology is both a science and an art concerning itself with the meaning of the Bible. Historical theology is a discipline that seeks to understand what the church has taught that the Bible teaches. The two disciplines function together. Knowledge of the past provides a wealth of insight about the meaning of texts. History is not opposed to creativity, though it is opposed to novelty.

History is not opposed to creativity,

though it is opposed to novelty.

(3) Third, theology in its historic context and development will preserve the church from error; it provides both apologetic and polemic weapons against deception. The accumulated wisdom of the church can provide an arsenal of arguments as we struggle to preserve the church today from its opponents within and without. For example, the church has been ravaged both by an over-intellectualization of the gospel, as well as by a de-emphasis on the cognitive aspects of the faith; it has alternated between an arid faith full of knowledge but with little vitality and an experienced-centered faith with little intellectual content. An over-emphasis in either direction has proven destructive to Christian experience. Though a contemporary issue, this is not the first time that the church has been forced to articulate the relationship between “the faith as known” and “the faith as experienced.” The collective insights of the past are instructive in gaining a perspective.

Another issue that has recurred in the church is (the question of) the cause of something and its proper effect. Are morals in some sense the cause of salvation or are they the necessary and proper effect? The struggle of the church in the past with this issue provides helpful insights as we attempt to handle the same controversies in a contemporary setting.

(4) Fourth, knowledge of history and theology provide a bulwark against pride and arrogance borne of the thought that any one church or ecclesiastical tradition stands in the exclusive heritage of first century orthodoxy. While all ecclesiastical expressions of the church today mirror a continuity with the one, holy, and apostolic church, there are also significant discontinuities as well. Various ecclesiastical traditions, whether Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Congregational, claim biblical warrant for their structures yet each have evolved forms. Some have more elaborate structures than others. But do they possess explicit biblical justification for all their forms? Church structure often has emerged out of a particular historic setting and answers needs of the time. While it may be argued that one form or another more faithfully reflects the Bible, each evidences modification from the embryonic structure of the New Testament.

Knowledge of continuity in the midst of discontinuity should have a multiple function. First, it should cause us to be careful in claiming a biblical precedent for all that any particular church does. Second, it should cause us to make continuity with the New Testament, not later additives, the ground of true fellowship. And, third, it should cause us to focus on those areas of truth that are truly timeless and enduring, recognizing we all cling to certain things that are more a part of our tradition and our own accustomed way of doing things than strictly biblical.

In the process of the proclamation and defense of the faith through the centuries, the church has become the heir of a rich treasure. In countless books and other forms of literary witness men and women have recorded their faith in action. With literary skill and biblical insight the people of God have defended the faith, explained its deepest complexities, and revealed its practical implications. It is not too much to assert, it seems, that much of the literature produced by the church today appears trite, superficial, and anemic when compared to the rich treasury of the centuries. The works of Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and the English Puritans, to mention some now silent voices, have bequeathed such a wonderful heritage of insights that we are impoverished if we remain in ignorance of them.

Finally, knowledge of doctrine supports the Bible’s witness to the triumph of the church. Through times of duress and trial the people of God have been preserved and steadfastly have proclaimed the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The devil has employed every strategy to destroy the church, armies have marched against it, faithless scholarship has relentlessly assaulted it, internal bickering has rent it, and martyrdom has depleted its ranks from time to time. Yet the church marches forward in triumphal anticipation of the great consummation when the kingdoms of this world will be put under Christ’s feet, and the bride, without spot or blemish, will be given to the king. Theology witnesses to the truth of the Scriptures that the world will not end with some deluded false messiah pulling off the ultimate threat to destroy the globe through a nuclear holocaust, holding the world hostage, but in the glorious reign of the King of Kings.

Can We Have A Knowledge Of God Without The Study Of Theology?

(1) Certain basic assumptions support the endeavor of studying theology. Our fundamental assumption is that there is truth available to us; it is found both in the Bible and in the church’s study of the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God written; Christ is the Word of God revealed in it; and the Spirit is the voice of God in it revealing Christ. The Bible is the work and witness of the triune God. Faith is Word-invoked by the Spirit who reveals Christ, our redeemer, enlightening our eyes, redeeming the soul, and infusing the very life of God into us. With child-like embrace, the church has clung to the Bible, searching its pages for direction in life and work. The central focus of the Bible is Christ.

(2) A second assumption is that the Bible has been and can be accurately understood by the church. The Spirit promised through the apostle John that he would lead us into all truth (1 John 2:27). While this has been the subject of considerable discussion, it cannot possibly mean that all the details of orthodoxy are universally known in the church or that unanimity of teaching would prevail. There is simply too much division of opinion in the churches. “All truth” seems to be a reference not to all truth without distinction, but to all truth without exception; it embraces what Christians essentially believe and have commonly embraced across all traditions and denominations. It is a reference to Christ, his person and his work, which the Spirit reveals universally to all believers. While Christians have not been able or are able to agree on a wide range of topics (e.g., the sacraments, spiritual gifts, form of church government, eschatology), there is common consent in the redeemed community about the Lord Jesus Christ.

(3) A third assumption is more difficult to explain. It is the idea that our understanding of what the Bible teaches or says (i.e., theology, doctrine, and dogma) has evolved both negatively and positively. History tells us that theology often has deviated from the path of biblical permissibility while simultaneously it has maintained a remarkable congruity to it. It is one of the duties of the historical theologian and pastor to demonstrate how the church has stood in continuity and discontinuity with the apostolic age.

While the evangelical Christian church has correctly understood the essentials of the gospel, this does not suggest that in every particular the various churches stand in continuity with the apostles’ teachings; this is a logical impossibility. Either one particular community is in conformity with the first century revelation of God or none of them is in every detail. It is my understanding that no single assembly of saints or denomination, however orthodox, evangelical, or primitive, strictly follows the Bible. While the church has sought to be always faithful, the meaning of texts is often subject to more than one interpretation. Theology is often the art of establishing central, classic texts, and every system of doctrine may fail to give proper regard to certain other proof texts. Circumstances also can furnish profound insight into the meaning of texts or current prejudices. No single individual, church, or denomination has escaped human frailty, though there is continuity and uniformity in the essentials of Christ, his person and work.

(4) A fourth assumption is that theology has been forged in church history; the content of our faith was given by the apostles and understood clearly through the centuries in the believing church. However, the explanation of the revelation of God, not the fact of it, has emerged in history. It is amid attack from the enemies of the church or the serious intellectual inquiries of those inside the church that has occasioned the development of theology.

The Bible neither came to us completely intact as today nor with a topical index! It came to us a volume at a time; it was the verbal expression of the oral message of the church. For example, some have argued that the doctrine of the absolute co-equality of Christ with God implied that Christianity was not a monotheistic faith, an early Gnostic charge. Today some claim that the idea of the deity of Christ is not a first-century truth, but one that was invented in the fourth century by the bishops of the church at the first ecumenical council, Nicea (325). The Gnostics understood that the early churchmen made this claim; others deny that they ever made the claim. The answer is that the church has always made the claim, but it took serious reflection upon the Scriptures, as well as other circumstances, to explain, not invent, it. Theology is made in history; it is the result of the study of the revelation of God. It is a human endeavor by fallible people who engage all their intellectual strength and Spirit-inspired ability to understand an infallible book with the sure promise that he will lead us into “all truth.” Theology is a historical question and answer exercise. Presented with questions, apparent difficulties with the coherency of our faith, the church has given them serious thought. The church, in thinking about the inquiries, has reflected deeply on the Bible as the fountain for the substance of an adequate reply. Those answers, when delivered in written form, are doctrine. This formulated reply derived from the Holy Scriptures, the church has used to answer her critics.

