In 1854, when Charles Spurgeon began pastoring the New Park Street Chapel, he had a handful of deacons and a membership of 313 (though the actual attendance was much smaller). In just twelve weeks, they outgrew their space and made plans to enlarge their building. But almost immediately, they needed even more space, and so the church made plans to build a new building that would eventually become the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

Space issues were a problem, but more than that, Spurgeon suddenly found himself caring for a congregation that had grown far beyond his capacity.

This mattered to Spurgeon because of his ecclesiological commitments. He was not an itinerant preacher, and his church was not merely a preaching station. For all of his evangelistic preaching, Spurgeon refused to separate the call to the gospel with the call to be accountable to a local church. Spurgeon once stated, “I would rather give up my pastorate than admit any man to the Church who was not obedient to his Lord’s command; and such a course would certainly promote the downfall of any Church that practiced it.”[1]

For Spurgeon, this was not an idle commitment. In Spurgeon’s first six-and-a-half years at New Park Street Chapel, the church added 1,442 new members. That’s 1,442 membership interviews, 1,442 meetings with Spurgeon, 1,442 membership visitations, 1,442 testimonies before the congregation, and 1,442 approvals by the congregation—not to mention over a thousand baptisms, as most of these were new converts.

These numbers would only increase. For any pastor, Spurgeon not excluded, caring for a growing church can become a crushing load. And yet, Spurgeon refused to compromise his convictions for conveniences. Throughout his ministry, he pursued meaningful, regenerate church membership—and in doing so, the Metropolitan Tabernacle became an engine for gospel-ministry all around the world.

Here are five ways Spurgeon did this.

1) A Careful Membership Process

In the February 1869 edition of the Spurgeon’s magazine, The Sword and the Trowel (S&T), Spurgeon provides a six-step description of their membership process:

  1. An enquirer meets with one of the elders on a Wednesday evening and shares with them their testimony. Assuming a clear testimony has been shared, the elder records each testimony and schedules a meeting with the pastor for an interview.
  2. If the pastor is satisfied, at a congregational meeting, he will nominate an elder or church member as a “visitor.” This visitor will “enquire as to the moral character and repute of the candidate” by meeting with the candidate and talking to their neighbors, co-workers, family members, former church, etc. The goal is to find out whether there’s evidence of a life consistent with their profession of faith.
  3. If the visitor is satisfied, he will invite the candidate to attend a congregational meeting in which he or she will come before the church and answer any questions. According to Spurgeon, this happens “to elicit expressions of his trust in the Lord Jesus, and the hope of salvation through his blood, and any such facts of his spiritual history as may convince the church of the genuineness of the case.”
  4. After the statement before the church, the candidate withdraws, and the visitor gives his report.
  5. The church then takes a vote to receive him into membership.
  6. The person is publicly given the right-hand of fellowship after being baptized and participating in the next communion service of the church.[2]

With so many applying for membership, Spurgeon refined and made this process more efficient over the years, but never in a way that compromised the careful consideration of every potential member.

2) Working for Meaningful Membership

Spurgeon didn’t want to simply have people on the church rolls. He wanted to make sure Metropolitan’s church members continued in their profession of faith. In his last sermon to the Pastors’ College, Spurgeon urged his students,

Let us not keep names on our books when they are only names. Certain of the good old people like to keep them there, and cannot bear to have them removed; but when you do not know where individuals are, nor what they are, how can you count them? They are gone to America, or Australia, or to heaven, but as far as your roll is concerned they are with you still. Is this a right thing? It may not be possible to be absolutely accurate, but let us aim at it. . . . Keep your church real and effective, or make no report. A merely nominal church is a lie. Let it be what it professes to be.[3]

In a church of thousands, one of the ways Spurgeon pursued this was by tracking those who regularly came to the Lord’s Table. Upon joining the church, members were given a communion card, divided by perforation into twelve numbered parts, one of which was to be delivered every month at the communion. These tickets would be checked by the elders, and if any member was “absent more than three months without any known cause, the elder in whose district he resides is requested to visit him, and send in a report.”[4]

Often, in these visits, the elders would uncover pastoral needs. They’d find members who had drifted away from the faith, joined another church, or simply moved away. In every case, this prudential choice enabled the church to work toward meaningful membership either by providing better care and discipleship, or by removing some members from the membership.

3) Congregational Meetings as Discipleship

Congregational meetings became an essential part of Metropolitan Tabernacle, even though they primarily dealt with membership matters.

These meetings could last a long time. On May 18, 1860, 42 candidates appeared before the church, each giving his or her testimony. This meeting began at 2PM, and according to Spurgeon’s notes in the margin, “This most blessed meeting lasted till a late hour at night. Bless the Lord.”[5]

Unsurprisingly, these long meetings couldn’t be sustained, so the congregation began to host shorter meetings whenever they had the opportunity. Between the March and April communion services of 1874, the church held 12 congregational meetings and welcomed 93 members.

