10 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY

 

1. Systematic theology exists because the God who knows and loves himself in the bliss of the Trinity is pleased to make himself an object of creaturely knowledge and love through holy Scripture.

Theology in its essence is “wisdom”—a knowledge that is ordered to love (practical wisdom), and a love that rests in knowledge (contemplative wisdom). More specifically, theology is wisdom about God and all things in relation to God.

This wisdom exists first and foremost in God: God knows and loves himself in the bliss of his triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 11:271 Cor. 2:10–11). This wisdom exists secondarily and derivatively in creatures because God is pleased to make us happy by making us friends in the knowledge and love of himself (John 10:14–15; 15:15; 17:31 Cor. 2:12).

Though not the only source for the knowledge and love of God (see Psalm 19Rom 1-2), holy Scripture is the supreme source for the knowledge and love of God in this life (see 2 Peter 1:16–21). Therefore holy Scripture is the supreme source and norm for the “systematic” study of theology.

2. Systematic theology is a way of studying the Bible that attends to the full scope of biblical teaching.

As a discipline devoted to studying and teaching holy Scripture, systematic theology seeks to give heed to the full scope of biblical teaching. Systematic theology does not content itself to focus upon a single biblical author—say, Isaiah or Paul—or a single biblical theme—say, the doctrine of justification. Systematic theology is a discipline that devotes itself to “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

The only way the church truly submits to the Bible’s doctrinal and moral teaching is by submitting to the full scope of the Bible’s doctrinal and moral teaching. Failure to attend to the whole counsel of God “leads to one-sidedness and error in theology and pathology in the religious life” (Herman Bavinck).

3. Systematic theology is a way of studying the Bible that attends to the unity of biblical teaching.

Because God is the primary author of holy Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16), and because God is a God of truth (Titus 1:2), systematic theology seeks to discern the unity, harmony, and beauty of biblical teaching. Systematic theology seeks to coordinate the teaching of various biblical authors across various redemptive-historical epochs and literary genres, and across the Bible’s two testaments, in a way that does not mute or flatten the diversity of biblical teaching but allows it to shine forth in its multisplendored richness.

Furthermore, systematic theology seeks to coordinate the teaching of holy Scripture with that which may be learned outside of holy Scripture through general revelation, recognizing that, because the Bible is the supreme source of wisdom about God, it plays the role of adjudicator and judge in relation to all lesser sources of wisdom about God.

4. Systematic theology is a way of studying the Bible that attends to the proportions of biblical teaching.

While systematic theology is a “comprehensive science,” treating God and all things in relation to God, John Webster reminds us that systematic theology is not “a science of everything about everything.” The Bible emphasizes certain things and says very little about other things. The Bible has matters of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) and matters of secondary importance (Matt. 23:23).

Systematic theology cannot afford to neglect matters of primary or secondary importance (Matt. 23:23). But it must seek to reflect the Bible’s own emphases and priorities in its attention to and presentation of biblical teaching.

5. Systematic theology is a way of studying the Bible that attends to the relationships of biblical teaching.

Systematic theology’s concern with the Bible’s doctrinal and moral teaching includes a concern to grasp the connections or relationships between the Bible’s various doctrinal and moral teachings. Systematic theology seeks not only to understand what the Bible says about “salvation” or “good works.” It also seeks to understand the relationship between “salvation” and “good works” (Eph. 2:8–10). Confusion about the relationships between various doctrines inevitably leads to confusion about the doctrines themselves. The supreme relationship that systematic theology considers is the relationship between God and everything else.

6. A well-ordered system of theology is governed, primarily, by a God-centered organizing principle.

The doctrine of God is the primary doctrine to which systematic theology devotes its attention and to which systematic theology seeks to relate all other doctrines. Systematic theology is God-centered biblical interpretation.

Systematic theology, in this regard, adopts a disciplinary protocol that corresponds to the nature of reality: “all things,” the Apostle Paul instructs us, are “from him and through him and to him” (Rom. 11:36). Systematic theology does not pretend to grasp anything unless it can grasp it in relation to God as Alpha and Omega.

The doctrine of God is therefore not simply the first doctrine in a series of doctrines in systematic theology. The doctrine of God directly informs every topic within a well-ordered system of theology. There is a sense in which every doctrine in systematic theology is part of the doctrine of God. Systematic theology is not so much about creation, providence, salvation, and consummation as it is about God creating, God providentially governing, God saving, and God consummating creation to be the temple of his triune glory. Systematic theology “describes for us God, always God, from beginning to end—God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name” (Herman Bavinck).

7. A well-ordered system of theology is governed, secondarily, by a historical or dramatic organizing principle.

Because systematic theology is concerned with God, it is also concerned with the works of God. “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them” (Ps. 111:2). Systematic theology follows the course of God’s works from his creation of all things out of nothing, through his providential government and care of all things, to his redemption and perfection of creation through the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit.

In its task of tracing the course of God’s works in nature, grace, and glory, systematic theology follows a historical or dramatic organizing principle. Within a well-ordered system of theology, each doctrine is not only traced to God as its author and end. Each doctrine is also coordinated with other doctrines on a dramatic-historical axis from creation to the consummation of the kingdom of God. Systematic theology is God-centered, redemptive-historical biblical interpretation.

8. Systematic theology’s necessary interest in historical theology is more than mere historical interest.

God’s theology—his wisdom regarding himself and all things in relation to himself—is simple and eternal. Our theology—our wisdom regarding God and all things in relation to God—is social and historical. One generation commends God’s works to another, and declares his mighty acts (Ps. 145:4).

For this reason, systematic theology has a necessary interest in historical theology, the study of theology as taught and transmitted through time. Systematic theology cares about the early fathers of the church and the creeds which are the fruit of their ecclesiastical labors. Systematic theology cares about the medieval doctors of the church and the various ways in which by faith they sought to understand the mysteries that God has revealed in his Word. Systematic theology cares about the Protestant Reformation and its confessions and about Protestant orthodoxy and its magnificent systems of doctrinal and moral theology. And systematic theology cares about the Enlightenment and its aftermath, with which it is still coming to grips.

In each instance, systematic theology’s interest in historical theology is not merely a matter of historical interest. Systematic theology’s task is primarily prescriptive rather than descriptive. It is concerned with teaching what the church must believe and do, not simply what the church has believed and done. However, because the church is a social and historical reality, and because the history of theology is also the history of biblical interpretation (Gerhard Ebeling), systematic theology cannot teach what the church must believe and do unless it attends to what the church has believed and done.

The church cannot know what it must confess in our day and age on the basis of holy Scripture unless it knows what the church has confessed in other days and other ages on the basis of holy Scripture.

9. Systematic theology serves practical ends.

The systematic study of God and God’s works as revealed in holy Scripture serves a number of practical ends. By providing a summary form of scriptural teaching, systematic theology makes us better readers of holy Scripture (recall John Calvin’s stated purpose in writing his Institutes of the Christian Religion).

Furthermore, by teaching us to contemplate God and all things in relation to God, systematic theology furnishes the Christian mind with principles for action. Systematic theology informs our faith, teaching us to apprehend God and all things as they really are and to receive all things as gifts from God’s fatherly hand. Systematic theology informs our hope, teaching us to anticipate the fulfillment of God’s eternal kingdom in accordance with God’s promise. And systematic theology informs our love: directing faith and hope to their object in God, we find a light to navigate our path out of the misery of Adam’s race into the bliss of Jesus’s eternal kingdom and to awaken fitting forms of devotion, adoration, and admiration for God, neighbor, and world.

10. Systematic theology also serves contemplative ends and thereby prepares us for our chief end, which is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Though systematic theology serves a number of practical ends, systematic theology’s ends are not exclusively practical. Systematic theology also serves contemplative ends.

