Top 4 Takeaways from J.I. Packer’s Puritan Course

April 8, 2010

I just finished listening to an iTunes U Course by J.I. Packer titled History and Theology of the Puritans (iTunes link). It’s one of the best and most impactful courses I’ve ever taken, as you might imagine, given the topic and the presenter. I can’t believe it’s available for free! I recommend it without reservation.

Here are my top takeaways from it. These aren’t necessarily the most important points, but they’re the ones that had the most impact on me personally. (Incidentally, my full notes on the course are available on my theology wiki.)

  1. The important thing in ministry is faithfulness, not measurable success. Packer describes Richard Greenham, a Puritan pastor whose model for counseling and personal ministry was very influential. Ministerial candidates came from all over England to learn from him. All of the visitors who came to learn from him were deeply impacted – but almost nobody in the church he pastored was impacted themselves. This hit home for me because I’ve always had a desire to pass on leadership skills I learn to others. I assumed, why would anyone want to learn from me if I’m not having measurable success in my own ministry? So this reinforced my tendency to see myself as a failure if I didn’t have measurable success. But, now, I realize that God can still use me to impact others’ ministries even if the people I’m ministering to aren’t affected. Now, it’s true that people can be impacted without my knowing about it – but this is more deeply encouraging to my fears. Even if the people aren’t impacted at all, God can still use me to help other ministers. And, realizing this, I also realized that, even if God doesn’t use me to help other ministers either, there is still value in doing ministry in a Godly way in and of itself – God enjoys it and is glorified by it.
  2. “Ripping up the conscience.” In the Puritan view, the conscience is a part of your own reason (not some mystical being or anything) – but the strange thing about it is that it seems to operate independently of you. It stands as judge over you. They believed that it was appointed by God, and that you needed to obey it. The problem is that a wrongly instructed conscience will make wrong judgments. So obeying a wrong conscience is sin, because you disobey God’s Word, but disobeying a wrong conscience is also sin, because God appointed your conscience for you to obey it. The only way out of this catch-22 is to train your conscience by the Word, so that it will make right judgments. So, in other words, sanctification is not just about forcing yourself to not do the sins your conscience says is OK, but also training your conscience so that it will start saying they’re wrong! The way you do this, in Puritan thinking, is by what they call “ripping up the conscience:” by studying and meditating and thinking through applications, increasing your conviction of the sin you approve, to sensitize your conscience to the truth of scripture. This is incredibly helpful to me because, as a Christian hedonist, I don’t want to just obey God’s commands – I want to love them (and to love all the things of God). Ripping up the conscience gives me a practical way to move beyond willpower in obeying, in order to really work on my heart (and ask God to work on it).
  3. Supralapsarianism did not cause the Puritans’ problematic views on salvation. Packer listed a number of problems with the Puritans’ view of salvation, including a denial of the “whosoever will” promises, no assurance upon believing but only upon seeing fruit, a denial of the fact that God is essentially love, and a sense of God’s election as arbitrary, frightening, and chilling. He attributed these problems to the fact that most Puritans were supralapsarian, and he asserted that infralapsarianism addresses all of them. However, I wasn’t convinced by this. Having come from a non-Calvinist background, I’d come across most of these issues as difficulties with Calvinism as a whole, regardless of your lapsarian view – and the solutions (whether the ones I found myself, or the ones Packer suggested) seem to apply equally well to supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. So I can be confident that, whatever problems I see with the Puritans’ view of salvation, changing my lapsarian view does not seem necessary or helpful.
  4. The Puritans were a unified movement that included views we now call Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist. This is helpful for me to understand my heritage as an English-speaking Christian who is both Reformed and Baptist. The Puritans had remarkable unity on most points of theology, and some of the only few they differed on are church structure and baptism. That’s why, after the Westminster Standards (confession, catechism, and directory) were written to try to encompass as many Puritan views as possible, the Congregationalists happily took the majority of the confession and only changed a few parts to create the Savoy Declaration, and the Baptists did the same to create the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Although I don’t agree with everything in these documents, I find the 1689 Confession to be probably the confession to which I can find the most agreement. It’s exciting to learn just how much Presbyterians share with that, and the unity the Puritans felt despite these real differences is a challenge to me to do the same.

