certainties vs circumstances

You know that thing that happens when you read something and think it has beautifully captured a thought you’d vaguely had but could never have expressed like that, and then, on closer reading, it turns out to be saying something a bit different?

The vague thought, clumsily expressed: that faith has to rely on rock solid truths, and these truths do not include (a) the conclusions you’ve come to after attempting to interpret what particular providences mean, or (b) the marks of grace you may be able to identify internal to yourself. So, when things get confusing and disappointing, the answer is not (necessarily, or not ultimately) to struggle for greater understanding on the providential front or less failure on the personal front. The rock solid truths are things like the faithful saying that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, or the fact that God is good and does good even when it isn’t particularly enjoyable, or the fact that Christ is making continual intercession for his people, even when they are a bit rubbish. Your soul could be a barren wasteland as far as spiritual exercise goes, and in providence security and creature comforts could be crumbling all around you, but faith and hope were never meant to terminate on yourself or your providences anyway – they can only cling to the absolute certainties about the person and work of the Saviour.

What I momentarily thought was a better way of expressing all of this was another section from that book of Hugh Martin’s sermons I quoted the other day. He talks about crosses, difficulties, illness, sin, and all the other things that make it seem nonsensical for beleaguered believers to claim the status of sons and daughters of the Almighty. Asaph was perplexed by the relative lack of prosperity of the godly – Paul complained of a sense of wretchedness – how can problems like these be compatible with the “bold and firm assertion” of 1 John 3, that we are now the sons of God? So the sermon discusses at length the “candid acknowledgement” that it is not yet apparent what we shall be. “If they say that, granting we are the sons of God, we do not look like it, … frankly we admit the difficulty!”

The section itself is as follows, but as a second glance showed, it is mainly targeted against the view that God is a father to everyone in the same way, a view that was becoming popular at the time as the doctrine of God’s ‘universal fatherhood’ (on which see ideally John Kennedy’s 1869 treatise ‘Man’s Relations to God’). The bits that jumped out at me were the recognition that we need to get beyond “this sphere of dark and complicated providence,” in the search for comfort in the face of “sense, shame, and sorrow, … conflict and the cross”, and the mention of “propitiation,” which at first glance I took to be synonymous with the title of the volume, Christ For Us, and the be all and end all as far as sources of comfort and encouragement in the Christian life goes. Except that in this context, it’s more a question of “for me” personally and particularly in my own individual circumstances, than “for us” in the sense of a more general confession of what is true for the Lord’s people en masse. Which is just another way of saying that even if a believer is perfectly safe without the conscious sense of being personally justified and adopted, maximum comfort can’t be had without it.

“Be very sure that it is on the peculiar love of God, his special call, and personal fellowship with the Son that you must rest your sonship, if you would distance its security and truth from this conflict with sense, shame, and sorrow, while the glory, the victory, and the joy are not yet apparent. Vainly will you try to defend your sonship against shame and sorrow, conflict and the cross, merely on the basis of the fatherly benignity of God the Creator which is in no sense peculiar but embraces all alike. Whatever may be traced to this beneficience is visible in precisely the same earthly sphere of the world’s history in which all the pains and griefs of your earthly state reside. These pains and griefs, therefore, meeting with the general benignity of God in the self-same realm and sphere, limit its obviousness and effectiveness, and cloud with real difficulties that general Fatherhood of God. If you only rest on such paternal love, taking no hold on the special sovereign love of God in Christ Jesus, the propitiation for your sins, making no account of God’s special call, addressed personally to you, summoning you to special sonship, and not asserting by faith a special union and communion with the Eternal Son, – then you do not rise from this sphere of dark and complicated providence at all into the higher and unclouded sphere and kingdom of the Son of his love into which no counteracting doubt can come. Alas! you are helpless in the grasp of the trials and humiliations of time, and conscious, craven weakness will choke your utterance if you attempt the bold and glorious protestation, ‘Now are we the sons of God.'”

what, or who

By the Hugh Martin who wrote The Atonement, some reflections from a sermon on the verse at the start of Ephesians, ‘he has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.’