As a species of practical wisdom, systematic theology directs love to prudential action in the world. As a species of contemplative wisdom, systematic theology directs love to its supreme and final resting place in the knowledge of God: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). By teaching us to contemplate God and all things in relation to God, systematic theology teaches us to trace all things from, through, and to God, enabling us to give him all the glory (Rom. 11:36), and it directs us to the one in whom alone our thirst for happiness is quenched (Ps. 42:1–2John 6:35). Systematic theology thus assists us in realizing the chief end of man, which is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

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This article is adapted from the ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible by Scott Swain.  This article originally appeared on www.Crossway.org

JOHN 3:16 AND MAN’S ABILITY TO CHOOSE GOD by R. C. Sproul

FROM Apr 22, 2019; TABLETALK MAGAZINE

It is ironic that in the same chapter, indeed in the same context, in which our Lord teaches the utter necessity of rebirth to even see the kingdom, let alone choose it, non-Reformed views find one of their main proof texts to argue that fallen man retains a small island of ability to choose Christ. It is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

What does this famous verse teach about fallen man’s ability to choose Christ? The answer, simply, is nothing. The argument used by non-Reformed people is that the text teaches that everybody in the world has it in their power to accept or reject Christ. A careful look at the text reveals, however, that it teaches nothing of the kind. What the text teaches is that everyone who believes in Christ will be saved. Whoever does A (believes) will receive B (everlasting life). The text says nothing, absolutely nothing, about who will ever believe. It says nothing about fallen man’s natural moral ability. Reformed people and non-Reformed people both heartily agree that all who believe will be saved. They heartily disagree about who has the ability to believe.

Some may reply, “All right. The text does not explicitly teach that fallen men have the ability to choose Christ without being reborn first, but it certainly implies that.” I am not willing to grant that the text even implies such a thing. However, even if it did it would make no difference in the debate. Why not? Our rule of interpreting Scripture is that implications drawn from the Scripture must always be subordinate to the explicit teaching of Scripture. We must never, never, never reverse this to subordinate the explicit teaching of Scripture to possible implications drawn from Scripture. This rule is shared by both Reformed and non-Reformed thinkers.

If John 3:16 implied a universal natural human ability of fallen men to choose Christ, then that implication would be wiped out by Jesus’ explicit teaching to the contrary. We have already shown that Jesus explicitly and unambiguously taught that no man has the ability to come to him without God doing something to give him that ability, namely drawing him.

Fallen man is flesh. In the flesh he can do nothing to please God. Paul declares, “The fleshly mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:78).

We ask, then, “Who are those who are ‘in the flesh’?” Paul goes on to declare: “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9). The crucial word here is if. What distinguishes those who are in the flesh from those who are not is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. No one who is not reborn is indwelt by God the Holy Spirit. People who are in the flesh have not been reborn. Unless they are first reborn, born of the Holy Spirit, they cannot be subject to the law of God. They cannot please God.

God commands us to believe in Christ. He is pleased by those who choose Christ. If unregenerate people could choose Christ, then they could be subject to at least one of God’s commands and they could at least do something that is pleasing to God. If that is so, then the apostle has erred here in insisting that those who are in the flesh can neither be subject to God nor please him.

We conclude that fallen man is still free to choose what he desires, but because his desires are only wicked he lacks the moral ability to come to Christ. As long as he remains in the flesh, unregenerate, he will never choose Christ. He cannot choose Christ precisely because he cannot act against his own will. He has no desire for Christ. He cannot choose what he does not desire. His fall is great. It is so great that only the effectual grace of God working in his heart can bring him to faith.

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This excerpt is taken from Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul.

THE SECRET TO A FRUITFUL CHRISTIAN LIFE by John Flavel

Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” Continuing our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series we want to survey some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today.

Just as the engine must be cared for if a car is going to function well over the long haul, the heart must be cared for if we are going to flourish over the long haul. And just as the engine powers the vehicle, so the heart drives all that we do. The heart is the motivation headquarters, the central animating core of all our longings, fears, and actions.

Our fallen condition makes us perversely try to secure flourishing through the state of our circumstances rather than the state of our soul. But the wisest Christians know that the secret to a happy Christian life is cultivating and protecting the heart, whatever is happening all around us.

To that end the Puritan John Flavel (1627–1691) wrote his famous little treatise, Keeping the Heart (original title: A Saint Indeed; or, The Great Work of a Christian in Keeping the Heart in the Several Conditions of Life). It’s available in various editions, of which perhaps the most beautiful is produced by Christian Heritage, with a short introduction by J. I. Packer.

The lodestar text launching the book is Proverbs 4:23:

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

Keeping the Heart: How to Maintain Your Love for God
JOHN FLAVEL
Christian Heritage (2012). 128 pp. $9.99.

Adversities of Life

How does one obey Proverbs 4:23?

Flavel’s answer has never been bested in psychological penetration and biblical profundity. Flavel understands how our fallen hearts work, and his book is like a wise father putting his arm around us and gently helping us toward spiritual sanity.

After pressing home the all-controlling importance of the heart in spiritual vitality, Flavel wades into the backbone of the book: pastoral reflection on 12 different seasons of life in which we particularly need to “keep our hearts.”

  1. Prosperity
  2. Adversity
  3. Persecution of the church
  4. Danger
  5. Circumstantial needs
  6. Duty
  7. Mistreatment from others
  8. Trials
  9. Temptation
  10. Doubting and spiritual darkness
  11. Suffering for religion
  12. Nearing death

How the Heart Overcomes Fear

As an example of Flavel’s pastoral sensitivity and wisdom, consider how he handles the fourth season: times of danger. He understands with great tenderness how easily fearful we are (one of his books was A Practical Treatise of Fear, Wherein the Various Kinds, Uses, Causes, Effects, and Remedies Thereof Are Distinctly Opened and Prescribed), so his medicine isn’t fiery exhortation, pep talk, or castigation. Rather, wedding logic with love, he calmly does surgery on our hearts by enumerating 14 reasons Christians have to be unafraid.

The wisest Christians know that the secret to a happy Christian life is cultivating and protecting the heart, whatever is happening all around us.

He says, for example (in reason 2):

Remember that this God in whose hand are all creatures, is your Father, and is much more tender of you than you are, or can be, of yourself.

Reason 5 is arresting:

Consider solemnly, that though the things you fear should really happen, yet there is more evil in your own fear than in the things feared. . . . Fear is both a multiplying and a tormenting passion; it represents troubles as much greater than they are, and so tortures the soul much more than the suffering itself.

Reason 9 tunnels into our hearts with the care of a surgeon:

Get your conscience sprinkled with the blood of Christ from all guilt, and that will set your heart above all fear. It is guilt upon the conscience that softens and makes cowards of our spirits. . . . A guilty conscience is more terrified by imagined dangers, than a pure conscience is by real ones.

And that’s just three reasons of 14, all 14 of which reside under one of his 12 points! Flavel leaves us with no room to be in heart-haste (cf. Isa. 28:16).

Key to Books with Lasting Spiritual Significance

Digested slowly, with a posture of sincere openness to God, this book nurtures us back into communion with him more richly and joyously than just about anything being written today.

It can easily feel at first glance that a 400-year-old book will only marginally map on to my own 21st-century life. But there’s a reason we’re still reading Flavel four centuries later. The vital animating center of human personhood—the heart—hasn’t changed. Sure, some of the occasions for fear have changed. They feared shipwreck and the plague; we fear plane crashes and cancer. But the heart’s proclivity to drift quietly from settled trust in God and his goodness has not.

When God gives one of his servants unique diagnostic ability in unlocking how the human heart works, how it goes astray, and how we can get it back on track, we’re wise to listen.

And when God gives one of his servants unique diagnostic ability in unlocking how the human heart works, how it goes astray, and how we can get it back on track, we’re wise to listen. Flavel immersed himself in the Bible, shepherded his people through thick and thin, and spent a lifetime going ever deeper in communion with God.

In this little book he distills the secret of how he did this without growing cynical or torpedoing his life through disastrous sin.

Help for Our Hardest Task

Flavel opens the book this way:

The heart of man is his worst part before it is regenerated, and the best afterward; it is the seat of principles, and the foundation of actions. The eye of God is, and the eye of the Christian ought to be, principally fixed upon it. The greatest difficulty in conversion is to win the heart to God; and the greatest difficulty after conversion, is to keep the heart with God.

John Flavel coaches us in that greatest of difficulties as few others have across the centuries of church history.

THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST by J. Gresham Machen

Some nineteen hundred years ago, in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, there lived one who, to a casual observer might have seemed to be a remarkable man. Up to the age of about thirty years. He lived an obscure life in the midst of an humble family. Then He began a remarkable course of ethical and religious teaching, accompanied by a ministry of healing. At first He was very popular. Great crowds followed Him gladly, and the intellectual men of His people were interested in what He had to say. But His teaching presented revolutionary features, and He did not satisfy the political expectations of the populace. And so, before long, after some three years, He fell a victim to the jealousy of the leaders of His people and the cowardice of the Roman governor. He died the death of the criminals of those days, on the cross. At His death, the disciples whom He had gathered about Him were utterly discouraged. In Him had centered all their loftiest hopes. And now that He was taken from them by a shameful death, their hopes were shattered. They fled from Him in cowardly fear in the hour of His need, and an observer would have said that never was a movement more hopelessly dead. These followers of Jesus had evidently been far inferior to Him in spiritual discernment and in courage. They had not been able, even when He was with them, to understand the lofty teachings of their leader. How, then, could they understand Him when He was gone? The movement depended, one might have said, too much on one extraordinary man, and when He was taken away, then surely the movement was dead.

But then the astonishing thing happened. The plain fact, which no one doubts, is that those same weak, discouraged men who had just fled in the hour of their Master’s need, and who were altogether hopeless on account of His death, suddenly began in Jerusalem, a very few days or weeks after their Master’s death, what is certainly the most remarkable spiritual movement that the world has ever seen. At first, the movement thus begun remained within the limits of the Jewish people. But soon it broke the bands of Judaism, and began to be planted in all the great cities of the Roman world. Within three hundred years, the Empire itself had been conquered by the Christian faith.

But this movement was begun in those few decisive days after the death of Jesus. What was it which caused the striking change in those weak, discouraged disciples, which made them the spiritual conquerors of the world?

Historians of today are perfectly agreed that something must have happened, something decisive, after the death of Jesus, in order to begin this new movement. It was not just an ordinary continuation of the influence of Jesus’ teaching. The modern historians are at least agreed that some striking change took place after the death of Jesus, and before the beginning of the Christian missionary movement. They are agreed, moreover, to some extent even about the question what the change was; they are agreed in holding that this new Christian movement was begun by the belief of the disciples in the resurrection of Jesus; they are agreed in holding that in the minds and hearts of the disciples there was formed the conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead. Of course, that was not formerly admitted by every one. It used to be maintained, in the early days of modern skepticism, that the disciples of Jesus only pretended that He had risen from the dead. Such hypotheses have long ago been placed in the limbo of discarded theories. The disciples of Jesus, the intimate friends of Jesus, it is now admitted, in a short time after His death came to be believe honestly that He had risen from the dead. The only difference of opinion comes when we ask what in turn produced this belief.

The New Testament answer to this question is perfectly plain. According to the New Testament, the disciples believed in the resurrection of Jesus because Jesus really, after His death, came out of the tomb, appeared to them, and held extended intercourse with them, so that their belief in the resurrection was simply based on fact.

Of course, this explanation is rejected by those modern men who are unwilling to recognize in the origin of Christianity an entrance of the creative power of God, in distinction from the laws which operate in nature. And so another explanation has been proposed. It is that the belief of the disciples in the resurrection was produced by certain hallucinations in which they thought they saw Jesus, their teacher, and heard perhaps words of His ringing in their ears. A hallucination is a phenomenon well known to students of pathology. In an hallucination, the optic nerve is affected, and the patient therefore does actually in one sense “see” someone or something. But this effect is produced, not by an external object, but by the pathological condition of the subject himself. That is the view of the “appearances” of the risen Christ which is held today by those who reject the miraculous in connection with the origin of Christianity.

It is also held, it is true, that what was decisive in the resurrection faith of the early disciples was the impression which they had received of Jesus’ person. Without that impression, it is supposed, they could never have had those pathological experiences which they called appearances of the risen Christ, so that those pathological experiences were merely the necessary form in which the continued impression of Jesus’ person made itself felt in the life of the first disciples. But after all, on this hypothesis, the resurrection faith of the disciples, upon which the Christian church is founded, was really based upon a pathological experience in which these men thought they saw Jesus, and heard perhaps a word or two of His ringing in their ears, when there was nothing in the external world to make them think that they were in His presence.

Formerly, it is true, there were other explanations. It used to be held sometimes that the disciples came to believe in the resurrection because Jesus was not really dead. When He was placed in the cool air of the tomb, He revived and came out, and the disciples thought that He had arisen. A noteworthy scholar of today is said to have revived this theory, because he is dissatisfied with the prevailing idea. But the great majority of scholars today believe that this faith of the disciples was caused by hallucinations, which are called “appearances” of the risen Lord.

But let us examine the New Testament account of the resurrection of Jesus, and of the related events. This account is contained particularly in six of the New Testament books. Of course, all the New Testament books presuppose the resurrection, and witness is borne to it in all of them. But there are six of these books, above all others, which provide the details of the Resurrection. These are the four Gospels, the Book of Acts, and the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians.

According to these six books, if their witness be put together, Jesus died on a Friday. His body was not allowed to remain and decompose on the cross, but was buried that same evening. He was placed in a grave chosen by a leader of the people, a member of the Sanhedrin. His burial was witnessed by certain women. He remained in the grave during the Sabbath. But on the morning of the first day of the week, He arose. Certain women who came to the grave found it empty, and saw angels who told them He had risen from the dead. He appeared to these women. The grave was visited that same morning by Peter and the beloved disciple. In the course of the day Jesus appeared to Peter. In the evening He appeared to two unnamed disciples who were walking to Emmaus-, and apparently later on the same evening He appeared to all the apostles save Thomas. Then a week later He appeared again to the apostles, Thomas being present. Then He appeared in Galilee, as we learn from Matthew 28. Paul is probably mentioning this same appearance when he says that “He appeared to above five hundred brethren at once,” 1 Corinthians 15:6. It was probably then, also, that He appeared to the seven disciples on the sea of Galilee, John 21. Then He appeared in Jerusalem, and ascended from the Mount of Olives. Some time in the course of the appearances there was one to James, His own brother, I Corinthians 15:7. Later on He appeared to Paul. Such is the New Testament account of the resurrection appearances of our Lord.

There are two features of this account to which great prominence has been given in recent discussions. These are, (1) the place, and (2) the character, of the appearances of Jesus.

According to the New Testament, the place was first Jerusalem, then Galilee, and then Jerusalem again. The appearances took place, not only in Galilee and in Jerusalem, but both in Jerusalem and in Galilee; and the first appearances took place in Jerusalem.

So much for the place of the appearances. As for the character of the appearances, they were, according to the New Testament, of a plain, physical kind. In the New Testament Jesus is represented even as holding table companionship with His disciples after His resurrection, and as engaging in rather extended intercourse with them. There is, it is true, something mysterious about this intercourse; it is not just a continuation of the old Galilean relationship. Jesus’ body is independent of conditions of time and space in a way that appeared only rarely in His previous ministry. There was a change. But there is also continuity. The body of Jesus came out of the tomb and appeared to the disciples in such a way that a man could put his finger in the mark of the nails in His hands.

In two particulars, this account is contradicted by modern scholars. In the first place, the character of the appearances, is supposed to have been different. The disciples of Jesus, it is supposed, saw Him just for a moment In glory, and perhaps heard a word or two ringing in their ears. Of course this was not, according to the modern naturalistic historians, a real seeing and hearing, but an hallucination. But the point is, that those who regard these appearances as hallucinations are not able to take the New Testament account and prove from it that these appearances were hallucinations and were not founded upon the real presence of the body of Jesus; but are obliged first to reduce the New Testament account to manageable proportions. The reason is that there are limits to an hallucination. No sane men could think that they had had extended companionship with one who was not really present, or could believe that they had walked with Him and talked with Him after His death. You cannot enter upon the modern explanation of these happenings as genuine experiences but at the same time mere visions, until you modify the account that is given of the appearance themselves. And if this modified account be true, there must be a great deal in the New Testament account that is legendary. You must admit this, and you are going to explain these appearances as hallucinations. So there is a difference concerning the nature of the appearances, according to modern reconstruction, as over against the New Testament.

