Saturday, January 15, 2011

Limited Atonement?

Did Jesus only die for the sins of those who believe in him, or for the sins of everyone?

I've recently finished reading "Life by His Death", which is a simplified version of John Owen's classic The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. I didn't feel the need to read a simplified version - but Amazon were out of DoDitDoC and they didn't say this version was simplified... Poor excuse, and if anyone who has read DoDitDoC says it deals with some of the criticisms of it here, I'm happy to make the effort to find a copy.

The book itself is a strong defence of the doctrine of Limited Atonement - that Christ died only for those who trust in him rather than for everyone without exception. It's a controversial doctrine, so I thought it worth writing a few thoughts about it.

Much of what Owen writes is brilliant - he argues strongly from God's sovereignty and from the fact that we require the work of the Holy Spirit to bring us to life and open our eyes before we believe that we cannot trust God unless he draws us to do so, and if he draws us to do so, we cannot resist.

It really got me thinking what it would be like to preach evangelistically trusting properly in God's sovereignty, and seeking to encourage God's work in people and preaching to those whom God is working in rather than those in whom he is not yet working...

Thus we appeal to men as if they all had the ability to receive Christ at any time; we speak of His redeeeming work as if He had done no more by dying than make it possible for us to save ourselves by believing; we speak of God's love as if it were no more than a general willingness to receive any who will turn and trust; and we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quiet impotence 'at the door of our hearts' for us to let them in. It is undeniable that this is how we preach; perhaps this is what we really believe. But it needs to be said with some emphasis that this set of twisted half-truths is something other than the biblical gospel.
J.I. Packer, Introduction

The weaknesses in Owen's arugments are twofold. Firstly, he comes to a theological position based on some texts, and then interprets others in the light of his theology. One of his most common arguments is "this text does not mean A, because we already know ~A". Hence many of his arguments would only work on those who already hold to the authority and consistency of Scripture. At the same time, his arguments could be (and have been) reversed. People could argue from the verses that seem to teach ~A that it is true, and then use exactly the same tactics on the verses that seem to teach A. I think they'd come unstuck though, because their conception of God would not really be sovereign, but that doesn't change the problem with using it as an arguing technique.

The second problem is that Owen almost always looks at things from a God's-eye view. And actually, I agree with Owen. From God's point of view, when Jesus died, God knew and had chosen those who were going to trust in him, and Jesus died only for their sins. From God's point of view, Jesus did not die for those who would not trust in him.

But from our point of view, things are very different. There's only one point in the book where Owen's view changes to ours.

Preachers can never know who, in their congregations, are God's elect. They must therefore call on all to believe, and promise that as many as do will be saved, for there is enough in the death of Christ to save all who believe.
Life by His Death, p.52

Most people don't function with a God's eye view. Most people find conceptual arguments difficult to follow, and Owen employs little else. I'm heavily conceptual, and I found it difficult that when he kept mentioning the many people who hadn't heard of Jesus, he never once used it as a motivation to tell them!

I think that at the end of the day, Owen is right about Jesus' death. I don't know if in 1647 there were people who believed in the full authority and consistency of Scripture, were comfortable with highly conceptual arguments and believed that Jesus died to actually forgive the sins of all rather than just those who believe. If there were, maybe this book is the reason there are so few such people now. But that's clearly who the book is aimed at.

But it is critically important that we hold that belief in tension with human responsibility and the fact that the gospel is held out to all, because Jesus died for anyone who will put their trust in him.

Books I've Read Recently 3 - Now, Discover Your Strengths

As far as I know, this isn't a Christian book. It's a book by two people who have done a lot of research (with Gallup) into people's working patterns. But we can learn from them, and it's always nice to see secular researchers getting back to where the Bible said they should be, which they kind-of do...

The basic thesis of the book is that we work best by focusing on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. I think that's a good point, and they justify it well.

The book is based around the question "At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best very day?" They asked that to a lot of employees, managers, and so on, and found that the people who said "yes" were more productive, enjoyed work more, were healthier and happier, and so on. They found that companies that enabled employees to do that worked better as a whole.

The authors then go on to identify 34 different "strengths", which is enough for there to be 34C5 = 278,256 different combinations of top 5 strengths, even if you ignore the order. Including ordering too, that's over 33 million permutations. And they offer an online test to determine what your top 5 are. There are then a good number of suggestions of how to use your strengths to deal with weaknesses, how to encourage others to use their strengths and so on. A lot of it is common sense, but common sense isn't always very common, as evidenced by some in the Church of England who think that all clergy should be able to do any clergy job.

Weaknesses in the book - they don't explain exactly where the 34 strengths come from. I very much doubt that they are all independent. For example, I would expect people who score highly on "intellection" also to score highly on "deliberative". Nor do they explain why 5 is the magic number - I would expect that some people are more focused than others - one person might have 80% of their abilities on one skill, another might have 20% distributed across each of 5 skills. And some people might just have more innate ability than others anyway. Some of their suggestions are just plain silly too - replacing interviews with just competency measures, for example - often basic conversational skills and personality are important, and you miss that through just doing tests.

There are some good insights as well - for example the way that performance reviews often don't measure performance in the ways that matter. All in all, I found it a thought-provoking read. I don't agree with everything in it, and some bits were overly long and tedious, and the good research doesn't justify all the conclusions they hang on it in terms of the 34 types. But in terms of thinking about what it means for us to be given different gifts, and for us to be different parts of the body, and to be supporting one another as different parts of the body, it was well worth a read.

Books I've Read Recently 2 - Calvin, by Bruce Gordon

2009 was the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, and this was one of the biographies released to celebrate. From reviews I've read, it's meant to be just about the best biography of Calvin written thus far. And it is very good. I don't think it's the definitive biography - you don't feel like you know Calvin after reading it - but you feel like you know someone who knows him well.

