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Archive for the ‘Puritans’ Category

I’ve been reading through The Marrow of Modern Divinity and have found it wonderfully helpful! Let’s face it, covenant theology isn’t exactly the easiest thing to figure out. There are always those nagging questions. E.g.: Was Israel really in some sort of ‘covenant of works’? What is the exact difference between the ‘law’ and the ‘gospel’? Where do works come into the equation of our salvation?

These and many other issues are intuitively addressed and ingenuously explained in this brilliant volume of singularly masterful 17th century English literature. This is both a piece of art and a work of theology. The author (Edward Fisher) has drawn form a broad spectrum of reformed divinity on covenant theology and then translated it (as it were) into very laymen’s terms. This is both church history and biblical exegesis, wrapped into engaging dialogues between four characters: “Evangelista,” “Antinomista,” “Nomista,” and “Neophytus.” The following is an excerpt regarding The Natural Bias Towards the Covenant of Works:

Alas! there are thousands in the world that make a Christ of their works; and here is their undoing, &c. They look for righteousness and acceptation more in the precept than in the promise, in the law than the gospel, in working than in believing; and so miscarry. Many poor ignorant souls amongst us, when we bid them obey and do duties, they can think of nothing but working themselves to life; when they are troubled, they must lick themselves whole, when wounded, they must run to the salve of duties, and stream of performances, and neglect Christ. Nay, it is to be feared that there be divers [many] who in words are able to distinguish between the law and gospel, and in their judgments hold and maintain, that man is justified by faith without the works of the law; and yet in effect and practice, that is to say, in heart and conscience, do otherwise. [1] And there is some touch of this in us all; otherwise we should not be so up and down in our comforts and believing as we are still, and cast down with every weakness as we are. [2]

Thomas Boston’s Notes:
[1] It is indeed the practice of every unregenerate man, whatever be his knowledge or professed principles; for the contrary practice is the practice of the saints, and of them only, “Blessed are the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3). “We are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3).
[2] For these follow from our building so much on something in ourselves, which is always very variable; and so little on the “grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:1), which is an immovable foundation.
The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Christian Focus, Scotland: 2009), 101, 106.

Sinclair Ferguson says of this book:

Anyone who comes to grips with the issues raised in the Marrow of Modern Divinity will almost certainly grow by leaps and bounds in understanding three things: the grace of God, the Christian life, and the very nature of the gospel itself. I personally owe it a huge debt.

Need I say more? “Pick up and read,” my friend. Pick up and read!

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If you have ever ready any of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, perhaps you have wondered how it relates to one’s Reformed piety? I remember the book came highly recommend to me by a fellow Presbyterian as one of the most impacting books I should read to better understand the Christian faith. I was lent the book and began reading.

But after a little while I was astonished at the absence of Christ being set fourth as the foundation of one’s righteousness and assurance before God. It seemed to me little more than Medieval moralism.

Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711), a Dutch Puritan and leader in the Dutch Further Reformation, offers a helpful balance:

Thomas à Kempis….. having written that excellent treatise The Imitation of Christ in three volumes. The fourth volume is not authored by him; it is idolatrous and has been added by someone else. However… à Kempis [has] little to say about the Lord Jesus as being the ransom and righteousness of sinners–about how He, by a truth faith, must be used unto justification and in approaching unto God, beholding in His countenance the glory of God, and practicing true holiness as originating in Him and in union with Him. Readers must note this about [à Kempis], keeping this in mind when they read… They will then be able to benefit from [his] writings.
The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 2, pp.  640-41.

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Today one might often hear folks holding to the “authority of scripture” or Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) as proof of their Reformed (or more broadly, Christian) orthodoxy. The concept of biblical authority is considered that “safe all” category sufficient to always guide one home to truth. As long as we maintain Sola Scriptura, (it is assumed) we’ll be good. And we’ll always be reforming the church (semper reformanda).

But this is a dangerous misunderstanding, both of the Reformed distinctive (Sola Scriptura), as well as the nature of theology itself. And we see this mistake played out in history.

