Category Archives: Interviews
The Nature and Scope of the Atonement in the Calvinist – Arminian Debates (Interview with Mark Jones)
In November I was invited to speak at Westminster Theological Seminary, and my dates in Philadelphia happened to coincide with Mark Jones’s presence on campus. Mark is a pastor in Vancouver, and the co-author of A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, so I was eager to meet him.
We ended up meeting and dined one evening with Scott and Jared Oliphint. In a peacefully dim corner of a wonderful Philly restaurant (Iron Hill), a heady historical-theological conversation kicked up over the logical connections between definite atonement and substitutionary atonement. Jones highlighted various characters and debates over the years, weaving together a fascinating verbal history of how theologians wrestled with the nature and extent of Christ’s atonement. Later I asked him to develop this into a written interview, which he obliged.
Mark, I’ll start by asking you this: just how different are the Arminian and Reformed traditions?
The differences between Reformed (Calvinist) and Remonstrant (Arminian) traditions extend well beyond questions of “free will” or the extent of the atonement. Ranging from topics such as God’s attributes and knowledge to justification by faith alone to the nature — not just the extent — of the atonement, the Calvinists and Arminians crossed swords.
For example, Jacob Arminius eventually rejected the Reformed understanding of justification. The Arminians seemed to agree with the Reformed that the formal cause of justification was the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but they openly disagreed on the material cause of justification. What is imputed, our act of faith (so, the Arminians) or the righteousness of Christ apprehended by faith (so, the Reformed)? In the Arminian scheme, imputation is an aestimatio — God regards our righteousness (i.e., faith) as something what it is not (i.e., perfect). In the Reformed scheme, however, imputation is always secundum veritatem — God regards Christ’s righteousness as our righteousness because it really is ours through faith and in union with Christ.
When did Remonstrant theologians begin to reject the Reformed view of the nature of the atonement?
On the question of the nature of the atonement, the Remonstrants adopted the objections raised by the Socinians against the Reformed view of the atonement. By the seventeenth century, the dominant Reformed view of the nature of the atonement was a refinement of Anselm’s concept of satisfaction. Satisfaction through punishment (satisfactio poenalis) incorporates the “both/and” approach to viewing Christ’s death, whereby he satisfies the Father’s justice by acting as our penal substitute. But the Remonstrants by and large rejected this view. They “denied that Christ suffered all the penalties that God had placed on sin, that he suffered eternal death, that his active obedience was vicarious . . . Even [Christ’s] suffering and death were not a full satisfaction for sins” (Bavinck, RD 3:349).
An example of this from the seventeenth century comes from the Remonstrant theologian, Philippus van Limborch. He rejected the Reformed view of the nature of Christ’s satisfaction. He does not merely differ on the extent of the atonement, but rather vigorously denies the Reformed position that Christ suffered all the punishments due to our sins, and thus satisfied divine justice (Bk. III, Sec. 4).
Grotius provides another example: he rejected the idea of Christ’s death as an “exact payment” (solutio eiusdem), which was affirmed by John Owen. Instead, Grotius affirmed the concept of “equivalent payment” (solutio tantidem). An “equivalent payment” does not free ipso facto but rather requires an act of acceptance on the part of God after payment. God and Christ are then free to set up conditions for salvation in whatever manner they see fit. So because of Christ’s “equivalent payment,” God causes forgiveness to be offered to all — as in “Christ died for you,” not the typical Reformed view that “God is able to save you.” The application of Christ’s death depends on the human act of faith, by one’s free will. In Arminius’s view, the remission Christ merited by his life and death was a potential remission, not an actual remission.
In essence, then, the Remonstrants basically denied the legal exactitude of penal substitution. As some scholars have noted, the Remonstrants believed that Christ’s death was for our sake and for our benefit, but not in our stead. Which is why the language of Dort (Second Head, sec. 2) shows that in Christ’s satisfaction for his people he “was made sin and became a curse on the cross for us and in our place.”
How did later Arminian theologians understand the connection — or dis-connection — between the nature of the atonement (penal substitution) and the extent of the atonement (definite atonement)?
Now, to the credit of many later Arminian theologians, they understood these points, and so rejected penal substitution. John Miley, a nineteenth-century Arminian theologian, understood that Reformed theology requires an atonement that “must be effectual in the salvation of all for whom it is made,” and thus it must be substitutionary (The Atonement in Christ, 22). J. Kenneth Grider, in the next century, notes: “A spillover from Calvinism into Arminianism has occurred in recent decades. Thus many Arminians whose theology is not very precise say that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Yet such a view is foreign to Arminianism, which teaches instead that Christ suffered for us. Arminians teach what Christ did he did for every person; therefore what he did could not have been to pay the penalty, since no one would then ever go into eternal perdition” (“Arminianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 80). Grider makes the connection between the nature of the atonement and the extent of the atonement.
Another Arminian nineteenth-century theologian, William Burt Pope, contends: “Arminianism holds that the Sacrifice was offered for the whole world: it must therefore for that reason also renounce the commutative theory of exact and mutual compensation; since some may perish for whom Christ died, and He would be defrauded of His reward in them” (A Compendium of Christian Theology, 2:314). Pope understands that penal substitution, understood in terms of solutio eiusdem, cannot fit in the Arminian model, for it would necessarily mean either universalism or that Christ’s blood was spilled in vain for many.
The idea of connecting the nature of Christ’s death to the extent of his death requires further investigation. Is there are necessary connection between the two? I happen to think so. Thus if an avowed Arminian holds to “penal substitution” it must be said he isn’t a very good Arminian.
One curious fact is that Jacob Arminius seems to have himself held to penal substitution. How do you account for this?
On the question of the nature of the atonement, Arminius did in fact hold to substitutionary atonement, but in a way that was different from the Reformed, particularly on two points.
1) Arminius placed Christ’s universal atonement prior to the decree of election.
2) Arminius distinguishes between the sufficiency and principal efficiency of the atonement.
For him, the atonement was sufficiently made for all people indiscriminately, whereas the effective application of it pertains to the elect (i.e., those who by their own free assent accept the grace of Christ). This sounds like Reformed Hypothetical Universalism; but we should note that the effective application pertains to the elect because they embrace Christ by their own free will.
For Arminius, if we believe, Christ’s death has efficacy for us; but the Reformed held that we believe because Christ died for us. This, again, gets to the nature of the atonement. Even though Arminius holds to “substitution,” Christ’s death does not actually achieve redemption.
Reformed theologians like Owen and Turretin, for example, have contended that in dying for the elect, and them alone, Christ acquired faith for his people. Frequently, many today who hold to universal atonement and substitutionary atonement claim that sinners are not saved because they do not believe. But unbelief is the mother of all sins, and Christ died for that sin, too. Because he died for that sin, his death has a certain efficacy whereby those for whom he died must necessarily believe because his death and his intercession are two inseparable parts of his priesthood. Intercession always leads to belief (i.e., salvation). How can God refuse the requests of his exalted Son?
