Books of 2017

I’ve never done a “best books of [fill in the year]. Since this is my first time, I won’t try to think of 10, neither will I have them in order of my ranking. So, here it goes, the best books I read in 2017.

  1. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods by Sertillanges
  2. The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (10 Vols.) by B. B. Warfield (While I didn’t read the whole set, I read large selections and multiple volumes. It’s a great set. Not included in the set, but still included in the readings: Savior of the World and Selected Shorter Writings, 2 Vols.
  3. Reformed Catholicity by Michael Allen and Scott Swain
  4. Perfect Theory by Pedro Ferreira (An intellectual history of the theory of relativity)
  5. The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-Of-Age Crisis—And How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Senator Ben Sasse (This was probably the best book I read this year; I recommend it to everyone)
  6. Everlasting Covenant: A Sweet Cordial for a Drooping Soul by Benjamin Keach (the only way I have found to read this is if you have a library subscription); Also, (perhaps more importantly) The Display of Glorious Grace
  7. I’m in the middle of 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke

(I also greatly enjoyed the readings we did as part of our Reformation Reading Group, so I’m including that reading list here: Reformation 500 Reading.)

Books that were exceptionally bad (Some of these books have become well known, but they aren’t very good)

  1. Habits of the Mind by James Sire (Skip this; read Sertillanges)
  2. Crucifixion by Rutledge (Skip this; read Cross of Christ by Stott)
  3. Desiring the KingdomImagining the Kingdom, and You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith (Skip these and read any Reformed theology of sanctification or work on spiritual disciplines; Smith has basically repackaged Schleiermacher)
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Celebrating 10 Years of God’s Faithfulness

“An excellent wife, who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” (Prov. 31:10)

“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe.” (Prov. 5:18-19a)

Today marks the tenth anniversary of mine and my wife’s union before God and man. As such, it is a time for me to reflect on what has happened in this decade and recognize God’s faithfulness in it all. Of course, much that could be said is left for the confines of our relationship.

Patsy and I met during high school, though we lived on opposite sides of town and went to far different schools. We shortly started dating and quickly fell in love; teen love, but love nonetheless. Upon graduation (five days later), I went away to infantry school for the Army. As soon as my enlistment bonus hit my bank account, I flew her up to New York to propose our marriage.  On December 20th, I flew down to Tucson on my block leave and we were married the next day at the courthouse. Of course, there are many things that could be said surrounding each of these moves, but those will be left for personal conversations.

Immediately, Patsy was pregnant with our firstborn, Ana, so our family has been a full-fledged family from the very beginning. A few months after Ana was born, I was deployed to Afghanistan, and, just in time for her first birthday, I was wounded in action and got to celebrate with them. I went through another deployment and another, much longer, hospitalization. By the time we hit our fourth anniversary, we had spent nearly two years apart, had two beautiful girls, and were in the throes of a second hospitalization. While this time was difficult on our marriage, the Lord never allowed our hearts to drift away from one another.

Rather, we were maturing in our faith in him and in our relationship with each other. Patsy had become deeply involved in the church we were members at in New York, and the Lord had placed me in relationship with two chaplains that knew the Word and knew the Lord. In San Antonio, we both had opportunities to serve the saints. By our sixth anniversary, I was in school online and we were settled in San Antonio awaiting the moment we could move to Louisville, where we celebrated our seventh anniversary. Our time in Louisville has been full of joy, struggle, and accomplishment. We have a full house of four little ones.

I praise God every day for his gift of an excellent wife that builds her life on Scripture. I pray for her ever-increasing endurance and faithfulness to him and his calling on her life. I pray that I am a husband equal to the wife she has been to me. We must look for the excellent wife of Proverbs 31, but ultimately she is God’s gift. Of the billions of women in this world, there are very few who match that woman, but my excellent wife is one. For that, I rejoice, giving thanks to my God that he has been so kind to me through her hands. May he do so for many decades to come.

R. C. Sproul

We all have teachers we just connect with, those teachers that really seemed to impact our thinking about a particular subject. Maybe our fifth-grade teacher made us love reading or our high school chemistry teacher made us love science or our college English teacher showed us the beauty of language and writing. The same goes for life in the church. Particular pastors, theologians, or other ministers help us to fall in love with a specific aspect of our beautiful, muti-chrome religion. Maybe a particular book of the Bible or a specific doctrine of the faith or a field of outreach, like Isaiah, simplicity, or apologetics. Rarely do you encounter someone that impacts you in multiple areas, but it does happen.

My introduction to Calvinism was through two chaplains I worked with in Afghanistan. I saw it in the Bible, and I believed it (I don’t have a story of intense struggle, as many do; rather, I figured God was in control of everything, and everything means everything). When I got back, I looked into the doctrine more and came across John Piper’s explanation of the “Five Points,” or “TULIP.” From here, I listened to John MacArthur’s preaching and, in short order, came across R. C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries. While listening to his teaching, I also began to read some of his writing, including The Holiness of God and Chosen By God. R. C. Sproul shaped my thinking more than anyone else has, excepting the Lord in his Word. In many ways, this is a testament to all of the areas he was involved, including the pastorate, conciliar work, seminary teaching, teaching in the church through Ligonier (including a devotional), writing, directing the publication of a great study Bible, conferences, writing music, and probably more. There are at least three ways my life has been directly impacted.