Absolute Assurance and Paul’s Addressing

May 29, 2009

I’ve started a series of blog posts to address the question, should a professing Christian ever doubt their salvation on the basis of a lack of fruit in their life? To answer it, I proposed three characteristics of Paul’s general epistles that prove a Christian can know for certain that they are saved.

The first of these characteristics is the way Paul addresses his general epistles. Each of them is written to a stated audience, and the statement of that audience makes no sense whatsoever if the listeners could have any doubt as to their salvation.

The statements of address are easy enough to find in each epistle. Most of them refer to the readers as “saints:” Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Eph 1:1, Phi 1:1, Col 1:2. 1 Thess 1:4 refers to the readers as “brethren,” “beloved by God,” who have been chosen by him. 2 Thess 1:4 refers to the faith of the readers. And even Galatians, which so sharply criticizes the readers’ openness to another gospel, says in 1:6 that they were “called…by the grace of Christ.” All of these statements, then, address the epistles not just to any hearers, and not to a questionable class of nominal believers, but to those who really are “saints,” “brethren,” who were “called.”

These addresses are clear, but their relevance to certainty of salvation is not. To make the connection plain, I’d like to first suggest three possible ways to interpret the addresses if it is true that some Christians should doubt their salvation (which I’ll refer to as doubt-theology) – and show that each of these ways is insufficient. I will then give the interpretation if Christians do not need to doubt their salvation (which I’ll refer to as certainty-theology), showing that it fits far more clearly with the plain meaning of the text.

If some Christians should doubt their salvation, what is the state of the churches to which Paul is writing? This view usually sees the church as a “mixed multitude,” some of whom are true believers, and some of whom are false believers – the difference between whom, however, is unknowable until Christ’s return. This, then, would be the group who receives Paul’s letter. So what does he mean when he addresses “the saints?”

First, Paul could simply mean, “to the entire church, who think you are saints, but only some of whom are truly saints.” But this view seems to go against the meaning of the word “saint.” It’s never used in the New Testament to refer to nominal believers who may or may not truly be saved – it’s always equated to realities of salvation: calling (Rom 1:7), citizenship (Eph 2:19), inheritance (Eph 1:8), future judging of the world (1 Cor 6:2). So “saint” in itself does not mean “nominal believer.” And Paul doesn’t have sarcastic quotation marks around the word: if he called the whole church saints, they would understand him to mean that they truly are saints.

Now, if Paul knew not all in the church were saints, but called them all saints, would this be a problem? The answer is that it would be a major problem. To tell an unsaved person that they’re saved, or to tell a saved person that they’re unsaved, is greatly deceptive and wicked. This is a particular point that the doubt-theologians are rightly quick to emphasize. Many such theologians are careful never to make any theological statement with reference to an entire group of professing Christians. Instead, they say “for true Christians, X is true – are you one of them?” And, in their view, this caution is absolutely necessary, lest they falsely declare salvation for someone. But Paul does not here take that precaution: everyone he addresses, he refers to as a saint. So it cannot be that Paul means “to the entire church, who think you are saints, but only some of whom are truly saints.”

Second and alternatively, Paul could use the term “saints” to mean “all of you who turn out, in the end, to have truly been saints.” In this view, Paul isn’t speaking to professing Christians who aren’t truly saved, because none of the realities he’s declaring are true of them. This, at first, seems plausible. But how would the recipients know who he’s referring to? The point of the doubt-theology view is that nobody can know for sure whether or not they’re saved. So if Paul only addresses those who truly are saved, nobody can know for sure whether or not they’re addressed, and therefore whether or not anything in the words is true for them.

