George Barna, the guru of statistics among evangelicals, seems to be influencing today’s pulpit more than the apostles Peter and Paul. Barna, whose popularity began with his book Marketing the Church, has assumed the position of telling preachers how they are to preach in order to “reach” certain segments of society. His basic thesis of “marketing the church” continues in his profusion of books. While no one can doubt the importance of Barna’s statistical data to the strategies of evangelicals, it seems that he continues to cross the line of offering data to pontificating changes that ignore God’s Word.
In a recent article in Preaching titled “The Pulpit-meis-ter: Preaching to the New Majority,” Barna departs from his role as a sociologist and assumes the role of professor of preaching. He does state that “the core of our message must never be compromised,” but the paradigm he proposes can lead only to compromise. He suggests that “the new majority,” the group of so-called Boomers and Busters (those born from 1946 to 1964 and 1965 to 1983, respectively), have certain characteristics which prevent them from being attentive to typical, traditional preaching (George Barna, “The Pulpit-meister: Preaching to the New Majority,” Preaching [January/February], 11).
I recognize that preachers must develop their individ- ual styles and that preaching in certain parts of the world may vary due to particular cultural influences. But when the preacher must change his use of language to purge it of any hint of the theological or judgmental, he finds himself positioned to be more of an inspirational speaker than a preacher of God’s Word. When he must keep his sermons under twenty minutes, filling them with stories, avoiding “moral absolutes,” and going light on scriptural references, he has no hope to teach and explain the doctrines of the Word. Barna goes so far as to state, “Increasingly we find that the entire approach of ‘talking at the audience’ is an ill fated form of communication.” He suggests that preaching in any kind of series will not work since the audience may change from week to week (The Pulpit-meister, 11-13).
The question Barna’s article raises for me is this, What are we trying to do in preaching? Are we trying to placate the self-centeredness of man? Or proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord”? Preachers must reckon with the biblical basis of preaching rather than the sociological observations of barn. Barna is fallible. God’s Word is not.
In His classic work Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need in the world also.” (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1971], 9). Assuredly, Lloyd-Jones did not have drama, entertainment, or pulpit chats in mind when he pressed the need for “true preaching.” In his mind, true preaching was nothing less than the exposition of God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. “What is preaching?” Lloyd-Jones queried:
Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! Are these contradictions? Of course not. Reason concerning this Truth ought to be mightily eloquent, as you see in the case of the Apostle Paul and others. It is theology on fire. And a theology which does not take fire, I maintain, is a defective theology; or at least the man’s understanding of it is defective. Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire (Preaching and Preachers, 97).
The issue in preaching is proclaiming faithfully, accurately, and clearly the Word of God, so that the truth of the Word penetrates the mind to affect the heart, rather than the cleverness of the preacher impressing the hearers. At the core of all a preacher does is to dig deeply into a given text of Scripture, seeking to understand it grammatically, historically, and doctrinally. He must then apply himself, in the power of the Spirit, to let the text speak through him. J.I. Packer explained what true preaching is when he wrote:
The true idea of preaching is that the preacher should become a mouthpiece for his text, opening it up and applying as a word from God to his hearers, talking only in order that the text may speak itself and be heard, making each point from his text in such a manner “that the hearers may discern how God teacheth if from thence (J.I. Packer, God Has Spoken [Grand Rapids, Michagan: Baker, 1979], 28; Packer quote from Westminster Directory, 1645).
With much grief, I listened recently to a man who filled the pulpit with jokes, clever stories, and talk-show one-liners. But he never proclaimed God’s Word. He read a text and even referred to it, albeit eisegetically. Yet the truths of the Word were never expounded for the congregation to be confronted with the living God and his truth. That is entertainment. it is not preaching in a biblical sense. I fear that such pulpit-abuse (or perhaps I should say, congregation abuse) is all too common.
We must consider what we are attempting to do in the pulpit. It seems that some preachers have a goal to be enjoyed by the hearers rather than to help the hearers understand God’s Word, and, consequently, come to know God in truth. Surely the shallowness in the pew is primarily due to the neglect in the pulpit. I agree with James Montgomery Boice: “The church has to rediscover who God is, come to know him, and fellowship with him. The avenue for that has always been Bible exposition and teaching. There’s no shortcut.”(Quoted by Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church [Chicago: Moody, 1996], 59). Yet the popular methods of the day fall short of “Bible exposition and teaching.”
What does the Bible have to say about all this? There’s no more forceful nor clear passage addressing the subject of preaching than that which Paul wrote to Timothy in his last epistle:
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and kingdom; preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5 [Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible]).
Whatever the preacher is to be doing in the pulpit, at the very minimum he ought to be dictated by the teaching of God’s Word. Anything less than this is a compromise of his ministry and calling. The example and exhortation of the Bible points back to the priority of preaching. Don Whitney expresses it well:
Regardless of how inefficient some may think preaching is in our technological, mass media society, regardless of how much more exciting or entertaining or even successful other methods may appear, the most effective way of communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ is still through the means God was pleased to choose—preaching (Spiritual Disciplines, 64).
With these things in mind, I offer some of the chief issues raised by the apostle Paul in his exhortation to Timothy.
BIBLICAL PREACHING IS A SOLEMN RESPONSIBILITY
The apostle Paul was nearing the end of his life as he penned these words to Timothy. We can call them “Final Instructions,” for the apostle knew the pressures of the ministry which his young disciple faced. He understood that nothing short of biblical preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit will have the needed effect upon his congregation. So we see him reminding Timothy of the gravity facing him in the discharge of his responsibilities. For Paul, being a preacher was not a matter of fun or popularity. It was a divine calling that must be fulfilled in a God-ordained fashion.
We see that biblical preaching is a solemn responsibility…
Because of the Audience.“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,”he begins. Paul wanted Timothy to understand that while he had a congregation who listened to his preaching, they were not his chief audience. Instead, God and Christ Jesus were.
This is a shocking thought to consider: The God of heaven listens in on the preaching of the pastor! There is no more important thing for me to remember when standing at the pulpit than the fact that the ears of heaven are attuned to every word I speak. The Greek of the prepositional phrase, “in the presence of,” literally means “in the face of” (Gk. enopion). The solemn charge to preach and the discharging of the duty is given “in the face of” God and the Redeemer.
When I first spoke this truth to my own congregation there were a few people who were repulsed at the thought. They argued against such a proposition that God himself is the primary audience in preaching, while the congregation is secondary. Yet this is exactly what Paul spoke to the church at Corinth: “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do beloved, is for the sake of building you up (2 Corinthians 12:19). The solemnity of preaching demands that the preacher realize that he is speaking “in the sight of God,” yet for the “upbuilding” of the congregation.
Because of the Accountability. The reminder that the Lord Jesus Christ is “to judge the living and the dead” should stem the endless jokes and cute stories that pollute the pulpit as a substitute for preaching. Those seated before the preacher will one day face a Judge who executes his judgement in righteousness. In light of this, can the preacher be trivial in the pulpit? If he truly loves those under his charge, can he neglect to expound the Word of God which addresses the “real need” of sinners rather than offering up sermonic ditties for the “felt needs” of his hearers?
Because of the Appearing. The imminence and gravity of Christ’s return is held before Timothy as he is charged with preaching the Word of God. The preacher of the Word must keep in mind that we do not await clever timetables for Christ to return. He can end this life in a moment. The preacher must so live and so preach as if today is the day of Christ’s appearing. The urgency of the messenger delivering the right message to his hearers is pressed upon us by this charge.
Because of the Authority. The mention of Christ’s kingdom reminds Timothy of the sovereign rule of Jesus Christ over him and the affairs of his King. His duty is to his King. His energies are to be expended for his King. When he stands before a people to deliver the Word of God, he must keep in mind that he stands as a representative of his King. And he is confronting his hearers with the lordship of Christ over their lives as well. His message must not be muddled by a blend of self-help and psychobable. As Paul expressed it: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
BIBLICAL PREACHING IS A SPECIFIC RESPONSIBILITY
The three key words of our text, “Preach the word,” drive home to us the specific nature of the preaching task. The preacher must expound the Word of God or else he has failed in his calling. He may be a wonderful administrator, a winsome personal worker, an effective leader. But if he fails to expound the Word of God, he is a failure to his calling to “preach the Word.”
Before considering the specific elements involved in biblical preaching, I offer some observations on the trends that seem to be affecting the hearing of the Word in our congregations. These trends have an impact upon preaching and hearing.
First, there has been a popularizing and Americanizing of the Word to make it more palatable and acceptable to the masses. Rather than seeking to understand a text as God gave it, the preacher seems to be more intent on appealing to people. Often the goal is to increase church membership. But if that membership is gained at the expense of a genuine work of God through biblical preaching, can it really be worthwhile?
Neither Jesus nor the apostles sought to make the truth of God more palatable to their hearers. They laid the truth out with force and clarity. Paul assessed that his preaching of the cross was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). They preached the truth and depended upon the power of God to drive it home to the hearers’ minds and hearts.
Perhaps one of the problems that has necessitated a watering down of truth in the pulpit is a shallow theology of the Holy Spirit. Rather than believing the Spirit of God can penetrate calloused minds with the Word of God, preachers have sought to use clever devices and techniques to persuade hearers. A failure to understand the biblical doctrine of regeneration has led to untold harm in the name of evangelism, all because preachers do not trust the Holy Spirit to do his work.
When we try to use the latest methods of communication we may have a ready audience, but they pay more attention to our cleverness than to the cross. They are impressed with the speaker, not the Savior (1 Corinthians 1:17). While a seminary student, I had two different professors for preaching. One taught biblical exposition. The other encouraged preachers to offer fifteen-to-twenty-minute dramatic presentations to their congregations. One method communicates divine truth. The other draws attention to the preacher.
Second, the attention given to the “electronic preacher” has shortened the attention spans and changed the appetites of congregations. I am thankful for the many wonderful media broadcasts that faithfully proclaim the Word of God. But I am appalled at the equally large number which claim everything but biblical truth. Some media preachers water down truth in order to be popular and secure good ratings. They know what sells. Marketing has driven them to change their content to appeal to the masses in order to gain a larger following.
Another effect of media preachers is that even those who faithfully preach the Word have their messages edited to fit a twenty-five-minute broadcast format. certainly this is understandable with the cost of airtime. But when you add to this the lack of hunger for the purity of the Word and the typical church member’s shortened attention span, you find complaints about Sunday sermons that last longer than thirty minutes.
I have been preaching since 1970. Since I started preaching exposition ally, about 1974, I have found that I will normally spend forty to forty-five minutes for each sermon. I’ve tried to shorten my outlines and change my notes, but nothing seems to have a real effect on my sermon length. And rightly so! The goal should never be just to get through. It should be to expound the text of God’s Word.
A few years ago I found myself facing some disgruntled people who wanted shorter sermons. They really did not care what I preached as long as it was shorter! But I took time to explain, that in my understanding, I could not adequately deal with a text of Scripture in less than forty to forty-five minutes. I found a kindred mind in this with John MacArthur. He wrote:
If you are going to be a Bible expositor, forget the twenty and thirty-minute sermons. You are looking at forty or fifty minutes. In any less than that, you can’t exposit the Scripture. The purpose is not to get it over, but rather to explain the Word of God. My goal is not accomplished because I am brief. My goal is accomplished when I am clear and I have exposited the Word of God (John MacArthur, Jr., Rediscovering Expository Preaching [Dallas, Texas: Word, 1992], 339-40).
Third, proclamation has been replaced by a “talk-show-host” mentality. Because of a fear of offending or due to an audience’s appetite, the “herald” no longer is concerned with speaking “thus saith the Lord,” but “Whatever you want, I’ve got” and “Listen to me and feel good.”
Don Whitney offers a personal vignette that illustrates this problem:
Your soul will only be fed from the Word of God. Without it, you will be undernourished and suffer spiritual marasmus. That’s what happened to a man I’ll call whom I spoke with not long ago. When I talked with Chris he had been in seminary for a few months and was working for a para-church ministry that specializes in teaching the Bible and theology. Prior to enrolling in seminary, he had for several years been associate pastor in charge of drama and music at a church a couple of miles from me where the pulpit ministry was based on topical preaching aimed at people’s felt needs. The church had grown from very few to hundreds in a short time.
Chris had plenty of budget money and many talented actors, singers, musicians, and other workers as resources for his ministry. Afterward, however, he said to me, “I didn’t know it when I resigned, but the following Sunday I realized that my soul was as dry and withered and empty as it could be. I had been running on the spiritual fumes of the pressure of preparation for each Sunday’s drama and music. I was so busy that I hadn’t realized I had dried up spiritually. It was because I was not hearing faithful, biblical exposition, but topical sermons aimed at felt needs. Everything was based upon marketing strategy. Only when I got away from all that did I realize that I was all be dead spiritually.” (Spiritual Disciplines, 66-67).
I visited a church in Atlanta during a vacation and listened to a sermon that was really more of a “talk.” It could easily have been given at a Kiwanis Club. My children quickly recognized that we had not heard the Word preached, but only a preacher trying to impress his hearers.
My family and I took a relative with us to another church in a southern metropolitan area. The church has a great reputation and has recently constructed a large facility to accommodate its rapid growth. When the service was over I asked the relative, who rarely attends church, what she thought. Without any kind of prompting from me, she said, “I got the feeling that they were trying to entertain me.” I thought that such a comment spoke volumes, especially coming from one is unfamiliar with “felt-needs” or mega-church thinking. The evangelical pulpit has shrunk into the mire of entertainment, thinking that it has to compete on the same level as the world, while hungry hearts are waiting to hear a word from God.
Fourth, we’ve lost our appetite fro truth, and instead would rather appeal to people’s interests or felt needs in our preaching. Rather than longing for truth to set us free or truth to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, or truth to expose the thoughts and intents of the heart, we want something to make us feel better about ourselves. We want something that does not make radical demands or us, something that does not disturb the way we’re living our lives, something that won’t challenge what we want to think or believe the truth to be. This is precisely what the apostle warned:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
On one occasion a man came up to me after a service and stated, “I’ve had everything figured out in a neat box, and your preaching challenges it. I don’t like it, but I need it.” The unfortunate thing is that his box kept getting challenged and he ran away from what he admitted that he needed. Biblical preaching will apply the truth of God’s Word so that it judges “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Unless the Spirit of God is working in a person he will have difficulty sitting under a steady diet of biblical exposition (Cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 for the biblical basis of this statement).
Too many fail to have interest in the content of sermons. They want only an appealing delivery so they can feel good about themselves. In contrast to this, Don Whitney has written, “And no matter how enthusiastic or passionate the presentation, it is still the content, not the physical force of delivery that determines faithfulness to the message” (Spiritual Disciplines, 65).
John Piper, who is known for books with superb content, wrote in the introduction of his book, Future Grace, one of the best statements on the need for content rather than mere appeal to itching ears. His statement concerns reading, but it is equally true of preaching:
Every book worth reading beckons with the words, “Think over what I say.” I do not believe that what I have written is hard to understand—if a person is willing to think it over. When my sons complain that a good book is hard to read, I say, “Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.”
I have tried to write as I preach [and I believe he has succeeded] with a view to instructing the mind and moving the heart… [After giving the example of John Owen’s writings being difficult to grasp, yet for 300 years his twenty-three volumes are still in print and still feeding hungry souls] The lesson is that biblical substance feeds the church, not simplicity (John Piper, Future Grace [Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1995], 16-17).
Fifth, we want the truth to be popular with everyone, enjoyed by sinner and saint alike. Yet this is foreign to both Old and New Testament teaching regarding the truth. Just look at the prophets, apostles, and teachers captured in God’s Word. Was Jeremiah’s preaching popular? Did Paul seek to “win friends and influence people” through his preaching? Did the multitudes persevere with our Lord in His declaration of truth? Paul expressed it well, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Perhaps a bit of amplification on precisely what is involved in biblical exposition will be helpful. It begins with understanding the text which the preacher desires to expound. I believe that the best approach on selecting a text begins with preaching consecutively through books of the Bible. That way a preacher is forced to deal with the “whole counsel of God,” and his congregation will be exposed to the breadth of biblical truth. The preacher may also deal with topics or themes, but he should always be expository in his approach; that is, he should be a mouthpiece for the text (Rediscovering Expository Preaching, 255ff.)
The preacher must diligently study the text he selects in its contextual setting. This involves a thorough study of the language and grammar used, the historical purpose of the text, the cultural factors that bear weight upon its meaning, and its connection to the balance of Scripture. Reading and meditating upon the text allows the preacher to consider its implications and truths, as well as feeding his own mind and soul with its life-giving truth. Depending upon the illuminating power of the Spirit in the study is essential. He will find that prayer must accompany his study or else he will be engaging in mere academics. He must seek to rightly explain “the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), so that he arrives at a proper interpretation. The use of research tools such as word studies, commentaries, theologies, and sermons can be helpful aids to the preacher in grasping the message of the text.
