theory and practice

“There is,” says John Newton, “an amazing and humbling difference between the conviction we have of the beauty and excellence of divine truths, and our actual experience of their power ruling in our hearts.”

Background basics

There are people who don’t see any beauty or excellence in divine truths, and remain content with the merely theoretical pursuit of knowledge of these truths. You can be a five-point calvinist in doctrine, but without having had any soul-deep experience of the truth of these doctrines as they impinge on your own need and relation to God’s mere good pleasure in the gift of salvation in Christ. People like this, who have no experience of the power of divine truths in their hearts, are in as much need of conversion as any rank arminian – there are few creatures in so much danger of the increasingly deadening effect of having a form of godliness, but denying its power, as these Calvinists in Theory.

The more problematic discrepancy is in the case of people who have had a genuine experience of what T and U and I mean (and who wonder at L and see P being put into practice). The life of faith being what it is, these Calvinists by Experience are never going to narrow the gap satisfactorily between what they know and believe and how the effects of the truth are being worked out in their lives. They should be holy, but they are clogged with sin. They should be sanctified, but they are worldly. They should be gentle and meek, but they are not.

The question is therefore not whether calvinists (by experience) are or can be worldly, irreverent, unhumble, and so on: it is shamefully evident that they are, too often and to too great an extent. The question is rather the extent to which these tendencies should be targeted for elimination in our personal and corporate life – how prepared are we to put effort into being sober, temperate, moderate in our lives, as Christians, as congregations? – and/or the degree to which the expression of worldly tendencies can be tolerated in what is publicly observable, the side we show to the world, the image we project of what a Christian is really like – how much do we shrink away from being known for being reverent, godly, holy, God-fearing kinds of Christians?

The point I’m coming round to

There has been a tremendous stushie in the world of Reformed blogging over Peter Masters’ recent trenchant critique of the so-called “new Calvinism”. Dr Masters prioritises “an authentic life of obedience to a sovereign God,” “genuine biblical piety,” “consecration, reverence, sincere obedience to his will, and separation from the world,” and repudiates everything that tends to undermine them. All of this is entirely unobjectionable, and indeed standard fare.

So it is surprising, or has been to me, to see the extent to which Dr Masters’ article has jarred in the Reformed online community. In theory we know that we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil – surely then we can agree that with such a sense of sin, we would put serious effort into avoiding things that appeal to this corruption and put us in danger of committing even more actual transgressions? In theory we know that the time past of our lives may suffice us to have lived without thought of God – can we not now therefore consecrate ourselves to a life of godliness and piety – even if other people do think it strange that we don’t run with them to the same excess of reckless self-abandon? In theory we know that while he saved us not by works of righteousness which we have done, still the stated aim of that salvation has always been so that he would purify us to himself as a peculiar people, zealous of good works – and are we not concerned then to be living epistles, known and read by all and sundry in terms of purity, zeal, and godliness?

There will always be a discrepancy between people’s experience of the beauty and excellence of divine truths, and the evidence of that experience in their lives. What seems like shocking displays of worldliness to soberer Christians need not necessarily be evidence that there has been no experience of saving grace – it could be the borderline-acceptable exuberance of immature believers (immature in the sense of new to the faith and in the absence of an established reformed community to be integrated into). But it remains the case that a worldly Christian is a contradiction in terms, and if immaturity is to blame for the fairly blatant syncretism that Dr Masters alludes to, then there needs to be growth and development and the putting away of childish things. If it’s not so innocent as immaturity – if pride, carnality, and self-determination are indeed at work – then can the “new calvinists” not join with their “old” cousins in striving together to die more and more to sin, and live more and more to righteousness?

With standard apologies for length.

a strange tendency?

I’ve been reading Ken Lodge’s new book sporadically in my lunchtimes (A Critical Introduction to Phonetics). It’s not exactly what I expected it would be like, but gives plenty of useful insights. For any phon-people reading, Lodge has two articles on thorny subjects which are extremely interesting and provocative – ‘Some handy notes on phonology’ in the Journal of Linguistics (1997), and ‘Timing, segmental status, and aspiration in Icelandic’ in Transactions of the Philological Society, 2007.

Anyway,  here’s one of the by-the-way comments in his Critical Introduction:

“There is a strange tendency among British radio and television newsreaders and reporters who, of course, are reading out their texts, to stress the final syllable of a sentence or clause, irrespective of its structure (and meaning). … For example, I once heard an item about a threatened petrol crisis in East Anglia, which was soon going ‘to hit the [fɔ ˈkɔts]’. This can only be understood as four courts, which, of course, is nonsense in this context; forecourts can only be [ˈfɔkɔts] …” (p118)

This isn’t something that’s ever particularly struck me (but maybe I’m listening to the wrong things). But there was one distinctly odd time when the travel report said that there were delays and closures on some road in England, due to “a lorry with a shedload.” I fully processed the thought, “a shedload of what?” before realising it must have actually been a lorry with a shed load.

three at golgotha

Has anyone come across anything along these lines before, as a way of distinguishing between the three crucifixions at Calvary?

