Saturday, July 31, 2010

John Owen’s The Death of Death

The second way the Puritans shaped J. I. Packer’s spiritual experience was through the study of John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.  Owen enabled Packer to fully embrace the sovereign initiative of God in redemption.  Packer wrote of this: “Owen, under God, enabled me to see how consistent and unambiguous is the biblical witness to the sovereignty and particularity of Christ’s redeeming love.  The theological implications of ‘he loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20), ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25), and many other passages came clear to me.  I have found since that I could have learned the same lesson from Spurgeon’s sermons; but it was Owen who taught it to me, and it has marked my Christianity ever since, as decisively as did the kindred realization, that biblical religion is God-centered, not man-centered.  To get the love of Christ in focus changes one’s whole existence.”  Packer holds all of the doctrines that collectively are known as Calvinism, and it was through the Puritans that his convictions became clear and stable.  Packer has written that Owen’s arguments are persuasive, and that no one has ever refuted them.  Until they are successfully refuted, Calvinism will never be refuted.  I can also affirm that it was Owen’s Death of Death that answered all of the lingering questions I had on this subject.

Friday, July 30, 2010

John Owen’s Writings on Sin

George Whitefield wrote about the Puritans: “Though dead, by their writings they yet speak; a peculiar unction attends them to this very hour.”  That quote appeared in 1767.  J. I. Packer felt that same unction in the 20th Century, and multitudes would testify that the unique power of Puritan preaching can still be experienced today.  Packer has written that the Puritans shaped his spiritual life in at least seven ways.  The first way was probably the most important.  At a crucial time just after his conversion, John Owen helped him to a realistic, biblical understanding of the continuing presence of sin in a believer’s life.  It was Owen’s three great treatises on sin and temptation—On the Motification of Sin, On Temptation, and On Indwelling Sin in Believers—that delivered Packer from the harmful error of perfectionism.  Packer acknowledged that he had been introduced to a form of perfectionist teaching that almost drove him to despair.  He wrote: “Without Owen I might well have gone off my head or got bogged down in mystical fanaticism, and certainly my view of the Christian life would not be what it is today.”  Owen’s writings are regarded by many as the best ever written on the subject of indwelling sin.  Today there are a number of popular books that claim to represent the biblical teaching, but will only lead to confusion.  By contrast, all of the Puritan literature on this subject will solidly ground a Christian in life-sustaining biblical truth.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Packer on the Puritans

J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness is a fine introduction into the life and thought of the 17th Century English Puritans.  This was one of the books that was instrumental in leading me to, what is for my money, the best Christian literature ever to bless the Church.  I want to share the reasons Packer has devoted himself to a life-long study of the Puritans and the benefits he believes reading their sermons and writings has to offer Christianity today.  I will close today with George Whitefield’s assessment of Puritan preaching: “Ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross, the Spirit of Christ and of glory then rests upon them.  It was this, no doubt, that made the Puritans such burning and shining lights.  When driven from their respective churches to preach in barns and fields, in highways and hedges, they in an especial manner wrote and preached as men having authority.  Though dead, by their writings they yet speak; a peculiar unction attends them to this very hour.” 

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Love And Fear

“O how I love Your law” (Psalm 119:97).  “I am afraid of Your judgments” (Psalm 119:120).  In the Bible we learn that all of our emotions have been given to us to serve God in various ways.  The older term “affections” includes our feelings and our capacity to love and choose.  In his great treatise The Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards wrote that the heart of biblical religion is in godly affections, that is, loving and serving God with every capacity He has endowed us with.  The Puritans knew this subject was of supreme importance, and dealt with it accordingly.  Thomas Manton’s wise comments have much to teach us: “In this psalm, you find the man of God under diverse passions; sometimes of joy, sometimes of sorrow, sometimes of hope and courage, and sometimes of fear.  As there is a time for all things in this world, there are several conditions and duties that we run through, and we have affections planted in us that suit every condition.  Religion does not nullify, but sanctify, our affections.  They are implanted in us by God, of great use to grace when rightly stirred and ordered.”  Manton’s point here is supremely important for Christians to understand!  God does not want to ride roughshod over our emotions, but to sanctify them for His holy purposes.  Every ability of our souls and our bodies are given to us to fully serve and enjoy Him!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Living by Faith