1) Theology

Sproul’s clear exposition of the doctrines of the Christian faith helped me to think clearly and systematically about what God has given us to know. Of course, we may consider his position on baptism as a major issue of disagreement between us, but excepting that, Sproul showed me who God is, that he is “Holy, Holy, Holy”, the one before whom all knees will bow (Isaiah 6; Holiness of God and everywhere else). He showed me that God is sovereign, in control of every molecule in this universe (indeed, there’s not even one maverick molecule, Chosen by God, 16). He showed me the weighty importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He showed me many of the ways the Bible stands up to the criticisms of the world, demonstrating that challenges are absurd. He showed me that Everyone’s a Theologian.

2) Ministry

Sproul’s love for the church and desire for the church to have full access to all of her treasures drives me. Through Ligonier Ministries, I have seen how theology is made accessible. Nothing’s watered down, it’s just said in a way that everyone can understand. The motto, “Bridging the Gap between Sunday School and Seminary,” is crucial as it demonstrates that the church has the right to learn and grow in her understanding of all that the Lord has done. Sproul’s passionate clarity was captivating and encouraging.

3) Church History

It is easy to assume that the church today is all that matters, either explicitly or implicitly. Sproul was passionate about the faith of the church through the ages, and he stirred in me a desire to know more about those faithful that have gone before us. They are examples to follow and teachers to learn from, and Sproul was in love with that truth. He loved Calvin and Augustine and Luther, and he made you fall in love with them too. They were men, sure, but they were men that God worked mightily through.

As I mourn the death of this great man, whom God also worked mightily through for the cause of truth, I also praise God for setting me at Dr. Sproul’s feet. As he experiences the beatific vision this day, may his ministry continue to bear fruit for years to come.

July 4th

Today, we celebrate the founding of our nation. We express thankfulness for the place and people to which we belong, to which God has sovereignly placed us. Even as we recognize shortcomings, prevalent sins, and concerns regarding politics, we still honor the fact that God has called us here, as members of this people. We ought to celebrate Independence Day because it is the day we have traditionally, as a people, recognized as the founding anniversary of this Republic to which we belong. God does not call us as non-entities, and we do not become non-entities or solely citizens of the heavenly kingdom. We are members of the Kingdom who are located here. Yes, God calls from every tribe and tongue and nation, but that means that there are tribes and tongues and nations in which we are called and to which we belong. We are Americans, and we can be proud and thankful for that. This does not diminish the right of other image-bearers to be proud and thankful for their providentially determined “fatherland,” but it does mean that we can be thankful for ours. Remembering the balance is important because we can either neglect the people to which we have been called or worship the creature (a nation) rather than the Creator.

So today (tonight now), celebrate the nation to which you belong as you would a parent’s birthday, thankful for their place in your life and yours in theirs. Some of us have unbelieving parents and are more apt at honoring them regardless, and some of us have believing parents and have become apt at knowing how to honor them rightfully and not in the place of God. Whichever way you feel about our nation, whether you are convinced it has been given completely to the wrath of God or you believe that it is still largely Christian, I think you can use the parent analogy to help guide your thinking about rendering honor. Do so, and be ready to reach it with the gospel that makes us a new people.

Calvinism and the SBC: Some thoughts on Hankins’ “Loyal Opposition”

For those unaware (somehow), there is a deep tension in the SBC that has been particularly pronounced in the past couple decades. This tension is the divide that exists between those in the Convention who hold to Calvinistic soteriology and those who do not. Some representatives of the two “schools of thought” are The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Calvinistic) and an organization called Connect 316 (“Traditionalist”). Each faction has its own doctrinal statement, though both, due to their connection to the SBC, hold to the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. For SBTS and groups surrounding it (e.g. Founders’ Ministries), the standard is the Abstract of Principles. For Connect 316, they have drawn up a confession called the Traditionalist Statement.

With some of the background provided, we can look at a particular item of discussion. Eric Hankins, primary author of the Traditionalist Statement, has provided a transcript of his keynote address at the Connect 316 banquet to a traditionalist website called SBC Today (read the whole thing here). While there are plenty of theological issues I would love to address, regarding salvation, the problem of evil, God’s election, etc., I would like to mention just two or three things that were particularly thought provoking in his address.