It could be objected that Paul meant to primarily address those who are truly saved, but that he wanted nominal believers to listen in as well, and hopefully come to true faith. At least, this is the conclusion of many doubt-theologians’ interpretation of verses to “test yourself” and persevere “lest you have believed in vain.” But we’ve already shown the theological problems with Paul referring to non-saints as saints, so this cannot be the case. Therefore, by Paul’s own statement, he intends only for true saints to be the recipients of his words; but if no one can know if they are truly a saint, no one can know whether the letter is addressed to them. It would certainly be possible for a fallible author to write this way, and for the recipients to understand the error and ignore it. But does it make sense for the inspired, infallible author to say “I am only speaking to those who have a certain invisible attribute, which it is impossible for anyone to know whether they have”? That’s hardly the kind of confidence Paul seems to intend to instill.

Third, Paul could use the term “saints” because he has received special revelation as an apostle, and he actually knows exactly who is a saint and who is not. In this view, it does not matter that none of the recipients knows whether they are truly saints, because the inspired apostle does know, and therefore he can have them only in mind when he writes. The first problem with this idea is that, in order to make scripture intelligible, it relies upon an assumption nowhere made in scripture, i.e. that Paul received special revelation as to exactly who is truly a saint. This is a shaky basis on which to put scripture’s intelligibility. The bigger problem, however, is that, even if Paul was to have received such a revelation, this view does not avoid the problems of the previous view. The addressees still don’t know who Paul is addressing, because he didn’t enumerate them (“the saints, i.e. Bill and Sally, but not Joe and Emily”). So they still don’t know whether they are included in the group addressed, and therefore whether any of the promises of scripture apply to them.

Well, those possibilities certainly seem convoluted. It’s possible that another better interpretation could be advanced to make sense out of Paul’s sending a letter to a mixed multitude and addressing the “saints.” And I certainly don’t claim to have exhaustively researched it. I simply have never run across a doubt-theology explanation of the addressing of the letters – it seems to usually be glossed over. It’s asserted that Paul is addressing true saints, then later it’s separately asserted that nobody can know whether they’re a saint, and the problems bringing these two ideas together are never addressed.

In contrast to this, let’s examine the certainty-theology interpretation, if Christians do not need to doubt their salvation, but can know for sure that they are saved. In this view, there is no problem. Paul is writing to churches, composed of people who have sincerely professed faith in Christ. The professing Christians themselves know they have done so, and everybody around them knows they have done so. If Paul has been to the church, he knows they have done so; otherwise, he at least knows that there is a well-defined group who are known to have made such professions (the concept of baptism as a public sign comes to mind: the idea is that these professions are clear and public). Because Paul knows that sincere faith in Christ necessarily makes one a saint, and that that fact can be known for sure, he addresses the church, not just as “professing Christians,” but as that which they necessarily are as well: “saints.” When the church receives the letter, they see that it’s addressed to the saints, and each person knows whether they’ve made the sincere profession of faith which would necessarily cause them to become a saint. If they are in this category, they know they are directly addressed, and that all the promises in the letter apply to them. If they have not sincerely professed, they know this, and that they therefore are not saints, and therefore are not directly addressed; and they are aware that the promises do not yet apply to them, but that they are listening in to a conversation which they would need to profess faith in order to become a part of.

This seems to fit much more simply with the statement of the text. Paul addresses “the saints” without further explanation, as though it’s a simple designation, as simple as if he were to write to “everybody named Joe.” You don’t need to explain “everybody named Joe,” because everybody knows what that means. In doubt-theology, however, nobody knows who the saints are, and so it takes a tremendous amount of explanation to try to make sense out of it. It’s just as difficult as if I was to say “to everyone who will someday live in the state of California: raise your hand.” That’s unintelligible, because everybody who does not currently live in California can never say for sure that they will never live there. So to call them to act in the present based on something they will not know until the future is unintelligible. Yet Paul (as we shall see) makes numerous present commands of the people he addresses, yet he says that the ones he addresses are those who are “saints.” If nobody can know who is a saint today, how can they know who he is asking to act? The certainty-theology interpretation, then, is far simpler, because in that view Paul is addressing a clearly-defined group, and asking them to act.

