Praying for Revival (Michael Haykin )

Prayer has invariably preceded revival. The revitalization of the Baptists in the eighteenth century was no exception. As Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) Fuller emphasized in his Causes of Declension in Religion, and Means of Revival (1785) that we began looking at last month:

“Finally, brethren, let us not forget to intermingle prayer with all we do. Our need of God’s Holy Spirit to enable us to do any thing, and every thing, truly good should excite us to this. Without his blessing all means are without efficacy and every effort for revival will be in vain. Constantly and earnestly, therefore, let us approach his throne. Take all occasions especially for closet prayer; here, if anywhere, we shall get fresh strength and maintain a life of communion with God. Our Lord Jesus used frequently to retire into a mountain alone for prayer, he, therefore, that is a follower of Christ, must follow him in this important duty.”1

Now, the year before Fuller wrote these words there had actually begun regular meetings for prayer, which met with one specific object, to pray for revival and revitalization.

The Prayer Call of 1784

The origin of these prayer meetings can be traced back to the year 1784 and to the town of Nottingham in the heart of England, where in June of that year, the pastors of the Baptist churches belonging to the Northamptonshire Association were meeting. Earlier that year a treatise on corporate prayer for revival by the New England divine Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)–An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, Pursuant to Scripture-Promises and Prophecies Concerning the Last Time (henceforth referred to as the Humble Attempt)–had come into the hands of John Sutcliff (1752-1814), the Baptist pastor of Olney, Buckinghamshire, who was also a close friend of Andrew Fuller. Not widely heeded during the lifetime of its author, the Humble Attempt‘s greatest impact would come after Edwards’ death. Deeply impressed and moved by this treatise, Sutcliff proposed to his fellow pastors that a monthly prayer meeting be established to pray for the outpouring of God’s Spirit not only upon the Baptist churches of England, but also upon all those churches that loved the Lord Jesus. This proposal ran as follows:

“Upon a motion being made to the ministers and messengers of the associate Baptist churches assembled at Nottingham, respecting meetings for prayer, to bewail the low estate of religion, and earnestly implore a revival of our churches, and of the general cause of our Redeemer, and for that end to wrestle with God for the effusion of his Holy Spirit, which alone can produce the blessed effect, it was unanimously RESOLVED, to recommend to all our churches and congregations, the spending of one hour in this important exercise, on the first Monday in every calendar month.

…The grand object of prayer is to be that the Holy Spirit may be poured down on our ministers and churches, that sinners may be converted, the saints edified, the interest of religion revived, and the name of God glorified. At the same time, remember, we trust you will not confine your requests to your own societies [i.e. churches]; or to your own immediate connection [i.e. denomination]; let the whole interest of the Redeemer be affectionately remembered, and the spread of the gospel to the most distant parts of the habitable globe be the object of your most fervent requests. We shall rejoice if any other Christian societies of our own or other denominations will unite with us, and do now invite them most cordially to join heart and hand in the attempt.

Who can tell what the consequences of such an united effort in prayer may be! Let us plead with God the many gracious promises of His Word, which relate to the future success of His gospel. He has said, “I will yet for this be enquired of by the House of Israel to do it for them, I will increase them with men like a flock.” Ezek. xxxvi.37. Surely we have love enough for Zion to set apart one hour at a time, twelve times in a year, to seek her welfare.”2

The focus of this momentous call to prayer was the “revival of our churches, and of the general cause of our Redeemer.” How was this to be achieved? By “the effusion of [God’s] Holy Spirit, which alone can produce [this] blessed effect.” There is, in these words, a distinct recognition that the revival of the denomination lay ultimately in the hands of God the Holy Spirit, and all of their labours without his blessing would come to nought. Yet, those who issued this statement were not Hyper-Calvinists who expected results without the use of means. And thus they encouraged their congregations to gather for prayer once a month for one hour on the first Monday of the month.

The heart of the “Prayer Call” is to be found in the second and third paragraphs above. There the conviction that reversing the downward trend of Calvinistic Baptists could not be accomplished by mere human zeal is mentioned again. It must be effected by an outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit: “the grand object of prayer is to be that the Holy Spirit may be poured down on our ministers and churches, that sinners may be converted, the interest of religion revived, and the name of God glorified.” Without the Spirit all of the church’s best efforts to bring men and women to Christ will fail, all of her noblest attempts to edify God’s people and bring glory to God’s name fall short of success. The Spirit is the true agent of renewal and revival. Thus, there was a desperate need for prayer.

Then, there is the “inclusive” nature of the praying. As the Calvinistic Baptists of this Association came together for prayer, they were urged not to pray solely for their own churches or even for their own denomination, but to embrace in prayer other Baptist churches throughout the length and breadth of England, and even churches of other denominational bodies. Third, there is a definite missionary focus: the readers of this call to prayer are encouraged to pray that there would be a spread of the gospel “to the most distant parts of the habitable globe.” It is important to note that it was out of this group of praying Baptists that William Carey (1761-1834) came, the so-called father of the modern missionary movement. All great missionary ventures are born in the cradle of prayer.

Fourth, there is the Scriptural foundation for the call to pray for revival. Only one text is cited–Ezekiel 36:37–but those who drew up this document were well aware that there are other biblical texts that could be cited. One of Sutcliff’s friends, Thomas Blundel, has this to say with regard to this verse from Ezekiel: “It is chiefly in answer to prayer that God has carried on his cause in the world: he could work without such means; but he does not, neither will he. … He loves that his people should feel interested in his cause, and labour to promote it, though he himself worketh all in all.”3

To be continued.

1. Andrew Fuller, Causes of Declension in Religion, and Means of Revival in The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, ed. Joseph Belcher (Repr. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), III, 324.

2. [John Sutcliff,] “The Prayer Call of 1784” in John Ryland, Jr., The Nature, Evidences, and Advantages, of Humility (Circular Letter of the Northamptonshire Association, 1784), 12. For a detailed discussion of this call to prayer and its historical context, see Michael A.G. Haykin, One heart and one soul: John Sutcliff of Olney, his friends and his times (Darlington, Co. Durham: Evangelical Press, 1994), 153-171.