Consider the depository, the treasure-house, the trustee of all these blessings. It is Christ. … The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has blessed him with all spiritual blessings in heavenly blessings in heavenly places. It has pleased the Father that in him all the fullness of the blessings should dwell.

‘How then,’ says unbelief – jealous, querulous, discontented, isolated unbelief – standing apart on its own and proudly standing its ground against grace and Christ and the Lord’s salvation – ‘how can he bless me with them if he has given them all to another, to Christ? I cannot see how they can be to me when they are all given to him. If they are all his, I must be poor indeed.’

‘But,’ says humble faith with a mind exactly the reverse, ‘it is enough if he has given them all to Christ. He has not thereby given them past me but given them to me. He has given them all to me if he has given them all to Christ. He has given them all to me because he has given them all to Christ, for the Christ who contains them all, him has he given to me freely.’…

How rich and glorious … is Christ, considered as the treasure-house of all spiritual blessings. … He is the Elect, the Son, the Beloved, the Redeemer, the Heir, the Anointed and Sealed of the Spirit. In him we find laid up for us election, adoption, acceptance, redemption, inheritance, the Spirit’s unction, seal, and earnest. We are elect in Christ the Elect one, sons in Christ the Son, accepted in the Beloved, redeemed in the Redeemer, heirs in the Elder Brother, anointed and sealed in the Christ. … While Paul speaks of the hope of his calling, of the riches of the glory of his inheritance, of the exceeding greatness of the power of grace working in them that believe, he  makes it apparent that all these are in Christ and that it is only in Christ that they can be found.”


From the volume, Christ For Us: Sermons of Hugh Martin, BOT 1998 (p216, p219).
(Hugh Martin’s dates were 1822-1885.)

in season, out of season

Protestants who reject the authority of the church are denying their own principles.

Two places where people are especially vulnerable to doing this is 1) in their attitude to church attendance and 2) their attitude towards ordained officebearers.

Church is the boring place where dramatic things happen. You can’t expect to hear anything new there, because the truths proclaimed are ancient. But the truths proclaimed are the environment where souls are born again by the Holy Spirit, which is miraculous, and where born again souls are sanctified, which is quite radical. Outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. Inside the church there might be quirks and foibles and flaws and sins, but things don’t get any better if you step outside.

Church attendance is a fruit of salvation. People are saved individually, but they’re not saved into isolation. Each believer is a living stone built into a structure with other living stones. Each believer is transformed from a goat into a sheep and now belongs to the flock of the Lord. Each believer is called from a life of uselessness and unprofitability and installed as a useful member the body of Christ, like a hand or an eye.

It is part of the instinct of the new creation to congregate and communicate with the likeminded, and there’s nowhere more natural for the sheep to gather than the place where the shepherd feeds them. Do sheep drink milk? anyway, they go together to drink the sincere milk of the word, the word which by the gospel is preached unto them. Attending the corporate means of grace is not optional but necessary for their wellbeing.

The church which Christ instituted in this world is organised in terms of structure, regulations, and officebearers.

To focus on officebearers: these are either elders or deacons, and elders either rule or teach. Although there are no qualifications needed in order for a sinner to be saved, some daunting qualifications are specified which must be met in order for someone to be suitable for officebearing. Some of these are listed in 1 Timothy 3, which states quite straightforwardly that an elder must be:

  • blameless
  • the husband of one wife
  • vigilant
  • sober
  • of good behaviour
  • given to hospitality
  • apt to teach
  • not given to wine
  • no striker
  • not greedy of filthy lucre
  • patient
  • not a brawler
  • not covetous
  • one that rules his own house well, having his children in subjection with all gravity (for if a man knows not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the house of God?)
  • not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil
  • having a good reputation of those who are outsiders.

Most of these are character traits, and discernible by anyone who looks. They’re not really a list of pass/fail targets to meet; compare, putting in so many solo flying hours, or producing so many educational qualifications to a particular level.