First, he makes some contradictory claims. He says that Baptists have never understood the relationship between preaching the gospel and the salvation of the elect on Calvinistic terms, and that rejecting Calvinism is in all of our history going back to 1845 (the founding of the Convention). The big problem with this comes in the very thing he acknowledges later, namely the existence of the Abstract of Principles and the Charleston “stream.” As the first seminary, and its connection with leadership in the Convention, you must immediately reject all SBC and SBTS history before E.Y. Mullins (i.e. 60 years of our 172 year history, or a full third) to argue for anything resembling “universal” rejection of Calvinism in the Convention (Hankins even shifts his rhetoric from talking about 1845 to “the last hundred years”). That SBTS was founded on the Abstract, and that Mullins consciously moved away from it (which Hankins notes), is demonstrative of a certain shift in the opening of the twentieth century in the SBC leadership. Further, he mentions Mohler’s “constructionist” interpretation of the Abstract. If Mohler is interpreting the Abstract according to the meaning of the original authors, and if the authors intended a clearly Calvinistic soteriology (since the Abstract is an “abstract” of the Second London, which Hankins also admits), and if the authors were major leaders and representatives of the Convention from its founding until the opening of the twentieth century, then it is too much to say that the Calvinist contingency is a “new” thing that is ruining the Convention and leading it away from its traditions.

Going along with this, Hankins is openly rejecting the traditional theology of the church since the fourth ecumenical council, in which the heresy of Pelagianism was condemned along Augustinian doctrines regarding the will and depravity. To favor something called “Traditional” that was not widely contested for about eighty years over that which shaped the churches thinking on a topic for sixteen-hundred years is the height of folly. Yes, Augustinian anthropology, hamartiology, and soteriology are most faithfully expressed in the systems of the Reformation (which you would expect me to say, and which Hankins admits), but to condemn it at the outset because it doesn’t match with what he has heard is naïve. He says, “If I just pretended that I had never heard of Calvinism or Arminianism and simply outlined what I believed based on my understanding of the Bible and the preaching and ministry under which I had been reared, what would my soteriology look like?” The problem with this statement? It openly rejects God’s providential placing of us at a particular time and place, at a certain stage in the history of thought on the things of God. He may stand with those of the past couple generations, but the entire life of the church at large (i.e. for two-thousand years) has affirmed certain Christian doctrines that were suppressed in that time.

My other thoughts aroused by Hankins’ address, related to his main argument, are that he is largely correct. His main argument is that there is an inherent incompatibility between Calvinistic and Traditionalist soteriology, and that the result of such incompatibility demands adjustment in the government of our Convention. While Calvinists are “live and let live,” Traditionalists must proactively demand that Calvinists are inviting to Traditionalist representatives and they must demand a change in the BFM2000. This is something I think is largely true. This is not a mere difference of opinion on some obscure point of theology. Instead, the difference is on an important interpretation and presentation of the very core of Christianity: the saving work of Christ. How is man saved? Why is man saved? What is man like before he is saved? What is the nature of man’s will? How we understand these has direct bearing upon our understanding of the gospel, and therefore our preaching of the gospel. Luther called this issue the core of the Reformation in Bondage of the Will. Hankins explains that both sides must interpret the BFM 2000 through linguistic gymnastics at certain points in order to avoid doctrinal inconsistency, and this is true. A better confession would either be explicit and demand a single interpretation, or it would remain silent on the doctrine at hand (e.g. the Second London is silent on closed/close/open communion). Why is this impossible in this case? Because of what I just said: the issues that would be omitted are central to the Christian message. Man’s moral ability or inability and the role of the Spirit’s regenerative work in logical, sequential respect to the act of faith on the convert’s part are central tenets of doctrine, especially for Protestants. This is not “order of decrees,” as important as that is, wherein the result of both is that God chooses sinners for salvation, but whether a dead man can choose to live, and whether he is dead to begin with!

We may be nearing a tipping point in the Convention’s life. The increasing desire of Traditionalists to take a proactive stance in the Convention and the increasing apathy of Calvinists with regard to fighting for a place in the Convention may well result in a split, or at least further disregard for Convention activities and entities on the part of Calvinists. There are organizations that do all the SBC does that Calvinistic Southern Baptists can partner with along more doctrinally consistent lines, from missions and evangelism through parachurches to seminaries and pastoral partnership through the broader evangelical/Reformed world to other denominations and associations like Acts 29, FIRE, and ARBCA. I am not saying that these things are right, but unless something changes in the message of leaders on both sides, I think this will happen. Calvinists will dissolve because of apathy and alienation and the Convention will return to doctrinal infidelity to its founders’ theology. Calvinism isn’t just a difference of opinion; it is either the doctrine taught in Scripture by God himself and faithfully communicated through the centuries of Church creeds, councils, and confessions, or it’s not. It is either something worth fighting for, or difference of opinion to be kept to ourselves and in private conversations.

