Category Archives: BR > Christian Focus
The following is one of the sweetest descriptions of the believers union with Christ I have read. The text originates from a fictional dialogue between a pastor, a legalist, an antinomian, and a young Christian, as written by Edward Fisher in his 1650 book The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Christian Focus, 2009). The Marrow Controversy is an important event that raised significant questions about how we should best explain the grace of God, the Christian life, and even the gospel! I think every Christian should be aware of the debate and I hope to write more about what this event in Church history can teach us.
But today I am simply pleased to announce a reissued and re-typeset version of Fisher’s classic by our friends at Christian Focus in Scotland. [Thank you!]
The following excerpt explains the reality of the Christian’s union with Christ and the far-reaching consequences of living consciously aware of this union. The language is beautiful.
The quote I’ve selected is taken from the fictional dialogue. You are about to read the words of a pastor as he speaks directly to a young Christian to help him grasp the significance of his union with Christ. I’ve divided the text to help in the process of reading and reflection. Hopefully you are not distracted. Sweet words!—
I tell you from Christ,
and under the hand of the Spirit,
that your person is accepted,
your sins are done away,
and you shall be saved;
and if an angel from heaven should tell you otherwise,
let him be accursed.
Therefore, you may (without doubt) conclude
that you are a happy man;
for by means of this your matching with Christ,
you are become one with him,
and one in him,
you ‘dwell in him, and he in you’ (1 John 4:13).
He is ‘your well beloved, and you are his’ (S. of S. 2:16).
So that the marriage union betwixt Christ and you
is more than a bare notion or apprehension of your mind;
for it is a
it is an union betwixt the nature of Christ,
God and man,
it is a knitting and closing,
not only of your apprehension with a Saviour,
but also of your soul with a Saviour.
Whence it must needs follow that you cannot be condemned,
except Christ be condemned with you;
neither can Christ be saved,
except you be saved with him.
And as by means of corporeal marriage all things become common betwixt man and wife;
even so, by means of this spiritual marriage,
all things become common betwixt Christ and you;
for when Christ hath married his spouse unto himself,
he passeth over all his estate unto her;
so that whatsoever Christ is or hath,
you may boldly challenge as your own.
‘He is made unto you, of God,
and redemption’ (1 Cor. 1:30).
by virtue of this near union it is,
that as Christ is called ‘the Lord our righteousness’ (Jer. 23:6),
even so is the church called, ‘the Lord our righteousness’ (33:16).
I tell you,
by virtue of this union,
boldly take upon yourself,
as your own,
and all that ever he did
in the space of three and thirty years,
for they are all yours.
And as Christ passes over all his estate unto his spouse,
so does he require that she should pass over all unto him.
you being now married unto Christ,
you must give all that you have of your own unto him;
and truly you have nothing of your own
and, therefore, you must give him that.
I beseech you, then,
say unto Christ with bold confidence,
I give unto thee, my dear husband,
my evil thoughts,
I make one bundle of these and all my other offences,
and give them unto thee.
And thus was Christ made ‘sin for us, that knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Cor. 5:21).
‘let us compare these things together,
and we shall find inestimable treasure.
Christ is full of
and saving health;
and the soul is freight-full of all
but let faith come betwixt these two,
and it shall come to pass,
that Christ shall be laden with
and unto the soul shall be imputed
Who then is able to value the royalty of this marriage accordingly?
Who is able to comprehend the glorious riches of his grace,
where this rich and righteous husband,
doth take unto wife this poor and wicked harlot,
redeeming her from all devils,
and garnishing her with all his own jewels?
So that you,
through the assuredness of your faith in Christ, your husband,
are delivered from all sins,
made safe from death,
guarded from hell,
and endowed with the
and saving health
of this your husband Christ.’”
—Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Christian Focus, 2009), pp. 166–167.
The stack of excellent Christian books published in 2007 would reach at least 5 feet in the air. So while I’m privileged to have read so many great books, whittling down my top 30 favorites is no easy assignment.
In the past, some TSS readers have asked what criteria I use in making this determination and I admit it’s very subjective. My list of top books is based upon a personal opinion of the overall value of individual volumes. Which volumes pioneer new territory? Which books clarify topics of great importance? Which books from 2007 will my kids read in 10 years?
Included in the list are complex doctrinal books, academic polemics, historical biographies, children’s books, marriage books, exegetical guides, etc. My reading interests are wide open, and so is the TSS book of the year competition. There are book recommendations for pretty much all readers.
Themes in 2007
Topically, 2007 will be remembered as the year where precious doctrines like justification and the atonement took rightful center stage (see The Truth of the Cross by R.C. Sproul, The Great Exchange by Bridges and Bevington, and also #3, #12, and #25 on the top-30 list). The doctrine of assurance was the focus of two excellent new volumes (see #13 and #23). Church history and the events of the Reformation found themselves in three excellent volumes (see #8, #11, and #30). But 2007 will also be remembered as the year of John Owen, reformed spirituality, and communion with God (see #6, #14, #15, and #21). We also saw the publishing of one of the best new children’s books (see #4). All around, it was a very fruitful year for some very important topics.
2007 Books of the Year
But two books stand apart from the rest in 2007, because they are volumes that promise to shed a wealth of understanding over large sections of Scripture. They captured my attention because I know I myself have some work to do in discovering the richness of God’s revealed truth in Scripture (and especially in the Old Testament narratives).
So today I happily announce the 2007 TSS books of the year – The ESV Literary Study Bible by Leland and Philip Ryken and An Old Testament Theology by Bruce Waltke.