Once he understands the essential message of his text, the preacher will need to organize the message of the text into salient parts for proclamation. The starting point will be development of a theme, which has been called “the essence of the sermon in a sentence,” or “the proposition,” or “the dominating theme.”At this point I have found it helpful to develop an outline, complete with points and subpoints, all of which help to amplify the dominating theme of the text. This gives structure to the sermon so that the preacher is not guilty of offering an incoherent collection of random thoughts on a text. Some preachers have the mistaken notion that if they can have a nice outline, perhaps fully alliterated, then they have done an exposition until the doctrines and principles of the text are expounded (I have been greatly helped in biblical exposition by numerous books and preachers. My thoughts in this section will reflect their influence, though it would be difficult to footnote every detail. I mention a few: Drs. Stephen and David Olford maintain ongoing, short-term preaching institutes through Encounter Ministries Biblical Preaching Institute in Memphis, Tennessee, (800) 843-2241; they have coauthored a book on expository preaching, Anointed Expository Preaching [Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998]. John MacArthur’s book, Rediscovering Expository Preaching, is a superb course in sermon-building and the exercise of preaching. Bryan Chappell’s book, Christ-Centered Preaching [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1994], offers a thorough self-study approach in preaching).
The preacher’s goal should never be to impress a congregation with his great outlines! He should seek to explain and apply the text to his congregation. He will need to develop supporting thoughts that assist him in the exposition. He should use Scripture that show the relation of the theme and integrating thoughts to the whole of God’s Word. He will need to illustrate certain truths to help with the understanding process, being careful not to allow the illustration to become the sermon (I disagree strongly with my former preaching professor who taught me biblical exposition. He has changed his thinking, even to the point of implying that “illustrations are no longer just the ‘window’ to the sermon, they are becoming the ‘truth’ of the sermon…’They are being used to tell the story…Sermon points are being related to the illustration’” [Facts & Trends, vol. 39, no. 8,4]. While illustrations can be used effectively, preachers will do well to spend more time studying the text instead of trying to find the latest, clever illustration). By all means he will give attention to explaining the doctrines found in the text (Martyn Lloyd-Jones stated in many sermons that unless a preacher deals with doctrines in a text he has not dealt with the text! It is interesting that many Puritans and writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries typically highlighted the doctrines found in their expositions. The unfortunate lack of doctrinal preaching in our day has given rise to the weakened state of the Christian church throughout the world. We do well to heed the need to deal thoroughly with doctrine. I commend Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers and John Piper’s The Supremacy of God in Preaching [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1990], as two volumes to stimulate your thinking on doctrinal preaching).
The task of proclaiming the truths of the text will demand all of the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical energies the preacher can give to this work. He must approach the proclamation of the Word prayerfully, pleading for the fulness of the Spirit to endue him with power, recognizing that apart from divine power he will flounder in the waters of his own weakness. Tony Sargent has rightly stated, “The most humbling and wonderful experience for any preacher as he enters the pulpit is to know that God is with him. The most frightening for him is to be in the pulpit and feel he is on his own” (Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing: The Preaching of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1994] 79.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones exhorts the preacher to seek the power of the Spirit for preaching God’s Word. “Seek this power, expect this power, yearn for this power; and when this power comes, yield to him. Do not resist. Forget all about your sermon if necessary. Let him loose you, let him manifest his power in you and through you” (The Sacred Anointing, 57).
The Greek word for “to preach” (kerussein) referred to the responsibility given to a herald. He may have been in the service of an ancient king, serving as a herald to deliver the king’s word to the people. His chief responsibility was to faithfully proclaim the words of the one who sent him. He heralded the king’s message with authority. To deny the herald’s message was to deny the king who sent him. It is with this background that we see Paul exhorting the preacher to “herald the word” faithfully and authoritatively as one sent by the King. He must do so with clarity and passion for the message he is delivering. He must not take liberties with the King’s message, but deliver it as the King intends. This is the preacher’s job in the act of proclamation(I again commend Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers to address this subject. This book will help remind the preacher of the God-given privilege he has and how he is to carry out his role with holy passion).
BIBLICAL PREACHING IS A SERIOUS RESPONSIBILITY
The apostle gives imperative counsel for the one who preaches the Word. He is to be constant in duty, “be ready in season and out of season.” A preacher cannot let his guard down or neglect his spiritual life. He must live with a constant sense of readiness to deliver the message of God to waiting ears. Many preachers have negated their pulpit ministries by their personal lives. Their love of the world, materialism, flirtatious looks, neglected family life, and laziness have discredited the message they seek to preach. He must exercise discipline of mind and spirit to be constant in his work. Be ready in the pulpit and out of the pulpit!
The preacher must not fear being confrontational in his ministry. He will need to “reprove, rebuke, exhort” as he proclaims God’s Word and as he deals with individuals. An unbelieving woman who had come from a cult background visited our church. She approached me after a sermon on “The Bread of Life” from John 6, with some striking comments. She told me she did not understand why she kept coming back, but she felt compelled. Then she commented, “You don’t give any options.” By that she meant that the preaching has a solitary impact of demand, not a take-it-or-leave-it approach. It confronted her and gave only one option: God’s.
Confrontation is especially needed in a day when people are craving for pre-digested “applications” on the sermon that will make it “relevant” to every day life. What most people mean by “applications” is, “Give me some options so that I can pick and choose what I want to do and not feel bad about what I don’t want to do.” We need not worry about going to extremes on applications. The Holy Spirit is adequate to apply the Word to the hearts of sinners and saints alike!
The preacher has the task of delivering God’s Word “with great patience.” He is to be consistent with his exposition, faithfully delivering God’s Word week-by-week to his people. All will not appreciate the Word, nor will all respond immediately to the challenges applied by the Word proclaimed. Some may even get angry and leave. Yet the preacher is to be patient with his flock, realizing that their spiritual ears must be opened by the Holy Spirit. Some will be dealing with deep-seated sins. Others will feel mired in traditions. Still others will have a poor appetite for spiritual truth, the appetite that must be slowly cultivated. Short pastorates normally do not allow a preacher the time to develop a patient pulpit ministry.
A sermon worth listening to must have content. Content does not mean that the preacher has plenty of stories and interesting quotes. Rather, it means that the sermon deals with doctrine. The word for “instruction” in the NASB translation of 2 Timothy 4:2 is that common New Testament term didache. It is elsewhere translated as “teaching” or “doctrine.” Doctrine must never be confused with impossible-to-understand discussions by intellectuals. Good doctrine is the life of the church; it is the heart of the sermon. It is simply the “teachings” of God’s Word understood in relation to the balance of Scripture. John MacArthur wrote:
A true expository message sets forth the principles or doctrines supported in the passage. True expository preaching is doctrinal preaching (Rediscovering Expository Preaching, 288).
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great nineteenth-century Baptist preacher in London, wrote in his Lectures to My Students:
Sermons should have real teaching in them, and their doctrine should be solid, substantial, and abundant. We do not enter the pulpit to talk for talk’s sake; we have instructions to convey important to the last degree, and we cannot afford to utter pretty nothings. Our range of subjects is all but boundless, and we cannot, therefore, be excused if our discourses are threadbare and devoid of substance…[T]he true minister of Christ knows that the true value of a sermon must lie, not in its fashion and manner, but in the truth which it contains. Nothing can compensate for the absence of teaching; all rhetoric in the world is but as chaff to the wheat in contrast to the gospel of our salvation. However beautiful the sower’s basket it is a miserable mockery if it be without seed (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students [Pasadena, Texas: Pilgrim Publications, 1990, reprint of the 1881 Passmore and Alabastor edition), 72.
After giving such clear instruction on preaching Paul warns Timothy that everyone will not want such biblical exposition:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
When this happens, does the preacher simply give people what they want? This is precisely the error of the current trend of “felt-need” preaching. The unfortunate thing is that many evangelical preachers of good standing have fallen into the trap of delivering cute sermons, warm fuzzes, feel-good messages rather than proclaiming truth. We must be conscientious of the calling of God to herald the truth, so that we do not get pulled into the vortex of congregations wanting to have their “felt-needs” met.
The preacher is not to take an opinion poll on what he should preach. While there are some exceptions, most congregations do not have enough spiritual understanding and discernment to know what they need. They will point to the direction of “felt-needs” every time, simply because they can be comfortable with that kind of preaching instead of having to deal with their own sin and the God-centeredness in true, doctrinal preaching. The problem of which Paul warns is that of falling prey to the “desire” (epithumia) of those who have no desire for enduring sound doctrine.
What is a preacher to do if the congregation cries for “felt-need” preaching? Stand firm. Remember your calling. Remember your Audience. Herald the truth. And seek to patiently instruct people in sound doctrine.
Biblical preaching is demanding work. The preacher will find himself expended int he study as he labors over the biblical texts and all the works which address them. He must recognize the adversary’s subtle temptations to neglect the study, water down the message, and appeal to the desires of unregenerate people. he faces a constant warfare, both in the pulpit and out of the pulpit. He will be stretched, challenged, criticized and attacked, while at the same time loved and appreciated by those who hunger for the truth. He must live in dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit to enable him to “preach the word” and “to be ready in season and out of season.”
Ron Owens has written a song particularly for preachers. I believe its message and refrain are a fitting conclusion:
We’ve a gospel to preach, we’ve a message to share—
The eternal Truth is what we declare.
It’s the power to save, it’s the Spirit sword,
It’s the heart of God, it’s the Living Word.
We must study to learn and not be ashamed
To proclaim God’s truth in the Savior’s name.
With no compromise, but consistently
We must PREACH THE WORD with integrity.
What is made by man will one day be gone,
But God’s Holy Word marches on and on.
Though the flower will fade and grass will die,
The Eternal Word ever will abide.
We must pay the price, we must take our stand
With a heart on fire and God’s Word in hand.
On the brightest day, in the darkest hour
We must PREACH THE TRUTH in the Spirit’s power.
PREACH THE WORD! PREACH THE WORD!
Won’t you purpose in your hearts to preach the Word?
PREACH THE WORD! PREACH THE WORD!
Won’t you purpose in your heart to PREACH THE WORD?
It’s our call as His disciples to pass on what we’ve received.
Make up your mind and take the time to PREACH THE WORD!
Author: Dr. Phil A. Newton is the Senior Pastor, South Woods Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership; Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Lunch; The Way of Faith; and Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals: Applying the Gospel at the Unique Challenges of Death.
Source: Adapted from Reformation & Revival: A Quarterly Journal for Church Leadership, Volume 9, Number 1, Winter 2000.
Who better to address how to approach the finish line of life successfully than 88-year-old and world-renowned theologian – J.I. Packer. Some people say when E.F. Hutton talks people listen, not me. However, when J.I. Packer talks I listen and if you are wise, so should you.
In this short e-book J.I Packer tactfully and theologically addresses the excuses that the ages 65 and beyond crowd make for “coasting” or “relaxing” in the final years of life. It’s a well-known fact that retirement doesn’t exist in the Bible, so what Packer does is show how we can learn from the Apostle Paul and how he finished his life by: seeking opportunities to invest in those who would outlive him; making the most of his maturity and wisdom (working smarter, not harder); with humility (as opposed to living pridefully); and with great intensity and zeal for the things that will last beyond the grave in eternity.
With his characteristic theological precision and humble guidance Packer will motivate you to live for those things that bring glory to God by investing in that which will outlast your own life by living for others. Joy comes to those who seek Jesus first, then in increasing the joy of others by pointing them to Jesus, and lastly by the joy that results for you in delighting in God and others. This book will definitely increase your joy and help you to finish your course well because of Him, and for Him.
FOCUSING ON THE CHARACTER AND NATURE OF GOD FOR A YEAR
Book Review By David P. Craig
This book contains short devotional excerpts (one page a day) from the writings of Henry and Richard Blackaby’s “Experiencing God”; Jerry Bridges “Trusting God”; Chuck Colson’s “Loving God”; Sinclair Ferguson’s “Heart for God”; Andrew Murray’s “Waiting on God” and Working for God”; John Piper’s “Desiring God”; R.C. Sproul’s “Pleasing God”; A.W. Tozer’s “The Pursuit of God”; and Dallas Willard’s “Hearing God.”
The readings are arranged for each day of the week for Monday – Friday, and then a reading for the weekend. Each reading is based on a verse of Scripture and topic. The back of the devotional features both a subject and Scripture index. After an entire year of going through this devotional here are just a few of my favorite quotes from the book:
“Our greatest need is not freedom from adversity. No calamity in this life could in any way be compared with the absolute calamity of separation from God. In like manner, Jesus said no earthly joy could compare with the eternal joy of our names written in heaven.”
“If we want proof of God’s love for us, then we must look first at the Cross where God offered up His Son as a sacrifice for our sins. Calvary is the one objective, absolute, irrefutable proof of God’s love for us.”
“What God wants from His people is obedience, no matter the circumstances, no matter how unknown the outcome…Knowing how susceptible we are to success’s siren call, God does not allow us to see, and therefore glory in, what is done through us. The very nature of the obedience He demands is that it be given without regard to circumstances or results.”
“In order to trust God, we must view our adverse circumstances through the eyes of faith, not of sense.”
“This is real faith: believing and acting regardless of circumstances or contrary evidence.”
What stands out about this devotional are five positive elements: (1) This book is like reading wisdom from a wise godly grandfather – it is biblical, but lived out on the anvil of many years of godly Christian living; (2) It is saturated with Scripture – each author quotes an abundance of Scriptures in illustrating and applying each truth they present; (3) It is God drenched – all of the meditations elevate your view of God and help you to focus on His glory. (4) It is filled with practical applications. (5) It leads you time and time again to worship the Lord in prayer – particularly – gratitude, thanks, and adoration. For these reasons of balancing the head, heart, and hands for God’s glory I highly recommend this excellent devotional.
Our culture teaches us that people are basically good and that their internal problems are the result of external circumstances. But Jesus taught that no outside-in program will rectify the human condition, since our fundamental problems stem from within (Mark 7:20-23). Holiness is never achieved by acting ourselves into a new way of being. Instead, it is a gift that God graciously implants within the core of those who have trusted in Christ. All holiness is the holiness of God within us—the indwelling life of Christ. Thus, the process of sanctification is the gradual diffusion of this life from the inside (being) to the outside (doing), so that we become in action what we already are in essence. Our efforts faithfully reveal what is within us, so that when we are dominated by the flesh we will do the deeds of the flesh, and when we walk by the Spirit we will bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26).
A Process from the Inside to the Outside
Holiness is a new quality of life that progressively flows from the inside to the outside. As J. I. Packer outlines it in Keep in Step with the Spirit, the nature of holiness is transformation through consecration; the context of holiness is justification through Jesus Christ; the root of holiness is co-crucifixion and co-resurrection with Jesus Christ; the agent of holiness is the Holy Spirit; the experience of holiness is one of conflict; the rule of holiness is God’s revealed law; and the heart of holiness is the spirit of love. When we come to know Jesus we are destined for heaven because He has already implanted His heavenly life within us. The inside-out process of the spiritual life is the gradual outworking of this kingdom righteousness. This involves a divine-human synergism of dependence and discipline so that the power of the Spirit is manifested through the formation of holy habits. As Augustine put it, “Without God we cannot; without us, He will not.” Disciplined grace and graceful discipline go together in such a way that God-given holiness is expressed through the actions of obedience. Spiritual formation is not a matter of total passivity or of unaided moral endeavor, but of increasing responsiveness to God’s gracious initiatives. The holy habits of immersion in Scripture, acknowledging God in all things, and learned obedience make us more receptive to the influx of grace and purify our aspirations and actions.
“Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (1 John 3:21). It is wise to form the habit of inviting God to search your heart and reveal “any hurtful way” (Psalm 139:23) within you. Sustained attention to the heart, the wellspring of action, is essential to the formative process. By inviting Jesus to examine our intentions and priorities, we open ourselves to His good but often painful work of exposing our manipulative and self-seeking strategies, our hardness of heart (often concealed in religious activities), our competitively-driven resentments, and our pride. “A humble understanding of yourself is a surer way to God than a profound searching after knowledge” (Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ). Self-examining prayer or journaling in the presence of God will enable us to descend below the surface of our emotions and actions and to discern sinful patterns that require repentance and renewal. Since spiritual formation is a process, it is a good practice to compare yourself now with where you have been. Are you progressing in Christlike qualities like love, patience, kindness, forgiveness, compassion, understanding, servanthood, and hope? To assist you, here is a prayer sequence for examination and encouragement that incorporates the ten commandments, the Lord’s prayer, the beatitudes, the seven deadly sins, the four cardinal and three theological virtues, and the fruit of the Spirit. This can serve as a kind of spiritual diagnostic tool:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way. (Psalm 139:23-24)
Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life. (Proverbs 4:23)
The Ten Commandments
You shall have no other gods before Me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet.
