Friday, February 10

Spurgeon on Prayer

I know of no better thermometer to your spiritual temperature than this, the measure of the intensity of your prayer.

The ship of prayer may sail through all temptations, doubts and fears, straight up to the throne of God; and though she may be outward bound with only griefs, and groans, and sighs, she shall return freighted with a wealth of blessings!

It is a good rule never to look into the face of a man in the morning till you have looked into the face of God.

It is well said that neglected prayer is the birthplace of all evil.

Methinks every true Christian should be exceedingly earnest in prayer concerning the souls of the ungodly; and when they are so, how abundantly God blesses them and how the church prospers!

Oh, without prayer what are the church's agencies, but the stretching out of a dead man's arm, or the lifting up of the lid of a blind man's eye? Only when the Holy Spirit comes is there any life and force and power.

Prayer girds human weakness with divine strength, turns human folly into heavenly wisdom, and gives to troubled mortals the peace of God. We know not what prayer can do.

Prayer meetings are the throbbing machinery of the church.

Remember, Christ's scholars must study upon their knees.

True prayer is measured by weight, not by length. A single groan before God may have more fullness of prayer in it than a fine oration of great length.

We shall never see much change for the better in our churches in general till the prayer meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians.

Wednesday, January 4

Written in Time

I first began to seriously read and study the life and work of Thomas Chalmers a quarter of a century ago. When I was in graduate school I became aware of his reforming work in 19th century Scotland. I read a few of his best-known sermons during seminary. But, it was not until a “chance discovery” of a Chalmers book in one of my favorite West Coast antiquarian bookshops that I dug in for deep reading.

His many profound epigrammatic truths quickly became loadstones in my life—and inevitably helped to define the distinctives of my ministry and work:

“Regardless of how large, your vision is too small.”

"The Spirit guides us unto all truth and all truth is to be found in the Bible--the Spirit therefore guides us unto the Bible."

"The wider a man's knowledge becomes, the deeper should be his humility; for the more he knows the more he sees of what remains unknown. The wider the diameter of light, the larger the circumference of darkness. And so, with every footstep of growing knowledge there ought to be a growing humility--that is the best guarantee both for a sound philosophy and a sound faith."

“May I be strong in faith, instant in prayer, high in my sense of duty, and vigorous in the execution of it.”

"Christ hath spoiled the great adversary of all his power. He hath left him no claim of ascendancy whatever over those who believe in Him."

"While I retain entire dependence on Christ's righteousness and grace, let me, at the same time, have the comfort of knowing that my labor is not in vain in the Lord."

But, of all the things Chalmers wrote and said that continue to bolster my faith, embolden my vision, shape my thinking, and give trajectory to my calling, I return again and again to his gladsome declaration: “O, let us connect every joy with the hand of the Giver; and in the manifold blessing which He scatters around the path of this world’s journey, may we never forget that it is a journey written in time.”

This truth helps remind me that the work of ministry in Christ's church is far more than a necessary preparation for some future reward. Instead, it is a joyous walk together. It is a providentially rooted community. It is a “journey written in time.” O, what a manifold blessing!

Friday, December 2

The Gift of Giving

In 2 Corinthians the Apostle Paul offers an extended exhortation on stewardship:

“Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So, each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” (9:6-8).

Notice, he asserts there is a principle of reciprocity at work in our giving—and not only that, but God desires for us to give without reluctance or hesitation or regret. But then, he goes on to say that our generosity will not only enrich us in faith, hope, and joy (9:10-12), but will also produce grace and thanksgiving among men and praise and worship to God (9:13-14).  

All as a result of our giving!  It is indeed, "more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35)

“Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (9:15)

Monday, November 7

The Magdeburg Confession of 1550

By the 16th century virtually no one disagreed on the fact that the West needed to be reformed. What they disagreed on was what that reform should entail and how it was to be effected. In frustrated tension, dozens of competing factions, sects, schisms, rifts, rebellions, and divisions roiled just beneath the surface of the West’s tenuous tranquility for decades. Finally, on October 31, 1517, those pent-up passions burst out into the open when an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In a single stroke, not one, but two momentous renewal movements renewal movements were launched that at last were able to effect genuine reform within the church: the Protestant Reformation and the reaffirmation of covenantal principles to civil governance.

This is the essential historical and cultural framework out of which the Magdeburg Confession of 1550 was written. Against the backdrop of the centralizing totalitarianism of the Hapsburg hegemony, the newly revived Holy Roman Empire, the people of the little German town of Magdeburg, situated between Berlin and Hanover, not far from Brandenburg, determined to recover their federal, their covenantal, their Biblical culture.