TSS top-30 books from 2007
1 (tie). ESV Literary Study Bible edited by Leland and Philip Ryken (Crossway). Getting readers comfortable enough to read large selections of Scripture was formerly the work of dynamic equivalent translations like The Message. But the Rykens establish a framework for readers to comprehend large sections of Scripture for themselves by introducing each chapter, exposing the literary style of the work, and providing a general outline of what to expect. Then readers can jump into the literature of Scripture to experience the text for themselves. In the end, the Rykens have produced a Bible that retains the “word-for-word” literal language of the ancient Scriptures (ESV) while helping readers along in fruitful comprehension. Readers who have never enjoyed the Bible from cover-to-cover will especially benefit and find the biblical storyline easier to follow. This is no ordinary study Bible, and it is one that will be cherished by the church long into the future. We wrote a full review of the LSB and also talked with Leland Ryken about it this Summer. $31.49
1 (tie). An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach by Bruce Waltke (Zondervan). Some of the details of the Old Testament appear to simply hang suspended for the modern reader. Let’s take Exodus 2:11 for example: Why is it important that Moses became angry when he saw the harsh treatment of the Israelite by an Egyptian? Why did Moses kill the Egyptian? Why would the biblical author record this event in the first place? Some events in the Old Testament don’t entirely make sense on the surface. Waltke takes these events from the biblical narratives and weaves them into the bigger storyline of Scripture. For this specific example, it helps to understand that Moses was in transition from his identity in Pharaoh’s palace to his new identity with Israel (p. 352). Exodus 2:11 is actually critical in establishing Moses’ transition from Egyptian-raised to Israel’s front-man in the Exodus. And this is just one itsy-bitsy detail from the Old Testament. By taking these seemingly disconnected events and connecting them into the bigger picture of Scripture, Waltke has given us a very helpful guide to understanding the Old Testament. And his insights into the Ten Commandments are worth the price of the volume (see pp. 415-433). In the end, Waltke’s clear articulation of the Old Testament informs the church of her past and thereby informs her present identity. This is a volume you will want to read slowly and digest fully, perhaps within a group of fellow Christians. It will open up the theology and storyline of the Old Testament like no other book I’ve seen. Read more about this volume in our full review. $29.69
3. Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (UK:IVP/US:Crossway). Written by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, this book has proven to be a huge success in both the UK and the US in defending the core of the atonement of Jesus Christ. If you want to understand the Cross at a deeper level (don’t we all) you will cherish this volume. It will go on my shelf along with some of the giants on this topic (like Stott). But what makes this volume especially important is the central role it represents in bringing together a worldwide brotherhood of Christians who believe and cherish the penal substitutionary atonement of the Cross. What Together for the Gospel and the Gospel Coalition conferences have done to unify American churches and ministries around these precious truths, Pierced for Our Transgressions has accomplished on an international scale. $16.50
4. The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Lloyd-Jones (Zondervan). Finding children’s books that introduce little ones to the major stories of the Bible while simultaneously pointing their souls to the Cross is a rarity. This is perhaps the best children’s storybook Bible on the market, and a must-have for any parent of young children. Incredible illustrations, too. $11.65
5. When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage by Dave Harvey (Shepherd Press). Harvey has blessed couples with an excellent book for connecting the Cross to the daily trials and triumphs of marriage. Don’t attempt marriage without the Gospel. Bring Harvey along to explain why. $11.16
6. Communion with the Triune God by John Owen (Crossway). The classic book written by English Puritan John Owen resurfaced in 2007, in a new edition edited by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor. It’s unlikely I can overstate the importance of Taylor and Kapic’s editorial work in introducing Owen to the new generation of young, reformed Christians. An excellent follow-up to last year’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway). $14.96
7. Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart by John Ensor (Crossway). Ensor provides an excellent introduction to biblical manhood and femininity that will help engaged or married couples understand their God-ordained roles. This book is perhaps the best introductory volume on these often controversial topics. $9.59
8. The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World by Stephen Nichols (Crossway). With brevity, pictures, call-out boxes and humor, Stephen Nichols walks through the highlights of the Reformation to help us see that “the Reformers saw nothing less than the gospel at stake” (p. 21). It’s cliché, but true: I couldn’t put this volume down. Nichols is always good, but especially here. $10.39
9. The Reading and Preaching of the Scripture in the Worship of the Christian Church: The Modern Age by Hughes Oliphant Old (Eerdmans). This is volume six of Old’s large series tracing out the history of preaching from the Biblical era (vol. 1; 1998), the Patristic age (vol. 2; 1998), the Medieval church (vol. 3; 1999), the Reformation period (vol. 4; 2002), during Moderatism, Pietism and Awakening (vol. 5; 2004) and now the most recent volume covering the modern age of 1789-1989. Volume six alone is about 1,000 pages and covers preachers like Broadus, Kuyper, Maclaren, Moody, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones. Very insightful work on the history of preaching that has replaced Dargan on my shelves. $36.50
10. Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Religious Affections’ by Samuel Storms (Crossway). Edwards’ work is classic, and Storms helps the contemporary reader glean its gold. Excellent commentary on one of Edwards’ most valuable works. $10.87
11. Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious by Christopher Catherwood (Crossway). Catherwood sets out the history of the Church from a global perspective, and at all times relays the implications of history to contemporary events. This “crash course” is another volume published this year for a popular audience that will help readers grown in appreciation for developments in the church’s history. $12.99
12. The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright by John Piper (Crossway). Piper excels with a clarification on justification in light of the contemporary debate. $12.23
13. Assured by God: Living in the Fullness of God’s Grace by Philip Graham Ryken, Al Mohler, Joel Beeke, Sinclair Ferguson, John MacArthur, Jerry Bridges and R.C. Sproul (P&R). This collaborative effort is a very helpful collection of essays on the topic of the reformed doctrine of assurance. How do we know that we know God? (see Tullian Tchividjian’s work later.) $12.24
14. Sweet Communion: Trajectories of Spirituality from the Middle Ages through the Further Reformation (Baker Academic). Written originally in Dutch by Arie de Reuver, this academic work was made available in English in 2007. It traces the influences of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471) upon the “Dutch Puritans” like Willem Teellinck, Herman Witsius and Thodorus and Wilhelmus à Brakel. The seven biographies that fill this volume are excellent. This volumes helps us develop a “reformed spirituality,” a seeking after God’s presence illuminated by genuine theology. $21.89
15. The Inner Sanctum of Puritan Piety: John Flavel’s Doctrine of Mystical Union with Christ (Reformation Heritage Books). Flavel is one of the most valuable Puritans, and this study by Stephen J. Yuille looks at one facet of his theology. The doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ lies at the heart of the Puritan pursuit of godliness, and this small but wonderful outline traces the doctrine generally and highlights Flavel’s rich teaching specifically. $12.00
16. Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election (Crossway) by Sam Storms. Originally published in 1987 by Baker under the title, Chosen for Life: An introductory guide to the doctrine of divine election, Storms’ work was republished in 2007 and remains one of the clearest defenses for reformed soteriology. $12.23
17. Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate by Jerry Bridges (NavPress). Hitting from all sides, Bridges confronts all those sins we would rather not talk about, and provides a very Cross-centered approach to killing the flesh. $12.91
18. B.B. Warfield: Essays on His Life and Thought edited by Gary L.W. Johnson (P&R). Part biography, part theology, this new book on Warfield provides a treasure of essays on the thought and life of the outstanding theologian. $15.59
19. A Sweet Flame: Piety in the Letters of Jonathan Edwards by Michael A.G. Haykin (Reformation Heritage Books). A short but excellent collection of Edwards’ most important and moving personal letters, this little volume makes a great gift. $7.50
20. By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification edited by Gary L.W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters (Crossway). Including chapters by David Wells, Cornelius Venema and Al Mohler, this work tackles contemporary attacks upon the gospel (and especially those of N.T. Wright). $12.23
21. Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen by Kelly Kapic (Baker Academic). The long-awaited printing of Kapic’s research did not disappoint. On these same lines, Kapic also wrote the introduction to Communion with God (see #6). $18.47
22. The Expository Genius of John Calvin by Steven J. Lawson (Reformation Trust). This short work traces out 32 distinctives from the expositional ministry of the great Reformer, and sets them out as patterns for contemporary preachers. A short and encouraging work for pastors.