As is evident from Spurgeon’s note above, these congregational meetings were meant to be edifying. They were a necessary complement to the Word ministry of the church. According to both Spurgeon’s autobiography and Wonders of Grace, a book of testimonies from his early years, the congregation heard dozens of testimonies of people converted under Spurgeon’s preaching. But they also heard from new believers who heard the gospel through other ministries, or because another member invited them to church, or shared the gospel with them, or faithfully prayed for them for decades, and so on. In these meetings, the whole congregation saw both God’s power in salvation and their role in bringing the gospel to the lost.

4) Calling Elders

When Spurgeon first began his pastorate, the church only recognized the offices of pastor and deacons. However, as the church grew, the work of caring for the spiritual and temporal needs of the congregation became too much for the deacons to handle. And so, in January 1859, Spurgeon made a biblical case for the office of elder as one dedicated to the spiritual care of the church. The following motion was passed:

Whereupon it was resolved that the Church having heard the statement made by its pastor respecting the office of the eldership desires to elect a certain number to serve the church in the office for one year. It being understood that these brethren are to attend to the spiritual affairs of the Church and not to the temporal matters which appertain to the deacons only.[6]

From that time on, the congregation would annually appoint elders to labor alongside Spurgeon in the spiritual care of the congregation. The February 1869 edition of the S&T describes the elders’ job description:

The seeing of enquirers, the visiting of candidates for church membership, the seeking out of absentees, the caring for the sick and troubled, the conducting of prayer-meetings, catechumen and Bible-classes for the young men—these and other needed offices our brethren the Elders discharge for the church. One Elder is maintained by the church for the especial purpose of visiting our sick poor, and looking after the church-roll, that this may be done regularly and efficiently.[7]

Spurgeon lamented that most of Baptist churches didn’t have elders, and so he encouraged them to follow the New Testament pattern.

5) Cultivating a Working Church

An accurate membership roll is never a goal in and of itself. Rather, Spurgeon understood that a congregation full of people who genuinely loved Jesus and believed the gospel created an army that could shake the world. He constantly called his people to do something for God’s kingdom:

What odd notions people have of joining the church. Many a young man joins a rifle corps. There he is! When he joins the church, where is he? We have the distinguished honor of having the names of many young gentlemen on our books. But where are they? What are they doing? They think it enough that they have joined the church; and they don’t think that anything more is required. When they join a literary institute, or anything of that kind, they do so for the purpose of doing something, and obtaining an advantage from it; and I say to such young men, “Do you believe the Christian church to be a farce? If you do so, we could even dispense with your names; if you do not believe the Christian church is a farce, then show that you don’t by working so far as you can in the cause of Christ.” But we hear some say, “I could do nothing, though I were to try it.” Well, I would reply, “I would not have liked to say that of you. There is not a nettle in the corner of the churchyard without its virtues; there is not a spider in the world but has its web to spin; and there is no man in the world but has something to do for the cause of Christ, which nobody else can do but himself. I don’t think it is possible for you to be powerless. Can’t you speak to someone? Can’t you do something in your own place as a member of the church?”[8]

Oh, to get a working church! The German churches, when our dear friend Mr. Oncken was alive, always carried out the rule of asking every member, “What are you going to do for Christ?” and they put the answer down in a book. The one thing that was required of every member was that he should continue doing something for the Savior. If he ceased to do anything, it was a matter for church discipline, for he was an idle professor, and could not be allowed to remain in the church like a drone in a hive of working bees. He must do or go.[9]

The Metropolitan Tabernacle planted over a hundred churches. They sent out hundreds of pastors and trained hundreds of missionaries. Dozens upon dozens of charitable organizations began, and publications, tracts, and pamphlets were distributed throughout the world. The impact of this healthy church continues to be felt today.

To be sure, not every church will be the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and not every pastor will be Charles Spurgeon. But that’s never the goal. The goal is for every church and every pastor to be faithful—in doctrinal purity, in guarding the membership, in active gospel ministry. In this, both Spurgeon and the Metropolitan Tabernacle remain a model for pastors and churches today.

Editor’s note: This has been adapted from an article that originally appeared on The Spurgeon Center’s website.

* * * * *


[1] Charles H. Spurgeon, “Meeting of our Own Church,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons Preached and Revised by C. H. Spurgeon (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1970-2006), Vol. 7, 260.

[2] Charles H. Spurgeon, C.H. Spurgeon’s Works in His Magazine The Sword and the Trowel, Volumes 1-8 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 2004), 2:149-151.

[3] Charles H. Spurgeon, The Greatest Fight in the World: The Final Manifesto (Fearn: Christian Focus

Publications, 2014), 92-93.

[4] S&T, Vol. 2, 150.

[5] Church Meeting Minutes 1854-1861 New Park Street. Metropolitan Tabernacle Archives. Entry on May 18, 1860.