“My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).  The Puritan David Clarkson has some very helpful thoughts on the subject of faith, that are summarized by this verse: “It is our privilege to live by faith.  Living by faith is not a single act, but something habitual and permanent.  Faith is a constant dependence upon God, as he is made known in  his attributes.  The divine attributes are the grounds of our faith.  Faith believes them and claims them.  Study the attributes of God.  Labor to know them distinctly and effectually.  The more we know the more we trust.  Be much in the thoughts of God: frequently, delightfully and consistently.  These bring a divine influence unto the soul, and leave deep impressions of God.”  Two of the finest recent books on this vital subject are Trusting God by Jerry Bridges and Knowing God by J. I. Packer.  Bridges’ book has helped countless Christians to grow in faith by learning about God.  Packer’s book is a modern classic.  I have read it several times and have never failed to benefit from it.  Both books focus on the attributes of God and how they sustain faith.  I cannot recommend them too highly.  

Monday, July 26, 2010

Love and Hate

“I hate those who are double-minded, but I love Your law.”  The double-minded do not trust God, and therefore their thoughts are vain.  One of the things I love most about the Puritans is that they consistently get down to important principles.  They never remain on the surface.  Here we have a good example of that.  From this verse, Thomas Manton contends: “There are in men two great influencing affections, love and hatred; one enables us to choose and pursue things, the other to reject and flee things.  The great work of grace is to fix these affections upon proper objects."  This verse teaches us to bestow our love on God’s law and to hate whatever is contrary to it.  If someone professes to Love God, but does not hate evil, their profession is not sincere.  The one produces the other.  The great work of grace in our hearts is to enable us to love God and to hate evil.  That is a brilliant insight, one worthy of careful consideration.  

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Those who Have Fled For Refuge

The Bible describes the response of the sinner to the gospel in various ways, such as “receiving Christ”, “believing in Him,” etc.  Each description brings out a different aspect of conversion.  Hebrews 6:18 describes those who lay hold of the hope of the gospel as those “who have fled for refuge”. Fleeing implies the presence of some danger that must be  avoided.  A refuge is needed to protect us from harm.  The overall thought is that no one will respond to the gospel until they see the great danger they are in.  To see their need of the Savior, they must first see their sin and guilt before God.  Many people today contend that in evangelism, we must avoid the subject of sin, so that we don’t offend people.  We should emphasize the love of God and all the blessings that flow from the gospel.  Any mention of the justice and wrath of God will only provoke people.  Nothing could be more erroneous!  People today must be confronted with the reality and consequences of their sin, the same as in every other time.  The gospel message has never changed, and neither has our desperate need of it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Hatred Of Evil

“From Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:104).  We can learn something very important from this verse.  Christians often think that their feelings are beyond their control.  But this verse teaches us how we can direct our emotions and affections.  David says here that the understanding he learned from God’s word produced in him a hatred of evil.  Hate is a very strong emotion.  Filling our hearts and minds with God’s word will direct this strong affection in right ways; it will produce a hatred of evil.  So we see that we are not helpless victims of the whims of our feelings.  This is one reason daily reading Scripture is so vital.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

All Things Work For Good

I have missed the last three days because we had no electricity during that time.  A powerful storm ripped through Ames Saturday night, bringing down many trees and branches, causing a great deal of damage around town.  Many of the things I have been writing about were put to the test in our lives.  God willing, I will resume tomorrow.   