The Lord’s Prayer Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
Poverty of spirit (nothing apart from God’s grace)
Gentleness (meekness, humility)
Hunger and thirst for righteousness
Merciful to others
Purity of heart (desiring Christ above all else)
Bearing persecution for the sake of righteousness
The Seven Deadly Sins
The Four Cardinal and Three Theological Virtues
Prudence (wisdom, discernment, clear thinking, common sense)
Faith (belief and trust in God’s character and work)
Hope (anticipating God’s promises)
Love (willing the highest good for others, compassion)
The Fruit of the Spirit
Letting Loose of Control and Results
One of the great enemies of process spirituality is the craving to control our environment and the desire to determine the results of our endeavors. Many of us have a natural inclination to be manipulators, grabbers, owners, and controllers. The more we seek to rule our world, the more we will resist the rule of Christ; those who grasp are afraid of being grasped by God. But until we relinquish ownership of our lives, we will not experience the holy relief of surrender to God’s good and loving purposes. Thomas Merton put it this way in New Seeds of Contemplation:
This is one of the chief contradictions that sin has brought into our souls: we have to do violence to ourselves to keep from laboring uselessly for what is bitter and without joy, and we have to compel ourselves to take what is easy and full of happiness as though it were against our interests, because for us the line of least resistance leads in the way of greatest hardship and sometimes for us to do what is, in itself, most easy, can be the hardest thing in the world.
Our resistance to God’s rule even extends to our prayerful attempts to persuade the Lord to bless our plans and to meet our needs in the ways we deem best. Instead of seeking God’s will in prayer, we hope to induce Him to accomplish our will. Thus, even in our prayers, we can adopt the mentality of a consumer rather than a servant.
Perhaps the most painful lesson for believers to learn is the wisdom of being faithful to the process and letting loose of the results.
We have little control over opportunities we encounter and the outcomes of our efforts, but we can be obedient to the process.
Distorted dreams and selfish ambitions must die before we can know the way of resurrection. We cannot be responsive to God’s purposes until we abandon our strategies to control and acknowledge His exclusive ownership of our lives. At the front end, this surrender to the life of Christ in us appears to be the way of renunciation, but on the other side of renunciation we discover that it is actually the way of affirmation. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9:24). The better we apprehend our spiritual poverty and weakness, the more we will be willing to invite Jesus to increase so that we may decrease (John 3:30).
Another key to staying in the process is learning to receive each day and whatever it brings as from the hand of God. Instead of viewing God’s character in light of our circumstances, we should view our circumstances in light of God’s character. Because God’s character is unchanging and good, whatever circumstances He allows in the life of His children are for their good, even though they may not seem so at the time. Since His will for us is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2), the trials, disappointments, setbacks, tasks, and adversities we encounter are, from an eternal vantage point, the place of God’s kingdom and blessing. This Romans 8:28-39 perspective can change the way we pray. Instead of asking the Lord to change our circumstances to suit us, we can ask Him to use our circumstances to change us. Realizing that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18), we can experience “the fellowship of [Christ’s] sufferings” through “the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). Thus, Blaise Pascal prayed in his Pensees:
With perfect consistency of mind, help me to receive all manner of events. For we know not what to ask, and we cannot ask for one event rather than another without presumption. We cannot desire a specific action without presuming to be a judge, and assuming responsibility for what in Your wisdom You may hide from me. O Lord, I know only one thing, and that is that it is good to follow You and wicked to offend You. Beyond this, I do not know what is good for me, whether health or sickness, riches or poverty, or anything else in this world. This knowledge surpasses both the wisdom of men and of angels. It lies hidden in the secrets of Your providence, which I adore, and will not dare to pry open.
We are essentially spiritual beings, and each “today” that is received with gratitude from God’s hand contributes to our preparation for our glorious and eternal destiny in His presence. In “the sacrament of the present moment” as Jean-Pierre de Caussade described it, “It is only right that if we are discontented with what God offers us every moment, we should be punished by finding nothing else that will content us” (Abandonment to Divine Providence). It is when we learn to love God’s will that we can embrace the present moment as a source of spiritual formation.
As we grow in dependence on Christ’s life and diminish in dependence on our own, the fulfillment of receiving His life gradually replaces the frustration of trying to create our own. It is in this place of conscious dependence that God shapes us into the image of His Son. Here we must trust Him for the outcome, because we cannot measure or quantify the spiritual life. We know that we are in a formative process and that God is not finished with us yet, but we must also remember that we cannot control or create the product. Furthermore, we cannot measure our ministry or impact on others in this life. If we forget this, we will be in a hurry to accomplish significant things by the world’s standard of reckoning. Frances Felenon noted that “the soul, by the neglect of little things, becomes accustomed to unfaithfulness” (Christian Perfection). It is faithfulness in the little daily things that leads to faithfulness in much (Luke 16:10). Henri Nouwen used to ask God to get rid of his interruptions so he could get on with his ministry. “Then I realized that interruptions are my ministry.” As servants and ambassadors of the King, we must be obedient in the daily process even when we cannot see what difference our obedience makes.
Cultivating a Heart of Gratitude
A young man with a bandaged hand approached the clerk at the post office. “Sir, could you please address this post card for me?” The clerk did so gladly, and then agreed to write a message on the card.
He then asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” The young man looked at the card for a moment and then said, “Yes, add a PS: ‘Please excuse the handwriting.’”
We are an ungrateful people. Writing of man in Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky says, “If he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.” Luke’s account of the cleansing of the ten lepers underscores the human tendency to expect grace as our due and to forget to thank God for His benefits. “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Was no one found who turned back to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18).
Remember: God’s Deliverance in the Past
Our calendar allocates one day to give thanks to God for His many benefits, and even that day is more consumed with gorging than with gratitude. Ancient Israel’s calendar included several annual festivals to remind the people of God’s acts of deliverance and provision so that they would renew their sense of gratitude and reliance upon the Lord.
In spite of this, they forgot: “they became disobedient and rebelled against You . . . . they did not remember Your abundant kindnesses . . . . they quickly forgot His works” (Nehemiah 9:26;Psalm 106:7, 13). The prophet Hosea captured the essence of this decline into ingratitude: “As they had their pasture, they became satisfied, and being satisfied, their heart became proud; therefore, they forgot Me”(13:6). When we are doing well, we tend to think that our prosperity was self-made; this delusion leads us into the folly of pride; pride makes us forget God and prompts us to rely on ourselves in place of our Creator; this forgetfulness always leads to ingratitude.
Centuries earlier, Moses warned the children of Israel that they would be tempted to forget the Lord once they began to enjoy the blessings of the promised land. “Then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . . Otherwise, you may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:14, 17). The antidote to this spiritual poison is found in the next verse: “But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth” (8:18).
Our propensity to forget is a mark of our fallenness. Because of this, we should view remembering and gratitude as a discipline, a daily and intentional act, a conscious choice. If it is limited to spontaneous moments of emotional gratitude, it will gradually erode and we will forget all that God has done for us and take His grace for granted.
Remember: God’s Benefits in the Present
“Rebellion against God does not begin with the clenched fist of atheism but with the self-satisfied heart of the one for whom ‘thank you’ is redundant” (Os Guinness, In Two Minds). The apostle Paul exposes the error of this thinking when he asks, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”(1 Corinthians 4:7). Even as believers in Christ, it is quite natural to overlook the fact that all that we have and are—our health, our intelligence, our abilities, our very lives—are gifts from the hand of God, and not our own creation. We understand this, but few of us actively acknowledge our utter reliance upon the Lord throughout the course of the week. We rarely review the many benefits we enjoy in the present. And so we forget.
We tend toward two extremes when we forget to remember God’s benefits in our lives. The first extreme is presumption, and this is the error we have been discussing. When things are going “our way,” we may forget God or acknowledge Him in a shallow or mechanical manner. The other extreme is resentment and bitterness due to difficult circumstances. When we suffer setbacks or losses, we wonder why we are not doing as well as others and develop a mindset of murmuring and complaining. We may attribute it to “bad luck” or “misfortune” or not “getting the breaks,” but it really boils down to dissatisfaction with God’s provision and care. This lack of contentment and gratitude stems in part from our efforts to control the content of our lives in spite of what Christ may or may not desire for us to have. It also stems from our tendency to focus on what we do not possess rather than all the wonderful things we have already received.
“Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). We cannot give thanks and complain at the same time. To give thanks is to remember the spiritual and material blessings we have received and to be content with what our loving Lord provides, even when it does not correspond to what we had in mind. Gratitude is a choice, not merely a feeling, and it requires effort especially in difficult times. But the more we choose to live in the discipline of conscious thanksgiving, the more natural it becomes, and the more our eyes are opened to the little things throughout the course of the day that we previously overlooked. G. K. Chesterton had a way of acknowledging these many little benefits: “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” Henri Nouwen observed that “every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious, and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace.”
Remember: God’s Promises for the Future
If we are not grateful for God’s deliverance in the past and His benefits in the present, we will not be grateful for His promises for the future. Scripture exhorts us to lay hold of our hope in Christ and to renew it frequently so that we will maintain God’s perspective on our present journey. His plans for His children exceed our imagination, and it is His intention to make all things new, to wipe away every tear, and to “show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”in the ages to come (Ephesians 2:7).
Make it a daily exercise, either at the beginning or the end of the day, to review God’s benefits in your past, present, and future. This discipline will be pleasing to God, because it will cultivate a heart of gratitude and ongoing thanksgiving.
The Secret of Contentment
“We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.” Uncle Screwtape’s diabolical counsel to his nephew Wormwood in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is a reminder that most of us live more in the future than in the present. Somehow we think that the days ahead will make up for what we perceive to be our present lack. We think, “When I get this or when that happens, then I’ll be happy,” but this is an exercise in self-deception that overlooks the fact that even when we get what we want, it never delivers what it promised.
Most of us don’t know precisely what we want, but we are certain we don’t have it. Driven by dissatisfaction, we pursue the treasure at the end of the rainbow and rarely drink deeply at the well of the present moment, which is all we ever have. The truth is that if we are not satisfied with what we have, we will never be satisfied with what we want.
The real issue of contentment is whether it is Christ or ourselves who determine the content (e.g., money, position, family, circumstances) of our lives. When we seek to control the content, we inevitably turn to the criterion of comparison to measure what it should look like. The problem is that comparison is the enemy of contentment—there will always be people who possess a greater quality or quantity of what we think we should have. Because of this, comparison leads to covetousness. Instead of loving our neighbors, we find ourselves loving what they possess.
Covetousness in turn leads to a competitive spirit. We find ourselves competing with others for the limited resources to which we think we are entitled. Competition often becomes a vehicle through which we seek to authenticate our identity or prove our capability. This kind of competition tempts us to compromise our character. When we want something enough, we may be willing to steamroll our convictions in order to attain it. We find ourselves cutting corners, misrepresenting the truth, cheating, or using people as objects to accomplish our self-driven purposes.
It is only when we allow Christ to determine the content of our lives that we can discover the secret of contentment. Instead of comparing ourselves with others, we must realize that the Lord alone knows what is best for us and loves us enough to use our present circumstances to accomplish eternal good. We can be content when we put our hope in His character rather than our own concept of how our lives should appear.
Writing from prison to the believers in Philippi, Paul affirmed that “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (Philippians 4:11-12). Contentment is not found in having everything, but in being satisfied with everything we have. As the Apostle told Timothy, “we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content”(1 Timothy 6:7-8). Paul acknowledged God’s right to determine his circumstances, even if it meant taking him down to nothing. His contentment was grounded not in how much he had but in the One who had him. Job understood this when he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”(Job 1:21). The more we release temporal possessions, the more we can grasp eternal treasures. There are times when God may take away our toys to force us to transfer our affections to Christ and His character.
A biblical understanding of contentment leads to a sense of our competency in Christ. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). As Peter put it, “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). Contentment is not the fulfillment of what we want, but the realization of how much we already possess in Christ.
A vision of our competency in Christ enables us to respond to others with compassion rather than competition, because we understand that our fundamental needs are fulfilled in the security and significance we have found in Him. Since we are complete in Christ, we are free to serve others instead of using them in the quest to meet our needs. Thus we are liberated to pursue character rather than comfort and convictions rather than compromise.
Notice the contrast between the four horizontal pairs in this chart:
WHO DETERMINES THE CONTENT OF YOUR LIFE?
As we learn the secret of contentment, we will be less impressed by numbers, less driven to achieve, less hurried, and more alive to the grace of the present moment.
Article adapted from several sources on the Internet – most likely originally from Bible.org or Monergism.com. Dr. Ken Boa is an outstanding Bible scholar, and Spiritual director, and author of numerous helpful books including the Outstanding Textbook on the Subject of Sanctification and Spiritual Formation: Conformed To His Image.
(Adapted from Tim Keller’s fantastic Gospel saturated book Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012, Chapter One [I have written out many of the Scripture references in BOLD ITALIC print for ease of reference from the ESV – DPC])
What do we mean by “the gospel”? Answering this question is a bit more complex than we often assume. Not everything the Bible teaches can be considered “the gospel” (although it can be argued that all biblical doctrine is necessary background for understanding the gospel). The gospel is a message about how we have been rescued from peril. The very word gospel has as its background a news report about some life-altering event that has already happened:
Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Luke 2:10, And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
1 Corinthians 1:16-17 & 15:1-11, (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power…Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
(1) The gospel is good news, not good advice.
The gospel is not primarily a way of life. It is not something we do, but something that has been done for us and something that we must respond to. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament — the Septuagint — the word euangelizo (proclaim good news) occurs twenty-three times. As we see in Psalm 40: 9 (ESV) — “I have told the glad news of [your] deliverance in the great congregation” — the term is generally used to declare the news of something that has happened to rescue and deliver people from peril. In the New Testament, the word group euangelion (good news), euangelizo (proclaim good news), and euangelistes (one who proclaims good news) occurs at least 133 times.
D. A. Carson draws this conclusion from a thorough study of gospel words:
Because the gospel is news, good news… it is to be announced; that is what one does with news. The essential heraldic element in preaching is bound up with the fact that the core message is not a code of ethics to be debated, still less a list of aphorisms to be admired and pondered, and certainly not a systematic theology to be outlined and schematized. Though it properly grounds ethics, aphorisms, and systematics, it is none of these three: it is news, good news, and therefore must be publicly announced (D.A. Carson, “What Is the Gospel? –Revisited,” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, ed. Sam Storms and Justin Taylor. Wheaton, ILL.: Crossway, 2010, 158.
(2) The gospel is good news announcing that we have been rescued or saved.
And what are we rescued from? What peril are we saved from? A look at the gospel words in the New Testament shows that we are rescued from the “coming wrath” at the end of history (1 Thessalonians 1:10, “and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come”).
But this wrath is not an impersonal force — it is God’s wrath. We are out of fellowship with God; our relationship with him is broken. In perhaps the most thoroughgoing exposition of the gospel in the Bible, Paul identifies God’s wrath as the great problem of the human condition (Rom 1:18–32).
Romans 1:18-32, For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Genesis 3:1-19, Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Here we see that the wrath of God has many ramifications. The background text is Genesis 3:17–19 (Genesis 3 passage above), in which God’s curse lies on the entire created order because of human sin. Because we are alienated from God, we are psychologically alienated within ourselves — we experience shame and fear (Gen 3:10). Because we are alienated from God, we are also socially alienated from one another (v. 7 describes how Adam and Eve must put on clothing, and v. 16 speaks of alienation between the genders; also notice the blame shifting in their dialogue with God in vv. 11–13). Because we are alienated from God, we are also physically alienated from nature itself. We now experience sorrow, painful toil, physical degeneration, and death (vv. 16–19). In fact, the ground itself is “cursed” (v. 17; see Rom 8:18–25 below).
Romans 8:18-25, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Since the garden, we live in a world filled with suffering, disease, poverty, racism, natural disasters, war, aging, and death — and it all stems from the wrath and curse of God on the world. The world is out of joint, and we need to be rescued. But the root of our problem is not these “horizontal” relationships, though they are often the most obvious; it is our “vertical” relationship with God.
All human problems are ultimately symptoms, and our separation from God is the cause. The reason for all the misery — all the effects of the curse — is that we are not reconciled to God. We see this in such texts as Romans 5:8 and 2 Corinthians 5:20 (below).
Romans 5:8, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
2 Corinthians 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Therefore, the first and primary focus of any real rescue of the human race — the main thing that will save us — is to have our relationship with God put right again.
