Wednesday, April 02, 2014

John Owen's doctrine of the atonement

Owen's work, the Death of Death in the Death of Christ is without question the greatest treatise on the atonement that has ever been written and for anyone who has read the book and studied the arguments from Scripture, no criticism has ever or could ever be effective laid against it. It is especially important in our day, with the popularization of faulty unbiblical speculative theories on the atonement by certain neo-Calvinists. It goes back to the fundamentals and smashes these false theories completely.

Of course there are many areas regarding the atonement which Owen treats which the 3FU does not talk about (since even the Canons are more summaries of doctrine and refutations of specific errors), but the basic doctrine of limited atonement as expounded by Owen is the doctrine taught in the Canons of Dordt. Ursinus made some comments in his commentary on the Heidelberger which seem to be closer to an Amyraldian view of the atonement (although it would be anachronistic to call it that), but his commentary is not the catechism itself, and it is not the official interpretation of it by the Reformed church. 

The Form for Ordination calls the Canons of Dordt an interpretation/explanation/clarification of certain points of doctrine in the Heidelberger and the Belgic Confession - and this is exactly what the Canons are. The Canons explain the doctrine of atonement in the catechism and confession as particular efficacious atonement, excluding the Amyraldian views (although it obviously does not deal with Amyraldianism as directly and fully as the Second Helvetic Confession does - history accounts for that). Nevertheless when the various statements in the Canons of Dordt are put together, especially along with the Rejection of Errors (which are part of the Canons, despite the fact that so many "Reformed" churches today have removed them), they do not allow for the idea of a hypothetical universal redemption or any kind of conditional redemption in the atonement. 

On this point, the doctrine of the atonement in the Canons is precisely that which is so much more fully expounded and proved by Owen's work (and remember Owen wrote much later than the Synod of Dordt, when Amyraldianism was being further developed and promoted as a half-way house between Calvinism and Arminianism). If the Rejection of Errors are ignored/removed, this greatly weakens the position of the Canons (understandably - otherwise they would not have seen it necessary to include them!) - although even so, still Amyraldian ideas do not sit well with them (and a case could still be made). The Westminster actually is not a strong as the Canons with regard to particular efficacious atonement - since the Canons include the phrase "the elect and them only". Sadly, the prevailing view among the neo-Calvinists is a form of the Amyraldian view of the atonement - even though they often claim to hold to the five points of Calvinism (the Canons ARE the original five points)!

But aside from the confessional issue, the Scriptural arguments of Owen are compelling and solid. For a man who has studied these arguments, and confesses that the Bible is the very word of God, he cannot consistently then deny limited atonement with Amyraldian ideas - and any Reformed church ought to discipline a man who is promoting Amyraldianism - on the basis of the Canons, and on the basis of the clear teaching of Scripture (which on this point, has been so fully explained to us by Owen's work). This is the reason that Owen's work is becoming unpopular today, because it stands in history as the greatest refutation of Amyraldian and Arminian views of the atonement ever to have been written - and these false views of the atonement promoted today by the neo-Calvinists simply cannot stand in light of it.

Owen goes back to the basics of the nature of Christ's work, as it is pictured in the Old Testament and especially as explained in Hebrews. Hebrews stands on the foreground of his book. He shows what it means that Christ is our High Priest, the nature and meaning of redemption, propitiation, atonement, etc. These are the topics which are shied away from today. People love to talk about the extent of the atonement, but they do not want to talk about its very nature. And Owen shows that its nature determines its extent. I could not praise this book highly enough. Its greatest strength is that is builds with the basics and is so thoroughly comprehensive (of course, this does means that Owen can be very long-winded at times - but long sentences were in fashion then, it was assumed that people had a longer attention span than five seconds, to be able to remember and tie in the beginning of the sentence with the end of it). Its weakness today is only that people today have such difficulty with long sentences and long trains of thought - they forget the beginning of the argument by the time they reach the end, and respond more to immediately felt emotional appeals. When someone says "Christ died to save everyone" that has a half-truth, and a strong emotional appeal, but it does not stand up to scrutiny, no matter about the sophistication of the Amyraldian position. But such snap-responses are not the Christian way: "Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." - I Cor. 9:24-27.

Sometimes that means have the spiritual self-control and discipline to study and remember long step-by-step arguments written by people who didn't realise that long sentences would be so difficult for people in our modern times. But it is rewarding.

In fact, a more accurate and emotionally appealing description of the extent of the atonement would be the word "catholic" (Rev. 5:9). "Limited" although true just does not give the main idea or the emphasis of Scripture - and this is one reason why people have such reactionary problems to it.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

How NOT to train up a child - Michael Pearl

I read about this sad story recently about a well-known but dreadful book by Michael Pearl. Training a dumb animal is nothing like bringing up a child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The rod cannot be used without reproof. Our discipline must be limited by what a child can properly understand--otherwise it is not spiritual discipline, just senseless violence. Also just as we ought to flee temptation, we ought to keep our children away from temptation, not put stumbling blocks in front of them.