This is to say, if Christ died for everyone without exception, everyone would surely believe without exception because of the nature of Christ’s satisfaction.
Thank you, Mark, for parsing out this controversy.
Here’s the takeaway, in the words of Gary Williams: “penal substitution and definite atonement are two sides of the same coin.” And for more on the relationship between the two, see Williams’s contribution, “Penal Substitution and the Intent of the Atonement,” in the new book, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Crossway; 2013), pages 461–82.
Yesterday I had the privilege to discuss Lit! on Chris Fabry Live (Chicago). A lot of ground was covered in the 40 minutes of air time I had with Chris and co-host Dr. Rosalie de Rosset, a writer and communications professor at Moody Bible Institute. You can download our conversation or listen here:
Today we are honored to hear from Donald John MacLean. Donald John was raised in a Christian home in Inverness, in the Highlands of Scotland, where Puritan theology was read and (more importantly) lived out daily. How cool is that?
By day, he works full time as an actuary. By night, he is a historical theology student finishing his MPhil thesis: “James Durham (1622-1658) and the Free Offer of the Gospel.” Once completed, he plans to begin a PhD on Manton, which appears to be the first academic thesis on the Puritan.
Donald John is married to Ruth and they have two children: Hannah (3 years) and Jonathan (2 months).
So why his deep interest in Manton? I asked him a simple question: Please provide us your top 10 reasons why busy pastors and Christians in general would benefit from reading the Complete Works of Thomas Manton.
What follows is his excellent and instructive list:
1.) Manton reminds us of God’s glory and our sinfulness. A great strength of the Puritan writers in general, they understood the glory and majesty of the Triune God. The church would be served to recover this sense of awe and wonder towards God. Manton is particularly strong here. And he also understands the true source of this awe and how practically to recover it—“The less we converse with God in private, the more the awe of God is lessened” (Works, 1:17). Simple—the more we are in God’s presence the more we will be caught up with the glory of God in our lives. A loss of the sense of God’s majesty indicates of a lack of time spent truly in his presence. This connection is why Manton’s wonderful sermons on prayer provide great practical help and insight (1:3-254).
Related in this awe-inspiring vision of God, we see in Manton another need in the church today—a sense of the sinfulness of sin and an awareness of our continued sinfulness. In Manton’s sermon on Matthew 6:12 (“And forgive us our debts”) he reminds us of our need to pray to “our Father” for the continued forgiveness of sin. Why? To be remind us that our hearts are still corrupt, that we are still sinful in our actions, a justified Christian praying for continued pardon, praying for forgiveness to obtain (or increase) a sense and manifestation of pardon and where that exists to increase it. All these points are backed by wonderfully rich biblical exegesis (1:176ff). Reading Manton will help renew our vision of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.
2.) Manton demonstrates a profound understanding of Christ’s work in redeeming sinners. Much of Manton’s work is focused on Christ. Volume one includes Manton on Christ’s Temptation, Transfiguration, and work showing Christ’s eternal glory and Divinity. But where Manton is so profoundly helpful—especially in view of the confusion over the atonement today in self-identified evangelical circles—is on the work of Christ in redeeming sinners as a penal substitution. His sermons on the great Christological chapter of Isaiah 53 (3:189-494) and his sermons on Christ’s High Priestly prayer in John 17 are all outstanding (10:107-11:149)! And Manton is helpful is in avoiding a caricatured view of penal substitution by notes that Christ enduring the wrath of God against sin on the cross is not to be mistaken as implying, “God is all wrath and justice, unwilling of himself to be reconciled to man, or that he delighteth in blood, and is hardly drawn to give out grace. Oh, no! These are false … and misrepresentations of God” (1:496).
Manton explains well the necessity of the cross. One wonderful quote is Manton commenting on 2 Corinthians 5:19 (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them”) where he writes, “There is more glory in these few words, and more of God discovered in them, than there is in all the world. Oh, what a deal of comfort, and what a foundation for the rejoicing of our faith, is there laid in this reconciliation in and by Jesus Christ our Lord! That one sentence discovers more of God’s intentions and good will to man than all the bounty of his providence in and by all the creatures put together” (7:467).
Quotable statements like these abound in Manton.
3.) Manton understands the priority of Word of God in the Christian life. Here I am thinking primarily of Manton on Psalm 119 (volumes 6-8 of the Works). On Psalm 119:97 (“Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day”) Manton comments, “God’s people have a great love to his word; yea, such a hearty affection as can not easily be expressed” (7:463). Among the great reasons there are for that love surely chief is that “it reveals reconciliation by Christ” (7:468). Here Manton explains the various “uses” of Scripture—to increase our knowledge of God, to convert sinners, to humble, to cleanse, to comfort, to build up faith, to direct us in our practice. That zeal and love for the word of God needs to grow in us all (I speak to myself first) and I believe reading Manton on Psalm 119 will stir in our hearts a desire to swim deeper in God’s Word.
Manton’s sermons on Psalm 119 are a wonderful example of sustained, exegetical preaching (though I’m not suggesting every preacher produce 3 volumes worth of sermons on the chapter!). Spurgeon, who wrote a commentary on Psalm 119 himself, wrote, “While commentating on [Ps 119] I was brought into intimate communion with Thomas Manton, who has discoursed upon this marvelous portion of scripture with great fullness and power.”
4.) Manton is a marvelous example of preaching application well. Manton is a preacher, not a lecturer. His goal is not merely imparting knowledge but in moving his hearers to action. And this emphasis on application is in many places (from my perspective) a neglected part of preaching today.
The Westminster Directory of Public worship exhorts preachers not to “rest in general doctrine…but to bring it home to special use, by application to his hearers: which albeit it prove a work of great difficulty to himself, requiring much prudence, zeal, and meditation, and to the natural and corrupt man will be very unpleasant; yet he is to endeavour to perform it in such a manner, that his auditors may feel the word of God to be quick and powerful, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart; and that, if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his heart made manifest, and give glory to God.” James Durham said, “Application is the life of Preaching … the main part of a Pastoral gift, dexterously to feed by Application” (Commentary on Revelation, 335).
Manton wonderfully models Puritan application in practice. Because of his gift in applying the truth, it is very rare to read a Manton sermon without being humbled, rebuked, comforted, encouraged when necessary, and drawn towards Christ in praise and thankfulness.
5.) Manton is a passionate evangelist, revealing a God who offers delight to sinners. Manton is absolutely committed to the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, yet that does not hinder his great burden to see sinners saved. We see in Manton a wonderful picture of a Calvinistic evangelist. Manton believes it is a key duty of the ministry to win souls to Christ: “The great business of the ministers of the gospel is to persuade men to reconciliation with God” (13:295). A classic example of this are his sermons on Ezekiel 18:23 (“Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? says the Lord GOD, and not that he should turn from his ways and live?”). Manton begins his sermons by setting out the pastoral importance of the free offer of the gospel because if we have false views of God—that he is an “inexorable judge”—we simply have no grounds to turn to him for salvation.