[6] Church Meeting Minutes 1854-1861 New Park Street. Metropolitan Tabernacle Archives. Entry on Jan. 12, 1859.

[7] S&T, Vol. 2, 149.

[8] Charles H. Spurgeon, Speeches at Home and Abroad (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1974), 60.

[9] Spurgeon, The Greatest Fight in the World, 96.

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6 Ways to Teach Your Children History

One of my earliest memories is visiting the Magna Carta. Dad put me on his shoulders so I could look over all the people pressing around the display case. The document—old and dirty—didn’t impress me. What did impress me was my father’s excitement. “Look!” he kept saying, “That’s it, right there!”

Even if it looked lame, I knew it was significant. And history has been doing that for me ever since.

Children should be exposed to history early and often through artifacts, oral stories, old art, and especially good books. History gives our children so many benefits. It is a fantastic—though frequently neglected—parenting tool.

Here are six ways history can bless your kids.

1. Teach children that history is fun.

Though my children like science better than history right now, we all love to curl up on the couch and read about someone amazing from centuries ago.

Pheidippides—running 200 miles in a couple of days! Zheng He—sailing from China to Mecca before Columbus was born. Luther—saying shocking things that make us laugh and think. Elizabeth—the tsarina who never wore the same dress twice and owned 15,000 when she died.

History is full of crazy, interesting people, and it can be crazy interesting to explore their lives.

2. Teach children that history lets them see values played out.

Think about the traitors in history. That’s where selfishness leads when it’s scared.

How about the dictators? That’s selfishness when it’s bold and powerful.

Generals? That’s leadership exercised for good—or evil.

Scientists? Many show us how curiosity can serve civilization.

Martyrs? Conviction writ large.

Missionaries? The drive to share truth.

When kids get to know history, they get to know what makes people tick and how that changes not only other lives, but the world. They can also detect the seeds of these tendencies in themselves, and then cultivate or uproot them.

3. Teach children that history gives them perspective.

Our culture is radically individualistic. From baby boomers whose life goal is an amazing retirement to millennials with an entitlement complex, people are obsessed with self, experts at ignoring their mortality. It helps to look back through millennia and see many millions of men, women, and children who are no more.

We are so small, so temporary. It’s not about us, and history shouts this out. You can’t do history for long and feel bigger than you really are.

You can’t do history for long and feel bigger than you really are.

Children can learn to see eternity swell beyond time’s horizon, learn to number their days, and gain hearts of wisdom (Ps. 90:12).

4. Teach children that history gives them direction.

Contrary to some worldviews, history isn’t going in circles. It has an end point, a climax that’s approaching: “He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity” (Ps. 98:9).

Grasping this end point helps children understand that they can have purpose in life: they can, through loving God and neighbor, actually move history along to its ultimate goal. Their lives can have the same goal that history does: the exaltation of Jesus Christ.

5. Teach children that history grounds them.

The industry that charts family trees, tracks DNA, and reveals roots is booming. Everyone wants to know where they’re from, because it’s part of who they are. It gives them a story, a personal history, an interpretive grid.

Children need this. They need to understand their community and their place in it. They need church history in particular. Especially in our transient culture, this gift brings lifelong blessing. Give it to your children.

6. Teach children that history helps them understand who God is.

History teaches that we’re small and temporary, but it teaches us the opposite about God. He isn’t like us. He is eternal and outside of time. He preserves his church and his Word. He built order and patterns into the world, but he isn’t bound by them. He works in mysterious ways, bringing revival to England while revolution tore France apart. He allowed China to lock itself up to communism, letting the Word and Spirit do their work underground. He brings down nations, and the hearts of kings are like streams of water in his hand (Prov. 21:1).

So pursue history with your kids! Read it out loud to them. Give them quality historic novels and biographies to go through on their own. Talk about it with them. Visit a museum and look at images and artifacts with them.

They’re never too young to meet the people and understand the events that made our world, or to contemplate the God who orchestrates it all for our good and his glory.

Editors’ note: Here is a new series of illustrated board books for young children. These simple stories—written with 1–3 year olds in mind—have beautiful, engaging illustrations that will have your children asking you to read them over and over:


The Moment of Truth: Its Rejection

In this very generation in which we live, we hear this malignant mantra: “What is truth?”

Pilate, standing before the Lord Jesus Christ, who is truth incarnate, voices an age-old question. But it is not an honest question from one searching to know the truth. Rather, it is a defiant denunciation of the truth. It is spoken with a tone of derision. It is dismissive. It is spoken with contempt. This response is asserted mockingly by Pilate. It is a disparaging chide, dripping with sarcasm. It is a caustic rebuttal, intended to belittle the notion that there is any such thing in this world as a truth claim.