Nevertheless it is beneficial that teaching elders in particular should come up to certain pragmatically established standards before taking office in the church. If they are ‘sober,’ for example, and know the dangers of ‘being lifted up with pride,’ they will likely see the sense of that anyway. But in particular the qualification ‘they need to be able to teach’ by itself raises the possibility that a good candidate for the teaching-eldership can be made a better one through being trained for their work.

In a word, an educated ministry is both desirable and proper:

  • because the main job of the teaching elder is to teach, but people need to learn before they can teach
  • because the main means of convincing and converting sinners and building up the saints is by preaching the Word, but the Word needs to be studied and understood before it can be preached
  • because the main danger to the church is false doctrine, but it takes discernment to identify error and heresy and skill to tackle them appropriately
  • because, even though preachers don’t have to know Hebrew or Greek in order to know the revealed will of God, still it helps when they do, and it shows when they don’t
  • because ignorance and wilful anti-intellectualism hinder the effects of the truth and do not promote godliness.

In short:

What teaching elders teach from the pulpit is meant to feed the flock, cement the bricks, and nourish the body. So whereas the unconverted sit under the preached word in the way that rebel fighters hear ambassadors broadcasting proposals of peace and reconciliation, the converted sit under the preached word in order to grow in grace and in the knowledge of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

They do this, not as a disparate collection of individual souls, but as a corporate entity. They rejoice together to go up to God’s house together. They listen together to the preaching of a sermon designed to benefit them together. As they love one another, they worship with one another. The fellowship they have with the saints takes place and is expressed most visibly and straightforwardly when they assemble together for worship. What, after all, unifies their diverse personal experiences but the fact that they all have the same Saviour, the one revealed in the Word which they read together and hear expounded together in God’s house week after week. The responsibility of a teaching elder in all of this is immense.

In one way, salvation is an intensely personal thing, a transaction between the soul alone and God himself. But salvation is more than that – it has a background and a community – the doctrines of the Word and the church shaped by the Word. Disinclination to associate corporately with the people who God has called into the visible church isn’t an option, and certainly disrespect towards the people God has called into office in his church is completely ruled out.

what i read last week

… and kept not quite getting round to posting.

John Owen, talking about what kind of person is included in the promise. He says there are promises which sufficiently warrant a perplexed soul to go to Christ, “even when it can find in itself no other qualifications or conditions, but only such as render it every way unworthy to be accepted.”

“We do not say to a poor, naked, hungry, harbourless man, ‘Go, get thee clothes, get thee a habitation, and then I will give thee an alms.’ No, but ‘Because thou lackest all these, therefore I will give thee an alms.’ ‘Because thou art poor, blind, polluted, guilty, sinful, I will give thee mercy,’ says God.

… When did God give the great promise of Christ to Adam? Was it when he was sorrowing, repenting, qualifying his soul? No, but when he was fleeing, hiding, and had no thoughts but of separation from God. God calls him forth, and [all at the same time] tells him what he had deserved, pronounces the curse, and gives him the blessing. ‘I raised thee up,’ saith Christ, ‘under the apple tree; there thy mother brought thee forth.’ From the very place of sin Christ raiseth up the soul. So Isaiah 46 v 12: ‘Hearken to me, ye stout-hearted, that are far from righteousness.’ Here are two notable qualifications, stout-heartedness and remoteness from righteousness! What saith God to them? Verse 13, he discourses to them of mercy and salvation, and, 55v1, ‘Buy,’ saith he, ‘wine and milk.’

‘Yea, but I have nothing to buy with, and these things require a price.’ Indeed, so they do, but take them ‘without money, and without price.’

‘But he calls on them only who are thirsty.’ True, but it is a thirst of indigency and total want, not a thirst of spiritual desires. … Nay, we may go one step further. Proverbs 9 v 4-5, Christ invites to his bread and wine them who have no heart. This, commonly, is the last objection that an unbelieving heart makes against itself – it hath no mind to Christ. Indeed he hath no heart to Christ. ‘But yet,’ saith Christ, ‘thou shalt not thus go off – I will not admit of this excuse. You that have no heart, turn in hither.’

