The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box (Richard D. Phillips)

Over twenty years ago, while in seminary, I was present during a hallway conversation with a professor who then seemed to be moving toward liberal theology. A student asked how this man’s higher critical methods would enable him to remain a Christian. The professor gave quite the revealing answer: “I have a Jesus Box that I never touch.” By this, he meant that he had drawn a line of piety around his faith in Jesus to keep out the implications of his liberal scholarship. I remember thinking at the time how vain was this hope. Method always gobbles up message, and no pietistic zeal will ever protect us from our actual lack of faith. That professor has long since moved on, and from his seat in a liberal college he has not surprisingly revised his former evangelical faith in Jesus.

This conversation came to mind yesterday when I learned of Fred Harrell’s tweet endorsing a denial of Christ’s propitiation on the cross.1 He commented: “As the living Word of God, Jesus regularly forgave sins without the need for retributive justice.” The article to which Harrell linked, written by Derek Vreeland on Missio Alliance, asks: “Is the Cross Even Necessary?” Informed readers will recognize the argument made here, which amounts to a blend of Abelard’s moral influence theory and the New Perspective on Paul.

More interesting than Vreeland’s standard denial of penal substitutionary atonement is Fred Harrell’s endorsement. Trained in ministry under Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Harrell planted a high-profile and well-funded PCA church in San Francisco in 1997. His career charted a path that progressive ministers in the PCA long to emulate: RUF campus minister; associate at progressive-leaning urban church; pioneering church plant in a progressive city. In 2006, Harrell led City Church out of the PCA and into the liberal RCA on account of a change of heart regarding the ordination of women (which the PCA does not permit). At the time, defenders chalked up the change to the pressures of charity in an uber-progressive setting. In 2015, however, Harrell announced that City Church had changed its view on homosexuality, so as to “no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation.” Harrell insisted that City Church had not abandoned its high view of Scripture. Yet it was clear from Harrell’s explanation that the shift resulted from factors other than more careful exegesis: LGBT men and women were coming to the church, wanting to be Christian while also enjoying homosexual marriage; Harrell lamented hearing “stories of harm” resulting from the church’s rejection of homosexuality; and based on “pastoral conversations and social science research,” he and his elders decided to change their view of Scripture’s teaching. Those who defended Harrell argued, “What’s the harm if they are trying to reach people for the gospel?” Yesterday’s tweet supplies the answer: the method of cultural accommodation in theology and Bible interpretation eats up the gospel and demands that it, too, accommodate to the doctrines of the world.

What are some of the lessons of Fred Harrell’s progression from the ordination of women to the acceptance of homosexuality and now, apparently, to the rejection of penal substitutionary atonement and the propitiation of Christ? I can think of at least three:

  1. There is such a thing as a slippery slope in theology and faith. While this claim infuriates progressives, Fred Harrell serves as exhibit no. 4,742. What is the slippery slope? It is the unstoppable descent into liberalism and unbelief that begins when the authority of Scripture is compromised out of cultural accommodation. The slope is slippery because without the friction of an inerrant, divinely authoritative Bible, faithfully interpreted, there is nothing left to restrain the downward gravitational pull of the world’s demands.
  2. In the late-20th century and early 21st century, the slippery slope has tended to begin over the issue of women’s ordination. The reason for this is not because there is something especially nefarious about women being ordained, but because this is the point of maximum cultural outrage at which progressives have tended to capitulate. “We will never accommodate homosexuality,” they then cry, “and we will certainly never abandon an evangelical understanding of the gospel.” Yet – let the PCA beware! – the fact is that the cost of abandoning the clear biblical teaching of male-only ordination is the abandonment of the authority of Scripture against all further demands of secular culture. As Paul Gilbert once wrote about Harrell: “The principles of biblical interpretation employed in embracing the ordination of women opens the door wide for these same principles to be employed in more devious ways in relation to the core doctrines of Scripture.”
  3. Yes, the slippery slope will destroy your “Jesus Box.” In short, it is not an aberration that Fred Harrell has tweeted in rejection of penal substitutionary atonement and the doctrine of propitiation. It was only a matter of time. And this will not be the end. Harrell’s example adds just one more straw that is breaking the camel’s back in proving where the slippery slope ends up: in a blatant rejection of the very gospel, on behalf of which well-meaning progressive Christians called themselves humble, gracious, and open-minded–when, in fact, they were proudly and callously abandoning the authority of God through his Word.

Calvin, Keller and the Westminster Assembly (Scott Cook)

Over at Derek Rishmway’s blog Reformedish, Tim Keller has posted an excellent article on the reality of Christ’s suffering on the cross. Relying on excerpts drawn from Calvin’s interpretation of the descent of Christ into hell (Book II.16.8), Keller deals with the question of how Christ could have experienced forsakenness on the cross while never actually having lost the love of the Father. Keller follows Calvin in arguing that the line “He descended into hell”–as stated in the Apostles’ Creed–“represents biblical teaching that Jesus suffered not just bodily pain but all the torments that a soul in hell, cut off from God’s presence, would experience.” Thus Keller affirms that Christ truly felt in his soul the pain of separation from the Father. However, any affirmation of Christ’s suffering must not create an actual rift between the Father and the Son, on pain of destroying the doctrine of the Trinity. Keller helpfully offers a solution to this thorny theological issue: Christ ontologically (and hence objectively) did not lose the Father’s love in any way, yet experientially (and hence subjectively), Christ’s soul experienced all the feeling of anguish as if he had truly and really lost the Father’s love. This model maintains the eternal bond of love between the Father and the Son while not selling short the real anguish that the Son experienced on the cross.