And there is a difference also concerning the place of the appearances. According to the customary modern view of naturalistic historians, the first appearances took place in Galilee, and not in Jerusalem. But what is the importance of that difference of opinion? It looks at first sight as though it were a mere matter of detail. But in reality it is profoundly important for the whole modern reconstruction. If you are going to explain these experiences as hallucinations, the necessary psychological conditions must have prevailed in order for the disciples to have had the experiences. Therefore modern historians are careful to allow time for the profound discouragement of the disciples to be gotten rid of — for the disciples to return to Galilee, and to live again in the scenes where they had lived with Jesus; to muse upon Him, and be ready to have these visions of Him. Time must be permitted, and the place must be favorable. And then there is another important element.

We come here to one of the most important things of all — the empty tomb. If the first appearances were in Jerusalem, why did not the disciples or the enemies investigate the tomb, and refute this belief of finding the body of Jesus still there? This argument is thought to be refuted by the Galilean hypothesis regarding the first appearances. If the first appearances took place not till weeks afterward and in Galilee, this mystery is thought to be explained. There would be no opportunity to investigate the tomb until it was too late; and so the matter could have been allowed to pass, and the resurrection faith could have arisen. Of course, this explanation is not quite satisfactory, because one cannot see how the disciples would not have been stimulated to investigate the tomb, whenever and wherever the appearances took place. We have not quite explained the empty tomb even by this Galilean hypothesis. But you can understand the insistence of the modern writers that the first appearances took place in Galilee.

So there is a difference between the modern historian and the New Testament account in the matters of the manner and of the place of these experiences. Were they of a kind such that they could be explained as hallucinations or were they such that they could only be regarded as real appearances? Was the first appearance three days after Jesus’ death, and near the tomb, or later on in Galilee?

Let us come now to the New Testament account. The first source that we should consider is the first Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. It is probably the earliest of the sources. But what is still more important — the authorship and date of this particular source of information have been agreed upon even by the opponents of Christianity. So this is not only a source of first-rate historical importance but it is a source of admitted importance. We have here a fixed starting-point in all controversy.

We must examine, then, this document with some care. It was probably written, roughly speaking, about 55 A.D., about twenty-five years after the death of Jesus, about as long after the death of Jesus as 1924 is after the SpanishAmerican War (1898). That is not such a very long period of time. And of course, there is one vital element in the testimony here, which does not prevail in the case of the Spanish War. Most people have forgotten many details of the Spanish-American War, because they have not had them continuously in mind.

But it would not be so in the case now under consideration. The resurrection of Jesus was the thing which formed the basis of all the thought of the early Christians, and so the memory of it when it was twenty-five years past was very much fresher than the memory of an event like the Spanish-American War of twenty-five years ago, which has passed out of our consciousness.

Let us turn, then, to I Corinthians 15, and read the first verses, “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received.” “First of all,” or “among the first things,” may mean first in point of time, or first in point of importance. At any rate, this was a part of Paul’s fundamental preaching in Corinth, in about the year 51 or 52. So we get back a little farther than the time when the Epistle was written. But these things were evidently also first and fundamental in Paul’s preaching in other places, so that you are taken back an indefinite period in the ministry of Paul for this evidence. But then you are taken back by the next words farther still — “that which I also received.” There is a common agreement as to the source from which Paul “received” this information; it is pretty generally agreed that he received it from the Jerusalem church. According to the Epistle to the Galatians, he had been in conference with Peter and James only three years after his conversion. That was the time for Paul to receive this tradition. Historians are usually willing to admit that this information is nothing less than the account which the primitive Church, including Peter and James, gave of the events which lay at the foundation of the Church. So you have here, even in the admission of modern men, a piece of historical information of priceless value.

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” Why does Paul mention the burial of Jesus? The impression which the mention of the burial produces upon every reader who comes to It as for the first time is that Paul means to say that the body of Jesus was laid in the tomb. The burial, in other words, implies the empty tomb. And yet a great many modern historians say that Paul “knows nothing” about the empty tomb! Surely such an assertion is quite false. Paul does not indeed mention the empty tomb in so many words; he does not give a detailed description of it here. But that does not mean that he knew nothing about it. Those to whom he was writing believed in it already, and he is simply reviewing a previous argument in order to draw inferences from it with regard to the resurrection of Christians. To say that Paul knows nothing about the empty tomb ignores the fact that the mention of the burial is quite meaningless unless Paul had in mind the empty tomb. I do not see how any one can get any other impression. Moreover is not that what resurrection means, after all? Modern historians say that Paul was interested simply in the continued life of Jesus in a new body which had nothing to do with the body which lay in the tomb. That is rather strange in this connection. Paul is arguing, in this passage, not against men who denied the immortality of the soul, but against men who held the Greek view of the immortality of the soul without the body. The view that they were holding, would logically make of the resurrection of Jesus just the simple continuance of His personal life. There is no point at all, then, in what Paul says against them unless he is referring to the resurrection from the tomb. Unless he is referring to this, he is playing into the hands of his opponents. But many men nowadays have such a strangely unhistorical notion of what “resurrection” meant to the early disciples. They talk as though the resurrection faith meant that those disciples simply believed that Jesus continued to exist after His crucifixion. This is absurd. Those men believed in the continued existence after death of every man. There is not the slightest doubt about that. They were thoroughly imbued with this belief. They were not Sadducees. Even in those first three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, they still believed that He was alive. If that is all that resurrection meant, there was nothing in it to cause joy. Conviction of the continued life of Jesus would not make Him any different from other men. But what changed sadness into joy and brought about the founding of the Church was the substitution, for a belief in the continued existence of Jesus, of a belief in the emergence of His body from the tomb. And Paul’s words imply that as clear as day.

“And that he rose again the third day.” Of all the important things that Paul says, this is perhaps the most important, from the point of view of modern discussion. There are few words in the New Testament that are more disconcerting to modern naturalistic historians than the words, “on the third day.” We have just observed what the modern reconstruction is. The disciples went back to Galilee, it is supposed, and there, some time after the crucifixion, they came to believe that Jesus was alive. But if the first appearance took place on the third day, this explanation is not possible. The modern reconstruction disappears altogether if you believe that the first appearances were on the third day. If Paul’s words are to be taken at their face value, the whole elaborate psychological reconstruction of the conditions in the disciples’ minds, leading up to the hallucinations in Galilee, disappears.

Many men, it is true, have an answer ready. “Let us not,” they say in effect, “go beyond what Paul actually says! Paul does not say that the first appearance occurred on the third day, but only that Christ rose on that day. He might have risen some time before He first appeared to them; the resurrection might have occurred on the third day and yet the first appearance might have occurred some weeks after, in Galilee.”

But why, if nothing in particular happened on the third day, and if the first appearance occurred some weeks after, did the disciples hit upon just the third day as the day of the supposed resurrection? Surely it was very strange for them to suppose that Jesus had really risen a considerable time before He appeared to them and had left them all that time in their despair. So strange a supposition on the part of the disciples surely requires an explanation. Why was it, if nothing happened on the third day, that the disciples ever came to suppose that the resurrection occurred on that day and not on some other day?

One proposed explanation is that the third day was hit upon as the day of the supposed resurrection because Scripture was thought to require it. Paul says, it will be remembered, that Jesus rose the third day according to the Scriptures. But where will you find in the Old Testament Scriptures any clear reference to the third day, as the day of the resurrection of Christ. No doubt there is the “sign of Jonah.” and there is also Hosea 6-2. We are certainly not denying that these passages (at least the former) are true prophecies of the resurrection on the third day. But could they ever have been understood before the fulfillment had come? That is more than doubtful. Indeed it is not even quite clear whether Paul means the words “according to the Scriptures” to refer to the third day at all, and not merely to the central fact of the resurrection itself. At any rate the Scripture passages never could have suggested the third day to the disciples unless something had actually happened on that day to indicate that Christ had then risen.

But had not Jesus Himself predicted that He would rise on the third day, and might not this prediction have caused the disciples to suppose that He had risen on that day even if the first appearance did not occur till long afterwards? This is an obvious way out of the difficulty, but it is effectually closed to the modern naturalistic historian. For it would require us to suppose that Jesus’ predictions of His resurrection, recorded in the Gospels, are historical. But the naturalistic historians are usually concerned with few things more than with the denial of the authenticity of these predictions. According to the ordinary “liberal” view,” Jesus certainly could not have predicted that He would rise from the dead in the manner recorded in the Gospels. So for the “liberal” historians this explanation of “the third day” becomes impossible. The explanation would perhaps explain “the third day” in the belief of the disciples, but it would also destroy the whole account of the “liberal Jesus.”