3. Thomas Blundel, The River of Life Impeded in his Sermons on Various Subjects (London, 1806), 183, 184.

*This is the fourth post in Dr. Haykin’s series, “Revitalizing an Eighteenth-Century Christian Community.” You can find the previous posts here, here and here

Of Mary’s Virginity and Humility (Phil Ryken)

A seasonal quotation from Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent and Christmas:

“Who is this Virgin so reverently saluted by the angel? and so lowly as to be espoused to a carpenter? Beautiful commingling of virginity with humility! That soul is in no small degree pleasing to God, in whom humility commends virginity, and virginity adorns humility. But how much more worthy of veneration is she, in whom fecundity exalts humility, and child-bearing consecrates virginity.”

“Virginity is a commendable virtue, but humility an indispensable one. The first is of counsel, the latter of precept. Of the one it is said, “He that can take, let him take it.” Of the other, “Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” To the one reward is offered: the other is exacted under a threat. Again, we can be saved without virginity, not without humility. A soul that has to deplore the loss of virginity may still be acceptable to God by humility: without humility, I will venture to say that even the virginity of Mary would not have been pleasing to Him, the Divine Majesty. Upon whom shall my spirit rest, if not on him that is humble and peaceable He says not on the virgin, but on the humble. If, therefore, Mary had not been humble the Spirit would not have rested on her. If the Holy Spirit had not rested on her, she would never have become fruitful; for how without Him could she have conceived of Him? Therefore, as she herself testifies, in order that she might conceive of the Holy Ghost, God the Father “regarded the humility of his handmaid,” rather than her virginity. And if by her virginity she was acceptable to Him, nevertheless, it was by her humility that she conceived Him. Hence it is evident that it was her humility that rendered even her virginity pleasing to God.”1

1. Bernard of Clairvaux (London: R. & T. Washbourne, LTE, 1909) p. 28.

*This post originally appeared at Reformation21 on December 21, 2007. 

Glory of the Newborn King (Caleb Cangelosi)

Of all the hymns written about the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the words of Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” are among the most theologically dense and substantive–because all five stanzas are filled with Scriptural truths about Jesus. Before considering the Christology of this beautiful carol, though, it will help us to recall a little of the fascinating and ironic history behind it. 

Charles Wesley first penned the words of this poem in 1739, a year after his conversion. He originally wrote ten shorter stanzas, without a refrain, and his first two lines were “Hark! How all the welkin rings // Glory to the King of Kings.” Nearly all of us today would ask, “What on earth is a welkin?” A welkin is actually not “on earth” at all. Rather, it is the archaic English word referring to the sky or the celestial sphere where the angels dwell with God. 

Fifteen years after Wesley first wrote his poem, his friend, George Whitefield, changed the first two lines to the wording that we sing today. Wesley was not pleased – according to some sources, because he didn’t think the Bible taught that the angels sang, and perhaps also because in Luke 2:14 the angels give glory to God the Father, not God the Son.

Controversy has surrounded not only the words of this hymn, but the music as well. Wesley had intended his song to be sung in a slow, solemn manner, using a tune like the one for his “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” That would prove not be so. In 1840, 100 years after the words were written, the great composer, Felix Mendelssohn, wrote a piece of music to celebrate the 400thanniversary of Gutenberg’s press. Mendelssohn did not believe that this piece of music was suitable for sacred words. However, the English composer, William Cummings, took Mendelssohn’s music and combined it with Wesley’s words (altered throughout the 18thcentury), and the rest is history. 

We now sing a Christmas hymn whose original author didn’t like a number of the words, and whose original composer didn’t think the music should accompany biblical themes! It is, however, one of the greatest songs in our hymnals. In each stanza, Wesley points us a different aspect of Jesus’ person, telling us about the glory of this newborn babe. It will help us to consider each stanza. 

  1. He is the reconciling King.

Hark! The herald angels sing,

“Glory to the newborn King;

Peace on earth, and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled!”

Joyful, all ye nations rise,

Join the triumph of the skies;

With th’angelic host proclaim,

“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Wesley, with Whitefield’s edits, began by calling all the nations to rise and worship triumphantly at the birth of the King of the Jews and the King of the nations. The second through fourth lines are Wesley’s paraphrase of the angelic words in Luke 2:14. The peace of which the angels speak is peace with God for those He has chosen according to His good pleasure. Jesus isn’t merely a King, He is a reconciling King; the Man, Christ Jesus, is the only Mediator between God and man. Our sins separated us from God (Isaiah 59:2), yet in Christ, God has reconciled the world to Himself, removing the ground of His alienation from us His people, counting our sins against Jesus rather than against us, and punishing His Son in our place (II Cor. 5:18-21). The angels proclaim peace to the shepherds because Jesus was born to die for the sins of His pepl. He became a man so that He might obey and suffer in our nature. This is cause for joy indeed!

  1. He is Emmanuel, God with Us

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;

Christ the everlasting Lord;

Late in time, behold Him come,

Offspring of a virgin’s womb.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;

Hail th’incarnate Deity,

Pleased as man with men to dwell,

Jesus our Emmanuel.

Jesus is not merely human, but the everlasting Lord of glory. He has come to this world, miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin. Twenty-three of his chromosomes came from Mary, and twenty-three came by the sovereign working of God’s power – not from a man. The baby in the manger is truly God, which is why His name is Jesus (Matthew 1:21). Jesus is Yahweh, pleased as man with men to dwell. As Wesley expresses it in another hymn, “Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensibly made man.” Matthew tells us that the virginal conception and naming of Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” The glory of the manger isn’t just that the babe is God, but that He is God with us. All that the tabernacle and temple foreshadowed is fulfilled in the Word become flesh (John 1:14; Colossians 2:9). God becomes man without ceasing to be God, so that He might dwell among us without destroying us with His glory. He desired to be with us, to sympathize with our weaknesses, temptations, and griefs as a man to share our humanity, our infirmities (without sin), our sadness, even our death. Thus with the angels we adore Him!

  1. He is the Sun of Righteousness

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!

Hail the Sun of Righteousness!

Light and life to all He brings,

Ris’n with healing in His wings.

Mild He lays His glory by,

Born that man no more may die;

Born to raise the sons of earth,

Born to give them second birth.