(3) The gospel is news about what has been done by Jesus Christ to put right our relationship with God.
Becoming a Christian is about a change of status. First John 3:14 (emphasis added) states that “we have passed from death to life,” not we are passing from death to life ((The verb translated “passed” in 1 John 3:14 is metabaino, which means to “cross over.” In John 5:24, Jesus states, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who went me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over [metabaino] from death to life.” A parallel passage is Colosssians 1:13, where it is said that Christ-followers have been transferred from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of the Son). You are either in Christ or you are not; you are either pardoned and accepted or you are not; you either have eternal life or you don’t. This is why Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones often used a diagnostic question to determine a person’s spiritual understanding and condition. He would ask, “Are you now ready to say that you are a Christian?” He recounts that over the years, whenever he would ask the question, people would often hesitate and then say, “I do no feel that I am good enough.” To that, he gives this response:
At once I know that… they are still thinking in terms of themselves; their idea still is that they have to make themselves good enough to be a Christian… It sounds very modest but it is the lie of the devil, it is a denial of the faith… you will never be good enough; nobody has ever been good enough. The essence of the Christian salvation is to say that He is good enough and that I am in Him! (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965, 34).
Lloyd-Jones’s point is that becoming a Christian is a change in our relationship with God. Jesus’ work, when it is believed and rested in, instantly changes our standing before God. We are “in him.”
Ever since reading J. I. Packer’s famous essay introducing John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ, I have liked “God saves sinners” as a good summary of gospel: God saves sinners. God — the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father’s will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing. Saves — does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners— men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God’s will or better their spiritual lot (J.I. Packer, “Introductory Essay to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ” – see this website [verticallivingministries.com] under the category “Soteriology” or “J.I. Packer”).
THE GOSPEL IS NOT THE RESULTS OF THE GOSPEL
The gospel is not about something we do but about what has been done for us, and yet the gospel results in a whole new way of life. This grace and the good deeds that result must be both distinguished and connected. The gospel, its results, and its implications must be carefully related to each other— neither confused nor separated. One of Martin Luther’s dicta was that we are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that remains alone. His point is that true gospel belief will always and necessarily lead to good works, but salvation in no way comes through or because of good works. Faith and works must never be confused for one another, nor may they be separated.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:14, 17-18, 20-26).
I am convinced that belief in the gospel leads us to care for the poor and participate actively in our culture, as surely as Luther said true faith leads to good works. But just as faith and works must not be separated or confused, so the results of the gospel must never be separated from or confused with the gospel itself. I have often heard people preach this way: “The good news is that God is healing and will heal the world of all its hurts; therefore, the work of the gospel is to work for justice and peace in the world.” The danger in this line of thought is not that the particulars are untrue (they are not) but that it mistakes effects for causes. It confuses what the gospel is with what the gospel does. When Paul speaks of the renewed material creation, he states that the new heavens and new earth are guaranteed to us because on the cross Jesus restored our relationship with God as his true sons and daughters. Romans 8:1–25 teaches, remarkably, that the redemption of our bodies and of the entire physical world occurs when we receive “our adoption.” As his children, we are guaranteed our future inheritance, and because of that inheritance, the world is renewed. The future is ours because of Christ’s work finished in the past.
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory…having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:13-14,18).
“giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light… knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 1:12; 3:24).
“Therefore he [Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15).
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).
We must not, then, give the impression that the gospel is simply a divine rehabilitation program for the world, but rather that it is an accomplished substitutionary work. We must not depict the gospel as primarily joining something (Christ’s kingdom program) but rather as receiving something (Christ’s finished work). If we make this error, the gospel becomes another kind of a salvation by works instead of a salvation by faith.
As J. I. Packer writes:
The gospel does bring us solutions to these problems [of suffering and injustice], but it does so by first solving… the deepest of all human problems, the problem of man’s relation with his Maker; and unless we make it plain that the solution of these former problems depends on the settling of this latter one, we are misrepresenting the message and becoming false witnesses of God (J.I. Packer. Knowing God. Downers Grove, ILL.: InterVarsity, 1973, p. 171).
A related question has to do with whether the gospel is spread by the doing of justice. Not only does the Bible say over and over that the gospel is spread by preaching, but common sense tells us that loving deeds, as important as they are as an accompaniment of preaching, cannot by themselves bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Francis Schaeffer argued rightly that Christians’ relationships with each other constitute the criterion the world uses to judge whether their message is truthful — so Christian community is the “final apologetic” (Francis Schaeffer. The Mark of the Christian. Downers Grove, ILL.: InterVarsity, 1977, p. 25; cf. Timothy George and John Woodbridge. The Mark of Jesus: Loving in a Way the World Can See. Chicago: Moody, 2005).
Notice again, however, the relationship between faith and works. Jesus said that a loving community is necessary for the world to know that God sent him (John 17:23, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” And John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”).
Sharing our goods with each other and with the needy is a powerful sign to nonbelievers (see the relationship between witness and sharing in Acts 4:31– 37 and Acts 6). But loving deeds — even though they embody the truths of the gospel and cannot be separated from preaching the gospel — should not be conflated with it. The gospel, then, is preeminently a report about the work of Christ on our behalf — that is why and how the gospel is salvation by grace. The gospel is news because it is about a salvation accomplished for us. It is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel (See D.A. Carson, “What Is the Gospel? —Revisited,” in For the Fame of God’s Name, 158).
THE GOSPEL HAS TWO EQUAL AND OPPOSITE ENEMIES
The ancient church father Tertullian is reputed to have said, “Just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, so the gospel is ever crucified between these two errors” (Having heard and read this in the words of other preachers, I have never been able to track down an actual place in Tertullian’s writings where he says it. I think it may be apocryphal, but the principle is right).
What are these errors to which Tertullian was referring? I often call them religion and irreligion; the theological terms are legalism and antinomianism. Another way to describe them could be moralism and relativism (or pragmatism).
These two errors constantly seek to corrupt the message and steal away from us the power of the gospel. Legalism says that we have to live a holy, good life in order to be saved. Antinomianism says that because we are saved, we don’t have to live a holy, good life.
This is the location of the “tip of the spear” of the gospel. A very clear and sharp distinction between legalism, antinomianism, and the gospel is often crucial for the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit to work. If our gospel message even slightly resembles “you must believe and live right to be saved” or “God loves and accepts everyone just as they are,” we will find our communication is not doing the identity-changing, heart-shaping transformative work described in the next part of this book. If we just preach general doctrine and ethics from Scripture, we are not preaching the gospel. The gospel is the good news that God has accomplished our salvation for us through Christ in order to bring us into a right relationship with him and eventually to destroy all the results of sin in the world.
Still, it can be rightly argued that in order to understand all this — who God is, why we need salvation, what he has done to save us — we must have knowledge of the basic teachings of the entire Bible. J. Gresham Machen, for example, speaks of the biblical doctrines of God and of man to be the “presuppositions of the gospel” ((J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001, 99).
This means that an understanding of the Trinity, of Christ’s incarnation, of original sin and sin in general — are all necessary. If we don’t understand, for example, that Jesus was not just a good man but the second person of the Trinity, or if we don’t understand what the “wrath of God” means, it is impossible to understand what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Not only that, but the New Testament constantly explains the work of Christ in Old Testament terms — in the language of priesthood, sacrifice, and covenant.
In other words, we must not just preach the Bible in general; we must preach the gospel. Yet unless those listening to the message understand the Bible in general, they won’t grasp the gospel. The more we understand the whole corpus of biblical doctrine, the more we will understand the gospel itself — and the more we understand the gospel, the more we will come to see that this is, in the end, what the Bible is really about. Biblical knowledge is necessary for the gospel and distinct from the gospel, yet it so often stands in when the gospel is not actually present that people have come to mistake its identity.
THE GOSPEL HAS CHAPTERS
So, the gospel is good news — it is not something we do but something that has been done for us. Simple enough. But when we ask questions like “Good news about what?” or “Why is it good news?” the richness and complexity of the gospel begin to emerge.
There are two basic ways to answer the question “What is the gospel?” One is to offer the biblical good news of how you can get right with God. This is to understand the question to mean, “What must I do to be saved?” The second is to offer the biblical good news of what God will fully accomplish in history through the salvation of Jesus. This is to understand the question as “What hope is there for the world?”
If we conceive the question in the first, more individualistic way, we explain how a sinful human being can be reconciled to a holy God and how his or her life can be changed as a result. It is a message about individuals. The answer can be outlined: Who God is, what sin is, who Christ is and what he did, and what faith is. These are basically propositions.
If we conceive of the question in the second way, to ask all that God is going to accomplish in history, we explain where the world came from, what went wrong with it, and what must happen for it to be mended. This is a message about the world. The answer can be outlined: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. These are chapters in a plotline, a story. There is no single way to present the biblical gospel. Yet I urge you to try to be as thoughtful as possible in your gospel presentations. The danger in answering only the first question (“What must I do to be saved?”) without the second (“What hope is there for the world?”) is that, standing alone, the first can play into the Western idea that religion exists to provide spiritual goods that meet individual spiritual needs for freedom from guilt and bondage. It does not speak much about the goodness of the original creation or of God’s concern for the material world, and so this conception may set up the listener to see Christianity as sheer escape from the world. But the danger in conceiving the gospel too strictly as a story line of the renewal of the world is even greater. It tells listeners about God’s program to save the world, but it does not tell them how to actually get right with God and become part of that program. In fact, I’ll say that without the first message, the second message is not the gospel. J. I. Packer writes these words:
In recent years, great strides in biblical theology and contemporary canonical exegesis have brought new precision to our grasp of the Bible’s overall story of how God’s plan to bless Israel, and through Israel the world, came to its climax in and through Christ. But I do not see how it can be denied that each New Testament book, whatever other job it may be doing, has in view, one way or another, Luther’s primary question: how may a weak, perverse, and guilty sinner find a gracious God? Nor can it be denied that real Christianity only really starts when that discovery is made. And to the extent that modern developments, by filling our horizon with the great metanarrative, distract us from pursuing Luther’s question in personal terms, they hinder as well as help in our appreciation of the gospel (J. I. Packer, In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2007, 26 – 27).
Still, the Bible’s grand narrative of cosmic redemption is critical background to help an individual get right with God. One way to proceed is to interleave the two answers to the “What is the gospel?” question so that gospel truths are laid into a story with chapters rather than just presented as a set of propositions. The narrative approach poses the questions, and the propositional approach supplies the answers.
How would we relate the gospel to someone in this way? What follows is a “conversational pathway” for presenting the gospel to someone as the chapters in a story. In the Bible, the term gospel is the declaration of what Jesus Christ has done to save us. In light of the biblical usage, then, we should observe that chapters 1 (God and Creation), 2 (Fall and Sin), and 4 (Faith) are not, strictly speaking, “the gospel.” They are prologue and epilogue. Simon Gathercole argues that both Paul and the Gospel writers considered the good news to have three basic elements: the identity of Jesus as Son of God and Messiah, the death of Jesus for sin and justification, and the establishment of the reign of God and the new creation (Simon Gathercole, “The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom,” in God’s Power to Save, ed. Chris Green. Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity, 2006, 138 – 54).
The gospel, then, is packed into chapter 3, with its three headings — incarnation, substitution, and restoration. Chapter 1 on God and chapter 2 on sin constitute absolutely critical background information for understanding the meaning of the person and work of Jesus, and chapter 4 helps us understand how we must respond to Jesus’ salvation. Nevertheless, it is reasonable and natural to refer to the entire set of four chapters as “the gospel.”
WHERE DID WE COME FROM?
Answer: God. There is one God. He is infinite in power, goodness, and holiness and yet also personal and loving, a God who speaks to us in the Bible. The world is not an accident, but the creation of the one God (Genesis 1). God created all things, but why did he do that? Why did he create the world and us? The answer is what makes the Christian understanding of God profound and unique. While there is only one God, within God’s being there are three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit —who are all equally God and who have loved, adored, served, and enjoyed one another from all eternity. If God were unipersonal, then he would have not known love until he created other beings. In that case, love and community would not have been essential to his character; it would have emerged later. But God is triune, and therefore love, friendship, and community are intrinsic to him and at the heart of all reality. So a triune God created us (John 1: 1 – 4), but he would not have created us to get the joy of mutual love and service, because he already had that. Rather, he created us to share in his love and service. As we know from John 17: 20– 24, the persons of the Trinity love and serve one another — they are “other-oriented” (D. A. Carson in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2000, pp. 39 & 43 writes, “What we have, then, is a picture of God whose love, even in eternity past, even before the creation of anything, is other-oriented. This cannot be said [for instance] of Allah. Yet because the God of the Bible is one, this plurality-in-unity does not destroy his entirely appropriate self-focus as God… There has always been an other-orientation to the love of God… We are the friends of God by virtue of the intra-Trinitarian love of God that so worked out in the fullness of time that the plan of redemption, conceived in the mind of God in eternity past, has exploded into our space-time history at exactly the right moment.”).
And thus God created us to live in the same way. In order to share the joy and love that God knew within himself, he created a good world that he cares for, a world full of human beings who were called to worship, know, and serve him, not themselves (See “The Dance of Creation,” in Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008, pp. 225– 26; “The Dance,” in Tim Keller, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus. New York: Dutton, 2011, 3– 13).
WHY DID THINGS GO SO WRONG?
Answer: Sin. God created us to adore and serve him and to love others. By living this way, we would have been completely happy and enjoyed a perfect world. But instead, the whole human race turned away from God, rebelling against his authority. Instead of living for God and our neighbors, we live lives of self-centeredness. Because our relationship with God has been broken, all other relationships — with other human beings, with our very selves, and with the created world — are also ruptured. The result is spiritual, psychological, social, and physical decay and breakdown. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” — the world now lies under the power of sin (Quote from the poem “The Second Coming,” 1920 by William Butler Yeats).
Sin reaps two terrible consequences. One consequence is spiritual bondage (Rom 6: 15–18). We may believe in God or we may not believe, but either way, we never make him our greatest hope, good, or love. We try to maintain control of our lives by living for other things — for money, career, family, fame, romance, sex, power, comfort, social and political causes, or something else. But the result is always a loss of control, a form of slavery. Everyone has to live for something, and if that something is not God, then we are driven by that thing we live for — by overwork to achieve it, by inordinate fear if it is threatened, deep anger if it is being blocked, and inconsolable despair if it is lost. So the novelist David Foster Wallace, not long before his suicide, spoke these words to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College:
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough… Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is… they’re unconscious. They are default settings (Emily Bobrow, “David Foster Wallace, in His Own Words,” taken from his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, http:// moreintelligentlife.com/ story/ david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words; accessed January 4, 2012).
The second basic consequence of sin is condemnation (Rom 6: 23). We are not just suffering because of sin; we are guilty because of sin. Often we say, “Well, I’m not very religious, but I’m a good person — and that is what is most important.” But is it? Imagine a woman —a poor widow —with an only son. She teaches him how she wants him to live — to always tell the truth, to work hard, and to help the poor. She makes very little money, but with her meager savings she is able to put him through college. Imagine that when he graduates, he hardly ever speaks to her again. He occasionally sends a Christmas card, but he doesn’t visit her; he won’t answer her phone calls or letters; he doesn’t speak to her. But he lives just like she taught him — honestly, industriously, and charitably. Would we say this was acceptable? Of course not! Wouldn’t we say that by living a “good life” but neglecting a relationship with the one to whom he owed everything he was doing something condemnable? In the same way, if God created us and we owe him everything and we do not live for him but we “live a good life,” it is not enough. We all owe a debt that must be paid.
WHAT WILL PUT THINGS RIGHT?
Answer: Christ. First, Jesus Christ puts things right through his incarnation. C. S. Lewis wrote that if there is a God, we certainly don’t relate to him as people on the first floor of a building relate to people on the second floor. We relate to him the way Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that the author chooses to put information about himself in the play (See C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, pp. 167– 76).
In the Christian view, however, we believe that God did even more than simply give us information. Many fans of Dorothy Sayers’s detective stories and mystery novels point out that Sayers was one of the first women to attend Oxford University. The main character in her stories — Lord Peter Wimsey — is an aristocratic sleuth and a single man. At one point in the novels, though, a new character appears, Harriet Vane. She is described as one of the first women who graduated from Oxford — and as a writer of mystery novels. Eventually she and Peter fall in love and marry. Who was she? Many believe Sayers looked into the world she had created, fell in love with her lonely hero, and wrote herself into the story to save him. Very touching! But that is not nearly as moving or amazing as the reality of the incarnation (John 1: 14). God, as it were, looked into the world he had made and saw our lostness and had pity on his people. And so he wrote himself into human history as its main character (John 3: 16). The second person in the Trinity, the Son of God, came into the world as a man, Jesus Christ.
