Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Painful Realism of Remaining Sin

"If I could be paid to work on nothing but my sanctification 24 hours a day - I would take the job." These words were spoken often by a pastor whom I admire greatly and esteem as a very godly man. They were words not spoken "for effect" or in hyperbolic language. But these words came from a painful realism of remaining sin. That although he was saved by grace, indwelt by the Spirit, and possessed a new nature which desired above all things to glorify and love Christ - yet, there was that ever-nagging presence and frustrating reminder that he was nowhere near the promised perfection of bearing perfectly the image of Jesus Christ (Rom.7:14-25; 8:29). The principle of sin or "the flesh" (Rom.7:17,18, 23; Gal.5:16-21) still remained in him with a powerful pulling force in all his thoughts, words, and actions. Henceforth, there was still so much sanctifying yet to be done!

Over 200 years ago, another faithful and godly pastor shared the same sentiment as this fellow pastor. In a letter to a Christian brother concerning this problem with indwelling sin in the believer, John Newton, echoed the agony of every child of God. What I appreciate so much about Newton's letter on the subject of remaining sin, is his sheer honesty with his own struggles and the courage and openness about it which he communicates to this inquiring brother. How refreshing it would be to see all pastors (myself included) emulate this kind of much needed integrity & humility! This is not to say that all pastors are a bunch of liars about their sanctification or that they must be an open book for all to see their every sinful struggle - but, what pastors can learn from Newton on this point is the importance and healthiness of humbling themselves before others and saying, "I sin too. And like you, I must trust everyday in the blood and righteousness of Christ as my only hope and confidence for being right with God."

Now in a series of three letters, John Newton described the basic struggle all Christians have with remaining sin, his own personal struggles with it, and then the advantages a believer gains in Christ from this life-long problem. In my last post, I covered Newton's first letter which dealt with the basic struggle all Christians face everyday with indwelling sin. In this present post, I want to consider his second letter, which is an open window into Newton's own heart and the fights and fits he had there over remaining sin.

He bases this second letter on Romans 7:19, where Paul the apostle confessed his own nagging problems with the down drag of remaining sin: "...but the evil I will not to do, that I practice." From this passage, John Newton unveiled his heart:

I would not be the sport and prey of wild, vain, foolish, and worse imaginations; but this evil is present with me: my heart is like a highway, like a city without walls or gates. Nothing so false, so frivolous, so absurd, so impossible, or so horrid, but it can obtain access, and that at any time, or in any place: neither the study, the pulpit, or even the Lord's table, exempt me from their intrusion.

These opening words in Newton's letter reveal clearly a heart that was deeply sensitive to the constant presence and pull of indwelling sin. As long as Newton remained in a fallen body, though redeemed by Christ, he was not immune from the subtle onslaughts of sin's temptations. As he said with great soberness: "[sin] could obtain access...at any time, or in any place." Now because of this never ending and unrelentless force of inward corruption, Newton went on to admit with shame his own inconsistency between his words and thoughts:

I sometimes compare my words to the treble of an instrument, which my thoughts accompany with a kind of base, or rather anti-base, in which every rule of harmony is broken, every possible combination of discord and confusion is introduced, utterly inconsistent with, and contradictory to, the intended melody. Ah! what music would my praying and preaching often make in the ears of the Lord of Hosts, if he listened to them as they are mine only! By men, the upper part only (if I may so speak) is heard; and small cause there is for self-gratualtion, if they should happen to commend, when conscience tells me they would be struck with astonishment and abhorrence could they hear the whole.

How shocked would others be if they could only see what the Lord sees about each of us. Newton is telling on us all as believers. And this is not a deceptive hypocrisy Newton is describing, but just the everyday ebb and flow of a Christian's sanctifying process. What infinite patience God shows us and how lovingly He bears with all the inconsistencies of His children! His grace truly is amazing. But Newton does not finish here in his letter. He goes on to confess what is the hardest of all to admit: sinning willfully.

If this awful effect of heart-depravity cannot be wholly avoided in the present state of human nature, yet, at least, I would not allow and indulge it; yet this I find I do. In defiance of my best judgement and best wishes, I find something within me which cherishes and cleaves to those evils, from which I ought to start and flee, as I should if a toad or a serpent was put in my food or in my bed. Ah! how vile must the heart (at least my heart) be, that can hold a parley with such abominations, when I so well know their nature and their tendency.