Keller is to be commended for his approach, particularly because of the doctrines at stake in the topic. This is no mere intellectual exercise for personal theological entertainment. The doctrines of salvation and the Trinity are at stake in this question. Minimizing the sufferings of Christ is dangerous for our salvation, because it is only in the sufferings of Christ that the wrath of God is propitiated. On the other hand, creating an ontological rift between the Father and the Son destroys the eternal blessedness of the divine nature of the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit, particularly if one follows Augustine’s insight that the Spirit is the “Bond of Love” between the Father and the Son) and entails that the Father and Son have separate substances.

Some might still raise questions such as “How can Christ have an experience which does not line up with reality?” or “How can the Father’s love be unfailing while Jesus feels forsaken on the cross?” This is where the eighth chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith further advances Keller’s argument. In reflecting on the two natures of Christ the mediator, the members of the Assembly wrote:

“Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature” (WCF VIII.7).

The Chalcedonian logic here is straightforward: the hypostatic union, wherein both natures are united without any confusion, conversion, or composition requires that we predicate truths of the person, while strictly speaking the predicate applies to only one nature. There are numerous reasons why we must understand this to be so. When Jesus was thirsty on the cross (John 19:28), this thirst is attributed to his person because his divine and human natures have been truly united in a personal manner. However, no one would say that Jesus was thirsty in his divine nature. The divine nature is not a physical substance, and hence cannot need water. Moreover, thirst in the divine nature would imply a lack of perfect blessedness, and hence God would cease to be God. So, according to WCF VIII.7, the person of Jesus was thirsty, while strictly speaking only his human nature experienced thirst.

This logic helps to strengthen Keller’s ontological-experiential model. When we say that Christ experienced a true sense of separation and dereliction by the Father, this was only true of his human nature. This feeling in Jesus’ body–and particularly in his soul–was generated by the full weight of God’s wrath coming upon him. While Calvin does not explicitly outline such an approach in his chapter on the descent into hell, it is clearly in his thinking. In Institutes II.14.3, Calvin lays out his understanding of the communicatio idiomatum, the communication of properties in the hypostatic union. He insisted that certain ascriptions such as “before Abraham was, I AM” apply only to his divine nature. And while Scripture speaks of “God’s blood” or “crucifying the Lord of glory” we must understand that, “God certainly has no blood, suffers not (emphasis mine), cannot be touched with hands; but since that Christ, who was true God and true man, shed his blood on the cross for us, the acts which were performed in his human nature are transferred improperly, but not ceaselessly, to his divinity.”

This emphasis that the human nature alone suffered on the cross is seen in the Reformed Tradition that followed Calvin, as can be seen in the Heidelberg Catechism Q 37: “What do you understand by the words, “He suffered”? Answer: That he, all the time that he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind…” Additionally, the Westminster Divines’ clear-cut Chalcedonian categories allow us to further appropriate Keller’s ontological-experiential model with clarity and confidence. There was no objective, ontological break between the first and second Persons of the Godhead, even at the worst point of suffering on the cross. But as God’s wrath was poured out on the human nature of Christ, He felt the full weight of that wrath. He experienced in those few hours on the cross what it would take us the rest of eternity in hell to experience. The mediator needed to be full God and fully man, so that the divine nature “might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God” (WLC 38). But even the divine nature could not spare the human nature from the anguish of this suffering, or else the human nature would cease to be truly human. No true man could experience this level of suffering and feel anything less than dereliction, and Christ had a true human nature. 

In all of this, the glory of the gospel is revealed: the immortal dies; God purchases us with His own blood; the Impassable suffers for us; the Son who is one with the Father experiences a sense of infinite loss and separation so that we will have perfect, unbroken communion with our Triune God.

Natural Law and the Public Square (Carlton Wynne)

Being fully committed to the Protestant Reformed tradition, I have developed a basic understanding of natural law theories over the years. If by “natural law” we mean a moral order that is (a) revealed by God in nature, (b) stands behind conscience, (c) obligates all people to worship and obey Him, and (d) is sufficient to leave all without excuse and liable to divine judgment for sin, then I affirm it. However, one standard theistic account of natural law (NL) as a moral theory goes further. This account claims that all people can not only apprehend certain moral truths by unaided reason – apart from biblical revelation – but that people can, in principle, espouse and properly act upon those truths, again, apart from saving grace. It’s this feature of NL theory–perhaps the critical feature, it seems to me–that allegedly opens up “common ground” for Christians to cooperate with people of other faiths (or of no faith at all) on issues pertaining to the “common good.”

Now, I have learned to leave the majority of negative assessments to my colleague and resident pessimist, Carl Trueman. But I must say that, from a Reformed perspective, this additional claim by many Natural Law theorists runs into a number of obstacles. I wish to briefly mention two.

I believe this aspect of the Natural Law theory in view–that people can reason their way to actionable truths apart from God’s special revelation–is too optimistic about the powers of unaided reason after the fall. The general revelation of God in nature and beneath conscience must be “carefully distinguished from the reaction that sinful man makes to this revelation” (Van Til). The apostle Paul says that unbelievers “suppress the truth” that they know (including the truth of their moral obligation to God), that they are, at root, “hostile to God” (Rom 8:7); that they have become “futile in their thinking” (Rom 1:21). They are, Paul says elsewhere, “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18).

These are hard words, no doubt. But they point to one side of what has been called the “antithesis” between belief and unbelief, a moral and spiritual conflict of basic commitments that touch all that Christians and non-Christians think about and discuss. According to this Scriptural principle, fallen man is slavishly committed to his own moral autonomy, while Christians are to view all things under the Lordship of Christ and the light of His Word. This means that, at the deepest level, there is no mutually acknowledged common ground between Christian and non-Christian. And this, it seems to me, leaves NL proponents calling for peace when there is no peace.