The second way Jesus puts things right is through substitution. Because of the guilt and condemnation on us, a just God can’t simply shrug off our sins. Being sorry is not enough. We would never allow an earthly judge to let a wrongdoer off, just because he was contrite — how much less should we expect a perfect heavenly Judge to do so? And even when we forgive personal wrongs against us, we cannot simply forgive without cost. If someone harms us and takes money or happiness or reputation from us, we can either make them pay us back or forgive them— which means we absorb the cost ourselves without remuneration.
Jesus Christ lived a perfect life — the only human being to ever do so. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
At the end of his life, he deserved blessing and acceptance; at the end of our lives, because every one of us lives in sin, we deserve rejection and condemnation. “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks [Gentiles], are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:9–12).
Yet when the time had fully come, Jesus received in our place, on the cross, the rejection and condemnation we deserve (“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” – 1 Peter 3:18), so that, when we believe in him, we can receive the blessing and acceptance he deserves (“For our sake he made him to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” – 2 Corinthians 5: 21).
There is no more moving thought than that of someone giving his life to save another. In Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, two men — Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton — both love the same woman, Lucie Manette, but Lucie chooses to marry Charles. Later, during the French Revolution, Charles is thrown in prison and awaits execution on the guillotine. Sydney visits Charles in prison, drugs him, and has him carried out. When a young seamstress (also on death row) realizes that Sydney is taking Charles’s place, she is amazed and asks him to hold her hand for strength. She is deeply moved by his substitutionary sacrifice — and it wasn’t even for her! When we realize that Jesus did the very same thing for us, it changes everything — the way we regard God, ourselves, and the world.
The third way Jesus will put things right is through the eventual restoration of all that has gone wrong with the world. The first time Jesus came from heaven to earth, he came in weakness to suffer for our sins. But the second time he comes, he will judge the world, putting a final end to all evil, suffering, decay, and death. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God…But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (Romans 8:19–21; 2 Peter 3:13).
This means that Christ’s salvation does not merely save our souls so we can escape the pain of the curse on the physical world. Rather, the final goal is the renewal and restoration of the material world, and the redemption of both our souls and our bodies. Vinoth Ramachandra notes how unique this view is among the religions of the world:
So our salvation lies not in an escape from this world but in the transformation of this world… You will not find hope for the world in any religious systems or philosophies of humankind. The biblical vision is unique. That is why when some say that there is salvation in other faiths I ask them, “What salvation are you talking about?” No faith holds out a promise of eternal salvation for the world the way the cross and resurrection of Jesus do (Vinoth Ramachandra, The Scandal of Jesus. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001, 24).
HOW CAN I BE PUT RIGHT?
Answer: Faith. Jesus died for our sins and rose again from the grave. By faith in him, our sins can be forgiven and we can be assured of living forever with God and one day being raised from the dead like Christ. So what does it mean to believe, to have faith? First, it means to grasp what salvation “by faith” means. Believing in Christ does not mean that we are forgiven for our past, get a new start on life, and must simply try harder to live better than we did in the past. If this is your mind-set, you are still putting your faith in yourself. You are your own Savior. You are looking to your moral efforts and abilities to make yourself right with God. But this will never work. No one lives a perfect life. Even your best deeds are tainted by selfish and impure motives.
The gospel is that when we believe in Christ, there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Putting our faith in Christ is not about trying harder; it means transferring our trust away from ourselves and resting in him. It means asking, “Father, accept me not because of what I have done or ever will do but because of what Jesus has done in my place.” When we do that, we are adopted into God’s family and given the right to his eternal, fatherly love (John 1:12–13).
The second thing to keep in mind is that it is not the quality of the faith itself that saves us; it is what Jesus has done for us. It is easy to assume that being “saved by faith” means that God will now love us because of the depth of our repentance and faith. But that is to once again subtly make ourselves our own Savior rather than Jesus. It is not the amount of our faith but the object of our faith that saves us. Imagine two people boarding an airplane. One person has almost no faith in the plane or the crew and is filled with fears and doubts. The other has great confidence in the plane and the crew. They both enter the plane, fly to a destination, and get off the plane safely. One person had a hundred times more faith in the plane than the other did, but they were equally safe. It wasn’t the amount of their faith but the object of their faith (the plane and crew) that kept them from suffering harm and arriving safely at their destination. Saving faith isn’t a level of psychological certainty; it is an act of the will in which we rest in Jesus. We give ourselves wholly to him because he gave himself wholly for us (“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me… Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”– Mark 8:34; Revelation 3:20).
THE RIGHT RELATIONSHIP OF THE GOSPEL TO ALL OF MINISTRY
There is always a danger that church leaders and ministers will conceive of the gospel as merely the minimum standard of doctrinal content for being a Christian believer. As a result, many preachers and leaders are energized by thoughts of teaching more advanced doctrine, or of deeper forms of spirituality, or of intentional community and the sacraments, or of “deeper discipleship,” or of psychological healing, or of social justice and cultural engagement. One of the reasons is the natural emergence of specialization as a church grows and ages. People naturally want to go deeper into various topics and ministry disciplines. But this tendency can cause us to lose sight of the whole. Though we may have an area or a ministry that we tend to focus on, the gospel is what brings unity to all that we do. Every form of ministry is empowered by the gospel, based on the gospel, and is a result of the gospel.
Perhaps an illustration here will help. Imagine you’re in an orchestra and you begin to play, but the sound is horrific because the instruments are out of tune. The problem can’t be fixed by simply tuning them to each other. It won’t help for each person to get in tune to the person next to her because each person will be tuning to something different. No, they will all need to be tuned properly to one source of pitch. Often we go about trying to tune ourselves to the sound of everything else in our lives. We often hear this described as “getting balance.” But the questions that need to be asked are these: “Balanced to what?” “Tuned to what?” The gospel does not begin by tuning us in relation to our particular problems and surroundings; it first re-tunes us to God (Thanks to Michael Thate for this illustration).
If an element of ministry is not recognized as a result of the gospel, it may sometimes be mistaken for the gospel and eventually supplant the gospel in the church’s preaching and teaching. Counseling, spiritual direction, doing justice, engaging culture, doctrinal instruction, and even evangelism itself may become the main thing instead of the gospel. In such cases, the gospel as outlined above is no longer understood as the fountainhead, the central dynamic, from which all other things proceed. It is no longer the center of the preaching, the thinking, or the life of the church; some other good thing has replaced it. As a consequence, conversions will begin to dwindle in number because the gospel is not preached with a kind of convicting sharpness that lays bare the secrets of the heart and gives believers and nonbelievers a sense of God’s reality, even against their wills (“But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” – 1 Corinthians 14:24–25).
Because the gospel is endlessly rich, it can handle the burden of being the one “main thing” of a church. First Peter 1:12 and its context indicate that the angels never tire of looking into and exploring the wonders of the gospel. It can be preached from innumerable stories, themes, and principles from all over the Bible. But when the preaching of the gospel is either confused with or separated from the other endeavors of the church, preaching becomes mere exhortation (to get with the church’s program or a biblical standard of ethics) or informational instruction (to inculcate the church’s values and beliefs). When the proper connection between the gospel and any aspect of ministry is severed, both are shortchanged.
The gospel is “heraldic proclamation” before it is anything else (D.A. Carson, “What Is the Gospel? —Revisited,” in For the Fame of God’s Name, 158). It is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel. The gospel is not everything that we believe, do, or say. The gospel must primarily be understood as good news, and the news is not as much about what we must do as about what has been done. The gospel is preeminently a report about the work of Christ on our behalf — salvation accomplished for us. That’s how it is a gospel of grace. Yet, as we will see in the next chapter, the fact that the gospel is news does not mean it is a simple message. There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” understanding of the gospel.
USE WORDS IF NECESSARY
[*This insert was an interesting aside by Keller, and not in the text: The
popular saying “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary” is helpful but also misleading. If the gospel were primarily about what we must do to be saved, it could be communicated as well by actions (to be imitated) as by words. But it the gospel is primarily about what God has done to save us, and how we can receive it through faith, it can only be expressed through words. Faith cannot come without hearing. This is why we read in Galatians 2:5 that heresy endangers the truth of the gospel, and why Philippians 1:16 declares that a person’s mind must be persuaded of the truth of the gospel. Ephesians 1:13 also asserts that the gospel is the word of truth. Ephesians 6:19 and Colossians 1:23 teach that we advance the gospel through verbal communication, particular preaching.]
The article above was adapted from Keller, Timothy J. (Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Kindle Locations 761-771). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
About the Author:
Dr. Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, and the author of numerous books including The Reason for God: Belief in an age of Skepticism (In my opinion the best book to date on apologetics for a postmodern culture—I think this book will do for post moderns what Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis did for moderns); and The Prodigal God (in my opinion the most clear presentation of the gospel for a post modern culture based on Luke 15).
J. I. Packer’s Brilliant Introductory Essay to John Owen’s Classic Book: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ
(It is my hope that many will read this introduction to the Biblical Gospel by J.I. Packer and that some who read this masterful introduction will actually work their way through John Owen’s classic book written in 1648 based on the “definite” or “efficacious” atonement of Jesus for His sheep. Keep in mind that I have “Americanized” the English – because 90% of my readers are Americans – I apologize to my readers in the United Kingdom. – In my humble opinion even though Dr. Packer wrote this cogent essay in 1959 it’s even more crucial and relevant to a proper understanding and articulation of the Biblical Gospel today than when it was originally composed – DPC)
The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is a polemical work, designed to show, among other things, that the doctrine of universal redemption is unscriptural and destructive of the gospel. There are many, therefore, to whom it is not likely to be of interest. Those who see no need for doctrinal exactness and have no time for theological debates, which show up in divisions between so-called Evangelicals, may well regret its reappearance. Some may find the very sound of Owen’s thesis so shocking that they will refuse to read his book at all; so passionate a thing is prejudice, and so proud are we of our theological shibboleths. But it is hoped that this reprint will find itself readers of a different spirit. There are signs today of a new upsurge of interest in the theology of the Bible: a new readiness to test traditions, to search the Scriptures and to think through the faith. It is to those who share this readiness that Owen’s treatise is offered, in the belief that it will help us in one of the most urgent tasks facing Evangelical Christendom today—the recovery of the gospel. This last remark may cause some raising of eyebrows, but it seems to be warranted by the facts.
There is no doubt that Evangelicalism today is in a state of perplexity and unsettlement. In such matters as the practice of evangelism, the teaching of holiness, the building up of local church life, the pastor’s dealing with souls and the exercise of discipline, there is evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with things as they are and of equally widespread uncertainty as to the road ahead. This is a complex phenomenon, to which many factors have contributed; but, if we go to the root of the matter, we shall find that these perplexities are all ultimately due to our having lost our grip on the biblical gospel.
Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel for a substitute product, which though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved itself so mighty. The new gospel conspicuously fails to produce deep reverence, deep repentance, deep humility, a spirit of worship, and a concern for the church. Why? We would suggest that the reason lies in its own character and content. It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying to do. One way of stating the difference between it and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be “helpful” to man—to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction—and too little concerned to glorify God.
The old gospel was “helpful,” too—more so, indeed, than is the new—but (so to speak) incidentally, for its first concern was always to give glory to God. It was always and essentially a proclamation of Divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the center of reference is man. This is just to say that the old gospel was religious in a way that the new gospel is not. Whereas the chief aim of the old was to teach men to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making them feel better. The subject of the old gospel was God and His ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him. There is a world of difference. The whole perspective and emphasis of gospel preaching has changed.
From this change of interest has sprung a change of content, for the new gospel has in effect reformulated the biblical message in the supposed interests of “helpfulness.” Accordingly, the themes of man’s natural inability to believe, of God’s free election being the ultimate cause of salvation, and of Christ dying specifically for His sheep, are not preached. These doctrines, it would be said, are not “helpful”; they would drive sinners to despair, by suggesting to them that it is not in their own power to be saved through Christ. (The possibility that such despair might be salutary is not considered; it is taken for granted that it cannot be, because it is so shattering to our self-esteem.) However this may be (and we shall say more about it later), the result of these omissions is that part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.
Thus, we appeal to men as if they all had the ability to receive Christ at any time; we speak of His redeeming work as if He had done no more by dying than make it possible for us to save ourselves by believing; we speak of God’s love as if it were no more than a general willingness to receive any who will turn and trust; and we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quiet impotence “at the door of our hearts” for us to let them in. It is undeniable that this is how we preach; perhaps this is what we really believe. But it needs to be said with emphasis that this set of twisted half-truths is something other than the biblical gospel. The Bible is against us when we preach in this way; and the fact that such preaching has become almost standard practice among us only shows how urgent it is that we should review this matter. To recover the old, authentic, biblical gospel, and to bring our preaching and practice back into line with it, is perhaps our most pressing present need. And it is at this point that Owen’s treatise on redemption can give us help.
“But wait a minute,” says someone, “it’s all very well to talk like this about the gospel; but surely what Owen is doing is defending limited atonement—one of the five points of Calvinism? When you speak of recovering the gospel, don’t you mean that you just want us all to become Calvinists?”
These questions are worth considering, for they will no doubt occur to many. At the same time, however, they are questions that reflect a great deal of prejudice and ignorance. “Defending limited atonement”—as if this was all that a Reformed theologian expounding the heart of the gospel could ever really want to do! “You just want us all to become Calvinists”—as if Reformed theologians had no interest beyond recruiting for their party, and as if becoming a Calvinist was the last stage of theological depravity, and had nothing to do with the gospel at all. Before we answer these questions directly, we must try to remove the prejudices which underlie them by making clear what Calvinism really is; and therefore we would ask the reader to take note of the following facts, historical and theological, about Calvinism in general and the “five points” in particular.
First, it should be observed that the “five points of Calvinism,” so-called, are simply the Calvinistic answer to a five-point manifesto (the Remonstrance) put out by certain “Belgic semi-Pelagians” in the early seventeenth century. The theology which it contained (known to history as Arminianism) stemmed from two philosophical principles: first, that divine sovereignty is not compatible with human freedom, nor therefore with human responsibility; second, that ability limits obligation. (The charge of semi-Pelagianism was thus fully justified.) From these principles, the Arminians drew two deductions: first that since the Bible regards faith as a free and responsible human act, it cannot be caused by God, but is exercised independently of Him; second, that since the Bible regards faith as obligatory on the part of all who hear the gospel, ability to believe must be universal. Hence, they maintained, Scripture must be interpreted as teaching the following positions:
(1) Man is never so completely corrupted by sin that he cannot savingly believe the gospel when it is put before him, nor
(2) Is he ever so completely controlled by God that he cannot reject it.
(3) God’s election of those who shall be saved is prompted by His foreseeing that they will of their own accord believe.
(4) Christ’s death did not ensure the salvation of anyone, for it did not secure the gift of faith to anyone (there is no such gift); what it did was rather to create a possibility of salvation for everyone if they believe.
(5) It rests with believers to keep themselves in a state of grace by keeping up their faith; those who fail here fall away and are lost. Thus, Arminianism made man’s salvation depend ultimately on man himself, saving faith being viewed throughout as man’s own work and, because his own, not God’s in him.
The Synod of Dort was convened in 1618 to pronounce on this theology, and the “five points of Calvinism” represent its counter-affirmations. They stem from a very different principle—the biblical principle that “salvation is of the Lord”; and they may be summarized thus:
(1) Fallen man in his natural state lacks all power to believe the gospel, just as he lacks all power to believe the law, despite all external inducements that may be extended to him.
(2) God’s election is a free, sovereign, unconditional choice of sinners, as sinners, to be redeemed by Christ, given faith and brought to glory.
(3) The redeeming work of Christ had as its end and goal the salvation of the elect.
(4) The work of the Holy Spirit in bringing men to faith never fails to achieve its object.
(5) Believers are kept in faith and grace by the unconquerable power of God till they come to glory. The mnemonic TULIP conveniently denotes these five points: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Preservation of the saints.
Now, here are two coherent interpretations of the biblical gospel, which stand in evident opposition to each other. The difference between them is not primarily one of emphasis, but of content. One proclaims a God who saves; the other speaks of a God Who enables man to save himself. One view presents the three great acts of the Holy Trinity for the recovering of lost mankind—election by the Father, redemption by the Son, calling by the Spirit—as directed towards the same persons, and as securing their salvation infallibly. The other view gives each act a different reference (the objects of redemption being all mankind, of calling, those who hear the gospel, and of election, those hearers who respond), and denies that any man’s salvation is secured by any of them. The two theologies thus conceive the plan of salvation in quite different terms. One makes salvation depend on the work of God, the other on a work of man; one regards faith as part of God’s gift of salvation, the other as man’s own contribution to salvation; one gives all the glory of saving believers to God, the other divides the praise between God, Who, so to speak, built the machinery of salvation, and man, who by believing operated it. Plainly, these differences are important, and the permanent value of the “five points,” as a summary of Calvinism, is that they make clear the points at which, and the extent to which, these two conceptions are at variance.
