Saturday, 28 February 2009

Calvin liberates; Owen enslaves!

What a real joy and privilege it is to hear the Gospel of God soundly and passionately preached! To hear it being offered to sinners and to the lost and ungodly is the greatest sound under heaven. For Christ and His saving work to be heralded as the only remedy for human sin, is what the world needs to hear. And to be told that the only escape from the fierce wrath of an angry God is to hide in Christ Jesus is the most urgent of messages that the world needs to hear today.

Yet how sad it is that some preachers feel themselves restrained, not by the clear teaching of Scripture, but by a man-made system of theology that is foisted upon the Gospel, is most concerning and distressing. For a minister of the Gospel to be restrained by what men have said, rather than liberated by what God says in His Word, is tragic.

Let me explain. When John the Baptist proclaims, "Behold! The Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world!" what are many 'reformed' preachers to make of this statement? Many simply ignore it! Why? Because it does not fit in with the scholastic approach to biblical interpretation found most notably in the theologising of John Owen. Sadly, this approach has been followed almost without criticism by Westminster theologians, as demonstrated in their Confession of Faith.

Others try to explain it away! The 'world' does not mean the 'world' at all, these smart men tell us! The Bible writers got it all wrong! So Owen, following the logic of Aristotle, has made the Scripture say what the original writers did not intend it to say, otherwise they would have said it clearly.

For Owen, 'world' means the 'world of the elect.' How he arrives at this position he does not tell his readers. We are left to deduct from his other writings that because Christ, in his view, died only for the elect, the term, 'world,' can only mean the 'world of the elect.'

Thus human philosophical reasoning has to supplement the incomplete testimony of Scripture in order to get the whole truth out of it. What a pity the Biblical writers did not have the knowledge that Owen had! Or, what a pity Owen had not lived when the inspired apostles lived and wrote the Scriptures under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Sadly, not a few reformed ministers have allowed themselves to be taken down a road that is not faithful to the teaching of Scripture. Yet how faithful our God is! Seeing the situation in which the church found herself, through centuries of ongoing and unchallenged unfaithfulness, He raised up a man called John Calvin, a man who knew the Scriptures, and who preached them many times each week to the citizens of Geneva. Calvin got the balance of Scripture just right, when he gave due place and emphasis to the particular and universalistic texts, and did not try to squeeze them into some man-made mould.

Then God raised up the sons of Calvin, men who were accounted worthy to promote the Gospel as rediscovered at the Reformation, and expounded by men like Calvin. Possibly the most faithful interpreters of Calvin in Europe were the Huguenots, those faithful and courageous ministers of the Gospel of saving grace.

Among these was the godly genius, Moise Amyraut (1596-1664), Professor of Theology at the Reformed Academy located in the French town of Saumur. Amyraut understood the teaching of Calvin as being true to the Bible, and his name was given to a system that arises from his distinctive theological stance.

Amyraut was convinced that orthodox Calvinism had distorted the original Bible-based teaching of John Calvin, his criticisms arousing intense hostility. Tried for heresy on at least three occasions (in 1637 at the Synod of Alencon - three years after he published his Traite de la predestination, in 1644 at the Synod of Charenton, and again in 1659 at the Synod of Loudun, where the charges faired no better), and was acquitted each time.

The reason why the French churches could not condemn Amyraut for heresy was that his teaching had drawn massively from the teaching of the great Genevan Reformed, John Calvin. Hence, to have condemned Amyraut was to condemn Calvin, which very thing they did not want to do. Within Reformed and Presbyterian circles, the theology known as "Amyraldianism" has aroused strong dissent ever since. The university of Saumur became the university of French Protestantism.

Now, why this brief history of the Reformed work in France in the seventeenth century? Because those who condemn Amyraldianism today, are, by definition, condemning the greatest reformer of all time, Calvin. Sadly, so few who condemn Amyraldianism have never even read Amyraut's works, and unwittingly in their theological and historical blindness, condemn that man to whom they give such honour and prominence.