Now, I say, this obviating of all objections by unexpected appearances of love, mercy, and compassion in the promises is a strong inducement unto steadfastness in believing. When a soul shall find that God takes for granted that all that is true which it can charge itself with – that its sin, folly, unbelief, heartlessness, is just as he apprehends it, and inconceivably worse than he can think – that he takes for granted all the aggravations of his sins, that lie so dismally in his eye – his backsliding, frowardness, greatness of sin, impotency, coldness and the present, not answering in affection to the convictions that are upon him – and notwithstanding all this, yet says, ‘Come, let us agree, accept of peace, close with Christ, receive him from my love’ – surely it cannot but in some measure engage the soul into a rest and acquiescence in the word of promise.”

(Vol 9, p48-49)

for them as likes nutshells

This is what I really came here to say, the other day, when the mouse slipped and out popped a ramble on fictional sanctification, or the sanctification of fiction: a snatch of verse I came across in Andrew Bonar’s Diary (although I think it was his brother who wrote it). This would have been about the fourth or fifth Free Church theologian of the nineteenth century to be mentioned here in the space of about a month, meaning that (i) the citation rate for homegrown talent has been better than average recently and (ii) I suppose some good can come out of autobiography sometimes.

Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die –
Another’s life, Another’s death –
I stake my whole eternity.

cunningham and two senses

Since I mentioned Buchanan and Smeaton in the last post, it makes sense to move on to William Cunningham next. Cunningham was the Principal of the Free Church College from 1847 and his major published work was a two-volume historical theology.

This bit is related indirectly to the last post, but also interesting as an inssue in its own right.

“The Reformers did not teach that man was altogether passive, or the mere inactive subject of the operation of divine grace, or of the agency of the Holy Ghost, in the whole of the process that might be comprehended under the name of regeneration, taken in its wider sense. Regeneration may be taken either in a more limited sense – as including only the first implantation of spiritual life, by which a man, dead in sins and trespasses, is quickened or made alive, so that he is no longer dead; or it may be taken in a wider sense, as comprehending the whole of the process by which he is renewed, or made over again, in the whole man, after the image of God – as including the production of saving faith and union to Christ, or very much what is described in our Standards under the name of effectual calling.

“Now, it was only of regeneration, as understood in the first or more limited of these senses, that the Reformers maintained that man in the process was wholly passive, and not active; for they did not dispute that, before the process in the second and more enlarged sense was completed, man was spiritually alive and spiritually active, and continued so ever after during the whole process of his sanctification.” Cunningham, Historical Theology, Vol 1, p617; see also Vol 2, p411.

The biographical introduction, incidentally, says that his first ministerial charge began in Greenock in 1828 in “a sudden exigency of impatient Revivalism,” connected with John Campbell of Row. This phenomenon was characterised first by “sentimental Arminianism, but … eventually developed into mischievous Pelagianism,” and was accompanied by alleged speaking in tongues and miraculous healings. Cunningham was having none of it – “was convinced that ‘there was a perilous tendency in the views then current'” – and preached instead the pure gospel. Many people were converted under this ministry. But he was apparently very impressed by the revival-not-ism-s of 1859, they being evidently very different in nature.

‘about the law’

Following with interest the discussions unfolding on Ref21 and GB.

Three themes I find especially notable.

1) Of the exceptionally helpful points set out by Rick Phillips here , his point 6 in particular is something which (in my perception) if it was emphasised more would be very helpful – that in justification, faith is passive and receptive, while in sanctification, faith is active.

Here’s Smeaton on the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification (Smeaton being one of the early professors in the Free Church College, mid-C19th, and the excerpt being particularly pungent in the third para):

“… a marked line of distinction must be drawn between the prevenient grace of the Spirit and his cooperating grace. The former belongs to effectual calling, regeneration, conversion, and faith, in which the man with all his powers is the object in whom the Spirit operates by the Word; the latter belongs to his progressive sanctification, in which the Spirit calls into exercise the new powers of the renewed mind, and where there are no immediate actings of the Spirit superseding that cooperation.