However, it would not be correct simply to equate Calvinism with the “five points.” Five points of our own will make this clear.
In the first place, Calvinism is something much broader than the “five points” indicate. Calvinism is a whole world-view, stemming from a clear vision of God as the whole world’s Maker and King. Calvinism is the consistent endeavor to acknowledge the Creator as the Lord, working all things after the counsel of His will. Calvinism is a theocentric way of thinking about all life under the direction and control of God’s own Word. Calvinism, in other words, is the theology of the Bible viewed from the perspective of the Bible—the God-centered outlook which sees the Creator as the source, and means, and end, of everything that is, both in nature and in grace. Calvinism is thus theism (belief in God as the ground of all things), religion (dependence on God as the giver of all things), and evangelicalism (trust in God through Christ for all things), all in their purest and most highly developed form. And Calvinism is a unified philosophy of history which sees the whole diversity of processes and events that take place in God’s world as no more, and no less, than the outworking of His great preordained plan for His creatures and His church. The five points assert no more than that God is sovereign in saving the individual, but Calvinism, as such, is concerned with the much broader assertion that He is sovereign everywhere.
Then, in the second place, the “five points” present Calvinistic soteriology in a negative and polemical form, whereas Calvinism in itself is essentially expository, pastoral and constructive. It can define its position in terms of Scripture without any reference to Arminianism, and it does not need to be forever fighting real or imaginary Arminians in order to keep itself alive. Calvinism has no interest in negatives, as such; when Calvinists fight, they fight for positive Evangelical values. The negative cast of the “five points” is misleading chiefly with regard to the third (limited atonement, or particular redemption), which is often read with stress on the adjective and taken as indicating that Calvinists have a special interest in confining the limits of divine mercy. But in fact the purpose of this phraseology, as we shall see, is to safeguard the central affirmation of the gospel—that Christ is a Redeemer who really does redeem. Similarly, the denials of an election that is conditional and of grace that is resistible, are intended to safeguard the positive truth that it is God Who saves. The real negations are those of Arminianism, which denies that election, redemption and calling are saving acts of God. Calvinism negates these negations in order to assert the positive content of the gospel, for the positive purpose of strengthening faith and building up the church.
Thirdly, the very act of setting out Calvinistic soteriology in the form of five distinct points (a number due, as we saw, merely to the fact that there were five Arminian points for the Synod of Dort to answer) tends to obscure the organic character of Calvinistic thought on this subject. For the five points, though separately stated, are really inseparable. They hang together; you cannot reject one without rejecting them all, at least in the sense in which the Synod meant them. For to Calvinism there is really only one point to be made in the field of soteriology: the point that God saves sinners.God—the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father’s will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing. Saves—does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners—men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God’s will or better their spiritual lot. God saves sinners—and the force of this confession may not be weakened by disrupting the unity of the work of the Trinity, or by dividing the achievement of salvation between God and man and making the decisive part man’s own, or by soft-pedaling the sinner’s inability so as to allow him to share the praise of his salvation with his Savior. This is the one point of Calvinistic soteriology which the “five points” are concerned to establish and Arminianism in all its forms to deny: namely, that sinners do not save themselves in any sense at all, but that salvation, first and last, whole and entire, past, present and future, is of the Lord, to whom be glory for ever; amen.
This leads to our fourth remark, which is this: the five-point formula obscures the depth of the difference between Calvinistic and Arminian soteriology. There seems no doubt that it seriously misleads many here. In the formula, the stress falls on the adjectives, and this naturally gives the impression that in regard to the three great saving acts of God the debate concerns the adjectives merely—that both sides agree as to what election, redemption, and the gift of internal grace are, and differ only as to the position of man in relation to them: whether the first is conditional upon faith being foreseen or not; whether the second intends the salvation of every man or not; whether the third always proves invincible or not. But this is a complete misconception. The change of adjective in each case involves changing the meaning of the noun. An election that is conditional, a redemption that is universal, an internal grace that is resistible, is not the same kind of election, redemption, internal grace, as Calvinism asserts. The real issue concerns, not the appropriateness of adjectives, but the definition of nouns. Both sides saw this clearly when the controversy first began, and it is important that we should see it too, for otherwise we cannot discuss the Calvinist-Arminian debate to any purpose at all. It is worth setting out the different definitions side by side.
(i) God’s act of election was defined by the Arminians as a resolve to receive sonship and glory a duly qualified class of people: believers in Christ. This becomes a resolve to receive individual persons only in virtue of God’s foreseeing the contingent fact that they will of their own accord believe. There is nothing in the decree of election to ensure that the class of believers will ever have any members; God does not determine to make any man believe. But Calvinists define election as a choice of particular undeserving persons to be saved from sin and brought to glory, and to that end to be redeemed by the death of Christ and given faith by the Spirit’s effectual calling. Where the Arminian says: “I owe my election to my faith,” the Calvinist says: “I owe my faith to my election.” Clearly, these two concepts of election are very far apart.
(ii) Christ’s work of redemption was defined by the Arminians as the removing of an obstacle (the unsatisfied claims of justice) which stood in the way of God’s offering pardon to sinners, as He desired to do, on condition that they believe. Redemption, according to Arminianism, secured for God a right to make this offer, but did not of itself ensure that anyone would ever accept it; for faith, being a work of man’s own, is not a gift that comes to him from Calvary. Christ’s death created an opportunity for the exercise of saving faith, but that is all it did. Calvinists, however, define redemption as Christ’s actual substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners, through which God was reconciled to them, their liability to punishment was forever destroyed, and a title to eternal life was secured for them. In consequence of this, they now have in God’s sight a right to the gift of faith, as the means of entry into the enjoyment of their inheritance. Calvary, in other words, not merely made possible the salvation of those for whom Christ died; it ensured that they would be brought to faith and their salvation made actual. The Cross saves. Where the Arminian will only say: “I could not have gained my salvation without Calvary,” the Calvinist will say: “Christ gained my salvation for me at Calvary.” The former makes the Cross the sine qua non of salvation, the latter sees it as the actual procuring cause of salvation, and traces the source of every spiritual blessing, faith included, back to the great transaction between God and His Son carried through on Calvary’s hill. Clearly, these two concepts of redemption are quite at variance.
(iii.) The Spirit’s gift of internal grace was defined by the Arminians as “moral suasion,” the bare bestowal of an understanding of God’s truth. This, they granted—indeed, insisted—does not of itself ensure that anyone will ever make the response of faith. But Calvinists define this gift as not merely an enlightening, but also a regenerating work of God in men, “taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.” Grace proves irresistible just because it destroys the disposition to resist. Where the Arminian, therefore, will be content to say: “I decided for Christ,” “I made up my mind to be a Christian,” the Calvinist will wish to speak of his conversion in more theological fashion, to make plain whose work it really was:
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night:
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke; the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off: my heart was free:
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
Clearly, these two notions of internal grace are sharply opposed to each other.
Now, the Calvinist contends that the Arminian idea of election, redemption and calling as acts of God which do not save cuts at the very heart of their biblical meaning; that to say in the Arminian sense that God elects believers, and Christ died for all men, and the Spirit quickens those who receive the word, is really to say that in the biblical sense God elects nobody, and Christ died for nobody, and the Spirit quickens nobody. The matter at issue in this controversy, therefore, is the meaning to be given to these biblical terms, and to some others, which are also soteriologically significant, such as the love of God, the covenant of grace, and the verb “save” itself, with its synonyms. Arminians gloss them all in terms of the principle that salvation does not directly depend on any decree or act of God, but on man’s independent activity in believing. Calvinists maintain that this principle is itself unscriptural and irreligious, and that such glossing demonstrably perverts the sense of Scripture and undermines the gospel at every point where it is practiced. This, and nothing less than this, is what the Arminian controversy is about.
There is a fifth way in which the five-point formula is deficient. Its very form (a series of denials of Arminian assertions) lends color to the impression that Calvinism is a modification of Arminianism; that Arminianism has a certain primacy in order of nature, and developed Calvinism is an offshoot from it. Even when one shows this to be false as a matter of history, the suspicion remains in many minds that it is a true account of the relation of the two views themselves. For it is widely supposed that Arminianism (which, as we now see, corresponds pretty closely to the new gospel of our own day) is the result of reading the Scriptures in a “natural,” unbiased, unsophisticated way, and that Calvinism is an unnatural growth, the product less of the texts themselves than of unhallowed logic working on the texts, wresting their plain sense and upsetting their balance by forcing them into a systematic framework which they do not themselves provide.
Whatever may have been true of individual Calvinists, as a generalization about Calvinism nothing could be further from the truth than this. Certainly, Arminianism is “natural” in one sense, in that it represents a characteristic perversion of biblical teaching by the fallen mind of man, who even in salvation cannot bear to renounce the delusion of being master of his fate and captain of his soul. This perversion appeared before in the Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism of the Patristic period and the later Scholasticism, and has recurred since the seventeenth century both in Roman theology and, among Protestants, in various types of rationalistic liberalism and modern Evangelical teaching; and no doubt it will always be with us. As long as the fallen human mind is what it is, the Arminian way of thinking will continue to be a natural type of mistake. But it is not natural in any other sense. In fact, it is Calvinism that understands the Scriptures in their natural, one would have thought, inescapable meaning; Calvinism that keeps to what they actually say; Calvinism that insists on taking seriously the biblical assertions that God saves, and that He saves those whom He has chosen to save, and that He saves them by grace without works, so that no man may boast, and that Christ is given to them as a perfect Savior, and that their whole salvation flows to them from the Cross, and that the work of redeeming them was finished on the Cross. It is Calvinism that gives due honor to the Cross. When the Calvinist sings:
“There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all;
He died the we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good;
That we might go at last to Heaven,
Saved by His precious blood.”
—he means it. He will not gloss the italicized statements by saying that God’s saving purpose in the death of His Son was a mere ineffectual wish, depending for its fulfillment on man’s willingness to believe, so that for all God could do Christ might have died and none been saved at all. He insists that the Bible sees the Cross as revealing God’s power to save, not His impotence. Christ did not win a hypothetical salvation for hypothetical believers, a mere possibility of salvation for any who might possibly believe, but a real salvation for His own chosen people. His precious blood really does “save us all”; the intended effects of His self-offering do in fact follow, just because the Cross was what it was. Its saving power does not depend on faith being added to it; its saving power is such that faith flows from it. The Cross secured the full salvation of all for whom Christ died. “God forbid,” therefore, “that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now the real nature of Calvinistic soteriology becomes plain. It is no artificial oddity, nor a product of over-bold logic. Its central confession, that God saves sinners, that Christ redeemed us by His blood, is the witness both of the Bible and of the believing heart. The Calvinist is the Christian who confesses before men in his theology just what he believes in his heart before God when he prays. He thinks and speaks at all times of the sovereign grace of God in the way that every Christian does when he pleads for the souls of others, or when he obeys the impulse of worship which rises unbidden within him, prompting him to deny himself all praise and to give all the glory of his salvation to his Savior. Calvinism is the natural theology written on the heart of the new man in Christ, whereas Arminianism is an intellectual sin of infirmity, natural only in the sense in which all such sins are natural, even to the regenerate. Calvinistic thinking is the Christian being himself on the intellectual level; Arminian thinking is the Christian failing to be himself through the weakness of the flesh. Calvinism is what the Christian church has always held and taught when its mind has not been distracted by controversy and false traditions from attending to what Scripture actually says; that is the significance of the Patristic testimonies to the teaching of the “five points,” which can be quoted in abundance. (Owen appends a few on redemption; a much larger collection may be seen in John Gill’s The Cause of God and Truth.) So that really it is most misleading to call this soteriology “Calvinism” at all, for it is not a peculiarity of John Calvin and the divines of Dort, but a part of the revealed truth of God and the catholic Christian faith. “Calvinism” is one of the “odious names” by which down the centuries prejudice has been raised against it. But the thing itself is just the biblical gospel. In the light of these facts, we can now give a direct answer to the questions with which we began.
“Surely all that Owen is doing is defending limited atonement?” Not really. He is doing much more than that. Strictly speaking, the aim of Owen’s book is not defensive at all, but constructive. It is a biblical and theological enquiry; its purpose is simply to make clear what Scripture actually teaches about the central subject of the gospel—the achievement of the Savior. As its title proclaims, it is “a treatise of the redemption and reconciliation that is in the blood of Christ: with the merit thereof, and the satisfaction wrought thereby.” The question which Owen, like the Dort divines before him, is really concerned to answer is just this: what is the gospel? All agree that it is a proclamation of Christ as Redeemer, but there is a dispute as to the nature and extent of His redeeming work: well, what saith the Scripture? What aim and accomplishment does the Bible assign to the work of Christ? This is what Owen is concerned to elucidate. It is true that he tackles the subject in a directly controversial way, and shapes his book as a polemic against the “spreading persuasion…of a general ransom, to be paid by Christ for all; that he dies to redeem all and every one.” But his work is a systematic expository treatise, not a mere episodic wrangle. Owen treats the controversy as providing the occasion for a full display of the relevant biblical teaching in its own proper order and connection. As in Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the polemics themselves are incidental and of secondary interest; their chief value lies in the way that the author uses them to further his own design and carry forward his own argument.
That argument is essentially very simple. Owen sees that the question which has occasioned his writing—the extent of the atonement—involves the further question of its nature, since if it was offered to save some who will finally perish, then it cannot have been a transaction securing the actual salvation of all for whom it was designed. But, says Owen, this is precisely the kind of transaction that the Bible says it was. The first two books of his treatise are a massive demonstration of the fact that according to Scripture the Redeemer’s death actually saves His people, as it was meant to do. The third book consists of a series of sixteen arguments against the hypothesis of universal redemption, all aimed to show, on the one hand, that Scripture speaks of Christ’s redeeming work as effective, which precludes its having been intended for any who perish, and, on the other, that if its intended extent had been universal, then either all will be saved (which Scripture denies, and the advocates of the “general ransom” do not affirm), or else the Father and the Son have failed to do what they set out to do—“which to assert,” says Owen, “seems to us blasphemously injurious to the wisdom, power and perfection of God, as likewise derogatory to the worth and value of the death of Christ.”
Owen’s arguments ring a series of changes on this dilemma. Finally, in the fourth book, Owen shows with great cogency that the three classes of texts alleged to prove that Christ died for persons who will not be saved (those saying that He died for “the world,” for “all,” and those thought to envisage the perishing of those for whom He died), cannot on sound principles of exegesis be held to teach any such thing; and, further, that the theological inferences by which universal redemption is supposed to be established are really quite fallacious. The true evangelical evaluation of the claim that Christ died for every man, even those who perish, comes through at point after point in Owen’s book. So far from magnifying the love and grace of God, this claim dishonors both it and Him, for it reduces God’s love to an impotent wish and turns the whole economy of “saving” grace, so-called (“saving” is really a misnomer on this view), into a monumental divine failure.
Also, so far from magnifying the merit and worth of Christ’s death, it cheapens it, for it makes Christ die in vain. Lastly, so far from affording faith additional encouragement, it destroys the Scriptural ground of assurance altogether, for it denies that the knowledge that Christ died for me (or did or does anything else for me) is a sufficient ground for inferring my eternal salvation; my salvation, on this view, depends not on what Christ did for me, but on what I subsequently do for myself. Thus this view takes from God’s love and Christ’s redemption the glory that Scripture gives them, and introduces the anti-scriptural principle of self-salvation at the point where the Bible explicitly says: “not of works, lest any man should boast.” You cannot have it both ways: an atonement of universal extent is a depreciated atonement. It has lost its saving power; it leaves us to save ourselves. The doctrine of the general ransom must accordingly be rejected, as Owen rejects it, as a grievous mistake. By contrast, however, the doctrine which Owen sets out, as he himself shows, is both biblical and God honoring. It exalts Christ, for it teaches Christians to glory in His Cross alone, and to draw their hope and assurance only from the death and intercession of their Savior. It is, in other words, genuinely Evangelical. It is, indeed, the gospel of God and the catholic faith.
It is safe to say that no comparable exposition of the work of redemption as planned and executed by the Triune Jehovah has ever been done since Owen published his. None has been needed. Discussing this work, Andrew Thomson notes how Owen “makes you feel when he has reached the end of his subject, that he has also exhausted it.” That is demonstrably the case here. His interpretation of the texts is sure; his power of theological construction is superb; nothing that needs discussing is omitted, and (so far as the writer can discover) no arguments for or against his position have been used since his day, which he has not himself noted and dealt with.