Manton’s aim in these sermons is to counter this view of God that he feared was held by “many men” in the church, arguing: “There is nothing so necessary to draw us to repentance as good thoughts of God. In the first temptation the devil sought to weaken the reputation and credit of God’s goodness … as if he were harsh, severe, and envious in restraining them from the tree of knowledge … In the bosom of the church this conceit possesseth many men’s hearts, that God is harsh and severe, and delighteth more in our ruin than salvation … Oh, what a monstrous picture do men draw of God in their thoughts, as if he were a tyrant, or an inexorable judge, that gave no leave for repentance, or left any hope of pardon to the guilty” (21:463). Manton argues that Ezekiel 18:23 teaches us that “as God is a merciful God, and loveth all the creatures which he hath made, so their life is more pleasing than their death; a thing more acceptable in itself to such a being as God is” (21:464). And Manton closes his exposition of this passage with 7 reasons why God takes no pleasure in our eternal destruction (21:468-71). All this with the aim to draw men to Christ!
[As an aside, I think Manton is more helpful on texts like Ezekiel 18:23 than another Puritan giant, John Owen. In his otherwise masterful defense of particular redemption, Owen spends his exposition of Ezekiel 18:23 by refusing to take the text in its natural sense (Works, 10:387), which is unnecessary given a straightforward reading of the passage in no way endangers particular redemption!]
6.) Manton is a wonderfully levelheaded and balanced writer. He will help keep those who are “young, restless and reformed” from the danger of extremes. One example of this is how Manton works through the issue of the desire for purity as opposed to the desire for unity. For instance when discussing what is means to “earnestly contend for the faith” (Jude 3) Manton highlights certain truths which “are fundamentals … essentials in religion” which are so vital that even Paul must withstand Peter face-to-face. These fundamentals include “the creation of the world by God in six days out of nothing, God’s providence, man’s misery by sin, deliverance by Christ, the necessity of the new creature, the resurrection of the dead, and the everlasting recompenses … the mystery of the Trinity … the union of the two natures in the person of Christ, that the scriptures are the word of God” (5:118-9).
As a complement to this need for earnest contending we have Manton’s sermon “A Persuasive to Unity in things Indifferent.” The thrust of this sermon is that “when God’s people are divided in opinion, all lenity and mutual forbearance should be used to prevent things from coming to open rupture” (2:68). Manton observes that “Divisions in the Church breed atheism in the world,” and, “separation and distance from the rest of believers, doth not befriend godliness, but undermine it” (2:69). Manton is not promoting indifference to truth but we see his balance in his forceful reminder that although all truth is important not all truths must be contended for with the same degree of importance.
7.) Manton is discontent with Christianity as merely an abstract theological construct. Christianity is experiential, always reaching through the mind into the heart and outward in actions. One example of this is Manton’s observation that, “A great fruit and token of piety is provision for the afflicted…Works of mercy so well become them that do expect or have received mercy from God…Now one of the chief glories of the Godhead is the unweariedness of his love and bounty: he visits the fatherless and the widows; so should we: the spirit of our religion is forgiving; and therefore the cruel heart is made by Paul a kind of ‘denying the faith,’ 1 Tim. v.8” (4:176).
8.) Manton is full of homiletic hints for preachers. To illustrate this I opened Manton’s commentary on Jude at random and read the following: “Ministers must press those doctrines that are most needed. It is cheap zeal that declaimeth against antiquated errors, and things now out of use and practice. We are to consider what the present age needeth…[What use is it] now to handle the case of Henry the Eighth’s divorce?” (5:103). So here we have a Puritan urging us to be relevant and contemporary in our preaching!
As an aside to preachers: If given the opportunity, I would never teach a text covered by Manton without reading him first. I find his words helpful and stimulating. And given the nature of his writings (mostly sermons) they are more easily assessable in a way that some of the Puritan theological or polemic works may not be (e.g. John Owen).
9.) Manton takes great care to encourage the Christian life. Manton is not only a wonderful theologian but also exceptionally helpful in encouraging us to daily obedience. A fine example of this is his sermons on Ephesians 5 (volume 19 of the Works). From these sermons I’ll just pick out some of his comments on “husbands love your wives” (doesn’t get much more practical than this!). The thrust of Manton’s sermon is “that husbands must love their wives with a sincere and tender love” (19:468). He quotes Luther on Christ’s love for the church, “I see nothing in Christ but a prodigality and excess of love” and says this must be the pattern for a husband’s love to his wife (19:470).
What are the effects of this love? First, the husband “delights in her presence and company, not suffering himself to be separated from her for any long time.” Secondly, this love causes the husband to “direct and instruct [her] in all things that belong to this life and the better.” Third, this act of love is “in providing all things necessary for them that conduce to health, food and raiment.” Fourth, is “in a care to preserve and defend her” (19:471-2). Manton urges husbands to “love not as bare husbands, but as Christians” (19:475).
This is only a little flavor of the feast of teaching scattered throughout Manton’s 22 volumes of books and sermons.
10.) Manton has a firm grasp of church and secular history. Which is clearly evident from the range of writers he cites. For instance in one page of his work on Jude (5:117) he quotes Luther, refers to the dispute between the Western and Eastern Church over Easter, refers to Arius, Nestorius and the Council of Nice, and draws a lesson from Chrystostom and Epiphanius disagreeing over Origen’s writings. Now I’m not suggesting preachers need to start referencing Church history to this degree(!) but I do think Manton’s evident engagement with the history of the Christian church was important.
First, his wide reading helped him with illustrations—he could often refer to an event in church history to help make his point.
Second, I’m sure his wide reading helped add to his wonderful balance I referred to above. If we are always and only people of our own time we will fall into the blind spots of our age—reading Manton will help us avoid this!
To close, I’ll leave you with just one miscellaneous directive. Don’t start with his sermons on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17 (3:1-186). Manton’s understanding of that passage is so radically different to what would be common today it might be an off-putting introduction.
But virtually everything else he wrote is easily accessible and deeply beneficial to your soul!
Tolle lege! Take up and read.
Perhaps next week, I’ll be posting the full interview I was privileged to conduct Thursday night with Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III. Duncan is a patristics scholar and pastor so it was an interesting opportunity to connect the value of patristics (the church fathers) to the life and ministry of a pastor (especially a busy one).
Here is an excerpt to the question: Why should a busy pastor read patristic literature in the first place?