To be honest, I would not let people like that even train my dog (if I had one). 
"A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel." - Prov. 12:10.
As for Christ's little ones: 
"And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." - Eph. 6:4.
"Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged." - Col. 3:21.
"The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame." - Prov. 29:15.
The goal of discipline administered by Christian parents ought never to be to train children to achieve some kind of outward show of absolute obedience. It ought to be spiritual discipline to aim at a child's sanctification. That is what it means to nurture them in the Lord: they are like little olive plants that are weak and need to be carefully and lovingly nurtured (sometimes pruned) to become strong (Psalm 128:3). Not to tear them down, but to build them up. If it is to be spiritual then it must necessarily come with the Word of God - otherwise it is worthless because all our growth in grace comes by the word, and there is no edification without understanding (I Cor. 14:9ff), therefore the child must be taught to understand the Word of God. Also since the goal is the sanctification of the child, that means that children may only be chastened for sin (not for accidents, mistakes, weakness, etc), and the chastening must be appropriate and proportionate to the sin.

God's Fatherhood of us is our model. That God wills us always to be assured of our salvation (Rom. 8:15-16; Gal. 4:57; etc), teaches us that we too must always assure our children of our love for them, especially as we seek their salvation, to lead them away from sin and temptation, to lead them with us to Christ for forgiveness daily, and this means too that since it is sinful for them to disobey us, we ought not make the temptation more difficult for them by laying down burdensome and overbearing commandments on them. Instead we need to be gentle, knowing that they are weak vessels like us, yet even weaker. And unless we know in ourselves our own weakness as deeply as we ought, we will not be as gracious with our children as we ought to be. Who is sufficient for the heavy responsibility to be a father to one these little citizen's of Christ's kingdom. Considering the task, I would despair except that I trust that if God has entrusted one of His beloved elect to my care, then He will also work by His grace in me as an instrument in His hand for their benefit - because I know that God works all things for the good of His elect. 

By the way, I don't believe in presumptive regeneration. But I'm not a Baptist either, so I don't believe in presumptive un-regeneration. I believe we ought to view and treat all the children of believing parents as everyone else in the church; elect and beloved, etc (even though we know that just as there will be hypocrites among confessing adults, there will be reprobates among the children - in other words, that is not a sufficient reason biblically to view either an adult or a child in the church uncharitably). 

A friend directed me to this review. I want to highlight a very important that Rachel Miller makes in that review article - children have emotional needs. In fact, if I have learnt anything as a parent, it is that we can never know exactly what the reason for a child's crying might be. They might be crying because they are hungry, or thirsty, or too cold, or too warm, or a bit sick, or a bit uncomfortable, or because they want someone to talk to them, or to be with them, or to hold them. It is very likely that they themselves very often don't know what they are crying about, and maybe often they just feel a need to cry for no real reason other than that. And whatever the reason may be, even if they do not know themselves, unless they can tell us, then we cannot know.

But are we not the same? Do we not sometimes feel like we don't know what is wrong, and just want to cry to our heavenly Father? He is always ready and willing to hear our cries, no matter how often or how loud and fervent they might be. To bring our cries before God is not at all the same as murmuring and complaining against Him and His good providence - His fatherly kindness. It is an act of worship when we bring our cries before Him, because in doing so we confess that He alone is the one who always hears us and ultimately from whom all our comfort comes no matter what may be the reason for our cries. I don't have a lot of experience as a parent (one year today), but I guess that one of the richest experiences of any parent is when a child seeks their comfort from you, and I believe that God, who comforts us so that we can comfort others, works through us parents to comfort His children.

Ultimately our cries to God are a manifestation of this: "And not only they [the brute creation], but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body." (Romans 8:23). And in this is our comfort; the Spirit expresses far more deeply to God what cannot express rightly (because of our sin, and more simply our weakness, and limited nature): "Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." (Rom. 8:26-28). And since Christ knows the mind of His own Spirit dwelling in us, so He knows exactly how to intercede for us. And so we have the knowledge that everything is worked out by God for our good, because of His eternal love for us in Christ.

We will continue to offer up cries to God until our final redemption at the coming of the new age, and then there will be no more crying and our Father will have wiped away every tear from our eyes: "And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." (Rev. 21:3-4).

Isn't this the kind of fatherhood that we ought to try to emulate: to wipe away the tears of our children, by giving them the comfort of us being with them, and them with us?

