The Peace Which Christ Gives His True Followers – Jonathan Edwards (1750)

More good stuff on Edwards from my buddy Dave Steele

Veritas et Lux

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On this day in 1758, Jonathan Edwards breathed his last breath. His next breath was in glory where he appeared before the Savior he loved during his earthly days as a converted man.

The coronavirus crisis has led many people down a path of anxiety, fear, and despondency. Edwards was familiar each of these maladies. In fact, he endured many challenging season over the course of his life and ministry. One of those seasons is described in this post.

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Imagine shepherding a congregation of people, only to find yourself
expelled from the church. That is exactly what happened to Jonathan Edwards – America’s greatest intellectual. Within a month of his dismissal, Edwards pens a series of sermons – one of which is entitledThe Peace Which Christ Gives His True Followers.

The Text: John 14:27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the…

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God the Best Portion of the Christian – Jonathan Edwards (1736)

Excellent article on Edwards from Dr. David Steele

Veritas et Lux

Two hundred years after Calvin published his first edition ofThe jonathan-edwardsInstitutes,Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon about being content in God. The title of the sermon wasGod the Best Portion of the Christian. Edwards’s text is Psalm 73:25:

Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee.

The central truth is set forth at the beginning of the sermon, in deductive fashion:It is the spirit of a truly godly man, to prefer God before all other things, either in heaven or on earth.

Two propositions comprise this short sermon

1. A godly man prefers God before anything else in heaven.

Edwards presents the God-centered paradigm in this section by leading readers on the correct biblical path. He notes, “Every godly man hath his heart in heaven; his affections are mainly set on what is to be had there…

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The Preciousness of Time – Jonathan Edwards (1734)

Great post from my friend David Steele on the greatest “Time Manager” of all “time”!

Veritas et Lux

Time is a precious commodity that must be treasured. Such is the argument in jonathan-edwardsJonathan Edward’s piece entitled,The Preciousness of Time and the Importance of Redeeming It.

The subject of time was no stranger to Edwards. He thought about the “improvement” of time often. Even in his famous 70 resolutions, he addressed the matter of time.

Resolution # 5

Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most

profitable way I possibly can.

It would serve us well, then, to consider the precious matter of time from Jonathan Edwards’ perspective.

Section 1: Why Time is Precious

Jonathan Edwards states four reasons why time is precious.

  1. Because a happy or miserable eternity depends on the good or ill improvement of it.
  2. Time is very short, which is another thing that renders it very precious.
  3. Time ought to be esteemed by us very precious, because…

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THE BUCKET LIST

Great article from my good friend Dr. David S. Steele

Veritas et Lux

The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson is about two very different men who are both diagnosed with terminal diseases. One of the men, upon learning of his condition, decides to draft a “bucket list.” The list would include achievements and things to see before he “kicks the bucket.” After viewing the film, I began to re-visit my bucket list:

  • Attend a baseball game at every major league park in America
  • Visit the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London
  • Walk the streets of Geneva where John Calvin ministered
  • Stand at the Castle Door in Wittenberg
  • Climb the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial

A bucket list is an important tool because it helps a person discern what is most important in life. What is on your bucket list? Who would you want to see? What would you want to accomplish? Where would you travel?

We know that the Apostle Paul had…

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How To Emulate Jesus in Our Disciple Making

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*Making Disciples Jesus Way: A Few at a Time by Dr. Greg Ogden

Thesis: The church urgently needs to recapture its original mission of making disciples of Jesus by creating intimate, relational environments of multiplication and transformation.

“The crisis at the heart of the church is a crisis of product”, writes Bill Hull (Hull, Bill. The Disciple Making Pastor. Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1988, 14.). Is there any more important question for a pastor to answer than, “what kind of people are we growing in our ministries”? According to pollsters such as George Barna and George Gallup, we are not producing people who are a whole lot different in conviction and lifestyle than the rest of society. This has been well documented so I will not bore you with a recitation of the bad news. I will get right to what I consider the solution.

Jesus made it crystal clear that there is to be a singular product which He equates with the mission of the church—“Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19) Every church’s mission is the same. There is only one mission: making disciples of Jesus. We may prefer to express it in a fresh, contemporary way, such as “to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ” (Mission Statement of Willow Creek Community Church , South Barrington , IL), but it will still just be a restatement of the Great Commission.

When I have opportunities to speak to pastors on the subject of disciple-making, I have taken an informal poll, “Raise your hand if you have a few people in your weekly schedule with whom you meet for the purpose of helping them to become reproducing disciples of Jesus?” Sadly, I get minimal response. It would seem to be a natural expectation since Jesus modeled for us the way to grow disciples. He called twelve “to be with him” in order to shape their character and transfer his mission to them. I believe we have a crisis of product in major part because pastors are not following the model that Jesus gave us. And we are missing out on a most joyful and fruitful opportunity.

In this article I will describe an embarrassingly simple, yet reproducible way to grow disciples of Jesus that will leave your practice of ministry forever changed and your church populated with self initiating, reproducing disciples of Christ.

Here is the model: Disciples are made in small, reproducible groups of 3 or 4 (triads or quads) that cultivate an environment of transformation and multiplication.

In my experience, the following three elements form the necessary building blocks to grow disciples, which, in turn, addresses our “crisis of product”:

• The model for multiplication

• The priority of relationships

• The environment for accelerated growth

The Model for Multiplication

I call it my major “ah-ha” moment in ministry. It has shaped my approach to growing disciples more than anything else. Frankly, it was a discovery break-through I stumbled on.

I had been frustrated that I was not seeing a multiplication of disciples. The one-on-one model was the paradigm that I had assumed was the way to make reproducing disciples. After all, wasn’t the Paul-Timothy relationship the biblical pattern? Discipling meant to give myself to one other person for the purpose of seeing the life of Christ built in them, which would then lead them to do the same for another and so on. The only trouble was, I wasn’t seeing “them doing the same for another.” In other words, there was no multiplication.

What was I doing wrong? We have all heard that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results. Frustrated, I would redouble my efforts: make sure I had good content; ratchet up my prayer life; teach the skills of bible study, witness, etc; and yet I was not able to instill confidence, pass on the vision, nor empower the other person to disciple others. All my refinements only led to the same results.

Then the break-through came. I had written a disciple-making curriculum (Greg Ogden. Discipleship Essentials: A Guide to Building Your Life in Christ. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), which became the basis for my final project for a Doctor of Ministry degree. My faculty mentor thought it would be a worthy experiment to test the dynamics of this material in a variety of settings. So in addition to the one-on-one, I invited two others to join me on this journey. There was no way I could have anticipated the potency to be unleashed. Just by adding a third person it was as if the Holy Spirit was present to us in a way that was life-giving and transforming and laid the foundation for multiplication.

I have never gone back to the one-on-one model for making disciples because of what I experienced. Now thirty years later, I have had considerable opportunity to reflect on the difference in dynamics between triad and quads, and the one-on-one approach.

What were the limitations of the one-on-one model?

1. In the one-on-one the discipler carries the full weight of responsibility for the spiritual welfare of another. The discipler is like the mother bird that goes out to scavenge for worms to feed to her babies. With their mouths wide open, the babes wait in their nest for the mother bird to return. The discipler is cast in the role of passing on their vast knowledge to the one with limited knowledge.

2. The one-on-one relationship sets up a hierarchy that tends to result in dependency. The one- on-one creates a father-son, teacher-student, mature-immature relationship. As appreciative as the Timothy might be, the one in the receiving position will more often than not, not be able to see themselves in the giving position. The gulf between the Paul and the Timothy is only accentuated when the relationship is between pastor and parishioner. The pastor is the trained professional, who has superior biblical knowledge which the non-professional, ordinary lay person will never see themselves achieving.

3. The one-on-one limits the interchange or dialogue. I liken the one-on-one discourse to playing ping-pong. It is back and forth, with the discipler under continuous pressure to advance the ball. The discipler must keep pressing the interchange on to a higher plane.

4. The one-on-one also creates a one-model approach. The primary influence on a new disciple becomes a single person. The parameters of the discipling experience are defined by the strengths and weaknesses of one individual.