Today, it is often said, “I have my truth, and you have your truth.” Our generation likes to deny absolute truth, saying that something can be true for one person but not true for someone else. This view is not new. In John 18, our Lord stood trial before Pilate. It was the day before His crucifixion, and He would soon be sentenced to death. But before Pilate gives the final verdict, we read this conversation:

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” (John 18:36–38a)

Pilate, standing before the Lord Jesus Christ, who is truth incarnate, voices an age-old question. But it is not an honest question from one searching to know the truth. Rather, it is a defiant denunciation of the truth. It is spoken with a tone of derision. It is dismissive. It is spoken with contempt. This response is asserted mockingly by Pilate. It is a disparaging chide, dripping with sarcasm. It is a caustic rebuttal, intended to belittle the notion that there is any such thing in this world as a truth claim. This is a barbed jab by Pilate into the ribs of the Lord Jesus Christ, meant to deflate Him and denigrate any notion that Jesus could claim to know and speak the truth. Pilate objects to the very idea of an exclusive truth claim.

This question has echoed down the centuries and corridors of time, and it is growing louder and louder today. In this very generation in which we live, we hear this malignant mantra: “What is truth?”

The spirit of Pilate lives in our day. The spirit of Pilate is alive and well on college campuses. It sits in the halls of our government and legislates our moral code. It reigns in our media. It teaches in many of our seminaries. It stands in pulpits today. We live in a culture that is defiant of any notion of truth. We live in a day that not only denies truth, but is against truth. This is an age that is tolerant of anything and anyone except one who claims to know the truth.

In this blog series, we will examine these verses that contain this exchange between Pilate and Jesus in John 18. We will learn some key distinguishing marks related to truth: first, the rejection of the truth; second, the reality of the truth; and third, the reception of the truth.

What Is Truth?

We are surrounded on every side in this culture by the question “What is truth?” This is really the mother of all sins. It is a deliberate setting aside and an intentional rejection of the truth of God.

This is the way it was in the very beginning. In Genesis 3, Satan the serpent slithered on to the pages of human history, and he came to launch an attack on the truth. He said, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” Satan knew very well what God had said, but he came to call God’s words into question—to dismiss the truth of God. The original sin was a rejection of the truth—a rejection of God’s way. Man chose to go his own way, to decide for himself what is true, to make his own choices in defiance of the truth.

Romans 1:18 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Every generation—and every person—suppresses the truth about God, apart from being born of the truth. This tendency is inherent within man, part of the radical corruption and total depravity in human nature. A few verses later, in Romans 1:25, we read how people exchange the truth of God for a lie. That is the hour in which we live. We live in a culture that has exchanged the truth of God for a lie and has suppressed the truth. This is the demise of any life, it is the departure of any denomination, it is the destruction of any nation, and the disintegration of any society—it begins with the rejection of truth.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than with our college students, who attend universities that, in many cases, intend to undermine the truth. A recent survey bears this out. Of those surveyed, sixty-four percent of adults age thirty-six and over said there are no moral absolutes. And only twenty-two percent said there are any moral absolutes. But among respondents who are eighteen to twenty-five years old, the percentage of those who reject moral absolutes increased to seventy-five percent. They have no moral compass because they have rejected the truth. And then when the survey was conducted with teenagers, the number jumped again. Eighty-three percent of teenagers said morality and truth depend upon one’s individual preference and upon the circumstances. The younger you are, the more you embrace the statement that there is no absolute truth today.

Men and women of our day are increasingly given to this idea: the only absolute is that there are no absolutes—the only truth is that there is no truth. The only intolerance is the intolerance of intolerance. All this gives popularity today to the approval of such things as abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, pornography, and all kinds of lewd behavior. It is all traced back to this point of departure: the rejection of the truth.

We see it everywhere today. Humanism says man is the truth; pragmatism says whatever works is the truth; pluralism says everyone has a piece of the truth; relativism says each situation determines the truth; mysticism says intuition is the truth; skepticism says no one can know the truth; hedonism says whatever feels good is the truth; existentialism says self-determination is the truth; secularism says this present world is the truth; positivism says whatever man confesses is the truth. This is the world in which we live: the rejection of the truth. In the next post of this series, we will turn to the reality of the truth.

© 2018 Ligonier Ministries


Jesus Was Rejected for Teaching Predestination

John 6:22-7 is truly a fascinating passage in many ways, as it deals directly with Christ’s claims to divinity amidst a crowd who simply didn’t see Him for who He was. It is no small coincidence John includes the narrative of Christ performing such magnificent miracles in the preceding verses. These miracles not only demonstrate His mastery over the elements, but serve a larger point to show His mastery over all Creation. Within this same measure, Jesus uses these miracles to demonstrate the greater miracle given to mankind is Himself. Yet what often gets shoved to the side in this passage by non-Calvinists is the Scripture’s clear teaching on predestination.

While the overarching point of this passage highlights the divinity of Christ, it is readily apparent several underlying, Calvinistic themes emerge in the text. In fact, it can be argued that Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace are all present themes in this passage. Rather than focus on trying to make these theological points fit in the text, I am simply going to draw out particular instances where predestination is present. It should be obvious that the full teachings of these doctrines are not present, but it is important that we catch glimpses of them here. What becomes clear as we examine this in the passage is that these teachings were a large part of the reason why many “turned back and no longer walked with Him” (vv. 59, 66). As in our own day, the topic of predestination was not well-received.