“When we go back to the church fathers we see them defending the important Christian doctrines that are very basic to us, those doctrines that—if we’ve been Christians for a long time—we may well take for granted, doctrines we don’t question, or have any qualms about. Sometimes as important as they are, we don’t think about them much, and we don’t weave them into our teaching, nor do we express the passion for the importance of them to our people as we ought. When we go back to the patristic period and we see the church fathers defending the reality of, for example, the incarnation of Christ and showing the importance of it, we may—who have fully embraced the incarnation of Christ and never questioned it in our Christian experience—suddenly have a new sense of the significance and the absolute essentialness of the doctrine of the incarnation in a way we hadn’t before.”
And the questions I asked Dr. Duncan …
- Define for us “patristics” or “patrology.”
- Why should a busy pastor read patristic literature in the first place?
- What hurdles do pastors face in reading and benefiting from patristic writings?
- For the beginner, recommend a few specific patristic titles covering history, biography, and primary sources.
- What contemporary debates align themselves with controversies addressed by the patristic authors?
- Our culture seems to be growing increasing secular (some would say increasingly secular with a corresponding increase in robust Christian faith in some circles). If this is growing secularism is true, what can we learn from the church fathers on how to engage a “pagan” culture?
- In reading the patristics a pastor will be faced with thoughts or practices of the early church fathers that were incorrect. What concerns do you have for a pastor getting his feet wet in the patristic writings?
- Would you agree that in patristic writings we see a stress on ethics over and above the gospel?
- Dr. Duncan, you are a gifted patristic scholar, have been pastoring at First Presbyterian in Jackson for over 12 years now, and preaching on a regular basis. How do your preaching and pastoral ministry reflect the impact of patristic authors?
I’ll keep you posted when the audio is ready for download.
No two men have better instructed me on the way I lead and care for my wife than Steve Shank and C.J. Mahaney. Both are leaders within Sovereign Grace Ministries. After reflecting on a local conference last winter I wrote about how Steve helped me understand the connection between the Cross and headship (see this post).
So when I heard that Steve Shank interviewed C.J. Mahaney on the topic of biblical masculinity I knew it was a message I needed to prioritize on my list of listening.
Taken from The Pursuit conference, a 2007 Sovereign Grace Ministries Regional Conference in Arizona, the discussion covers the understanding and practice of biblical manhood for young men, husbands, and fathers. The interview concludes with a helpful segment on the importance of men humbly welcoming observations from others.
The transcript follows (and you can download a PDF version here).
The Pursuit: Every Man’s Call to Biblical Masculinity
November 14, 2007
Steve Shank: Interview contexts provide fruitful times of interacting with C.J. to tap into his experience and wisdom. Informal questions allow him to ramble through his experiences, memories, things he has observed, seen, and learned. In fact, many of those who have attended our Pastors College would say one of their highlights of their year at the Pastors College is when they get to sit with C.J. and throw questions at him. These interviews open a wide range of rabbit trails of wisdom and insight and personal life.
I’m going to shoot some questions at C.J. geared towards the conference theme of manhood. This will allow him to share his life with us, his experience as a father, and as a leader. If things open up and we head down other trails we’ll allow that to happen as well. But this is our attempt to create a context where informally we can benefit from C.J. on a more personal level.
Thank you for being willing to do this. I’ve got a couple questions to throw at you.
C.J. Mahaney: I’m honored to be asked, although my preference would be to interview you. Steve, you are on the short list of finest fathers and husbands I know.
SS: We’ve already acknowledged this segment of the conference early on, but we have a couple hundred young men here between the ages of 14-19. You know the culture that is after them, trying to persuade them, and squeeze them into its mold. Yet here they are hearing biblical truth about what it means to be a godly man. What would you say to that age group when they face peer pressure, being cool, and all the stuff out there? Speak to that young group. What does it mean to be a young man in-the-making?
CJ: The first thing I would say to each of those young men is how grateful I am that they are here. What a unique joy I derive from the transfer of the gospel to the next generation. If this family of churches was exclusively or primarily populated by those my age I would be very disappointed. I’m grateful for all those my age who do populate our churches and have endured over the years. But I derive a unique joy from the next generation. You bring this aging man joy. Thank you!
I think what I would say to a young man, is that there are categories he needs to familiarize himself with from Scripture. Two would be categories revealed particularly in Proverbs – the wise and the foolish. And I would want any young man (and this has broader application for all of us, but particularly for a young man) to familiarize himself with those two categories.
Those are the only two categories that exist. There are no other categories from God’s perspective. One either identifies with the wise or the foolish. Proverbs is a wealth of wisdom given by God as a gift from God to that age group in particular — to protect them from walking with fools, from being a fool, and from experiencing the consequences of being a fool.
Those who say that wisdom is the fruit of experience haven’t read Proverbs. There is wisdom there that will protect us from the experience of being a fool or emulating the example of a fool. So I would want to impress those categories and familiarize themselves with the numerous and detailed descriptions of the wise son, the wise man, the foolish son, the foolish man.
And I would want those categories to inform that young man and to protect him from sin and to provoke that young man to want to identify with the wise. I would want that young man to be protected from being numbered among the fools.
Proverbs describes a fool as someone who doesn’t acknowledge the relationship between character, conduct, and consequences. God says of that individual – you are a fool.
Often in Proverbs the father is informing the son, “in the end,” a little phrase that appears throughout Proverbs. He is trying to draw his son’s attention to the consequences of sin. Sin in its initial stages appears attractive and can even be pleasurable to some degree. The wise father is drawing the attention of the son to what takes place as a fruit of sin and in the end trying to help establish that relationship between character, conduct and consequence. And then protect the son so the son instead pursues wisdom.
I would also say to that young man, when Proverbs says “the companion of fools will suffer harm,” you will not prove to be an exception to that (Proverbs 13:20). A wise son, a wise man, hangs out with wise men and therefore becomes wise. Proverbs warns us (as an expression of God’s kindness), “the companion of fools will suffer harm.” Now that harm is not always immediately obvious to a fool because often that harm begins in the form of a conscience that goes from sensitive to seared. So that harm isn’t always evident in consequences that are obvious to all. But be assured, the companion of fools will suffer harm.
And I would say to all of us fathers that we must understand that this category of “companion” is broader than just the individuals our children hang out with. Television is a companion. The Internet is a companion. The iPod is a companion. These are all means of transferring foolishness to one’s heart and therefore we need to help equip our sons and daughters with these two categories to protect them from being numbered among the fools and experiencing the consequences of fools and to, instead, be numbered among those who are wise and to taste the sweet fruit of wisdom.
SS: Elaborate on that a little bit for the fathers. As they leave the conference they want to make sure that what has been instructed is imparted and worked out in their son’s lives over the next couple of years. What encouragement would you give to the fathers? Where should they begin? How can they be sure their sons really get what the conference was all about, manhood in particular?