5. Finally, the one-on-one model does not generally reproduce. If it does, it is rare. Only self- confident, inwardly motivated persons can break the dependency and become self-initiating and reproducing (These generalities are in no way meant to demean the positive and powerful experiences that a one-on-one relationship has meant to many. When it comes to the multiplication of disciples my experience teaches me that this generally does not lead to reproduction).

In my opinion we have inadvertently held up a hierarchical, positional model of discipling that is non-transferable. As long as there is the sense that one person is over another by virtue of superior spiritual authority, however that is measured, very few people are going to see themselves as qualified to disciple others. We may tout this is as a multiplication method, but in actuality it contains the seeds of its own destruction.

As a result of my experience, I commend a non-hierarchical model that views discipling as a mutual process of peer mentoring (“Discipling is an intentional relationship in which we walk alongside other disciples in order to encourage, equip and challenge one another in love to grow toward maturity in Christ. This includes equipping the disciple to teach others as well” – Ogden, Discipleship Essentials, 17). In order to avoid the dependency trap, the relationship needs to be seen as side-by-side, rather than one having authority or position over another.

An Alternative Practical Model of Disciple-Making (Triads/Quads)

Here is my best take on why triads/quads are energizing, joy-filled and reproductive:

1. There is a shift from unnatural pressure to the natural participation of the discipler. When a third or fourth person is added, the discipler is no longer the focal point, but they are a part of a group process. The discipler in this setting is a fellow participant. Though the discipler is the convener of the triad/quad, they quickly become one of the group on the journey together toward maturity in Christ.

2. There is a shift from hierarchy to peer relationship. The triad/quad naturally creates more of a come-alongside mutual journey. The focus is not so much upon the discipler as it is upon Christ as the one toward whom all are pointing their lives. Even as a pastor, I found that though the relationship may have started with a consciousness that I was the “Bible answer-man” because of my title and training, within the first few weeks the triad/quad allows me to be another disciple with fellow disciples who are attempting together to follow Jesus.

3. There is a shift from dialogue to dynamic interchange. In my initial experiment with triads, I often came away from those times saying to myself, “What made that interchange so alive and dynamic?” The presence of the Holy Spirit seemed palpable. Life and energy marked the exchange. As I have come to understand group dynamics, one-on-one is not a group. It is only as you add a third that you have the first makings of a group (Think Trinity).

4. There is shift from limited input to wisdom in numbers. The book of Proverbs speaks of the wisdom that comes from many counselors (Proverbs 15:22). It is often those who may be perceived as younger or less mature in the faith from which great wisdom comes, or a fresh spark of life or just great questions. In a current quad, one of the men at our initial gathering announced, “I have never opened the Bible.” I had observed an eagerness and hunger in Mick, so I was sure that I had misunderstood his comment. So I responded, “You mean you have never studied the Bible seriously”. “No, I have never opened a Bible.” Since that first session, Mick has demonstrated a veracious appetite for Scripture. Yet what has been particularly challenging is his perceptive questions that have led to engaging dialogue and deeper exploration.

5. There is a shift from addition to multiplication. For me there is no greater joy than to see a Christian reproduce. All the above adds up to empowerment. For over two decades, I have observed an approximate 75% reproduction rate through the triad/quad model of disciple- making.

In summary, a smaller unit encourages multiplication because it minimizes the hierarchical dimensions and maximizes a peer-mentoring model. By providing a discipleship curriculum specifically designed for this intimate relationship, it creates a simple, reproducible structure, which almost any growing believer can lead. Leadership in these groups can be rotated early on since the size makes for an informal interchange and the curriculum provides a guide to follow.

Anything worthy of the name of discipling must have a way of creating the dynamic of intergenerational multiplication. But this is only one aspect of growing self-intiating, reproducing disciples.

Disciples Are Made In Relationships, Not Programs

Making disciples places priority on an invitation to relationships, not an invitation to a program.

Disciple-making is not a six-week nor a ten-week, nor even a thirty-week program. We have tended to bank our efforts on making disciples through programs, while not keeping a priority on the relational process.

Biblically, though, disciples are made in relationships. When I am forming a new triad/quad, I approach someone personally, eyeball to eyeball in the following way: First, I ask the Lord to put on my heart those to whom He is drawing me. I am looking for those who are hungry and teachable. When there is a settled conviction as to who the Lord would have me approach, here is generally what I say to them, “Will you join me, walk with me as we grow together to become better disciples of Christ? I would like to invite you to meet with me and one or two others weekly for the purpose of becoming all that the Lord intends us to be. As I was praying about this relationship, I sensed the Lord drawing me to you.”

How does this relational approach differ from a program?

(1) Discipling relationships are marked by intimacy, whereas programs tend to be focused on information.

Programs operate with the assumption that if someone has more information that it will automatically lead to transformation. In other words, right doctrine will produce right living. Filling people’s heads with Scripture verses and biblical principles will lead to change in character, values and a heart for God.

Alicia Britt Cole captures this difference between program and relationship, “Program was safer, more controllable, and reproducible—less risky, less messy, less intrusive. It seemed easier to give someone an outline than an hour, a well-worn book than a window into our humanity. How easy it is to substitute informing people for investing in people, to confuse organizing people with actually discipling people. Life is not the offspring of program or paper. Life is the offspring of life. Jesus prioritized shoulder-to-shoulder mentoring because His prize was much larger than information; it was integration” (Alicia Britt Cole, “Purposeful Proximity—Jesus’ Model of Mentoring”, Online Enrichment, A Journal for Pentecostal Ministry).

(2) Discipling relationships involve full, mutual responsibility of the participants, whereas programs have one or a few who do on behalf of the many.

Most programs are built around an individual or a few core people who do the hard work of preparation and the rest come as passive recipients of their work. Of course, this is less true of a more egalitarian small group than it is of a class where one-way communication dominates. Though this may provide tremendous benefit to one who has done the preparation, the result is usually enormous amounts of unprocessed information. As much as I believe in the power of preaching for conviction and decision, I would be naïve to believe that preaching alone produces disciples. If preaching could produce disciples, the job would have been done.

In a discipling relationship the partners share equal responsibility for preparation, self-disclosure, and an agenda of life-change. This is not about one person being the insightful teacher, whereas the others are the learners who are taking in the insights of one whose wisdom far exceeds the others. Certainly maturity levels in Christ will vary, but the basic assumption is that in the give and take of relationships, the one who is the teacher and the one who is taught can vary from moment to moment.

(3) Discipling relationships are customized to the unique growth process of the individuals, whereas programs emphasize synchronization and regimentation.

The very nature of most of our programs is that they cannot take into account the uniqueness of the individual, which is essential to growing disciples. A program usually has a defined length. You commit to ten weeks and you are done. Often churches follow the academic calendar. Start a program in September when school starts and complete it in June in time for summer vacation. Once the cycle is completed, disciples are supposed to pop out the other end of the system. Completing the program is equated with making disciples.

Discipling relationships must necessarily vary in length of time, because no two people grow at the same speed. It is not just a matter of a forced march through the curriculum, but an individualized approach that takes into account the unique growth issues of those involved.

(4) Discipling relationships focus accountability around life-change, where as programs focus accountability around content.

Programs of discipleship give the illusion of accountability. But upon closer look the accountability is more focused on completing the assigned study curriculum than follow through on the changes or transformation into Christlikeness that is expected of a disciple of Jesus.

Growth into Christ-likeness is the ultimate goal. The gauge of accountability in programs tend to be easily measurable, observable behaviors such as Scripture memory, completing the required weekly reading, and practicing spiritual disciplines. In a discipling relationship the accountability focuses on learning to “observe or obey all that [Jesus] has commanded” (Matt. 28:19). For example, there is a huge difference between knowing that Jesus taught that we are to love our enemies, and actually loving our enemies. Discipling relationships are centered on incorporating the life of Jesus in all we are in the context of all that we do.

The Environment of Transformation: The Three Necessary Ingredients

Without question the setting where I have experienced the most accelerated transformation in the lives of believers has been in these triads/quads or small reproducible discipleship groups. I call them the “hot-house” of Christian growth. Hot houses maximize the environmental conditions so that living things can grow at a rate greater than would exist under normal circumstances. The conditions are ripe for accelerated growth. This is what happens in a triad/quad.