Accordingly it becomes necessary to seek explanations farther afield. Some have appealed to a supposed belief in antiquity to the effect that the soul of a dead person hovered around the body for three days and then departed. This belief, it is said, might have seemed to the disciples to make it necessary to put the supposed resurrection not later than the third day. But how far did this belief prevail in Palestine in the first century? The question is perhaps not capable of satisfactory answer. Moreover, it is highly dangerous from the point of view of the modern naturalistic historians to appeal to this belief, since it would show that some interest was taken in the body of Jesus; and yet that is what these modern historians are most concerned to deny. For if interest was taken in the body, the old question arises again why the tomb was not investigated. And the whole vision hypothesis breaks down.

Since these explanations have proved unsatisfactory, some modern scholars have had recourse to a fourth explanation. There was in ancient times, they say, a pagan belief about a god who died and rose again. On the first day the worshiper of the god were to mourn, but on the third day they were to rejoice, because of the resurrection of the god. So it is thought that the disciples may have been influenced by this pagan belief. But surely this is a desperate expedient. It is only a very few students of the history of religions who would be quite so bold as to believe that in Palestine, in the time of Christ, there was any prevalence of this pagan belief with its dying and rising god. Indeed the importance and clearness of this belief have been enormously exaggerated in recent works — particularly as regards the rising of the god on the third day.

The truth is that the third day in the primitive account of the resurrection of Christ remains, and that there is no satisfactory means of explaining it away. Indeed some naturalistic historians are actually coming back to the view that perhaps we cannot explain this third day away, and that perhaps something did happen on the third day to produce the faith of the disciples. But if this conclusion be reached, then the whole psychological reconstruction disappears, and particularly the modern hypothesis about the place of the appearances. Something must have happened to produce the disciples’ belief in the resurrection not far off in Galilee but near to the tomb in Jerusalem. But if so, there would be no time for the elaborate psychological process which is supposed to have produced the visions, and there would be ample opportunity for the investigation of the tomb.

It is therefore a fact of enormous importance that it is just Paul in the passage where he is admittedly reproducing the tradition of the primitive Jerusalem Church, who mentions the third day.

Then, after mentioning the third day, Paul gives a detailed account which is not quite complete, of the resurrection appearances. He leaves out the account of the appearances to the women, because he is merely giving the official list of the appearances to the leaders in the Jerusalem church.

So much for the testimony of Paul. This testimony is sufficient of itself to refute the modern naturalistic reconstruction. But it is time to glance briefly at the testimony in the Gospels.

If you take the shortest Gospel, the Gospel according to Mark, you will find, first, that Mark gives an account of the burial, which is of great importance. Modern historians cannot deny that Jesus was buried, because that is attested by the universally accepted source of information, I Corinthians 15. Mark is here confirmed by the Jerusalem tradition as preserved by Paul. But the account of the burial in Mark is followed by the account of the empty tomb, and the two things are indissolubly connected. If one is historical, it is difficult to reject the other. Modern naturalistic historians are in a divided condition about this matter of the empty tomb. Some admit that the tomb was empty. Others deny that it ever was. Some say what we have just outlined — that the tomb was never investigated at all until it was too late, and that then the account of the empty tomb grew up as a legend in the Church. But other historians are clear-sighted enough to see that you cannot get rid of the empty tomb in any such fashion.

But if the tomb was empty, why was it empty? The New Testament says that it was empty because the body of Jesus had been raised out of it. But if this be not the case, then why was the tomb empty? Some say that the enemies of Jesus took the body away. If so, they have done the greatest possible service to the resurrection faith which they so much hated. Others have said that the disciples stole the body away to make the people believe that Jesus was risen. But no one holds that view now. Others have said that Joseph of Arimathea changed the place of burial. That is difficult to understand, because if such were the case, why should Joseph of Arimathea have kept silence when the

resurrection faith arose? Other explanations, no doubt, have been proposed. But it cannot be said that these hypotheses have altogether satisfied even those historians who have proposed them. The empty tomb has never been successfully explained away.

We might go on to consider the other accounts. But I think we have pointed out some of the most important parts of the evidence. The resurrection was of a bodily kind, and appears in connection with the empty tomb. It is quite a misrepresentation of the state of affairs when people talk about “Interpreting” the New Testament in accordance with the modern view of natural law as operating in connection with the origin of Christianity. What is really being engaged in is not an interpretation of the New Testament but a complete contradiction of the New Testament at its central point. In order to explain the resurrection faith of the disciples as caused by hallucinations, you must first pick and choose in the sources of information, and reconstruct a statement of the case for which you have no historical information. You must first reconstruct this account, different from that which is given in the only sources of information, before you can even begin to explain the appearances as hallucinations. And even then you are really no better off. It is after all quite preposterous to explain the origin of the Christian Church as being due to pathological experiences of weak-minded men. So mighty a building was not founded upon so small a pin- point.

So the witness of the whole New Testament has not been put out of the way. It alone explains the origin of the Church, and the change of the disciples from weak men into the spiritual conquerors of the world.

Why is it, then, if the evidence be so strong, that so many modern men refuse to accept the New Testament testimony to the resurrection of Christ? The answer is perfectly plain. The resurrection, if it be a fact, is a stupendous miracle and against the miraculous or the supernatural there is a tremendous opposition in the modern mind.

But is the opposition well grounded? It would perhaps be well-grounded if the direct evidence for the resurrection stood absolutely alone — If it were simply a question whether a man of the first century, otherwise unknown, really rose from the dead. There would in that case be a strong burden of proof against the belief in the resurrection. But as a matter of fact the question Is not whether any ordinary man rose from the dead, but whether Jesus rose from the dead. We know something of Jesus from the Gospels, and as thus made known He is certainly different from all other men. A man who comes into contact with His tremendous personality will say to himself, “It is impossible that Jesus could ever have been hoiden [held] of death.” Thus when the extraordinary testimony to the resurrection faith which has been outlined above comes to us, we add to this our tremendous impression of Jesus’ Person, gained from the reading of the Gospels, and we accept this strange belief which comes to us and fills us with joy, that the Redeemer really triumphed over death and the grave and sin.

And if He be living, we come to Him today. And thus finally we add to the direct historical evidence our own Christian experience. If He be a living Saviour, we come to Him for salvation today, and we add to the evidence from the New Testament documents an immediacy of conviction which delivers us from fear. The Christian man should indeed never say, as men often say, “Because of my experience of Christ in my soul I am independent of the basic facts of Christianity; I am independent of the question whether Jesus rose from the grave or not.” But Christian experience, though it cannot make us Christians whether Jesus rose or not, still can add to the direct historical evidence a confirming witness that, as a matter of fact, Christ did really rise from the dead on the third day, according to the Scriptures. The “witness of the Spirit” is not, as it is often quite falsely represented today, independent of the Bible; on the contrary it is a witness by the Holy Spirit, who is the author of the Bible, to the fact that the Bible is true.

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This article appears in the collection of Machen sermons and articles titled, “Historic Christianity,” (A Skilton House Ministries — Sowers Publication, Philadelphia, 1997).

SEXUAL SIN AND THE PURSUIT OF PURITY

This may sound strange, but we can learn a lot about the nature of sexual sin from G-rated films. Ever seen the classic film Pinocchio? There is one particular scene that vividly captures the enslaving power of sin. Pinocchio and his mischievous friend Lampwick are lured away by the Coachman. He’s that evil figure who deceitfully rounds up little boys to enjoy Pleasure Island, the place where one’s every desire becomes a reality. Anything goes. Pinocchio and Lampwick can get into a fight, if they’re feeling feisty. They can destroy a home, if they’re feeling naughty. They can even indulge themselves in smelly cigars, frothy beers, and plenty of bar games, though they’re underage. The more they sin, the more they seem to feel like “real adults.” But things suddenly take a turn for the worse. What started off as immensely liberating soon becomes miserably enslaving, and Pinocchio witnesses the oppressive nature of sin firsthand.