I believe that what Newton is here confessing is what many Christians, especially in leadership, seek to cover up. Not to others only, but even to themselves. This is dangerous because there is no where sin likes to live better than in the darkness, in secret, in denial. But this is exactly where the battle is either going to be won or lost. Sin must be exposed, and if we are secretly holding on to sinful affections of any kind - they must be put to death by the sword of the Spirit with diligence, consistency, and integrity (Rom.6:11-13; 8:13; Col.3:5).

As John Newton continues in this letter, he goes on to confess how much he is "influenced by a principle of self", indulging "vain reasonings concerning the counsels, ways, and providences of God", and even at times cleaving to what he calls "a covenant of works" - whereby he feels that he should pay for what Christ has done for him. How astonishing that such feelings should arise in the heart of the man who wrote that great hymn,"Amazing Grace." And yet, before any of us should judge Newton for these sins and weaknesses of his flesh; we should first remove the log jam out of our own eye. For Newton was only revealing what is true of all Christians, even in their very best moments!

It is refreshing though at where John Newton concludes this painful letter. He writes at the end: But though my disease is grevious, it is not desperate; I have a gracious and infallible Physician. I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord." Only a Christian can understand such confidence and hope in the face of what appears so hopeless and despairing. Yes, we should be and must be realistic about indwelling sin, but that is not where we fix our eyes and live. We could not live there anyway. No, our hope and faith rests upon Christ Jesus and His saving merits that have won completely our redemption and victory over all sin - past, present, and future. With the apostle Paul, we thus all cry out, not in despair but in certainty of ultimate freedom from our present problem with sin: "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God - through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom.7:24-25a)!

Saturday, December 09, 2006


One of the striking marks of an effective pastor is the ability to teach the Scriptures in such a plain and clear way, that profound truth becomes, as it were, "reachable cookies" to those he is ministering (this is implied by the biblical qualifications of an elder: I Tim.3:2, "a skillfull teacher"; II Tim.2:24, "able to teach"). In other words, his own mind and heart have been so saturated in God's Word and fleshed out in personal experience, that he has grown in the wisdom necessary to shepherd the flock of God in their many different seasons.
One such pastor who emulated this quality so beautifully was John Newton (1725-1807). Newton is more remembered today for his great hymn, Amazing Grace - but in his own day, he was more well-known for his wise pastoral letters to inquiring saints. In fact, during the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century, Newton was known as "the letter writer par excellence of the Evangelical Revival." His deep grasp of Scripture, personal experiences (especially in suffering), and an idiomatic style in writing, all combined under Providence to create in John Newton a special gift that was used by God to shepherd His sheep. And though these letters were written over 200 years ago, yet because they are steeped in the wisdom of Scripture, they can speak to saints today with the same power and clarity they had when Newton first penned them.
For me, there have been three of Newton's letters which have served as a great help for my own sanctification. The subject of these letters was the reality of remaining sin in the believer (see Rom.7:14-25). Newton took a statement from Galatians 5:17 as his launching pad: "you cannot do the things that you wish." From this biblical fact of the believer's experience, Newton began by saying:
This is an humbling but a just account of a Christian's attainments in the present life, and is equally applicable to the strongest and to the weakest. The weakest need not say "less", and the strongest need not say "more." The Lord has given his people a desire and will aiming at great things; without this they would be unworthy the name of Christians; but they cannot do as they would: their best desires are weak and ineffectual, not absolutely (for he who works in them to will, enables them with a measure to do likewise), but in comparison with the mark at which they aim. So that while they have great cause to be thankful for the desire he has given them, and for the degree in which it is answered, they have equal reason to be ashamed and abased under a sense of their continual defects, and the evil mixtures which taint and debase their best endeavors.
From this point in the letter, Newton goes on to give four examples of personal experience in every believer, whereby remaining sin continues to hinder their most holiest and God-centered desires. He pulls from our experience in prayer, Scripture reading, thinking always on Christ, and finally, our submission to God's works of providence.
As to prayer, Newton wrote:
He would willingly enjoy God in prayer...[but] how often does he find this privilege a mere task, which he would be glad of a just excuse to omit? and the chief pleasure he derives from the performance is to think that his task is finished: - he has drawn near to God with his lips, while his heart was far from him. Surely this is not doing as he would, when he is dragged before God like a slave, and comes away like a thief.
As to the reading of Scripture, Newton reveals where so many of us have and do live at times:
He believes it to be the Word of God: he admires the wisdom and grace of the doctrines, the beauty of the precepts, the richness and suitableness of the promises...Yet while he thus thinks of it, and desires that it may dwell in him richly, and be his meditation day and night, he cannot do as he would. It will require some resolution to persist in reading a portion of it every day; and even then his heart is often less engaged than when reading a pamphlet. Here again his privilege frequently dwindles into a task.
As to thinking always of Christ, Newton reminds us of how distracted and cold our hearts can be toward our Beloved:
Whatever claims he may have to the excercise of gratitude and sensibility towards his fellow-creatures, he must confess himself mournfully ungrateful and insensible towards his best Friend and Benefactor. Ah! what trifles are capable of shutting him out of our thoughts, of whom we say, He is the Beloved of our souls, who loved us, and gave himself for us, and whom we have deliberately chosen as our chief good and portion. What can make us amends for the loss we suffer here? Yet surely if we could, we would set him always before us; his love should be the delightful theme of our hearts...But though we aim at this good, evil is present with us.
Finally, as to our submission to the works of God's providence, Newton wrote:
He believes that all events are under the direction of infinite wisdom and goodness, and shall surely issue in the glory of God and the good of those who fear him. He doubts not but the hairs of his head are all numbered, that the blessings of every kind which he possesses, were bestowed upon him, and are preserved to him...But often when he aims to apply them in an hour of present distress, he cannot do what he would. He feels a law in his members warring against the law in his mind; so that, in defiance of the clearest convictions, seeing as though he perceived not, he is ready to complain, murmur, and despond. Alas! how vain is man in his best estate! How much weakness and inconsistency even in those whose hearts are right with the Lord! and what reason have we to confess that we are unworthy, unprofitable servants!
Now rather than leave us in despair or at least in a state of depression till we reach glory because of our very imperfect condition, though redeemed - Newton finishes his letter with these encouraging words:
But blessed be God, we are not under the law, but under grace. And even these distressing effects of the remnants of indwelling sin are over-ruled for good. By these experiences the believer is weaned more from self, and taught more highly to prize and more absolutely to rely on him, who is appointed unto us of God, Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption.
Praise God for the gift of wise pastors who counsel the saints in every season from the wisdom of God's Word!