Can We Have A Knowledge Of God Without The Study Of Theology And History?

While scholars throughout the disciplines of historical studies follow the same basic method of research, generally the rudiments set forth by Francis Bacon years ago, there are significant differences in their philosophical assumptions in approaching the task. The overarching assumption for the Christian pastor is a belief in the sovereignty of God in all human affairs and the decreed outworking of his purposes. His pastoral work is a blending of the data derived from the Bible including history and prophecy as well as the study of the events and various circumstances outside the Bible. A rather insightful attempt at writing a history of mankind employing this method was devised by the American Puritan Jonathan Edwards in his A History of Redemption (1739) to which I am indebted for many of my own views in the matter. In this particular book, Edwards suggests that the divine purpose in creating and sustaining mankind through the centuries is that God is gathering a bride for his Son, the Lord Jesus.

The Bible describes human history from beginning to end; it is selective of material and there are enormous gaps in the story, particularly of the events between the two testaments and the two advents or comings of Christ as well as the creation itself. The Bible begins with a description of a created, unspoiled garden and concludes in the same fashion, one in time and the other in eternity. The function of the book is also two-fold. It is a revelation of comfort and condescension.

It is about the comfort of God for his people through his condescension to them through prophets, judges, and kings though most perfectly and completely in the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is about his triumph in and through history. History is really a redemptive drama! If the subject of the Bible is Christ, the central event in the revelation of God is the cross.

The Bible is composed of two testaments or covenants, an old one and a new one. The Old Testament is a book of shadows; the ceremonies and symbols the ancient people of God anticipated the coming of a promised deliverer. Beginning with the promise to Adam after the Edenic catastrophe (Genesis 3:15), God progressively revealed the One who would crush evil. The Old Testament describes his person and his work. Gradually the former is unveiled as details about him are progressively disclosed (e.g., he is to be a male; a Semite; a son of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob; a son of Judah; a son of David). His work is gradually unveiled through ceremonies such as the Passover and the Day of Atonement. The summit of the shadowed unveiling is the revelation of Isaiah the prophet (chapter 53). In essence the Old Testament era is one of anticipation of the coming of the vaguely explained deliverer, shadows that gradually take on substance.

No longer revealed in shadow as in the Old Testament (Hebrews 1:1), Christ stands in his wonderful clarity in the New Testament revelation, where the person and work of the promised deliverer is unmistakably unveiled. The central event of the Bible is Calvary where God’s promised deliverer became mankind’s redeemer. There he rendered a sacrifice, a payment in his own life’s blood, to divine justice in behalf of sinners, where atonement was made for sin, so that God could justly and freely forgive sin without a violation of his holiness.

(1) The first of two monumental events in the Bible, one of two central foci of the book, is the cross of Christ. The long-anticipated Christ became our sin-bearer enduring the wrath of God due the sinner (2 Corinthians 5:21). There the debt of sin was paid so that God could be both just in his character remaining always holy and yet justifying, declaring sinners righteous in his sight. Beyond the gospels and in the epistles God revealed something of the early history of the church. Then through prophecy we are told about his second coming, not as a savior but as the Lord and king of history.

(2) The second grand focus of the Bible is his return as king to rule over his redeemed in a renovated garden. If the great period before the advent of Christ can be called one of anticipation, the period before his coming again may be called one of both anticipation and reflection. Christians the world over have a double view as they gather for worship week after week; we express expectancy of the Lord’s return and we reflect in the study of the Scriptures on his first coming, either from shadowed, Old Testament texts or the clearer New Testament revelation. At the end of time, when Christ comes to reign as king over the earth, the third era will commence, the era of fulfillment. All the promises of God, from both testaments, will come to fruition just as the Bible indicates; righteousness will prevail, not chaos. The era between the two advents of the Savior comprise the period of the history of the church, the era of the development of the apostle’s doctrine.

A Plea For The Importance Of Theology In The Postmodern World: The Study Of Theology Is At The Heart Of Our Task

Having written on the history of Christian thought and the importance of theology for the church today, I am compelled to ask the question that haunts every writer. Are my thoughts a service to the Lord’s church or has all this work simply added to the proliferation of small, useless ideas that have littered the publishing landscape? Does anyone really care about theology anymore?

These concerns are particularly intense because we are now living in the world of post-modernity. We exist within a culture that has repudiated many of the assumptions of modernity, such as the importance of the rational, the propriety of the orderly, and the possibility of objective truth. We live in a world where personality has more street value than character, psychological wholeness than spiritual authenticity. We find ourselves in a world where pleasures are embraced without moral norms and social responsibility. Christian truth is attacked not so much for its particular assertions, but for its fundamental claim that there is such a thing as binding, objective truth. The quest for truth has been replaced with the preoccupation for pleasure and entertainment. Thus, we live in a world of the therapeutic and the psychological, an endless quest for self-fulfillment and entitlement. Sin has become little more than the infringement of personal rights and privileges; there is little thought of defining it by the standard of the holiness of God. It is in this kind of a world that the question of the relevance of theology is raised. With so much interest in the management of life, what is the benefit of such a seemingly esoteric thing as timeless, transcendent, historic truth?

The question is complicated by the fact that modern evangelicalism is in a state of crisis. The very community that historically has been deeply interested in transcendent, timeless truth seems more earnestly intent upon focusing on the merely private, personal, and temporal. If I could be so blunt, the church has lost its soul. The quest for contemporary relevance has led it down the path of increasing irrelevancy and marginalization. The evangelical church is on the brink of becoming another of the many social, do-good agencies whose mission purpose has to do with helping people more fully to enjoy this life while neglecting the implications of eternity. While our culture has shown a marked inclination to secularism, the church seems to have followed suit. One of our recent Christian social critics has summarized the problem quite succinctly, “The stream of historic orthodoxy that once watered the evangelical soul is now damned by a worldliness that many fail to recognize as worldliness because of the cultural innocence with which it presents itself” (No Place for Truth, 11).

This is characterized by a decline of Christian content in teaching and preaching, with an accompanying interest in self-help programs that merely promise a better management of everyday crises. There is also an appalling ignorance in the churches of their rich Christian heritage (“On Whoring After the Spirit of the Age,” 196). Mark Noll speaks of “the scandal of the evangelical mind,” the denigration of the intellectual content of the faith and the elevation of the subjective and personal (Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994, 35–36). Barna complains that the average Christian is uninterested in life-changing religious convictions, having little more than the most superficial awareness of sin, grace, and redemption (George Barna, The Barna Report. Ventura, California: Regal, 1994, 44, 58).

This moral and intellectual crisis comes to the evangelical church when Christianity is without a serious secular opponent; there are no potent rivals in our culture making claims to having objective, final truth. Such truth claims have been abandoned in the postmodern experience.

David Wells has found a general parallel to the situation in the churches today to the era just prior to the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

(1) First, the two churches, he suggests, are similar in that they each manifest a lack of confidence in the Word of God. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the denigration of the Scriptures was manifested in the church’s appeal to papal pronouncements; today, it is to business know-how and psychological counseling.

