The Doctrines of Grace

January 11th, 2012 14 comments

I recently began a new series in our Midweek Fellowship on the Doctrines of Grace, sometimes known as the Five Points of Calvinism. The purpose of this series is to make explicit some of the key doctrines in our confessional standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Catechisms, and to help members of the congregation have a greater zeal for the glory of God and for the task of mission.

Knowing and understanding these doctrines of grace is also crucial for knowing and understanding the gospel. The gospel stands or falls by grace, and the gospel is not really good news unless it is a gospel of grace. So it is crucial that we have a clear understanding of God’s grace.

The great Princeton theologian, B.B. Warfield said that evangelicialism stands or falls with Calvinism. Jim Boice and Philip Ryken in their excellent book, The Doctrines of Grace, point out that Warfield made that statement at a time when Calvinism still had a major influence on evangelicalism, helping to define its theology, shape its spirituality, and clarify its mission. This is no longer the case. Most evangelicals today are suspicious of Calvinism, and the result is that the gospel of grace has been diluted or lost.

A number of years ago, a group of evangelicals in North America expressed their concern at the changes they observed within the world of evangelicalism and summarised their views in The Cambridge Declaration. Part of that declaration states,

“Unwarranted confidence in human ability is a product of fallen human nature. This false confidence now fills the evangelical world; from the self-esteem gospel, to the health and wealth gospel, from those who have transformed the gospel into a product to be sold and sinners into consumers who want to buy, to others who treat Christian faith as being true simply because it works. This silences the doctrine of justification regardless of the official commitments of our churches. God’s grace in Christ is not merely necessary but is the sole efficient cause of salvation.”

It is sometimes claimed that Calvinism reduces and restricts one’s passion and enthusiasm for evangelism. That view is mistaken both in its understanding of Calvinism and in its understanding of evangelism. In fact, properly understood, the doctrines of grace give the most solid foundation and greatest motivation for sharing the gospel. Only when we hold thoroughly biblical convictions about divine election, the atonement, and the irresistible grace of God can we have any confidence that the gospel has the power to accomplish God’s saving purposes. With their emphasis on the glory of God in salvation, the doctrines of grace can help evangelicalism grow and mature by restoring a proper view of God’s majesty, sovereignty and grace.

C.H. Spurgeon was a great evangelist and a staunch defender of the doctrines of grace.

“I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified unless we preach what is nowadays called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel …. unless we preach the sovereignty of God in his dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the Gospel unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of his elect and chosen people which Christ wrought upon the cross; nor can I comprehend the Gospel which allows saints to fall away after they are called.” (quoted by J.I.Packer in his “Introductory Essay” to John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (London, Banner of Truth, 1959), 10.)

If Warfield and Spurgeon were right, then it is crucial that evangelicals understand and affirm the doctrines of grace. Quite simply, the doctrines of grace preserve the gospel of grace. More than that, understanding these doctrines enables us to be the humble worshippers that God calls us to be. As John Piper puts it about the doctrine of election,

“Unconditional election delivers the harshest and the sweetest judgments to my soul. That it is unconditional destroys all self-exaltation; and that it is election makes me his treasured possession. This is one of the beauties of the biblical doctrines of grace: their worst devastations prepare us for their greatest delights. What prigs we would become at the words, “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6), if this election were in any way dependent on our will. But to protect us from pride, the Lord teaches us that we are unconditionally chosen (7:7-9). “He made a wretch his treasure,” as we so gladly sing. Only the devastating freeness and unconditionality of electing grace lets us take and taste such gifts for our very own without the exaltation of self.”

If you want a fuller statement on these doctrines then one place to start is here.

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The Queen’s Christian Christmas Message

December 25th, 2011 4 comments

queenpa_2093517cWhen it comes to Her Majesty the Queen’s Christmas message, it is all her own work. On this one occasion each year she does not turn to government for help or advice, but writes it herself. You can imagine how thrilled we are as Christians in the UK and the Commonwealth when our Sovereign makes an unambiguous statement of the Christian gospel.