This topic is dear to me because of my own experience with Calvinism within the Convention. It is something that will invite backlash, slander, and hatred. It is something that brings heresy charges and disqualifies someone from ministry in congregations. And this is right. It is important enough to demand affirmation or rebuke because of how close it is to the message of the gospel. Man is fallen in Adam, dead in his trespasses and sins, having no hope, and without God in the world. But God has chosen some from this wretched race to ransom, that is, to purchase from slavery to sin and death for holiness and life forevermore. Through no fault of God, man is sinful and fully deserving of his just wrath against them. Through no fault of their own, he has chosen some from before the foundation of the world for his own glory, for works in keeping with repentance and life. Man, born dead, by the Spirit dies with Christ and lives. This message is worth fighting for.

~SDG

Consider Founders’ Ministery Executive Director Tom Ascol’s article “Why Stay in the SBC?”

William Perkins: The Puritan Patriarch

William Perkins is considered the father of the Puritans, and rightfully so. He only lived forty-four years, from 1558-1602, and thus stands at a crucial point in the development of the Protestant tradition.

Over the past week, I have listened to the new conference lectures on William Perkins. William Perkins is considered the father of the Puritans, and rightfully so. He only lived forty-four years, from 1558-1602, and thus stands at a crucial point in the development of the Protestant tradition. (Links povided at the end of this post)

William Perkins is considered the father of the Puritans, and rightfully so. He only lived forty-four years, from 1558-1602, and thus stands at a crucial point in the development of the Protestant tradition. To get a sense of this, look at those dates. In 1558, Queen Elizabeth ascended the to the throne of England following the monstrous reign of “Bloody Mary.” Mary was so called because of her persecution of the Protestants in England, who were therefore forced to flee to the Continent (notably Geneva, where they sat under the teaching of Calvin, translated the Bible, and thought deeply about theology). The ascendance of a Protestant monarch bode well for the Protestant cause, and her longevity on the throne established a solid platform for their place in the kingdom until today. For the twenty previous years, the English had been through 4 monarchs and swung between Rome and Christianity.

What is missing from this brief and broad sketch is the problem accompanied the ascendance of the Elizabeth. The Protestants were excited to implement the theology of Scripture in their home church, the Church of England. However, Elizabeth sought a via media, a middle way between Rome and Christianity that allowed for the most freedom of both. Thus arose those who sought the purity of the Church, Puritans (distinguished from what were basically the same people but wished to separate from the church, called Separatists). Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, and so Perkins’ life spans, almost exactly, the reign of this important monarch for church history.

William Perkins was converted as a student in the 1580’s. He preached regularly at the jail and served in various important positions in and around Christ’s College at Cambridge. Multiple times in the conference, a phenomenon was referenced to show just how influential the man was. By the time he died, his books were outselling both Calvin and Beza, the most important Reformers of the preceding generation and the men whose work the Puritans sought to develop and employ.

The conference lectures are superb. Opening was Sinclair Ferguson on Perkins as the plain preacher. His is a great introduction to Perkins as a theologian and preacher, both throughout time and in his own time, and is the longest of the bunch at 1hr 15min. Next was Joel Beeke on Perkins’ view of assurance, a masterful balance that found its way into the Westminster Confession of Faith (and therefore the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689). In the middle was Geoff (pronounced Jeff) Thomas on Perkins’ view of the relationship between works and faith. Next was Stephen Yuille. He edited the 1st and 4th volumes of Perkin’s Works, a set that is being published presently (see below). He opens with a story of a man who came and asked him if Perkins was worth reading on Jude while Yuille was in the process of editing the volumes, to which he unhesitatingly answered “Yes!” What he wasn’t prepared for was the follow-up question: Why? This lecture is his answer to that question with 15 reasons, all drawn from Perkins’ work on Jude. Finally, Greg Salazar discussed the preaching of the Puritan movement as a whole.

This conference was held in connection to the aforementioned Works of William Perkins, a 10-volume set. Ferguson tells a story of the difficulty of finding Perkins’ works (and the interesting way he came by some), which is unthinkable based on the Puritan’s influence. Reformation Heritage Books, which is connected to Puritan and Reformed Theological Seminary up in Grand Rapids, is on an eight-year project to re-publish Perkins’ Works in a modern typeset with scholarly editors. The school hosted the “William Perkins Conference” in Cambridge. The fourth volume of the set is out now, which completes their publication of his exegetical works. Volume 1 is a redemptive history, exposition of Matthew 4:1-11, and exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. Volume 2 is an exposition of Galatians, Volume 3 an exposition of Hebrews 11, and Volume 4 his expositions of Jude and Revelation 1-3. The next set of volumes will be his doctrinal and polemical works (vols 5-7), and finally his practical works (vols 8-10). With the conclusion of the 4th volume and in conjunction with the conference, they are offering the first four volumes at a $70 discount ($130 instead of $200).

I hope to continue to learn about William Perkins, and I hope that you will too.

Links

Website covering the publication of the volumes

Videos of the conference

Volumes 1-4 ($130)

Volume 1 ($25)

Volume 2 ($38)

Volumes 1-2 ($62)

Volume 3 ($38)

Volume 4 ($38)

Biographies

William Perkins – Bitesize Biographies by Beeke & Yuille (116 pages) ($4.50)

William Perkins and the Making of a Protestant England by W.B. Patterson ($90; $72.28 new and $45 used on Amazon)

The Purpose of the Seminary

What is a Seminary’s Purpose?