Carl Trueman observes how in John Owen’s day, “the Socinians appear to hold to a basic scripture principle in a formally similar manner to the orthodox.” That is, they held to a form of Sola Scritpura: Scripture alone was the sole and final authority in determining truth. For some odd reason, however, the Socinians couldn’t seem to find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity anywhere in Scripture!

What Owen labored to demonstrate, therefore, was that sola scriptura was not enough. It was not merely scripture’s authority that was all-important, but also its interpretation.

Trueman explains the difference between the two approaches:

The differences, in fact, are significant, and go straight to the heart of why Owen can see scripture as teaching the doctrine of the Trinity and the Socinians reject such a conclusion: the point at issue is not simply whether scripture is the authoritative noetic foundation for theology, but how that scripture is to be interpreted, a point which draws in matters of logic, of metaphysics, and of how individual passages of scripture are mutually related to the act of interpretation…

The radical biblicism of the Socinians was, in effect, cutting the very ground away from under the traditional doctrine and forcing its exponents to greater degrees of precisely the kind of conceptual and linguistic subtlety which the Socinians decried as betraying the straightforward teaching of scripture. – John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, 48-49.

Notice the irony. And yet this is very helpful for us today since we often hear people arguing for a form of “biblicism” which lays claim to the Sola Scriptura principle, all-the-while ignoring the larger philosophical challenges inherent to scripture’s interpretation.

Theology free from metaphysics is impossible.

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Reading through Pilgrim’s Progress, I found this exchange worthy of particular note. Christian is enquiring with Ignorance as to the state of his soul. And upon hearing that all man’s righteousness is as filthy rags before God, Ignorance responds:

Ignorance: Do you think that I am such a fool as to think God can see no further than I; or that I would come to God in the best of my performances?

Christian: Why, how dost thou think in this matter?

Ignorance: Why, to be short, I think I must believe in Christ for justification.

Christian: How! think thou must believe in Christ, when thou seest not they need of Him! Thou neither seest thy original nor actual infirmities; but has such an opinion of theyself, and of what thou doest, as plainly renders thee to be one that did never see a necessity of Christ’s personal righteousness to justify thee before God. How, then, dost thou say, I believe in Christ?

Ignorance:  I believe well enough for all that.

Christian: How does thou believe?

Ignorance: I believe that Christ died for sinners; and that I shall be justified before God from the curse, though His gracious acceptance of my obedience to His law. Or thus, Christ makes my duties, that are religious, acceptable to His Father by virtue of His merits, and so shall I be justified.

Christian: Let me give an answer to this confession of thy faith:
1. Thou believest with a fantastical faith; for this faith is nowhere described in the word.
2.  Thou believest with a false faith; because it taketh justification from the personal righteousness of Christ, and applies it to thy own.
3. This faith maketh not Christ a justifier of thy person, but of thy actions; and of thy person for thy actions’ sake, which is false.
4. Therefore this faith is deceitful, even such as will leave thee under wrath in the day of God Almighty: for trut justifying faith puts the soul, as sensible of its lost condition my the law, upon flying for refuge unto Christ’s righteousness (which righteousness of His is not an act of grace by which He maketh, for justification, thy obedience accepted with God, but His personal obedience to the law, in doing and suffering for us what that required at our hands); this righteousness, I say, true faith accepteth; under the skirt of which the soul being shrouded, and by it presented as spotless before God, it is accepted, and acquit from condemnation.

Ignorance: What! would you have us trust to what Christ in His own person has done without us? This conceit would loosen the reins of our lust, and tolerate us to live as we list: for what matter how we live, if we may be justified by Christ’s personal righteousness from all when we believe it?

Christian: Ignorance is thy name, and as thy name is, so art thou: even this thy answer demonstrateh what I say. Ignorant thou art of what justifying righteousness is, and as ignorant how to secure thy soul through the faith of it, from the heavy wrath of God. Yea, thou also art ignorant of the true effects of saving faith in this righteousness of Christ, which is to bow and win over the hearts to God in Christ, to love His name, His word, ways, and people, and not as thou ignorantly imaginest.

Taken from Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan (published by Fleming H. Revell: 1999) pp. 138-140.

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