Were the church to re-visit the history of the Huguenots, and also to study the writings of men like Calvin, Cameron, Amyraut, Quick, Daille, Baxter, Edwards, McCheyne, Ryle, Chalmers, and the greatest preacher of the last century, Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (especially on his understanding of the gospel and the atonement), they would be exposed to authentic Calvinism, and would receive a much-needed corrective to their assymetrical theology.

These men knew that when they offered Christ to sinners as they preached the mighty Gospel of Christ, they had something real to offer to them - the remedy for their wrong relationship with God because of their sinfulness. They were not offering perishing sinners a mere fig leaf! Not at all. They were offering a real salvation to all who would take it by faith. These great men had a message for the entire world, and a salvation that was big enough to redeem a thousand worlds. They could tell lost sinners that they only had to see themselves as being of the world to be warranted to come to Christ alone for salvation, not see themselves as belonging to the elect.

Oh, how sad it is that so many reformed preachers refuse to tell the world that Christ died for it! How sad that when they know that Christ died for sinners, their logic does not lead them to see that the entire world is a world of sinners. When they say that Christ gave His life for the lost, their narrow system does not permit them to say to all and sundry, "That includes you!" When they preach that 'Christ died for the ungodly,' they do not seem to believe that all without Christ are in an ungodly condition, the entire race, therefore Christ died for all mankind.

These good men have imposed on the text of Scripture a spiritually dangerous man-made restriction to the Gospel, and feel themselves unable to offer a whole Christ to a whole humanity - as Calvin was well able to do, and Amyraut, and Cameron, and Edwards, and Ryle, and Chalmers, and Lloyd-Jones.

The conclusion? The theology of John Calvin liberates the reformed preacher and gives him a real Gospel remedy for all mankind; but the theology of John Owen, including Westminster theology, enslaves the evangelistic preacher to such an extent that he cannot uninhibitedly offer the remedy of the Gospel to all his hearers. His fear is that one of the non-elect might be saved if he believed the Gospel.

With a lost and perishing world around us, it is time that we returned to the authentic Gospel as expounded by that great evangelist and reformed of a former era, John Calvin, and set before dying mankind that good news that Christ died for the sins of the world. And the benefits of the redemption purchased by Christ can become theirs by trusting the Saviour.

May God grant that that day will come very soon.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Reverent Worship

This morning, my family were privileged to attend a service of worship in a church that is not our normal place of worship, to find a quite different atmosphere than that to which we are accustomed. There was reverence from the outset, an awareness that this is the House of the Living God. The worshippers presented themselves in a most appropriate manner, and conducted themselves accordingly.

The congregation was duly called to the worship of God at the very commencement of the service, and we sang Ps.23 - again a rare experience in the Presbyterian church that we attend. The prayer directed our hearts primarily to God, not ourselves, to His greatness, not our petty needs, and to His glory. The children's address was part of the minister's ongoing teaching of Old Testament history and dealt with the Israelites leaving Egypt and facing the impossible situation of the Red Sea before them and the blood-thirsty army of Pharaoh behind them, the lesson being that with God nothing is impossible. The children remained in their family pew while the minister spoke to them.

There was an appropriate mix of old and new hymns, all of which were theologically sound, uplifting and challenging.

The sermon was based on Matt.4:12-17. Here, the preacher employed a teaching style and brought out the context of the passage and applied it ably to the context of the congregation. He preached as if he meant what he was saying - always an essential element in any preaching.

Because of the overall approach of the service, the impression was conveyed that the minister had a reforming spirit. This was a most encouraging service and form of worship for me; I just wish that more evangelical ministers were to adopt the same attitude.

Ministerial Malignancy

Just this week, I purchased a second hand copy of Arther Fawcett's book on the Cambuslang Revival (Edinburgh, 1971), which the author signed. In relating this little known work of God's Spirit in Scotland in the early to mid eighteen hundreds, he came across The Patron's A>B>C> This 'catechism for clergymen' was published in Glasgow in 1771 (page 198).

Question 5 asks: What is the chief end of a modern clergyman? The answer it gives is: A modern clergyman's chief end is, to serve the Patron, and his friends, that he may in due time be found worthy to receive and enjoy a benefice, or be advanced to a better place through his favour.