In 1917, in the 400th year of the Reformation, B. B. Warfield wrote a little article called “The Purpose of the Seminary” in which he describes exactly what the title suggests. Like everything I have read by Warfield, this has stirred my thoughts and demanded my reflection.

(Scroll to the bottom for a PDF copy of the article)

The Argument (With Some of My Thoughts Mixed In)

(Skipping over his connection of the seminary to the presbytery) Warfield’s argument is essentially that the purpose of a seminary is to train men for ministry. While this seems like a very simple and obvious definition, there are no less than two things to consider before deciding what training men for ministry entails. First, you must think about the nature of the church, and, second, you must think about the nature of the minister’s job in the church.

Seems simple enough. Except Warfield recognized that neither of these is readily defined. If the church is primarily a place to receive sacramental grace, then the minister is primarily a cog in the apparatus, and his training involves no more than teaching him the bare practice of delivering the sacramental graces to the people. If the church is primarily a social gathering or a lecture hall, then the minister’s job is to stir the people to action or teach them the method of ameliorating social ills. Depending on which of these two options is taken, the seminary’s job is either null because zealousness is the only requisite of a minister, or it is null because the minister’s purpose is to teach politics and literature and philosophy.

If the gospel is primary focus of the church, then the minister’s task is to apply the gospel in preaching, teaching, and counseling, and the purpose of the seminary is to train men to gain a first-hand knowledge of the gospel. They must learn the languages, and exegesis, and biblical theology, and systematic theology, and preaching, and counseling. Further, they must learn to defend their gospel and the history of the gospel’s work in the church. These men ought already to have been converted and received a basic education, and they are now in “finishing-school.” Though I’m giving away the ending, Warfield says, “What we need in our pulpits is scholar-saints become preachers. And it is the one business of the theological seminaries to make them.”

My Thoughts

One part that I skipped over (except for a short statement) was his emphasis on the fact that rudimentary education is not the responsibility of the seminary, nor is it the seminary’s responsibility to convert its student. (The second, about conversion, made me think of Paige Patterson’s rationale for admitting confessing unbelievers to Southwestern Seminary). The first of these has me questioning the very program in which I received my seminary education (seminary track), a program that is now being added to other schools. This program follows the practice of many universities in offering combined 5-year bachelor’s-master’s degrees. While I started the program as 24 year old with a family of 5 and two combat deployments behind me, there are many in the program fresh out of high school, and sometimes not quite 18. They may be ready to teach history to Middle School students when they have completed their education, but would we say that they are (at large) ready to lead a church? Would we say that they are ready to counsel the wandering and the dying, to “act as spiritual adviser of the community which he serves”? Would we say that they have had the opportunity to demonstrate that they “have made such progress in piety as ranks them with the especially pious men of the community”? This is not to diminish exceptions, or demand that our pastors all be 50 years old or above (which is the other tendency that crops up), but only to question the wisdom of 5-year seminary programs. They may be helpful and right for men who have been men for more than a month, but there are no age restrictions on the programs as they now stand. They may be helpful in a world of baptistic hierarchy, where Children’s Ministers are promoted to Youth Pastors, and from there to Family Pastors and Associate Pastors, before finally arriving at the top of the ecclesiastico-corporate ladder of Senior Pastor (or where we have “lay elders” and “staff elders” or “elders” and “*the* Pastor”), but is this right? Is it right according to Baptist polity, which has traditionally affirmed a strict two-office polity (in contrast to Anglicans and, to a lesser extent, Presbyterians) to design a degree program that supports this degradation of offices? Is it right to expect churches just to utilize these young men in the childrens’ departments until they’re 40 and ready to make use of their seminary training?

While I’m ruffling feathers, the second item of seminary education this article caused me to ponder is the current aim of seminaries and seminarians. If we agree with Warfield that the primary purpose of the seminary is to train ministers of the gospel (this being equivalent to pastors/elders), then I wonder how close the demographics of seminary student bodies is to reflecting that aim. How many people at seminary are looking at going into something other than pastoral ministry? Of course, we could say that all seminarians are looking at going into ministry, since all Christians can share the gospel and a seminary education further equips Christians in that task. But have we then redefined the purpose of the seminary? Have we made it an advanced Sunday School class? Have we turned it into a breeding ground of needless debt? I’m not saying that *only* men going into pastoral ministry ought to be allowed into seminary (though some schools do place that restriction on enrollment, and there may be wisdom in that). What I’m saying is that I wonder if our seminary student bodies represent a close connection between seminary training and pastoral ministry, and if not, could there be some way that our seminary structures have undermined their purpose?

This short post is not meant to come off snarky, and hopefully, I have not given the impression of a curmudgeon. My goal has not been to step on everyone’s toes, but to put into words some meandering thoughts following a great little article.