  • One had sin on him but not in him; one had sin in him but not on him; one had sin in him and on him.

Or this:

  • One was dying for sin, one was dying to sin, and one was dying in sin.

In both cases referring respectively to Jesus, the penitent thief, and the impenitent thief.

cry aloud, spare not

For all its apparent foolishness, the preaching of the word is in reality the power of God and the wisdom of God. And here’s an article that discusses it, broken into 4 chunks (so far); if you’re only going to click on one, I like Part 2 best. (But Part 3 is pretty good too.)

Complete thing here.

too good to be true

I’m grateful to Jeremy Walker for posting Spurgeon’s account of his spiritual experience. (Was it his conversion? or was that earlier?) The first paragraph quoted there is very movingly true to life. It’s strange, incidentally, how often unconverted and uninterested people are so quick to take the threatenings of scripture to themselves – people often seem to assume the worst about themselves in their relation to God and consideration of their eternal destiny, even when they don’t go so far as to make that a serious concern and have these matters put right. (Is this conscience?)

But that’s a digression – in Spurgeon’s case he was profoundly concerned about his soul’s salvation, and searching the scriptures anxiously. “When I was for many a month in this state, I used to read the Bible through, and the threatenings were all printed in capitals, but the promises were in such small type I could not for a long time make them out; and when I did read them, I did not believe they were mine; but the threatenings were all my own. . . .” The strange thing, although it’s not unique to him, was how he believed absolutely that the threatenings of scripture were true and applicable in his own case, and somehow overlooked the applicability of the promises at the same time. Is this unbelief? a strange kind of half-belief maybe, convinced that condemnation is justly deserved, but unable to grasp the gospel promises even though it’s the same Word of God that proclaims both, equally authoritatively. It takes the activity of the Holy Spirit to make a person tremble at the threatenings and yet keep implicitly looking God-wards for salvation even when they’re not consciously embracing the promises, and not only so, but it takes the activity of the Holy Spirit to open a person’s eyes to see mercy for sinners written in the scriptures in at least as big and bold letters as the condemnation of sin.

I thought there was something in my archives by John Owen on the discovery of forgiveness, but since I can’t find it I’ll have to paraphrase, somewhat riskily, from memory. Owen says somewhere that it is a huge support to a sin-troubled soul, to realise (or have it revealed to them) that mercy is available. The granting of mercy is a benefit of such magnitude and majesty – even to see that there is forgiveness, whether or not it is extended to yourself personally, must be a gift from the Holy Spirit, and is a tremendous relief. Who, reading the bible as a self-accused, self-confessed sinner, would have thought that such terms as mercy, and compassion, and forgiveness, could be included in it. But mercy is available for sinners in Christ, sure mercies and riches of mercy, for anyone to stake their soul’s salvation on safely. Who is a God like unto thee, that pardons iniquity? his delight is in mercy.

Maybe, then, although I’d be interested to know what other people think, you could say that what distinguishes a non-saving, non-spiritual fear of condemnation from the kind of experience Spurgeon describes, can be seen in the person’s reaction to the truth of the scripture threatenings when that impinges on them – the response can either be to resist and resent how God deals with sin and suppress as much as possible the thought of God and his holiness, or else to acknowledge the entire validity of the condemnation and turn towards God in search of reconciliation instead of away from him. The God who is angry with sinners is the very one who we have to find mercy from: in the same scriptures that condemn sin his mercy towards sinners is displayed at large, to be believed in. Let the wicked forsake his ways, and turn to the Lord, for he will abundantly pardon; hope in the Lord, for with him there is plenteous redemption.

all the difference

Something came up in discussion last night which reminded me of what Andrew Bonar says right at the end of his wee book, The Gospel Pointing to the Person of Christ (it was good to have that kind of conversation in a frantic week).

The sum of the matter is this. There is a vast difference between, on the one hand, believing day by day in a living Saviour, and on the other, resting satisfied with the salvation he brings, as if that were all.

Searching words, but this is the problem, that we would rather have comforts than Christ, rather feel safe than be sanctified, rather be at ease than be holy.

And this in spite of the fact that being close to Christ brings all these benefits and comforts in its train. All the benefits of salvation are there for the having, in Christ. You can be holy and happy: the best way to be happy is to be holy: the only way of being holy is by believing day by day in a living Saviour, himself.

Thomas Watson says the same thing – “we are apt to esteem comfort above grace … God would have his people serve him for himself, and not for comfort only. … Such as serve God only for comfort, do not so much serve God, as serve themselves of him.”

Satisfying the great idol Self, through making as if to serve God: who can his errors understand? Nobody would lose out by serving God for his own sake – surely he deserves it, and the kind of comfort that is given as a by-product of doing so, so to speak, must surely more than compensate for the shallower, less substantial, relatively emptier comforts that we seem to snatch at from places where they aren’t really to be found.

Fine in theory.