(2) Second, both churches reflect a flawed understanding of the seriousness of sin. One of our philosophers, having reflected on the decline of the discussion of sin within his own religious heritage simply has stated: “The new language of Zion fudges: ‘Let us confess our problem with human relational adjustment dynamics, and especially our feebleness in networking’… ‘Peanut Butter Binge’ and ‘Chocolate Decadence’ are sinful; lying is not. The measure of sin is caloric.” (Cornelius Plantinga, “Natural Born Sinners: Why We Flee from Guilt and the Notion of Sin,” Christianity Today 38. November 14, 1995, 26).

(3) Third, in both instances the church, having lost its grasp on sin, has minimized the glory and efficacy of the death of Christ (David F. Wells, Losing our Virtue. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998, 28–29). Sin and grace are intrinsically linked. The former is the problem; the latter the solution. Weak, unbiblical views of mankind’s plight lead to a weak solution to it. Without the biblical doctrine of human depravity, Calvary is little more than a moral object lesson of how to behave when misunderstood and tragically treated. Christ is reduced to a pathetically misunderstood fellow who neither died for sin or rose from the dead to verify his victory over it.

These very circumstances are the reason for the plea. It is a call for the church—pastors, teachers, and laity—to reverse the recent trends that pose a threat to the historic gospel of Christ by humanizing sin and, therefore, speaking lightly of the work of the Savior. It is time for us to listen to the Scriptures for our message, not the beckoning cry of a pleasure inebriated culture. The need of the hour is not for revival; it is for something even more fundamental. It is time for a reformation in the church. Revival has to do with the extension of the gospel; the greatest need in the contemporary church is to rediscover the gospel, its glory and its power. It is time to return to the fundamentals of the faith and be refreshed in its truths, to gain anew a love and respect for the Holy Scriptures. Revival without reformation is religious fervor at best; revival out of reformation is the only hope of the church.

The Centrality Of The Gospel In Christian Proclamation

My plea is a rather simple one. It is one that has been stated with regularity, but practiced infrequently. Theoretically, I suppose, it is easy to talk about gradation of convictions.

(1) First, there are those beliefs that each of us holds that are simply essential. These are the core doctrines of Christianity without which there can be no Christianity, the beliefs that one would hold as so central that there should be a willingness to die for them. Among these, for example, may be the existence of God, the deity of Christ, the atonement, and salvation by grace without any human merit.

(2) Second, there is that cluster of beliefs that are reckoned to be very important and are held with the same conviction from the Scriptures as those most essential truths, but with the recognition that there is legitimate debate among Christians on their interpretation. Often these are what you might call “denominational distinctives,” if held by a particular religious group, or simply personal convictions. Examples of these types of convictions might be a particular view of baptism or the Eucharist, church polity, or the chronology of Last Things. While they may be fervently held, they are nonetheless teachings that are subject to a variance of opinion and are not issues that should divide the fellowship of the saints in the broadest sense.

(3) Third, there is another realm of beliefs that are distinctly personal. They are neither core doctrines of Christianity nor those embraced in a creed by any particular Christian group. They are simply private, personal views that arise from the study of the Bible and the experience of life. Traditionally these have been defined as “adiaphoria,” in matters of difference. They might have to do with certain moral issues that are neither prohibited nor propounded by the Scriptures. Experientially, however, these concentric circles of beliefs are often blended together; sometimes, mere personal beliefs are treated as core truths. My plea is that these distinctions be recognized and that our Christian pastors, teachers, missionaries, and laity make sure that the central truths be foremost in our proclamation of Christianity.

The cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith concern the person and work of Jesus Christ, the gospel. The most important person in all of history is Jesus Christ; he alone must always be the passionate message of the church. Without Christ, there can be no gospel that is really good news. He is the essence of the Bible. While there are teachings that are important, greatly adding to the maturity of the church, Christ is the keystone of it all. The very center of the Scriptures is Christ. The cross of Christ is the great moment of redemptive history. That should always be, along with all the teachings of Christ that fill out its deepest meaning, the essential proclamation of the Christian community.

What Happens When The Non-Essential Becomes A Preoccupation?

There is a hazard for the church of Jesus Christ when the peripheral becomes a preoccupation, when the core doctrines of the faith are superseded by other, perhaps even, solid and wonderful teaching. I see at least two negative consequences.

(1) First, when the non-essential teachings consistently are taught, the impression is conveyed that they are the very heart and core of the faith. To be biblical means, at least in part, that one not only derives the content of teaching from the

Bible, but that one also submits to the priorities and centralities of the Bible. The pages of history are replete with examples of people who have majored on the minors instead of minoring on them. Such a tendency distorts the gospel of Jesus Christ when the time-honored central teachings of the church are substituted with the particular insights of a teacher or a group, teachings not shared by the entire Christian community. My plea is that we become “catholic” in our profession of Christianity. We must stand together on the historic Christian doctrines, majoring on them in our proclamation of Christ, and not allow ourselves to be drawn away by the attractions of novelty or complexity.

Novelty will always get a crowd

and build a following, but it does

not last beyond the gifted and winsome

teacher or teachers who proclaim it.

(2) Second, there is also a danger in majoring on minors for those who preach and proclaim them. Novelty will always get a crowd and build a following, but it does not last beyond the gifted and winsome teacher or teachers who proclaim it. There is a rather wonderful dynamic in all this. Christ has so ordered things, it appears, that the enduring truths of Scripture last from generation to generation, but novelty is short-lived. Those who teach other than the core truths of the gospel as gospel-truth can be compared to a person who walks along a beach in the soft, moist sand when the tide is out. In this analogy, they leave their footprints or teachings, as it were, in the sand, but the tide eventually comes and washes them away. In past centuries, many have taught unique or novel insights, but most of them have passed with the “tide” of time. In refusing to major on the great and timeless truths of the gospel, precious time is poorly managed, the gospel distorted, and the Lord’s people confused.

Where To Go From Here?

The history of Christian thought suggests that there is a timeless core of Christian truth. It is what we call theology. It has survived the battering of those unsympathetic with it and the minimizing of it by its advocates. Because Christ and his gospel came to us from heaven, it has and will survive the ravages of friend and foe. Will it, however, in the American churches? Or will our churches drift like the churches of the great European Reformation in the sixteenth century, the churches once vibrant with the teachings of Luther and Calvin, that are now emptied of all but the old? Do our churches have the potential of becoming tomorrow’s museums? Our pastors and teachers must make theology and history their task, the pulpit and lectern their forum. In this era of theological drivel, we must be people of courage in the proclamation of timeless truth. The issue is not that much in our contemporary churches is not stimulating and exciting; it is that it is not eternal! “Help us, O Lord, not to be ashamed of the simplicity and wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To preach nothing other than Christ and him crucified calling men and women, boys and girls to this One who has loved us and loosed us from our sins in his precious blood. Amen!”

*This article is a summary of John Hannah’s excellent book on Doctrinal history, Our Legacy (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2001). RAR 11:1 (Winter 2002), pp. 12-32.

About Dr. John Hannah

John Hannah

Department Chair and Research Professor of Theological Studies, Distinguished Professor of Historical Theology

B.S., Philadelphia College of Bible, 1967; Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1971; Th.D., 1974; M.A., Southern Methodist University, 1980; Ph.D., University of Texas at Dallas, 1988; postdoctoral fellowship, Yale University, 1994.