This is not to deny that by God’s common grace, many unbelievers are immensely gifted and do morally upright things–often outstripping many Christians in good deeds. But such acts do not spring from an essentially unfallen rational ability, in principle, to discern and apply precepts of natural law. Rather, it is God who mercifully restrains the unbeliever’s hostility against Him, so that the unbeliever is led, to some degree, to live inconsistently with his moral depravity. So common grace may facilitate a kind of formal agreement between the Christian and non-Christian. But common grace remains just that–grace. God gives it when and where He wills. You can’t count on it as a foundation for public policy. This is a second reason why, I think, the NL theory I have in mind is a non-starter for programmatically advancing public morality.

To close on a positive note, Christians should confidently reason from Scripture in all of life, including life in the public square–rather than appeal to fallen unaided reason. We should do it because failing to do it leads, at best, to what we could call various forms of “well-articulated pragmatism.” We should do it because God designed for us to read His general and special revelation together, never to separate the two. But Christians should reason from Scripture, above all, because it is there that we meet the Christ in whom are hidden “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3), including wisdom for the public square. Such a Christ-centered theology for the public square, I think, better comports with what God says to us, and does not depend on what we say to ourselves.

*This post is a slightly revised version of the opening remarks Dr. Wynne offered during a panel discussion on natural law at a “Faith in the Public Square” conference at Westminster Theological Seminary in October 2016.

The Quest for Biblical Worship (Part 1) (Terry L. Johnson)

Which is more likely today, liturgical sameness or liturgical strangeness? Which is more damaging to the integrity of Protestant denominations? Are we suffocating from liturgical uniformity–encountering the same old predictable things in the Reformed churches we attend? Or, are we unsettled by the unusual liturgical activity that we encounter in our sister churches and regional assemblies? Have we become bored with routine or shaken by what has become unrecognizable? Isn’t there a biblical principle that regulates how we worship (i.e. the Regulative Principle of Worship – RPW) that is supposed to spare us both liturgical sameness and strangeness? Indeed, one would think so.

Regulative Principle of Worship

Given that the RPW limits the elements of worship to those God has set out in Scripture, we should expect a significant degree of liturgical uniformity. The six, basic elements (i.e. the reading and preaching Scripture, prayer, singing praises, administering the sacraments, and lawful oaths) should be found in all of our services. Other things (i.e. unauthorized rituals, ceremonies, programs, gestures and postures) should not. Those who agree with this observation must conclude that a significant degree of sameness should be expected.

However, the RPW, as traditionally understood allows the elements to be expressed in a variety of forms. For example, readings, sermons, prayers, and sung praises may be short in duration or long. That is a matter of form. Sermons may be topical or sequential. Readings may be Old Testament or New Testament or both, etc. As long as the form does not compromise the integrity of the element, there is considerable latitude. In addition, the RPW recognizes varying circumstances of worship such as seating, sound projection, use of printed texts, and lighting that are “ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence” as well as “the general rules of the Word”(WCF 1:6). This means that there is considerable, not absolute, but considerable latitude when it comes to these practical matters. A certain degree of diversity should be expected.

If one defines the RPW narrowly–insisting that the Scripture defines elements but hardly touches forms–the degree of uniformity one may anticipate decreases. When this occurs, individuals begin to suggest that just so long as a church reads Scripture (a verse or two), preaches (a religious theme), sings (devotional thoughts), prays (a bit), and administers the sacraments (occasionally), it complies with the RPW. A great deal of time is then invested in planning on inserting “special music,” or a 20 minute song set, or among the more radical among us, a liturgical dance or liturgical drama (biblically defended, of course). This narrow understanding of the RPW leads inevitably to heightened diversity. When this occurs, what has been said to be a narrow application of the RPW has functionally become an embrace of the Normative Principle of Worship (NPW). Decreased sameness opens the door for increased strangeness. The gap between a “traditional” church and a “contemporary” church can grow very wide indeed at this point.

However, if one adopts Hughes Oliphant Old’s simpler but broader definition of the RPW as worship that is “according to Scripture,” ironically, the gap will narrow. Now we’re not just settling for reading Scripture, any Scripture and preaching a sermon, any sermon, but we’re turning to 1 Timothy 4:13a to learn how the early church read Scripture. “Give attention to the reading” (lit.), the Apostle Paul tells Timothy. Liturgical scholars all agree that the readings were a known entity (hence the definite article) and were lectio continua, as they were in the synagogue (see the Notre Dame study, The Early Liturgy, by Jungmann).

“Give attention … to exhortation and teaching,” the Apostle continues (1 Tim 4:13b). The natural reading of this direction to Timothy, buttressed by Acts 13:15, 27 and Luke 5:16-22, is to understand the sermon, the “exhortation and teaching” as arising out of the Scripture reading. A simpler but broader understanding of the RPW leads to a commitment both to lectio continua reading of the Scripture and lectio continua preaching, that is, sequential expository sermons. If all the churches “buy in,” the gap narrows.

We might sing “according to Scripture” by noting that the Bible has its own hymn book, the Psalms, given to the church that God’s praises might be sung. We might turn to Acts 4:24-26, buttressed by Eph 5:19, Col 3:16, and Jas 5:13, and note that the early church sang psalms. We might further sing hymns, but do so “according to Scripture,” by allowing the psalms and canticles of the Bible to teach us what God-pleasing and God-honoring praise looks like, and conforming our own compositions to that pattern. Our hymns as a consequence would be God-centered, develop a theme over multiple stanzas, use minimal repetition, and express the full range of emotional experience. If all the churches get on board, the gap narrows.

