James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) on the doctrines of grace as a strong motive for missions/evangelism

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Tomorrow I leave for a fortnight with a group of about 26 students for the Dutch Reformed Student Congregation’s (of Bloemfontein) annual evangelism trip to Phoenix, just north of Durban, South Africa. It will be my fourth time and I’m very much looking forward to it. Phoenix is possibly the largest concentration of Indian people in the world outside of India itself. Though there are many Christians in Phoenix (and also people of every sect and cult imaginable – from Mormons to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Branhamists to self-described “heathens”, you name it), the majority of the people are either Hindu or Muslim.

Sometimes people consider the doctrines of grace (what is commonly called “Calvinism”) as a hindrance to missions/evangelism. They argue that is doesn’t make sense to make the effort to share the gospel with people if they are non-elect. Hyper-Calvinist heretics would nod their heads to this. But those with a biblical Reformed view of the matter know that the doctrines of grace as expounded in the Canons of Dort are exactly the greatest impulse for evangelism we have. I remember a few years ago when I was in Phoenix for this outreach, I was having a chat with one of my friends while overlooking a large area of Phoenix (see photo below where we were chatting – the church where we stay, Jeshurun, a congregation of the Reformed Church in Africa, is on top of a hill which offers a great view of Phoenix), and as we looked at all the houses with Hindu prayer flags on them, with an adhan (Muslim call to prayer) sounding from a Mosque 400m away from us and mantras being chanted from the Hare Krishna temple right next to the church where we stay, I said to my friend: “If we had to go into those homes tomorrow and depend on the persuasive power of our own arguments and rhetoric, and expect Hindus and Muslims to come to Christ by their own power and will after having been avid devotees of their religions for decades, we might as well pack up our things and go home.”

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With this in mind, James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) explains why the doctrines of grace gives us a firm motive for proclaiming the gospel. These quotes come from his book, co-authored by Philip Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel, in Boice’s chapter on unconditional election:

“People suppose that if God is going to save certain individuals, then he will save them, and there is no point in our having anything to do with it.  But it does not work that way.  Election does not exclude the use of the means by which God works, and the proclamation of the gospel is one of those means (1 Cor. 1:21).”

“Moreover, it is only the truth of election that gives us any hope of success as we proclaim the gospel to unsaved men and women.  If the heart of a sinner is as opposed to God as the Bible declares it to be, and if God does not elect people to salvation, then what hope of success could we possibly have in witnessing?  If God does not call sinners to Christ effectively, it is certain that we cannot do so either.  Even more, if the effective agent in salvation is not God’s choice and call – if the choice is up to the individual or to us, because of our powers to persuade people to accept Christ – how could we even dare to witness?  For what if we make a mistake?  What if we give a wrong answer?  What if we are insensitive to the person’s real questions?  In that case, people will fail to believe.  They may eventually go to hell, and their eternal destiny will be partly our fault, and how could any thinking, feeling Christian live with that?”

“But on the other hand, if God has elected some to salvation and if he is calling those elected individuals to Christ, then we can go forth boldly, knowing that our witness does not have to be perfect, that God uses even weak and stuttering testimonies to his grace and, best of all, that all whom God has chosen for salvation will be saved.  We can be fearless, knowing that all who are called by God will come to him.”

Thomas Goodwin (1600-1679): Our perfection in His perfection

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“By His death, Christ purchased all the grace and glory that the God of all grace had designed for us. That is clear in Scripture: ‘For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified’ (Heb. 9:14). Alas for us poor creatures! For a long time after we are sanctified, we remain imperfect, lacking all and everything in comparison. How, then, are we perfected? Because Jesus Christ, by that one offering, perfectly purchased all that ever shall make up our perfection. It is finished in that sense. He so abundantly procured all by His death that He needed to offer Himself but once. If there were anything necessary to perfect a saint that Christ did not purchase, His offering must have been imperfect.”

– Thomas Goodwin (1600-1679), Ephesians, Works, 1:170, 173

Carl Trueman: The gospel is a message, not a feeling or an experience

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I am currently reading Carl Trueman‘s book The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic & Contemporary Evangelicalism and thoroughly enjoying it. Part I, chapter 3 is titled “Theology and the Church: Divorce or Remarriage?”, in which (among other things) he critiques the contemporary church’s emphasis on experience. Below is an excerpt:

“…the gospel is a message with content and not simply a case of one person communicating an experience to a group of others. That is, after all, the essence of old-fashioned liberalism – Christianity is the feeling, not the doctrine, and theology is simply reflection upon religious psychology not upon the revelation of God

This has ramifications for various aspects of church life, not least in the realm of attitude toward learning. How many times have you heard the comment, ‘Old Mrs Jones has walked with the Lord for fifty years and knows more of God than any professor with a PhD.’ On one level, the comment might well be true – walking with the Lord in faith will get you into heaven in a way that mere possession of a PhD certainly will not. Nevertheless, when we grasp that the gospel is first of all a message, a proclamation of what God has done in Jesus Christ, and that experience comes as a response to that message, it is quite clear that a professor with a PhD may well have certain insights into that gospel message which Mrs Jones, for all her practical godliness, does not. Much of the anti-intellectualism which pours from pulpits in churches, from Reformed to charismatic, is the result of precisely this confusion between gospel as message and the believer’s response in experience – a confusion which has just enough appearance of truth to be superficially plausible while resting on a fundamentally skewed understanding of what the gospel actually is. Only when the church comes to acknowledge in both belief and practice that the gospel is a message, not a feeling or an experience, will such fuzzy thinking (and much else) finally be put to rest.”