23. Do I Know God? Finding Certainty in Life’s Most Important Relationship by Tullian Tchividjian (Random House). An understanding of assurance written from a very personal and compelling vantage point. Excellent in content, but I especially appreciate the format that other writers can follow in communicating biblical doctrine to a new generation of readers. $11.55
24. Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook by Mark D. Futato (Kregel). Excellent little handbook in helping expositors pull all the meat from the Psalms for their their sermon preparations. Not just exegetical, but also helpful in determining the overall theology of the Psalms. $14.27
25. Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for us in Justification (Christian Focus). Edited by K. Scott Oliphant this compilation includes an intro by Sinclair Ferguson and chapters by men like Carl Trueman, William Edgar and Peter Lillback on the importance of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone. Looks at traditional problems with Roman Catholic theology and contemporary concerns with N.T. Wright on union and imputation. $12.99
26. The Majesty of God in the Old Testament: A Guide for Preaching and Teaching (Baker Academic). Renowned Old Testament scholar Walter C. Kaiser Jr. says we should preach more of the Old Testament and in his newest book he takes the preacher by the hand and shows them exactly how. Walking through 10 texts, Kaiser models exegesis and outlining of each specific texts. But in it’s easy-to-read format and concluding application questions in each chapter, this book will double as a group study of God in the Old Testament. $11.55
27. Preaching the Cross: Together for the Gospel (Crossway). The transcripts from the 2006 Together for the Gospel conference written and delivered by Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, John MacArthur, John Piper and R.C. Sproul. An all-star lineup and one of the best compilation on the topic of preaching the gospel. $13.59
28. Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics (P&R). Edited by K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton. Yet another excellent collection of essays from P&R that captured my attention and helped me work through various difficulties in apologetics. $18.24
29. The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors by Thabiti Anyabwile (Crossway). Highlights Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833), Daniel A. Payne (1811-1893) and Francis J. Grimké (1850-1937). The book contains one short biography of each man, but is largely comprised of sermon transcripts. Anyabwile’s book is especially important because he is challenging the contemporary African-American churches to consider the gospel of first importance and is thereby calling for large-scale reform. $10.87
30. Reformation Heroes: A Simple, Illustrated Overview of People Who Assisted in the Great Work of the Reformation by Joel R. Beeke and Diana Kleyn (Reformation Heritage). The men, women and events of the Reformation written for older children and teens to boost their appreciation for the church. $18.00
And here are some other titles that are likely worthy of the above list, and I wish I made time to read:
- Andrew Hoffecker, ed., Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought (P&R) $23.51
- Norman Geisler, Reasons for Faith: Making a Case for the Christian Faith (Crossway) $12.23
- J. Mark Bertrand, Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World (Crossway) $11.55
- Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington, The Great Exchange: My Sin for His Righteousness (Crossway) $10.87
- Herman J. Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms: Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Baker Academic) $21.89
- Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone (Reformation Trust) $14.40
- Justin Taylor and John Piper, The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (Crossway) $10.19
- R.C. Sproul, Gospel of God: An Exposition of Romans (Christian Focus) $14.99
- Thabiti M. Anyabwile, The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity (IVP) $13.60
So these are my favorite books of 2007. I hope this list serves you in your book-purchasing for the glory of Christ!
Blessings to you all and Merry Christmas from your friends at TSS,
Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) is an esteemed and prolific Christian author. His complete works of 24 volumes rightly remain in print today. On topics like the identification and mortification of remaining sin in the believer’s heart, or the glory of Christ, or communion with God in His Triunity, Owen is a giant in Church history. Likewise, Owen’s defense of justification by faith alone and particular atonement are classics that remain in print in various forms.
Over the past several years, John Owen has become a small publishing industry unto himself. Just in 2007 we’ve seen Kelly Kapic’s Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (Baker Academic) and Carl Trueman’s John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Ashgate). Reformation Heritage Books reprinted The Doctrine of Justification by Faith by John Owen with an intro essay by Trueman (this edition is not retypeset). And this Fall, two publishers released retypeset and edited (though unabridged) versions of Owen’s classic, Communion with God including Communion with God (Christian Focus) and Communion with the Triune God (Crossway).
That’s quite a lot of volumes published in one year about, or by, a Puritan born nearly 400 years ago!
This year I’ve received a lot of emails from readers asking me to compare and contrast the two editions of Communion with God and that’s my intention today.