CJ: I would obtain Derek Kidner’s book, Proverbs: An introduction and commentary (IVP: 1981). It is very short. He has a series of studies prior to the formal beginning of the commentary that are simply outstanding. There is a section on the “wise” and the “fool.” That’s one study I would encourage every father to transfer to his child.
And mandatory reading should be Ed Welch’s, When People Are Big and God Is Small (P&R: 1997). You want your child to also have this category of “the fear of man.” As I look back how I wish early in life my father had transferred that category in particular to my soul. For I was a slave to the fear of man. I lived for the acceptance and approval of others. I was governed daily by a craving for that acceptance and approval. And so that book should be mandatory reading.
And for fathers I would say (because I have studied this book with my son Chad) you will have no problem identifying with the content of that book. There is no sin my son is presently experiencing or being tempted by, that I cannot relate and identify. So as we have walked through parts of Ed Welch’s book, my illustrations are different, but the essence of my sin is no different. I think when we identify our sin before our children and with our children, it creates a trust in their heart to receive teaching from someone who is humbling themselves rather that someone who is self-righteously seeking to impose or transfer teaching upon them.
Those would be two mandatory studies. I would also think every young man or woman should study what it means to honor their father and mother from Exodus as well as Ephesians. That would be another priority.
Obviously, most importantly, never lose sight of the Cross! In everything that is what I am trying to transfer to my three daughters and son. The Cross is preeminent.
SS: You have a teenage son now. You are training him, and doing a great job at training him. When you think of masculine traits the way God has ordained for him, or skills, or however you want to categorize them, what are you trying to build into him to be a godly masculine man?
CJ: What immediately comes to mind is that I’m trying to build into him an appreciation for, and cultivation of, humility and servanthood. I want that to define true masculinity for him. I believe this is true greatness in the eyes of God. This is not true greatness in the eyes of this world and therefore there is much discussion about what the world honors and celebrates, and what God honors and celebrates, and what I as a father honor and celebrate.
For example, Chad just finished soccer season. My emphasis with him in preparation before a game, my observation of Chad during a game, my evaluation of Chad after a game is (I hope) theologically informed. My accent is not on skill. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand. I obviously believe there is a place for the development of skill. But my accent is upon character. Therefore the goals scored by my son are not the category that is preeminent in either my preparation, observation or evaluation. You will not find me assigning undue importance or celebrating goals scored and leaving the impression this is preeminent.
Actually, the highlight for me this year came in their semi-final game when I guess one of the referees did not show up and the particular young man who was assigned to mark [guard] Chad was twice his size! He did mark Chad. He actually mugged Chad! And because the referee was following the action he wasn’t always able to perceive it. Chad ended up bloody mouth, bloody nose, and a number of other things happened in the game. But Chad never retaliated. Actually we celebrated that on the way home. His blood was on his shirt. I said, “This is great, son! You bring your dad joy. There is a tear in your dad’s eye. That’s outstanding. Blood on your jersey! Blood in your mouth! Blood in your nose!” During the game I had a parent approach me about whether I was going to intervene at some point. Even other parents wanted to intervene.
I told Chad the way he demonstrated self-control is an evidence of God’s grace in his life. And that brings your dad more joy than any victory or any goal.
As a forward, if Chad scores a goal, the celebration is not about his scoring a goal. It’s about expressing appreciation for his team, those who play defense (who normally are not appreciated) and those who, through their passing, made it possible for him to be positioned. So we are going to do what I call a “divine reversal.” In our culture it would be the individual who scored that attention would be directed. By God’s grace I want to reverse that process and honor those who made it possible for him to do that. If Chad knocks someone down and picks them up, that he did not complain about any call by the referee, that’s what I’ll celebrate afterwards. After the game these are what I want to draw attention to and celebrate.
That kind of discernment we want to be imparting as we watch sports. Our kids are always studying us. If you are watching the football team of your choice, the world, culture, and announcers are not theologically informed and will not be drawing attention to these things.
For example, let’s say a particular receiver for the Dallas Cowboys (to choose some random player) or a particular special team player makes a tackle. Whenever there is some expression of self-glorification (this would apply to the Redskins as well), we want to humbly criticize that and not identify with it. And whenever there is an expression of humility, we want to draw our child’s attention to that. So many of these moments are teaching moments, and if we are not poised and prepared and theologically informed, countless teaching moments will pass that could have been seized to make a difference in the lives of our children.
SS: You’ve been married 33 years. You’re now 54 years old. What are you still doing to make sure you are growing as a man?
CJ: I think growing as a man begins by cultivating conviction from Scripture about this call, my role and responsibilities. And one cannot assume that conviction, it must be cultivated in an ongoing way. This role and responsibility to lead, to protect, to provide – must be cultivated by immersing oneself with excellent supplemental materials. Because if one is not in-formed theologically, one will be con-formed to sin and the culture. This is a category I seek to maintain as part of my spiritual diet.
From conviction comes practice. So if you show me someone who is deficient in practice, I’m not going to try and serve them by drawing first attention to deficiencies in practice or ways in which they can grow in practice. I believe practice is important, but practice proceeds from conviction, and therefore I want to address conviction.
I think there are too many men who have not been sufficiently taught about their role and responsibility and it’s all too easy to teach practice prior to establishing these convictions. So that’s what I seek to do.
I seek to interrupt my week either Sunday afternoon or Monday morning with a simple practice to think about my role as a husband and father. That’s the call of God on my life.
Lord willing, God is placing before me another week as a gift. I cannot assume that week, but I need to plan as if by God’s grace that week will be given to me as a gift. I want to live each day receiving each day as a gift. I know at the end of my life I will be accountable for these roles and therefore I want to live today in light of my death and the day of my judgment. I want to work back from that day to this day, and I want to do all I can today and this week to make a difference in the lives of those I love the most — hoping that in some small ways as I, by the grace of God as I serve and lead them, will make a difference in their lives both in the present and when I am no longer present.
So I seek to establish these roles at the outset of the week as priorities. If I don’t, I know going into the week the urgent will overtake me. The legitimate demands of others will intrude. So if I’m not prepared through planning, I will conform to the urgent.
SS: What do you try to accomplish and think through as you look to the week ahead?
CJ: First and foremost, a relationship with, and romance of, my wife. I’m not commending this exact practice to you. You need to custom-design a practice for yourself. But you need some practice. If I don’t interrupt my week, if I don’t create some rhythm where I withdraw from other responsibilities to reflect upon my role and responsibility as a husband and father, I will be governed by the urgent and governed by circumstances. My practice, which is a half-hour and sometimes longer, helps me to reflect upon what is important as informed and defined by God’s Word so I can avoid being a slave to the urgent this week.