– Carl Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic & Contemporary Evangelicalism, p. 71-72

The Liturgy of St. James: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

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One of my personal favourite hymns is Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. This hymn is derived from the ancient Liturgy of St. James, which is based on early Christian traditions of the Church of Jerusalem, with the specific excerpt below in turn being based on Habakkuk 2:20b, “Let all the earth keep silence before him”. Most scholars date this liturgy back to the 4th century. Here is the excerpt on which this well-known hymn is based:

“Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself:—

For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

– Liturgy of St. James, 2

The English hymn, which is still sung in many churches today, was translated in meter by Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885) in 4 stanzas:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213-270) on the Trinity

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Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213-270) was a 3rd century Christian bishop from Neo-Caesarea in Asia Minor. His Exposition of the Faith below is an ante-Nicene confession of the Trinity, which developed on the theology of Origen. He clearly stated the distinction between the Persons in the Trinity, and emphasized the eternity, equality, immortality, and perfection of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit:

There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is His subsistent Wisdom and Power and Eternal Image: perfect Begetter of the perfect Begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son. There is one Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and Power formative of the whole creation, true Son of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal and Eternal of Eternal. And there is One Holy Spirit, having His subsistence from God, and being made manifest by the Son, to wit to men: Image of the Son, Perfect Image of the Perfect; Life, the Cause of the living; Holy Fount; Sanctity, the Supplier, or Leader, of Sanctification; in whom is manifested God the Father, who is above all and in all, and God the Son, who is through all. There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged. Wherefore there is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything superinduced, as if at some former period it was non-existent, and at some later period it was introduced. And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abides ever.

Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986): The jargon of the faith needs to be explained

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Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986) offers a wise caution for all preachers, teachers and writers when using the vocabulary and jargon of the faith. Often we assume that our audience knows the meaning or significance of terms like sin, grace, Christ, etc. without ever stopping to explain what such terms mean or signify. Thielicke points out the problem with this and offers a suggestion on what we can do about it:

“Where is the average person today who, when he hears the word ‘sin,’ really hears what the New Testament meant by that word? For whom today does this word still say that here man is being addressed at the point of his resistance and opposition to God, that this means man in his will to assert his autonomy, his insistence that everything centers in man, his incredible passion for security, his lostness in preoccupation with the moment and that which is tangible and immediately at hand? And yet all this must be heard when we hear the word ‘sin,’ if for no other reason than to understand that it is possible for a sinner to be at the same time an example of moral perfection and that he need by no means be a criminal, an antisocial, or even a person who lacks seriousness. Were not the Pharisees ethically very respectable people? And yet for Jesus they were more drastic examples of sin than publicans and prostitutes.

And the word ‘Christ’ itself? What would really be the result if we were to investigate the exchange value of that term in the psychological substructure of the average man today? What we would come out with would probably be some idea of a fabulously wise man or a perfect human being.

The point is that we need to say what we mean by these terms; we dare not throw them at people as supposedly valid coins whose value is immediately recognized. Otherwise we shall all too thoughtlessly reach out for them with the notion that they are perfectly familiar, whereas the truth is that the metal begins to glow and burn only when we have some idea of what these coins really signify. …

I once experimented with students, having them prepare sermons in which the conventional terms like ‘God,’ ‘sin,’ ‘grace,’ etc. did not appear. The words had to be paraphrased. I think this is a good exercise, even though it has importance only as an interim practice. For we should not discontinue the use of these words in the pulpit; all we need is a withdrawal-cure because of the thoughtless use we make of them. We need to learn to overcome the temptation to string together the old words in different variations, because then souls remain underfed and are lost.”

– Helmut Thielicke (1908-1986), The Trouble with the Church: A Call for Renewal, p. 36-38

David F. Wells on the Church without the Word

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“…Without this transcendent Word in its life, the church has no rudder, no compass, no provisions. Without the Word, it has no capacity to stand outside its culture, to detect and wretch itself free from the seductions of modernity. Without the Word, the church has no meaning. It may seek substitutes for meaning in committee work, relief work, and various other church activities, but such things cannot fill the role for very long. Cut off from the meaning that God has given, faith cannot offer anything more by way of light in our dark world than what is offered by philosophy, psychology, or sociology. Cut off from God’s meaning, the church is cut off from God; it loses its identity as the people of God in belief, in practice, in hope. Cut off from God’s Word, the church is on its own, left to live for itself, by itself, upon itself.”

– David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, p. 150