Why is this? What are the climatic conditions in a discipleship group of three or four that create the hothouse effect? There are four ingredients when exercised in a balanced way that release the Holy Spirit to bring about a rapid growth toward Christlikeness: This can be summarized in the following Biblical principle: When we (1) open our hearts in transparent trust to each other (2) around the truth of God’s word (3) in the spirit of mutual accountability ,(4) while engaged in our God-designed mission, we are in the Holy Spirit’s hothouse of transformation.

Let’s look at what is contained in each of these three environmental elements that makes for accelerated growth and reproduction.

Climatic Condition #1 – Transparent Trust

We return to the fundamental truth that has been repeated the theme throughout this article: Intimate, accountable relationships with other believers is the foundation for growing in discipleship. Why is transparency a necessary condition for change? The extent to which we are willing to reveal to others those areas of our life that need God’s transforming touch is the extent to which we are inviting the Holy Spirit to make us new. Our willingness to enter into horizontal or relational intimacy is a statement of our true desire before God of our willingness to invite the Lord to do His makeover in our life.

The small size of a triad/quad says that this is going to be close. There is little place to hide. The environment in which self-revelation is drawn out is increasing trust. Certainly trust does not happen instantaneously. Trust is an earned and developed quality. To get to the deep end of the pool we must go through the shallower waters of the affirmation of encouragement, support through life’s difficulties, and prayerful listening in order to help our partners hear God’s voice in life’s decisions. Only then are we likely to venture in over our heads by confessing our patterns of besetting sin to one another.

My experience tells me that few believers either have the regular habit or the safe context in which we can reveal to another human being what lurks inside the recesses of our hearts. Until we get to point where we can articulate to another those things that have a hold on us, then we will live under the tyranny of our own darkness. James admonished his readers, “Confess your sins to another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5:16 ). James makes a direct connection between confession and healing. In this context healing appears to be of a physical nature. Yet James believed that the health of one’s spirit directly affected the health of one’s body.

What is the connection between confession and freedom? Bringing the shame of our guilt into the light before trusted members of the body of Christ can in itself have a liberating effect. Once something is admitted before others, it begins to lose it power to control. Sin loves the darkness, but its power weakens in the light.

To learn to swim in the deep waters of transparent trust is a necessary element for accelerated growth in the Christian. Learning to swim can be a scary experience, especially when you in over your head. But once you learn to trust the water to hold you up, you can relax and experience its refreshment.

Climatic Condition #2 – Truth in Community

The second of four environmental elements that creates the conditions for the hothouse of accelerated growth is the truth of God’s word in community. I started with relationships because I believe that the context in which God’s word should be studied is in community. A great failing today is that we have separated the study of God’s word from transparent relationships. We have been more concerned about getting our doctrine right than our lives right. It is not that knowledge is not important, it is. It is not that right doctrine is not important, it is. It is just not enough. Because the goal is to incorporate truth into our being which happens as we process it with others.

It is particularly important in our day that a disciple has the opportunity to cover the essential teachings of the Christian life in a systematic and sequential fashion. We are living at a time when the average person has minimal foundation for their Christian faith. A generation ago Francis Schaeffer and Elton Trueblood warned us in prophetic voice that we were one generation away from losing the memory of Christian faith in our culture. We are the next generation of which they spoke!

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno is an unlikely place to find evidence for this loss memory. One night Leno took to the streets with microphone in hand asking people questions about their biblical knowledge. He approached two college age women with the question, “Can you name one of the Ten Commandments?” Quizzical and blanks looks led to this reply, “Freedom of speech?” Then Leno turned to a young man, “Who according to the Bible was eaten by a whale?” With confidence and excitement, he blurted out, “I know, I know, Pinnochio!” The memory of Christianity has been lost.

One of the participants in a discipling triad that I led was woman about ten years my senior who had been raised in the home of a congregational pastor. After we had completed our time together, she said to me, “Greg, I have something to confess. When you asked me to join this group, I didn’t think I had a whole lot to learn. After all I had been studying the Scriptures all of my life having been raised in a home where the Bible was central. But I discovered as we covered the faith in a systematic and sequential order, that my understanding was much like a mosaic. I had clusters of tiles with a lot of empty spaces in between. This approach has allowed me to fill in all those places where tiles belong. I now see in a comprehensive fashion how the Christian faith makes sense of it all.”

Climatic Condition #3 – Life-Change Accountability

Life-change accountability is rooted in a covenant. What is a covenant? A covenant is written, mutual agreement between 2 or more parties that clearly states the expectations and commitments in the relationship (Greg Ogden’s Discipleship Essentials, page 14 provides an illustration of what a mutual covenant might look like). Implied in this definition is that the covenantal partners are giving each other authority to hold them to the covenant to which they have all agreed.

Yet there is a rub. To willingly give others authority to hold us accountable to what we said we would do is for most Westerners a violation of what we hold most dear. Robert Bellah’s ground breaking research, Habits of the Heart, is a sociologist’s search for the core of the American character. He found that freedom from obligation defined the center of what it is be to an American. Here it is in a nutshell: We want to do, what we want do to, when we want to do it, and no one better tell us otherwise. We want to be in control of our own choices, life direction, character formation, schedules, etc. Everything in us grates against accountability.

Yet accountability brings us back to the very core of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. A disciple is one under authority. Disciples of Jesus are who leave no doubt that it is Jesus who is exerting the formative influence over our lives. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) The way to get serious about this truth is to practice by coming under authority in our covenantal relationships in Christ.

Climatic Condition #4: Engaged in our God-Designed Mission

Micro groups are not designed to be holy huddles. Though we all seek safe environments where our true self can be nurtured, micro groups also need to be springboards from we are sent to serve Christ in all dimensions of our life. In many ways, this fourth dimension, though last in order, is most critical. Without mission, there will be little transformation. It is as we apply our faith in the work place, in our roles in the home, are stewards of our financial resources, exercise or spiritual gifts in ministry the church or addressing an area of brokenness in the world, that we have to come to terms with our fears and limitations.

As we are engaged is mission we are stretched beyond our limited resources. When we are thrown back in reliance on Jesus, waiting for Him to show up because we are beyond our comfort zone, we are just where we need to be. This is where the importance of our micro group takes on even deeper significance. In this group we are refreshed, patched up, encouraged and sent back out to be ambassadors of Jesus.

Conclusion: “The crisis at the heart of the church is a crisis of product.” I would challenge every pastor in America to schedule into his week a 90-minute time slot to meet with two or three others for the express purpose of discipling for multiplication. Can you imagine the impact on the quality and quantity of the product, if we began to see an organic multiplication of these reproducible groups over the next ten years?

*This article is presented here with the written permission of the author – Dr. Greg Ogden. The original article may be found along with many excellent disciple making resources at the website: globaldi.org which stands for the Global Discipleship Initiative of which Greg Ogden is the Chairman of the Board. The Global Discipleship Initiative trains, coaches, and inspires pastors and Christian leaders to establish indigenous, multiplying disciple making movements, both nationally and internationally.

About the Author: Greg Ogden (D.Min, Fuller Theological Seminary) recently retired from professional church leadership and now lives out his passion of speaking, teaching and writing about the disciple-making mission of the church. Most recently Greg served as executive pastor of discipleship at Christ Church of Oak Brook in the Chicago western suburbs. He previously held the positions of director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Fuller Theological Seminary and associate professor of lay equipping and discipleship. His seminal book Discipleship Essentials: A Guide to Building Your Life in Christ has sold over 250,000 copies and has been a major influence on discipleship in the contemporary church. He is also the author of several other excellent resources that will help you in effectively making disciples who make disciples: Transforming Discipleship; Making Disciples a Few at a Time; The Essential Commandment: A Disciple’s Guide to Loving God and Others;  Leadership Essentials: Shaping Vision, Multiplying Influence, Defining Character (co-authored with Dan Meyer); Essential Guide to Becoming a Disciple: Eight Sessions for Mentoring and Discipleship; and Unfinished Business: Returning the Ministry to the People of God.

The Greatest Introduction to a Theology Book Ever Written!