To presume that their crying is some kind of sophisticated sinful manipulation is not only absurd (from the point of view that even though their fallen human nature is utterly depraved, its expression is nevertheless restricted by their lack of development in strength, intelligence, etc), but also, and more importantly it is fundamentally uncharitable, and therefore un-Christian. It comes from a radically wrong mindset. Christian love demands this: "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth..." (I Cor. 13:4-8). If we would desire that people be charitable with us in all our weaknesses, should we not be charitable to others - especially our own children? If we do not provide a living example of Christian love to our children, they will not learn it from us.

And even if it was only ever sinful crying, that would not change our responsibility as parents. We may never accuse another (whether our children or otherwise) of lying when we do not really know. The unregenerate wicked only ever sin, and yet they often speak truthfully in their sinning if it will get them want they want. Yet as Christians, we may not even presume that our children are unregenerate. I would guess in the theology of the Pearls however, they do presume this. And they propose a very different unbiblical way of the salvation of infants and children - salvation by physical discipline through the efforts of parents, rather than by grace through faith in Christ.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Does God have a kind benevolence toward all who receive good things from Him?

Maybe you can think about this more if I refer to a few Scriptures, and ask a few questions: "For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer." (I Tim. 4:4-5). What if we receive good things from God without giving thanks for these things? We can find forgiveness only in Christ. But does this tell us what God's attitude is toward the recipient when He gives a person a good thing, whom He knows (according to His eternal determinate counsel) will not give thanks for it?

If the greatest good gifts are not given in benevolence, what of the lesser gifts? Would a less good gift be given with more benevolence or less? Would no gifts be the greatest benevolence? "What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God." (Rom. 3:1-2; cf. Rom 9:4-5) Can you conceive of a greater gift apart from salvation itself, than what the Jews received which the Gentiles did not? And yet which will receive the greater condemnation? "Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee. At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight." (Matt. 11:21-26) Isn't hearing the gospel a very good gift? But what is God's attitude in preaching it to the impenitent?

Consider God's attitude toward the recipients of such marvellous good gifts in His purpose for them and their receipt of these things: "What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded. (According as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear;) unto this day. And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumblingblock, and a recompence unto them: Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back alway." (Rom. 11:7-10). These words, quoted from a Psalm of David, are also the words of Christ concerning those who betrayed and crucified Him (centrally Judas, but also the unbelieving Jews - to which they are applied in Romans 11 - and also by extension to all apostates or hypocrites). Therefore we find in the attitude of Christ toward those to whom He gives such good things: "Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap." Is there a kind benevolence toward those who receive the wonderful gifts here?

Christ Himself is the greatest most wonderful gift: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son ..." (John 3:16). As a good and precious gift, what is the attitude and purpose of God in giving Him or presenting Him to those who refuse to believe, to those who take Him and crucify Him? "And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel, for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble, and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken." (Isa. 8:14-15). "Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed." (I Pet. 2:6-8)

Practically how is the comfort of a good breeze on a hot day very different to the comfort of full table when hungry? But we know that specifically the table is a snare to those who are not in Christ. "When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed for ever:" (Psalm 92:7) What is the purpose of God in giving earthly benefits to the wicked according to this verse? Consider also Psalm 73 and 37. I think that should provide sufficient ground for understanding the truth about the idea of a general benevolence of God - which after all is historically what the pagans of the Roman empire liked to believe in, not the "hard God" of the Christians. It is not a general benevolence of God toward wicked men revealed in the created things, but rather: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened." (Rom. 1:18-21) This is the content of the witness of God against the heathen in the dark days (for the Gentiles) of the Old Testament: "Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein: Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness." (Acts 14:15-17) If a good comforting breeze is therefore given as a witness of the good God against the unthankful idolatrous unbeliever, how can it be sent in a kind benevolence?

There are many more simple theological reasons which could be added: how could a general benevolence be compatible with God's eternal decree of predestination? Is it not mockery to claim to be kind to someone whom you have determined beforehand to send to eternal torment in hell? God doesn't send mixed messages. He is simple and in perfect peace and harmony within Himself. He does not have mercy for a few days, and then decide to throw you into hell. What comfort could we then find in the knowledge of His mercy or benevolence toward us? Rather, His mercy endures forever. He does not change, and therefore His attitude toward us does not change. If He had benevolence toward the wicked in this present earthly life, He would therefore continue to have benevolence toward them in hell. But we know that God even refuses to give good gifts to those in hell: "And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence." (Luke 16:24-26).

If the wicked do not heed the witness of these good things, they therefore receive them to their condemnation, to the accumulation of evil things to be received when they end up in the lake of fire. That is the terrible judgement and righteously discriminating wrath of God - with which benevolence is incompatible.