Dr. Hannah has enjoyed a distinguished career for more than 35 years at Dallas Seminary. He is a frequent and popular church and conference speaker both at home and abroad. His teaching interests include the general history of the Christian church, with particular interest in the works of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and John Owen. His publications include books, journals, chapters in books, audio materials, and computerized works. He currently is researching and writing a history of Dallas Seminary, with a general history of the Christian church after that. He remains active in church ministries and serves on the boards of several organizations.


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Charles C. Ryrie on The Significance of Pentecost

Pentecost image

By anyone’s standards Pentecost was a significant day. It is the purpose of this article to treat the significant aspects of the day in relation to certain major areas of theological studies.

Significance in Relation to Typology

Typology has suffered a great deal at the hands of both its friends and its enemies, since for many the study of types is still an uncertain science. Some, it is true, have found types in everything, while others in their reaction against this give little or no place for typological studies. My own definition of a type is that it is a divinely purposed illustration which prefigures its corresponding reality. This definition not only covers types which are expressly designated so by the New Testament (e.g., 1 Cor 10) but also allows for types not so designated (e.g., Joseph as a type of Christ). Yet in the definition the phrase “divinely purposed” should guard against an allegorical or pseudo-spiritual interpretation of types which sees chiefly the resemblances between Old Testament events and New Testament truths to the neglect of the historical, geographical, and local parts of those events. While all things are in a sense divinely purposed, not all details in all stories were divinely purposed illustrations of subsequently revealed truth. Pentecost is a good example of this, for although there is a clear type-antitype relationship, not all the details of the Old Testament feast find a corresponding reality in the events recorded in Acts 2.

As the antitype of one of the annual feasts of the Jews Pentecost has significance. This feast (Lev 23:15–21) was characterized by an offering of two loaves marking the close of harvest. The corresponding reality of this ceremony was the joining on the day of Pentecost by the Holy Spirit Jew and Gentile as one loaf in the one body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13). Pentecost is sometimes called the feast of weeks because it fell seven (a week of) weeks after Firstfruits. No date could be set for the observance of Firstfruits, for that depended on the ripening of the grain for harvest. However, when the time did arrive a small amount of grain was gathered, threshed, ground into flour, and presented to the Lord as a token of the harvest yet to be gathered. The corresponding reality is, of course, “Christ the firstfruits” (1 Cor 15:23). The fifty days interval between the two feasts was divinely purposed in the Old Testament type and finds exact correspondence in the New Testament antitype.

Significance in Relation to Theology

The theological significance of Pentecost concerns chiefly the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity, not Peter, played the leading role in the drama of that day; He is the power of Pentecost; and in a very special sense the era which followed is His age. Obviously the Spirit of God has always been present in this world, but He has not always been a resident as one who permanently indwells the church. This was a new relationship which did not obtain even during the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry, for He said to His disciples concerning the Spirit, “He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you” (John 14:17).

The Evidences of His Coming (Acts 2:1-4)

Wind. A sound as of a rushing mighty wind was the first evidence of the Spirit’s coming. It came suddenly so that it could not be attributed to any natural cause, and it came from heaven, which probably refers both to the impression given of its origin and also to its actual supernatural origin. It was not actually wind but rather a roar or reverberation, for verse two  should be literally translated “an echoing sound as of a mighty wind borne violently.” It filled all the house which means that all of the 120 would have experienced the sensation since so many people would of necessity have been scattered throughout the house. This was a fitting evidence of the Spirit’s coming, for the Lord had used this very symbol when He spoke of the things of the Spirit to Nicodemus (John 3:8).

Fire. The audible sign, wind, was followed by a visible one, fire. Actually the tongues which, looked like fire divided themselves over the company, a tongue settling upon the head of each one. This, too, was an appropriate sign for the presence of the Holy Spirit, for fire had long been to the Jews a symbol of the divine presence (Exod 3:2; Deut 5:4). The form of the original text makes one doubt the presence of material fire though the appearance of the tongues was clearly as if they had been composed of fire.

Languages. Finally, each began to speak in a real language which was new to the speaker but which was understood by those from the various lands who were familiar with them. This was the third piece of evidence, and although some have assumed that this miracle was wrought on the ears of the hearers, this certainly forces the plain and natural sense of the narrative. These tongues were evidently real languages (vv. 6–8) which were spoken, and the imperfect tense, “was giving” (v. 4), indicates that they were spoken in turn, one after another.

The Effects of His Coming (Acts 2:5-13)

Baptism. The most important effect of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost was the placing of men and women into the body of Christ by His baptism. Our Lord spoke of this baptizing work of the Holy Spirit just before His ascension (Acts 1:5), and it is clear from His words that this was a ministry of the Spirit thus far unknown even to those to whom He had said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22). If the baptism of the Holy Spirit was not something new to men until the day of Pentecost, then the Lord’s words in Acts 1:5—and especially the future tense of the verb “ye shall be baptized”—mean nothing. Although it is not specifically recorded in Acts 2 that the baptism of the Spirit occurred on the day of Pentecost, it is recorded in Acts 11:15–16 that this happened then, and Peter states there that what happened at Pentecost was the fulfillment of the promise of Acts 1:5. However, it is Paul who explains what this baptism (not to be confused with what is meant in Acts 2:38) accomplishes when he writes, “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). In other words, on the day of Pentecost men were first placed into the body of Christ and that by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Since the church is the body of Christ (Col 1:18), the church could not have begun until Pentecost. Furthermore, since no reference to the baptism of the Spirit is found in the Old Testament, since all references in the gospels are prophetic, and since in all prophecies of the future kingdom age there is no reference to the Spirit’s baptism, we may conclude that this work of His is peculiar to this dispensation and peculiar to the church (which, it follows, must also be limited to this dispensation) in forming it and uniting the members to the body of Christ forever.

Bewilderment. Certain visible effects of the Spirit’s coming were evident in the crowd which gathered as a result of the phenomena connected with His coming. At first the people (including Eastern or Babylonian Jews, Syrian Jews, Egyptian Jews, Roman Jews, Cretes and Arabians) were amazed. Literally the text says that they stood out of themselves with wide-open astonishment (v. 7). This is a mental reaction showing that their minds were arrested by what they observed. Next they were perplexed (v. 12). This is a strong compound word from an adjective which means impassable and hence the word comes to mean to be wholly and utterly at a loss. This was mental defeat. “The amazement meant that they did not know. The perplexity meant that they knew they did not know.”  Not knowing is always a blow to man’s pride; consequently this crowd, driven to find an answer to what they had seen and heard, replaced their ignorance with criticism (v. 13). These are merely normal reactions of Satanically-blinded minds to which the things of God are foolishness (2 Cor 4:4; 1 Cor 2:14) and should not surprise us if they occur today. The offense of the cross has not ceased.

Its Signficance in Relation to Homiletics

The Sermon (Acts 2:14-36)

Introduction—Explanation. Peter, spokesman for the eleven, seized the opportunity for a witness by answering the charge of drunkenness which had been levelled at the apostles. He thus wisely introduced his sermon by using the local situation, and taking that which was uppermost in his hearers’ thoughts. He formulated his introduction as an explanation of that which they had just seen and heard (v. 15). Strangely enough he did not introduce his message with a story or joke. Nothing in the situation seemed to remind Peter of a certain story, etc. Peter’s mind was full of Scripture, not stories; Peter’s concern was for the people, not pleasantries. The disciples could not be drunk, he told them, for it was only nine o’clock in the morning. Pentecost was a feast day, and the Jews who were engaged in the services of the synagogues of Jerusalem would have abstained from eating and drinking until at least 10 a.m. and more likely noon.