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Here is what my favorite modern-day theologian has to say about John Owen’s Death of Death in The Death of Christ: “If you have never read John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, I strongly commend it to you. It is a magnificent treatment of the grace of God, and it is rich in biblical exposition and deals in great detail and with great brilliance with some of the difficult passages that we encounter in the New Testament.” ~ Dr. R.C. Sproul

Below is perhaps one of the greatest introductions to a book of theology ever written by another great theologian – J.I. Packer. I know of no doctrine that is more mis-understood and yet so repudiated as what’s known as Limited or Definite Atonement. You owe it to yourself to read this amazing introduction by J.I. Packer and then hopefully it will motivate you to read the greatest book ever written on the atonement of Jesus Christ (keep in mind that J.I, Packer is British and thus all the spelling in the essay below is in the KIng’s English). ~ Dr. David P. Craig

Introductory Essay to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ 

by J. I. Packer

  1. 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 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 realising 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, 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-centred 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 centre of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the centre 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.

II. “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. These five points are conveniently denoted by the mnemonic TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, 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 endeavour 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-centred 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 Saviour. 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 for ever 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 practised. 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 colour 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 generalisation 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 Saviour, 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 honour 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 italicised statements by saying that God’s saving purpose in the death of His Son was a mere ineffectual wish, depending for its fulfilment 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 Saviour. 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 Saviour. 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 dishonours 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-honouring. 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 Saviour. 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 Saviour 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 double-think 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 Saviour; yet we end up saying that Christ, having made salvation possible, has left us to become our own saviours. 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 which 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 trivialised 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 Saviour 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-emphasised 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 Saviour 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 Saviour shall be received into favour, 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 Saviour, 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 Saviour 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 sentimentalising 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 Saviour, 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 Saviour 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 recognises 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, 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 Saviour 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 Saviour, 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 Saviour and summon sinners to Him with a fulness, 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 realised 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 dishonour 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 labours 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 Saviour, 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 Saviour, 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 instil 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 Saviour 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.

III. 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 realised; 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 fulfilment 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.

James Montgomery Boice – “The Preacher And God’s Word”

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The Preacher and God’s Word

Anyone who thinks seriously about the state of preaching in the twenty-first century must notice a strange contradiction. On the one hand, there is a strong acknowledgment of the need for great preaching, usually defined as expository preaching. But on the other hand, good expository preaching has seldom been at a lower ebb. Evangelical (and even liberal) seminaries exhort their young men, “Be faithful in preaching…. Spend many hours in your study poring over the Bible…. Be sure that you give the people God’s Word and not merely your own opinions” (The author’s own theological training was received at Princeton Theological Seminary, a seminary hardly noted today for being strongly evangelical, though many of its students are. But in the homiletics department the greatest honor was given to expository preaching and the students were repeatedly urged to allow nothing to take the place of solid exegetical work in sermon preparation. The problem is that the admonitions are not followed by the vast majority of Princeton’s graduates, and the reason for this is that the concerns of the homiletics department are being undercut by the views of the Bible conveyed in the biblical departments). But in practice these admonitions are not heeded, and the ministers who emerge from the seminaries—whether because of poor instruction, lack of focus, or some other, undiagnosed cause—generally fail in this primary area of their responsibility.

Pulpit committees know this. So do the people who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday. Many know what they want. They want a minister who will make his primary aim to teach the Bible faithfully week after week and also embody what he teaches in his personal life. But ministers like this from the standard denominations and even some others are hard to find and apparently are getting harder to find all the time. What is wrong? How are we able to explain this strange contradiction between what we say we want and what is actually produced by most of our seminaries?

Decline of Preaching

This problem is so obvious that a number of answers have inevitably been given, most of which contain some truth. One answer is that attention has been shifted from preaching to other needed aspects of the pastoral ministry: counseling, liturgies, small group dynamics, and other concerns. Hundreds of books about these diverse aspects of the ministry are appearing every year, many of them best sellers, but there are not many valuable books on preaching. There are some, but they are not very popular. And one cannot really imagine a work like Clarence Macartney’s Preaching Without Notes attracting anywhere near the degree of attention in the seventies as it attracted just thirty years ago. Clearly the attention of a great majority of ministers is being directed away from expository preaching to other concerns.

On the surface, then, this seems to be a valid explanation of the decline of good preaching, and one might even tend to justify the decline temporarily if, so we might argue, these other equally important concerns are being rediscovered. But the trouble with this view is that these concerns need not be set in opposition to good preaching and, indeed, must not. In fact, the greatest periods of faithful expository preaching were inevitably accompanied by the highest levels of sensitivity to the presence of God in worship and the greatest measure of concern for the cure of souls.

The Puritans are a great example, though one could cite the Reformation period or the age of the evangelical awakening in England as well. The Puritans abounded in the production of expository material. We think of the monumental productions of men like Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), Richard Baxter (1615- 1691), John Owen (1616-1683), Thomas Watson (d. 1686), John Flavel (1627-1691), Jonathan Edwards (1702-1758), and that later Puritan Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892). These men produced material so serious in its nature and so weighty in its content that few contemporary pastors are even up to reading it. Yet common people followed these addresses in former times and were moved by them. Worship services were characterized by a powerful sense ofGod’s presence, and those who did such preaching and led such services were no less concerned with the individual problems, temptations, and growth of those under their care. Who in recent years has produced a work on pastoral counseling to equal Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor (1656)? Who has analyzed the movement of God in individual lives as well as did Jonathan Edwards in A Narrative of Surprising Conversions (1737) and Religious Affections (1746) or Archibald Alexander in his Thoughts on Religious Experience (1844)? Questions like these should shake us out of self-satisfied complacency and show that we are actually conducting our pastoral care, worship, and preaching at a seriously lower level.

Another explanation given for the current decline in preaching is the contemporary distrust of oratory. Again, there is some truth to this. The decline in popularity of orators such as William Jennings Bryan has been accompanied by a decline in the popularity of oratorical preaching by men like Henry Ward Beecher and his more recent successors. But the trouble with this explanation is that great preaching is not inseparably wedded to any one style of preaching. Indeed, the Puritans themselves were not commonly great orators. And, for that matter, good speakers are not really unpopular today, though today’s popular style is somewhat different from that of a previous age. John Kennedy was quite eloquent, for example, and he was highly regarded for it.

The trouble with these explanations of the decline of preaching is that each is based on an external cause. They deal with the mind-set of the secular world. What is really needed is an explanation that deals with the state of the contemporary church and with the mind-set of her ministers.

What is the answer in this area? The answer is that the current decline in preaching is due, not to external causes, but to a prior decline in a belief in the Bible as the authoritative and inerrant Word of God on the part of the church’s theologians, seminary professors, and those ministers who are trained by them. Quite simply, it is a loss of confidence in the existence of a sure Word from God. Here the matter of inerrancy and authority go together. For it is not that those who abandon inerrancy as a premise on which to approach the Scriptures necessarily abandon a belief in their authority. On the contrary, they often speak of the authority of the Bible most loudly precisely when they are abandoning the inerrancy position. It is rather that, lacking the conviction that the Bible is without error in the whole and in its parts, these scholars and preachers inevitably approach the Bible differently from inerrantists, whatever may be said verbally. In their work the Bible is searched (to the degree that it is searched) for whatever light it may shed on the world and life as the minister sees them and not as that binding and overpowering revelation that tells us what to think about the world and life and even formulates the questions we should be asking about them.

Nothing is sadder than the loss of this true authority, particularly when the preacher does not even know it. The problem is seen in a report of a panel discussion involving a rabbi, a priest, and a Protestant minister. The rabbi stood up and said, “I speak according to the law of Moses.” The priest said, “I speak according to the tradition of the Church.” But the minister said, “It seems to me….” (Of course, Judaism and Roman Catholicism are also undergoing their own struggles with the question of authority. The anecdote must involve an orthodox rabbi, a tradition- oriented priest, and an average Protestant clergyman).