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hearing God’s Voice, Seeing His Hand

“I have remembered Your judgments from of old, O Lord, and comfort myself” (Psalm 119:52).  We will find much encouragement by remembering how God has worked in the lives of people in the past.  Yesterday we considered how thinking on these things strengthens faith.  I read Thomas Manton’s thoughts on this verse, and one of his statements was particularly enlightening.  In fact, I consider it one of the most insightful comments I have read.  In the sermons and writings of the Puritans you come across profound nuggets of wisdom like this page after page.  Here is what Manton said: “By these judgments of old, you see the exact correspondence between his word and works; where his voice is heard, but his hand not seen, his word is coldly entertained; but by his providence he establishes the authority of his law.”  That statement is worthy of the most careful study.  That is brilliant!  Consider the implications.  Reading the Bible without ever seeing the hand of God working in your life, and the lives of others, will avail us little.  We must not only know Scripture, we must behold God’s power working in our lives in harmony with His word.  I suspect this is one of the main reasons children from Christian homes, in which the Bible was read daily, often reject Christianity.  Children need to see reality in  their parents’ profession of faith.  

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Comfort of God’s Providence

“I have remembered Your judgments from of old, O Lord, and comfort myself” (Psalm 119:52).  David encouraged himself by remembering how God had worked in the lives of people, both the righteous and the unrighteous, in the past.  God’s providences in blessing His people and in condemning the wicked, all in conformity to the promises and warnings in His word, can give us great comfort and encouragement.  David concluded from God’s judgments, that though the wicked flourish now, they shall perish; and though the godly be afflicted now, they shall be rewarded.  Thinking on these things strengthens our faith, increases our love for God, and confirms our hope.  Those who behold such providences will see that godliness and holiness do bring advantage and benefit in this world.  They will have infallible evidence that the world is not governed by chance, but by an almighty, all-wise, and just God.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Power of Saving Knowledge

“Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works” (Psalm 119:27).  Again and again in this psalm and in others, David asks God for knowledge and understanding.  This teaches us that a sound and saving knowledge of the truths of God’s word is such a blessing, that we can never ask for too much, or do so too often.  The understanding that David pleads for is that which gives us sound judgment and right desires; it leads us to experience the power and comfort that Scripture offers us.  The effect of saving knowledge is that it brings the soul under the liberating power of truth.  Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  Knowledge must come before the saving influences.  All grace, from first to last, comes in by the understanding.  “May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:2).  If we had more knowledge of God and His ways, we should reverence and trust Him more.  In 2 Timothy 1:12, Paul wrote that his faith in God was grounded on his knowledge of Him: “I know whom I have believed.”  Thomas Manton declared, “To be taught the mind of God is a greater act of friendship than if God should give a person all the treasures of the world.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

All That Is Good

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23).  David Clarkson says things about this promise, and others like it, that I think we all need to hear: “This is the great privilege of those whom Christ loves; nothing shall befall them, but what shall prove good for them.  They may conclude, in whatever condition they are in, it is best for them, and if it had not been so, they would never have been brought into it; and whenever it shall cease to be so, they shall be removed out of it.  This is the sweetest privilege, yet the most difficult to believe at all times, since there is often great opposition to it by our sense and reason.”  I’m sure glad he said that.  It is indeed very difficult to believe.  Yet all of Scripture calls us to believe things equally amazing.  If we do not believe such promises, we are casting doubt on God’s character; which soon leads us to question everything in the Bible.  If it were good for us to have no afflictions, the love of Christ would instantly abolish them.  If possessing all of the kingdoms of the world were good for us, they would be ours.  Christ’s love will not deny us anything that is good (Psalm 84:11).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Living on God’s promises

“I have food to eat that you do not know about” (John 4:32).  Matthew Mead applied these words of our Lord to Christians: “Believers have comfort to live upon that the world knows nothing about.  We have the comfort of God’s promises.  And what do you think is best, to live upon earthly pleasures, or upon the promises of God?  The earthly are deceitful, but the promises are sure and faithful.  The earthly feed but sense, but the promises fill the soul.  He that lives upon the promises, lives by faith, and the life of faith is the only safe and true life in the world.  As the weak ivy secures itself by twisting about the great oak, so we are secure by cleaving to the great God.  The life of sense is full of disappointments like a deceitful brook.  To live on the promises of God is the only quiet life.”