And it begins with my relationship with Carolyn. I am convinced that my wife’s task is more important and more difficult than mine. When I ask people to pray for me I ask people to pray for Carolyn more. She has the more challenging job. I’m going off to some place where I’m going to be the object of encouragement by all kinds of people and it can hardly be called ‘work’ (and certainly should never be called ‘sacrifice’).
Monday at some point in the morning I will be at a Starbucks. After having devotions and reading the sports pages, I will say “What can I do to serve Carolyn this week?” I will already know something of her schedule and responsibilities and therefore I want to build my week around certain ways I can serve her. And then I try to build into every week certain ways I can surprise her. And then that extends to Chad as well. How can I serve, lead, continue to develop my relationship, and teach him? And then how can I surprise him?
Those two categories would form plans and practices that then hopefully get transferred to the schedule. It’s not enough to scribble on a piece of paper at Starbucks, if I don’t transfer those to the schedule. It’s the transfer that makes all the difference. This does not work flawlessly every week but it has served me big-time and made all the difference.
There are so many events during a week that if you, say, entered my life a particular moment I would say, “The origin of this moment was my time of planning.” Certainly, I have spontaneous stuff that happens. But most of what happens to me has some point of origin in the past and because there has been planning that’s informed by my roles as husband and father. It has made all the difference in the execution in my life.
SS: You make that point in your marriage material in different contexts. You’ve been a great example to a lot of people in that. I know for me personally, though I don’t feel I’m as faithful or proficient as you are. It certainly does not seem possible to make a memory, to invest, to bless, to lead, to serve, to be connected to my wife’s world, and to do that consistently without planning. So it doesn’t have to be a huge chunk of time but something where you are actually proactive, intentional, and thinking along those lines. That is a way to exercise godly manhood — initiative, leadership, responsibility, faithfulness, and really fulfilling your role as the head of your home and the head of your wife. C.J. you have supplied an exceptional example in that.
CJ: Can I add one thing to that? If we look at how we view our wives and children, they don’t exist to serve us. We exist to serve and lead them. That will make all the difference in our attitude toward them and in our desire to plan. Steve, you are one of the finest examples of this I know. If I come home and I (all too many times) view my home as a refuge of my relaxation rather than a context to serve, then I will not fulfill my role and responsibility as a man. So all of these references are theologically informed and they precede practice and they make all the difference in practice.
I have one more recommendation. You must study your wife and children in order to effectively determine how you can serve your wife and children. So if I gave you illustrations of things I’m doing to serve and surprise Carolyn and serve and surprise Chad, it would not necessarily be transferable to everyone here because they are the fruit of studying Carolyn and studying Chad. And I would say when I’m not studying them in order to serve them it normally means I’m being selfish.
SS: Some people could have the idea that to serve your wife in the way you’re describing is contradictory to headship. But actually it’s an expression of your headship – an expression of Christ-like laying down of your life like Christ loved the Church and manifesting that headship (Eph. 5:25). You’re not abrogating leadership, abrogating authority, abrogating responsibility and you’re still the head of your home. But it’s expressed as a way that reflects Christ.
CJ: Apart from humility and servanthood it isn’t biblical leadership. And my leadership will not be effective, my initiative will not be effective, my direction will not be effective, my decision-making will not be effective if there is not some level of the presence of humility and servanthood in my heart.
SS: Let me ask you about another category. This is totally different from what we’ve been talking so far. A lot of growth that we experience is from the brotherhood, from men in our lives, accountability, relationships and people that know us. What do you do to make sure you have men in your life who know you, that you are benefiting from their wisdom, accountability, care, and insight? What counsel would you give us as we go back to our churches to make certain we have people who really know us and are helping us in our journey together in manhood.
CJ: Great question. I am presently in a care group for which I am indebted to these men. I’m grateful to God beyond words for these men. After my wife, it is this group of men that has responsibility to care for my soul, to identify evidences of grace in my life, and (where and when necessary) to provide correction.
SS: It’s a care group for couples though?
CJ: Yes. But our pattern of meeting is to meet separately as men as well as together for couples in a given month. So there is a context where we are together just as men and another context where we are together just as couples and another context where the women are together just as the ladies.
This is an invaluable means of sanctification. Again this is practice is the fruit of being convinced theologically of the importance of relationships as a means of grace and growth. So if you haven’t been convinced yet from Scripture then you won’t eagerly pursue this, and you will not be inviting the observation of others.
Even to be casually familiar with the doctrine of sin, we should be convinced that we are deceived by our sin. To some degree everyone of us has been – even in this moment – effectively deceived by our sin. Sin blinds and the first person sin blinds is you. The first person my sin blinds is me. So I do go into each week knowing that there is sin in my life I don’t perceive. And I need the eyes of others in order to perceive. And, if I don’t have their eyes on my soul, beginning with my wife’s, I won’t perceive.
I’ve had countless experiences where my evaluation of myself was flattering. I fulfilled the Proverbs that my ways certainly did appear right and superior in my eyes. If I was left to my own eyes, evaluating my own soul, the evaluation would be flattering and inaccurate. I am very familiar with what it’s like to be in a setting where I am describing what I thought, said, and did and thought to myself, “Good to Go!” And then others are invited to examine what I thought, said, and did and provide their perspective. Their questions, observations, interpretations — if I am leaning forward and humbly listening — can make all the difference.
I have had numerous dramatic experiences where I can say “once I was blind, now I see.” And the means by which I see is the grace of God through others. My sin was obvious to them, but not to me. You only need a few of those to remain very close to people and aggressively pursue their questions, observations, and interpretations.
SS: How would you address men who believe this, desire this, want this — but they are in a local church where they would describe relationships with other men as superficial and distant acquaintances. They haven’t taken it to the level where they are really benefiting from truth, honesty, accountability, and encouragement on the level you’ve experienced? Where would you tell these men to start?
CJ: I would tell them to start with their own hearts. If they are convinced that they need the eyes of other on their soul and the help of others for their soul, it shouldn’t be difficult for any man here to identify one, two, or three men they trust and respect to approach and to invite into their lives.
Here’s what we need to assume — others are reluctant to correct us. And this is for a number of reasons. Often it’s humility. Sometimes it’s a fear of man. Sometimes it’s a combination. People are reluctant to correct, therefore we have to aggressively pursue people. We need to take the initiative, we need to weaken them or wear them out with our numerous requests.
If we are really convinced that we want to grow in grace and godliness and there are blind spots in our lives, we will welcome the discerning and caring eyes of others upon our lives. If you are convinced of that it won’t be difficult in practice to find someone else to help you in that process.
And where that begins for every married man is with his wife. Presenting yourself to your wife and saying, “If you knew I wouldn’t get angry…” Do this in relaxed context with plenty of time so you are not hurried and inform her ahead of time that you want to know from her three ways you can more effectively serve and lead her. Then three ways you can more effectively lead and serve the children. Then you set aside time to draw her out.
SS: It’s helpful to do that at a cheap restaurant.