Their confession of faith asserted that Biblical covenantalism was the principle by which men and nations might know the truth of the Gospel and thus afford hope for their souls, it was simultaneously the principle by which their cultural and political and social freedom might be won.

Officially titled, The Confession, Instruction, and Admonition of the Pastors and Preachers of the Christian Congregations of Magdeburg, the Confession was a more than just a statement of Protestant and Lutheran orthodoxy. Composed by the nine pastors of the city in 1550 in response to the Augsburg Interim and its legal threat imposing Roman Catholic dictates, the Confession articulates the doctrine of “the lesser magistrates” and offers a Christian defense of the ideas of principled resistance to tyranny, civil disobedience to ungodly decrees, and even the use of force when necessary. It was the first clear declaration of a Biblical posture of resistance against unjust higher authorities. Theodore Beza believed the Confession provided faithful believers with an example of how to respond to political abuse and tyranny—indeed, he used insights from the Confession in his influential notes for the Geneva Bible, the Bible used by most of the Puritans and Pilgrims for at least three generations afterward.

So it was that the font of covenantal ideas in the Confession flowed out into the reforming nations of the West: they were echoed in Calvin and Beza’s Geneva; they helped shape Knox’s Scotland, they were influential in Bucer’s Strassburg; they laid the foundations of Cranmer’s England; and they became central to the vision of the Founders of America’s great experiment in liberty.

But for the same reasons that the Magdeburg pioneers had to recover the old principles of covenantal federalism by means of reformation, we need to pay heed to these ideas today. Western Civilization is once again in very real jeopardy. Freedom is once again threatened. Life, liberty, and opportunity are once again coming under the shadow of vested centralized powers and principalities. By looking back at the essential notions upon which our freedoms were built we may yet be motivated and equipped to begin the process of reforming, restoring, and recovering. May it be so, Lord.

Wednesday, November 2

Scots Confession

Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart first proclaimed the doctrines of the Reformation in Scotland. Both men were gifted scholars, beloved disciplers, and bold preachers. Both had been influenced by Martin Luther during studies abroad, both had benefited from William Tyndale’s translation work, and both were eventually martyred—Hamilton in 1528 and Wishart in 1546.

One of Wishart’s disciples, John Knox, was emboldened by the courageous life and death of his mentor. He determined to press forward the cause of Reformation in Scotland despite the obvious dangers. Through a dramatic series of events, including the assassination of the spiteful Bishop Beaton, the capture and barricading of the St. Andrew’s castle, and a subsequent siege by French war galleons, Knox was captured and made a galley slave. Upon regaining his freedom he studied under Calvin at Geneva, served King Edward at Westminster, prepared an English study Bible with Beza at Lausanne, and helped write a Book of Common Prayer with Bucer and Cranmer at Lambeth. But, always his heart was set on returning to Scotland. His persistent prayer was, “Lord, give me Scotland or I die.”

At last in 1559, Knox returned to his homeland. And despite fierce opposition from the crown and the nobility, he found the nation ready and waiting for Gospel reforms. With the death of the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, in 1560, the Scottish Parliament convened in Edinburgh to address a host of issues confronting the restless nation.

In his History of the Reformation in Scotland, Knox gives a record of the extraordinary drama that soon unfolded. A supplication was laid before Parliament by a number of prominent Protestants, exposing the corruptions of the Scottish church. Evidence of the scandalous doings was overwhelming and undeniable. In response, Parliament beseeched the Protestants to draw up "in plain and several heads, the sum of that doctrine which they would maintain, and would desire that present Parliament to establish as wholesome, true, and only necessary to be believed and received within that realm."

Over the next four days, the Scots Confession was hastily drafted by Knox and five of his closest disciples and friends: John Winram, John Spottiswoode, John Willock, John Douglas, John Row (known as the “Six Johns”). On August 17, 1560, the document was read twice, article by article, during an open Parliamentary. Thereafter, the Confession was ratified with a near unanimous affirmation.

Composed in very economical prose and spanning just 25 articles or chapters, the Confession was warm, direct, humble, practical, and deeply devotional. Every proposition was accompanied by abundant Scripture references. As a result, it would prove to be a worthy a model for many of the creeds, confessions, and covenants that would follow in succeeding years.

The Church of Scotland would approve the Westminster Confession and Catechisms eight decades later; but the Scots Confession would remain its first, its dearest, and its most eloquent heart-cry of the faith that changed the whole course of the nation—and because of its profound influence on the Puritans in England and in America, the whole course of the world.