We might pray “according to Scripture” by turning to the Apostle Paul’s directions for public prayer in 1 Timothy 2:1, 2, note his varied prayer terminology, and conclude that all types of prayer are meant. We might turn to the great prayers of the Bible as well as the Book of Psalms, functioning now as the prayer book of the Bible, and discern six basic prayer genres as did our Reformed forefathers: praise, confession of sin, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, and benediction. We might commit our congregation to a “full diet of biblical prayer” in its regular services. The gap narrows further.

The basic question is this: Are we truly committed to worshipping “according to Scripture?” Will Scripture both determine the elements and shape the forms of worship? Will Scripture determine not merely that we pray, preach, read, and sing, but what and how? Will we allow Scripture to shape our understanding of reverence, our concern for catholicity of form, and our commitment to the communion of all the saints, not merely to the preferences of our chosen demographic? If so, greater liturgical sameness will result and liturgical strangeness will be less common.

*This is the first post in a two part series by Dr. Johnson.

Particular Baptists and the Outpouring of the Spirit (Michael Haykin )

It is vital to note that while many Particular Baptists were in the state of declension (as described in part 1 of this series of studies on the renewal of this eighteenth-century Baptist community), from the mid-1730s on there was a tremendous movement of revival going on in Great Britain. It was a movement with such leaders as George Whitefield (1714-1770), the leading evangelist of the eighteenth century, the Wesley brothers, John (1703-1791) and Charles (1707-1788), and Howel Harris (1714-1773) in Wales. Known as the Eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival, or, in America, as the First Great Awakening, the power of this movement is well depicted by Howel Harris in a letter that he wrote at the close of 1743 to George Whitefield. Writing of the ministry of two fellow Welshmen under whose preaching Harris had recently sat, Harris told Whitefield:

“The outpouring of the Blessed Spirit is now so plentiful and common, that I think it was our deliberate observation that not one sent by Him opens his mouth without some remarkable showers. He comes either as a Spirit of wisdom to enlighten the soul, to teach and build up, and set out the works of light and darkness, or else a Spirit of tenderness and love, sweetly melting the souls like the dew, and watering the graces; or as the Spirit of hot burning zeal, setting their hearts in a flame, so that their eyes sparkle with fire, love, and joy; or also such a Spirit of uncommon power that the heavens seem to be rent, and hell to tremble.”1

And as George S. Claghorn has succinctly described Whitefield’s impact under God on the other side of the Atlantic in America: “Wherever he went [from Georgia to Maine], he drew congregations by the hundreds and thousands. Wholesale conversions followed, lives were transformed, and a lasting impact was made on the character of the American people.”2

Many Particular Baptists, however, had deep reservations about the revival. The Wesleys, of course, were Arminians and thus beyond the pale for the Calvinistic Particular Baptists. However, Whitefield was a Calvinist. Yet, the fervency of his evangelism and his urging of the lost to embrace Christ, their only hope of salvation, prompted a number of Baptist critics to complain of what they termed his “Arminian accent.”

Most importantly, the Particular Baptists were disturbed by the fact that the earliest leaders in the revival belonged to the Church of England. Their Particular Baptist forebears, after all, had come out of the Church of England at great personal cost and suffering, and they had suffered for their determination to establish true gospel churches. The heritage that came down to the eighteenth-century Particular Baptists was thus intertwined with a great concern for proper New Testament church order. John Gill (1697-1771), the leading Particular Baptist divine for much of that century, well expressed the ecclesiological convictions that prevailed in the Particular Baptist community for much of the era. “The Church of England,” he declared in no uncertain terms, “has neither the form nor matter of a true church, nor is the Word of God purely preached in it.”3 A resolution passed by St. Mary’s Baptist Church, Norwich, in 1754 also reveals this attitude. In the minute book for that year we read that “it is unlawful for any… to attend the meetings of the Methodists, or to join in any worship which is contrary to the doctrines and ordinances of our Lord Jesus.”4 Many eighteenth-century Particular Baptists were thus adamant in their refusal to regard the Evangelical Revival as a genuine work of God, for, from their perspective, it simply did not issue in “true gospel churches.”

Of course, there were some noteworthy exceptions, but up until the 1770s far too many Particular Baptists seem to have assumed that a revival could only be considered genuine if it preserved and promoted the proper form of the local church. For many Particular Baptists of the first six or seven decades of the eighteenth century, outward form and inward revival went hand in hand. Their chief preoccupation was the preservation of what they considered the proper New Testament form of church. In their minds, when God brought revival it would have to issue in true gospel churches like theirs.

The dilemma facing these Baptists was not an easy one. They rightly felt constrained to emphasize the New Testament idea of the local church as a congregation of visible saints and assert that the concept of a state church is antithetical to the whole tenor of the new covenant. Moreover, these were truths for which their forebears in the previous century had suffered much. To abandon them would have been unthinkable. But what then was to be made of the ministry of men like Whitefield?

One possible solution would have been for the eighteenth-century Particular Baptists to have viewed the ministry of Whitefield and other Anglican Calvinists in the way that their seventeenth-century forebears viewed the labors of the sixteenth-century Reformers. The latter did not reject the ministry of the Reformers because they were not Baptists. Rather, they recognized that the Reformers had been greatly used by God to bring the church out of the Stygian darkness of the Middle Ages. Yet, though the Reformers did well, they failed to apply all that the Scriptures taught. Similarly, it could have been recognized that God was indeed at work among the leaders of the revival, but that there were certain areas–in particular, those dealing with the church and its nature–where they needed greater light.

1. Cited Eifion Evans, Daniel Rowland and the Great Evangelical Awakening in Wales (Edinburgh/Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 243.