CJ: Absolutely! You do not want to be subsidizing that event in a fancy restaurant with a lot of money. You want to reserve those occasions and locations for romance. For this one, In-N-Out Burger will do just fine. Starbucks will do just fine. What you need is privacy and time.
Most important you must have humility. Your wife has observations. Every man here can assume that your wife has observations, and ones she has not shared with you. You can return home assuming that. You can also return assuming that her observations can make a dramatic difference in your life if you will humbly draw her out and respond to those. Then you just expand the number of individuals who are involved. You will be amazed at what people observe that you don’t perceive. But by God’s grace you will perceive what they observe if you humbly submit to their observations.
Now one final thing I should say. I’m not assigning infallibility to their observations. There is no one who is going to bring infallible observations. Often with these people who know you the best, the most and up close and personal, will have some degree of accuracy in what they observe. If you are humble, it can make all the difference in your life.
If you want to accelerate growth in godliness, present yourself to them and invite the observations of your wife and others in the context of a local church. Then be prepared to receive their observations. I know in the past I’ve said, “Hey, I’m really interested in any observations you have. I would like your evaluation.” And then I’m stunned when they say, “We’ll I do have a couple.”
“Oh!? Okay. Well let’s begin with evidences of grace.” [laughter]
SS: Today C.J. has referred to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway: 2006). If you haven’t got this, it is a must for your bookshelf and for you to read through. Also valuable for your sons as you use it to train them to understand what biblical manhood looks like.
CJ: Actually, I would encourage the men to start with John Ensor’s, Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart (Crossway: 2007). As an introduction to this topic, John Ensor has served us all well. John is very humble. It’s a book intended for single adults to help prepare them for marriage. Once I read it, I thought, “No, it’s not. It’s written to all who are married.” It is the best preparatory work I’m aware of, but it’s also a book for all who are married, both male and female. He has several chapters where he contrasts the role of the man with the role of the woman. Each of these chapters includes a definition, description, and contrast. It will serve the men here and will also be a very helpful book for husbands and wives to go through.
Finally, the assignment in purchasing a book like Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is not that you must read it cover-to-cover. No. If you will work through the table of contents there will be certain chapters that stand out to you that will be more immediately relevant to you and make a difference in your life.
SS: C.J., thank you for this time. Thank you for sharing your life with us!
John Owen and Communion with the Triune God
Interview with Dr. Derek Thomas
What comes to mind when you think of communion? Bread, wine, and religious ordinance? The following interview is for fellow 21st century pilgrims unfamiliar with the term ‘communion’ and specifically ‘communion’ with God.
October 12th is the scheduled release date of Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic’s newest volume in the writings of Puritan John Owen, Communion with the Triune God (Crossway: 2007). Communion was first published in 1657. The original edition is in the public domain, has been printed in various shapes and sizes, and is available for free online. In the past 50 years this work has been known as the second volume of The Works of John Owen (Banner of Truth).
The 2007 Crossway edition includes several enhancements like helpful indexing, introductions, extensive outline and glossary. Owen’s work has never been more accessible for readers (see our review here).
Dr. Thomas is from Wales and currently serves as John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. After pastoring for 17 years in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Dr. Thomas returned to the United States in 1996 and also serves as the Minister of Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson. He has lectured extensively on Owen (listen to his lectures on Owen here).
TSS: Dr. Thomas, it is always an honor to have you join us here on The Shepherd’s Scrapbook! Being a scholar of John Owen and well-acquainted with his works, what are your initial thoughts of this classic, Communion with the Triune God?
DT: Thank you, Tony. It is a great honor for me to join you here at The Shepherd’s Scrapbook. It is one of my favorite sites to visit.
I am also delighted to speak about John Owen. Along with John Calvin, he has been the most influential theologian in my life (at least, among dead ones!). I think I “commune” with him most days about something. That’s the great value of books. The authors may have died, but their writings live on.
I’m as excited as you about the forthcoming publication of Communion with the Triune God, after the splendid job they did with Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway, 2006).
What comes to mind about Owen’s volume, Communion with the Triune God, is its essential Trinitarianism. Owen does a number of things that are important for us to see.
First, he is thoroughly indebted to Calvin and the Fathers in his Trinitarian theology. In an age when the church would find it difficult to expound the Trinity in any meaningful way, Owen assumes a line of theological continuity from the early centuries to his own day (thereby removing the charge made by Rome that Protestantism was ‘new’ and therefore suspect). He cites, for example, the classic formula of Augustine that the external acts of the Trinity cannot be divided (opera ad extra Trinitatis indivisa sunt) without any embarrassment! And, if my memory serves me correctly, we’re only a few pages into the volume!
The second thing about this volume is not only its catholicity (linking with the Fathers), but its centrality. In focusing on the believer’s fellowship with God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), Owen is picking up what Calvin had insisted lay at the heart of the all theology – union with Christ. Owen is doing so in a more overtly Trinitarian fashion than perhaps Calvin did; but he is bringing to surface what is at the heart of God’s covenant relationship with redeemed sinners. In doing so, of course, Owen can’t help but be experiential in his theology. In that sense, Owen is a perfect example of the puritan oeuvre.
TSS: At first glance of the title people may confuse this book as a long work on prayer or the spiritual disciplines. Or it may be shelved in bookstores with purely subjective books on how to experience some divine warm-fuzzy. Communion with the Triune God is very unique. What does Owen mean when he talks about “communion”?
DT: This is a really good question! And if the publication of this volume can do something to displace these unhelpful books to which you refer, then all the better for it!
Why is the reformed church so confused about reformed spirituality? This is where a volume like Owen’s Communion with the Triune God is so valuable at this present time.
Owen has a fairly complicated view of what communion in this context means. It begins with the idea of what “communion” or “fellowship” in Greek (koinia) means: to share in common with. This raises some important theological (and practical) distinctions: union and communion are not synonyms for Owen. Our union with Christ, brought about by God’s initiative and covenant. It introduces into a status from which flows (as fruit) communion with God. Kelly Kapic summarizes it this way:
- God communicates of himself to us.
- Union with Christ establishes our relationship with God.
- The resulting overflow of union is our returning unto God what is both required and accepted by him (i.e. communion). [endnote 1]
The union with Christ is brought about unilaterally; the communion on the other hand is a bi-lateral issue. Our communion with God can be affected by our sin, unresponsiveness, and especially neglect of the ordinary means of grace.
It is Owen’s Trinitarian emphasis, based to be sure on a disputed text (1 John 5:7), that enables him to expound a multi-faceted dimension to communion. Communing with the Father helps us appreciate the nature of love and reciprocate it; fellowshipping with the Son helps us appreciate and reciprocate grace; fellowshipping with the Holy Spirit encourages assurance as he draws us back to the embrace of Jesus Christ offered to us in the gospel of the Father’s love.