It is hard to miss the connection between belief in the inerrancy of Scripture issuing in a commitment to expound it faithfully, on the one hand, and a loss of this belief coupled to an inability to give forth a certain sound, on the other. Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is one who makes the connection. He writes on the decline of great preaching:

I would not hesitate to put in the first position [for the decline]: the loss of belief in the authority of the Scriptures, and a diminution in the belief of the Truth. I put this first because I am sure it is the main factor. If you have not got authority, you cannot speak well, you cannot preach. Great preaching always depends upon great themes. Great themes always produce great speaking in any realm, and this is particularly true, of course, in the realm of the Church. While men believed in the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God and spoke on the basis of that authority you had great preaching. But once that went, and men began to speculate, and to theorize, and to put up hypotheses and so on, the eloquence and the greatness of the spoken word inevitably declined and began to wane. You cannot really deal with speculations and conjectures in the same way as preaching had formerly dealt with the great themes of the Scriptures. But as belief in the great doctrines of the Bible began to go out, and sermons were replaced by ethical addresses and homilies, and moral uplift and socio-political talk, it is not surprising that preaching declined. I suggest that this is the first and the greatest cause of this decline (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971], p. 13. Lloyd-Jones also cites a reaction against “pulpiteering” [in which he is thinking along lines similar to my remarks about oratory] and “publication of sermons” as literary productions).

Lloyd-Jones is right in the main in this analysis. So our first thesis is that the contemporary decline in great (expository) preaching is due in large measure to a loss of belief in biblical authority and that this loss is itself traceable to a departure from that high view of inspiration that includes inerrancy.

Word Or Deed?

But there is a problem at this point. The problem is that those who approach preaching in this way are accused of making the Bible their God and of centering the gospel in a book rather than in the divine acts of God in history, which is where it should be, according to their critics.

There are various forms of this latter perspective. On the one hand, there is a valuable emphasis on the specific “acts” ofGod. An example of this is the work of G. Ernest Wright entitled The God Who Acts. In this study Wright stresses the acts rather than the Word of God, saying, “The Word is certainly present in the Scripture, but it is rarely, ifever, dissociated from the Act; instead it is the accompaniment of the Act” (G. Ernest Wright, God Who Acts [London: SCM, 1952], p. 12. In more recent writing Wright has broadened this view considerably, stressing that a biblical Act is not merely a historical happening but rather one in which the Word of God is also present to interpret and give it meaning – cf. The Old Testament and Theology [New York: Harper, 1969], p. 48).

He points to the Exodus as the event on which the giving of the law is based (Exod. 20:1-3) and to the signs given to and by the prophets. According to Wright, it is the act that is primary. Another form of this critique is held by those who emphasize the revelation of God to the individual in such a way that personal experience rather than the Word of God becomes decisive. What should we say to these emphases? Are those who emphasize the Word in their preaching bibliolaters? Do they worship the Bible? Have they distorted the Bible’s own teaching through their excessive veneration of it?

Not at all! It is true that the acts ofGod can be overlooked in a certain kind of preoccupation with linguistic and other textual problems. But this is more often the error of the Old or New Testament scholar than the preacher. Actually, a hearty emphasis on the Word ofGod is itself profoundly biblical, and it is even mandatory if one is to appreciate the acts of God prophesied, recorded, and interpreted in the Scriptures.

Which comes first, the word or the deed? The most common answer is the deed, which the word is then seen to interpret. But this is a distortion of the biblical picture. Certainly the acts ofGod are of major importance in the Bible and in Christian experience. But it is inaccurate to say that the deeds come first. Rather, the Word comes first, then the deeds, then a further interpretation of the deeds scripturally.

Let me give a number of key examples. First, the creation. It is possible to argue that God created the world initially and then interpreted the creation to us in the opening pages of the Bible and elsewhere. But this is not the way the Bible itself presents this matter. What Genesis says is that first there is God, after that the Word of God, and then creation. God spoke, and after that the things about which God spoke came into being. The words “and God said” are the dominant feature of the opening chapter of Genesis (vv. 3, 6, 14, 20, 24, 26). Only after that does God “see” (vv. 4, 10, 12, 19, 21, 25), “separate” (vv. 4, 7), “call” (vv. 5, 8, 10), “make” (vv. 7, 16, 25), “set” (v. 17), “create” (vv. 21, 27), “bless” (vv. 22, 28), and explain to the first man and woman what he has done (vv. 28-30).

The second example is the call of Abraham, the next great step in the unfolding of God’s purposes. There is nothing in Abraham’s story to indicate that God acted in any particular way to call Abraham. We read rather, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing”‘ (Gen. 12:1, 2). It was after receiving this word of promise that “Abram went, as the LORD had told him” (v. 4). Faith in the divine promise characterized Abraham, and it is for his response to the Word ofGod, even in the absence of the deed, that Abraham is praised: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go” (Heb. 11:8), “And he [Abraham] believed the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; cf. Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6).

A third example of the primacy of the word to deed is the Exodus itself, so often cited in precisely the opposite fashion. Here we do have a mighty intervention ofGod in history on the part of his people, and it is certainly true that the ethical standards of the Old Testament are imposed on the grounds of this deliverance (“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. … You shall have no other gods before me,” Exod. 20: 2, 3). But this does not mean that the deed precedes the word. Rather the deliverance was fully prophesied beforehand to Abraham (Gen. 15: 13, 14) and was announced to Moses as the basis on which he was to go to Pharaoh with the command to let God’s people go (Exod. 3:7-10).

The same is true of the coming ofJesus Christ. This fourth example is the greatest illustration of the intervention of God in history. But the event was preceded by the word even here, through prophecies extending back as far as the germinal announcement of a future deliverer to Eve at the time of the Fall (Gen. 3:15) and continuing up to and including the announcement of the impending birth to Zechariah the priest (Luke 1: 17), Joseph (Matt. 1:20-23), Mary (Luke 1:30-33), and others who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:25-27,36-38). Emphasis on the word of God and faith in that word in reference to the coming of Christ is particularly evident in David’s great prayer in 2 Samuel 7. God has just established his covenant with David, promising that his throne should be established forever. David responded:

Who am I, O Lord Goo, and what is my house, that thou hast brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in thy eyes, O Lord God: thou hast spoken also of thy servant’s house for a great while to come, and hast shown me future generations, O Lord God! And what more can David say to thee? For thou knowest thy servant, O Lord God! Because of thy promise, and according to thy own heart, thou hast wrought all this greatness, to make thy servant know it. . . . And now, O LORD God, confirm for ever the word which thou hast spoken concerning thy servant and concern- ing his house, and do as thou hast spoken; and thy name will be magnified for ever, saying, ‘The LORD of hosts is God over Israel,’ and the house of thy servant David will be established before thee. For thou, O LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, hast made this revelation to thy servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house’; therefore thy servant has found courage to pray this prayer to thee. And now, O Lord God, thou art God, and thy words are true, and thou hast promised this good thing to thy servant; now therefore may it please thee to bless the house of thy servant, that it may continue for ever before thee; for thou, O Lord God, hast spoken, and with thy blessing shall the house of thy servant be blessed for ever (vv. 18-21, 25-29).

In these words David exercises faith in the word ofGod primarily. A final example of the primacy of the word is Pentecost, which inaugurated the present age of the church. Peter, who was the spokesman for the other disciples on that occasion, recognized immediately that this was nothing other than the fulfillment of God’s promise to Joel regarding a future outpouring of the Holy Spirit. “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem … these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams'” (Acts 2:14-17).

As the Bible presents the matter, in each of these key moments in the divine economy, the word ofGod rather than the deed of God is primary, though of course in some cases the actual writing of the biblical material followed both. This is not meant to suggest that the actual intervention of God is unimportant, for, of course, that is not true. It is of major importance. But it is meant to say that we are not getting the emphasis reversed when we follow the biblical pattern and stress the actual word or promise of God in contemporary preaching. This does not undermine God’s acts. The promise is about them. It merely places them in the context in which God himself places them in Scripture.

So the second thesis is that an emphasis on the Word of God in today’s preaching is demanded by the very nature of God’s revelation of him self in history. It is declared of God through the psalmist, “Thou hast exalted above everything thy name and thy word” (Ps. 138:2).

Having recognized the primacy of the word in God’s own dealings with the human race, it is not at all difficult to note the primacy of the word in that early Christian preaching recorded in the New Testament.