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Faith of our Fathers: Georgia Baptists & Evangelical Calvinism
The December 7, 2006 edition of the Christian Index has published a wonderful and much needed article by Dr. Tom Nettles, entitled, An Historical Pespective on Calvinism. This is Dr. Nettles' response to the previously printed statements and assertions made by certain Georgia Baptists regarding Calvinism and its ever growing rise in the SBC. As being a Baptist historian of the highest scholarship, Dr. Nettles reminds us all of the theological heritage we cannot escape as Baptists, and especially as Southern Baptists. Like it or not, our doctrinal pedigree was historic evangelical Calvinism.
One of the facts which Dr. Nettles brings to light in his article, concerns the history of Georgia Baptists. He states: "Virtually every Georgia Baptist Association followed the Charleston Confession or an abstract of it." The Charleston Confession was the adoption of the Philadelphia Confession (pub. 1742) which was the adoption of the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. Each of these confessions were thoroughly reformed or Calvinistic in their doctrine. Now as to their connection with Georgia Baptists, there is an interesting and significant footnote that I would like to add in support of Dr. Nettles aforementioned statement.
In 1790, there existed at that time only five Georgia Baptist churches. These churches were strongly evangelical and unashamedly Calvinistic. But in 1790 there were two events that would greatly challenge their doctrinal convictions. The first event was the theological defection of one of their own pastors, a man by the name of Jeremiah Walker (1746-1792). Walker changed his doctrinal views from Calvinism to Arminianism, and then began proclaiming strongly his new found position which started producing division among the pastors and churches. The second event to challenge these five Georgia Baptist churches, was the arrival of Wesleyan Methodists in Georgia. They were very hostile and aggressive against Calvinism and naturally created quite a stir among the Georgia Baptists. So in response to the Arminianism of Walker and the Wesleyan Methodists, what do you suppose the Georgia Baptists decided to do? They believed that the only action necessary was to draw up their own confession of faith which would state clearly to everyone where they stood concerning the truth of God's Word.
So in May of 1790, these five Georgia Baptist churches (which had already formed the Georgia Baptist Association in 1784) framed and adopted their own articles of faith, which was an abstract of the Charleston and Philadelphia confessions. The third, fourth, and sixth article in this confession should leave no one in doubt as to where the original Georgia Baptists stood in relation to historic Calvinism:
3rd. We believe in the fall of Adam, and the imputation of his sin to his posterity. In the corruption of human nature, and the impotency of man to recover himself
by his own free will - ability.
4th. We believe in the everlasting love of God to his people, and the eternal election of a definite number of the human race, to grace and glory; And that the covenant of grace or redemption made between the Father and the Son, before the world began, in which their salvation is secure, and that they in particular are redeemed.
6th. We believe that all those who were chosen in Christ, will be effectually called, regenerated, converted, sanctified, and supported by the spirit and power of God,
so that they shall persevere in grace, and not one of them be finally lost.
Now the point of course to this historical snap-shot is to simply affirm two important facts which all Georgia Baptists need to weigh and consider: first, confessional Calvinism was the original position of these early Baptist churches. This therefore is our heritage. But even more importantly, this was the theology which the early Georgia Baptists believed strongly was the theology of God's Word. Were they right or wrong in this belief? Georgia Baptists today would do well to be good Bereans and check out the faith of their forefathers by the what the Scriptures teach (I of course believe they were biblically sound). Secondly, the confessional Calvinism of these early Georgia Baptists did not in any way quench their zeal for evangelism and missions. For example, Kiokee Baptist Church (the first continuing Baptist church in Georgia) was responsible in its first forty years, for the planting of 140 Baptist churches in Georgia and which saw the addition of almost 11,000 members. This was a confessional Calvinistic church - and yet, they labored hard and faithful to spread the gospel far and wide for the glory of God. They were evangelical Calvinists! Hmmm...no oxymoron here.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Tell the Truth & Torch the Strawman