TSS: Communion with the Triune God is rightly hailed as a masterpiece on the Triunity of God. Why is this Triune distinction important in Owen’s understanding of communion?
DT: I have preempted this question somewhat already. But allow me to narrow the focus a little.
The obvious place to begin is to state that for Owen God is Trinitarian in nature. The only fellowship with God that is possible is with the entirety of the Godhead and therefore with each Person that constitutes the One God. If the place of any of the three persons is misconceived or denied, the gospel falls. Thus Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or liberal Protestants who deny the Trinity as empty verbiage can never state the gospel properly because their view of God is all wrong.
The gospel in both its accomplishment and application involves a salvation planned, an atonement made and a salvation applied and none of these are possible apart from the work of all three Persons. For Owen, then, communion with all three keeps the gospel straight and the Christian life in good shape. From it flowed all manner of issues relating to the assurance of salvation – too often argued subjectively without recourse to the nature of salvation itself.
TSS: I’ve watched enough YouTube videos to notice that a large segment of professing Christianity in America dogmatically assert that Christianity is a relationship whereas theology is peripheral. For Owen, experiencing God personally and knowing God accurately are inseparable. Can you explain further how this is revealed in Owen’s thought and why this is important for us to grasp today?
DT: I’ll have to take your word about YouTube, but it is time for us to announce a Declaration of War against the creeping influence of Schleiermacher on modern evangelicalism.
I draw your attention to an essay by Carl Trueman called “John Owen as a Theologian” in a volume of essays on Owen, John Owen: The Man and His Theology (P&R and EP, 2002). These were lectures delivered at a conference on Owen in 2000. It says everything that needs to be said, first of all, about Owen’s distinctive theological emphases, and secondly why theology must be in the service of the experiential and not vice versa.
Owen was no different here than his Calvinstic predecessors, or for that matter, John Calvin himself. From Calvin’s opening sentence of the Institutes, which declared that nearly all the wisdom we possess consists in knowing God and knowing ourselves, comes the distinction that knowledge of God is more than knowing about God. There is a difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance.
I had a student in my office recently who obviously loves Sinclair Ferguson. He had listened to what sounded like hundreds of Ferguson’s taped messages. I listened with interest and then (half anticipating the reaction), I said with cool detachment, “I’ve known Sinclair for 30 years and he’s a close, personal friend.” There was an awed silence! “Really!”
Well, Owen would say, Christians brought into a saving relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ can say, “I know God – personally.” True, the descriptive “personally” is a modern one and not one the seventeenth century would have employed in quite the same way, but the intent is precisely the same.
For Owen, as for Calvin, there is no sense in trying to talk about knowing God by experience if we don’t know how to articulate who God is! The only God there is has revealed himself to us in creation and providence, but supremely in the Scriptures and in his Son’s incarnation. But to have those things clear in our minds and be able to articulate them is not yet to know God. To know God, cognitio Dei is relational knowledge, knowledge that comes to us, in the relationship of faith.
TSS: You mention the “personal” aspects of a relationship with God would have been stated differently by Owen and the Puritans. Explain this further. How is this differently stated? Why?
DT: Well, forgive me, but I think we tend to use the word “personally” in some quasi-therapeutic sense, often at some disparagement to anything cerebral or structured. The puritans adopted (on the whole) a very definite faculty-psychology in which the mind must govern the will and the affections. Personal knowledge of God comes through the integration of this faculty psychology and through some back door to the heart.
TSS: This is very helpful in light of earlier questions. Thank you! … Owen seems to balance well an understanding of our Father who remains transcendent, majestic and holy but for the saint is also their loving, adoptive Father who “from eternity … laid in his own bosom a design for our happiness.” Owen calls us to “rejoice before him with trembling” and of course says if we don’t understand the deep love of the Father we will not draw to Him in communion. Owen writes, “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” (p. 128). How does Owen excel in this theme of communion with the Father?
DT: Of course, ravishing as this language is, it should be recalled that Owen is expounding the Father’s love for us employing the Song of Solomon (Canticles) as background. This was typical of the puritans as a whole to view the Song as an allegory of salvation.
Owen is dealing with a surprisingly modern problem at this point: that in communing with Jesus it is all too possible to draw the conclusion that whereas the Son loves us, the Father is angry with us. From such a distorted view emerges a misshaped view of the gospel, of course. Jesus has no need to make the Father love us because his coming into the world is evidence of it. The Father is the “fountain” or “source” of love.
“Though there be no light for us but in the beams, yet we may by beams see the sun, which is the fountain of it. Though all our refreshments actually lie in the streams, yet by them we are led up unto the fountain. Jesus Christ, in respect of the love of the Father, is but the beam, the stream; wherein though actually all our light, our refreshment lies, yet by him we are led to the fountain, the sun of eternal love itself. … (Communion with the Father) begins in the love of God, and ends in our love to him” (2:23-24).
TSS: That’s a helpful quote that captures Owen well. Thank you! … A year ago I interviewed Kris Lundgaard, an author who has taken John Owen and rewritten his books for contemporary audiences. He said he was surprised that sales of his book on overcoming sin (The Enemy Within) far outsold his book on the beauty of Christ (Through the Looking Glass). This was to him a surprise because seeing the glory of Christ is critical in the fight against sin (2 Cor. 3:18)! It’s likely that the overtly practical Overcoming Sin and Temptation from last year will outsell Communion with the Triune God (or any other Owen titles for that matter). What are the practical implications of Communion with the Triune God to the mortification of sin and the pursuit of holiness?
DT: Well, there’s no way I can come up to Kris standard, but I along with others am so grateful for his love for Owen and his publication. He manages to make Owen appear user-friendly to those who might otherwise be intimated.
I think I can understand why a volume on mortifying sin and dealing with temptation outsells because we all feel the need for help in this area. But perhaps this is a reflection of what another theologian-preacher once called, “sanctification by vinegar,” meaning we are sometimes forced into a set of behavioral responses by the fear of being caught or the being punished rather than because we have a desire to do it.
Only by a grasp of the true nature of God and the delights of communing with him can we really respond in the way we should. Owen, as all good theologians of Paul, observed what we might call gospel grammar. The imperative must follow the indicative. Holiness follows from what grace has reckoned us to be in Christ. What this volume does is tell us who we are. It solves the identity crises which sin can so easily bring. The volumes ought to be read in that order – Communion with the Triune God followed by Overcoming Sin and Temptation. It would be the Bible’s way.
TSS: Dr. Thomas, I love this: “What this volume does is tell us who we are”! This is a helpful observation on the importance of Communion with the Triune God. … Again, thank you for joining on TSS. You are a valued friend in our ministry. Blessings to you!
Related: Read our full review of Communion with the Triune God.
[endnote 1] Kelly Kapic, Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen [Baker Academic, 2007], 157.