From this categorical denial of the charge of drunkenness Peter passed easily and naturally to the explanation of what the phenomenon was. It was not wine but the Holy Spirit who was causing these things, and to prove this Peter quoted Joel 2:28–32. This is a very definite prophecy of the Holy Spirit’s being poured out when Israel is again established in her own land. The problem here is not one of interpretation but of usage only. Clearly Joel’s prophecy was not fulfilled at Pentecost, for (1) Peter does not use the usual Scriptural formula for fulfilled prophecy as he does in Acts 1:16 (cf. Matt 1:22; 2:17; 4:14 ); (2) the original prophecy of Joel will clearly not be fulfilled until Israel is restored to her land, converted, and enjoying the presence of the Lord in her midst (Joel 2:26–28); (3) the events prophesied by Joel simply did not come to pass. If language means anything Pentecost did not fulfill this prophecy nor did Peter think that it did. The usage need not raise theological questions at all, for the matter is primarily homiletical and any problems should be solved in that light. Peter’s point was that the Holy Spirit and not wine was responsible for what these Jews had seen. He quotes Joel to point out that as Jews who knew the Old Testament Scriptures they should have recognized this as the Spirit’s work. In other words, their own Scriptures should have reminded them that the Spirit was able to do what they had just seen. Why then, someone may ask, did Peter include the words from Joel recorded in Acts 2:19–20? Why did he not stop with verse 18? The answer is simple. Peter not only wanted to show his audience that they should have known from the Scriptures that the Spirit could do what they had seen, but he also wanted to invite them to accept Jesus as their Messiah by using Joel’s invitation “whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v. 21). Thus what is recorded in Acts 2:19–20 is simply a connecting link between the two key points in his argument. “The remainder of the quotation from Joel, verses 19, 20, has no bearing on Peter’s argument, but was probably made in order to complete the connection of that which his argument demanded.” (J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, p. 28).

Theme—Jesus is Messiah. To us today it does not mean much to say that Jesus is Christ or Messiah. To a Jew of that day this was an assertion which required convincing proof, and it was the theme of Peter’s sermon. Peter’s proof is built along very simple lines. First he paints a picture of the Messiah from the Old Testament Scriptures. Then from contemporary facts he presents a picture of Jesus of Nazareth. Finally, he superimposes these two pictures on each other to prove conclusively that Jesus is Messiah. The center of each picture is the resurrection. In verses 22–24  there is a proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Then there follows (vv. 25–31) the prediction of resurrection from Psalm 16:8–11 which Peter applies to the Messiah. Finally, the Messiah is identified as Jesus whom they crucified and of whose resurrection they were witnesses. It is important to notice that the truth of Jesus’ resurrection was not challenged but was well attested by the conviction of these thousands of people who were in the very city where it had occurred less than two months before.

Conclusion—Application. Peter now puts it up to his hearers to decide about Jesus, and yet there is really no

choice, so conclusive has been his argument. How gracious of God to appeal once again to the very people who had crucified His Son. The application was personal. Peter did not say “someone” but “ye.”

The Results (Acts 2:37-41)

Conviction. Peter’s sermon brought conviction of heart. The word translated “prick” is a rare one which means to pierce, stun or smite. Outside the Scriptures it is used of horses dinting the earth with their hoofs. In like manner the hearts of his hearers were smitten by Peter’s message as the Spirit of God applied it.

Conversion. To the group of 120 (which included men and women, Acts 1:14) were added 3000 souls (Acts 2:41). They repented or changed their minds, for that is the meaning of repentance. It is not mere sorrow which is related to the emotions, for one can be sorry for sin without being repentant. Neither is it mere mental assent to certain facts, for genuine repentance involves the heart as well.  For the Jews gathered at Pentecost it involved a change of relationship toward Him whom they had considered as merely the carpenter’s son of Nazareth and an imposter by receiving Jesus as Lord and Messiah.

The Spirit of God must always do the work of enlightening and converting, but men are still His method of heralding the message. May our sermons be like Peter’s—doctrinally sound, homiletically excellent, filled with and explanatory of the Word of God, and aimed at those to whom we speak.

Its Significance in Relation to Practical Theology 

In the realm of practical theology two things command attention from among the many events of Pentecost and the days which immediately followed.

The Ordinance of Baptism

To the question “What shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized.” That this refers to the new converts’ being baptized by the Spirit is untenable for several reasons.

(1) It is doubtful that Peter himself and much less probable that his hearers understood yet the truth concerning the baptism of the Spirit even though it did first occur at Pentecost. (2) If this were referring to that automatic ministry of the Spirit then there would be no need for the report of verse 41: “Then they that gladly received his word was baptized.” (3) What would this audience have understood by Peter’s answer? His words meant that they were to submit to a rite performed with water which would be a sign of their identification with this new group. They would have thought immediately of Jewish, proselyte baptism which signified entrance of the proselyte into Judaism (Cf. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, II, 745–47, for a concise discussion of the baptism of proselytes).

They would have thought of John’s baptism, submission to which meant identification with John’s message in a very definite way; for John was the first person to baptize other people (all proselyte baptisms were self-imposed), which was a striking way to ask people to identify themselves with all that he stood for. They would have realized that they were being asked to identify and associate themselves with this new group who believed Jesus was the Messiah, and Christian baptism at the hands of these disciples signified this association as nothing else could.

(NOTE: The language of verse 41  implies that the 3000 converts were all baptized on the same day. There were numerous pools and reservoirs in Jerusalem which would have provided the facilities for this even by immersion. If all the 120 disciples assisted in administering the ordinance it could easily have been done in a very short time. The magazine Life in its August 14, 1950, issue reported a modern instance where 34 men immersed 3381 converts in 4 hours).

Even today for a Jew it is not his profession of Christianity nor his attendance at Christian services nor his belief in the New Testament but his partaking of water baptism that definitely and finally excludes him from Judaism and sets him off as a Christian. And there is no reason why it should not be the same line of demarcation for all converts to Christianity, signifying the separation from the old life and association with the new.

(NOTE: A. T. Robertson explains well the meaning of the words “unto the remission of your sins” (v. 38), and his words are here quoted lest any misinterpret the words of Peter to teach baptismal regeneration. “In themselves the words can express aim or purpose for that use of eis does exist as in 1 Cor 2:7…. But then another usage exists which is just as good Greek as the use of eis for aim or purpose. It is seen in Matt 10:41…where it cannot be purpose or aim, but rather the basis or ground, on the basis of the name of prophet, righteous man, disciple, because one is, etc. It is seen again in Matt 12:41 about the preaching of Jonah…. They repented because of (or at) the preaching of Jonah. The illustrations of both usages are numerous in the N.T. and the Koine generally…. I understand Peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received.” [Word Pictures in the New Testament, III, 35–36]).

The Organization of Believers

Its commencement. We have already noted how the church as an organism, the body of Christ, began on the day of Pentecost. But the church as an organization also began that day as the Lord added 3000 souls.

Its continuance. The power of the early church, humanly speaking, was due largely to the facts recorded in Acts 2:42. There was no rapid falling away from the newly-embraced faith. Indeed, just the opposite was true, for membership in the early church involved persevering adherance. They continued in the apostles’ doctrine. “The church is apostolic because it cleaves to the apostles….”  Teaching had always had a prominent place among the Jews, and it is not strange to find the Christian group appearing as a school. The apostles were the first teachers, and the bulk of their teaching we now have in the gospels. It consisted of the facts of the Lord’s life as well as His doctrine and teaching. The church today could well afford to emulate the early church in this. Instead of capitalizing on new converts and exploiting them, we should teach them even if that means keeping them in the background for a while.