But first, let me say I am grateful to publishers like the Banner of Truth, Christian Focus, and Crossway for continuing to publish Owen’s older works and abridgments (Banner and CF) and for those retypsetting and editing Owen’s works for a new generation (CF and Crossway). These are hardly endeavors that will land big publishing profits, and the editors can tell you how tough and time-consuming a project Owen proves to be. So from TSS we thank each of you for your diligent work!
Now, let’s compare the two volumes strictly by the numbers (notice the volumes are ordered different than the above photo):
Both volumes are relatively close in size, price and construction quality. In both volumes the text has been edited and updated very well, and they read very similarly. Both works are the product of laborious editing.
Christian Focus edition
In the Christian focus edition, there are a few omissions (listed above) and one obvious weakness — Owen should never be dressed in pink and purple! Apart from that, there are some rather strong features to the Christian Focus edition. Especially noteworthy are the frequent headings and subheadings that break up the long text and help the reader along, making the text more visually appealing. And the Christian Focus edition has chosen to keep the Greek and Hebrew fonts whereas the Crossway edition has transliterated all the Greek and Hebrew (depending upon your view, this may be a strength or weakness). Albeit stripped of some features we see in the other volume, Christian Focus has produced a nice, high quality and very readable edition of Communion.
But in a straight comparison, the Crossway volume impresses on many levels. The long introduction by Kelly Kapic is exceptional. The extensive (33 page!) outline is very helpful to browse Owen’s arguments and digressions. The footnotes provide helpful clarifications throughout, as does the glossary of terms in the back. But what really separates the two volumes are the indexes at the end. Crossway has made certain to include a detailed Scriptural index and lengthy topical index, making Owen’s classic more accessible than ever before. As a bonus, if you buy through Crossway they include a free electronic PDF version of the book that can be searched on your computer. Never has John Owen been more accessible and searchable.
Following in the footsteps of last year’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation (2006) Crossway is setting new standards for excellence in the publishing of John Owen works — making their books easier to navigate, useful for busy pastors, and exceptionally well outlined to help readers trace Owen’s arguments. Other publishers of Puritan works should make special note their priority on Scriptural and topical indexes. But where Crossway has not ventured, the Christian Focus works remain the best unabridged, retypeset editions of Owen available (these volumes include The Glory of Christ and The Holy Spirit). Both publishers are to be commended for their work, but we hope in the future their efforts will not be so unfortunately duplicated.
Related: Read our full review of Communion with the Triune God (Crossway: 2007).
Related: Read our interview with Derek Thomas on the topic of John Owen and Communion with God.
Related: It’s not just Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic! Another excellent Puritan reprint will be found in James Durham’s classic, Christ Crucified, recently reprinted by Naphtali. More info here.
Communion with the Triune God
by John Owen
edited by Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic
Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) is an important Christian author. But he makes me angry!
It’s happened several times. I’ve got Owen cornered and caught. After weeks of study I’ve traced his footsteps, mapped his argument, and now I’ve got him within range! I pat myself on the back. I’ve followed his complex thoughts, written out comprehensive notes, and it’s all finally coming together. With the smug grin of a hunter when the game walks close, I think to myself, ‘Owen is not so tough.’
Just when I’m satisfied I have Owen apprehended and comprehended, he throws out some new subpoint, some new unforeseen argument, and darts past and escapes. Now I’m back after him, chasing off in a forest of subpoints heavily wooded by a thicket of complex 17th century prose. After coming so close after weeks of careful study, I take off in chase, refusing to concede my victory. But soon I realize he’s gone, disappearing out of range, deep into digressions. It will take several hours to track and corner him again. I kick the dirt, raise the flag of surrender, and order abridgements.
If this is your experience in reading unabridged versions of John Owen, pull up a seat. There’s room for you in the Elmer Fudd club.
We are told Owen is great. But Owen is hard. Everyone who has tried to capture Owen knows this. The solution is to find a travel guide who has mastered Owen, knows his movements, and spots his trails.
Last year, travel guides Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic successfully edited and published the first Owen volume, Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway: 2006). This work is perhaps the most valuable book on battling indwelling sin. The newest Owen volume, Communion with the Triune God (Crossway: 2007), is due out October 12th. It, too, is a masterpiece of Christian literature.
So what is communion? Are we talking wafers and wine?
The full original title is revealing: “Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace and Consolation.” By grace alone, reconciled sinners are invited to enjoy communion with God, sharing personal communion individually with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We enjoy the Father’s love, the Son’s grace, and the Spirit’s consolation. This is a book about knowing God better.
Let’s move in closer for a few highlights.
A. Mutual affections. Owen gets interesting because communion is a relationship of shared (or mutual) affection. Kapic writes, “To experience communion there needs to be fellowship and communication — e.g., shared affections, response, delight, and satisfaction. In other words, when Owen speaks of our communion with God, he really means active communion, and not merely a state of passivity. ‘Communion consists in giving and receiving’” (p. 21).
It is no stretch to say Owen’s work is a classic work on the Triunity of God. But Owen focuses on an applied Triunity presented within the context of experiencing shared affections, responses, delights and satisfaction. The only way we can experience God is to know God! By expounding the believer’s specific relationship with each Person of the Trinity and dissecting these relationships, we get to know and enjoy God. It’s here Owen’s work finds great relevance today.
B. Loving Father. If I may speak to personal benefits, this work has most helped me comprehend the love of the Father. Even after my conversion eight years ago, it was common for me to think the Father was always simmering on the brink of anger towards me. This false theology (rooted in self-righteous legalism) is dismantled by Owen in Communion. The Father loves His children deeply! But until we grasp the love of the Father, Owen argues, we will never experience communion with Him.