The one who spent nine months in the darkness of Mary’s womb breaks forth as the Sun of Righteousness of Malachi 4:2. Jesus has come as the Light of the world, shining upon those who walk in darkness (Isaiah 9:1-2). Wesley, a year removed from the dawning of the gospel light in his own heart, declares that the light that breaks through in conversion first broke through when Jesus, covered in afterbirth, made his first cry in Bethlehem. Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7), so that we might be raised up with Him in newness of life, and be born again to a living hope. He who was rich became poor for our sake, so that we through His poverty might be made rich in life, joy, hope, peace, and glory.

  1. He is the Snake-Slaying Seed

Come, Desire of nations, come,

Fix in us Thy humble home;

Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,

Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

Now display Thy saving pow’r,

Ruined nature now restore;

Now in mystic union join

Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

The fourth stanza gives us a clear reference to Genesis 3:15, the first promise of the gospel, ironically addressed to Satan after the fall of man into sin. Jesus is the ultimate seed of the woman, who came to conquer Satan, to crush his head, even as the great deceiver bruises Jesus’ heel. Rather than having in view the cross/resurrection, the place where Jesus conquered Satan (Hebrews 2:14-15), Wesley individualizes the language of Genesis 3 – “bruise in us the serpent’s head.” 

This stanza reflects the teaching of I John 3:8, which speaks to the purpose of the incarnation by declaring, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” The context of that passage is the sin within the life of a Christian (3:8 parallels 3:5, “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins”). 

This stanza is a prayer for Jesus to come and take residence within us, to powerfully fix up His place in us, as it were, to make our heart His home. It asks Jesus to save us not only from the guilt of sin, but from the power and practice of sin – “ruined nature now restore.” Ruined in Adam, we need restoration. And so Wesley cries for Jesus to unite sinners to Himself in mystic union through faith, to dwell in our hearts through faith, so that we might be conformed to His image rather than the image of Satan. 

  1. He is the Second Adam

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,

Stamp Thine image in its place:

Second Adam from above,

Reinstate us in Thy love.

Let us Thee, though lost, regain,

Thee, the Life, the inner man:

Oh, to all Thyself impart,

Formed in each believing heart.

Wesley finally turned to Paul’s language from Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15–not to focus on the federal/representative headship of Adam and Jesus (i.e. every single person dying in Adam, and those in Christ being made alive) but on the moral and spiritual kinship we share with our covenant heads. Wesley asked the Lord to efface (i.e. erase and expunge the corruption, rebellion, pride and unbelief) Adam’s likeness within us, and to stamp His own image in its place (Romans 8:29). In Jesus, we regain what was lost in the fall: a relationship with God, and an inner likeness to God in knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:9ff). In conversion we have put off the old man, Adam, and have put on the new man, Jesus, the Second Adam. He is being formed in those who believe (Galatians 4:19), for we are in Him and He is in us by the power of His Holy Spirit. As we behold His glory, we are transformed into His image (II Corinthians 3:18).

And that is ultimately the point of Wesley’s hymn: to show us the glory of the newborn King – a reconciling King; Emmanuel, God with us; the Sun of Righteousness; the Snake-Slaying Seed; and the Second Adam – so that we might believe in Him with all our hearts. May the Lord give us grace to know and love the one of whom we sing.

A Word from and Alliance Board Member (Robert Brady)

Thomas Martin, member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals board of directors, reflects on the legacy of R.C. Sproul and his relationship with the Alliance:


When James Boice died of liver cancer in June of 2000, his close friend R. C. Sproul was asked to speak at the memorial service. As Sproul rose to the pulpit, he reminded the crowd (as he often did) of a historic parallel. Philip Melanchthon, at Martin Luther’s funeral in 1546, compared the death of Luther to the heavenly ascension of Elijah (the prophet whose very name meant “Yahweh is God!”). Melanchthon quoted  Elisha’s lament at the loss of his dear friend and mentor: 

“And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

“And Elisha saw it, and he cried, ‘My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.’ And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.

“He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;

“And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, ‘Where is the Lord God of Elijah?’ and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over” (2 Kings 2:11-14). 

It took a few hours for the death of R.C. Sproul to sink into my soul. R.C. was a giant, and a true Christian. Imperfect, to be sure, yet a man with a genuine heart and love for Jesus. He exemplified the work of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. In a real sense, I had the feeling that the Alliance came about because Jim Boice wanted others to know R.C. Sproul as he did: a man catholic in spirit, but unbending in the truth of the holy Scriptures.

Now both are gone. Others must carry on, and we shrink from the reality that we no longer have R.C. to share in the work of the Kingdom of God. We want to cry out “My father! My father!” Yet we see him no more. 

We must recall that even in his sorrow, Elisha “took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him.” The power of God is not diminished by the loss of God’s saints. As John Wesley wrote: “God buries His workers and carries on His work.” May the God of Elijah, the God of Jim Boice, and the God of R.C. Sproul carry on His work until Jesus comes again.

-Thomas Martin 


The Alliance is offering free R.C. Sproul MP3 downloads from Alliance conferences spanning over 30 year. Head to ReformedResources.org/R-C-Sproul for your free download. 

The Origins of a Great Christmas Hymn (Greg Wilbur)

One of my favorite hymns of the Advent and Christmas season is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel because of its rich use of biblical imagery to recount the prophetic references to the coming Christ. The Latin text for this hymn is found in a 1710 German publication but its roots go back to the early days of the Church. The familiar tune for the hymn, Veni Emmanuel, is a 15th century French melody that was paired with these texts in the 1851 publication of Hymnal Noted.

The text has its origins in the “O Antiphons”–a series of refrains sung on each day from December 17-23 during the evening Vespers service. Each one focuses on a different name of Christ in anticipation of the Incarnation. They occur as follows:

December 17–O Wisdom (O Sapientia)

December 18–O Lord (O Adonia)

December 19–O Root of Jesse (O Radix Jesse)

December 20–O Key of David (O Calvis David)

December 21–O Dayspring (O Oriens)

December 22–O King of the Nations (O Rex Gentium)

December 23–O With Us is God (O Emmanuel)

Boethius, who lived between 480-524, referenced these lyrics thus attesting to their use in the early 6th century. The beauty of these texts is their systematic combining of a descriptive name for Christ while referencing a prophetic passage from Isaiah that points towards the coming Messiah.

Following are the texts of the original antiphons as the influence for the later hymn text along with some of the Scriptural references:

December 17

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Isaiah 11:2 says, “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” As Wisdom that comes from the mouth of God, Christ as the incarnate Word is also referenced (John 1).