Wednesday, October 26

The Canons of Dort

We didn’t get TULIP, the Five Points of Calvinism, from Calvin. Oh sure, the doctrines can be found in his magisterial Institutes of Christian Religion. But the idea that the great doctrines of the Reformation could be reduced to five essential points, T-total depravity, U-unconditional election, L-limited atonement, I-irresistible grace, and P-perseverance of the saints, comes to us from the Canons of Dort (sort of).

Actually, it is a bit of a complicated, convoluted story. In 1618 and 1619 a National Synod was held in the Dutch city of Dordrecht to sort out the theological controversies that had been raised by the teachings of the influential theologian Jakob Hermanszoon, best known by his Latinized name, Jacobus Arminius. Beginning in 1603, Arminius argued against several specific doctrines in the Belgic Confession. Though he had studied under Theodore Beza, during his years of ministry as a pastor in Amsterdam and as a professor at Leiden, he had gradually developed strong semi-Pelagian views of grace, God’s sovereignty, and free will, views that were clearly inconsistent with the Reformed tradition of Calvin and Beza.

Arminius died in 1609. Nevertheless, his followers continued to teach his views, calling themselves “Arminians.” And in 1610, they attempted to specify all their concerns with Calvinism, publishing a five point Remonstrance. They argued that man’s sinfulness is not so comprehensive that it deadens him to the convictions of faith; that divine decree of predestination is only conditional, not absolute; that the atonement is intended to be universal; that though the grace of God is a necessary catalyst to genuine faith, it does not act irresistibly in man; and that believers are always vulnerable to the danger of falling away from a state of grace. Essentially, they argued for the autonomous responsibility of man, pre-ordination through the foreknowledge of faith, and the universal sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. As you can imagine, such teachings created quite a stir in the Dutch church and beyond.

The Dordrecht National Synod was called to resolve the conflict. And the resolution came in a series of five responses, or canons. The canons were not intended to be a comprehensive explanation of Reformed dogmatics, but only an answer to those five disputed points of the Arminian Remonstrance. Nevertheless, the document that the Synod delegates drew up was so succinct, straightforward, and substantive, it quickly became a standard text for a clear exposition of the doctrines of grace. In short order, it was linked together with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession as the Three Forms of Unity.

What was intended to be a technical judicial response to a very specific case became a cornerstone for the building of the Reformed world and life view in the Netherlands and beyond.

The Second Helvetic Confession

It was never the intention of Heinrich Bullinger that the Second Helvetic Confession be made public. The successor to Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich actually wrote it in 1562 as a private devotional exercise. Two years later, stricken during an outbreak of the plague, he revised the work in anticipation of his death. Although his wife and three daughters all succumbed to the dread epidemic, Bullinger survived.

It was a propitious moment in history. The Council of Trent had just concluded its deliberations in 1563. The definitive edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was translated into German, French, Italian, and English later that same year. All Europe was abuzz with conflict, contention, and concern.

Frederick III, Elector of the Palatinate and sponsor of the Heidelberg Catechism, asked Bullinger to prepare a defense of the Reformed Faith in preparation for the upcoming Imperial Diet in Augsburg. Bullinger sent him a copy of the succinct testimony, recopied from his journal: 20,000 words arranged into 30 chapters, covering everything from systematic theology to practical piety. Frederick immediately recognized the work’s richness and had it translated from Latin into German. In short order, all the Protestant cities of Switzerland (the old Roman province of Helvetii or East Gaul) affirmed its value as well. After a few minor revisions in 1566, the testimony, now dubbed the Second Helvetic Confession, was affirmed by the churches in Zurich, Geneva, and Berne—and was received warmly by the Reformed communities in Scotland, the Netherlands, Poland, Northern Italy, and Hungary. Today, next to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession is the most widely utilized document to come out of the magisterial Reformation.

Bullinger was a brilliant theologian, classical scholar, historian, and linguist. As the pastor of Zurich’s Grossmünster following the death of Zwingli, he was also renowned as a gifted expositor and preacher. But, because it was originally composed as private devotional exercise, the Confession is marked by a profound intimacy and a practical immediacy. Its sections on prayer, singing, Sabbath-keeping, care for the sick and poor, the role of civil government, and the character of marriage and the family, make it a compendium of everyday wisdom for the Christian life. But, it achieves this practical usefulness without ever compromising the profound depth of its theology and Biblical fidelity. Unapologetically grounded in Scripture, the Confession nevertheless makes a broad appeal to the whole of church history.