In a favorite quote, Owen calls us remember the wrath of God has been appeased in Christ. We can now come and drink and delight in the fountain of the Father’s love! After writing, “Flesh and blood is apt to have very hard thoughts of him — to think he is always angry, yea, implacable; that it is not for poor creatures to draw nigh to him” (p. 126), Owen writes:
“Many saints have no greater burden in their lives than that their hearts do not come clearly and fully up, constantly to delight and rejoice in God [the Father] — that there is still an indisposedness [unwillingness] of spirit unto close walking with him. What is at the bottom of this distemper? Is it not their unskillfulness in or neglect of this duty, even of holding communion with the Father in love? So much as we see of the love of God, so much shall we delight in him, and no more. Every other discovery of God, without this, will but make the soul fly from him; but if the heart be once much taken up with this the eminency of the Father’s love, it cannot choose but be overpowered, conquered, and endeared unto him. This, if anything, will work upon us to make our abode with him. If the love of a father will not make a child delight in him, what will? Put, then, this to the venture: exercise your thoughts upon this very thing, the eternal, free, and fruitful love of the Father, and see if your hearts be not wrought upon to delight in him. I dare boldly say: believers will find it as thriving a course as ever they pitched on in their lives. Sit down a little at the fountain, and you will quickly have a further discovery of the sweetness of the streams. You who have run from him, will not be able, after a while, to keep at a distance for a moment” (p. 128).
To be sure, the Cross brings a radical change. God the Father as holy wrath-bearer becomes God the Father, my adoptive Father! Leave it to a 17th century Puritan to bring me to my knees in conviction, praise and delight.
C. The theology of relational theology. For Owen, until our theology is straight, our communion with God will be stunted. Far from being a cheap ‘how-to experience warm divine fuzziness,’ Owen pursues the experience of God within serious theological study. He has really given us a detailed “relational theology.” In the introduction, Kevin Vanhooser writes, “Owen’s Communion with the Triune God is indispensable reading for all those who want to go deeper into the meaning of relationality than one typically goes in the pop-theology boats that float only on the psychological surface of the matter” (p. 12). Well said.
D. The language of relational theology. The robust language of Owen is beautiful. For example, in our communion with God the Son, Owen frequently employs words like sweetness, delight, honor, safety, comfort, tenderness, purity, glory, beauty, and rejoicing (see p. 36, note 80). These words glimpse into the language of Owen’s relational theology.
And when Owen speaks of communion, he says things like: “the saints are sweetly wrapped up in the bosom of their Father’s love” (p. 131); and “having at length come once more to an enjoyment of sweet communion with Christ, the soul lays fast hold on him by faith, refuses to part with him any more … and so uses all means for the confirming of the mutual love between Christ and her: all the expressions, all the allusions used, evidencing delight to the utmost capacity of the soul” (p. 244). Our justification before God is no legal fiction!
E. Discovered self-identity. As a further benefit, if we understand God in His Triunity — and our communion with this Triune God — we begin to understand our identities as children of God. Seeing ourselves in relation with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit we learn who we are. And from this self-identity we have a basis for pursuing holiness and living the Christian life well. (The Derek Thomas interview unfolds this further).
Communion with the Triune God is securely positioned as a great Christian masterpiece. There are many other highlights, and we invite you to join TSS in our month-long study of them.
Features of 2007 edition
Those familiar with Overcoming Sin will notice a similar size (almost exactly the same pages in length), the same fonts and familiar layout. Here are some of the more important features.
1. Introductions. The helpful forward by Kevin Vanhoozer is an apologetic on why the Church needs to hear from Owen on this subject. This is followed by an excellent essay, “Worshiping the Triune God: The Shape of John Owen’s Trinitarian Spirituality” by Kelly Kapic. Kapic is the author of the book Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (Baker Academic: 2007). This essay is an excellent overview, a topographical map of the terrain covered by Owen.
2. Updated text. The text has been completely retypeset, and is clean and sharp. Only minor editorial changes like archaic spellings (‘hath’ to ‘have’ and ‘thou’ to ‘you’) have been made. Hacking out some of the unnecessary obstructions makes our view of Owen a bit clearer.
3. Complex outline. The most useful character of these edited volumes are the detailed outlines that track Owen’s every footstep. Let’s call it a GPS system for Owen. No matter how deep in digression you find yourself (and you may be surprised how lost you get), a simple check of the clear outline will locate where you stand in the overall argument of Owen. The present volume contains a 32-page outline! One noticeable improvement from Overcoming Sin to Communion is the placement. In last year’s edition the outline was placed at the end of the volume, but in Communion the outline is placed early and before Owen’s text. This is an improvement, because an outline of Owen is essential preparation for the journey.
4. Glossary. Once again the difficult words are defined in footnotes and cumulated in a glossary at the end of the book. I use this glossary frequently when reading other Puritans like Bunyan and Goodwin.
5. Indexes. I’m a stickler for indexes. With the rise in Puritan literature has been a rise in retypeset editions, which make the original indexes useless. These retypeset editions are often being printed without topical or Scriptural indexes of their own, and this is most unhelpful. (Publishers, please remember a retypeset book needs a fresh index.) The excellent topical index in the Crossway volume is a detailed and priceless tool for the reader and preacher. Also helpful is the editors’ care to mark every Scriptural reference in the text and provide a comprehensive Scriptural text index in the back (most helpful for expositors). Combined, the detailed topical and Scriptural indexes make Owen more accessible and useful than ever.
In Communion with the Triune God, Taylor and Kapic have given the Church a resource to help us and future generations track and catch that wascally wabbit, John Owen. And being positioned to capture John Owen, we will better capture the preciousness of Christ’s blood, to better enjoy the throbbing love of our Heavenly Father and experience the empowering comfort of the Holy Spirit. And in our search to understand God’s manifold expressions of love, we learn to delight and commune with Him and better discover our self-identity as His children. One of the great publishing highlights of 2007.
Related: Read our interview with Dr. Derek Thomas about Communion with the Triune God here.
Title: Communion with the Triune God
Primary author: John Owen (1616-1683)
Secondary authors: Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Kelly M. Kapic
Editors: Kelly M. Kapic, Justin Taylor
Reading level: 3.5/5.0 > heavy but manageable because of excellent editing
Dust jacket: no
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type, re-typeset
Price USD: $22.00 from Crossway (w/ free PDF edition)
It is quite obvious in Scripture that Psalms are to be sung in the corporate life of the church (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). Scripture assumes continuity between the life of the Psalmist before the Cross, and the life of the Christian after the Cross. Yet, this emphasis on relating to the Psalmist – not to mention the direct singing of the Psalms – seems to be largely missing from the contemporary church. I wonder why?