December 18

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Isaiah 11:4-5 says,

“But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.”

December 19

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

In Isaiah 11, verses 1 and 10, we read,

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit…”

“…In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples–of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”

December 20

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Isaiah 22:22 says,

“And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”

December 21

O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Isaiah 9:2 says,

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.

December 22

O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.

Isaiah 9: 6 reads,

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

December 23

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Isaiah 7:14 says,

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

With these texts as a guide, poets began to paraphrase these words as hymn lyrics. One of the earliest known versions is the 8th century poem by the English poet Cynewulf. Other versions occurred in the following centuries, but the one that is most familiar is the text published in Germany on 1710. This version changes the order by placing the “O Emmanuel” verse first and adding the refrain, “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel will be born for you, O Israel.” The republishing of the text in another German hymnal in 1844 brought these words to the attention of John Mason Neale, the great translator of hymns who wrote the familiar English text most commonly in use today.

In 1851, Thomas Helmore paired Neale’s text with a 15th century French tune and published them together in his Hymnal Noted. In 1861, Hymns Ancient and Modern, the highly influential and popular English hymnal, republished this pairing of text and tune and ensured the enduring use and popularity of this hymn. While several other melodies are used in various parts of the world, they tend to be German tunes that set different translations of the text.

The beauty of this hymn is the careful, systematic, and concise presentation of the prophetic witness to the coming of Christ and the expectation of what He will bring. As the Word Incarnate, He will fulfill the Law of God, bring justice and righteousness, deliver the people, reign as King, bring light to the darkness, save His people whom He created, and be Emmanuel, our God with us. This is the promise of the first and second coming of Christ, and for this we hope, wait, prepare, and pray.

Hymns Ancient and Modern,1861,

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free

Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;

From depths of hell Thy people save,

And give them victory o’er the grave.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,

And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come

And open wide our heav’nly home;

Make safe the way that leads on high,

And close the path to misery.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Adonai, Lord of might,

Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,

In ancient times didst give the law

In cloud and majesty and awe.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Addition of the other two O Antiphons by H.S. Coffin (1916)

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,

And order all things, far and nigh;

To us the path of knowledge show,

And cause us in her ways to go.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind

All peoples in one heart and mind;

Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;

Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Greg Wilbur is the Chief Musician and Liturgist at Cornerstone PCA in Franklin, TN. He is also the Dean of the Chapel, Senior Fellow at New College Franklin, a Christian classical college in Franklin. Greg has written numerous articles about worship, the arts, and education. You can find our more about his work at wilburmusic.com.

Lion in our Midst: A Eulogy for R. C. Sproul (Robert Brady)

Our prayers today are with the family of R.C. Sproul, who has been called home to glory. Read his eulogy below, written by Rick Phillips…

We grieve today at the news of R. C. Sproul’s departure from this life, while so blessed at the knowledge that he basks in the glory of the Savior he served and loved.  

In mourning our loss of this great preacher and church leader, my mind searches back to the early 1990’s, when what is now called the Reformed Resurgence was only an envisioned hope.  I was converted to faith in Christ in 1990 under the preaching of R.C.’s close friend, James Montgomery Boice.  This meant that I soon was exposed to the live phenomenon of R. C. Sproul in the pulpit in the prime of his vigor.  I had never and never will see again such a combination of passion, intellect, and theological courage.  Those of us who were swept up into the Reformed faith during those years were blessed with a band of true pulpit heroes: Boice, Eric Alexander, J. I. Packer, John Gerstner, and others.  But even in that band of astounding men of vision and gospel power, R. C. Sproul stood out.  He was a lion in our midst, and when he roared we lifted up our hearts to God in faith.  For so many of us in the generation that followed these prophets, experiencing R. C. first hand at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and then the Ligonier Conference, inserting the much-anticipated tape-of-the-month cassette into our car stereos, and hearing the life-changing audio recording of R.C.’s The Holiness of God impacted us so deeply that we raced forward to lay our own swords at the feet of Christ.  God dramatically changed our lives through the voice of R. C. Sproul and we have loved him for it.

I have been one of many who are privileged to have known R. C. personally, though I would not claim to be an intimate.  A few remembrances might illuminate the personal charm that accompanied the pulpit brilliance.  In late 1997, council members of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals gathered at a hotel in Orlando to draft a response to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement (ECT II).  I was present as aide-de-camp to Dr. Boice, being still in seminary and new to the organization.  Our first night, Boice thought it appropriate to introduce me and so he started in on a lengthy bio of Rick Phillips.  About 10 seconds into it, R. C. interrupted and said, “Jim, is this your guy?”  Boice testily replied, “If you don’t mind, R. C., I’d like to continue.”  Twenty seconds later, R. C. interjected, “Jim, we don’t really care about any of this.  Is Rick your guy?”  Boice again brushed aside R. C.’s interruption and continued.  Finally, R. C. exclaimed, “Jim, we really don’t want to listen to this.  All we want to know is if this is your guy.”  Boice replied, “Yes, R. C., he is my guy.”  At this, R. C. gave me that impish grin of his and said, “Hi, Ricky.  If you’re Jim Boice’s guy then we’re pals!”  And so we were, much to my blessing.

For that meeting, Boice and Sproul each brought proposed replies to ECT II and all we did was put them together into a unified document (“An Appeal to Fellow Evangelicals”).  Then we held a conference call with the evangelical leaders who had participated in and were promoting the joint accord with Rome.  To describe this conversation as alarming and distressing is an understatement, and we went to bed dejected that evangelical scholars could, in our view, so terribly compromise the gospel.  The next morning we slumped together in the hotel breakfast area.  But R. C. perked up and said, “Boys, we have found a hill to die on!  We sing Luther’s hymn, ‘let goods and kindred go,’ and now’s the time to do it!”  For a young minister in training, it was an electrifying experience.  R. C.’s stalwart leadership in defense of justification through faith alone was one of his great accomplishments, and his clarity of insight and courage of spirit were essential in rallying the gospel cause.  Only a few short years after that experience, I had the task of giving R. C. daily reports on the rapid decline of Jim Boice’s health, and we wept together on the phone after I had told him of his best friend’s passage into glory.