It's an interesting read particularly because I get the impression that Bruce Gordon's natural reaction is not to like Calvin much at all, and there are a few bits where that comes through. But he ends up with at least a strong grudging admiration for him. There's one sentence in the preface which kind of captures that. "[Calvin] never felt that he had encountered an intellectual equal, and he was probably correct." I'm not sure that's true from Calvin's life as Gordon tells it either - Calvin certainly attached himself to various people (e.g. Martin Bucer) as mentors and so on.

But Gordon does do a very good job of showing us how Calvin fits into the times, how he was influenced by different people at different times, and changed his mind on some issues, and so on. It's very much a warts-and-all biography, but Calvin wouldn't have wanted it any other way! He really gets into Calvin's thoughts and priorities as well - I hadn't realised, for example, how closely some of the issues addressed in the Commentaries tie into events in France and the world at that stage.

What he doesn't get into really is Calvin's passion for God and his personal relationship with God, which there is such a strong sense of in his writing. But with Calvin, that is so tied up with his theology that to understand it probably needs a historian who is at least strongly sympathetic to Calvin's understanding of God's sovereignty. This is quite possibly as good a biography of Calvin as could be written by someone who doesn't share his theology.

A really good read, and a very good biography of one of the key figures in European History, and one of the biggest figures in Church History. It might be the best one yet written, but it isn't the best possible one.

Books I've Read Recently 1 - The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life

I've long been an admirer of Dale Ralph Davis. His books of sermons on Joshua - 2 Kings are models of what Christian preaching on the historical OT books can be. This book contains 12 of his sermons on the Psalms - specifically Psalms 1-12.

As you'd expect from DRD, each contains his own translation of the Psalm and a discussion of some of the textual and contextual issues, but only where they are relevant to the points he is making. The translations alone were worth the cost of the book, but I found the sermons moving, helpful, and they really pointed me to Christ.

Well worth reading devotionally, as I did. Well worth having if you are going to preach on any of the Psalms in the near future. Well worth studying to get ideas for how to preach poetry. Brilliant book.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Walking Well - Ephesians 4:17-5:17

I've recently been reading Ephesians 4 and 5, and have been really struck by the number of reasons Paul gives for avoiding sin. I found it a real encouragement to avoid sin better in my own life, and I'm not sure I've ever seen a list of them worked through properly, so here goes...

  1. Walking badly is what the Gentiles do (4v17). One of Paul's big themes in the letters is Christian identity. Those Christians (like me) who were Gentiles ethnically are no longer Gentiles because of what God has done for them in bringing them near in Christ. So we shouldn't walk as the Gentiles do.
  2. Walking as the Gentiles do stems from having minds that are futile (4v17) – the word is the same one translated “meaningless” in Ecclesiastes. The way they think and the things they think about are passing away. So don't live like they do.
  3. Not only do their actions stem from ways of thinking that are passing away, they also stem from ignorance (4v18). Sinning is an ignorant way to act.
  4. Sin stems from hard-heartedness (4v19)
  5. Sin is giving yourself away to licentiousness (4v19)
  6. Sin leads to the pursuit of every uncleanness in excess (4v19)
  7. It's not how we were taught and discipled as Christians (4v20)
  8. It's not according to the truth in Jesus (4v21-22)
  9. Sin belongs to the old person, which is being destroyed (4v22)
  10. We should put off the old person and put on the new person (4v23)
  11. Our new selves were created according to God in righteousness and devoutness of truth (4v24)
  12. We are members of each other, so should be speaking truth to one another rather than falsehood (4v25)
  13. Sinning can give the devil a foothold in our lives (4v27)
  14. Our actions should be motivated by the needs of others (4v28-29).
  15. Doing good means that we can give to the needy (4v28)
  16. Our speech should be motivated by building up the needy (4v29)
  17. Sin grieves the Spirit of God (4v30)
  18. We have been sealed by the Spirit aiming for the day of redemption. We should therefore remember that we are heading for redemption and live accordingly (4v30)
  19. We should show grace to each other rather than evil because God has showed grace to us rather than evil (4v31-32)
  20. We should imitate God (5v1)
  21. Because we are God's children (5v1)
  22. Christ loved us and gave himself up for us – we should follow his example (5v2)
  23. We are “holy ones” and therefore should live in a fitting way (5v3-4)
  24. Sin is a form of idolatry, because we are acting as if God is really just our imagined version of God rather than the real one. (5v5)
  25. Idolaters (and therefore sinners) don't get an inheritance in God's kingdom (5v5)
  26. Saying that sinners won't be punished is just empty words (5v6)
  27. God's wrath really is coming on those whose identity is tied up with sin (5v6)
  28. We shouldn't partner with those who are heading towards God's wrath. (5v7)
  29. We were darkness, but now we are light. Therefore we should live like it. (5v8)
  30. God's light at work in us should produce goodness, righteousness and truth (5v9)
  31. We should test out what pleases God (5v10)
  32. The works of darkness are futile – they don't lead anywhere good. (5v11)
  33. It is shameful even to talk about deeds of darkness (5v12)
  34. God's transforming power is available to change the dark things in our pasts into light and use them for his glory (5v13-14)
  35. Walking well is wise; walking badly is foolish (5v15)
  36. The days are evil, therefore we need to make an effort to live wisely (5v16)
  37. It's important to understand what God wants us to do rather than be foolish (5v17)

Mark's Gospel - Wordle

We're starting a series on Mark at church this term. Here's a Wordle image for the book (ESV, because they're better with making the text available).