You can read the article in Benjamin B. Warfield: Selected Shorter Writings, Volume 1, chapter 43, at Westminster Books here or Amazon here. Unfortunately, it was originally published in a magazine and has not made its way onto the internet through either a PDF or photocopy format. I think it is such a great little piece that I typed it out myself  (it’s open source since it came out in 1917), and attached it to this post. The Purpose of the Seminary by B. B. Warfield

The Essence of Saving Faith: Knowledge, Assent, and Faith

There are some theological terms that developed along the way for describing the essence, or the components, of saving faith. As usual, these terms have are originally in latin and are represented in English by the title of this post. In latin, the terms are notitia, assensus, and fiducia. This post will be a sort of historical survey of the testimony to these three components in understanding salvation through the Reformed consensus. First, some definitions (without examples).

Notitia– You might see the word “notice” in that term. Notitia has to do with knowledge of the facts of the gospel. It deals with knowing that the Christian message is about a God-man slain for sinners and resurrected in defeat of death.

Assensus– In this word you probably see the word “assent.” Assensus, or assent, is affirmation that the facts of the gospel are true. It is not simply saying that the Christian message is, but that it is true.

Fiducia– Maybe (hopefully) you see the word fide buried in there (as in sola fide or Semper Fidelis). This means that the contents of the gospel are true, but it also means that I trust Christ for the salvation of my soul and that I adore him as the focal point of my heart. It is confidence and an affectional term. This should become more clear as we move on.

Calvin

Right, so lets look at Calvin (since we’re limiting ourselves to broad brush strokes in the Reformed tradition). Calvin attacks the Schoolmen for making faith implicit, for claiming that all a person must do is submit their “feeling obediently to the church.” To this, Calvin says that, “Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge” and “that it is not enough for a man implicitly to believe what he does not understand or even investigate.” (Institutes 3.2.3). Faith is grounded on knowledge rather than unthinking submission of the heart. Further, it is grounded on confidence in its veracity. He says,

Now, therefore, we hold faith to be a knowledge of God’s will toward us, perceived from his Word. But the foundation of this is a preconceived conviction of God’s truth. As for its certainty, so long as your mind is at war with itself, the Word will be of doubtful and weak authority, or rather of none. And it is not even enough to believe that God is trustworthy [cf. Rom. 3:3], who can neither deceive nor lie [cf. Titus 1:2], unless you hold to be beyond doubt that whatever proceeds from him is sacred and inviolable truth. (Institutes 3.2.6)

There is a real situation in which you can comprehend, i.e. understand, what’s be said without being confident in the veracity of the message that proceeds from God through his Word. Finally, Calvin provides a beautiful definition of faith:

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. (Institutes 3.2.7

I need to make something of a sidebar remark lest I do a disservice to Calvin’s argument. His understanding of knowledge is much closer to the understanding (indeed, the same) as what is expressed in Scripture. He calls the knowledge of faith something beyond mere rational comprehension. It is higher and much more profound (cf. Institutes 3.2.14). You would do well to read all of his Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 2.

Owen

It is a little more difficult (read time consuming) to work through Owen’s expression of these things, but I will offer just a sampling of what I found in his works. Chapter 2 of his The Doctrine of Justification by Faith includes each of the three components, just in a different order. He says in 2.4.3 that the apprehension of the gospel presupposes the preaching of the gospel, i.e. the content. Preaching is the declaration of the facts; it is where

the Lord Christ and his mediation with God, the only way and means for the justification and salvation of lost convinced sinners, as the product and effect of divine wisdom, love, grace, and righteousness, is revealed, declared, proposed, and offered unto such sinners

Just prior to this, in 2.4.2, Owen had explained that “assent [is that] which respects the promises of the gospel, not as they contain, propose, and exhibit the Lord Christ and the benefits of his mediation unto us, but as divine revelations of infallible truth.” Assent is the belief that the things preached are true and from God.

Finally, I will pull his definition of faith from his “Greater Catechism.”

Q. 2. What is a justifying faith?

A. A gracious resting upon the free promises of God in Jesus Christ for mercy, with a firm persuasion of heart that God is a reconciled Father unto us in the Son of his love.

Also (not from the Catechism, but the same volume),

This is the distinguishing property and character of saving faith—it beholds the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ;—it makes us to discern the manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, as declared in the Gospel. (Works, Vol. 1, 243)

and

This is the distinguishing property and character of saving faith—it beholds the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ;—it makes us to discern the manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, as declared in the Gospel. (Works, Vol. 1, 243)

further

Our apprehension of this glory is the spring of all our obedience, consolation, and hope in this world. Faith discovering this manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, engageth the soul unto universal obedience (Works, Vol. 1, 243)

To have faith in God is to behold the glory of Christ, which commits us to obedience to him.