2. Jonathan Edwards: Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 16; New Haven, CT/London: Yale University Press, 1998), 79.

3. Cited Dafydd Densil James Morgan, “The Development of the Baptist Movement in Wales between 1714 and 1815 with particular reference to the Evangelical Revival” (DPhil thesis, Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford, 1986), 39.

4. Cited Charles B. Jewson, “St. Mary’s, Norwich,” The Baptist Quarterly, 10 (1940-1941): 283.

*This is Dr. Haykin’s second post in a series on “Revitalizing an Eighteenth Century Christian Community.”

Why Did Jesus Need the Holy Spirit? (Nick Batzig)

As we make our way through the Gospel records, we quickly discover that Jesus needed the Holy Spirit at every step and in every stage of His life and ministry. While the human nature of Jesus was inseparably united to the Divine nature of the second Person of the Godhead, Jesus needed to live a perfectly sinless life in the power and by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It was not sufficient for Him–as the second Adam and representative of a new humanity–to merely live according to His Divine nature. What we need as fallen men is a human Redeemer who would gain a human holiness for His people and would die a human death in their place. As was true for Adam so it was for Jesus–the Last Adam. The Savior needed the Holy Spirit to sustain and empower Him to obey His Father, even to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:10).

Jesus needed the Holy Spirit in every act that took place in His life and for the work of redemption. The Holy Spirit had to overshadow the virgin Mary at Jesus’ incarnation (Luke 1:35); Christ needed the Spirit at His anointing for public ministry when John baptized Him (Matt. 3:16; Luke 3:22); He needed the Spirit when driven into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1; Mark 1:12); He needed the Spirit when casting out demons in order to establish the kingdom of God (Matt. 12:28); He needed the Spirit to enable Him to offer Himself without spot to God as an atoning sacrifice for the sin of His people (Heb. 9:14); and, He needed the Spirit to raise Him from the dead (Rom. 8:11). At every step in the Messianic ministry, Christ relied upon the Third Person of the Godhead.

In his masterful work on The Holy Spirit, Sinclair Ferguson succinctly summarized the various stages in Jesus’ life in which the Holy Spirit was at work:

The Spirit who was present and active at Christ’s conception as the head of the new creation, by whom He was anointed at baptism (John 1:32-34), who directed Him throughout His temptations (Matthew 4:1), empowered Him in His miracles (Luke 11:20), energized Him in His sacrifice (Hebrews 9:14), and vindicated Him in His resurrection (1 Timothy 3:16; Romans 1:4), now indwells disciples in this specific identity.1

Somewhat surprisingly, while theologians have righty devoted much time to unpacking and systematizing the biblical teaching about the two natures of Jesus, very little has actually been written–in a concentrated way–on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus. In addition to Ferguson’s work, there is R.A. Finlayson’s collection of short essays titled, Reformed Theological Writings, in which he contributed two short articles–“The Love of the Spirit in Man’s Redemption” and “The Holy Spirit in the Life of Christ”–to flesh out the essence of this all-important aspect of Christology. However, it was John Owen, the Prince of the Puritan theologians, who has written what is arguably the most substantial treatment on this subject. In vol. 3 of his works, Owen set out eleven ways in which the Holy Spirit is said to have worked in the life and ministry of Jesus in the Scriptures:

“First, the framing, forming, and miraculous conception of the body of Christ in the womb of the blessed Virgin was the peculiar and especial work of the Holy Ghost…2

Second, the human nature of Christ being thus formed in the womb by a creating act of the Holy Spirit, was in the instant of its conception sanctified, and filled with grace according to the measure of its receptivity…3

Third, the Spirit carried on that work whose foundation he had thus laid. And two things are to be here diligently observed:

  • That the Lord Christ, as man, did and was to exercise all grace by the rational faculties and powers of his soul, his understanding, will, and affections; for he acted grace as a man, “made of a woman, made under the law.”
  • The human nature of Christ was capable of having new objects proposed to its mind and understanding, whereof before it had a simple nescience…

Fourth, the Holy Spirit, in a peculiar manner, anointed him with all those extraordinary powers and gifts which were necessary for the exercise and discharging of his office on the earth…4

Fifth, it was in an especial manner by the power of the Holy Spirit he wrought those great and miraculous works whereby his ministry was attested unto and confirmed…5

Sixth, by him was he guided, directed, comforted, supported, in the whole course of his ministry, temptations, obedience, and sufferings. Some few instances on this head may suffice…6

Seventh, He offered himself up unto God through the eternal Spirit, Heb. 9:14…7

Eighth, there was a peculiar work of the Holy Spirit towards the Lord Christ whilst he was in the state of the dead; for here our preceding rule must be remembered,–namely, that notwithstanding the union of the human nature of Christ with the divine person of the Son, yet the communications of God unto it, beyond subsistence, were voluntary…8

Ninth, there was a peculiar work of the Holy Spirit in his resurrection, this being the completing act in laying the foundation of the church, whereby Christ entered into his rest,–the great testimony given unto the finishing of the work of redemption, with the satisfaction of God therein, and his acceptation of the person of the Redeemer…9

Tenth, it was the Holy Spirit that glorified the human nature [of Christ], and made it every way meet for its eternal residence at the right hand of God, and a pattern of the glorification of the bodies of them that believe on him…10

There is yet another work of the Holy Spirit, not immediately in and upon the person of the Lord Christ, but towards him, and on his behalf, with respect unto his work and office; and it comprises the head and fountain of the whole office of the Holy Spirit towards the church. This was his witness-bearing unto the Lord Christ,–namely, that he was the Son of God, the true Messiah, and that the work which he performed in the world was committed unto him by God the Father to accomplish…”11

1. Sinclair Ferguson The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996) p. 72

2. Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 3, p. 160). Edinburgh: T&T Clark. p. 160.