Let me make my own confession. As a non-denominational reformed Christian, I’ve never sung from a Psalter. In fact I’ve never held a Psalter in my hands. In my circles, I would have a hard time finding people who even know what a Psalter is! (One close friend suggested it must be something like a salt shaker!)
I am thankful that Scripture calls us to sing Psalms, and also opens the door to hymns and various other spiritual songs. I am deeply grateful for the corporate freedom to sing a variety of worship songs.
But a big question in my mind over the past year is, simply, why have the Psalms been disconnected from the corporate expression of the church? In the past I have suggested that perhaps part of the reason Puritan spirituality seems so foreign to us today is because the Puritans used the Psalms to interpret their life experiences. But this does not get us closer to a contemporary answer.
Recently I read Carl Trueman’s collections of essays, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004). These essays provoked stimulating thoughts in a number of areas. Trueman is the Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) of the contemporary church and if you want a great read, Wages of Spin is it. (Catchy title, isn’t it?)
In his chapter “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” Trueman also takes note of the disappearance of the Psalms in corporate worship. While I am no closer to an answer, I have benefited from his insights:
Having experienced — and generally appreciated — worship across the whole evangelical spectrum, from Charismatic to Reformed — I am myself less concerned here with the form of worship than I am with its content. Thus, I would like to make just one observation: the psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, have almost entirely dropped from view in the contemporary Western evangelical scene. I am not certain about why this should be, but I have an instinctive feel that it has more than a little to do with the fact that a high proportion of the psalter is taken up with lamentation, with feeling sad, unhappy, tormented, and broken. In modern Western culture, these are simply not emotions which have much credibility: sure, people still feel these things, but to admit that they are a normal part of one’s everyday life is tantamount to admitting that one has failed in today’s health, wealth, and happiness society. And, of course, if one does admit to them, one must neither accept them nor take any personal responsibility for them: one must blame one’s parents, sue one’s employer, pop a pill, or check into a clinic in order to have such dysfunctional emotions soothed and one’s self-image restored.
Now, one would not expect the world to have much time for the weakness of the psalmists’ cries. It is very disturbing, however, when these cries of lamentation disappear from the language and worship of the church. Perhaps the Western church feels no need to lament — but then it is sadly deluded about how healthy it really is in terms of numbers, influence and spiritual maturity. Perhaps — and this is more likely — it has drunk so deeply at the well of modern Western materialism that it simply does not know what to do with such cries and regards them as little short of embarrassing. Yet the human condition is a poor one — and Christians who are aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart and are looking for a better country should know this. A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably I creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience. Indeed, the biblical portraits of believers give no room to such a notion. Look at Abraham, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, and the detailed account of the psalmists’ experiences. Much agony, much lamentation, occasional despair — and joy, when it manifests itself — is very different from the frothy triumphalism that has infected so much of our modern Western Christianity. In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does our contemporary language of worship reflect the horizon of expectation regarding the believer’s experience which the psalter proposes as normative? If not, why not? Is it because the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church and made us consider such cries irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?
I did once suggest at a church meeting that the psalms should take a higher priority in evangelical worship than they generally do — and was told in no uncertain terms by one indignant person that such a view betrayed a heart that had no interest in evangelism. On the contrary, I believe it is the exclusion of the experiences and expectations of the psalmists from our worship — and thus from our horizons of expectation — which has in a large part crippled the evangelistic efforts of the church in the West and turned us all into spiritual pixies. By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church. By so doing, it has implicitly endorsed the banal aspirations of consumerism, generated an insipid, trivial and unrealistically triumphalist Christianity, and confirmed its impeccable credentials as a club for the complacent. In the last year, I have asked three very different evangelical audiences what miserable Christians can sing in church. On each occasion my question has elicited uproarious laughter, as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely, or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical — and yet I posed the question in all seriousness. Is it any wonder that British evangelicalism, from the Reformed to the Charismatic, is almost entirely a comfortable, middle-class phenomenon?
- Carl R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004) pp. 158-160.
Session 5 – (Wed. 7:00 PM)
“Mortification and Vivification: The Shape of Holiness in Calvin’s Institutes”
GRANTHAM, PA – Thomas returned to the Institutes to look at the shape of holiness according to John Calvin, but he began the session with a reference to his current study of John Bunyan (for a future biography). Referring to his own personal friendships with the men in the chapel, Thomas noted that in reading The Pilgrim’s Progress he was struck by how Bunyan weaves friendships into Christians’ sharing of the joy, temptations and losses of the Christian life.
Thomas would especially draw attention to mortification rather than vivification [mortification is dying to self and sin, vivification is coming alive to righteousness in Christ]. The focus in this session would be on the struggle against sin, bearing the Cross in affliction and self-denial.
Thomas opened by reading Colossians 3 with a special emphasis on verse 5: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Calvin expands on the relationship of union and communion with Christ. Justification, sanctification and glorification all flow from an existential union and this union is now being worked out in our lives by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the “comforter,” which is Latin meaning “to strengthen” or “to enable.” Calvin expounds on this in a John/Paul fashion. Our union with Christ takes the shape of death and resurrection. We are involved in a union, a template of death/resurrection, so our lives take the shape of this death/resurrection pattern. Calvin develops this like Paul in Romans 8:13 (“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”) and Colossians 3:3 (“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”). This same twin element of crucifixion/death/burial/resurrection is seen in Colossians 2:12 — “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” There are Romans 6 parallels to Colossians as we commune and take part in the death of Christ that works itself out in mortification. Mortification identifies us with Christ. Christ calls His sheep to follow His life as a pattern.