Furthermore they continued steadfastly in fellowship, and this is evidently to be understood in the broadest sense of the word, for the text says “the fellowship.” This means partnership with God, partnership with others in the common salvation and in the sharing of material goods. They also continued in the breaking of bread which refers to the Lord’s Supper though not isolated but as the climax of the agapé or love feast. At the very first this was evidently observed daily (v. 46) though afterward it seemed to form the great act of worship on the Lord’s Day (20:7). At least we must say that the early church remembered her Lord with great frequency and with great freedom, for it was observed in homes without distinction between ordained clergy and laity (no service of ordination having yet occurred in the church).

Finally the record says that they continued in prayers. Again the definite article is used with this word and probably indicates definite times for prayer. Further, this is a word that is used exclusively for prayer to God and indicates the offering up of the wishes and desires to God in the frame of mind of devotion.

Its characterization. The early organization was characterized by fear (v. 43), favor (v. 47), and fellowship (vv. 44–46). Fear kept coming on this new group as signs and wonders kept on being done through the apostles (both verbs are in the imperfect tense). This fear was not alarm or dread of injury but a prevailing sense of awe in the manifest presence of the power of God. Favor was also their portion with the people at this time although times changed very quickly. Finally, fellowship in spiritual things demonstrated itself in fellowship of goods and worship. No doubt many of the pilgrims to the feast of Pentecost lingered in Jerusalem after their conversion to learn more of their new faith, and this created a pressing economic need. Providing for them through the sale and distribution of goods was God’s way of meeting this emergency. The necessity for this was probably shortlived though we know that the saints in Jerusalem remained a poor group.

This is the significance of Pentecost—the type fulfilled, the Holy Spirit baptizing men for the first time into the body of Christ, the sermon built on the resurrection and bringing conviction and conversion, and the young church marked off and established in the word and ways of the Lord.

Article adapted from BSac 112:448 (October 1955) pp. 331-340.

About the Author:


Charles Caldwell Ryrie (born 1925) is a Christian writer and theologian. He graduated from Haverford College (B.A.), Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M., Th.D.) and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (Ph.D.). For many years he served as professor of systematic theology and dean of doctoral studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and as president and professor at Philadelphia College of Bible, now Philadelphia Biblical University. He is a premillennial dispensationalist, though irenic in his approach. He is also the editor of the popular Ryrie Study Bible.


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The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. JOHN 1:14

CT Packer

Trinity and Incarnation belong together. The doctrine of the Trinity declares that the man Jesus is truly divine; that of the Incarnation declares that the divine Jesus is truly human. Together they proclaim the full reality of the Savior whom the New Testament sets forth, the Son who came from the Father’s side at the Father’s will to become the sinner’s substitute on the cross (Matt. 20:28; 26:36-46; John 1:29; 3:13-17; Rom. 5:8; 8:32; 2 Cor. 5:19-21; 8:9; Phil. 2:5-8).

The moment of truth regarding the doctrine of the Trinity came at the Council of Nicaea (A.D.325), when the church countered the Arian idea that Jesus was God’s first and noblest creature by affirming that he was of the same “substance” or “essence” (i.e., the same existing entity) as the Father. Thus there is one God, not two; the distinction between Father and Son is within the divine unity, and the Son is God in the same sense as the Father is. In saying that Son and Father are “of one substance,” and that the Son is “begotten” (echoing “only-begotten,” John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18, and NIV text notes) but “not made,” the Nicene Creed unequivocally recognized the deity of the man from Galilee.

A crucial event for the church’s confession of the doctrine of the Incarnation came at the Council of Chalcedon (A.D.451), when the church countered both the Nestorian idea that Jesus was two personalities—the Son of God and a man—under one skin, and the Eutychian idea that Jesus’ divinity had swallowed up his humanity. Rejecting both, the council affirmed that Jesus is one divine-human person in two natures (i.e., with two sets of capacities for experience, expression, reaction, and action); and that the two natures are united in his personal being without mixture, confusion, separation, or division; and that each nature retained its own attributes. In other words, all the qualities and powers that are in us, as well as all the qualities and powers that are in God, were, are, and ever will be really and distinguishably present in the one person of the man from Galilee. Thus the Chalcedonian formula affirms the full humanity of the Lord from heaven in categorical terms.

The Incarnation, this mysterious miracle at the heart of historic Christianity, is central in the New Testament witness. That Jews should ever have come to such a belief is amazing. Eight of the nine New Testament writers, like Jesus’ original disciples, were Jews, drilled in the Jewish axiom that there is only one God and that no human is divine. They all teach, however, that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the Spirit-anointed son of David promised in the Old Testament (e.g., Isa. 11:1-5; Christos, “Christ,” is Greek for Messiah). They all present him in a threefold role as teacher, sin-bearer, and ruler—prophet, priest, and king. And in other words, they all insist that Jesus the Messiah should be personally worshiped and trusted—which is to say that he is God no less than he is man. Observe how the four most masterful New Testament theologians (John, Paul, the writer of Hebrews, and Peter) speak to this.

John’s Gospel frames its eyewitness narratives (John 1:14; 19:35; 21:24) with the declarations of its prologue (1:1-18): that Jesus is the eternal divine Logos (Word), agent of Creation and source of all life and light (vv. 1-5, 9), who through becoming “flesh” was revealed as Son of God and source of grace and truth, indeed as “God the only begotten” (vv. 14, 18; NIV text notes). The Gospel is punctuated with “I am” statements that have special significance because I am (Greek: ego eimi) was used to render God’s name in the Greek translation of Exodus 3:14; whenever John reports Jesus as saying ego eimi, a claim to deity is implicit. Examples of this are John 8:28, 58, and the seven declarations of his grace as (a) the Bread of Life, giving spiritual food (6:35, 48, 51); (b) the Light of the World, banishing darkness (8:12; 9:5); (c) the gate for the sheep, giving access to God (10:7, 9); (d) the Good Shepherd, protecting from peril (10:11, 14); (e) the Resurrection and Life, overcoming our death (11:25); (f) the Way, Truth, and Life, guiding to fellowship with the Father (14:6); (g) the true Vine, nurturing for fruitfulness (15:1, 5). Climactically, Thomas worships Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (20:28). Jesus then pronounces a blessing on all who share Thomas’s faith and John urges his readers to join their number (20:29-31).

Paul quotes from what seems to be a hymn that declares Jesus’ personal deity (Phil. 2:6); states that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9; cf. 1:19); hails Jesus the Son as the Father’s image and as his agent in creating and upholding everything (Col. 1:15-17); declares him to be “Lord” (a title of kingship, with divine overtones), to whom one must pray for salvation according to the injunction to call on Yahweh in Joel 2:32 (Rom. 10:9-13); calls him “God over all” (Rom. 9:5) and “God and Savior” (Titus 2:13); and prays to him personally (2 Cor. 12:8-9), looking to him as a source of divine grace (2 Cor. 13:14). The testimony is explicit: faith in Jesus’ deity is basic to Paul’s theology and religion.