Thus, the Second Helvetic Confession reminds us that good theology need not be arcane, that deep Biblical truth is always immediately applicable to the ordinary details of life, and that the Gospel, like Christ Himself, is the same yesterday, today and forever.

The Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism, first published in 1563, has been used by Christians around the world ever since and with the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort, remains one of the essential Three Forms of Unity. The Catechism summarizes the major teachings of the Scriptures in 129 memorable questions and answers. Very simple and yet quite profound, amazingly concise and yet fully sufficient, the Catechism has been appreciated by young and old alike as one of the most clear, helpful and comforting guides into all the spiritual treasures of the Gospel.

The word catechism comes from the Greek word katecheo, which means to teach. It is a word frequently used in the Bible. In his Gospel, for example, Luke explained that he had written, “an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Lk 1:4). Wherever the word is used, it is translated as to teach or to instruct. So, a catechism is essentially a teaching tool, designed for oral instruction—thus, its question and answer format.

The 129 questions and answers are divided over 52 sections for each of the Lord’s Days in a year. Topically, the Catechism covers the themes of our sin (1-4), our deliverance (5-31), and our thankfulness for such a great salvation (32-52). At the same time, it surveys the truths of the Apostle’s Creed (8-22), the Ten Commandments (33-44), and the Lord’s Prayer (46-52). Under each Lord’s Day there are lists of Bible references to enable readers to identify which Bible passages the Catechism is summarizing in each answer.

The university town of Heidelberg had been, with Wittenberg and Strasburg, among the leading cities of the early Reformation. In April of 1518 Martin Luther travelled to Heidelberg for a debate at the annual meeting of the region’s Augustinian monks. There he presented 40 Heidelberg Theses, calling for a clear and sustained emphasis on the cross of Christ as the only means of salvation. Soon after, Wenzel Strauss, the pastor of the city church, Heiliggeistkirche, came to be known as “the evangelical trumpet.” Heinrich Stoll and Martin Bucer, likewise became champions of the doctrines of grace. The Gospel took root.

At the request of Elector Frederick III, the ruler of the Palatinate, the Catechism was composed by Zacharius Ursinus, 28 years old and professor of theology at the university, and Caspar Olevianus, who was just 26 and Frederick's court preacher. Their work was immediately influential. In The Netherlands the Catechism was popularized by Petrus Dathenus, who translated it into Dutch and Peter Gabriel who taught through all 52 sections for his congregation at Amsterdam each Lord’s Day afternoon. It quickly became a standard work of the ongoing Reformation—and remains so to this day.

The Belgic Confession

The Belgic Confession, published in 1561, was a clear, concise, and uncompromised declaration of Reformed faith. King Philip II had unleashed the full power of the Inquisition, determined to stamp out every remnant of Protestantism in Europe. Guido de Brès composed the work in French as an apology for the persecuted Reformation community suffering under his harsh rule. The Hapsburg Emperor was king of Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Portugal, and Milan. Briefly during his marriage to Mary Tudor, he was also the titular king of England and Ireland. But even that failed to satisfy his voracious appetite.

Like his father Charles V, who confronted Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, Philip was obsessive in his desire for unchallenged authority. Global hegemony was his aim. He rightly perceived that the Reformed faith and its adherents were obstinate obstacles in his grand pursuit.

In the Belgic Confession, de Brès carefully adhered to the Bible teaching he had learned from his mentors, John Calvin and Theodore Beza, taking a cue from their French Reformed Confession published two years earlier. Even so, de Brès pioneered the pattern for most of the confessions that would follow in the succeeding years: starting with the doctrine of God (Theology Proper), and then moving on to the doctrines of man (Anthropology), Christ (Christology), salvation (Soteriology), the church (Ecclesiology), and last things (Eschatology).

Translated into Dutch in 1562, the Belgic Confession became a rallying point for resistance to Hapsburg rule in the Lowlands. In 1567, de Brès was martyred for his faith. Yet, “he being dead, still speaks.” To this day, his confession remains one of the essential Three Forms of Unity.

Friday, August 26

Alec Motyer (1924-2016) has long been one of my favorite commentators (I discovered in 1982 at the Congress on the Bible in San Diego that his name was pronounced maw-teer having always mispronounced it mott-yur).  His commentaries on Amos, James, Philippians, and his two commentaries on Isaiah have been indispensable to me. And, I have only just begun to work through his devotional translation of the Psalms.

In one of his most recent books, Life 2, he argued for the great hope of Gospel surety in the face of death. Today, he has proven it.  He went to sleep in fair lowlands of England and awoke in the fairer uplands of Heaven. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:55-57