In Matthew 16:13-20 Jesus says the Church will grow and prevail although She is being built in enemy-controlled territory. This is the program of the New Covenant age between the two comings of Christ. This is now where we live, too. In this program of church growth in enemy territory, Jesus establishes the pattern of the Christian life. And this life is one of self-denial and Cross-bearing (see vv. 24-28). We are called to deny ourselves and pick up our Cross and “own” the life of Christ. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (v. 25). Only as we identify with the life of Christ will we save our lives. Any other course of life is to lose one’s life.
In Cross-bearing and self-denial we are putting to death the remaining sinful corruptions. On mortification Calvin builds especially off Romans 8:13 and Colossians 3:5. Calvin says, prepare for the knife.
Before continuing, Thomas makes two notes. First, he feared that by talking about mortification it makes him look as an expert who has made great advancements over sin in his own life. He humbly admitted that he is not superior in holiness to those in the room. Mortification actually becomes more difficult as you mature, he said. And second, talking about mortification makes guilt easier to communicate than grace. Calvinists who believe in the third use of the Law are very capable of generating guilt. This is easy. But the more Thomas reads Calvin and volume 6 of John Owen (‘the quintessential book’ to understanding the Puritan concept of mortification) the more he sees an emphasis on grace in Calvin that excels Owen. Calvin wants to emphasize grace in mortification. We need mortification because we are sinners, but we can never forget our justification!
The Struggle of Mortification
There is a reality of indwelling sin and remaining corruption. A war rages within. Calvin does not see Romans 8 as a progression from Romans 7. There is no way out of chapter 7 and into chapter 8 in the Christian life. In other words, chapter 7 is not a sub-Christian experience. For Calvin, chapter 7 and especially verses 14-ff are not the struggle of an unconverted Jew but the paradigm of the Christian life. The “I” later in chapter is the same “I” that is in union with Christ early in the chapter.
Passive sanctification seems to abound in the Church today. As soon as the demands of the Christian life are emphasized – ‘do this’ or ‘avoid that’ – people automatically label it ‘legalism.’ The third use of the Law for Calvin is a model for the Christian life as a man in union. But this obedience is never to gain the favor of God. Neither is obedience lessened because of grace already received.
The picture of the slow growth of the Christian striving against sin is seen in the following quotes by Calvin [and one of my personal favorites from the Institutes].
“But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him” (Institutes, 3.6.5 or pp. 1:689)
This is the lifelong battle until we are glorified. Athanasius and Augustine both viewed Romans 7 as an ongoing battle between the renewed self in union with Christ and remaining corruption. In Romans 8:23 Paul says “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Creation groans and we, too, groan. Calvin calls this groaning a “warfare of patience” (Commentary on Rom. 8:24).
Being united to Christ we are a mass of contradiction. At our height, the good we want to do we don’t do. What we don’t want to do, we do (Rom. 7:15).
The Ground of Mortification
The ground of mortification is the simple fact that we can mortify the flesh! Reformation logic says, “If I ought to, I can.” Not by native ability, but because of our union to Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and because the old Adam has died to sin. “Reckon yourselves” dead to sin (Rom. 6:11)! “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Live as those who have died. We are dead men walking. Christ died to destroy sin. We take this view that sin and its demands have all been paid. Christ has purchased for us both justification and sanctification. God carries this out in His own people as they gain the upper hand over sin. Sin continues to dwell but no longer reigns over His people.
Evil desires take on a life force of their own. But Calvin wants us to see the basis of engaging in mortification is because we are dead to sin and alive to righteousness. Sin no longer reigns.
The Motive of Mortification
The motive of mortification is the fear of God. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:5-6). Calvin, in his commentary, is especially clear that the wrath of God is coming upon those who do not engage in mortification. This becomes a motive to our mortification. The same theme is found in Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” If we don’t engage sin, we will die.
To say that you are united to Christ but don’t engage sin is to have, as Calvin puts it, a “mutilated faith.” Our engagement and victories over sin give us assurance that we are truly children of God.
Engaging in Mortification
So how do we mortify? First, we need a big picture. Mortification is not only concerned with specific and individual sins but all the entrails of the old man. Mortification is an engagement at the whole of sin, not just its parts.
The key to mortification is the mind. Book three and chapters 9-10 were added to the Institutes later as the whole comes to completion. It’s what we would call “faculty psychology.” For Calvin and the Puritans, the mind is the priority over the will and affections. Holiness begins in the faculty of the mind and in our thinking. For Calvin, we act according to our thoughts. So mortification begins in the mind. Remember in book one, Calvin calls the heart the “perpetual factory of idols.” And for Paul, he does not go into the details of sexual immorality but rather focuses on the idolatry of sexual sin and the idolatry of all sin. In James, the dynamic morphology of sin begins in the mind with the thoughts. So the way to deal with sin is to deal where it’s rooted – in our minds! Don’t think about sin. Guard your thought world. Guard your mind.
If we allow our minds to think about sin, the sin will develop a life of its own. Unguarded sinful thoughts motivate the will and the affections. Once the affections are set upon a sin, the sin takes on a life force of its own that will run its course. It will not be stopped. So deal with sin when it first rises in the mind. [This is a great illustration of the “life force” of sin.]
It is here that Calvin gives us one of the most eloquent passages of the Institutes.
“We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal (Rom. 14:8; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19). O, how much has that man profited who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken away dominion and rule from his own reason that he may yield it to God! For, as consulting our self-interest is the pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction, so the sole haven of salvation is to be wise in nothing and to will nothing through ourselves but to follow the leading of the Lord alone” [3.7.1, p. 1:690].
This is not only mortification in particular besetting sins but part of a wider picture because we live in a sinful world. We have two zip codes: one planted in this world and one planted in the world to come. Being rooted in a world that is groaning is a call to self-denial and Cross-bearing. The highest calling of the Christian is self-denial. So bear the Cross!
Of particular usefulness, Cross-bearing teaches us to trust in the grace of God. We will suffer poverty, bereavement, and disease in this world in order for God to present us faultless (Jude 1:24). In Calvin’s teaching on the book of Job, Calvin preached through the book himself in great pain and in the midst of personal warfare. Calvin was a walking encyclopedia of pain.