As a side note, it could be objected that one cannot know for sure whether a profession of faith is truly sincere. A diligent imposter could adopt all the actions of true faith, and yet not truly feel it. This is true, but it presents no problems to certainty-theology’s interpretation of Paul’s addresses. The imposter knows that he does not truly have faith, so to him it is clear that he is not one of the saints addressed. So each person knows whether they are addressed or not. The problem only arises in doubt-theology when none of the readers can possibly know whether or not they are one of the “saints” addressed.

To review, then, we’ve seen that Paul addresses all his general letters to “the saints,” or else to people who have other attributes exclusive to true Christians. If a person can know for sure whether they are a saint or not, then the meaning of this address is clear. But if nobody can know for sure whether or not they are a saint, then it’s difficult or impossible to determine who Paul intends to address by his letter. Therefore, the addressing of Paul’s letters is more consistent with certainty-theology than doubt-theology.

In my next post, I’ll state my second argument for certainty-theology on the basis of Paul’s general epistles. It continues on in this vein by showing that Paul makes many of his theological statements with reference to his readers, and so the problem is made even worse if no one can know whether the statements apply to them or not.

Are Christians “Sinners”?

March 31, 2009

I started reading yet another book today that insists it’s essential for Christians to see themselves as sinners. Is this true or not? Here’s my suggested approach.

First, aside from the term itself, let’s look at the things that most Bible-believing Christians can agree to, related to Christians and sin. When a person trusts in Christ, they are credited Christ’s righteousness (Rom 4:5). Also, in some sense the power of sin over that person is broken (Rom 6:20-22). However, there is still a battle within the believer between sin and the Spirit (Gal 5:17), and no Christian is ever entirely without sin in this life (1 Jn 1:8). A Christian can overcome this sin to progressively grow in holiness, by relying on the power of the Spirit (Gal 5:16) and renewing his mind to the truth (Rom 12:2), among other things. A lot of times, disputes over the term “sinner” arise because one side believes that the other is missing one of these key points (and it can work both ways). It’s important, then, at the outset, to discuss these points, to see if both sides really agree to them.

If we can agree on these points, then, the question remains, should a Christian see himself as a sinner? We agree to all the above *assertions,* but should that *label* be additionally applied?

Here’s some hard Biblical evidence. “Although the New Testament provides plenty of evidence that the believer sins, it never clearly identifies the believer as a sinner. Paul’s reference to himself in which he declares, ‘I am foremost [of sinners]’ is often referred to as contrary (1 Tim 1:15). Despite the use of the present tense by the apostle, several things make it much preferable to consider his description of himself as the “foremost [of sinners]” as a reference to his preconversion opposition to the gospel…The only other places in Scripture that could be referring to Christians as sinners are two references found in James. The first, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners” (4:8), is one of 10 verbal commands urging anyone who reads this general epistle to make a decisive break with the old life. This is best understood as calling the reader to repentance and therefore salvation. The second use of “sinner,” found in James 5:19,20, appears to have a similar reference to unbelievers” (Anderson, Victory Over the Darkness, pp. 48-49). If you are aware of any passages that counter this, please let me know in the comments – this is the best information I have so far of NT use of the word “sinner.”

In light of this Biblical evidence, my questions to someone who would advocate referring to Christians as “sinners” would be:
– Do you think it is *essential* for Christians to see themselves as sinners? If it’s so essential, why did Jesus, Peter, Jude, and all the apostles recorded in Acts never call them that? Why did Paul only (possibly) refer to himself as a sinner, never any of his readers? Did the Lord and the inspired apostles really so thoroughly ignore such an important doctrine? One that you, over and above their ignorance or dullness of speech, have brought to light? Does the Word not really make us “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17), until it’s supplemented by your additions?
– Do you, instead, think that it is not *essential* for Christians to see themselves as sinners, but *helpful*? If so, why would it be more helpful than simply explaining the above Biblical truths about a Christian’s relationship to sin? The term “sinner” is subject to misinterpretation leading to excessive guilt, but those truths, when well explained, are not subject to misinterpretation. So, then, isn’t it the explanation of the truths the helpful part? And didn’t the apostles find it most helpful to explain the truths, and found no helpfulness in ever referring to Christians as sinners?
– Do you, instead, think that it’s not necessarily *helpful*, but at least *permissible* for Christians to see themselves as sinners? If so, would you be willing to permit others to teach the essential truths about Christians and sin, *without* referring to Christians as sinners? And would you be willing to entertain discussions about the negative effects that self-identifying as a sinner could have?

