Tuesday 24 February 2015

A Fresh Commentary on the Book of Acts

Evangelical Press have very recently published a new commentary on the Book of Acts by Guy Prentiss Waters. I have begun to read it and I cannot put it down. You may be asking "why is he recommending it, when he has not finished it?". Well, Dr Waters is a trusted guide for the church, as those will know who have read other books by him will agree. He produced a book which has become the definitive guide on the errors of the "Federal Vision" movement.

Guy Waters is one of my favourite contemporary Reformed theologians in the Southern part of the USA. He teaches at RTS Jackson. It is satisfying to read a commentary that is succinct and yet nourishes our soul. As a devotional I recommend this book, not simply as an aid for preachers.

Ps I highly recommend another of his books, the one called "How Jesus Runs the Church".

Monday 16 February 2015

William Tyndale: One of the Greatest Englishmen!

It is true to say that "all historians are politicians". In other words, historians use certain historical figures selectively and I would openly acknowledge that I do the same. I commonly endorse John Calvin, the Westminster divines and others, while rarely giving any airplay to advocates of Roman Catholicism or Arminian persuasion. However, we must recognise that our own national histories are greatly influenced politically as well. My wife is Dutch, and it came as a large surprise to me to hear of major Dutch naval victories over the British navy in times gone by, while once visiting a Dutch museum in The Netherlands. These naval defeats at the hands of the Dutch, have been something our own British historians have consciously forgotten about.

Most Western history books have been emasculated and sabotaged in an attempt to purge our past of biblical and Protestant traces. The erasure of the name of William Tyndale is such an example of this. In my view, and others such as the distinguished BBC broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, Tyndale is perhaps one of the greatest Englishmen. From Henry VIII to the current day, leading authority figures have sought to erase his name from the collective British and English speaking memory. Why is that and what did he achieve?

William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) was born in Gloucestershire, educated at Oxford University, was committed to reformed principles, including the translation of the Latin version of the Bible into the English vernacular (Tyndale translated from Koine Greek and Hebrew, not from the Latin text primarily). He contributed to the translation of the New Testament and many parts of the Old Testament, of which, much of his translation work was later incorporated into the Coverdale Bible which was produced under the authority of Henry VIII, and much of Tyndale's translation was incorporated into the Authorised Version under King James I. Though neither king gave Tyndale any credit. A summary of his life and his betrayal by the Catholic Englishman Henry Phillips is given on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/people/william_tyndale/

Tyndale was captured and burned alive by the Roman Catholic Church authorities in Antwerp, Belgium. He is one of 1000's of Protestants who have been killed by the Roman Catholic Church. Rome may not be able to purge the world of its church opponents today in such a way, but let the world never forget that Roman Catholic heretical doctrines have never been renounced.

I hope that my brief blog posts spark a renewed interest in such topics as this and that people go away after reading my blog to study more on the life and works of William Tyndale. His two volume works are collated and published by the Banner of Truth Trust. I highly recommend them. Tyndale's life, aim as a fine minister of the Gospel and a linguistic genius, was to translate the Bible into the English language. He famously declared that: “If God spares me… I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Bible than thou doest [the Pope]”. Beyond just his greatest legacy of spurring the arrival of the Bible into English, instead of Latin, which few people could read, he gave the English language idioms and turn of phrase which endure to this day. Perhaps only Shakespeare contributed as much to the development of the English language as did Tyndale.

May our reading and devotion to the Bible match that of Tyndale's desire to translate it. Hear the apostle Peter in Acts 3:18 "But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled". Ultimately, Tyndale was not primarily concerned with the Bible becoming a work of literature alone, but that the way of salvation revealed in the Bible, which is only through the Lord Jesus Christ would be known. For anyone reading this blog, let me ask you a question: Do you have salvation from your sins through Jesus Christ alone?

Tuesday 10 February 2015

Justification, Faith and Works: Calvin on Ezekiel 18:17 (by Richard Gaffin)

This was posted on the Reformation 21 website recently. It was so good, I thought that I should put it on my blog. It is an article written by Richard Gaffin and it most helpfully summarises Calvin's most distilled view on this subject, shortly before Calvin went to be with the Lord.

A passage from Calvin's commentary on Ezekiel 18:14-17 has the distinction of being among the last, perhaps the last, of his comments on the relationship among justification, faith and works. Apparently written shortly before his death in 1564, it is perhaps as pointed as any of his comments on their interrelationship and so, highly instructive concerning his matured understanding. An excerpt of some length from his comments on verse 17 is provided here, because, seen in its immediate context, it needs to be read carefully and digested (bolding added). Note that when Calvin speaks here of "works" he clearly has in view, as the plural shows, the believer's good works or obedience done over time, in other words, seen in terms of God's work in the believer, sanctification as ongoing or progressive, what he regularly includes elsewhere with "regeneration," a word he uses in a broader sense than later Reformed theology.