3. Ibid., pp. 160-161.

4. Ibid., p. 162.

5. Ibid., p. 168.

6. Ibid., p. 171.

7. Ibid., p. 174.

8. Ibid., p. 174.

9. Ibid., p. 176.

10. Ibid., p. 180.

11. Ibid., p. 181.

As Jesus Sees It (Adam Parker)

One of the benefits of having young children while being a pastor is that it affords you the opportunity to get plugged into the local school system. When we first met with someone who worked at the school, we told them the name of our church. Their immediate response was, “Oh we used to go there! It’s a great church! But…there just weren’t enough teens for my kids to have friends.” I also heard this from another person who had visited our congregation.

When I shared this with a friend of mine, he told me that he has had similar experiences. He noted that he had followed up with two families who had visited the church he pastors; but, that they ultimately decided to go elsewhere. Their reasoning was the same. The sound preaching of the Word was there–and that was the most important thing for them–but there just weren’t enough young couples their age with whom they could connect.

As I was relaying these two episodes to a mentor, who is himself a retired pastor, he wistfully looked to the corner of the room and mused to himself, “You know, if every family that complained we didn’t have a big enough youth group had just stuck around we’d have had the biggest youth group in town!” If I didn’t laugh, I would have cried.

There are a lot of things that people look for in a church. Those things can be superficial (e.g. “the building needs to be beautiful”). They can be substantial (e.g. “The Word needs to be preached faithfully”). Others are understandable (e.g. “I want people my age with whom I can connect”). Often the things for which visitors are looking are things that lie outside of their control. For instance, a visitor may like certain things about a local church but cannot change the pastor’s preaching. But, when visitors leave a church because of its composition (e.g. young, old, racial or otherwise) they are giving up on a church because of one aspect of the life of the church that they actually have the ability to do something about.

What amazing things would happen in local churches all over our nation if people attended solely for the sound ministry of the Word of God and then contributed their time, talents, and treasures to help make the church what it could be in other areas that are secondary, tertiary, preferential or understandable. What if, instead of seeing the church that isn’t there, we saw the church that is there?

One of the things that the Apostle John sets out for us in the book of Revelation is how Jesus views seven churches. He views some as faithful but small (Rev. 2:9). He views some as needing to repent over serious issues (2:16). There is one church that Jesus sees as having a great reputation and seeming healthy on the surface, but which He explains is actually dead deep down (3:1). This last church in particular shows us that first impressions are often deceptive. If someone had shown up at the church of Sardis they would have said, “This church is respectable. They have a good reputation. They look good. And wow, check out that youth group. Sure, they’re a little spiritually sleepy (3:3), but you know, every church has its problems.”

When we consider the seven church that Jesus addresses in the book of Revelation, we find that He takes issue with almost all of them; and yet, He doesn’t simply walk away from any of them. When it comes to the secondary issues, what if we all started seeing the church that Jesus sees? What if we all said, “You know, the church isn’t what it should be or could be…yet; but, maybe the Lord will use me with my time, talents, and treasures to make it a place that can meet the needs of the saints? Instead of seeing the church as a place where people serve me, what if we all started to see the church that Jesus sees-a place beloved by Him (that may not be where it should be yet) and in which God may use me to build it up?

Wisdom Christology in the Gospel of John: The Prologue (Gabriel Williams)

Having grown up in traditional Black churches, I have learned that being Reformed is more than simply assenting to a number of important doctrines (e.g. the doctrine of grace, the regulative principle of worship, covenant theology, etc.). By sitting under Reformed preaching and probing the mind of godly men, I have come to discover that the mode of Christian spirituality as expressed within the Reformed tradition is quite different than my own upbringing. In particular, I believe that wisdom theology has profoundly shaped the thinking of many of the fathers of the Reformed faith (especially John Calvin) and the temper of Reformed piety in general.

Calvin’s greatest appreciation of biblical wisdom theology is discovered in his commentaries on the Johannine literature–in which Old Testament wisdom concepts are put into Christian form and developed into the Logos theology of the early church. According to Calvin’s commentary on the Gospel of John, the Apostle calls the Son “the Word” because “He is the eternal wisdom and will of God, and secondly because He is the express image of His purpose.” Throughout the remainder of his commentary on the prologue of John, the word “Wisdom” is used as a synonym of “Word”. This is a crucial insight because (as Calvin understands it) when the apostle John was speaking about the Word, he had in mind the divine Wisdom.

In the first book of the Institutes where Calvin is developing his doctrine of the incarnation, Calvin calls attention to the logos theology of the prologue to the Gospel of John. Calvin states:

“Word’ means the everlasting Wisdom, residing with God, from which both all oracles and prophesies go forth. For, as Peter testifies, the ancient prophets spoke by the Spirit of Christ just as must as the apostles did [1 Peter 1:10-11; 2 Peter 1:21], and all who thereafter ministered the heavenly doctrine… And Moses clearly teaches this in the creation of the universe, setting forth this Word as intermediary. For why does he expressly tell us that God in his individual acts of creation spoke, Let this or that be done [Genesis 1] unless so that the unsearchable glory of God may shine forth in his image?… And indeed, sane and modest men do not find obscure Solomon’s statement, where he introduces wisdom as having been begotten of God before time [Ecclesiasticus 24:14], and presiding over the creation of things and all God’s works [Proverbs 8:22]… But John spoke most clearly of all when He declared that that Word, God from the beginning with God, was at the same time the cause of all things, together with God the Father [John 1:1-3]. For John at once attributes to the Word a solid and abiding essence, and ascribes something uniquely His own, and clearly shows how God, by speaking, was Creator of the universe. Therefore, inasmuch as all divinely uttered revelations are correctly designated by the term ‘Word of God,’ so this substantial Word is properly placed at the highest level, as the wellspring of all oracles. Unchangeable, the Word abides everlastingly one and the same with God, and is God himself.” Institutes of Christian Religion, I, xiii, 7.