These experiences come to mind as I thank the Lord for the life and witness of R. C. Sproul.  I might add numerous personal acts of kindness that he and Vesta performed for my wife and me, together with his warmth of heart and humor that made his great ministry so wonderfully human.  Because he took hard stands for gospel truth, there have been those who disliked R. C., just as Spurgeon had enemies and critics.  But he was a lion in our midst and the call of his voice will resound in our hearts until we are rejoined to this captain and leader in the glories about which we have so joyfully sung here below.  

But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way.
Allelujah!  Allelujah!

— Richard Phillips.

Sola Scriptura and the Onus Operandi (Aaron Denlinger)

Last month, I participated in a Protestant & Roman Catholic dialogue about the Reformation at a nearby Christian university. The experience has left me reflecting on the fundamental issues that continue to divide Protestants and Roman Catholics, one of which is the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis tradition and living ecclesiastical authorities (the magisterium). As Protestants we maintain that Scripture alone constitutes God’s inspired, infallible Word, and, without denying the legitimacy of subordinate authorities (creeds, confessions, church councils, general assemblies, etc.), we nevertheless deny the status of such subordinate authorities and their proclamations as divine (and therefore infallible) Word.

A fairly common rejoinder to a Protestant articulation of sola Scriptura is: “where does Scripture teach that?” Roman Catholic apologists love to ask Protestants to demonstrate sola Scriptura from Scripture, and — if and when they struggle to do so — suggest that Protestants either cannot prove this basic article of their faith from their own acknowledged infallible and authoritative text (at which point the article crumbles), or that they must appeal to some extra-Scriptural authority to defend the claim of Scripture’s sole authority, thereby rendering the principle of Scripture’s exclusive authority self-defeating de facto. The demand to prove sola Scriptura from Scripture, in other words, is intended to leave Protestants tongue-tied and thereby receptive to arguments for infallible authorities above and beyond the biblical text.

As an apologetic strategy, asking Protestants to prove sola Scriptura from Scripture may be effective. But it’s nevertheless devious, because it violates one of the most basic principles of logic, which is that positive affirmations, not denials, require proof.

If, I would argue, Protestants are too effectively maintain their position on sola Scriptura moving forward, they might do well to buttress it with familiarity and efficiency with another Latin phrase, onus probandi, and what that Latin phrase entails in the realm of epistemology.

Onus probandi means “burden of proof,” and in philosophy it communicates the idea referenced above; namely, that entities making positive claims are required to bring forth arguments and data in support of their claim. Those denying such claims aren’t required to do anything until some positive proof lies on the table. So, for instance, if I claim that the Lochness Monster actually exists (which, I think we can all agree, she does), the onus operandi rests on me to demonstrate such. If I respond to your denial of Nessie with “prove that she doesn’t exist!”, I’ve not won the argument or validated my claim, even if I left you perplexed about how to continue the conversation. Likewise, if I claim that Chinese fortune cookies are a medium of divine communication, the burden of proof rests on me to make my case. Merely insisting that you prove otherwise and then sitting back with a smile on my face as you fail to demonstrate the un-divine provenance of fortune cookies is bad form to say the least.

But this is essentially what Roman Catholic apologists do when they insist that Protestants prove sola Scriptura from Scripture. After all, Protestants and Roman Catholics agree that Scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, etc.” (1 Tim. 3:16). They agree that Apostolic written testimony regarding Christ’s person and work is “the Word of God,” not “the word of men” (1 Thess. 2:13). Protestantism’s claims regarding the existence of a divine Word from God stop there (and so remain far more modest than Rome’s claims). To put the matter another way, Protestants can sound a hearty “amen!” to the Council of Trent’s claim that the “written books” of Scripture constitute a fountain of “saving truth and moral discipline” (Fourth Session). It’s Trent’s further claim that “tradition” equally constitutes a fountain of saving truth and moral discipline that gives Protestants pause, not to mention the claims eventually made by Rome (at the First Vatican Council) for the infallibility of the magisterium when it adjudicates theological issues.

Rome essentially claims the same status for tradition and magisterium as it does for Scripture. It claims, that is, that tradition and magisterium belong to the category of “Word of God” rather than “word of men.” Whether true or false, the onus probandi rests entirely on Rome to validate such claims. In my experience, proofs proffered in defense of Rome’s claims regarding tradition and magisterium fall rather short. More often than not, defenders of Rome’s claims simply seek to shirk the onus probandi for their position, and/or illegitimately transfer it to Rome’s detractors.

In sum, sola Scriptura, Protestants would do well to remember, is only a positive claim insofar as it posits the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. The onus operandi for that positive claim does indeed rest on us. It falls to us, in other words, to defend our positive claims about Scripture. But in dialogues with our Roman Catholic friends, a defense of Scripture’s status as “breathed out by God” should be rather easy since that claim constitutes common ground. In all other regards, sola Scriptura constitutes the rejection of claims advanced by others — claims for the inspired and infallible status of some extra-Scriptural word (whether of the Mormon, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, or vanilla evangelical variety). The onus operandi for those claims rests on others. Until convincing proof for the inspired and infallible status of the Book of Mormon, tradition, the magisterium, fortune cookies, or any other proposed medium of divine communication forth comes, we can and must stand our ground, so help us God.

Reformation 500, Social Justice and the Gospel (Jon D. Payne)

This year has been a veritable Reformation-fest– a marvelous celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (1517-2017). Protestants from all over the world have been recounting the amazing events, courageous figures, and key doctrines of the sixteenth- century movement that changed the course of history.

How can anyone tire of hearing stories about the intrepid Augustinian monk from Wittenberg, the one who bravely stood up to the formidable powers of the Roman Empire for the sake of the Gospel? Who wearies learning of John Calvin’s compassionate ministry to suffering missionary- pastors in France or John Knox’s courageous gospel preaching in Scotland? What about Reformation doctrine? Do the five solas ever grow dull? No way! They point us to the covenant faithfulness of God and the unsearchable riches of our Savior. Reformation 500 has been an encouragement and inspiration.

Like many, I’ve attended several Reformation 500 events over the last twelve months. The preaching at most of these gatherings has been soul-stirring. Again and again I’ve been moved by the captivating stories of magisterial Reformers risking everything for the sake of the gospel. I’ve been reminded of the daring recovery of essential Christian doctrine. I’ve also been encouraged to hold fast to the ordinary means of grace– the divinely ordained means of Word, sacraments, and prayer. These unadorned and seemingly foolish means direct us away from a trust in our own person and work to a trust in the all-sufficient person and work of Christ.