The first thing that struck me about this answer was the absence of any accountability to God for the way in which he exercised his ministry. His first duty was to the man who appointed him to his pastoral care. This was obviously an important man in society, and with clout, a man well connected in high places, and a man who could do you either great good or great harm. A clergyman's preferment within the church would be decided by the Patron, who had the power to accelerate a clergyman's promotion to high office within the church, or to prevent it.

Now those of us who are non-conformists can recognise that this was a particular trait within Anglicanism; but it would be wrong to assume that non-conformity does not face a very similar and destructive danger. The modern minister is expected, by the congregation AND by the church authorities, to make sure that he keeps the people with him at all times, or at least as many of them as he can. He must keep his eye fixed on "the people that count" within the congregation and denomination, and ensure that he pleases them. As one theological college Principal in Northern Ireland taught a younger colleague a few years ago, "Do what the people want you to say, and do what they want you to do!" In other words, keep in with the people who pay your salary, and who could make it difficult for you to remain. This Principal recognised the Patronic system within Presbyterianism in Ireland, and encouraged his young colleague to bear that always in mind.

Now if a minister has had a particularly difficult time in a previous church, because of the activities of the Patron, he will know the power of "the people who count," and will be keen to do whatever the local leaders or the ordinary church member want. This kind of 'benign dictatorship' becomes much less benign as the minister begins to reform the congregation according to the Word of God, which very thing most elders do not want!

Question 6 asks: What is a Patron? The answer is: A Patron is a Protestant Pope, Christ's vicar, and supreme head of his body the church of England and Scotland; infallible, absolute, uncontroulable; of wisdom, which none dare call in question, of power, which none can resist; of holiness, such as becomes the eldest son of the Pope of Rome; of justice, goodness and truth, just as self-interest, or the sollicitation of friends happen at the time to preponderate.

This is a most enlightening answer to a vitally relevant question, for Patrons are not the exclusive domain of the Anglicans - non-conformity also has them in kind, though not in name. The principle here is the over-riding power and authority under which ministers exercise their ministry. Where this power views itself as being "Christ's vicar," then what it says and does, Christ says and does. The church authorities become identical with Christ Himself, so obeying these equals obeying Christ, and vice versa.

The non-conformists' Patron must be obeyed at all costs and in all circumstances. Essentially he is the 'Word of Christ' in the flesh! No matter how unreasonable the Protestant Pope of non-conformity is in his words and actions, he must be obeyed! If a minister is to get a 'plum' charge, the favour of the Patron must be courted, and his support secured.

Now its not that the Patron will show himself to be a real 'prate;' it's more about the unconscionable exercise of ecclesiastical power that is the problem. Because he is regarded as "Christ's vicar" within the visible church, his rite runs. These are often unpredictable scions so far as obedience to the Word of God is concerned, but eminently predictable when it comes to behaving as ecclesiastical politicians is concerned. These clerics are so important in their own eyes that what they say and do is what must be carried out. Why? Because they hold in their hands the power of life and death over ministers! They are infallible - and one such church politician told me as much! - their word is absolute, and they are uncontrollable. No one dare call into question what these operators do, and seldom is that done because "turkeys don't vote for Christmas!" To question the rightness of their decisions is tantamount to disobedience to the courts of the church.

Now these are not a rare breed. They are found throughout non-conformity, often clad in Genevan gowns, but frequently without them. They operate under the noble names/titles of eldership, Presbytery, General Synod or Assembly, or whatever.

Popes rule in virtually all churches, despite the mantra of some of them, 'No Pope Here!' It is this very mantra that enables them to act as Popes, thus deceiving the uneducated and undiscerning as they hide behind what the people already believe.

Non-conformity need not try to excuse itself from ecclesiastical popery, nor need it convince itself that such popery does not exist within its ranks, for it does. We need to acknowledge that this exists, repent of the sin of tolerating what is unscriptural, seek the mercy of Almighty God, and embark on a purge of the church to remove every last semblance of the Patronic system.

Unless and until this is done, the church stands in very great danger of being sucked into the world, thus becoming even more ineffective than she already is.