The Clarity of Predestination in this Passage

When we take a step back and look at Christ drawing the parallel to God providing Manna from the heavens in Exodus 16 and Himself, an interesting observation can be made. In Exodus 16:4, the Lord speaks of testing His people through the provision of Manna. For what purpose? To see if they will walk in His instruction. Yet of particular interest is their continued grumbling against the Lord’s provision throughout the whole of the passage in Exodus. For anyone familiar with the text itself, we know it obviously doesn’t end well for the grumbling Israelites.

Back to our text in John 6, we see Jesus pick up this same theme from Exodus 16 to draw out that He is the greater “bread from heaven” that gives life to the world. What is unique in this is that without even touching on predestination to begin with, Christ immediately brings focus to God’s providence through His Son. Not only will those who come to Him never hunger, but they will also never thirst; it is an eternal sustenance found solely in the person of Christ.

Yet this sustenance has a particular people in mind, as He moves on to say that the ones who will come to Him are those whom the Father has sent (v. 37-38). Everyone, meaning every literal individual given by the Father, will come to Christ – and Christ shall never drive them away. Why? Christ came down from heaven as the Bread of Life to do the will of the Father (v. 38). If this were not clear enough, the very next verse defines what the will of the Father is: that I shall lose none of those He has given Me, but raise them up at the last day (v. 39). Again, if this were still not clear enough, in verse 40 Christ reiterates this teaching by declaring that any who look upon the Son and believe in Him shall have eternal life and be raised on the last day.

I bring this out with the particular focus of John 6:41 and following, as the theme of grumbling arises once again. Their response is verbatim to how their ancestors responded to Moses; God provides life-giving sustenance, this time in a measure which cannot be surpassed, and they grumble. Christ initially responds, “Stop grumbling among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Rather than shying away, He doubles down on all that He just said and even becomes more controversial in teaching they must eat of His flesh and drink of His blood.

What is astounding here is that all throughout His presentation of this truth, Christ never shies away from demonstrating that He is God, the Father draws those whom will be saved and raised on that last day, and that rather than rejoicing, the Israelites grumbled. John draws attention to their grumbling three times in this passage (vv. 41, 43, and 60), as well as the result it produced (vv. 59, 66). Of particular interest here was Christ’s keen observation all the way back in verse 36, where He states, “…you have seen Me and still you do not believe.”

What this plainly indicates is that they were not those whom the Father drew to Christ for salvation through Him. They did not see God – because they were not His children. They were not those whom the Father had drawn to Christ, for if they were, they would have come to Him (v. 37, 44). In opposition to this we find the words of Peter when Christ asks if he wanted to leave Him too: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that You are the Holy One of God.”The disparity of these two reactions serves to demonstrate effectual belief in the Son of God is conditional to the work of God. However, it also clearly indicates the content of this teaching is at the heart of their rejection of Christ. It is not simply a matter of perceived cannibalism, which no doubt would have struck many Jews with a sense of disgust due to Mosaic Law. It is the matter of God providing the means of eternal sustenance in the person of Christ, and God drawing whom He wills to this same Christ, which they grumbled over.

Predestination Highlights God’s Mastery Over All Creation – Even You

With all of this in mind, I wish to bring out the beginning of this chapter once again, particularly, in reflection of this narrative’s placement among two other miracles. I believe John is highlighting a third, greater miracle, being the effectual drawing and sustaining of God’s elect. The purpose of miracles within the New Testament serve to demonstrate Christ’s superiority over all of created order, and in this instance, this includes the heart of man.

Just as John pens Christ’s miraculous ability to heal the lame, replicate a meager meal to a feast for thousands, His ability rebuke the winds and calm the sea, and Christ’s ability to walk on water – the apostle highlights He is greater than all these things. However, we cannot divorce this from the teaching of predestination all throughout the teaching of Christ’s divinity in this chapter. It is intermingled throughout the passage in such a way that John truly wishes for us to see the fullness of His might over creation.

It must be stated that to see such miracles, it would be readily obvious to all that this was the Son of man. In fact, we have numerous examples where men exclaim this very thing upon seeing His demonstration of that mastery over creation. However, in the midst of this, there are thousands who witnessed such things and still rejected the person of Christ. How else might one make sense of this if it were not for the fact that these men were not those whom the Father predestined and gave to the Son, especially when the text so clearly shows this?

Yet a greater teaching comes from this in that no created thing can thwart the purposes of God. Often, men will ascent to this truth, yet scarcely will they lump in their autonomy as part of what God has jurisdiction over. Christ, in the full measure of His deity, performs the miraculous as only the Son of God can. Even the hardened heart is turned from stone to flesh; is this not an act of God bending the will, as only the Potter could? Shall we say He is unjust? By no means! The Potter has right to do what He wills with His creation, which according to this passage, is to draw those whom He sent to Christ, so that Christ will not lose even one.



