I have been trying to find your organisations in the Bible, but you are not to be found in the New Testament. I did find you, however, in the Old – in the Book of Judges, chapter 17, verse 6, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes’ (Iain Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982], p. 366).
I have been slowly journeying through the first volume of Iain Murray’s two-volume biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939 [Banner of Truth, 1982]) and have been at various points taken in by the Welsh preacher’s aversion to self-absorption and to ‘bells and whistles’ in ministry even in the midst of his apparent pastoral fervor and spiritual vitality. Indeed, in this aversion to anything like the personality-driven ministries that are so prevalent in our time, ‘the Doctor’ might have even resented this blog post, were he still alive. Nevertheless, certain dimensions of his story are, I think, remarkably suggestive for Christian ministry today and are worthy of our consideration.
A couple of the episodes recorded by Murray distill Lloyd-Jones’s commitment to getting himself out of the way in the proclamation of the gospel and to ensuring that the church was borne along by the power of God’s word and Spirit rather than by clever human devices. For Lloyd-Jones’s initial visit to preach at Aberavon, the site of his soon-to-be first pastorate, the church secretary (E. T. Rees) had put up a large poster to advertise the advent of the exciting prospective minister. Murray relates the Doctor’s response:
‘I don’t like that, don’t do it again,’ he told E. T. Rees in authoritative tones (p. 119).
Instructing the Corinthian church in the proper use of spiritual gifts, Paul moves to expound the different functions of prophecy and tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. In preparing the readers for an Old Testament reference that sheds light on the matter, the apostle writes,
Brothers and sisters, do not be children in thinking, but be infants in evil, and be complete in thinking (1 Cor. 14:20).
Obviously, the point of chapter 14 concerns spiritual gifts more than it does being childlike with respect to evil, but I think the moral innocence piece here is worth pondering. On the one hand, it seems that becoming mature in one’s spiritual thinking entails knowing something about various evils and the perils they hold for the church and for believers. On the other hand, there is, apparently, a certain sense in which we ought to be rather unschooled in the way of ungodliness. I’d like to hear some thoughts on potential implications for Christian engagement of culture. Does the text in some way commend naivete as an appropriate modus operandi? Does the text in some way chastise the pursuit of relevance? What does it look like for the church and for believers to be appropriately unacquainted with evil?
In John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ the English Puritan unfurls a dizzying number of arguments against universal redemption (the Arminian teaching that Christ died for the sins of all persons and every person without exception, not to be confused with ‘universalism’ in current parlance) and for particular redemption. One of the arguments he includes is one that perhaps most theology students encounter fairly early in the study of Christian doctrine: Christ is said in Scripture to die specifically for his own people (e.g., Eph. 5:25; Titus 2:14). This argument can then be easily brushed aside when one observes that these texts do not explicitly say that Christ died for his own people only. However, Owen fills out the argument in such a way that makes things a bit more complicated for the Arminian respondent. He notes that throughout Scripture believers in Christ, the company of the saved, and unbelievers, alienated from God and from salvation in Christ, are clearly distinguished from one another. An obvious example is supplied by the parable of the sheep and the goats:
Before [the Son of Man] will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:32-34, 41).
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, because in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and knowledge – even as the testimony of Christ was established among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will establish you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor. 1:4-9).
If we are ever plagued by doubts as to whether we can persevere in faith, this should be a comforting text. Given that the gospel was established among even this band of unruly believers, Paul was confident that Christ would then establish them until the time of the parousia.
This is not a terribly elaborate defense of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, but it is significant that Paul hangs the final blamelessness of the Corinthians on the faithfulness of God. In a complementary text, Jesus announces, ‘It is the will of him who sent me that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me’ (John 6:39). Should we gather, then, that to deny the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is to call into question the faithfulness of God and the commitment of Christ to fulfill his Father’s will? Thoughts pastoral, polemical, or otherwise?
When someone has reservations about the value and legitimacy of systematic theology, it’s not uncommon to hear them say that it seems to entail ‘putting God in a box’ or imposing too stringent a framework on the faith and thought of God’s people. At this point, it can frankly be tempting to wonder whether these sentiments might betray intellectual sloth, myopic disinterest in the church’s theological heritage, or a misunderstanding of the nature and responsibilities of systematic theology.
Although he wrote before the more developed fourfold theological curriculum emerged to prominence with its clearer distinction between biblical and systematic theology, Peter van Mastricht makes a helpful point about the importance of gathering up biblical teaching under the various heads of dogmatic reflection and providing an organized account of it. He insists that those who undertake this task are not succumbing to unnecessary rigidity; instead
[s]e filios Dei probant, quippe ejus imitatores, qui ordinis est Deus, non confusionis (Theoretico-Practica Theologia, I, 8). (“They prove themselves sons of God, indeed imitators of him, who is a God of order, not of confusion.”)
Certainly, growth in the spiritual life and in theological understanding occurs often along a winding and convoluted road. At the same time, Mastricht’s point is an important one and full of significance for, among other things, catechesis, which requires an orderly presentation of theology for the sake of apprehension and memory.
Any thoughts here?
In one of his writings on the doctrine of the church in relation to ecclesial life in seventeenth-century England, John Owen makes what I think are a number of incisive and helpful comments on schism and unity. As a Congregationalist, Owen was susceptible to accusations of schism and divisiveness, but he suggests that a poor conception of church unity and a misguided zeal for that conception underlie the charges against the Nonconformists.
For Owen, the unity of the church is fundamentally spiritual, a function of believers being joined to Christ their head by faith. However, Owen argues, in his day many conceived of unity in terms of (humanly devised) external uniformity of order and liturgy and then sought to impose that uniformity on all churches in the land. This misconception generated charges of schism against Owen and his Puritan comrades and, intriguingly, was the principal cause of ecclesial disunity. Externalize unity and impose that external unity on others and those of a different ecclesiological persuasion will (justifiably) resist this. Hence those who are overzealous for unity are also the chief culprits in schism. Though Owen has in mind especially the Anglican leaders of the time, he mentions Rome as an egregious example of supplanting spiritual unity with an external unity ‘of their own invention’ (Works of Owen, 15:111-12):