Therefore, I’d say there is a strong Biblical argument to say that a Christian should not see himself as a sinner. Incidentally, most of the points so far in the book I’m reading work whether or not you use the label “sinner” – the emphasis seems to be focusing on the common truths I described above. If that’s the case, let’s focus on those, and leave our zealotry about extra-Biblical terminology aside.

Incidentally, the argument could be raised that this is analogous to the extra-Biblical term “Trinity.” I’d argue that it’s not analogous. The term “Trinity” was coined to defend clear Biblical assertions of the nature and relationship of persons in the Godhead, against heretical denials of these Biblical assertions. But there is nothing heretical about the person who affirms all the above Biblical truths about Christians and sin yet does not use the term “sinner.” Also, the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible, but began being used later, whereas the term “sinner” *does* appear in the Bible, but not in reference to Christians. The term “sinner” already has an inspired meaning, so we do not have the authority to change the way it is used.

Martin Luther’s humor

March 24, 2009

Martin Luther is hilarious. Check out this quote from On the Bondage of the Will. He’s talking about the inherent contradictions in the Sophists’ view of free will, and imagines a conversation in which he repeats back to them their own view:

“Suppose a Sophist of the best type were given me, with whom I could talk these things over privately in informal discussion, I should ask for his candid and unbiased judgment like this: “If anyone should tell you that a thing was free, which of its own power could go only one way, that is, the bad way–it could indeed go the other way, that is, the good way, but not by its own power, only with the help of another–could you refrain from laughing, my friend?” For on these grounds I shall easily establish that a stone or a log has ‘free-will’, because it can go up and down; though by its own power it can only go down, and can go up only with the help of another!”

Don’t Waste Your Life on Your iPhone

October 16, 2008

John Piper is one of my favorite pastors and authors, but one who’s known for not trying to be particularly polite. He wrote a book called Don’t Waste Your Life, talking about God’s purpose for your life, and how so many things can distract us from it. One of the examples he frequently cites is computers and technology.

Today, on Piper’s blog RSS feed, I saw the following headline:

Don’t Waste Your Life on Your iPhone

Immediately I got convicted. Is my latest technology interest really keeping me from God’s purpose for my life? Am I wasting my life on Steve Jobs’ latest gadget?

Then I read the post:

The full text of Don’t Waste Your Life is now available online for free in a format optimized for the iPhone.

Oh. Right. I guess Piper wasn’t calling me out after all. Maybe it was just the Holy Spirit.

Christian hedonism: why the question is important.

July 21, 2008

There are a lot of theological questions out there, and some of us aren’t particularly interested in theology. Why, then, should we pay attention to the question of Christian hedonism: whether or not emotions are an essential part of Christianity?

The Great Commandment says that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” It also says that “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” That probably means that if you get the Great Commandment wrong, you will get every other commandment wrong.

This is why the question of Christian hedonism is so important: it addresses what it means to love God and love your neighbor. A prevalent view in the church says that “love is not a feeling – it’s a commitment.” In this view, focusing on feelings is at best pointless, and at worst destructive. Christian hedonism, by contrast, says that emotion is an essential part of love. In this view, if you say you love God and your neighbor, but you don’t feel anything for them, you aren’t loving them. In this view, focusing on feelings is absolutely essential.

Therefore, Christian hedonism and its alternative have very different interpretations of the Great Commandment, which will lead to very different approaches to the whole Christian life. It’s therefore essential to come to your own decision about what scripture says about these two views.

As always, I recommend the Desiring God Resource Library for more information on Christian hedonism.