Once again a Convention leader in the Southern Baptist Convention is posturing his "straw man" version of Calvinism and throwing his proverbial darts at this cruel monster. This time the man weighing in on the growing controversy over the resurgence of Calvinism in the SBC is Nelson Price.

In the most recent edition of the Christian Index, Brother Price has written a response in the Index Forum defending the position of Bill Harrell's views concerning the rise of Calvinism in the SBC. But the opinions of Bill Harrell pales in comparison to the diatribe on Calvinism written by Nelson Price in the November 23, 2006 Christian Index (you can read this article here).

Probably the saddest and most deplorable thing about Price's article is the sheer ignorance of his subject. Basically, the article is denouncing Calvinism according to Nelson Price. That is, what he thinks Calvinism is. This seems to be the most popular approach being taken by SBC leaders who seem to be on a campain to rid the Convention of Calvinism. Their approach goes something like this: let's take the hardest statements made by Calvinists; rip them out of context; slander John Calvin; deny that Baptists have ever believed predestination; and only quote those verses in the Bible which have words like "all", "everyone", "whosoever", and "world" as they relate to salvation - while ignoring the rest of the biblical record on salvation; finally, scare everybody that knows nothing about Calvinism, that if this monster gains ground in the SBC, it will be the end of missions and evangelism forever. This is just a rough sketch of how many leaders in the SBC are attacking what they call "Calvinism."

Now for Nelson Price, as I have said, it is no different. FIRST of all, his version of Calvinism has a Presbyterian flavoring mixed with some hyper-Calvinism and a willful ignorance of Church History & Historical Theology. Based on this construct, Price makes a sweeping generalization that anyone who is a Calvinist must fit into this pigeon hole he has created. For instance, they must believe that "some persons are preselected by God to go to hell." SECONDLY, they must follow the teachings of John Calvin. THIRDLY, they must believe that children of Christian parents will inherit salvation. And FOURTHLY, they must put "a dagger in the heart of evangelism." But without question, the worst and most slanderous accusation that Price makes concerning Calvinists is his "celestial bus" illustration. For him, the view of predestination by Calvinists pictures God driving a bus to heaven and allowing only those that are chosen to get on board, while turning away others who desired to get on board but because they were not chosen were destined for hell. This illustration is nothing but pure slander. Historic Calvinism has never taught such a thing.

But for Nelson Price, the facts seem not important. Indeed, the truth is obviously not important. And worst of all, the truth of God's Word is really not important since for Brother Price, it is not the final authority in determining the nature and work of salvation. All that matters is what Nelson thinks. The scary thing about this attitude is that Proverbs 18:2 warns us that this is the way of the fool: "The fool takes no delight in understanding, but only in expressing his own opinion." That's all Nelson Price's article is: an expression of his own opinions with a closed-mind to the possibility he could be wrong. How sad.