Monday, July 12, 2010

God’s Saying, Is Doing

“For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Psalm 33:9).  The following thoughts from the Puritan David Clarkson are among the most powerful I have ever read, on any subject.  Concerning God’s faithfulness to perform His promises, Clarkson wrote: “God’s saying, is doing.  His promises are one with his performance of them.  He is just as willing to perform as promise.  There is no distance between his saying and doing, as among men.  This consideration removes at once the chief discouragement of faith.  Is it not this that weakens our confidence in God’s promises?  Do we not view the fulfillment of God’s promises as uncertain and difficult?  The root of all certainty is God’s will.  If he is willing to promise, he is willing to perform.  The whole glorious essence of God is engaged for the performance of every promise.  He would cease to be God if he failed to perform any promise.  For he ceases to be God when he ceases to be most perfect.  If he does not perform his promises it is either that he will not, or cannot.  He would lack either in power or in wisdom.  The glory of his being is concerned.  Men can be men, though unfaithful, but God cannot be God; he cannot deny himself.”

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Small Sins

“Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10).  I have read or heard various explanations about how just one sin, or a small sin, makes us guilty before God.  Jonathan Edwards addressed this subject often in his sermons and various writings.  His basic thought was that even one sin merits eternal condemnation because of the majesty of the one sinned against.  Thomas Case wrote that we deceive ourselves if we think that small sins can do no great harm.  His explanation of this is another wonderful example of the unmatched spiritual brilliance that shines throughout the works of the Puritans.  I had never thought about small sins in the way Case did.  I think it was his radical God-centeredness that enabled him to view this subject from a unique perspective.  He wrote “The least sin yet has the nature of sin in it, as the least drop of poison is poison.  A small sin shows a greater contempt of God since we dishonour him for an insignificant thing (as we count it), and venture his displeasure for a little sensual satisfaction.”  What a joy it is to read books that display such clarity and understanding.  Thank you, Lord!      

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Nothing Can Satisfy Without God

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul (Lamentations 3:24).      

Why do the things of this world fail to satisfy the soul?  Last Thursday we looked at Thomas Watson’s brilliant answer to that question.  He said, “Earthly things are transitory and not adapted to the soul.”  As a result, no amount of the world’s pleasures and riches can make people happy.  All of the Puritans affirmed the same thing.  By their very nature, the things of this world lack what the soul needs.  Another Puritan, Thomas Brooks, put it very well: “ Our God is a suitable portion.  No object is as suitable to the heart as he is.  He is a portion that is exactly suited to the condition of the soul in its desires, needs, wants, longings and prayers.  All the soul needs is found in God.  There is light to enlighten the soul, wisdom to counsel the soul, power to support the soul, mercy to pardon the soul, and fullness to fill the soul.  Health is not more suitable to a sick man, bread to a hungry man, and pardon to a condemned man, than this portion is to all the needs of man.  No earthly portion can suite an immortal soul.  Nothing can satisfy the soul without God.”  The highest good is that which is the most suited to do good to the soul.  I have been continually quoting from some of my favorite Puritans to give you a taste of their teaching.  I hope this will stir up in you a desire for more.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Our Poverty and Christ’s Value

Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked (Revelation 3:17).  It is worth your time to seriously contemplate these thoughts from Thomas Watson: “The glass is first emptied before you pour in wine.  God first empties man of himself, before he pours in the precious wine of his grace.  Until we see our own poverty, we will never see Christ’s value.  Poverty of spirit makes Christ sweet to the soul.  There is no idol like self.  There is not a more dangerous precipice than self-righteousness.”  Compare what the Laodiceans thought of themselves with Christ’s assessment of their condition in Revelation 3:17.  To have our eyes opened to see ourselves as God does is a great mercy.  To have our eyes opened to see the glory of Christ is precious beyond words!  We must have both if we want to enjoy the blessedness of those who are poor in spirit.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Seeking Blessedness