“Finding hope in adversity is one of the themes of Christmas. Jesus was born into a world full of fear. The angels came to frightened shepherds with hope in their voices: ‘Fear not’, they urged, ‘we bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.’

Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.

Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.

In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, there’s a prayer:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.

It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.

I wish you all a very happy Christmas.”

Thank you , ma’am.

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It’s a Wonderful Life

December 22nd, 2011 2 comments

fileit27s_a_wonderful_lifeIt’s a Wonderful Life is an American Christmas drama film produced and directed by Frank Capra, that was based on the short story “The Greatest Gift”, written by Philip Van Doren Stern. Released in 1946, the film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and the contributions he has made to his community. It’s a great film for pastors and elders to watch, especially if they are a bit disillusioned about church life.

In an afterword to his book, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary, James Emery White reflects on the calling and challenges of pastoral ministry, and he uses the example of George Bailey to describe his own experience of leaving pastoral ministry to take up a position in a theological seminary. Initially, he viewed it as an escape from all the pressures, demands and criticisms that are part and parcel of congregational life. But within two years, White was delighted to be back in pastoral ministry again.

Just as George Bailey got a chance to see what life would be like if he had never lived, so White says that he was given a chance to see what life would be like without serving as a pastor of a church. And just as George Bailey learned that he wanted to live again, so did White. His conclusion is that if you are called to pastoral ministry, no other vocation will satisfy.

I know it’s tough. I know there are days you want to quit. Don’t. If you do, you’ll wish you could go back. I’ve never yet met anyone who at one time was truly called to the church but did get out of the game who remained glad they left.

You will miss the terrific idea for a talk or a series and having the ability to develop it and teach it.

You will miss coming upon a nugget of scriptural insight, tethered to language and historical insights, and being able to share it.

You will miss living in full community with others – young and old, married and single, believer and seeker, black and white.

You will miss being a leader, chasing dreams and building a kingdom vision that reflects the comprehensive vision of the church, and being free to pursue that vision with all vigour and energy without barrier.

You will miss being on the front lines of impacting lives – not just talking about life change but seeing it, experiencing it, making it happen as you cooperate with the Holy Spirit in people’s lives.

Simply put, if you are a practitioner and not a theoretician, you will miss the practice.

After a hectic programme of activities during the autumn, pastors and elders need to catch their breath over Christmas and New Year and then gird up their loins for a new session of activity. Some of us may feel a bit jaded, and our evaluation of our progress and fruitfulness in ministry may cause some degree of despair. We would love to see the kingdom advancing more quickly and we yearn to see greater growth in sanctification in our own lives and the lives of others. That is the burden and challenge of pastoral ministry. But, if we were taken away from all the frustrations and fears of pastoring a congregation and preaching every week, how better could we spend our days?

Paul’s description of his pastoral care of the Thessalonians continues to encourage and inspire us:

“As apostles of Christ, we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become som dear to us….For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed you are our glory and joy.”

I think Paul would agree that when it comes to pastoral ministry, it’s a wonderful life.

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Backing marriage is “evil” according to Tesco boss and Tesco response

December 17th, 2011 17 comments

tesco01_180pxAs you plan your Christmas shopping, you may be interested to read this.

Christians are “evil” if they resist the redefinition of marriage to allow for same-sex marriage, the Head of Research and Development at Tesco.com has said.

The company has already faced criticism for dumping its support for the Cancer Research ‘Race for Life’ and sponsoring London’s gay pride festival.

If you won’t be shopping at Tesco this Christmas, tell them so on their Facebook page: facebook.com/tesco or email CEO Philip Clarke: [email protected]

The “evil Christians” comment was made by Nick Lansley, Head of Research and Development for the Tesco website.