After taking a drink of his beer, Lampwick suddenly grows donkey ears. Pinocchio looks at his beer and slowly puts it down. Then, when Lampwick makes a billiards shot, a donkey tail tears through the back of his pants. Pinocchio looks with disgust at his cigar and quickly throws it away. Lampwick ultimately turns into a donkey and starts hee-hawing, kicking, and bawling in desperation for his “mama.” He, along with many other bad boys-turned-donkeys, are locked up in crates by dark figures to be shipped and sold to salt mines and circuses. What the Coachman said earlier comes true: “Give a bad boy enough rope, and he’ll soon make a jackass of himself.” To put it differently, with enough unsupervised liberty, bad boys (and girls) are sure to make sinful fools of themselves.

Isn’t this true? This scene from Pinocchio makes me think of a student’s first semester at college. It seems so liberating at first. Mom and Dad are no longer around. All of your friends are back at home. You haven’t settled on a church yet, and there’s certainly no one around who will “force” you to attend. No one knows your history or religious background. And you’re surrounded by strangers who, more than likely, didn’t have the same Christian upbringing that you did. As you move into your dorm room, you realize that there aren’t separate dormitories for guys and girls. You’ve never lived in such close quarters with the opposite sex before. Then night falls, and the parties begin. Your roommate asks if you’ll join him in a night of full-fledged debauchery. He assures you that frothy beers, smelly cigars, and bar games are only the beginning. After all, those are G-rated activities. You’re at Pleasure Island University now, where all your desires, whether R-rated, TV-MA, or worse, can become realities. Pornography is more accessible than cable TV. One-night stands are all too common. Temptation to give in to sexual sin is literally everywhere. And all around you are real-life Lampwicks who have been given “enough rope” to do whatever their hearts desire. Believing they’re free, they prove to be enslaved by their actions. And though they haven’t realized it yet, they’re turning into donkeys.

This is the moment of truth for you. What will you do? How will you fight against unceasing temptation? Remember all those verses you memorized out of love for Christ? “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2); “I have made a covenant with my eyes” (Job 31:1); “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word” (Ps. 119:9); “Flee youthful passions” (2 Tim. 2:22); “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18). Will you obey Christ in this sin-ridden context? Or, will you foolishly decide to accept your roommate’s invitation and inevitably become a donkey yourself?

Sadly, the majority of Christians who attend college (whether secular or professing Christian) do the latter. They willingly submit themselves to the enslaving power of sexual sin. It may start off in front of your computer or smartphone, but it usually never ends there. Given the right context, given “enough rope,” your sinful desires will take you down paths you never imagined traveling. That’s the sad reality of sexual sin. If you give it an inch, it takes you ten miles. It is an unrelenting force whose power increases with every battle you choose to lose, and it frequently results in sexually immoral activity.

Let’s face it: sexual promiscuity is ubiquitous, and sexual purity has become a lost art. It saddens me to think of how many Christians who leave their hometowns for the first time to attend college fall prey to egregious forms of sexual sin. It’s so depressingly prevalent. Even so, the Scriptures are clear: sexual immorality is a sin against God (Ps. 51:4), is a sin against others (1 Thess. 4:3–7), and has eternal consequences (Matt. 5:27–30). Assuming you believe that to be true and that you long to pursue purity, the most crucial question becomes: Howshould I pursue sexual purity in a world gone sexually awry?

THE PURSUIT OF SEXUAL PURITY

Lampwick isn’t the only one who gives in to temptation. Pinocchio does as well. He, too, grows donkey ears and a tail, with his dream of becoming a real boy vanishing before his eyes. But just before he turns into a total donkey, his loyal friend and conscience, Jiminy Cricket, comes to the rescue. He quickly shows Pinocchio the “only” way out, up a steep set of craggy rocks and to a tall cliff with water far below. At the top, Pinocchio turns to look at Jiminy as if to say, “I can’t do this!” Jiminy reads his mind and forthrightly says, “You gotta jump!” Pinocchio wastes no time. Not once does he look back at the Eight Ball bar where sin prevailed; not once does he reminisce on the fleeting joys of Pleasure Island. He immediately jumps to escape the enslaving consequences of “fun.”

You may think Pinocchio’s escape from sin’s grasp serves as a good example of fighting sin, but I actually think it’s a good example of what not to do (at least, first and foremost). You see, too many Christians focus on external actions. They know sexual sin is wrong. They’ve given in, but they know they shouldn’t have. So, they do the hard work of climbing up really steep craggy rocks to avoid the trappings of sin yet again, seeking to be the best Christian they can possibly be. Contrary to what you may have been taught, that’s actually the worst starting point for believers. It produces moralistic Christians, and moralistic Christianity is not biblical Christianity. Moralistic Christians are those who trust in self rather than God, who draw from their own strength rather than the help of the Spirit, who think they can overcome the oppressive power of sin through mere human actions. They think sexual purity is attainable if you just get an accountability program on your smartphone and computer, or if you live with a Christian roommate, or if you verbally confess to a friend every sinful thought that enters your mind, or if you vow never to be alone with your girlfriend or boyfriend, or if you literally run from sexual temptation as Joseph did. Then, and only then, will you be freed from the sharp talons of sexual sin.

We need a greater love for our triune God to expel a lesser love for sexual sin. We need to be reminded of God’s love for us in Christ through Word and sacrament in church, through the Word preached and the Word seen.

That’s not necessarily true. There are ways around accountability programs. Not every Christian roommate will live a Christian life. Your own desire to sin will prevent you from confessing your sinful thoughts and actions. There will likely be moments when you’ll be alone with your boyfriend or girlfriend. And if you run away from Potiphar’s wife, as Joseph did, you’ll likely run into a Jezebel. We can’t, first and foremost, focus on external actions. Human actions are indeed necessary and beneficial, and we certainly need to be obedient to God externally. But that can’t be our fundamental starting point.

We need to be obedient to God internally. We need to love Him with all of our heart and soul and mind, as well as our strength (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). But we need to begin with our affections. After all, the act of giving in to sexual sin is a result of misplaced desires. When we’re lonely, depressed, tired, or bored, we desire things that we think will satisfy and comfort us or who will simply provide a few hours of escape. The core of the problem is not our actions per se. It’s our affections. As long as we tolerate our love for sexual sin, we can’t expect to serve Christ above all. To borrow the title of Thomas Chalmers’ famous sermon, we need “the expulsive power of a new affection.” We need a greater love for our triune God to expel a lesser love for sexual sin. We need to be reminded of God’s love for us in Christ through Word and sacrament in church, through the Word preached and the Word seen. We need to taste and see the beauty of Christ in the gospel daily, as He shines forth as our Lord, Prophet, Priest, King, and Friend. We need to open up the blinds of our hearts and allow the light of the gospel to generate religious affections through His Word. The more we know and experience God’s love for us in Christ, the more we’ll desire to live our lives coram Deo, before His face.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Only after we deal with our affections can we move from internal to external action. Only after our affections are rightly placed on the most satisfying and deserving object of our love can we then pursue sexual purity in a more godly and effective manner. Christians who focus solely on externals will quickly grow tired of resisting sin. After all, why are they resisting? To be good Christians? Because it’s the right thing to do? That kind of reasoning doesn’t have the power to sustain a Christian in what will be a lifelong battle. We can’t just know what to do; we have to know it and desire it.

Of course, focusing on our affections will not by itself secure victory in our battle against sexual sin and temptation. But it will certainly chart a more effective course in the pursuit of sexual purity, as long as we humbly depend on God to give what He commands. He not only commands us to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18) but also gives us the strength to flee. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24).

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SMALL BEGINNINGS: J. C. RYLE IN EXBURY

Geoffrey Chang

When we think of some of church history’s great preachers, we naturally think of them at the height of their ministries: preaching to thousands, organizing conferences, publishing books. But this is not where their ministries began. At one point in time, the greatest of men were unknown and inexperienced, and they had many things to learn before they became the preachers we know.