“… The Holy Spirit does not move the hearts of regenerate men by mere power, but by another principle. He moves them by those spiritual powers or graces with which they are now provided. The Spirit which is in Christ without measure, is in them by measure as a Spirit of life, not moving the mind as a stone, or as a wheel, by mere power, but according to the new nature which has been created or formed in it. To lose sight of this is to ignore the fact that Christ is the source of the Spirit of life, and that the Christian has to add to his faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and all the various excellences which are in Christ Jesus. …

“The practical neglect of this distinction may sometimes be traced in Church history and on whole generations of men. The Lutherans, for example, though they spoke much and admirably of free grace and liberty, were too easily satisfied that the good tree, by the inevitable law of its existence, would bring forth its fruit. They neglected the due cultivation of the graces of the Spirit in the new creature. On the contrary, the Puritans pruned and cultivated the good tree with unwearied diligence, and made every Christian grace, after scriptural example, the subject of wholesome exhortation.” (Smeaton, Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, p211-212.)

2) William B Evans saying in the post which kicked the whole thing off, “The gospel involves freedom from both the penalty and the power of sin, and the latter is not simply to be collapsed into the former. … in dismissing legitimate biblical imperatives as “legalism” this attenuated gospel robs believers of the very resources they need for progress in sanctification.”

Which actually anticipates an excerpt from E Erskine I’d read recently and earmarked for future posting:

“I do not think that it is enough, when we are pressing any duty of the law, to come in with a direction or advice at the end, telling that all is to be done in the strength of Christ; we see here that God begins his sermon of morality to Israel from Mount Sinai with a revalation of himself as the Lord God gracious and merciful through Christ, ‘I am the Lord thy God,’ and lays this as the foundation of obedience to the following precepts. … Upon the other hand there is an error, I fear too common among some. Whenever they hear a minister pressing duty, immediately they conclude him to be a legal[istic] preacher, without ever considering upon what ground he doth it; for if he press the duties of the law upon the ground of covenanted grace, he acts according to his commision, and keeps the order and method that God has laid; but if this method be not followed, if the duties of the law be urged as the foundation  of our claim to the privileges of the gospel, or without keeping Christ and the grace of the gospel in the eye of the sinner as the foundation of duty, you may indeed conclude that it is legal[istic].” (Erskine, ed McMillan, p144-145.)

3) More generally, Phillips’ point 2 on how justification and sanctification are distinct from each other.

For what it’s worth, one of the most valuable resources on the doctrine of justification I’ve ever come across (not that, admittedly, I’ve read especially extensively) is James Buchanan’s Doctrine of Justification, first published 1867. Throughout this work Buchanan consistently emphasises the distinction between justification as Christ’s work for us and sanctification as the Spirit’s work in us, and a more cogent and learned and profound and lucid treatment is hard to imagine.

On Green Baggins, they’re recommending the Marrow of Modern Divinity, which is unquestionably essential reading for this whole controversy, and I can personally vouch for its practical usefulness, except that in all ages and generations the Marrow has been found to be hampered by sadly infelicitous expressions which even dear Boston’s clarificatory notes don’t fully rescue it from. Buchanan came two centuries later and was chair of systematic theology in the Free Church College at the time when Reformed theology was at the peak of its attainments to date in terms of reverent rock solid understanding of scripture truth (while simultaneously on the brink of shortly disintegrating under the weight of rationalistic doubt, although that is a story for another day), and Buchanan, and Smeaton too, incorporate all the best of the Marrow doctrine in about as firm a grasp and careful an articulation of the scriptural teaching as you could wish for.

The paper trail:

  1. Evans – Sanctification and the nature of the gospel
  2. Lucas – A rejoinder on sanctification
  3. Philips – Seven assertions
  4. Evans – Sanctification and the gospel
  5. Lucas – A concluding contribution
  6. Evans – A question of balance?
  7. Levy – light relief