Here is the truth about Calvinism in a nutshell: God alone saves sinners! His saving work incorporates election (Eph.1:4), predestination (Rom.8:30), regeneration (Tit.3:5), calling (I Cor.1:24), redemption (Eph.1:7), propitiation (Rom.3:25), justification (Rom.5:1), reconciliation (Rom.5:11), sanctification (I Thess.5:23), and glorification (Rom.8:30). Why even faith and repentance are the works of God because they are the gifts of His grace to the sinner He has chosen to save (Eph.2:8-9; II Tim.2:25). This is all biblical and it is the historic teaching of what is called Calvinism. And as for evangelism, historic Calvinism has always been warmly evangelical - contrary to the opinion of Nelson Price! For the Bible teaches that evangelism is God's ordained means of calling His elect out of the world (Rom.10:14-17; I Cor.1:18-2:5; I Thess. 1:4-5; II Thess.2:13-14; II Tim.2:23-26).

Furthermore, Christ has commanded that we go into all the world and the preach the gospel to everyone, leaving the results of conversion to Him alone (Mk.16:15; I Cor.3:6-7). Calvinists have always believed this. Church History proves this emphatically: just consider John Bunyan, William Carey, Daniel Marshall, Shubal Sterns, Richard Furman, Andrew Fuller, Adoniram Judson, Luther Rice, and Lottie Moon. These were all Baptists who were Calvinists, who gave their lives for the work of evangelism and missions. Then of course, there are just those preacher-evangelists like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. All Calvinists and yet proclaimed Christ and Him crucified to sinners everywhere, calling all to believe and repent with full confidence in the power of God to save them.

Moreover, let it be said loud and clear that historic Calvinism has never denied man's freedom of choice nor his moral responsibility to God for his actions. Man is free to choose what he wants to choose and will be consequently held responsible for those choices. The only problem however is that left to his own natural free choices as a fallen sinful creature, he will choose sin and rebellion against God everytime (Jn.3:18-20; Rom.3:9-18; 8:7-8; Eph.2:1-3). It is at this point where Nelson Price's bus illustration denies what Calvinism really teaches. Those people in his illustration who desired to get on the bus to heaven but were rejected because they were not chosen is a complete and total farce to the biblical doctrine of man's depravity and thus to historic Calvinism. No sinner of his own free will in a fallen sinful state is ever going to desire to get on that bus to heaven. The Bible is so plain about this: men love the darkness and hate the light and thus will not come to the light (see Jn.3:19-20). Or another passage which is even more blunt and to the point: no one seeks after God (Rom.3:11)! So those people in Price's bus illustration who wanted to get on the bus to heaven but were denied - simply do not exist.

The Bible teaches very clearly that anyone who wants to be saved will be saved (Jn.3:16; Rom.10:13). Historic Calvinism has always taught this. Where the rub comes in though is the origin of the "want to." Why would a dead, rebellious, blind, God-hating sinner ever want or desire to come to Christ when such a desire does not exist in their sinful nature? Answer: only because a sovereign, loving, merciful God chooses not to leave them to what they deserve but work in them a gracious act of new life whereby they are born again to believe, treasure, long for, and desire Christ above all (Jer.32:40; Ezk.36:26-27; Matt.11:26; Jn.6:37-45,65; 10:15,26-28; Acts 13:48; 15:15-18; Rom.9:10-18; Eph.2:1-10; II Thess.2:13-14). In either case though, whether saved or unsaved, man's freedom and responsibility is still intact. Left to himself, he will freely choose hell and bust those gates wide open; but by the sovereign grace of God, his natural resistence will be overcome and he will freely choose Christ.

The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 states this truth so well in chapter 10, paragraph 1:

At a time appointed by and acceptable to God, those whom God has predestined to life are effectually called by His Word and Spirit out of the state of death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ. Their minds are given spiritual enlightenment and, as those who are being saved, they begin to understand the things of God. God takes away their heart of stone and gives them a heart of flesh. He renews their will, and by His almighty power He sets them to seek and follow that which is good, at the same time effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ. And to all these changes they come most freely, for they are made willing by divine grace. (italics and emphasis mine)

Now the really important point of this great statement (as far as this article is concerned) is that this is historic Calvinism. Sadly though, this is not the Calvinism which Nelson Price understands. In fact, he gives the impression, like the other SBC leaders in his camp, that he would rather deny that such a Calvinism even exists. Since his article in the Index, I have been burdened to pray for him and the rest of these men who are making a platform out of their condemnation of Calvinism. I pray that God will humble them (as He continues to humble me) and open their hearts to take heed to what His Word so plainly teaches concerning the truth of His sovereign grace. I love these men as brothers in Christ, but am deeply troubled by their apparent blindness and prejudice to these truths. My only solace in all this insanity is God's precious promise: He works all things for the good of His people and for His glory (Rom.8:28; 11:36).

  © Blogger template 'BrickedWall' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Jump to TOP