Gill

I’m not going to go through Gill’s exposition of these, but if you’d like to see what he has to say, look at his section “Of Conversion” in his Body of Practical Divinity. I will include a quote from his section called “Of Justification” from the same book:

3. He works faith in convinced and enlightened persons, to look at the righteousness of Christ, and take a view of its glories and excellences; to approve of it, desire it, and to lay hold on it, and receive it as their justifying righteousness. Such a faith is of the operation of God, of the Spirit of God; it is what he works in the saints, and enables them to exercise it; hence he is called the Spirit of Faith, Col. 2:13. (Gill, 75.)

Boyce

Boyce explains that faith is “based . . . upon the knowledge of this testimony [of our sinfulness and salvation in Christ] as given by our own consciences and the Word of God. It is consequently an act of the mind.” (Abstract, 347) Further, it includes (without being limited to) belief “so far as it refers to the acceptance of facts and statements, or of the veracity of a person.” (Abstract, 346) Faith is obviously more than this. It is believing facts and trusting a person. Christians who have faith “know whom they have believed, and why they should believe him.” (Abstract, 347) A little phrase that may have shown up somewhere else, but that I noticed in Boyce, was his definition of faith as “intelligent trust.” Boyce, on pages 349-352, goes through false ways of thinking about faith that I think is really helpful. In these he follows what the others have said, but he just seems to be more concise and lucid. I recommend looking at that.

20th Century

In the twentieth century there seemed to arise within the commonly used theologies (Strong and Berkhof) a reluctance to use the distinctions, even though they included them. An extremely helpful historical theology was also provided by Bavinck. He works through many of the issues in the Reformed and Lutheran communities over how many elements to include in saving faith and their relationship to one another. I will not include his points here, but draw on them at the end as I offer concluding observations. You can read the whole thing (highly recommended) in his Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, pp. 110-132.

1689 LBCF and Concluding Remarks

I thought about including some thoughts from twenty-first century works, such as Frame’s Systematic Theology or Sproul’s Everyone’s a Theologian. These are helpful, and could be consulted as well (I included the relevant page numbers in their sections of the bibliography). I also thought about working through the biblical testimony on this issue, but that would require a lot more time and any of the sources that I’ve already mentioned could be used for their footnotes to the biblical texts. Instead, let’s work through the 1689 and some conclusions.

1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 14: Of Saving Faith (I am using the text from http://www.1689.com/confession.html#Ch.%2014 though I have taken out the Bible references for the sake of space)

Paragraph 1. The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened.

In this first paragraph, we see that faith is “ordinarily wrought” through the declarative means of grace. These actions provide the content on which saving faith is based.

Paragraph 2. By this faith a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word for the authority of God himself, and also apprehends an excellency therein above all other writings and all things in the world, as it bears forth the glory of God in his attributes, the excellency of Christ in his nature and offices, and the power and fullness of the Holy Spirit in his workings and operations: and so is enabled to cast his soul upon the truth consequently believed; and also acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come; but the principle acts of saving faith have immediate relation to Christ, accepting, receiving, and resting upon him alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

Next, we see that the Christian “believes as true” the message of God contained in the Word. He recognizes its veracity, in relationship to each Person of the Holy Trinity (cf. Boyce’s Abstract on faith being in each Person). We see that it is also the ability cast the soul upon the truths believed. There is, at minimum, a twofold breakdown of this paragraph. It is 1) apprehension of truth as truth from God about God and all things, and 2) casting oneself on Christ in trust.

Paragraph 3. This faith, although it be in different stages, and may be weak or strong, yet it is in the least degree of it different in the kind or nature of it, as is all other saving grace, from the faith and common grace of temporary believers; and therefore, though it may be many times assailed and weakened, yet it gets the victory, growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

Finally, true faith is differentiated from temporary faith, which is evident in those who fall away. This is a paragraph of great hope for the believers who struggle, who cry, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

Concluding Thoughts

These three categories are helpful for thinking through elements of saving faith, and they are also helpful in thinking through elements of unbelief. We’ll take them in reverse order.

There are those who know the facts of the gospel and do not believe them to be true or relevant. We might think of atheists, agnostics, “nones,” or adherents to other damning religions. Not everyone has a knowledge of the facts of the gospel, and because of this we evangelize and send out missionaries and evangelists. But there are many, especially in the West, who do know the facts of the gospel and simply don’t believe them.

There are also those who believe the facts of the gospel in what is called by many of the writers referenced above a “historical manner.” They believe the veracity of the gospel facts, but have not trusted and loved Christ rightly. We might think of many children, who believe the facts of the gospel as true without having saving faith, or of Papists.

Finally, there are those who love God, or some version of him, but this is not based on apprehension of true facts. Boyce says, “It is as though, with our belief in the Bible, we should say that one who believes the Bible is saved, whether he knows its contents or not… But the whole hope of salvation and faith, in every other respect which is effective and operative, is in what we believe, not in the fact that it is true, but in the knowledge which the fact that it is true conveys to us. Our salvation does not rest in the belief that the books of the Bible teach truth, but in belief of the things which they teach.” (Abstract, 349) To believe a God we know nothing about is the height of idolatry.