When therefore, we say that the faithful are esteemed just even in their deeds this is not stated as a cause of their salvation, and we must diligently notice that the cause of salvation is excluded from this doctrine; for, when we discuss the cause, we must look nowhere else but to the mercy of God, and there we must stop.  But although works tend in no way to the cause of justification, yet, when the elect sons of God were justified freely by faith, at the same time their works are esteemed righteous by the same gratuitous liberality. Thus it still remains true, that faith without works justifies, although this needs prudence and a sound interpretation; for this proposition, that faith without works justifies is true and yet false, according to the different senses which it bears. The proposition, that faith without works justifies by itself, is false, because faith without works is void. But if the clause "without works" is joined with the word "justifies," the proposition will be true. Therefore faith cannot justify when it is without works, because it is dead, and a mere fiction. He who is born of God is just, as John says (1 John v. 18). Thus faith can be no more separated from works than the sun from his heat: yet faith justifies without works, because works form no reason for our justification; but faith alone reconciles us to God, and causes him to love us, not in ourselves, but in his only-begotten Son.

Taken by itself, Calvin considers the statement "faith without works justifies" to be ambiguous. It "needs prudence and sound interpretation"; it is "true yet false," depending on the way it is read.  Pinpointed grammatically, Calvin is saying:

1. When the prepositional phrase "without works" is taken adverbially, that is, as modifying the verb "justifies," then the statement "faith without works justifies," is true;

2. When "without works" is taken adjectivally, that is, with the noun "faith," that is, "without-works faith," then the same statement is false.
"Without-works" faith (alone-faith) Calvin asserts, does not justify, "because faith without works is void." Again he says, "faith cannot justify when it is without works, because it is dead and a mere fiction." He is saying in effect, to focus the balance of his remarks: "faith, with its works, justifies without works"; or also, "with-works faith (or "not-without-works faith") justifies without works." Alone-faith does not justify, but justification is by faith alone; faith is the alone instrument of justification.

In this passage Calvin is on the proverbial razor's edge, where we occasionally find ourselves in sound theologizing faithful to Scripture. Certainly, he is not saying here what he emphatically and repeatedly denies elsewhere, that I must do a certain amount of good works or obey God for a certain amount of time before I can be justified or be sure that I am justified.  Rather, his comments highlight that even in its initial exercise justifying faith is inherently disposed to obedience and good works, which are bound to come to expression, however imperfectly, over time. His point is what is expressed later in the Westminster Confession, namely that faith as "the alone instrument of justification" is "not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love"; or, more importantly, Paul's characterization of justifying faith as "faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6; alluded to and cited as Scriptural support by the Confession at this point). 

Here, in a particularly striking and instructive way, Calvin accents how inseparable, yet distinct, good works are from faith as the alone instrument of justification. This is fully in keeping with what he emphasizes in many other places, perhaps most notably at the beginning of his magisterial treatment of justification in the Institutes. With the application of redemption as the large, overall concern of Book Three, he had previously discussed sanctification ("regeneration") and in considerable length (3:3-10). Why did he order his material in this way, treating sanctification before justification?  "The theme of justification was therefore more lightly touched upon because it was more to the point to understand first how little devoid of good works is the faith, through which alone we obtain free righteousness by the mercy of God; and what is the nature of the good works of the saints, with which part of this question [justification] is concerned" (3:11:1).

Such works--it is surely true to Calvin to add--are necessary as "the fruits and evidences of a true and lively [that is, justifying] faith" (WCF, 16:2).

R. B. Gaffin, Jr.is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus at 
Westminster Theological Seminary

Tuesday 3 February 2015

We must connect true Christian love to our reformed doctrine and manner of living

"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends" (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

It is all too common in many Christian circles, for true Christian love to not always be as it should. We all have to humble ourselves before the Lord and to acknowledge that. When we read this simple summary of Christian love in 1 Corinthians, we are surely humbled. We must allow God's Word to break our hardness and pride and realise that walking in true Christian love is essential. This is crucial for the Christian testimony. Have you met people who have an opinion about everything, and they give the impression that they know everything as well? Can you say of that same person that they are a role-model of love as well? I think the latter will be no.

We must realise that in the pursuit of solid doctrine and the reading of good books, there can be the ever-present danger of pride. Paul says this when he writes to the Corinthians as he warns that "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (8:1). With pride can come many other sins and they are all opposite to true Christian love.

This wonderful portrait of Christian Love is expounded by the Scottish minister Hugh Binning, who was a contemporary of James Durham. This Puritan paperback published by the Banner of Truth called "Christian Love" is brief but excellent.

In all of our doctrinal pursuit in the reformed world, may we never lose sight of a sincere love for the Triune God and the church especially. If you are struggling with loving others, then examine yourself in the light of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, confess your sins and ask the Lord for help to love as you are required and ask for his grace to do it. May we never forget that "if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing (1 Cor. 13:2).