In this excerpt, Calvin explicitly states that “Word” basically means Wisdom. What is even more interesting is that he draws this idea out of two very important passages of the wisdom literature – Proverbs 8 and Ecclesiasticus 24. At this point in the Institutes, the wisdom theology is primarily of interest to Calvin because it helps him understand John’s Christology. According to Calvin, understanding Christ as the Wisdom of God aids in understanding how the Father has a priority to the Son while simultaneously being co-eternal with the Son (since there was never a time when God was without wisdom).

However, the chief point that Calvin emphasizes in his exposition of the prologue of John is that the Word of God is the source of life and light. It is the Word – the divine Wisdom of Proverbs 8 – who was with God from the beginning, whom the Gospel of John proclaims to be incarnate in the flesh of Jesus. This Jesus, as the only begotten Son of the Father, is Savior of the world. He is the divine Wisdom who empowers, enlightens, and animates those who receive Him by faith. Christ is the divine Wisdom who imparts wisdom; because of His Word – the Word of grace and truth – believers are brought from darkness to light. From Calvin’s commentary on the prologue to the Gospel of John, we gather that Calvin understands in that crucial passage the main wisdom themes of the fourth Gospel.

A question that arises is how does this approach to the gospel of John affect one’s view of Christian spirituality and discipleship? Because wisdom theology is characterized by its emphasis on the Word as divine wisdom, this sapiential approach to piety places a high value on teaching and preaching in the life of devotion. The Judaism in which Jesus was brought up gave a tremendous amount of time to the study of the sacred text, the scholarly exposition of the Scriptures, and the hearing of sermons which applied this scholarly work to the life of the community. The “School of Wisdom” produced a scholarly bent to piety and practiced a very devout type of scholarship. The same was true of the early Christian church. Studying Scripture, memorizing it, meditating on it, and interpreting it were regarded as the most sacred of tasks and the most essential devotional disciplines. Therefore, the study of Scripture was understood as worship in its most profound sense. Calvin’s view of Christian faith and life is particularly clear in his commentary on the prologue to the Gospel of John when he says:

“For the knowledge of God is the door by which we enter into the enjoyment of all blessings. Since, therefore, God reveals Himself to us by Christ alone, it follows that we should seek all things from Christ. This doctrinal sequence should be carefully observed. Nothing seems more obvious than that we each take what God offers us according to the measure of our faith. But only a few realize that the vessel of faith and of the knowledge of God has to be brought to draw with.”

From this passage it should be clear how important the knowledge of the truth is to our salvation. This saving knowledge, received by faith, is very different than being saved by mere knowledge. For Calvin (consistent with the Wisdom School), the divine Wisdom is a rich and comprehensive wisdom. The divine Wisdom is filled with every blessing, with power and vitality, and with all the holiness and righteousness for which we hunger and thirst. According to wisdom theology, as we find it in the Gospel of John and as we find it in Calvin, the imparting of the divine Wisdom – in all its power, all its illumination, and all its vitality – is of the essence of God’s saving work in Christ.

This approach to religious devotion had a profound influence on Calvin and other 16th century Reformers. In many ways, it encapsulates the mode of religious devotion that characterizes the Reformed faith.

The Christ-Haunted Song (Nick Batzig)

The Scriptures declare that the Lord fills the heavens and the earth (Jer. 23:24); and, that He who made the vast expanses of the starry sky gives to all men “life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). Since “all that borrows life from Him are ever in His care,” all that we have and possess (including our ability to think and reason in the realm of metaphysical truth) is nothing other than “borrowed capital.” John Frame so helpfully sets out the implication of this truth when he writes, “The truth is known and acknowledged by the unbeliever. He has no right to believe or assert truth in terms of his own presuppositions, but only on Christian ones. So his assertions of truth are based on borrowed capital.” The truth is inescapable for the unbeliever, though he or she constantly seeks to suppress it in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). No matter how much men and women seek to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, however, the knowledge of God made known to all image bearers (Rom. 1:19) continually resurfaces in their consciences.

This principle is heightened in a culture in which biblical revelation has taken root. One can watch a nature show on television in which a naturalistic (i.e. anti-theistic) worldview undergirds the premises of the show; yet, the show’s host refers to the animals on the program as “creatures.” Another example is seen in the way in which revisionist attempts to do away with a calendar that centers on the Savior’s coming into the world (i.e. B.C. and A.D.) fall as soon as they rise. This has been evident in the art and literature of the Western world, which has been so greatly impacted by Christendom; and, it is true in a special way in places where there has been a high concentration of Christian churches and biblical preaching, such as in Flannery O’Connor’s Christ-Haunted South.

I have noticed this to be so to a high degree in much of the secular music that I have listened to throughout my life. For instance, John Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” encourages the unregenerate to try to imagine that there’s no heaven or hell. The irony, of course, is that imaging that such places do not exist is the best attempt men have at suppressing the truth of their reality.

In the months leading up to my conversion in 2001, two songs in particular left me deeply “Christ-haunted.” One was the song “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” by the Athens, GA band Widespread Panic. It was especially their refrain, “Not wanting to meet my Savior, no not this way,” that haunted me. The other song that haunted me at that time was “Faker” by the band Moe. The lyrics that plagued me the most while I was in dark rebellion were these: “I am a faker, pretending along; lost site of my Maker; I will die before I finish this song.” Coming from the Christian home in which I had grown up, these words cut to the core of my conscience.