The writer to the Hebrews, purporting to expound the perfection of Christ’s high priesthood, starts by declaring the full deity and consequent unique dignity of the Son of God (Heb. 1:3, 6, 8-12), whose full humanity he then celebrates in chapter 2. The perfection, and indeed the very possibility, of the high priesthood that he describes Christ as fulfilling depends on the conjunction of an endless, unfailing divine life with a full human experience of temptation, pressure, and pain (Heb. 2:14-17; 4:14-5:2; 7:13-28; 12:2-3).

Not less significant is Peter’s use of Isaiah 8:12-13 (1 Pet. 3:14). He cites the Greek (Septuagint) version, urging the churches not to fear what others fear but to set apart the Lord as holy. But where the Septuagint text of Isaiah says, “Set apart the Lord himself,” Peter writes, “Set apart Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15). Peter would give the adoring fear due to the Almighty to Jesus of Nazareth, his Master and Lord.

The New Testament forbids worship of angels (Col. 2:18; Rev. 22:8-9) but commands worship of Jesus and focuses consistently on the divine-human Savior and Lord as the proper object of faith, hope, and love here and now. Religion that lacks these emphases is not Christianity. Let there be no mistake about that!

From: Concise Theology: A Guide To Historic Christian Beliefs


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Speed With God by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson

Ferguson S image

When Sereno E. Dwight included the seventy resolutions in his biography of his great-grandfather Jonathan Edwards, he added the arresting comment: “These were all written before he was twenty years of age.”

Doubtless the resolutions display the marks of relative youth — references to God are frequent, while references to Christ and to grace are noticeably infrequent. Edwards’ sense of the need for radical consecration was then greater than his ability to show how such devotion would need to be resourced in Christ over the long haul. While this is not wholly lacking, there is no doubt that introspection dominates over divine provision. That notwithstanding, the “Resolutions” provide a very powerful illustration of an often-repeated divine pattern: those the Lord means to use significantly he often deals with profoundly in early years.

Edwards stood in a great puritan tradition of resolution-forming and covenant-making. Both are lost spiritual arts, substituted at best by life-plans that tend to focus on the externals. Edwards, by contrast, was deeply concerned with the internals. He early grasped the value of a deliberate binding of the conscience to a life of holiness and of expressing such commitment in a concrete, objective, and also very specific way. Thus for him, the practice of keeping a journal (in which half of his resolutions are found) was not merely an exercise in narcissism but a careful guarding of the heart against sin. In addition, Edwards was conscious from his teenage years that dealing with indwelling sin (“mortifying” it in the older terminology) meant a commitment to deal generally with all sin, and also repenting of — and mortifying — “particular sins, particularly” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 15.5; Rom. 8:13Col. 3:58–10. Indeed, these words of Paul form the unwritten backdrop to a number of the resolutions).

What can we learn for Christian living today from the resolutions themselves? Here are only three of many outstanding lessons:

Life is for the glory of God. Resolution 4 epitomizes this: “Resolved, never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God; nor be, nor suffer it, if I can avoid it.”

These words have a Daniel-like ring about them (Dan. 1:8). When coupled with Edwards’s further principle that we learn from Scripture how God is to be glorified in our lives, this is both a life-goal statement and a life-simplifying one. The question, what will most tend to the glory of God in this situation? asked against the background of growing biblical wisdom wonderfully simplifies and clarifies the choices of life. In a world full of apparent complexities, this is an invaluable litmus test to use — not least if, like Edwards, you are a teenager.

Life should be lived in the light of eternity. This was, of course, a dominant perspective throughout Edwards’ later life. But it was already powerfully present in his late teens. He sought to relate the whole of life to its end (in both senses of the word). In pain he reflected on the sufferings of hell (resolution 10). He lived from death and judgment backwards into the present (resolution 17), and endeavored to do so as if each hour might be his last (resolution 19). He sought to make future happiness a central goal (resolutions 22, 50, 55). Thus, if living for the glory of God simplifies all of life, living in the light of eternity solemnizes all of life and enables one increasingly to give weight to every thought, word, and deed.

Life is lived best by those who guard the heart. Edwards guarded his emotions and affections — and his verbal and physical expressions of them — with great care. This emerges in several resolutions (including 31, 34, 36, 45, 58, and 59). Particularly noteworthy is resolution 25. Here he stresses that, if he wishes so to live in a holy manner, he must be “resolved, to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it.” Whether consciously or not, Edwards here recognized a cardinal element in the original temptation — to malign and thus destroy a sense of the generous love and goodness of God to Adam and Eve (“Has he set you in this garden and forbidden you to eat of all the trees?” seeGen. 3:1).

As early as the age of nineteen, therefore, Edwards recognized that if he lost a sense of the greatness and generosity of the divine love, there would be no resources of grace to motivate the life of holiness to which he committed himself in his resolutions. Therein lay wisdom far beyond his years.

When he penned his final series of resolutions in the summer of 1723, Edwards appears to have been reading through Thomas Manton’s sermons on Psalm 119. He refers to the idea of being open to God found in Manton’s exposition of Psalm 119:26 (sermon 27 in a series of 190). There Manton had given directives for those “who would speed with God.” Edwards was certainly such a young man. Great intellect though he was, he recognized that to “speed with God” was a matter of the heart. That is why all of us — teenagers included — can still aspire today to share the devotion to God he expressed so powerfully in his resolutions.

FROM Tabletalk Magazine
DATE January 1st, 2009
TOPICS Spiritual Growth,Sanctification and Growth
KEYWORDS Jonathan Edwards,Sanctification

Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson is senior minister of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

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Posted by on December 12, 2012 in Church History, Spiritual Life


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“Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s Humor”

Dr. Larry J. Michael and C.H. Spurgeon on “The Medicine of Laughter”

Spurgeon in pulpit image

Dr. Larry Michael is senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Clanton, Ala. He serves as an adjunct professor at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham. This article is an adaptation of writings from the upcoming book, Spurgeon on Leadership, Kregel Publications, scheduled for release October 2003.

Some years ago there was a documented case in the British Medical Journal about a man who laughed himself well. He actually had a terminal illness, and through the employment of laughter therapy, he allowed his body to successfully fight the disease.

While we may smilingly acknowledge the merit of such a case, for the most part, we find such an incident almost incredible. Can laughter really be that good for us? The Bible definitely supports such a notion.

The Bible advocates laughter

The writer of Ecclesiastes stated: “There’s a time to laugh, and a time to cry” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). We know that there are plenty of reasons to cry. Just a casual glance at our world, with its wars, hatred, violence and evil — makes us sad. Every day we see/hear on the news horrible accounts of hurting people who hurt others. We are grieved at the plight of so many persons who are living in darkness and have rejected the light of Christ. The stark reality of sin in our world is indeed sobering.

It’s not surprising that many of us as leaders may be more inclined toward sadness than to joy. Given the nature and demands of Christian leadership in an increasingly challenging world, one could cynically surmise that leaders may have more reason to be glum than glad these days. The pressures of our organizational responsibilities, and the accompanying stresses, can drag us down. Handling church conflict, losing someone special, helplessly seeing a marriage dissolve, experiencing personal betrayal, facing an unsuspected tragedy — all may give cause for tears.

To counter the sad times, the Scripture also advises that there is a time to laugh. Leaders need to know the balancing therapy of laughter. Toward that goal, we should fully embrace the joys of ministry — celebrating special moments with members, “high-fiving” family achievements, relishing the reaching of hard-earned goals, and savoring the blessing of spiritual growth. But those experiences may still fall short of the biblical pronouncement regarding laughter. C’mon, when was the last time you laughed so hard you cried?! Or, you actually had a good belly laugh?