There was one Reformation 500 message that I heard, however, that was different from the others. It was troubling both as to its content and tone; and, it did not–in any way whatsoever–communicate the good news of the Gospel. The sermon clearly demonstrated the need for further reflection upon the history and doctrine of the Reformation in our churches.

The following is a tale of two sermons– a straightforward account of two very different Reformation 500 messages that I heard in the month of October. The sermons were preached by two different preachers with two very different emphases. By comparing the two sermons, I hope to demonstrate that the best way forward for Reformed denominations in general, and the Presbyterian Church in America in particular, is for ministers to commit to the bold and unmistakable preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ from the whole counsel of God.

The first Reformation 500 sermon that I heard was an exegetically sound and deeply compelling exposition of Scripture. The sermon was on the theme: Solus Christus [Christ Alone]. As the preacher skillfully explained the glory and majesty of Christ, I found myself captivated by the eminence and loveliness of the Savior.

The preacher masterfully set forth the supremacy of Christ. He then wondered aloud how we could ever have a relationship with such an exalted and glorious King. After all, Jesus is so magnificent, so powerful, and so holy; and we are so lowly, so weak, and so sinful. Before answering, the preacher described how the medieval Roman Catholic Church set up buffers between sinners and Christ (e.g. Mary, saints, priests) to relieve the fear of approaching Christ on our own. It was (and is) an erroneous system of co-mediators attempting to shield sinners from a transcendent, unapproachable, and wrathful Christ.

After reflecting upon this pertinent Reformation history, the preacher led us to the mountain peaks of grace as he expounded upon the High Priestly office of Christ. He explained how Christ is the one who offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins on Calvary, the one who possesses bottomless wells of grace for rebel sinners, and the one who invites us by grace through faith into a saving relationship with God. Jesus Christ is the only mediator we need, and he is full of love and compassion for sinners.

Towards the end of the sermon–as the grace, truth, and beauty of Christ were on full display–it felt as though time had stopped. I was meeting Christ in his preached word. He had laid hold of me. I found myself ashamed of my sin and profoundly grateful for my Savior. It’s what happens when Christ is faithfully preached.

Getting a view of Christ in the preaching that day motivated me to be a more faithful disciple as it relates to my marriage, family, calling, and outreach to the lost. Encountering Jesus in the sermon confronted my selfishness, pride, and worldly patterns of thinking. I was powerfully reminded that my true identify is in Jesus, and not in my worldly accomplishments, moral strivings, or in the way others perceive me. The sermon was a clarion call to faith in Christ.

The second Reformation sermon that I heard was very different from the first one. Regrettably, neither the gospel nor those who risked their lives to recover it were given attention. No, rather than proclaim the riches of Christ, the preacher delivered a impassioned address on racial injustice in Southern history and modern culture. Instead of focusing on the doctrines, events, and courageous men and woman of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, he presented a discourse on the evils of gentrification, income and wealth disparity, and the systemic injustice of white majority cultures. This individual explained and applied the text he was supposed to be preaching through the lenses of a form of critical race theory. It was an exercise in cultural and sociological analysis, and entirely missed the point of the passage from which he was supposed to be preaching. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the sermon was that in lieu of the gospel, a new law was placed upon the backs of the hearers– a new and convoluted law requiring social justice and cultural change.

Now, by no means do I want to dismiss the significant problems and serious pain caused by wicked injustices that exist in our (and every) nation’s history and culture. Social injustice is as real as it is complex. We should expose and condemn it when we can, in whatever form it might take (e.g. abortion, sex trade, racism, slavery, sexual harassment, etc). Nor do I think it inappropriate for ministers to preach against the sins of our culture, and to bring biblical application on these matters–especially when a text plainly speaks to them. 

By contrasting these two sermons, I am not downplaying the wickedness of social injustice or the need to speak against it. Rather, I’m simply pleading with pastors and churches in the PCA and elsewhere to follow the lead of Christ, the Apostles, and the Reformers to make it a blood-earnest priority to keep the gospel central in our preaching and discipleship. We must not exchange the proclamation of the gospel for moralistic speeches on social justice or any other issue. The church’s mission is to make disciples through the faithful proclamation of Christ from the whole counsel of God. Those disciples, actively abiding in Christ, are called to love their neighbors and bear the fruit of the gospel. The gospel is our only real hope for change. Therefore, Christ’s saving action, not our social action, must be at the core of the mission and message of the church.

The gospel must never be assumed in our churches. We must boldly and clearly proclaim the gospel from our pulpits, fonts, and tables on the Lord’s Day. It must be central in our discipleship ministries. Preaching and teaching the gospel is what the church is called to do. If we do not preach Christ, who will? If we lose sight of the gospel, we will walk down the same road as many mainline denominations who at one point started believing the lie that social activism outweighs the preaching of Christ in both relevance and importance. Vague affirmations of the gospel sprinkled into a spirited message on social justice will not only obscure the person and work of Christ, it will inevitably confuse the mission of the church.

Public and ecclesiastical dialogue on social justice and race have grown tremendously over the past year. It has rapidly increased in my own denomination, the PCA. Some of the discussion has been helpful. But much of it tends to exude more heat than light, and more sociology than sound theology. The purpose of this article, then, is not to expound upon the best way to preach against cultural sins or to explain how the church should be involved in social justice causes. It’s to make one simple point: If our churches and denominations are to remain healthy, we cannot marginalize, negotiate, or redefine the gospel.

This year’s Reformation 500-fest has served the church well. It has forced Reformed Christians everywhere to remember our rich Protestant and Reformed heritage, and to reflect upon the nature and centrality of the gospel– the true gospel announcing redemption for wretched sinners through the penal substitutionary death and hell-conquering resurrection of the Son of God. It is that magnificent gospel which must remain paramount in our preaching, worship, discipleship, and mission.

The future health of the church depends on it.

Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne is senior minister of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina.