One searches his book in vain for the leaps and flights of logic by which Reformed theologians are supposed to establish their positions; all that one finds is solid, painstaking exegesis and a careful following through of biblical ways of thinking. Owen’s work is a constructive, broad-based biblical analysis of the heart of the gospel, and must be taken seriously as such. It may not be written off as a piece of special pleading for a traditional shibboleth, for nobody has a right to dismiss the doctrine of the limitedness of atonement as a monstrosity of Calvinistic logic until he has refuted Owen’s proof that it is part of the uniform biblical presentation of redemption, clearly taught in plain text after plain text. And nobody has done that yet.
“You talked about recovering the gospel,” said our questioner; “don’t you mean that you just want us all to become Calvinists?”
This question presumably concerns, not the word, but the thing. Whether we call ourselves Calvinists hardly matters; what matters is that we should understand the gospel biblically. But that, we think, does in fact mean understanding it as historic Calvinism does. The alternative is to misunderstand and distort it. We said earlier that modern Evangelicalism, by and large, has ceased to preach the gospel in the old way, and we frankly admit that the new gospel, insofar as it deviates from the old, seems to us a distortion of the biblical message. And we can now see what has gone wrong. Our theological currency has been debased.
Our minds have been conditioned to think of the Cross as a redemption which does less than redeem, and of Christ as a Savior who does less than save, and of God’s love as a weak affection which cannot keep anyone from hell without help, and of faith as the human help which God needs for this purpose. As a result, we are no longer free either to believe the biblical gospel or to preach it. We cannot believe it, because our thoughts are caught in the toils of synergism. We are haunted by the Arminian idea that if faith and unbelief are to be responsible acts, they must be independent acts; hence we are not free to believe that we are saved entirely by divine grace through a faith which is itself God’s gift and flows to us from Calvary. Instead, we involve ourselves in a bewildering kind of doublethink about salvation, telling ourselves one moment that it all depends on God and next moment that it all depends on us. The resultant mental muddle deprives God of much of the glory that we should give Him as author and finisher of salvation, and ourselves of much of the comfort we might draw from knowing that God is for us.
And when we come to preach the gospel, our false preconceptions make us say just the opposite of what we intend. We want (rightly) to proclaim Christ as Savior; yet we end up saying that Christ, having made salvation possible, has left us to become our own saviors. It comes about in this way. We want to magnify the saving grace of God and the saving power of Christ. So we declare that God’s redeeming love extends to every man, and that Christ has died to save every man, and we proclaim that the glory of divine mercy is to be measured by these facts. And then, in order to avoid universalism, we have to depreciate all that we were previously extolling, and to explain that, after all, nothing that God and Christ have done can save us unless we add something to it; the decisive factor that actually saves us is our own believing. What we say comes to this—that Christ saves us with our help; and what that means, when one thinks it out, is this—that we save ourselves with Christ’s help. This is a hollow anticlimax.
But if we start by affirming that God has a saving love for all, and Christ died a saving death for all, and yet balk at becoming universalists, there is nothing else that we can say. And let us be clear on what we have done when we have put the matter in this fashion. We have not exalted grace and the Cross; we have cheapened them. We have limited the atonement far more drastically than Calvinism does, for whereas Calvinism asserts that Christ’s death, as such, saves all whom it was meant to save, we have denied that Christ’s death, as such, is sufficient to save any of them. We have flattered impenitent sinners by assuring them that it is in their power to repent and believe, though God cannot make them do it. Perhaps we have also trivialized faith and repentance in order to make this assurance plausible (“it’s very simple—just open your heart to the Lord…”). Certainly, we have effectively denied God’s sovereignty, and undermined the basic conviction of religion—that man is always in God’s hands. In truth, we have lost a great deal. And it is, perhaps, no wonder that our preaching begets so little reverence and humility, and that our professed converts are so self-confident and so deficient in self-knowledge, and in the good works, which Scripture regards as the fruit of true repentance.
It is from degenerate faith and preaching of this kind that Owen’s book could set us free. If we listen to him, he will teach us both how to believe the Scripture gospel and how to preach it. For the first: he will lead us to bow down before a sovereign Savior Who really saves, and to praise Him for a redeeming death which made it certain that all for whom He died will come to glory. It cannot be over-emphasized that we have not seen the full meaning of the Cross till we have seen it as the divines of Dort display it—as the centre of the gospel, flanked on the one hand by total inability and unconditional election, and on the other by irresistible grace and final preservation. For the full meaning of the Cross only appears when the atonement is defined in terms of these four truths. Christ died to save a certain company of helpless sinners upon whom God had set His free saving love. Christ’s death ensured the calling and keeping—the present and final salvation—of all whose sins He bore. That is what Calvary meant, and means. The Cross saved; the Cross saves. This is the heart of true Evangelical faith; as Cowper sang—
“Dear dying Lamb,
Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more.”
This is the triumphant conviction, which underlay the old gospel, as it does the whole New Testament. And this is what Owen will teach us unequivocally to believe.
Then, secondly, Owen could set us free, if we would hear him, to preach the biblical gospel. This assertion may sound paradoxical, for it is often imagined that those who will not preach that Christ died to save every man are left with no gospel at all. On the contrary, however, what they are left with is just the gospel of the New Testament. What does it mean to preach “the gospel of the grace of God”? Owen only touches on this briefly and incidentally, but his comments are full of light. Preaching the gospel, he tells us, is not a matter of telling the congregation that God has set His love on each of them and Christ has died to save each of them, for these assertions, biblically understood, would imply that they will all infallibly be saved, and this cannot be known to be true. The knowledge of being the object of God’s eternal love and Christ’s redeeming death belongs to the individual’s assurance, which in the nature of the case cannot precede faith’s saving exercise; it is to be inferred from the fact that one has believed, not proposed as a reason why one should believe. According to Scripture, preaching the gospel is entirely a matter of proclaiming to men, as truth from God which all are bound to believe and act on, the following four facts:
(1) That all men are sinners, and cannot do anything to save themselves;
(2) That Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is a perfect Savior for sinners, even the worst;
(3) That the Father and the Son have promised that all who know themselves to be sinners and put faith in Christ as Savior shall be received into favor, and none cast out (which promise is “a certain infallible truth, grounded upon the superabundant sufficiency of the oblation of Christ in itself, for whomsoever [few or more] it be intended”);
(4) That God has made repentance and faith a duty, requiring of every man who hears the gospel “a serious full recumbency and rolling of the soul upon Christ in the promise of the gospel, as an all-sufficient Savior, able to deliver and save to the utmost them that come to God by him; ready, able and willing, through the preciousness of his blood and sufficiency of his ransom, to save every soul that shall freely give up themselves unto him for that end.”
The preacher’s task, in other words, is to display Christ: to explain man’s need of Him, His sufficiency to save, and His offer of Himself in the promises as Savior to all who truly turn to Him; and to show as fully and plainly as he can how these truths apply to the congregation before him. It is not for him to say, nor for his hearers to ask, for whom Christ died in particular. “There is none called on by the gospel once to enquire after the purpose and intention of God concerning the particular object of the death of Christ, every one being fully assured that his death shall be profitable to them that believe in him and obey him.” After saving faith has been exercised, “it lies on a believer to assure his soul, according as he find the fruit of the death of Christ in him and towards him, of the good-will and eternal love of God to him in sending his Son to die for him in particular”; but not before. The task to which the gospel calls him is simply to exercise faith, which he is both warranted and obliged to do by God’s command and promise.
Some comments on this conception of what preaching the gospel means are in order.
First, we should observe that the old gospel of Owen contains no less full and free an offer of salvation than its modern counterpart. It presents ample grounds of faith (the sufficiency of Christ, and the promise of God), and cogent motives to faith (the sinner’s need, and the Creator’s command, which is also the Redeemer’s invitation). The new gospel gains nothing here by asserting universal redemption. The old gospel, certainly, has no room for the cheap sentimentalizing which turns God’s free mercy to sinners into a constitutional soft-heartedness on His part which we can take for granted; nor will it countenance the degrading presentation of Christ as the baffled Savior, balked in what He hoped to do by human unbelief; nor will it indulge in maudlin appeals to the unconverted to let Christ save them out of pity for His disappointment. The pitiable Savior and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel. The old gospel tells men that they need God, but not that God needs them (a modern falsehood); it does not exhort them to pity Christ, but announces that Christ has pitied them, though pity was the last thing they deserved. It never loses sight of the Divine majesty and sovereign power of the Christ whom it proclaims, but rejects flatly all representations of Him, which would obscure His free omnipotence. Does this mean, however, that the preacher of the old gospel is inhibited or confined in offering Christ to men and inviting them to receive Him? Not at all. In actual fact, just because he recognizes that Divine mercy is sovereign and free, he is in a position to make far more of the offer of Christ in his preaching than is the expositor of the new gospel; for this offer is itself a far more wonderful thing on his principles than it can ever be in the eyes of those who regard love to all sinners as a necessity of God’s nature, and therefore a matter of course.
To think that the holy Creator, who never needed man for His happiness and might justly have banished our fallen race for ever without mercy, should actually have chosen to redeem some of them! And that His own Son was willing to undergo death and descend into hell to save them! And that now from His throne He should speak to ungodly men as He does in the words of the gospel, urging upon them the command to repent and believe in the form of a compassionate invitation to pity themselves and choose life! These thoughts are the focal points round which the preaching of the old gospel revolves. It is all wonderful, just because none of it can be taken for granted. But perhaps the most wonderful thing of all—the holiest spot in all the holy ground of gospel truth—is the free invitation, which “the Lord Christ” (as Owen loves to call Him) issues repeatedly to guilty sinners to come to Him and find rest for their souls. It is the glory of these invitations that it is an omnipotent King who gives them, just as it is a chief part of the glory of the enthroned Christ that He condescends still to utter them. And it is the glory of the gospel ministry that the preacher goes to men as Christ’s ambassador, charged to deliver the King’s invitation personally to every sinner present and to summon them all to turn and live. Owen himself enlarges on this in a passage addressed to the unconverted.
“Consider the infinite condescension and love of Christ, in his invitations and calls of you to come unto him for life, deliverance, mercy, grace, peace and eternal salvation. Multitudes of these invitations and calls are recorded in the Scripture, and they are all of them filled up with those blessed encouragements which divine wisdom knows to be suited unto lost, convinced sinners…. In the declaration and preaching of them, Jesus Christ yet stands before sinners, calling, inviting, and encouraging them to come unto him.
“This is somewhat of the word which he now speaks unto you: Why will ye die? Why will ye perish? Why will ye not have compassion on your own souls? Can your hearts endure, or can your hands be strong, in the day of wrath that is approaching?… Look unto me, and be saved; come unto me, and I will ease you of all sins, sorrows, fears, burdens, and give rest unto your souls. Come, I entreat you; lay aside all procrastinations, all delays; put me off no more; eternity lies at the door…do not so hate me as that you will rather perish than accept of deliverance by me.
“These and the like things doth the Lord Christ continually declare, proclaim, plead and urge upon the souls of sinners…. He doth it in the preaching of the word, as if he were present with you, stood amongst you, and spake personally to every one of you…. He hath appointed the ministers of the gospel to appear before you, and to deal with you in his stead, avowing as his own the invitations which are given you in his name,” 2 Cor. v. 19, 20.
These invitations are universal; Christ addresses them to sinners, as such, and every man, as he believes God to be true, is bound to treat them as God’s words to him personally and to accept the universal assurance which accompanies them, that all who come to Christ will be received. Again, these invitations are real; Christ genuinely offers Himself to all who hear the gospel, and is in truth a perfect Savior to all who trust Him. The question of the extent of the atonement does not arise in evangelistic preaching; the message to be delivered is simply this—that Christ Jesus, the sovereign Lord, who died for sinners, now invites sinners freely to Himself. God commands all to repent and believe; Christ promises life and peace to all who do so. Furthermore, these invitations are marvellously gracious; men despise and reject them, and are never in any case worthy of them, and yet Christ still issues them. He need not, but He does. “Come unto me…and I will give you rest” remains His word to the world, never cancelled, always to be preached. He whose death has ensured the salvation of all His people is to be proclaimed everywhere as a perfect Savior, and all men invited and urged to believe on Him, whoever they are, whatever they have been. Upon these three insights the evangelism of the old gospel is based.
It is a very ill-informed supposition that evangelistic preaching which proceeds on these principles must be anaemic and half-hearted by comparison with what Arminians can do. Those who study the printed sermons of worthy expositors of the old gospel, such as Bunyan (whose preaching Owen himself much admired), or Whitefield, or Spurgeon, will find that in fact they hold forth the Savior and summon sinners to Him with a fullness, warmth, intensity and moving force unmatched in Protestant pulpit literature. And it will be found on analysis that the very thing which gave their preaching its unique power to overwhelm their audiences with broken-hearted joy at the riches of God’s grace-and still gives it that power, let it be said, even with hard-boiled modern readers—was their insistence on the fact that grace is free. They knew that the dimensions of Divine love are not half understood till one realises that God need not have chosen to save nor given his Son to die; nor need Christ have taken upon him vicarious damnation to redeem men, nor need He invite sinners indiscriminately to Himself as He does; but that all God’s gracious dealings spring entirely from His own free purpose. Knowing this, they stressed it, and it is this stress that sets their evangelistic preaching in a class by itself.
Other Evangelicals, possessed of a more superficial and less adequate theology of grace, have laid the main emphasis in their gospel preaching on the sinner’s need of forgiveness, or peace, or power, and of the way to get them by “deciding for Christ.” It is not to be denied that their preaching has done good (for God will use His truth, even when imperfectly held and mixed with error), although this type of evangelism is always open to the criticism of being too man-centred and pietistic; but it has been left (necessarily) to Calvinists and those who, like the Wesleys, fall into Calvinistic ways of thought as soon as they begin a sermon to the unconverted, to preach the gospel in a way which highlights above everything else the free love, willing condescension, patient long-suffering and infinite kindness of the Lord Jesus Christ. And, without doubt, this is the most Scriptural and edifying way to preach it; for gospel invitations to sinners never honour God and exalt Christ more, nor are more powerful to awaken and confirm faith, than when full weight is laid on the free omnipotence of the mercy from which they flow. It looks, indeed, as if the preachers of the old gospel are the only people whose position allows them to do justice to the revelation of Divine goodness in the free offer of Christ to sinners.
Then, in the second place, the old gospel safeguards values which the new gospel loses. We saw before that the new gospel, by asserting universal redemption and a universal Divine saving purpose, compels itself to cheapen grace and the Cross by denying that the Father and the Son are sovereign in salvation; for it assures us that, after God and Christ have done all that they can, or will, it depends finally on each man’s own choice whether God’s purpose to save him is realized or not. This position has two unhappy results. The first is that it compels us to misunderstand the significance of the gracious invitations of Christ in the gospel of which we have been speaking; for we now have to read them, not as expressions of the tender patience of a mighty sovereign, but as the pathetic pleadings of impotent desire; and so the enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which He is powerless to open. This is a shameful dishonor to the Christ of the New Testament.
The second implication is equally serious: for this view in effect denies our dependence on God when it comes to vital decisions, takes us out of His hand, tells us that we are, after all, what sin taught us to think we were—masters of our fate, captain of our souls—and so undermines the very foundation of man’s religious relationship with his Maker. It can hardly be wondered at that the converts of the new gospel are so often both irreverent and irreligious, for such is the natural tendency of this teaching. The old gospel, however, speaks very differently and has a very different tendency. On the one hand, in expounding man’s need of Christ, it stresses something which the new gospel effectively ignores—that sinners cannot obey the gospel, any more than the law, without renewal of heart. On the other hand, in declaring Christ’s power to save, it proclaims Him as the author and chief agent of conversion, coming by His Spirit as the gospel goes forth to renew men’s hearts and draw them to Himself. Accordingly, in applying the message, the old gospel, while stressing that faith is man’s duty, stresses also that faith is not in man’s power, but that God must give what He commands. It announces, not merely that men must come to Christ for salvation, but also that they cannot come unless Christ Himself draws them. Thus it labors to overthrow self-confidence, to convince sinners that their salvation is altogether out of their hands, and to shut them up to a self-despairing dependence on the glorious grace of a sovereign Savior, not only for their righteousness but for their faith too.
It is not likely, therefore, that a preacher of the old gospel will be happy to express the application of it in the form of a demand to “decide for Christ,” as the current phrase is. For, on the one hand, this phrase carries the wrong associations. It suggests voting a person into office—an act in which the candidate plays no part beyond offering himself for election, and everything then being settled by the voter’s independent choice. But we do not vote God’s Son into office as our Savior, nor does He remain passive while preachers campaign on His behalf, whipping up support for His cause. We ought not to think of evangelism as a kind of electioneering. And then, on the other hand, this phrase obscures the very thing that is essential in repentance and faith—the denying of self in a personal approach to Christ. It is not at all obvious that deciding for Christ is the same as coming to Him and resting on Him and turning from sin and self-effort; it sounds like something much less, and is accordingly calculated to instill defective notions of what the gospel really requires of sinners. It is not a very apt phrase from any point of view.