For Calvin, the essential message of Job is understood through the eyes of Elihu. Elihu understands pain is educative. It’s not punishment for some particular sin, but rather the pain brings out the potential sin that was resting dormant.
The climax of Job is God shutting Job’s mouth. Paul takes this same theme in saying the purpose of the Law is to shut the mouths of sinners (Rom. 3:19). Every time we speak, we spew idolatry, self-worship and self-exaltation. The beauty of the Cross is that self-denial causes us to trust patiently in God. Unbelievers are chastened and they only grow weary. Believers are chastised and they are matured. A Cross without Christ does no good, but a Cross with Christ is God pulling out His chisel on the edges of our lives and our angular characters. He will present us as trophies of grace in Christ. Afflictions teach us about Christ. Nowhere is the chasm of the 16th century church and the church today more revealed than in our understanding of trials. Calvin says, it’s not all about me! The fact is that the closer we are to the King, the more likely we are to draw enemy fire and taste affliction. As Christ suffers so shall we.
[For more on Calvin’s understanding of Job see Dr. Thomas’ excellent book, Calvin’s Teaching on Job (Christian Focus: 2004). “Elihu sees adversity as educative rather than necessarily retributive” (p. 227).]
When Paul is converted on the Damascus road, why does Christ say, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4)? Because Stephen was one of His (7:54-8:1). You touch one of Christ’s little ones, and you touch Christ.
The Experience of Mortification
Calvin is not calling us to Stoicism. In our grief and sorrow, Calvin points us to our great consolation in the hands of our indulgent Father! For Calvin, what gives him joy and vigor and strength in the Romans 7 struggle with sin and Cross-bearing is the fact that this world rests in the hands of our Father. And there remain no doubts of the extent of God’s love for us — He sent His only Son for us!
In the words of Thomas a Kempis: if you bear the Cross, it will bear you. No matter where you are, carrying the Cross or burdened by sin – the Cross will bear you!
Related: For more posts and pictures from the 2007 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference check out the complete TSS conference index.
“If our churches are going to be renewed and become what God has called them to be, then individual members of the church must be taught to build their lives on the foundation of the truth that they are justified before God by faith, not on the basis of their own performance, but by claiming the righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance. That means that they must see clearly the holiness of God, the depth of their sin, and the sufficiency of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. It is this doctrine of justification by faith through grace which must be embraced, not just at the beginning of the Christian life, but every day we live.”
- J. Stafford Carson in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for us in Justification, edited by K. Scott Oliphint (Christian Focus: 2007), p. 191.
“Like pangs of death”: Letting go of legalism
by Tony Reinke
What is “legalism?” Legalism is an attempt to please God through self-righteous obedience, a counterfeit replacement to the merits and works of the perfect Son. You can be legalistic by not drinking alcohol and thinking God is more pleased with you and you can become legalistic by drinking alcohol and thinking God is more pleased with you. Legalism is not merely defined by specific rules or strictness. Legalism is all about seeking to please God with self efforts and we do that in our ‘looseness’ just as easily as our strictness. That’s the gist of a short post I wrote (“Understanding Legalism”) last September.
This past winter I heard two separate public statements to the effect that if you read a lot of Puritan literature you will grow legalistic. Certainly there is a danger in all Christian literature to do what I did before I was a Christian — highlight all the passages of books and Scripture that give a command, seek to obey and appease God in the end. That’s legalism and it doesn’t matter what you read, our hearts fall into this legalism naturally.
The criticism of the Puritans however is overall unfounded simply on the basis of the Cross-centered focus of the Puritans. You cannot exalt in the sufficient work of the Son without striking legalism at the root.
But this criticism is also unfounded because the Puritans attacked legalism directly.
This weekend I was reading through an excellent systematic theology written by John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787). On the covenant of works, Brown launched into a lengthy paragraph on the nature of legalism and why all unregenerate sinners – and even converted Christians – are lured by legalism. Listen carefully to his arguments.
“All men by nature, and even believers, in so far as they are unrenewed, desire to be under the covenant of works, and to obtain happiness by their own righteousness, or the condition of it. 1. It is natural to men, and hence men of every form or religion, station, office, education, or manner of life, agree in it (Romans 9:31,32; 10:3; Jonah 1:16; Matthew 19:16; John 6:28; Acts 2:37; Luke 15:19). 2. Our own working or suffering, in order to obtain happiness from God, is exceedingly suited to the pride of our corrupt nature, and makes us to look on God as our debtor (Romans 10:3; 7:9,13; John 5:45; Isaiah 58:3). It is like pangs of death to quit our hold of the law (Romans 7:4,9; Galatians 2:19). 3. Men’s ignorance of the extensive and high demands of the broken law, and of their own utter inability to keep it, — or their care to abridge their apprehensions of them, and to enlarge their conceit of their own ability, mightily promote their desire to be under it (Romans 7:9-13; 10:3; Galatians 4:21). 4. Men have naturally a peculiar enmity against God and his gracious method of redemption, — against Jesus Christ and his whole mediation, particularly his sacrificing work; and hence love to oppose the honor of it be cleaving to legal methods of obtaining happiness (Romans 8:7; John 15:24; Romans 10:3; 9:32; 5:21; Galatians 2:21; 5:2,4).”
- The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington [Reformation Heritage Books: 2002] p. 212 (updated spellings and formatting).
Not only were the Puritans aware of the dangers of legalism, they understood legalism to be a false understanding of the appeasement of God. That is, they rightly understood legalism to be a false gospel. And what’s more, the Puritans were fully aware of the battle waging in the soul of the Christian that “it is like pangs of death to quit our hold of the law.” We must die to the Law, not because the Law is bad, but because all sinners are naturally inclined to think appeasing God is possible through Legal obedience. We think that we will find life in obedience to the Law when in fact the Law is really only eternally useful after it kills us in our self-righteousness. “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (Romans 7:10).
The Puritans were fully aware of the heart’s addiction to self-righteousness and they responded by attacking legalism directly and indirectly (by rejoicing in the perfect work of Jesus Christ). To conclude that Puritan literature births legalism is very clearly a broad statement without foundation.