A Better Jerusalem (Nick Batzig)

On October 27, 1994, President Bill Clinton, while addressing the Knesset (i.e. the legislative assembly in Israel) cited one of his former pastors when he said, “If you abandon Israel, God will never forgive you…it is God’s will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue forever and ever.” This widely held sentiment has had a substantial impact on American politics and foreign policy over the past 70 years. Two days ago, President Trump made the controversial decision to declare Jerusalem to be the capitol of the state of Israel. This has reopened numerous questions about the place of the state of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem, in the consummate purposes and plan of God.

When Jesus began his Messianic ministry, he did so by calling 12 Apostles. The calling of the Twelve mirrored the formation of the 12 Tribes of Israel. In short, Jesus came to reconstitute Israel in Himself. He is the true son of Abraham in whom all the promises of God are “yes” and “Amen” (2 Cor. 1.20). In The Israel of God, O. Palmer Robertson emphasized the significance of the choosing and ministry of the 12 apostles when he wrote:

“The beginning of Jesus’ ministry indicates the ongoing role of Israel in the kingdom of the Messiah. The designation of exactly twelve disciples shows that Jesus intends to reconstitute the Israel of God through his ministry. He is not, as some suppose, replacing Israel with the church. He is reconstituting Israel in a way that makes it suitable for the ministry of the New Covenant.

From this point on, it is not that the church takes the place of Israel, but that a new Israel of God is being formed by the shaping of the church. This kingdom will reach beyond the limits of the Israel of the old covenant. Although Jesus begins with the Israel of old, he will not allow his kingdom to be limited by its borders” (The Israel of God, p.118).

Phil Ryken also explains that Jesus chose the twelve Apostles to be the foundation of New Israel:

“By ordaining these twelve men, God was establishing a new Israel. Just as the twelve sons of Jacob founded the Old Testament people of God, so also the apostles established the foundation for God’s new people in Christ. To this day, the church rests upon their ministry. We are ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets’ (Eph. 2:20). And since a building can have only one foundation, their ministry is non-repeatable” (Luke, vol. 1, p. 256).

This is no small observation. When Jesus told the members of Old Covenant Israel that “the kingdom will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruit of it” (Matt. 21:43), we are meant to ask the question, “To what nation did God give His kingdom to in the New Covenant?” The only answer that can be supplied is that He has established His kingdom (i.e. His redemptive reign and rule) in the lives of His people–the true Israel who He has raised up in Christ.

We are still left with the question as to whether there is any divinely-intended role for the land of Israel in general and for the city of Jerusalem in specific. In his book, Understanding the Land in the Bible, Robertson distills the meaning of the land down to its essential redemptive-historical significance when he writes, “This land was made for Jesus Christ. All its diversity was designed to serve him. Its character as a land bridge  for three continents was crafted at Creation for his strategic role in the history of humanity.” The land of Israel was strategically located between three continents. It served, therefore, as the perfect land bridge for the evangelistic mission of God to the nations. The land served its purpose when the Redeemer came to Israel to accomplish all that was typified and foreshadowed in the Old Testament.

All of this was God’s original intention when He called Abraham. The Lord told Abraham that he would be “the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:4-5). The land of Israel was a downpayment of the eternal inheritance that God promised to Abraham. When Christ came, he fulfilled the promises made to Abraham. Jesus is “the heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2). Everyone who believes in him–as Abraham did (John 8:58)–becomes the heir of all things in union with Christ. 

The Apostle Paul understood that the original promise to Abraham was much larger than simply the inheritance of the land of Israel. In Romans 4:13, he wrote, “The promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” During his lifetime, Abraham only came to possess a burial place in the land–the place from which he (buried there in hope of the resurrection) will one day rise to inherit the earth. This is also true of all those who are trusting in the son of Abraham, Jesus Christ, and in his finished work of redemption.

As far as the city of Jerusalem is concerned, it’s important to recognize that God set apart this city to be the place of the Temple and the king’s house. It was the capitol of the theocratic nation of Israel in the Old Testament. It should not, therefore, come as a surprise to us to see that Jesus’ ministry ended in Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been established by God to be the focal point of the whole earth during the Old Covenant era. Jesus was crucified there (i.e. he was lifted up there) because he is the great King to whom all worship is to be directed. As Robertson observes:

“The lifting up of the Son of God could occur only in Jerusalem. No other place, no other city could substitute. To the covenant people of God he must come, and by the covenant people of God he must be rejected. Only then could the purposes and plans of God as revealed through all the ages be realized.” 

As the earthly ministry of Jesus came to a close in Jerusalem, so the ministry of his Apostles began in Jerusalem. From there it broke out from there into the whole world to show that the reign of God was now the reign of the resurrected Christ in the heavenly Jerusalem. From the rejection of Christ onward, the earthly Jerusalem became a symbol of fleshly, earthly, man-centered religion. The destruction of the Temple in A.D 70 marked the end of the Old Covenant era and the fact that the spiritual, heavenly reign of Christ had commenced throughout the earth. Robertson goes on to contrast the present Jerusalem (Gal. 4:25) with the heavenly Jerusalem–a contrast that the Apostle’s make in Gal. 4:23-26 and Heb. 12:18-24–when he notes:

“To know the new way of living with God, a person must look to the ‘Jerusalem above,’ where the resurrected Christ reigns over the heavenly and earthly powers. For the present, earthly Jerusalem known to men continues to be in bondage to men (Gal. 4:25). The power flowing from the heavenly Jerusalem and its reigning, resurrected King was displayed openly at Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’  last Passover meal. The disciples had been told to remain at this same earthly Jerusalem until they received the promise of the Father. It was in the temple area…that visible, audible manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit came on the assembled disciples.

These first twelve recipients of the Spirit of the new era of redemption instantly became the vehicles for transporting the new life that had its source in the heavenly Jerusalem. The new Israel of God was born in a day, and soon the worldwide kingdom of the cosmic Christ began to spread into the vast regions occupied by men of all nations. While the Jerusalem of this earth continues in bondage to the corrupting pride of man’s sense of personal accomplishment, the Jerusalem above gives birth to men newly freed.”