The Fantasy of Addiction

Peter Hitchens, writing on the “Fantasy of Addiction” in the February issue of First Things:

But it makes little difference. The belief is implanted in the modern mind, taught to the young not by explanation, experiment, and example but by being repeatedly and universally assumed. First of all, it is conventional wisdom, built into thousands of sentences, newspaper articles, TV and radio programs, sermons, speeches, and private conversations. Secondly, it is what we desire. Which of us, indulging in some pleasure, is not secretly relieved to find that others are weaker than we are, have nastier and more selfish pleasures, and that these things are generally excused because of a vast, universal thing that we cannot control or influence?  Indulgence, like misery, seeks company for reassurance. Unlike misery, it generally finds that company. Beliefs spread in this way cannot really be challenged. Jonathan Swift rightly observed that you cannot reason a man out of a position he was not reasoned into in the first place.

It was the triumph of the Christian religion that for many centuries it managed to become the unreasoning assumption of almost all, built into every spoken and written word, every song, and every building. It was the disaster of the Christian religion that it assumed this triumph would last forever and outlast everything, and so it was ill equipped to resist the challenge of a rival when it came, in this, the century of the self. The Christian religion had no idea that a new power, which I call selfism, would arise. And, having arisen, selfism has easily shouldered its rival aside. In free competition, how can a faith based upon self-restraint and patience compete with one that pardons, unconditionally and in advance, all the self-indulgences you can think of, and some you cannot? That is what the “addiction” argument is most fundamentally about, and why it is especially distressing to hear Christian voices accepting and promoting it, as if it were merciful to call a man a slave, and treat him as if he had no power to resist. The mass abandonment of cigarettes by a generation of educated people demonstrates that, given responsibility for their actions and blamed for their outcomes, huge numbers of people will give up a bad habit even if it is difficult. Where we have adopted the opposite attitude, and assured abusers that they are not answerable for their actions, we have seen other bad habits grow or remain as common as before. Heroin abuse has not been defeated, the abuse of prescription drugs grows all the time, and heavy drinking is a sad and spreading problem in Britain.

Most of the people who read what I have written here, if they even get the end, will be angry with me for expressing their own secret doubts, one of the cruelest things you can do to any fellow creature. For we all prefer the easy, comforting falsehood to the awkward truth. But at the same time, we all know exactly what we are doing, and seek with ever-greater zeal to conceal it from ourselves. Has it not been so since the beginning? And has not the greatest danger always been that those charged with the duty of preaching the steep and rugged pathway persuade themselves that weakness is compassion, and that sin can be cured at a clinic, or soothed with a pill? And so falsehood flourishes in great power, like the green bay tree.


William Cowper – “A Stricken Deer”

The year did not start well for William Cowper

He had been lodging with a pious family, the Unwins, for almost ten years, sharing with them joys and sorrows, including the unexpected deadly accident of Rev. Unwin. Recently, a friend of the family, Rev. John Newton, had invited Mrs. Unwin and her daughter Susanna to live next-door to him in Olney. He had extended the invitation to Cowper, who was for the Unwins like a son.

Newton and Cowper found a great affinity of minds and souls. Cowper’s poetic talent and theological understanding provided fresh inspiration to Newton’s ministry. Together, the two men produced a large number of hymns to sing at prayer meetings – a collection today known as the Olney Hymns. Cowper was to Newton a trusted friend, and accompanied him to meetings and on regular visits to parishioners.

Most recently, he had been wrestling with some trying circumstances. The sudden death of his beloved brother John, financial pressures due to John’s unresolved debts, and the death of two cousins had weighed heavily on Cowper’s frail mind.


A Troubled Life

He had always been a sensitive child. Born on 15 November 1731 in Hertfordshire, England, he had experienced sorrow and death from an early age – from the infant deaths of five siblings to the decease of his mother Ann, who died while giving birth to John (the only other child who survived). Cowper was six at that time. About fifty years later, he immortalized his mother in a heart-felt poem, “On the Receipt of my Mother’s Picture.”

Cowper continued his life without the person who had given him most comfort. His father, Reverend John Cowper, sent him to a school in Bedfordshire, 30 miles from home, where a 15-year old bully made him afraid to even raise his eyes in the boy’s presence. Later, the prestigious Westminster School in London, he watched a teacher suffer at the hands of bullies. In spite of this intimidating climate, he did well in his studies and created meaningful friendships.

Cowper’s father directed him to study law – a path William disliked and felt unsuited to pursue. His first experiences in the legal field confirmed his feelings. His only consolation was his love for his cousin Theadora, which she returned. The relation continued for three years, until her father barred the financially unstable Cowper from marrying her.

Moved by Theadora’s tears, her father found a suitable occupation for Cowper. By that time, however, Cowper had been suffering from persistent feelings of depression which blinded him to opportunities and convinced him they were presented to him to cause his failure. When a jealous opponent challenged his credentials, Cowper couldn’t take the pressure and entertained thoughts of suicide.

He bought a half-ounce of laudanum, a tincture of opium, but couldn’t bring himself to swallow it. He thought of drowning himself. When an attempt to stab himself with a penknife failed (the blade broke), he hanged himself with a garter. This method didn’t work either, because the garter snapped just as William was losing consciousness. A friend found him as he had collapsed on his bed. This was the end of William’s career and any chance to marry Theadora.

This experience was followed by greater depression, aggravated by fears of spiritual damnation. He found some relief in the sermons of a cousin, Rev. Martin Madan, who preached God’s free grace to sinners. At night, however, the terrors returned, so much that his family and friends suggested a hospitalization at St. Albans, a sanitorium. He stayed there for over a year, fluctuating from moments of utter despair (with at least one new suicide attempt) to great delight in the promises of the gospel which friends and even his doctor kept reminding him.

When he left the sanitorium in 1765, friends and family committed to support him financially so he could live as a gentleman. It was around this time that he moved in with the Unwins.


A Mysterious Way

What tipped Cowper’s fragile balance at the start of 1773 might have been the people’s gossips about a love relationship between him and Mrs. Unwin. As long as Susanna Unwin lived with her mother, the situation looked respectable, but when she became engaged, the prospects of having an unmarried man living alone with an attractive widow seemed scandalous to many.

Newton recommended that Cowper marry Mrs. Unwin, but Cowper and Theadora had promised each other never to marry anyone else, and to keep the promise secret. For this reason, he could neither marry Mrs. Unwin, nor explain why.

There might have been other reasons for Cowper’s renewed bout of depression. In any case, on 1 January 1773 he felt the oncoming of a crisis similar to what he had experienced ten years earlier, including the urge to take his own life. He picked up his pen and wrote one of the greatest poetic reminders of God’s sovereign grace – the hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”


Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessings on your head.


Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.[1]


During the night, Cowper was afflicted by dreams and hallucinations. He thought God was commanding him to put an end to his life. John Newton, who rushed to Cowper’s side when Mrs. Unwin called him, spared us the details of that painful night, mentioning only “an affecting and critical dispensation”[2] [which in those days meant “a distribution of blood,” probably from wounds Cowper had inflicted himself].

Newton’s diary over the next month is a testimony of the gravity of Cowper’s condition. A few days later, Newton witnessed another “affecting scene” at Cowper’s side. “I have now devoted myself and time as much as possible to attend on Mr. Cowper,” he wrote on January 5. “We walked today and probably shall daily. I shall now have little leisure but for such things as indispensably require attention.”[3]

In spite of Cowper’s distrust of his own salvation, Newton never doubted it for a moment. He was just “astonished and grieved” by the pain his friend was suffering. “My dear friend still walks in darkness,” he wrote. “I can hardly conceive that anyone in a state of grace and favor with God can be in greater distress.”[4]

On Cowper’s request, Newton took him back into his home for thirteen months, where he reminded him daily of God’s faithfulness. When he finally returned to his home, Cowper devoted himself to quiet pursuits such as writing, gardening, carpentry, drawing, and caring for three young hares he celebrated in verse and prose as Puss, Tiney, and Bess.

A few of his poems revealed his anguish (particularly his 1774 “Hatred and Vengeance, my Eternal Portion”). Many, however, were just expressions of a simple life and renewed attention to ordinary things: a cat who was mistakenly closed inside a drawer and – more famously – a poem in six books inspired by a sofa. The latter (“The Task”) moved from the origins of the sofa to a description of his life of retirement and the local village, a commentary on contemporary England, a denunciation of slavery, and an exhortation to turn to Christ. Cowper gives this exhortation as “a stricken deer that left the herd” and was stricken by arrows, until Christ found him, “who had Himself       been hurt by the archers.”[5]

Whatever other people may have thought of Cowper’s permanence at Mrs. Urwin’s home, she became his caretaker, while he swung from feelings of gratitude to delusional beliefs that she hated him and was trying to poison his food.

After his 1773 attack, Cowper never went back to church, but Newton didn’t give up on his friend. When Cowper died in April 1800, Newton preached at his funeral from Exodus 3:2-3, saying, “He was indeed a bush in flames for 27 years but he was not consumed.  And why?  Because the Lord was there.”[6]


[1] William Cowper, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, https://hymnary.org/text/god_moves_in_a_mysterious_way

[3] Ibid., 5 January

[4] Ibid., 23 January

[5] William Cowper, The Task, Book III, “The Garden,” http://www.bartleby.com/337/774.html

[6] Mr Newton’s Account Of Mr Cowper In A Funeral Sermon Preached In St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, May 1800, https://www.johnnewton.org/Groups/251893/The_John_Newton/new_menus/Sermo…


Cinderella, you shall go to the ball!

The second century is arguably the Cinderella of the early church, generally neglected in favor of other, apparently more exciting and accessible, periods.    It is populated by largely shadowy figures about whom we know enough to be tantalized, even impressed, but it lacks the giant intellects and the elaborate doctrinal disputes and formulations that emerge from the third century onwards.   Yet, as Michael Kruger argues in his new book, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church, this period is critical for understanding the development of the post-apostolic church.    Issues of theology, authority, worship, ecclesiology, culture and canon all emerge at this time and directions of later discussions are established.  Further, the period also has a more immediate practical relevance for us:  there is much to be gained from reflecting on the analogies between the church in the West in our day and that of Christianity in a largely indifferent and at times overtly hostile Roman empire.



The historian of Christianity in the second century faces numerous problems.  First, the primary evidence is often fragmentary and incomplete.  Second (and often taking full advantage of the first), the existing secondary scholarship is frequently tendentious, driven by the desire to justify later convictions, whether that be the primacy of the Roman see or the ineradicable and incoherent doctrinal pluralism of the post-apostolic church, to cite but two examples.   Kruger’s expertise is New Testament and he has done extensive work in the area of canon development and the emergence of orthodoxy.  He is therefore well qualified to guide the reader through this complicated territory.  If you teach patristics, this book should be on the bibliography.



In seven chapters, Kruger addresses the sociology of the early church, the political and intellectual context, the emerging ecclesiastical structures and their relation to worship and Christology, the vexed issue of Gnosticism and the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy, the nature of early Christian unity, the role of texts in a largely illiterate society, and the emergence of the New Testament canon.  That is a lot of ground to cover but Kruger writes with clarity, highlighting scholarly debates where necessary, and provides a helpful bibliography for further reading.  This is a very accessible book but not of that type which pretends that the answers to difficult questions are easier than they really are.



The book is too rich to analyze in detail in a brief review so here are a couple of particularly helpful sections from a pastoral perspective.  First, Kruger’s treatment of doctrinal pluralism in Chapter 4 deals concisely with the sort of questions that are raised by scholars such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels and which have crossed over, via their very accessible popular works, to the pew.  Kruger handles the various matters well, offering no simplistic or naïve response but highlighting the numerous fallacies underlying their approach and also pointing to the coherence of the traditional narrative.  The discovery of the Gospel of Judas should not shipwreck anyone’s faith.  The second century church did have a clear understanding of the basics of the faith and orthodoxy was not simply the sum of the ideological convictions of those who ‘won.’



Second, Chapter 7, on the canon, is marvelous.   Canonical questions come up with some frequency in both educational and pastoral contexts, and not simply because people have read the likes of Bart Ehrman and co.  The question of James arises for anyone who knows anything about Luther.  And a Christian who reads Jude with any degree of reflection is going to wonder about the inclusion of non-canonical material in such a work.  Kruger’s chapter is a great summary of the work he has elaborated elsewhere on the formation of the New Testament and should provide hard-pressed pastors with a straightforward and concise statement of the issues, one to recommend to confused Christians or to use, via the literature cited in the footnotes, as the basis for further study.



In the conclusion, Kruger highlights three specific ways in which the second century has lessons to teach Christians today.  The church then was marginal and therefore  had a prophetic role in a society where it had no access to conventional avenues of power and influence.  The church was clearly a ‘bookish’ religion.  And the church kept her focus on worshipping Jesus, whatever the external pressures were.   All three certainly apply to us today but I would add a fourth, with which I am sure Kruger would agree: the second century church was also wrestling with issues of authority, institutional, doctrinal, and canonical.   At a time when the Protestant church is losing some of its brightest young people to Rome because of precisely these type of questions and a perceived failure of Protestantism to address them, Kruger’s work on the second century provides a helpful foundation for offering a thoughtful response to those so tempted.



Christianity is deeply embedded in history and therefore one of our most important tasks is to pass on to the next generation that tradition of apostolic teaching which we inherited from our faithful forebears.   To be a thoughtful Christian today or to write theology with competence in the present one first needs to understand something of Christian history and competently to reflect upon the theology of the past.  Only then can one grasp what particular movements or theologians were actually saying and why they said it in the manner in which they did.  That simple point underpins the basic dogmatic task and also helps to keep today’s theologians humble.  The kind of principled diachronic dialogue which the Christian faith thus requires means that good contemporary theology always stands in positive relation to good historical theology, always first listens with humility and receptivity to the past before presuming to speak to the present.



Given this, and given the general ignorance of the second century outside of specialist academic circles, Michael Kruger’s volume is a welcome contribution to the growing body of literature which makes the patristic era accessible to non-specialists; and that it focuses on the neglected but vital second century makes it an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to understand how to interpret the important shifts – theological and ecclesiastical – from the biblical to the post-biblical era of the church and thus onwards to our own day.