Monday 30 May 2011

The Theology of the Hymns of Augustus Montague Toplady

Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-78) was a preacher. Most of the best hymn writers were. Toplady was an ordained Anglican minister before he left to become the preacher at the French Calvinist Church in London in 1775. What is particularly striking about many of the hymns that he wrote is that they are filled with tremendous biblical theology. Toplady was a thoroughly convinced Calvinist and here is a brief selection of some of his hymns.

The classic for which Toplady is known is 'Rock of Ages' and look at the theology of these words which affirm the doctrine of justification by faith, through trusting in the merits of Christ alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

Toplady clearly believed and preached the truth displayed in Romans 3:24 'and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus'. The question is 'do we?'.

Toplady's 'A Debtor to Mercy Alone' is another classic; it is because the words are saturated with the 'apostles' teaching (Acts 2:42)'. He knew our just deserve outside of the gospel is the wrath of God as he pens:

A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

In the mind of Toplady, God's covenant mercy alone, saves us from the deserved wrath of God. Paul states in Romans 1:17 and18 that there are two things revealed in the gospel; the righteousness of God and the wrath of God.

For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed ... For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

We need to pray for the recovery of these twin truths in the preaching of the gospel in churches.

Finally a Toplady hymn (actually it was altered by him but written by John Bakewell) that is not so well known is 'Hail, Thou Once Despis├Ęd Jesus!'. The words of this hymn fill our minds with thoughts concerning the precious atonement made by our Lord Jesus Christ. The second verse should thrill the heart of every Christian.

Paschal Lamb, by God appointed, all our sins on Thee were laid;
by almighty love anointed, Thou hast full atonement made:
all Thy people are forgiven through the virtue of Thy blood;
opened is the gate of heaven; peace is made for man with God.

For those men who are involved in preaching the gospel, may we all make sure that we keep Jesus Christ and him crucified as central to the theme of our preaching and sermon preparation.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

The Incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ

Jonathan Edwards describes the incarnation in ‘The History of Redemption’ in these terms: ‘Christ's incarnation was a greater and more wonderful thing than ever had yet come to pass. The creation of the world was a very great thing, but not so great as the incarnation of Christ. It was a great thing for God to make the creature, but not so great as for the Creator himself to become a creature.1

To hold a wrong view of the incarnation is to err regarding the atonement. Therefore in contemplating our subject, great care is needed, great joy is to be expected, and great shall be the praise of the redeemed, when they worship the risen and glorified Lamb of God in the New Jerusalem.

We must not regurgitate the same familiar phrases concerning our Lord week after week in the ministry of preaching. Paul the apostle said that he determined to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Could the same be said of us among our flocks and in our preaching? Do we search the scriptures to gain fresh insights into Christ’s person and his work? This is why Christology is so vital to health of the church and the work of the gospel.

Matthew’s Gospel makes it irrefutably clear that the incarnation of Christ Jesus did not produce ‘a diluted form of God’. Our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood (this is a quotation from the Creed of Chalcedon).

Matthew introduces our Lord to be the Son of David and the Son of Abraham: He is God’s appointed king to fulfill all the biblical covenants and our Lord’s favorite title in speaking of himself is probably ‘Son of Man’. In healing the paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8), Jesus openly explains his authority, in that he can do what God alone can do. Namely to forgive sins. The Son of Man is fully God and fully man. Again we meet the doctrine of the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ as Chalcedon states.

[The] two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence.

The Incarnation and Preaching

Our aim must be to fill the hearts and minds of the worshippers of the Triune God with a rich knowledge of Christ Jesus. Paul reminds us in Colossians 1:18:
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

Preaching is the high point of worship in the reformed tradition and therefore we need to study hard to ensure that Christ Jesus is centre stage but it must be Jesus without confusion, without notions that lead to error, without division from the Triune God. This is why the Creed of Chalcedon is so helpful and why our historic creeds and confessions must not be neglected.

Monday 9 May 2011

Bitzer was a Banker!

A Christian Minister pointed out to me last week an article in a chapter of a book by John Piper called 'Bitzer was a Banker!'. Piper's aim is to encourage but also rebuke the church and preachers who pay little attention to the biblical languages for their ministry. Here is an excerpt of what Piper writes.

His name was Heinrich Bitzer. He was a banker. A banker! Brothers, must we be admonished by the sheep as to what our responsibility is as shepherds? Evidently so. For we are surely not admonishing and encouraging each other to press on in Greek and Hebrew. And most seminaries, evangelical as well as liberal, have communicated by their curriculum emphases that learning Greek and Hebrew may have some value for a few rare folk but is optional for the pastoral ministry.

I have a debt to pay to Heinrich Bitzer, and I would like to discharge it by exhorting all of us to ponder his thesis: "The more a theologian detaches himself from the basic Hebrew and Greek text of Holy Scripture, the more he detaches himself from the source of real theology! And real theology is the foundation of a fruitful and blessed ministry".

The two sources for these quotes are: John Piper, Brothers, We are not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry and Heinrich Bitzer, ed., Light on the Path: Daily Scripture Readings in Hebrew and Greek.

May we all take seriously the need for the recovery of the biblical languages for the evangelical and reformed church. Let us pray for this!

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Some Books that have Helped Me.

Last Monday, we were on a walk in Durham with people from three churches in EPCEW: from Durham, Gateshead and Sheffield. One man asked me 'what books had influenced me over the years?' and it got me thinking again regarding some excellent books that were really guiding lights at certain junctures in my own reformed pilgrimage. Here are some books that I would like to recommend that you get hold of, even though some of them may be out of print and you will need to search out second hand copies.

Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination

Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism

J. I. Packer, Among God's Giants

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Sermons on Romans, especially Chapter 1, Chapters 3-4 and Chapter 9.

Perhaps Romans Chapter 9 is one of the least preached chapters from the New Testament. This is a possibility, but whether this is true or not, one thing I know, it is that when I had read MLJ's sermons on Romans Chapter 9, it took me weeks to recover, as my Arminian thinking was crushed under the weight of biblical truth.

So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. Romans 9:16.