Robertson summarizes his thoughts on the city of Jerusalem when he says:

“Like all Old Covenant shadows, glorious prospects [i.e. those restoration prophecies in the OT prophets] have been realized in the days of the New Covenant, when people worship neither in Jerusalem nor in Samaria, but wherever in the world the Spirit of God manifests himself (John 4:21-24). The redemptive reality that the Old Covenant city could only foreshadow finds its consummate realization in the “Jerusalem above,” which is “the mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26). The “Jerusalem above” is not merely a “spiritual” phenomenon that had no connection with the “real” world in which we live. Its reality injects itself constantly into the lives of God’s people” (Israel of God, p. 17).

While recent developments concerning the city of Jerusalem has given us reason to revisit this subject–it would do us good to be settled in our minds about the fact that all who are united to Jesus by faith have been made children of Abraham and heirs of God (Gal. 3:29). Believers are the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem (Phil. 3:20). This is the only Jerusalem that ultimately matters. As John Newton put it, “Solid joys and lasting treasures, none but Zion’s children know.”

 

Creation, Incarnation and the Immutability of God (Nick Batzig)

The later professor John Murray captured the essence of the incarnation when he said, “The Son of God became in time what He eternally was not. He did not cease to be what He eternally was, but He began to be what He was not.”1 On a prima facie reading of this statement, one might be tempted to draw the faulty conclusion that a change occurred in God when the second Person of the Godhead took to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. Yet, the Scriptures are clear that God does not and cannot change (Malachi 3:6). If God added to Himself a human nature (something that did not exist prior to the incarnation) how was there not a change in God? Herman Bavinck gave the only suitable answer when he wrote: “Neither creation, nor revelation, nor incarnation (affects, etc.) brought about any change in God. No new plan ever arose in God. In God there was always one single immutable will”2 The immutability of God is in no way whatsoever affected by the incarnation on account of the fact that the incarnation was based on God’s eternal will and decree.  

God’s word teaches, in no uncertain terms, that “the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father, in the fulness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 36). 40 days after the resurrection, the disciples watched as Jesus bodily ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:9-11). The Scriptures teach that a man sits on the throne of God in glory, both now and forever (Ezekiel 1:26; Dan. 7:13-14; Rev. 4:3). An indissoluble union of the Divine nature and human nature occurred in the fulness of time when Christ was conceived. The body of Jesus is forever united to the Divine nature. The God-Man, Jesus Christ, is even now seated on the throne of God in heaven. Derek Thomas employs a colloquial metaphor to capture the essence of this truth when he says, “The body of Jesus has a zip code.” And yet, the incarnation in no way whatsoever brought about a change in God by adding anything to God’s divine nature. 

Of course, as we set out to consider the relationship between the incarnation and the immutability of God, we must necessarily also investigate the relationship between creation as a whole–as well as the response of God to the actions of His creatures–and the immutability of God. 

Perhaps the greatest of all questions to trouble the minds of men is that which regards the creation of the world and the immutability of God. How can God have complete fulness in and of Himself, and yet bring into existence something that did not exist without adding something to Himself? How does the creation of the Universe not demand the conclusion that a change has occurred in God? John Gerstner once suggested that Jonathan Edwards fell dangerously close to pantheistic notions while grappling with this question. However, in the Dissertation on the End for Which God Created the World, Edwards made the following statement:

“No notion of God’s last end in the creation of the world is agreeable to reason, which would truly imply any indigence, insufficiency, and mutability in God; or any dependence of the Creator on the creature, for any part of his perfection or happiness. Because it is evident, by both scripture and reason, that God is infinitely, eternally, unchangeably, and independently glorious and happy: that he cannot be profited by, or receive any thing from the creature; or be the subject of any sufferings, or diminution of his glory and felicity from any other being. The notion of God creating the world, in order to receive any thing properly from the creature, is not only contrary to the nature of God, but inconsistent with the notion of creation; which implies a being receiving its existence, and all that belongs to it out of nothing. And this implies the most perfect, absolute, and universal derivation and dependence. Now, if the creature receives its all, from God, entirely and perfectly, how is it possible that it should have any thing to add to God, to make him in any respect more than he was before, and so the Creator become dependent on the creature?”3

The immutable will and eternal decree of God is what makes this derivation possible without in any way adding to the nature of God or effecting any change in God. It is all the more important that we are clear about this when come to the question about the personal interaction of the immutable God with His ever-changing creatures. After all, the Scriptures seem to intimate that change has occurred in God with regard to His actions toward men. Scripture says that God “rented from the harm that He said He would do to His people” (Ex. 32:14). How does this not imply change? How do we reconcile this seeming change with what we have already concluded? When he tackled this question in particular, Bavinck concluded:

“Scripture itself leads us in describing God in the most manifold relations to all his creatures. While immutable in himself, he nevertheless, as it were, lives the life of his creatures and participates in all their changing states. Scripture necessarily speaks of God in anthropomorphic language. Yet, however anthropomorphic its language, it at the same time prohibits us from positing any change in God himself. There is change around, about, and outside of [God], and there is change in people’s relations to him, but there is no change in God himself…We should not picture God as putting himself in any relation to any creature of his as though it could even in any way exist without him. Rather, he himself puts all things in those relations to himself, which he eternally and immutably wills–precisely in the way in which and at the time at which these relations occur. There is absolutely no “before” or “after” in God; these words apply only to things that did not exist before, but do exist afterward. It is God’s immutable being itself that calls into being and onto the stage before him the mutable beings who possess an order and law that is uniquely their own…Without losing himself, God can give himself, and, while absolutely maintaining his immutability, he can enter into an infinite number of relations to his creatures.”4

God entered into an infinite number of relations to his creature in accord with the immutability of His eternal will and decree. When considered in this way, we can safely conclude that there is no change in the God who stands outside of time when He carries out His decree in accord with His divine attributes and the actions of His creatures in time. The immutability of God’s eternal will and decree safegaurds against any notion of change in the immutable God in light of the creation, the action of His creatures and the incarnation.  

Believers will spend eternity meditating the inexhaustible depths of the infinite and immutable God who created all things out of nothing without adding anything to Himself. We will forever be “lost in wonder, love and praise,” as we contemplate the mystery of the incarnate Christ, who now sits on the throne of God as the head of the new creation–a redeemed people which the immutable God “purchased,” as it were, “with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). 

1. John Murray O Death, Where is Thy Sting? The Collected Sermons of John Murray (Philadelphia: Westminster Seminary Press, 2017).

2. Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2004). Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (Vol. 2, p. 159). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 

4. Reformed Dogmatics, p. 159.