I have observed a remarkable discernment in the writings and sermons of the Puritans.  In seeking to understand why the things of this world, even an abundance of them, cannot satisfy the human heart, Puritans like Thomas Watson get to the real heart of the matter.  Here is Watson’s summary of a very important point: “Many have shot wide of the mark in  seeking blessedness.  It cannot be found in worldly things, but how ready is man to place happiness in them.  The tree of blessedness does not grow in an earthly paradise.  God cursed the ground for sin, yet many are digging for happiness there and seeking a blessing out of a curse.  You may as well seek fire out of water.  Earthly things are transitory and not adapted to the soul.”  That is brilliant!  Watson’s grasp of the implications of God’s curse on our lives is profound.  We have endless illustrations from the lives of wealthy, famous people that no amount of the world’s pleasures and riches can make people happy.  They were never intended to.  As Watson made clear, they are not “adapted to the soul.”  Earthly possessions have no ability to soothe a troubled heart.  The world can no more keep trouble out of hearts than paper can shield a bullet.   

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Poor in Spirit in Abundance

The Puritans carefully considered all of the different aspects of being poor in spirit.  In great thoroughness, they looked at each subject from various perspectives.  Jeremiah Burroughes’ comments on poverty of spirit in the midst of abundance are a ringing challenge to professing Christians today: “What does it mean to be poor in spirit?  If a man is willing in heart to take a low condition if God shall so please, or if he has many worldly goods yet he is willing to give them up when God calls for them, he is poor is spirit.  His soul says, ‘I have received these good mercies from God, but I am ready to part with all these outward accommodations.  I am willing to lay aside all my pomp and riches and glory that I have in this world, that the Lord may have any glory by me.’  If you have been given estates, you may enjoy them, but do you have the disposition in your heart that if you had to make a choice, you would let your estate go, instead of denying the least truth of God?  Would you rather yield your riches than commit the least sin against your conscience?  Can you bring your heart to this?”  This is to be poor in spirit, to be willing to take whatever place God has for us without complaint, and to have this spirit in the midst of abundance.   

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Marks of the Poor in Spirit

What are the marks of the poor in spirit?  Jeremiah Burroughes answered that question by delineating the qualities he saw in Scripture that are characteristic of those who are poor in spirit: 1. They are not puffed up with pride at the sight of their spiritual virtues.  They acknowledge that anything good in them is due to God’s grace working in them.  2. The poor in spirit are not envious when others receive more honor than they do.  3. They are thankful for every good thing they receive, no matter how small, considering it more than they deserve.  4. Knowing how needy they are, the poor in spirit seek God every day in prayer. 5. They are willing for God to choose their condition.  Their comforts, abilities, and everything else can be safely left wholly with Him.  As a result, they are not anxious or fearful.  6. The poor in spirit do not consider the wealthy and powerful as the most blessed people, but those who are the most godly.  7. They are willing to wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises.  They are patient.  8. They have a great reverence for God and the authority of His word.  This is a fine portrait of those who will know an abundance of God’s blessings!  And is so different from what the world admires!

Monday, July 5, 2010

“Blessed are the Poor in Spirit”

In Matthew 5:3 Jesus Christ pronounced the “poor in spirit” blessed.  Many other verses, such as Psalm 40:17, reflect this same idea: “As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me.”  Isaiah 66:2 tells us what God thinks of those who are poor in spirit, while at the same time giving us a clue as to what that means: “To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”  Since being “poor in spirit” is necessary to be blessed, it is important that we know exactly what the Bible intends by this phrase.  The Puritan Jeremiah Burroughes’ description of the poor in spirit is a good starting point: “The poor in spirit live upon continual dependence (on God).  They have nothing in themselves but that which is given to them.  They do not know how to use what they have without help.  They are dependent upon new supplies of God’s grace every moment.  They are destitute of all spiritual good, they have woeful spiritual miseries upon them.  O what a poor creature that is in such a condition!  Now for a man to see this, and to be made aware of it, here is a man that is poor in spirit.”    