Peter’s great sermon given on the day of Pentecost is an example. Peter and the other disciples had experienced a visible outpouring of the Holy Spirit, manifested by the sound of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of fire that had rested on each of the disciples (Acts 2:1-3). They had begun to speak so that others heard them in a variety of languages (v. 4). In addition to this, they had all just been through the traumatic and then exhilarating experiences of the crucifixion, resurrection, visible appearance, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. These were heady experiences. Yet when Peter stood up to preach on Pentecost, he did not dwell on his or anyone else’s experiences, as many in our day might have done, but rather preached a profoundly biblical sermon centered on specific biblical passages. 

The format was as follows: First, there are three verses of introduction intended to link the present manifestations of the outpouring of the Spirit to God’s prophecy of that even in Joel. These were a lead-in to the major text. Second, Peter cites the prophecy in Joel at length, giving a total of five verses to it. Third, there is a declaration of the guilt of the men of Jerusalem in Christ’s death, which, however, was in full accordance with the plan and foreknowlege of God, as Peter indicates. This takes three verses. Fourth, there is an extended quotation from Psalm 16:8-11, occupying four verses. These stress the victory ofChrist over death through his resurrection and exaltation to heaven. Fifth, there is an exposition of the sixteenth psalm, occupying five verses. Sixth, there is a further two-verse quotation from Psalm 11: 1, again stressing the supremacy of Christ. Seventh, there is a one-verse summary.

Peter’s procedure is to quote the ‘Old Testament and then explain it and after that to quote more ofthe Old Testament and explain it, and so on. Moreover, the Scripture predominates. For although there are eleven verses of Scripture versus twelve for other matters, much of the material in the twelve verses is intro- ductory to the Scripture and the rest is explanation.

Peter’s procedure does not demand that every subsequent Christian sermon follow precisely the same pattern.We know that even the other New Testament preachers did not preach in the same way that Peter did; each rather followed a pattern deter- mined by his own gifts and understanding. But the sermon does suggest the importance that Peter gave to the actual words ofGod recorded in the Old Testament and the concern he had to inter- pret the events of his time in light of them.

One chapter farther on we have another example of Peter’s preaching. This time his outline was slightly different, for he began with a more extended statement of what God had done in

Jesus Christ, in whose name the lame man had just been healed. But this quickly leads to the statement that all that had happened to Jesus had been foretold by God through the prophets (Acts 3: 18) and then to two specific examples of such prophecy: Deuteronomy 18:18, 19 (cited in vv. 22, 23) and Genesis 22:18 (cited in v. 25). The burden of each of these sermons is not the current activity ofGod in Christ and/ or the Holy Spirit alone, still less the subjective experience of such activity by Peter or the others. Rather it is the activity of God as proclaimed in the Scriptures: “God has promised to do these things, and he has done them. Now, therefore, repent and believe the gospel.”

Peter was concerned to affirm that God had said certain things about the coming of Christ and the Holy Spirit, that he had said these in certain specific passages and words of the Old Testament, and that God was now fulfilling these promises precisely. In other words, in his preaching and thinking Peter gave full authority to the very words of Scripture as the words of God.

Peter’s own formal statement of his attitude to the Word is in 2 Peter I: 19-21. “And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse ofman, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

In his discussion of this text and others like it, Dewey M. Beegle argues that since Peter was not in possession of the original autographs of Scripture and does not refer his statement to them explicitly, he is referring therefore only to errant copies and cannot be saying that they are inerrant in accordance with a specific theory of verbal inspiration. He concludes, “There is no explicit indication in this passage that Peter made any essential distinction between the originals and the copies. The important teaching is that the Scriptures had their origin in God; therefore the copies that Peter’s readers had were also to be considered as being from God and thus worthy of their careful study” (Dewey M. Beegle, Scripture, Tradition, and Infallibility [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973], p. 155).

But surely to argue that Peter did not believe in an inerrant Scripture in this way is merely to read a twentieth-century distinction into Peter’s situation where it does not belong. Certainly Peter is not making a distinction between the originals and copies. That isjust the point. He is not even thinking in these terms. If someone would point out an error in one of his copies, he would readily acknowledge it-obviously the error got in somewhere-but still say precisely the same thing: that is, that the Old Testament is God’s Word in its entirety. It is “from God” (v. 21). Consequently, it is “more sure” even than the theophany that he and two other disciples had been privileged to witness on the Mount of Transfiguration (vv. 16-19). (A clear example of the fallacy of this kind of argument is Beegle’s similar treatment of the often quoted words of Augustine to Jerome, “I have learned to pay them [the canonical books] such honor and respect as to believe most firmly that not one of their authors has erred in writing anything at all” {Epistle 82, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 12, “St. Augustine: Letters 1-82,” trans. Wilfrid Parsons [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1951], p. 392}. Beegle disregards this statement because we know: 1) that Augustine read the Bible in a Latin translation made from the Septuagint, 2) that this version was errant, and 3) that Augustine was therefore wrong in regarding it so highly [Scripture, Tradition, and lnfallibility, p. 137]. But Augustine was no fool at this point. He knew there were errors in the various translations and copies. In fact, his letter goes on to say, ” If I do find anything in those books which seems contrary to truth, I decide that either the text is corrupt, or the translator did not follow what was really said, or that I failed to understand it.” Still Augustine says that the Bible, as God’s Word, can be fully trusted. He believed that, as originally given, it was an inerrant revelation, and the copies [except where it can be shown that errors in text or translation have crept in] can be regarded and quoted as those inerrant originals).

Peter is not the only one whose sermons are recorded in Acts, of course. Stephen is another. Stephen was arrested by the Sanhedrin on the charge of speaking “blasphemous words against [the law of] Moses and God,” and he replied with a defense that occupies nearly the whole of Acts 7. This sermon contains a comprehensive review of the dealings of God with Israel, beginning with the call of Abraham and ending with the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ. It is filled with Old Testament quotations. Its main point is that those who were defending the law were not obeying it. Rather, like those before them, they were resisting the Word of God and killing God’s prophets (Acts 7:51-53).

Acts 13 marks the beginning of the missionary journeys of Paul and contains the first full sermon of Paul recorded. It is a combination of the kinds of sermons preached by Peter on Pentecost and Stephen on the occasion of his trial before the Sanhedrin. Paul begins as Stephen did, pointing out to theJews of the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia that God, who had dealt with the people of Israel for many years, had promised repeatedly to send a Savior, who has now come. He points out that this one is Jesus, whose story he briefly relates. Then he offers his texts, citing in rapid sequence Psalm 2:7 (Acts 13:33), Isaiah 55:3 (v. 34), and Psalm 16:10 (v. 35). These are explained, and then there is a concluding quotation from Habakkuk 1:5 (v. 41). Clearly the emphasis is on these verses.

On the next Sabbath in the same city many came together to hear this gospel, but the Jews were jealous and spoke against it. Paul responded by preaching a sermon on Isaiah 49:6, “I have sent you to be a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 13:47).

So it is throughout the other sermons in Acts. The only apparent exception is Paul’s well-known address to the Athenians, re- corded in chapter 17. In this address the apostle begins, not with Scripture, but with quotations from the altars of the Athenians and from Greek poetry, and he never gets to Scripture. But one must remember that Paul’s sermon was interrupted at the point at which he began to speak of the resurrection. Can we think that if he had been allowed to continue he would have failed to mention that this was in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures, as he did when he reached this same point in other sermons? Besides, even if he would not have quoted Scripture on this occasion, it would only mean that he departed from his normal procedure. It would not mean that he regarded the very words of God, recorded in the Old Testament, less highly.

We conclude that each of the New Testament preachers is concerned to proclaim God’s word as fulfilled in the events of his own lifetime. Moreover, his emphasis is on this word rather than on his own subjective experiences or any other less important matter. The thesis that emerges at this point, our third, is that preaching that is patterned on the preaching of the apostles and other early witnesses will always be biblical in the sense that the very words of the Bible will be the preacher’s text and his aim will be a faithful exposition and application of them. This cannot be done if the preacher is sitting in judgment on the Word rather than sitting under it.

“Higher” Criticism

But how can the preacher honestly treat the Bible in this way in view of the development of biblical studies in the last century? We might understand how such an “uncritical” attitude would be possible for the early Christian preachers. They probably did not even consider the problem in adhering to an inerrant and there- fore totally authoritative Bible when they actually had only “errant” copies to work from, for they did not know the full extent of the difficulties. But we do know. We “know” there are errors. We “know” that the Bible is not one harmonious whole but rather a composite work consisting of many different and often conflicting viewpoints. Is it not true that we must simply give up the biblical approach because of the assured findings of archaeology, history, and, above all, higher criticism? Are we not actually compelled to treat the Bible differently?