The way that these things relate to saving faith is quite different. They are not so easily disjointed, but rather distinguished. To know the facts of the gospel in Calvin’s thought is to know them with the intimacy of the soul being connected to the Source of those facts. It is to believe them and love them and trust them and adore them. To believe them as true is to have a real knowledge of them that issues in hopeful adoration. To trust and love the God of the gospel is to know him in your soul as the most trustworthy Truth you could ever encounter. Distinction does not imply division. The task of theology is to recognize the distinctions so that our doxology might be grounded in truth. Let us proceed accordingly.


Bibliography

Bavinck, Herman, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008, 110-132.

Boyce, James P. Abstract of Systematic Theology. Louisville, KY: SBTS Press, 2013.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2013. (cf. pp. 952-54)

Gill, John. A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity: Or A System of Evangelical Truths, Deduced from the Sacred Scriptures, New Edition., vol. 2. Tegg & Company, 1839.

Owen, John The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 1. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Owen, John. The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 5. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Sproul, R. C. Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2014. (cf. pp. 238-39)

The Hidden Danger: Postliberalism

Christians have been battling against liberalism for around two hundred years, and it may just die out at some point, at least in its explicit form. Machen wrote a famous book called, Christianity and Liberalism, highlighting the fact that the liberals were holding to a different gospel, and therefore not Christian. So what happened? Well, it would take a long (boring?) time to work through the history, but I’m going to generalize and step on toes and misrepresent through simplification.

Basically, Liberals realized that their syncretism with Enlightenment philosophy was a failure (particularly in light of the world wars) and their distorted post-millennial hopes were dashed (I’m not bashing post-millennialism at this point, just its distortion). But, praise be to imagined providence (I’m not bashing providence, just its distortion), a new philosophy came along called Postmodernism. What’s Postmodernism? It’s the belief that we are all held to a received text, that we interpret the world according to our cultural traditions and so

What’s Postmodernism? It’s the belief that we are all held to a received text, that we interpret the world according to our cultural traditions and so truth is somewhat, and ultimately, relative. What happened? Well, this meant that Liberals could have their language back (which they had given up to philosophy and humanistic science), and they could just focus on the love of being Christian. No need to have debates over propositions anymore, over truth claims and intellectual coherency. That’s “so Enlightenment.” Instead, we just need to feel God. You see, the new liberalism isn’t the old liberalism, but it is.

So, why have I titled this post with so ominous a statement as, “The Hidden Danger”? Because Liberals, in their modified (though not new) clothes are able to use language and reasoning now that sounds like orthodox Christianity. We read words like “Reformed” and “providence” and see references to men like Calvin and Augustine, we see theologians and philosophers despising the Enlightenment, and our little, often naïve, heart flutter with joy. We say, “These are our people.” But they’re not. They’ve gone off the rails of liberalism in some sense, but they have not converted. They’re still running around with the same beliefs, despising the same gospel, one that is preached and taught, one that makes assertions and claims ultimate allegiance. Christianity is not merely shared practices; it is shared beliefs, shared doctrine. That doctrine, those words, mean something eternal. They mean something that they meant to the Lord, and to the Apostles, and to the Fathers, and to the Reformers, and to the Puritans. They mean the same thing that they mean to the faithful reformed today. We don’t need to re-think our Christianity; they need to come to Christ. That looks like something, absolutely, but it also means something. Be careful of those who sound like us, but are simply hijacking Christian language.

Bible Reading Plan 2017

I worked out a Bible reading plan that I’m gonna try this year. As with most “Bible-in-a-year” plans, it’s 4 chapters per day (with a few that are less and a few that are more). This plan is designed to take you straight through the Bible once, through Psalms twice, and through Proverbs four times. What that means is that January 1st, you read Genesis 1-2, Psalm 1, and Proverbs 1. Proverbs is read in January, March, July, and October (31-day months matching the 31 chapters). Psalm 119 is by itself (no other reading for the day), and you finish with the Psalms (the first time) on May 30th. You pick it up again on August 4th, which is 150 days from the end of the year. You’ll notice that Obadiah and 2-3 John each have their own days and that the scheduled reading essentially stops at Christmas Eve (except Psalms). This means that you have at least 11 “catch up” days during the year. Some caveats: 1) I simply went through and put in a certain number of chapters per day, so this doesn’t account for chapter length (except Psalm 119) and it doesn’t account for natural breaks in the book (except Romans). Some days you’ll read the end of a book and the first chapter(s) of another book (e.g. April 28th), but this only happens when the books were meant to be read together (1 Samuel-2 Kings, Ezrah-Nehemiah). 2) I didn’t try to get it nicely formatted. I just created an Excel document and put books/chapters in the days and messed around with it a little. If you try to print it out, you may find yourself needing to adjust it to fit the pages better. If you have any questions or find something that needs to be fixed, let me know. Here it is: Bible Reading Plan 2017