Sunday, July 4, 2010

To Will What He Wills

“For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).  Yesterday I read something in Richard Sibbes’ sermon on this verse that was very profound.  He said that God does not deal with us as human authorities do.  Governments and human authorities on all levels lay down laws and commands, and then expect people to comply.  Most religions work the same way.  They use rules and laws to compel or force people to obey.  One of the great glories of biblical Christianity is that it operates differently!  God does not constrain our wills, or force our wills to do what we really do not want to do.  God works in us to will what He wills.  Don’t miss this!  God gives us new desires, so that we now want to do what He commands.  Philippians 2:13 tells us that the Lord not only gives us the ability to obey His commands, but also the will or desire to do them.  It would be more accurate to say that He gives us the power to obey by giving us the will to obey.  That is the glory of the Gospel.  This is one of the primary blessings of the New Covenant.  Thank you, Richard Sibbes, for pointing this out with such clarity.    

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Freedom From Fear

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the defense of my life, whom shall I dread?” (Psalm 27:1).  “The Lord is for me; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6).  We do so many things because of fear of other people.  Consider just how much of what we do is held hostage to the fear of what other people will think of us!  Peer pressure, self-consciousness, and desire for the praise of others forms the motive of so much of our behavior.  How wonderful it would be if we could be rid of this burden!  In order to love and serve and glorify God as the Bible directs us, we must be free from the crippling fear of other people.  Without sincere faith in God we are helpless to overcome such fears.  Scripture gives us an abundance of promises and motives that will nourish our faith; and strong faith in God is the only means of breaking the chains of fear. How did David summon up the courage to face the giant Goliath?  In a sermon on this subject, the Puritan Thomas Lye said, “David’s confidence in God quietly extinguished in his heart the base, sneaking fear of man.”  That is it exactly!  Lye continued: “Let a believer make God his trust, it is enough; he will with a courageous and undaunted mind cheerfully undertake his duty and commit both himself and his success to God.”         

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Spirit of Prayer

“Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1).  Whatever subject the Puritans were dealing with, they characteristically handled it with thoughtful care and profound reverence.  Their treatment of each subject was never shallow, but examined thoroughly.  Richard Sibbes displayed these qualities in his study of the reasons God at times delays to answer our prayers.  One of the most important reasons is that God wants to develop in us a heart to persevere in prayer.  I had never considered that having “a spirit of prayer” as Sibbes put it, may be more important than any specific answer to prayer.  God will make us wait for His answer that we might learn to persevere in prayer with Him.  This spirit of prayer is better than the specific thing we were praying for.  Sibbes contended that as we increase in perseverance, all other godly qualities also increase.  He said that as God gives us a spirit of prayer, He answers us better than we ask!       

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What Makes Heaven

“One thing I have asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). We see here that David wanted to enjoy the presence of God more than anything else in life. A heart that has been influenced by grace will view God’s majesty and glory as beautiful. We may not fully appreciate this now, but we will in heaven. I love what Richard Sibbes had to say on this verse: “No good thing can be lacking where God is present. It is the presence of God that makes all things sweet and comforting. What makes heaven to be heaven, but because God is there? If the soul of a Christian were among angels, angelic comforts would not be desired, if God were not there. If there were all the delights of the world, it would not care for them, except God were present. Heaven were not heaven without the presence of God. His presence in a dungeon, in a lion’s den, makes it a paradise, a place of pleasure; the presence of God makes all conditions comforting. If there be not the presence of God, the greatest comfort in the world is nothing.”