Our “knowledge” that the Bible contains errors and is a composite and often contradictory work is said to be the reason for the overthrow of the old inerrancy position. But is it? When looked at from the outside, this seems to be the reason. But confidence is shaken when we realize that most of the alleged errors in the Bible are not recent discoveries, due to historical criticism and other scholarly enterprises, but are only difficulties known centuries ago to most serious Bible students. Origen, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and many others were aware of these problems. Yet they did not feel compelled to jettison the orthodox conception of the Scriptures because of them. Either they were blatantly inconsistent, which is a difficult charge to make of men of their scholarly stature, or else they had grounds for believing the Bible to be inerrant-grounds that were greater than the difficulties occasioned by the few problem passages or apparent errors.

What grounds could there be? The basic foundation of their belief, borne in upon them by their own careful study of the Bible and (as they would say) the compelling witness of the Holy Spirit to them through that study, was the conviction that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are uniquely the Word of God and are therefore entirely reliable and truthful, as God is truthful.

What grounds could there be? The basic foundation of their belief, borne in upon them by their own careful study of the Bible and (as they would say) the compelling witness of the Holy Spirit to them through that study, was the conviction that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are uniquely the Word of God and are therefore entirely reliable and truthful, as God is truthful.

Divine truthfulness was the rock beneath their approach to Scripture. Their study of the Bible led them to this conclusion, and thereafter they approached the difficulties of biblical interpretation from this premise.

This approach has characterized the majority of their heirs in the Reformation churches down to and including many at the present time, although not all inerrantists feel obligated to use this approach (Some simply accept the Bible for what it claims to be and then operate on that premise. Thoughtful exponents of this view feel that any other approach is unwarranted and even presumptuous if the Bible is truly God’s Word [“If it is, how can we presume to pass judgment on it?”]). In fuller form, the argument has been presented as follows:

1. The Bible is a reliable and generally trustworthy document. This is established by treating it like any other historical record, such as the works ofJosephus or the accounts of war by Julius Caesar.

2. On the basis of the history recorded by the Bible we have sufficient reason for believing that the central character of the Bible, Jesus Christ, did what he is claimed to have done and therefore is who he claimed to be. He claimed to be the unique Son of God.

3. As the unique Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ is an infallible authority.

4. Jesus Christ not only assumed the Bible’s authority; he taught it, going so far as to teach that it is entirely without error and is eternal, being the Word of God: “For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5: 18).

5. If the Bible is the Word of God, as Jesus taught, it must for this reason alone be entirely trustworthy and inerrant, for God is a God of truth.

6. Therefore, on the basis of the teaching of Jesus Christ, the infallible Son ofGod, the church believes the Bible also to be infallible (This classical approach to the defense ofScripture is discussed at length by R.C. Sproul in “The Case for lnerrancy: A Methodological Analysis,” in God’s lnerrant Word, ed. John Warwick Montgomery [Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974], pp. 248-60. It is the element most lacking in Earl Palmer, “The Pastor as a Biblical Christian,” in Biblical Authority, ed. Jack Rogers [Waco: Word, 1977]. Palmer speaks of a fourfold mandate given by Jesus Christ to every Christian: to grow in our relationship with God, to love our neighbor, to share the gospel, and to build up the body of Christ [p. 127]. But as true and important as these four items are, they do not express the whole of our obligation as Christians. We are to believe and follow Christ in all things, including his words about Scripture. And this means that Scripture is to be for us what it was to him: the unique, authoritative, and inerrant Word of God, and not merely a human testimony to Christ, however carefully guided and preserved by God. If the Bible is less than this to us, we are not fully Christ’s disciples).

The negative criticism of our day does not approach the Bible in this way. Rather, it approaches it on the premise of naturalism, a philosophy that denies the supernatural or else seeks to place it in an area of reality beyond investigation. It is this philosophy, rather than the alleged errors, that is the primary reason for rejection of the inerrancy position by such scholars.

Critical views of the Bible are constantly changing, of course, and at any one time they exist in a bewildering variety of forms. Currently we think of the Bultmannian school in Germany, the post-Bultmannians, the Heilsgeschichte school of Oscar Cullmann and his followers, and others. These views are competing. Nevertheless, there are certain characteristics that tie the various forms of higher criticism together.

One characteristic is that the Bible is considered man’s word about God and man rather than God’s word about and to man. We recognize, of course, that the Bible does have a genuine human element. When Peter wrote that “men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God,” he taught that it is men who spoke just as surely as he taught that their words were from God. We must reject any attempt to make the Bible divine rather than human just as we reject any attempt to make it human rather than divine. But recognizing that the Bible is human is still a long way from saying that it is not uniquely God’s word to us in our situation and merely human thoughts about God, which is what the negative higher criticism does. The view that the Bible is man’s word about God is simply the old romantic liberalism introduced into theology by Friedrich D.E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), namely that “the real subject matter of theology is not divinely revealed truths, but human religious experience,” as Packer indicates (J.I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 148). Is this the case? The answer to this question will determine how and even if one can preach the Word of God effectively.

A second characteristic of much higher criticism is its belief that the Bible is the result of an evolutionary process. This has been most evident in Old Testament studies in the way the documentary theory of the Pentateuch has developed. But it is also apparent in Bultmann’s form-criticism, which views the New Testament as the product of the evolving religious consciousness of the early Christian communities.

Again, we acknowledge that there is a certain sense in which God may be said to unfold his revelation to men gradually so that a doctrine may be said to develop throughout the Scriptures. But this is not the same thing as saying that the religious expressions of the Bible have themselves developed in the sense that the negative critical school intends. In their view, early and primitive understandings of God and reality give way to more developed conceptions, from which it also follows that the “primitive” ideas may be abandoned for more contemporary ones. Crude notions, such as the wrath of God, sacrifice, and a visible second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, must be jettisoned. So may various aspects of church government and biblical ethics. If we decide that homosexuality is not a sin today, so be it. We can even cite the continuing activity of the Holy Spirit in revealing new truth to us in support of our rejection of such “outmoded” ethics. If we find Paul’s strictures regarding the role of men and women in the government of the church obsolete, we can just disregard them. Such thoughts are blasphemous! Yet this is what flows from the essential outlook of today’s higher criticism.

The third characteristic of much higher criticism follows directly upon the first two; namely, that we must go beyond the Scriptures if we are to find God’s will for our day.

But suppose the preacher is convinced by the Scripture and by the authority ofChrist that the Bible is indeed God’s word to man rather than merely man’s word about God, that it is one consistent and harmonious divine revelation and not the result of an evolutionary process, that it is to the Scriptures and not to outside sources that we must go for revelation. We must still ask: Can he actually proceed like this today? Is this not to fly in the face of all evidence? Is it not dishonest? The answer is: Not at all. His procedure is simply based on what he knows the Bible to be.

We may take the matter of sacrifices as an example. Everyone recognized that sacrifices play a large role in the Old Testament and that they are not so important in the New Testament. Why is this? How are we to regard them? Here the negative critic brings in his idea of an evolving religious conscience. He supposes that sacrifices are important in the most primitive forms of religion. They are to be explained by the individual’s fear of the gods or God. God is imagined to be a capricious, vengeful deity. Worshipers try to appease him by sacrifice. This seems to be the general idea of sacrifice in the other pagan religions of antiquity. It is assumed for the religion of the ancient Semite peoples too.

In time, however, this view ofGod is imagined to give way to a more elevated conception of him. When this happens, God is seen to be not so much a God of capricious wrath as a God of justice. So law begins to take a more prominent place, eventually replacing sacrifice as the center of religion. Finally, the worshipers rise to the conception ofGod as a God of love, and at this point sacrifice disappears entirely. The critic who thinks this way might fix the turning point at the coming of Jesus Christ as the result of his teachings. Therefore, today he would disregard both sacrifices and the wrath of God as outmoded concepts.