Spurgeon’s great sense of humor

Many evangelicals know well the stern side of C. H. Spurgeon and his serious pursuit of the holy life. Indeed, his stands for righteous causes, and countering doctrinal error are often recounted. But many readers may not know that he was a man with a great sense of humor. Spurgeon knew the value of laughter and mirth. He virtually took to heart the word in Proverbs 17:22: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”

Spurgeon laughed as often as he could. He laughed at the ironies of life, he laughed at comical incidents, he laughed at the amusing elements of nature. He sometimes laughed at his critics. He loved to share wholesome jokes with his friends and colleagues in ministry. He was known to tell humorous stories from the pulpit. William Williams, a fellow pastor who kept company with Spurgeon, was a near and dear friend in the latter years of Spurgeon’s life. He wrote:

What a bubbling fountain of humour Mr. Spurgeon had! I laughed more, I verily believe, when in his company than during all the rest of my life besides. He had the most fascinating gift of laughter . . . and he had also the greatest ability for making all who heard him laugh with him. When someone blamed him for saying humourous things in his sermons, he said, “He would not blame me if he only knew how many of them I keep back.” 1

Spurgeon considered humor such an integral part of his ministry that a whole chapter in his autobiography is devoted to it. Humor permeates his sermons and writings, often woven into the fabric of his messages. It’s one reason among many why he is still so readable today.

The therapy of laughter

Spurgeon knew the blessing of the treatment of humor. He often spoke of his illness in humorous terms: “I have had sharp pains,” he wrote to a friend, “but I am recovering. Only my back is broken, and I need a new vertebrae.” 2 Once, when he was feeling depressed, he spoke of the remedy of laughter:

The other evening I was riding home after a heavy day’s work. I felt wearied and sore depressed, when swiftly and suddenly that text came to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee.’ I reached home and looked it up in the original, and at last it came to me in this way. ‘My grace is sufficient for THEE.’ And I said, ‘I should think it is, Lord,’ and I burst out laughing. I never understood what the holy laughter of Abraham was till then. It seemed to make unbelief so absurd…O brethren, be great believers. Little faith will bring your souls to heaven, but great faith will bring heaven to your souls. 3

Some of Spurgeon’s humor even bordered on the cynical — like the time he was embroiled in the Baptismal Regeneration Controversy. When Spurgeon took on the Church of England clerics because of their belief in baptismal regeneration, he had a baptismal font installed in his back garden as a birdbath. He referred to it as “the spoils of war.” While the great “Prince of Preachers” may have gone over the top on that one, for the most part, his humor was balanced and appropriate.

Laughter a needful release

Laughter is an important release in a leader’s life. It is much-needed therapy for positions that are most often fraught with stress and the burdens of the day. Certainly there is a time to be sober as we face many tough situations in our lives and ministries. But, we need to learn how to experience the relief of laughter. Part of the problem is that too many of us take ourselves way too seriously. When we forget that God has a sense of humor, we need to do as one leader suggested — go look in the mirror!

Spurgeon knew the value of laughter and humor. Both in tough times and sick times, humor was a means for him to deal with his situation. It was a coping mechanism for him. There will always be seasons of sadness and joy for the conscientious leader. But, the leader who learns to balance the two, will learn the discipline of employing laughter and joy in his life. It could very well make a difference in his fulfillment and purpose in his service to the Lord.

Article adapted from Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 9, Number 40, Septemeber 30 to October 6, 2007.

Notes: 1. William Williams, Personal Remembrances of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1895), 24; 2. Ibid, 231; 3. Ibid, 25.


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9 Characteristics of Leaders God Uses to Bring About Revival

What kind of human leaders has god used to influence the church when He is pleased to send revival?

In every period of history God has given gifts to the church in the form of servants who are a great blessing to that age. Some periods seem to have a good number of people while others only have a few. Horatius Bonar, the famous Scottish minister in the 19th century wrote a small tract called True Revivals and Men God Uses. In this tract Bonar listed nine characteristics of the kinds of leaders God used in seasons of revival.

Horatius Bonar asks the question this way: “What weapons did they employ?”

1) They were in earnest about the great work of the ministry on which they had entered.

2) They were bent on success.

3) They were men of faith.

4) They were men of labor.

5) They were men of patience.

6) They were men of boldness and determination.

7) They were men of prayer.

8) They were men whose doctrines were of the most decided kind, both as respects law and gospel.

9) They were men of solemn deportment and deep spirituality of soul.

About the Author:

Dr. John H. Armstrong is a former pastor and church-planter, of more than twenty years, the author/editor of eleven books, and the author of hundreds of magazine, journal, and Web based articles. Besides this ministry of writing Dr. Armstrong serves as an adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College Graduate School, teaches in various seminaries and colleges as a guest lecturer, and is a seminar and conference speaker in the United States and abroad. He is the founder and president of ACT 3, based in Carol Stream, Illinois. John and Anita, his wife of thirty-eight years, have two adult married children. Their son Matthew is engaged in a ministry of evangelism and discipleship and is a church planter, while their daughter Stacy is an administrative assistant for ACT 3. John and Anita have two granddaughters, Gracie and Abbie.

John was born in Lebanon, Tennessee (March 1, 1949). He is the youngest of two sons of the late Dr. Thomas H. and Marie F. Armstrong. John’s dad was a dentist and the editor of the Tennessee State Dental Journal. He also served on the faculty of the University of Tennessee Dental School in Memphis for nearly fifteen years. John’s brother is a family physician in Huntsville, Alabama. He attended Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee, where he was an ROTC cadet officer and graduated cum honore in 1967. He attended the University of Alabama from 1967-1969, studying journalism and history. In 1969 he transferred to Wheaton College, were he received the B. A. in history (1971) and the M. A. in theology and missions (1973). He did further study at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, and Northern Baptist Seminary, Lombard, Illinois. He earned the D. Min degree (1979) at Luther Rice Seminary, Atlanta, Georgia.

John is the author of Five Great Evangelists (Christian Focus Publications, 1997), The Catholic Mystery (Harvest House, 1999), True Revival: What Happens When God’s Spirit Moves (Harvest House, 2000), and The Stain That Stays: The Church’s Response to the Sexual Misconduct of It’s Leaders (Christian Focus, 2000). He is the general editor of Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Unites and Divides Us (Moody Press, 1994), The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Moody Press, 1996), Reforming Pastoral Ministry (Crossway, 2001), and The Glory of Christ (Crossway, 2002), Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Zondervan, 2007) and Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper (Zondervan, 2007) He has contributed single chapters, theological and historical introductions, and forewords to a dozen or more volumes, and has been published in Christianity Today, Christian History and similar popular Christian periodicals.

John is a member of several fellowships and societies, including the World Reformed Fellowship, the Karl Barth Society, the John Calvin Society and the Abraham Lincoln Forum. John’s hobbies include baseball, with a love for the Atlanta Braves which goes back to the 1957 Milwaukee Braves who won the World Series, and book collecting. He also enjoys reading great literature, art, movies and walking/biking. He remains an avid college football fan, following his beloved Crimson Tide of Alabama. John and Anita have a special place in their home for Neo, the Armstrong’s miniature dachshund. John and Anita’s grandchildren, Gracie and Abbie, bring very special joy to their busy lives through regular visits.


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