To the question: what must I do to be saved? the old gospel replies: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. To the further question: what does it mean to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? its reply is: it means knowing oneself to be a sinner, and Christ to have died for sinners; abandoning all self-righteousness and self-confidence, and casting oneself wholly upon Him for pardon and peace; and exchanging one’s natural enmity and rebellion against God for a spirit of grateful submission to the will of Christ through the renewing of one’s heart by the Holy Ghost. And to the further question still: how am I to go about believing on Christ and repenting, if I have no natural ability to do these things? it answers: look to Christ, speak to Christ, cry to Christ, just as you are; confess your sin, your impenitence, your unbelief, and cast yourself on His mercy; ask Him to give you a new heart, working in you true repentance and firm faith; ask Him to take away your evil heart of unbelief and to write His law within you, that you may never henceforth stray from Him. Turn to Him and trust Him as best you can, and pray for grace to turn and trust more thoroughly; use the means of grace expectantly, looking to Christ to draw near to you as you seek to draw near to Him; watch, pray, read and hear God’s Word, worship and commune with God’s people, and so continue till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, and the new heart which you desired has been put within you. The emphasis in this advice is on the need to call upon Christ directly, as the very first step.
“Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him”
—so do not postpone action till you think you are better, but honestly confess your badness and give yourself up here and now to the Christ who alone can make you better; and wait on Him till His light rises in your soul, as Scripture promises that it shall do. Anything less than this direct dealing with Christ is disobedience of the gospel. Such is the exercise of spirit to which the old evangel summons its hearers. “I believe—help thou mine unbelief”: this must become their cry.
And the old gospel is proclaimed in the sure confidence that the Christ of whom it testifies, the Christ who is the real speaker when the Scriptural invitations to trust Him are expounded and applied, is not passively waiting for man’s decision as the word goes forth, but is omnipotently active, working with and through the word to bring His people to faith in Himself. The preaching of the new gospel is often described as the task of “bringing men to Christ” if only men move, while Christ stands still. But the task of preaching the old gospel could more properly be described as bringing Christ to men, for those who preach it know that as they do their work of setting Christ before men’s eyes, the mighty Savior whom they proclaim is busy doing His work through their words, visiting sinners with salvation, awakening them to faith, drawing them in mercy to Himself.
It is this older gospel which Owen will teach us to preach: the gospel of the sovereign grace of God in Christ as the author and finisher of faith and salvation. It is the only gospel which can be preached on Owen’s principles, but those who have tasted its sweetness will not in any case be found looking for another. In the matter of believing and preaching the gospel, as in other things, Jeremiah’s words still have their application: “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” To find ourselves debarred, as Owen would debar us, from taking up with the fashionable modern substitute gospel may not, after all, be a bad thing, either for us, or for the Church.
More might be said, but to go further would be to exceed the limits of an introductory essay. The foregoing remarks are made simply to show how important it is at the present time that we should attend most carefully to Owen’s analysis of what the Bible says about the saving work of Christ.
It only remains to add a few remarks about this treatise itself. It was Owen’s second major work, and his first masterpiece. (Its predecessor, A Display of Arminianism, published in 1642, when Owen was twenty-six, was a competent piece of prentice-work, rather of the nature of a research thesis.)
The Death of Death is a solid book, made up of detailed exposition and close argument, and requires hard study, as Owen fully realized; a cursory glance will not yield much. (“READER…. If thou art, as many in this pretending age, a sign or title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theatre, to go out again—thou has had thy entertainment; farewell!”) Owen felt, however, that he had a right to ask for hard study, for his book was a product of hard work (“a more than seven-years’ serious inquiry…into the mind of God about these things, with a serious perusal of all which I could attain that the wit of man, in former or latter days, hath published in opposition to the truth”), and he was sure in his own mind that a certain finality attached to what he had written. (“Altogether hopeless of success I am not; but fully resolved that I shall not live to see a solid answer given unto it.”) Time has justified his optimism.
Something should be said about his opponents. He is writing against three variations on the theme of universal redemption: that of classical Arminianism, noted earlier; that of the theological faculty at Saumur (the position known as Amyraldism, after its leading exponent); and that of Thomas More, a lay theologian of East Anglia. The second of these views originated with a Scots professor at Saumur, John Cameron; it was taken up and developed by two of his pupils, Amyraut (Amyraldus) and Testard, and became the occasion of a prolonged controversy in which Amyraut, Daillé and Blondel were opposed by Rivet, Spanheim and Des Marets (Maresius). The Saumur position won some support among Reformed divines in Britain, being held in modified form by (among others) Bishops Usher and Davenant, and Richard Baxter. None of these, however, had advocated it in print at the time when Owen wrote.
Goold’s summary of the Saumur position may be quoted. “Admitting that, by the purpose of God, and through the death of Christ, the elect are infallibly secured in the enjoyment of salvation, they contended for an antecedent decree, by which God is free to give salvation to all men through Christ, on the condition that they believe on him. Hence their system was termed hypothetic[al] universalism. The vital difference between it and the strict Arminian theory lies in the absolute security asserted in the former for the spiritual recovery of the elect. They agree, however, in attributing some kind of universality to the atonement, and in maintaining that, on a certain condition, within the reach of fulfillment by all men…all men have access to the benefits of Christ’s death.” From this, Goold continues, “the readers of Owen will understand…why he dwells with peculiar keenness and reiteration of statement upon a refutation of the conditional system…. It was plausible; it had many learned men for its advocates; it had obtained currency in the foreign churches; and it seems to have been embraced by More.”
More is described by Thomas Edwards as “a great Sectary, that did much hurt in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, and Cambridgeshire; who was famous also in Boston, (King’s) Lynn, and even in Holland, and was followed from place to place by many.” Baxter’s description is kinder: “a Weaver of Wisbitch and Lyn, of excellent Parts.” (More’s doctrine of redemption, of course, was substantially Baxter’s own.) Owen, however, has a poor view of his abilities, and makes no secret of the fact. More’s book, The Universality of God’s Free Grace in Christ to Mankind, appeared in 1646 (not, as Goold says, 1643), and must have exercised a considerable influence, for within three years it had evoked four weighty works which were in whole or part polemics against it: A Refutation…of Thomas More, by Thomas Whitfield, 1646; Vindiciae Redemptionis, by John Stalham, 1647; The Universalist Examined and Convicted, by Obadiah Howe, 1648; and Owen’s own book, published in the same year.
More’s exposition seems to be of little intrinsic importance; Owen, however, selects it as the fullest statement of the case for universal redemption that had yet appeared in English and uses it unmercifully as a chopping-block. The modern reader, however, will probably find it convenient to skip the sections devoted to refuting More (I. viii., the closing pages of II. iii. and IV. vi.) on his first passage through Owen’s treatise.
Finally, a word about the style of this work. There is no denying that Owen is heavy and hard to read. This is not so much due to obscure arrangement as to two other factors. The first is his lumbering literary gait. “Owen travels through it (his subject) with the elephant’s grace and solid step, if sometimes also with his ungainly motion.” says Thomson. That puts it kindly. Much of Owen’s prose reads like a roughly-dashed-off translation of a piece of thinking done in Ciceronian Latin. It has, no doubt, a certain clumsy dignity; so has Stonehenge; but it is trying to the reader to have to go over sentences two or three times to see their meaning, and this necessity makes it much harder to follow an argument. The present writer, however, has found that the hard places in Owen usually come out as soon as one reads them aloud.
The second obscuring factor is Owen’s austerity as an expositor. He has a lordly disdain for broad introductions which ease the mind gently into a subject, and for comprehensive summaries which gather up scattered points into a small space. He obviously carries the whole of his design in his head, and expects his readers to do the same. Nor are his chapter divisions reliable pointers to the structure of his discourse, for though a change of subject is usually marked by a chapter division, Owen often starts a new chapter where there is no break in the thought at all. Nor is he concerned about literary proportions; the space given to a topic is determined by its intrinsic complexity rather than its relative importance, and the reader is left to work out what is basic and what is secondary by noting how things link together. The reader will probably find it helpful to use a pencil and paper in his study of the book and jot down the progress of the exposition; and it is hoped that the subjoined Analysis will also be of service in helping him keep his bearings.
We would conclude by repeating that the reward to be reaped from studying Owen is worth all the labour involved, and by making the following observations for the student’s guidance.
(1) It is important to start with the epistle “To the Reader,” for there Owen indicates in short compass what he is trying to do, and why.
(2) It is important to read the treatise as a whole, in the order in which it stands, and not to jump into parts III. and IV. before mastering the contents of Parts I. and II., where the biblical foundations of Owen’s whole position are laid.
(3) It is hardly possible to grasp the strength and cogency of this massive statement on a first reading. The work must be read and re-read to be appreciated. – J. I. PACKER
The article above was adapted from the post on: http://www.all-of-grace.org/pub/others/deathofdeath.html & adapted from the Introduction by J.I. Packer in John Owen’s classic book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ – reissued various times by the Banner of Truth Trust – if you end up getting a copy of the book – it’s not easy reading (originally written in the 17th century – but arguably the definitive work – by arguably the finest theologian of the English language) – but make sure the book includes J.I. Packer’s introduction!
About J.I. Packer:
James Innell Packer (born in Gloucester, England) is a British-born Canadian Christian theologian in the Calvinistic Anglican tradition. He currently serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is considered to be one of the most important evangelical theologians of the late 20th century.The son of a clerk for the Great Western Railway, Packer won a scholarship to Oxford University. He was educated at Corpus Christi College, obtaining the degrees of Bachelor of Arts (1948), Master of Arts (1952), and Doctor of Philosophy (1955).
It was as a student at Oxford where he first met C.S. Lewis whose teachings would become a major influence in his life. In a meeting of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, Packer committed his life to Christian service. He spent a brief time teaching Greek at Oak Hill Theological College in London, and in 1949 entered Wycliffe Hall, Oxford to study theology. He was ordained a deacon (1952) and priest (1953) in the Church of England, within which he became recognized as a leader in the Evangelical movement. He was Assistant Curate of Harborne Heath in Birmingham 1952-54 and Lecturer at Tyndale Hall, Bristol 1955-61. He was Librarian of Latimer House, Oxford 1961-62 and Principal 1962-69. In 1970 he became Principal of Tyndale Hall, Bristol, and from 1971 until 1979 he was Associate Prinicipal of Trinity College, Bristol, which had been formed from the amalgamation of Tyndale Hall with Clifton College and Dalton House-St Michael’s.
In 1978, he signed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which affirmed a conservative position on Biblical inerrancy. In 1979, Packer moved to Vancouver to take up a position at Regent College, eventually being named the first Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology, a title he held until his retirement. A prolific writer and frequent lecturer, although best known for a single book, “Knowing God,” Packer is widely regarded in conservative Protestant circles as one of the most important theologians of the modern era. He is a frequent contributor to and an executive editor of Christianity Today. Since arriving at Regent he has published a book every year. Together his books have sold more than three million copies. His wife Kit is quick to point out the source of his success, “His devotion to the Lord is the reason for everything he’s done. His writing, his preaching, his lecturing, his living are all centered on the Lord.”
Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version of the Bible (2001), an Evangelical revision of the Revised Standard Version of 1971. He is now at work on his magnum opus, a systematic theology. To read more about Packer, a recent biography by Alister McGrath, entitled J. I. Packer, gives a careful and sensitive examination of his life.
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he [Christ] is righteous. – 1 JOHN 3:7
Antinomianism, which means being “anti-law,” is a name for several views that have denied that God’s law in Scripture should directly control the Christian’s life.
Dualistic antinomianism appears in the Gnostic heretics against whom Jude and Peter wrote (Jude 4-19; 2 Pet. 2). This view sees salvation as for the soul only, and bodily behavior as irrelevant both to God’s interest and to the soul’s health, so one may behave riotously and it will not matter.
Spirit-centered antinomianism puts such trust in the Holy Spirit’s inward prompting as to deny any need to be taught by the law how to live. Freedom from the law as a way of salvation is assumed to bring with it freedom from the law as a guide to conduct. In the first 150 years of the Reformation era this kind of antinomianism often threatened, and Paul’s insistence that a truly spiritual person acknowledges the authority of God’s Word through Christ’s apostles (1 Cor. 14:37; cf. 7:40) suggests that the Spirit-obsessed Corinthian church was in the grip of the same mind-set.
Christ-centered antinomianism argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing. But 1 John 1:8–2:1 (expounding 1:7) and 3:4-10 point in a different direction, showing that it is not possible to be in Christ and at the same time to embrace sin as a way of life.
Dispensational antinomianism holds that keeping the moral law is at no stage necessary for Christians, since we live under a dispensation of grace, not of law. Romans 3:31 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 clearly show, however, that law-keeping is a continuing obligation for Christians. “I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law,” says Paul (1 Cor. 9:21).
Dialectical antinomianism, as in Barth and Brunner, denies that biblical law is God’s direct command and affirms that the Bible’s imperative statements trigger the Word of the Spirit, which when it comes may or may not correspond exactly to what is written. The inadequacy of the neo-orthodox view of biblical authority, which explains the inspiration of Scripture in terms of the Bible’s instrumentality as a channel for God’s present-day utterances to his people, is evident here.
Situationist antinomianism says that a motive and intention of love is all that God now requires of Christians, and the commands of the Decalogue and other ethical parts of Scripture, for all that they are ascribed to God directly, are mere rules of thumb for loving, rules that love may at any time disregard. But Romans 13:8-10, to which this view appeals, teaches that without love as a motive these specific commands cannot be fulfilled. Once more an unacceptably weak view of Scripture surfaces.
It must be stressed that the moral law, as crystallized in the Decalogue and opened up in the ethical teaching of both Testaments, is one coherent law, given to be a code of practice for God’s people in every age. In addition, repentance means resolving henceforth to seek God’s help in keeping that law. The Spirit is given to empower law-keeping and make us more and more like Christ, the archetypal law-keeper (Matt. 5:17). This law-keeping is in fact the fulfilling of our human nature, and Scripture holds out no hope of salvation for any who, whatever their profession of faith, do not seek to turn from sin to righteousness (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Rev. 21:8).
Article above adapted from J.I. Packer. Concise Theology. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1993, pp. 178-180.
About the Author: James Innell Packer (born in Gloucester, England) is a British-born Canadian Christian theologian in the Calvinistic Anglican tradition. He currently serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is considered to be one of the most important evangelical theologians of the late 20th century.
The son of a clerk for the Great Western Railway, Packer won a scholarship to Oxford University. He was educated at Corpus Christi College, obtaining the degrees of Bachelor of Arts (1948), Master of Arts (1952), and Doctor of Philosophy (1955).
It was as a student at Oxford where he first met C.S. Lewis whose teachings would become a major influence in his life. In a meeting of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, Packer committed his life to Christian service.
He spent a brief time teaching Greek at Oak Hill Theological College in London, and in 1949 entered Wycliffe Hall, Oxford to study theology. He was ordained a deacon (1952) and priest (1953) in the Church of England, within which he became recognized as a leader in the Evangelical movement. He was Assistant Curate of Harborne Heath in Birmingham 1952-54 and Lecturer at Tyndale Hall, Bristol 1955-61. He was Librarian of Latimer House, Oxford 1961-62 and Principal 1962-69. In 1970 he became Principal of Tyndale Hall, Bristol, and from 1971 until 1979 he was Associate Prinicipal of Trinity College, Bristol, which had been formed from the amalgamation of Tyndale Hall with Clifton College and Dalton House-St Michael’s.
In 1978, he signed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which affirmed a conservative position on Biblical inerrancy.
In 1979, Packer moved to Vancouver to take up a position at Regent College, eventually being named the first Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology, a title he held until his retirement. A prolific writer and frequent lecturer, although best known for a single book, “Knowing God,” Packer is widely regarded in conservative Protestant circles as one of the most important theologians of the modern era. He is a frequent contributor to and an executive editor of Christianity Today. Since arriving at Regent he has published a book every year. Together his books have sold more than three million copies. His wife Kit is quick to point out the source of his success, “His devotion to the Lord is the reason for everything he’s done. His writing, his preaching, his lecturing, his living are all centered on the Lord.”
Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version of the Bible (2001), an Evangelical revision of the Revised Standard Version of 1971. He is now at work on his magnum opus, a systematic theology.
To read more about Packer, a recent biography by Alister McGrath, entitled J. I. Packer, gives a careful and sensitive examination of his life.