By contrast, the person who believes the Bible to be the unique and authoritative Word of God works differently. He begins by noting that the Old Testament does indeed tell a great deal about the wrath of God. But he adds that this element is hardly eliminated as one goes on through the Bible, most certainly not from the New Testament. It is, for instance, an important theme of Paul. Or again, it emerges strongly in the Book of Revelation, where we read of God’s just wrath eventually being poured out against the sins of a rebellious and ungodly race. Nor is this all. The idea of sacrifice is also present throughout the Scriptures. It is true that the detailed sacrifices of the Old Testament system are no longer performed in the New Testament churches. But this is not because a supposed primitive conception of God has given way to a more advanced one, but rather because the sacrifice of Jesus Christ of himself has completed and superseded them all, as the Book of Hebrews clearly maintains. For this person the solution is not to be found in an evolving conception ofGod, for God is always the same-a God of wrath toward sin, a God of love toward the sinner. Rather, it is to be found in God’s progressing revelation of himself to men and women, a revelation in which the sacrifices (for which God gives explicit instructions) are intended to teach both the dreadfully serious nature of sin and the way in which God has always determined to save sinners. The sacrifices point to Christ. Therefore John the Baptist, using an integral part of ancient Jewish life that all would understand, is able to say, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And Peter can write, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18, 19).

In this the data is the same. The only difference is that one scholar approaches Scripture looking for contradiction and development. The other has been convinced that God has written it and therefore looks for unity, allowing one passage to throw light on another. The Westminster Confession put this goal well in saying, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture, it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly” [I, ix]. (I discuss the higher criticism at greater length in The Sovereign God [Downers Grove, Ill.: lnterVarsity, I978], pp. 97- I09. The preceding five paragraphs are borrowed from pp. 113-15.

The thesis that emerges from this discussion is that higher criticism does not make the highest possible view of the Scripture untenable. On the contrary, higher criticism must be judged and corrected by the biblical revelation.

Regeneration

Not only does God exalt his name and his very words in the Scriptures and likewise in the preaching of that Word, but he also exalts his Word in the saving of men and women. For it is by his Word and Spirit, and not by testimonies, eloquent arguments, or emotional appeals, that he regenerates the one who apart from that regeneration is spiritually dead. ‘Peter states it thus: “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).

There are many moving images for the Word of God in the Bible. We are told in the Psalms that the Bible is “a lamp” to our feet and “a light” to our path (Ps. 119: 105). Jeremiah compares it to “a fire” and to “a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces” (Jer. 23:29). It is “milk” to the one who is yet an infant in Christ (1 Peter 2:2) as well as “solid food” to the one who is more mature (Heh. 5:11-14). The Bible is a “sword” (Heh. 4:12; Eph. 6:17), a “mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12; James 1:23), a “custodian” (Gal. 3:24), a “branch” grafted into our bodies James 1:21). These are great images, but none is so bold as the one Peter used in this passage: the Word is like human sperm. Peter uses this image, for he wishes to show that it is by means of the Word that God engenders spiritual children.

In the first chapter Peter has been talking about the means by which a person enters the family of God. First, he has discussed the theme objectively, saying that it is on the basis of Christ’s vicarious death that we are redeemed. “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (vv. 18, 19). Second, he has discussed the theme subjectively, pointing out that it is through faith that the objective work of Christ is applied to us personally. “Through him you have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (v. 21). Finally, having mentioned these truths, Peter goes on to discuss the new birth in terms of God’s sovereign grace in election, this time showing that we are born again by means of the Word of God, which he then likens to the male element in procreation. The Vulgate makes this clearer than most English versions, for the word there is semen.

What does this teach about the way in which a man or woman becomes a child ofGod? It teaches that God is responsible for the new birth and that the means by which he accomplishes this is his living and abiding Word. We might even say that God does a work prior to this, for he first sends the ovum of saving faith into the heart. Even faith is not of ourselves, it is the “gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Afterward, when the sperm of the Word is sent to penetrate the ovum of saving faith, there is a spiritual conception.

The same ideas are in view in James 1: 18, which says, “Of his own will he brought us forth [‘begot he us,’ KJV] by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”

The point of these verses is that it is by means of the very words of God recorded in the Scriptures and communicated to the individual heart by the Holy Spirit that God saves the individual. It is as Calvin says, in speaking of faith:

Faith needs the Word as much as fruit needs the living root of a tree. For no others, as David witnesses, can hope in God but those who know his name (Ps. 9: l 0) . . . . This knowledge does not arise out of anyone’s imagination, but only so far as God himself is witness to his goodness. This the prophet confirms in another place: “Thy salvation [is] according to thy word” (Ps. 119:41). Likewise, “I have hoped in thy word; make me safe” (Ps. 119:4, 40, 94). Here we must first note the relation of faith to the Word, then its consequence, salvation (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Vol. I, pp. 576, 577).

Is it really the Word that God uses in the salvation of the individual? If it is, if God chooses so to operate, then the preacher can hardly fail to give the words of God the fullest measure of prominence in his preaching. He will revere them as that super- natural gift without which nothing that he desires to see happen within the life of the individual will happen.

We conclude that the texts of the Bible should be preached as the very (and therefore inerrant) Word of God if for no other reason than that they are the means God uses in the spiritual rebirth of those who thereby become his children.

A Fork In The Road

It is often said by those who adhere to inerrancy that a departure from the orthodox view of the Scripture at this point inevitably leads to a decline in adherence to orthodox views in other areas. This would no doubt be true ifall deviators were consistent, but it is hard to demonstrate that this is always true, since one individual is not always as rigorous in carrying out the full impli- cations of a position as another. It is enough to say that this has happened enough times with those who have entered the ministry to concern deeply anyone who sincerely desires the stability and growth of evangelicals and evangelical institutions.

On the other hand, and this is perhaps even more significant, many of those who have wrestled. through the problem of the Bible’s inerrancy or noninerrancy and have come Jut on the inerrancy side, testify to this as the turning point in their minis- tries, as that step without which they would not have been able to preach with the measure ofpower and success granted to them by the ministration of the Holy Spirit. I can testify that this has been true in my own experience. As pastor of a church that has seen many hundreds ofyoung men go into the ministry through years of seminary training, I can testify that this has been the turning point for the majority ofthem as well. It is sometimes said by those who take another position that inerrantists have just not faced the facts about the biblical material. This is not true. These men have faced them. But they are convinced that in spite of those things that they themselves may not fully understand or that seem to be errors according to the present state of our understanding, the Bible is nevertheless the inerrant Word ofGod, simply because it is the Word of God, and that it is only when it is proclaimed as such that it brings the fullest measure of spiritual blessing.

May God raise up many in our time who believe this and are committed to the full authority of the Word of God, whatever the consequences. In desiring that “Thus saith the Lord” be the basis for the authority of our message, the seminaries, whether liberal or conservative, are right. But we will never be able to say this truthfully or effectively unless we speak on the basis of an inerrant Scripture. We are not in the same category as the prophets. God has not granted us a primary revelation. We speak only because others, moved uniquely by the Holy Spirit, have spoken. But because of this we do speak, and we speak with authority to the degree that we hold to what Charles Haddon Spurgeon called “the ipsissima verba, the very words of the Holy Ghost” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954], p. 73).

We need a host of those who have heard that Word and who are not afraid to proclaim it to a needy but rebellious generation.

*Article adapted from James Montgomery Boice “The Preacher and God’s Word” – Chapter 5 in The Foundation of Biblical Authority, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI., 1978

About the Author: James Montgomery Boice was for many years pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the speaker on the Bible Study Hour radio program heard weekly from coast to coast. He was a graduate of Harvard College, A.B.; Princeton Theological Seminary, B.D.; and the University of Basel, Switzerland, D. TheoL. He served as assistant editor of Christianity Today before becoming pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Dr. Boice is the author of Witness and Revelation in the Gospel of John; Philippians: An Expositional Commentary; The Sermon on the Mount; How to Really Live It Up; How God Can Use Nobodies; The Last and Future World; The Gospel ofJohn (5 vols.); “Galatians” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary; Can You Run Away From God?; Our Sovereign God, editor; The Sovereign God; and God the Redeemer. He was chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, and was on the Board of Directors of The Stony Brook School and Presbyterians United for Biblical Concerns.