As I now listen to music as a believer, I continue to have the greatest of appreciation for the beauty, creativity and giftedness of so many secular artists; yet, always with an awareness of the “Christ-haunted” nature of most of it. There are times that I wish I could sit down with the numerous musicians whose music I love so much (e.g. John Moreland, J. Tillman, etc.) and talk with them about the Christ they have rejected and the truths of Scripture that they are singing about in overt and suppressive ways in their songs. I often wonder if they are “Christ-haunted” as I was, when they continue to sing their “Christ-haunted” songs. 

 

Laboring to No Purpose (Mark Johnston )

I was speaking with some ministerial colleagues recently about a conference one had just attended. The conference had been great, but to his surprise, after one of the sessions, a friend next to him put his head in his hands and said, ‘I’m a failure!’ Having just listened to an inspiring account of how a church on the verge of closure had been remarkably revitalized, this dear brother could only see what hadn’t happened in his similar situation despite his faithful labors.

No doubt there are many in the Christian ministry, serving as missionaries, or who have been involved in Christian work for more years than they care to remember who can identify with these words. They have labored long and faithfully, but there seems to little visible fruit for their labors.

It may be tempting to try and analyze and resolve such tensions purely in terms of ministerial psychology. (Many Christian workers reach for such solutions in a desperate attempt to recover some sense of self worth or usefulness.) But such answers are little more than Band Aids that may provide some short-term comfort, but do little or nothing to explain the deeper issues or provide the wherewithal to press on in our ministerial or missionary vocation.

Strangely, the one source of genuine help in such circumstances is the one that is literally in our hands as we seek to minister to others, but all too often fail to use as we seek to minister to our own souls. It is, of course, God’s word in Scripture. Indeed, we too easily forget the axiom that before we can effectively minister that word to those around us, we must first minister it to ourselves.

Despite our failure to do that consistently, if at all, God has his own way of surprising us from his word: often from passages we have read repeatedly, but failed to appreciate in all their fullness. So when it comes to the sense of abject failure that grips so many pastors, the prophet Isaiah speaks words that are quite remarkable.

More accurately and even more surprisingly, it is not the prophet speaking, but the Servant of the Lord doing so through Isaiah’s message. It comes in the second of the four so-called ‘Servant Songs’ of Isaiah. Songs that are placed on the lips of the Suffering Servant who God had promised to send as the Savior King for his people. We hear him say, ‘I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing’ (Isa 49.4).

Students of Isaiah will be well aware of the debate surrounding the identity of this ‘Servant of the Lord’. It is undoubtedly a term that is shrouded in a degree of mystery. Some have seen the prophet himself as fitting its designation, given his unique calling and mission during these critical decades of Israel’s history. And if it were him who was intended as the primary focus of this epithet, then it would make perfect sense. In terms of depth of truth and eloquence in its delivery, he is widely acknowledged to be the greatest of the prophet-expositors of the Old Testament era. Yet despite his giftedness, the quantifiable response to his ministry was negligible. We could well imagine him at least thinking, if not saying in his darker moments, ‘I have labored to no purpose’.

Others have suggested that Israel as the nation designated as the People of God is in view as the Servant of the Lord. Again there is merit in such an interpretation. Elsewhere God does indeed describe Israel as his servant and her calling under God is to be a light to the Gentiles and to be the agent of his work in the world. And with this too, the complaint about fruitless labour would be perfectly legitimate. Israel the nation had spent more time serving itself and its own interests rather than serving God and the world to which he had sent them.

The problem with both these views is that, when taken in the context of the Servant Songs in their totality – especially the fourth (Isa 52.13-53.12) – neither Isaiah nor Israel could possibly fulfill all that they express. Only Christ can do that. He alone perfectly matches the descriptions of the Servant and only he – with chilling accuracy – would do what God required to make atonement for the sins of his people.

If that is the case, therefore, is it not all the more astonishing that it is from the lips of Christ that we hear, ‘I have labored to no purpose’? Yet, if we look again at the downward trajectory that he followed from the moment of his incarnation to his cry of dereliction on the cross, it makes perfect sense to see these words as accurately expressing his sentiments at different points along the way.

Not least in terms of the quantifiable ‘results’ of his 33 years of life and three years of public ministry on earth. Despite the brief expression of public favor with large crowds in the early stages of his ministry, its latter part was very different. The crowds that lauded him were replaced by growing numbers who opposed him. The religious establishment was against him. His own followers failed and ultimately deserted him. And his cry of forsakenness on the cross was the darkest moment of his soul.

It is doubtless very significant that, even by the time of his Ascension, Jesus did not leave a mega-church behind him on earth. Rather, it was through his weak and bumbling disciples that he began to build his church in the face of the hellish powers that sought to withstand it.

Jesus as the supreme Pastor of his people, fully empathizes with each and every pastor he calls into his service, every missionary, Christian worker, Sunday School teacher, youth and children’s leader – every Christian who seeks to serve where he or she has been placed. He is with us when we quietly think, ‘I have labored to no purpose’; but more than that, he reminds us there is more going on than we can see. Because in his very next breath, reminding himself of the Father’s promise, he says, ‘Yet what is due to me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God’ (Isa 49.4).

It was St. Paul, who himself must have questioned his effectiveness in ministry, who said, ‘Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourself to the work of the Lord, because you know your labour in the Lord is not in vain’ (1Co 15.58).

*This post originally appeared at Place for Truth.