One such person was J. C. Ryle. As the Bishop of Liverpool, he would defend orthodoxy within the Church of England against modern theology, Anglo-Catholicism, and the growth of the Keswick Conference in the 19th century.[1] But long before he ever became a bishop, his first ministry position came in 1841, the curacy in the district of Exbury within the parish of Fawley, “a dreary, desolate, solitary place.” (57) Though Ryle had been raised in a wealthy family and with fine schooling, he encountered a very different kind of people in this place:

A great number of the people had been brought up as poachers and smugglers, and were totally unaccustomed to being looked after or spoken to about their souls… Drunkenness and sin of every kind abounded. (57)

The rector who supervised him was largely absent during his time there. Not only that but “he was eaten up with caution, and seemed to me so afraid of doing wrong, that he would hardly do right.” And yet, the inexperienced Ryle set about doing whatever good he could for the people of his parish. His early ministry consisted of three main parts:

 TRACT DISTRIBUTION

Tract distribution was not considered the work of clergymen in Ryle’s day, but Ryle would obtain unbound copies of tracts from the Religious Tract Society and bind them himself in brown paper, circulating them widely. Given his limited salary, Ryle recalls, “I was too poor to give any away. I was obliged to lend and change them.” (58) For someone who would go on to publish many books and commentaries, Ryle recognized the value of good Christian literature as a useful tool for ministry and used them for the good of his people.

 BEING PRESENT WITH THE PEOPLE

The tract distribution gave Ryle an excuse to visit his people in their homes, and this contributed to his influence in their lives.

 My regular work was … to visit, confer with, and distribute tracts among 60 families every week. … I kept a regular account of all the families in the parish and was in every house in the parish at least once a month. (59)

By any account, to visit 60 families each week is an extraordinary load, but it is the kind of work an energetic single minister can take on. Ryle also involved himself in the life of the community, even when this meant confronting the worldly lifestyles of his parishioners. On one occasion, he was called to stop a fight between two men not far from his house:

I remember walking into the right suddenly between the two combatants and insisting on their stopping. I told them they might do what they liked to me, but I would not have it if I could prevent it; the result was that the fight was stopped. The affair made a great noise at the time. … it taught me what power one man has against a multitude as long as he has right on his side. (59)

Ryle’s persistence and courage for truth began not as a bishop, but in the small acts of pastoral visitation and care.

GROWING IN PREACHING

Ryle would later say that it was not until he turned fifty that he learned how to preach, but that learning began during this time. He was responsible for two sermons on Sunday, and two expository lectures during the week. He had learned about preaching in the halls of Oxford, but bringing God’s Word to an agricultural congregation on a hot afternoon after lunch was a far more difficult task. In his tract, ‘Simplicity in Preaching,’ Ryle tells of a farm labourer who enjoyed Sunday more than any other day “because I sit comfortably in church, put up my legs, have nothing to think about, and just go to sleep.”

Ryle set about using his first year of preaching as a series of experiments and in the end he found that expounding “a short pithy text” did more good for his people than preaching through long passages of Scripture. He also learned that he could not simply open his Bible, take the first text that he found, “and write off a sermon in two or three hours.” (61) Any such attempts met in failure. Ryle learned the importance of study, preparation, and crafting a sermon with just the right words:

 It is an extremely difficult thing to write simple, clear, perspicuous and forcible English… To use very long words, to seem very learned… is very easy work. But to write what will stick, to speak or write that which at once pleases and is understood, and becomes assimilated with a hearer’s mind and a thing never forgotten – that, we may depend on it, is a very difficult thing and a very rare attainment. (60)

These lessons and disciplines in preaching would lay a foundation for a preaching ministry that continues to have influence today.

Pastors are often tempted to be dissatisfied with their churches and long for greater prominence and larger congregations. But this dissatisfaction is part of the enemy’s lies and such outcomes must be left to the Lord. Instead we should see that God is also at work even in less than ideal situations. Ryle’s early life teaches us the importance of not despising small beginnings (Zech. 4:10), but serving faithfully wherever God has placed you. Because it is during these times that God is preparing and equipping us to serve Him.

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[1] All page references from Murray, Iain H. J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016.

PASTORAL CONCERN ABOUT EVANGELICAL PROPHECY

Bondage to Individual Leaders

The question about the cessation or continuation of special revelation has very practical ramifications for the Christian life, for God’s special revelation carries great authority. When people ascribe that authority to mystical experiences, the results are damaging to their spiritual lives, sometimes tragically so. Here the saints must embrace the balance of biblical wisdom. We must not deny the reality of Christian experience as the Holy Spirit works in our lives. Christianity is not merely a set of prescribed beliefs and behaviors. It is not less than that, but it is more, for it engages the affections of the heart. The saints walk with the living God. Christ is real to the believer, and his Spirit is our indwelling divine companion. However, we also must not fall into experientialism, ascribing divine authority over our faith and obedience to spiritual experiences. The belief that God continues to grant special revelation through personal experience fosters unhealthy experientialism.

First, continuationism tends to put people in bondage to individual leaders. Despite cautions and safeguards in responsible Pentecostal and charismatic churches, if people are convinced that someone has a regular ministry of receiving direct revelations from God, they will ascribe unusual authority to that person. They will seek his counsel more fervently, listen to him more attentively, follow his instructions more submissively, and support his ministry more generously. Granting such a person the title of apostle or prophet aggravates the problem. Though evangelical theologians such as Storms and Grudem labor to redefine prophecy, the moment we call someone a prophet, we invoke thoughts of Moses and Elijah in those whose minds are marinated with Scripture.

Someone might object that this criticism would also apply to prophets in the first century, thereby indicting God’s wisdom in giving the gift of prophecy then. However, at that time the living apostles could confront and reprove abuses of prophetic ministry, supporting the ruling authority of the church’s elders while directing the churches in how to use prophecy (cf. 1 Thess. 5:12–13, 19–22). Today, an acclaimed prophet can denounce faithful elders as unspiritual or unconverted, leading many astray. Therefore, we protect God’s people from ecclesiastical tyranny when we teach them that the gifts of apostles and prophets have ceased. There is grave danger in allowing for prophets who receive revelations immediately from God today. While some who claim such gifts may be sincere Christians who walk humbly with their God, others may open themselves to demonic influence. Jonathan Edwards, himself a great advocate of mighty works of God’s Spirit in revival, gave this warning:

And one erroneous principle, than which scarce any has proved more mischievous to the present glorious work of God, is a notion that ’tis God’s manner now in these days to guide his saints, at least some that are more eminent, by inspiration, or immediate revelation; and to make known to ’em what shall come to pass hereafter, or what it is his will that they should do, by impressions that he by his Spirit makes upon their minds, either with or without texts of Scripture; whereby something is made known to them, that is not taught in the Scripture as the words lie in the Bible.

By such a notion the Devil has a great door opened for him; and if once this opinion should come to be fully yielded to and established in the church of God, Satan would have opportunity thereby to set up himself as the guide and oracle of God’s people, and to have his word regarded as their infallible rule, and so to lead ’em where he would, and to introduce what he pleased, and soon to bring the Bible into neglect and contempt. Late experience in some instances has shown that the tendency of this notion is to cause persons to esteem the Bible as a book that is in a great measure useless.

This error will defend and support all errors. As long as a person has a notion that he is guided by immediate direction from heaven, it makes him incorrigible and impregnable in all his misconduct: for what signifies it for poor blind worms of the dust to go to argue with a man, and endeavor to convince him and correct him, that is guided by the immediate counsels and commands of the great Jehovah?1

Edwards said that he had witnessed many such “prophecies,” sometimes by very godly Christians walking in communion with God, and with the revelations accompanied by texts of Scripture—and yet the prophecies came to nothing. He exclaimed, “Why can’t we be contented with the divine oracles, that holy, pure Word of God, that we have in such abundance and such clearness, now since the canon of Scripture is completed?”2 Such contentment would do much to protect the church from arrogant leaders who claim to be inspired by God.

Bondage to Presumptuous Beliefs

Second, continuationism tends to put people in bondage to presumptuous beliefs. Someone communicates to them a supposed revelation about their future health, career, marriage, children, or ministry. This encourages them to pray and act with faith that God will do this. However, their faith has no basis in God’s Word, and therefore, it is presumption. They may fall into great discouragement and doubt about God’s faithfulness when things do not go as they hope. Sincere people have had their hopes for healing of medical problems shattered when they remained sick or disabled despite the assurances of modern “prophets.”