He wrote: “I’m also campaigning against evil Christians (that’s not all Christians, just bad ones) who think that gay people should not lead happy lives and get married to their same-sex partners.”

The comments appeared on Mr Lansley’s profile page on the photo-sharing website, Flickr.com, where he lists his employment as “Head of R&D at Tesco.com”. But following complaints to Tesco the remarks have now been removed.

Postscript:

The Daily Telegraph carried an apology from Tesco on Tues 20 December 2011 over the “evil Christians” outburst. The report said that faced with the prospect of a Christmas boycott, the supermarket chain distanced itself from Nick Lansley, the head of research and development at tesco.com. A Tesco spokesman said Mr Lansley’s remarks “in no way reflect the views of Tesco. We are very sorry that anyone might have thought there was any blurring of the boundary between his personal comments and work for Tesco”.

PPS:

This is a reply to my email to the Chief Executive of Tesco which I received on December 22. I appreciate the spirit and content of this response, and am happy to withdraw the final sentence of my original posting.

Thank you for your e mail addressed to Philip Clarke, our Chief Executive, regarding the on-line activities of one of our staff.

I can appreciate your concern that comments made on the internet by a Tesco member of staff, Nick Lansley, might represent the views of Tesco itself.  I want to reassure you in the clearest possible terms that Mr Lansley’s comments and postings, made in a personal capacity, in no way reflect the views of Tesco.  Our values as a company are such that we abhor criticism of any religion, and we knew nothing about Mr Lansley’s comments and postings until they were brought to our attention.  It is not for us to dictate or limit those private views but we do not tolerate statements that insult others or their beliefs.  For that reason, when Mr Lansley was found to have posted material on his blog which insulted the religious beliefs of others, he was reminded of Tesco’s policy and the material was removed forthwith.

We know that being the UK’s leading retailer carries unique responsibilities.  We have a responsibility to show leadership, as we do on issues like climate change and helping to develop our people’s skills.  We also have a responsibility to listen carefully to our many and diverse customers and stakeholders, respect their views and seek to balance their opinions in the decisions we make.  This is not always easy, particularly on issues where opinions can differ markedly.  Whatever the issue, it is never our intention deliberately to inflame or polarise opinion or to make an already contentious debate more contentious.

We very much accept that, however well-intentioned we are, we do not always get everything right for everyone.  I do hope, however, that the explanation gives you some reassurance about how seriously we take the views of all our stakeholders, and the value we attach to tolerance and inclusion. I hope also that it begins to restore your confidence that Tesco does try to do the right thing and does indeed listen to your feedback.

Kind regards

Modupeola Ogutuga

Customer Service Executive

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Christians can make a difference

December 16th, 2011 2 comments
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Manny Ortiz, with Ron Sider and John Perkins at the opening of the new Esperanza Health Center

Here’s an inspirational account of the difference Christians can make in a difficult urban community. Spirit and Truth Fellowship, under the leadership of my dear friend, Manny Ortiz, has initiated a number of programmes which have transformed their local community in the Hunting Park district of Philadelphia. Manny’s wholistic approach to mission and ministry in this urban area has resulted in a vibrant church that brings blessings and benefits to everyone.

Susan Post, Director of Esperanza Health Center

Susan Post, Director of Esperanza Health Center

The Esperanza Health Center, which was developed out of Spirit and Truth Fellowship, is under the direction of Susan Post who was my former colleague in the administration at Westminster Theological Seminary. Susan, with degrees in engineering, business administration and theology, is a gifted administrator with strong theological convictions, and a heart for serving others in the love and power of Jesus Christ. Under her leadership, Esperanza provides a compassionate ministry to many people in the community who have no health insurance.

At the recent opening of new facilities for Esperanza, Manny was joined by two highly influential Christian leaders in community development, Ron Sider and John Perkins. We wish Susan, and her team at Esperanza, every blessing and much grace as they continue their strategic work which makes such a difference to so many people.

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