This problem is inherent in the continuationist view. Storms writes, “People often confuse praying expectantly with praying presumptuously. Prayer is presumptuous when the person claims healing without revelatory warrant,” by which he means “an explicit biblical assertion . . . or revelatory insight via a word of knowledge (cf. Acts 14:8–10), prophecy, or through a dream or vision.”3 In other words, if a person receives a promise of healing through a prophecy or dream, then he may go beyond a general expectation that God is good to actually claim healing by faith. This demonstrates a confidence in modern prophecies as God’s trustworthy word.4 Contrary to Storms, prayer is presumptuous if offered with faith in anything other than God’s promises in the Holy Scriptures.

Bondage to Human Thoughts, Impressions, and Feelings

Third, continuationism tends to put people in bondage to human thoughts, impressions, and feelings. The Christian life is certainly a life of feeling. The Holy Spirit produces holy desires (Gal. 5:17) and holy delight in God’s law (Rom. 7:22; Rom. contrast 8:7–9). The Spirit stirs God’s children to cry out to their Father in faith and assures them of his love and acceptance (Rom. 8:15–16). However, when they view their inner experiences as potential revelations or words from God, then they enslave themselves to subjective impressions and impulses. This results in false guilt, legalism, and superstition, for our thoughts and emotions are merely human, even when sanctified by God’s Spirit. We should not lean on our own understanding, but seek our wisdom from the Word of God (Prov. 2:1–9; 3:5).

What is the biblical basis for this idea of inward revelation? Evangelical Christians commonly justify their subjectivism with Paul’s teaching that God’s children are “led by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:14; cf. Gal. 5:18). However, when those texts are read in context, we do not find Paul speaking about inner divine promptings or impulses that reveal God’s will. Instead, the Spirit’s leading is his effectual influence to draw God’s children along the pathway of putting sin to death, embracing love and holiness, and persevering through suffering in the hope of glory (Rom. 8:12–17; Gal. 5:19–24).5 Edwards said that prophecy is a gift that even wicked sinners like Balaam may receive, but the leading of the Spirit is a saving grace of God’s children: “There is a more excellent way that the Spirit of God leads the sons of God, that natural men cannot have, and that is by inclining them to do the will of God, and go in the shining path of truth and Christian holiness, from an holy heavenly disposition, which the Spirit of God gives them.”6 When we experience desires to obey God’s Word, then we should certainly ascribe them to the sanctifying influence of the Spirit. However, we should not regard such desires as a revelation from God regarding his will. Sanctification is not revelation, but the grace to obey revelation.

Reformed Systematic Theology

Reformed Systematic Theology

Joel R. Beeke, Paul M. Smalley

The first volume in the Reformed Systematic Theology series draws on the historical theology of the Reformed tradition, exploring the first 2 of 8 central points of systematic theology with an accessible, comprehensive, and experiential approach.

The Scriptures indicate that special revelation comes with divinely authoritative words, not vague impressions on the imagination or emotions.7 However, Grudem, quoting Timothy Pain, recommends that a prophet preface his prophecy with “I think the Lord is suggesting something like . . .”8 Storms relates a story in which a man speaking to a couple saw in his imagination “a picture of a young boy dressed up like General MacArthur,” and hence deduced (prophetically) that they had a son named Douglas.9 Prophets do not need to guess about the meaning of their visions, for they come with divine words of truth (Jer. 1:11–14). The Spirit did not give Philip a feeling that he should approach the Ethiopian’s chariot, but “said unto Philip, Go near” (Acts 8:29). The Spirit likewise said to the prophets and teachers in Antioch, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:1–3)

If we adopt with Storms and Grudem a view of prophecy as a mixture of divine and human ideas, then we find ourselves in a very unstable position. The life of the believer is ruled by the revealed will of God; what shall the Christian do if that revelation is clouded, unclear, and fallible? Robertson writes, “On the one hand, prophecy is said to be based on a revelation that comes directly from God, uncovering the truth about persons or situations that otherwise could not be known. But on the other hand, these revelations are delivered by the prophet in such a garbled manner that the person addressed may choose to ignore them altogether if he wishes.”10Are we to view such prophecies as counsel from sanctified but fallible men or as revelations from God? Robertson concludes, “This concept of prophecy has the potential for creating great uncertainty in the lives of God’s people.”11

Grudem seems to suggest that continuing special revelation is necessary for God to have “a personal relationship with his people, a relationship in which he communicated directly and personally with them.”12 However, as Reformed experiential Christians, we strongly affirm the personal relationship God has with his people apart from new revelations. God speaks to them by his Spirit through his Word. Christ knows his sheep, they know Christ, they hear their Shepherd’s voice, and they follow him (John 10:4, 14, 16, 27). The Bible is not just a textbook for theology and ethics, but the book of God’s covenant with his people, through which he guides them as they walk with him. They do not need private revelations. They find the written Word eminently personal and practical to guide them: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105).13

God directs his people in his general providence over creation (1 Thess. 3:11) to the good works that he prepared for them to do (Eph. 2:10). He sovereignly rules over all things in heaven and earth, including the hearts of men.14 Like Nehemiah, we should pray for God’s help in all our labors, thank God for his good hand upon us to give us success, and give him glory for good ideas that he places in our minds.15 All our abilities and opportunities come from God (James 1:17). Every instance of good timing is arranged by his wisdom and power.16 However, we should not think of our inward or outward experiences as “words” from God, for God’s purpose in them is partially shrouded in the mystery of his decree. Providence is not special revelation and it should not be treated as if it creates new obligations or offers new promises apart from God’s Word. Christians today are not apostles or prophets, and they should not be treated as if they have direct access to the voice of God apart from Scripture.

While wise decisions require a consideration of factual information and an awareness of our feelings and intuitions, these factors do not constitute the authoritative norms to direct our beliefs and behaviors. Our moral and spiritual wisdom comes from daily meditation upon God’s Word. Gaffin says, “Scripture reveals all that we need to have not only concerning the gospel and sound doctrinal and ethical principles, but also for the practical and pressing life issues about which we have to make decisions.”17 Finding God’s wisdom requires the hard work of listening to the preached Word, praying, reading, studying, thinking, obeying, suffering, and talking with other believers while depending on the illumination of the Spirit. There is no shortcut to wisdom through direct revelation. Wisdom must come by constant engagement with God’s Word.

Notes:
1. Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in WJE, 4:432–33.
2. Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in WJE, 4:433–34.
3. Storms, “A Third Wave View,” in AMGFT, 214.
4. Gaffin, “A Cessationist Response to C. Samuel Storms and Douglas A. Oss,” in AMGFT, 294
5. See Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 498–99.
6. Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in WJE, 4:436
7. Acts 16:6–7 states that Paul’s missionary team was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to go to Asia and that the Spirit would not allow them to go to Bithynia, but it does not tell us how the Spirit communicated this, so nothing can be concluded from these texts about inward impressions. Similarly, Isa. 30:21 is not a promise of personal guidance through direct revelation, but of faithful teachers (Isa. 20) who will tell God’s people to be faithful to the covenant; cf. Deut. 5:32. It can also be an abuse of Scripture to say that God speaks in the believer’s heart with “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). The text cited describes an audible sound when God approached the prophet Elijah to communicate verbally with him. It does not pertain to the inward impressions of believers.
8. Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, 93.
9. Sam Storms, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 2002), 94.
10. Robertson, The Final Word, 90.
11. Robertson, The Final Word, 92.
12. Wayne Grudem and Ian Hamilton, “Prophecy in the Church Today,” moderated by Adrian Reynolds, Proclamation Trust: EMA 2010, https://vimeo.com/37169587, video position 6:57. See also http://www.proctrust.org.uk/resources/talk/1625.
13. Cf. Gaffin, “A Cessationist View,” in AMGFT, 54
14. Ps. 135:6; Prov. 16:1, 9, 33; 21:1.
15. Neh. 2:4, 8, 12, 18, 20.
16. Est. 4:14; 6:1–11; Ps. 31:15; Eccl. 3:1–8, 11.
17. Gaffin, “A Cessationism Conclusion,” in AMGFT, 338.

This article is adapted from Reformed Systematic Theology: Volume 1: Revelation and God by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley.