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Hitting the Target: The Canons of Dordt, Part 1

Amongst the many great lessons that Church history can teach us, one of the most reliable is that controversy produces clarity. The great creeds of the Church, statements of faith, and core teachings of Christianity were largely written and defined amidst dispute. The debate about Arianism which helped the Church define the doctrine of the Trinity (see the Nicene Creed); the arguments of the Nestorians and the Eutychians which helped the Church understand the two natures of Christ (see the Formula of Chalcedon); the writings of Augustine who showed, against the Pelagians, the necessity of grace for the salvaiton of the believer; the Reformation that help to guide the Church into a clearer understanding of justification through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, on the authority of Scripture alone. All these theological disagreements (and many more!) has helped make the true teaching of Scripture clearer to Christians through generations, and continues to do so today.

One such disputation occured in the early 17th century Netherlands (or the Dutch Republic, as it was then). Part of the legacy of that controversy was one of the most valuable, but often one of the most neglected resources in the Church today – the Canons of Dordt. Before introducing Canons, we should start with the man who started it all – Jakob Hermanszoon.

Hermanszoon was born in the city of Oudewater, in the Dutch Republic (modern day Netherlands) province of Utrecht, in 1560. Hermanszoon’s early life contained a great deal of tragedy. He never knew his father, who died when he was in infancy. At the age of 15, while Hermanszoon was away being educated in the German city of Marburg, his home town of Oudewater was conquered by Spanish troops who massacred its inhabitants. Among the casualties were Hermanszoon’s mother, sister, and his two brothers. Under the generous patronage of Rudolph Snellius, Hermanszoon went to study in the Dutch University of Leiden and later went on study in Geneva and Basel. The leading professor in Geneva at the time was the famous theologian and scholar Theodore Beza, who was the immediate successor to John Calvin. Under the watch of Beza in Geneva, Hermanszoon received his theological education. He passed his student disputation, showing is theological proficiency, and was written a letter of recommendation by Beza himself as he returned to the Dutch Republic. Armed with a glowing academic reputation and a letter from the foremost theologian of the age, professor of the foremost theological centre of learning of the age, Hermanszoon could hardly have arrived at Amsterdam, as he did in 1587, with a greater theological CV. One year later, he married into an influential family and was ordained as a minister in the Dutch Reformed church.

Almost immediately after starting his pastorate, Hermanszoon preached some controversial sermons on the book of Romans. First, he made a controversial point that in Romans 7, Paul was not talking about a Christian experience, but rather a pre – Christian experience. Not long after, Hermanszoon preached a sermon on Romans 9 where he expounded a view that God elects His people based on a forseen faith (fides praevisa) within them. In other words, God first considered those who would exercise faith in Him before choosing to elect them. Both of these views invoked a strong reaction in the Dutch Reformed church as they were seen as theologically problematic. In fact, it is surprising that no disciplinary action for this initial (or indeed any subsequent) controversy from the church authorities (both his own congregational elders and the regional Classis of local elders and other ministers). This is likely because of Hermanszoon’s influential supporters and the protection they were able to offer, but it is a quirk of history that such a divisive and controversial figure remained in good standing with the Dutch Reformed church throughout his life.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, despite this controversy, in 1603 Hermanszoon was given a position to teach theology at the University of Leiden. The suspicions around Hermanszoon did not die out whilst he was at Leiden. Many rumours and accusations that he was teaching theology that was not orthodox were circulated, but never proved. Such suspicions were difficult to ratify since Hermanszoon published almost none of his writings in his lifetime. Even more curiously, the governing body of the Univeristy of Leiden twice sent an experienced faculty member, Francis Gomarus, to investigate claims about the suspicious nature of Hermanszoon’s teaching. Gomarus had a reputation for a keen eye for theological detail and was reportedly a man of great learning. Twice, however, Hermanszoon managed to answer all of Gomarus’ questions without exposing himself to be violating the accepted Reformed orthodoxy.

The controversy surrounding Hermanszoon in his lifetime came to peak in 1608 when he was investigated by governmental authorities. In order to give a summarised expression to his views for the investigation, he wrote a work called Declaration of Sentiments in which he criticsed the established Calvinistic view of predestination, before outlining his own view. In Hermanszoon’s opinion, predestination, as he’d taught from his sermons on Romans 9, was not unconditional. Rather, God has elected some individuals to believe based on the faith he has forseen in them. Thus, God’s election was conditional on human faith. Moreover, the choice a person made to believe the Gospel was by a synergistic cooperation between both the human and Divine wills. Although Hermanszoon did not actually deny that humanity’s will had fallen dead to original sin in Adam (as some later claim), he did teach that God had restored, supernaturally, an ability for man to freely repent and believe the Gospel. This gift from God to enable or enliven the otherwise dead human was termed ‘prevenient grace’. In the final analysis, Hermanszoon affirmed humanity’s innate inability to repent and believe the Gospel, independent of God’s grace, but then taught that God had restored the human will out of that fallen state into a condition where the human will could in fact repent and believe in cooperation with God’s grace.

Hermanszoon’s Declaration was set to cause an even greater wave of controversy in its wake. However, Hermanszoon died in at the relatively young age of 49 in 1609 from tuberculosis. Instead of this being the end of the controversy surrounding this enigmatic professor, the controversy in the church only became more exacerbated.

Following Hermanszoon’s death in 1609, it had become clear that he had picked up a number of followers along the way. His successor at Leiden, Conrad Vorstius was even more radical than Hermanszoon himself, with accusations made of him that his views toed the line of Socinianism (a group who, among other things, denied the doctrine of the Trinity). Unlike his predecessor, however, Vorstius was unable to appear orthodox before Gomarus who became so disgusted by the new appointment that he retired. Vorstius was eventually forced out of Leiden, but kept up a stream of aggressively worded polemical works. Another particularly important minister who followed Hermanszoon was Jan Uytenbogaert, who had actually studied with Hermanszoon in Geneva and the two had remained friends. Uytenbogaert became the new leader of a controversial movement of Hermanszoon’s followers, that still made up a minority in the church. However, it just so happened that Uytenbogaert ministered in the most politically important church in the Dutch capital of The Hague, where the most powerful military figure in the land, Prince Maurice of Nassau was a worshipper. Moreover, the movement had a highly placed backer in the form of a government official, Johan von Oldenbarnevelt, who held the esteemed position of ‘land advoacte’ to the largest and wealthiest province of the Dutch Republic: Holland. He was essentially the Prime Minister of the Dutch Republic.

With such politically intimidating allies, the movement following Hermanszoon felt emboldened to publish a theological manifesto, known to history as ‘the Remonstrance’. Those who accepted the views of the Remonstrance were called ‘Remonstrants’, although they often go under a different name today – Arminians. This name comes from the original leader of the movement, Jakob Hermanszoon, whose name is commonly rendered in its Latin form: Jacob Arminius. Even despite their politically formidable supporters, the Remonstrants (or Arminians) recognised that they may still be disciplined by their local Classes for their views. The Remonstrance was an appeal to the civil government for their views to be tolerated within the church. The Remonstrance narrowed down the five main points of contention that they had with the established Reformation views. They can be summarised as follows (with my own emphasis in the quotations in bold; a full translation of the Remonstrance can be found here):

  1. The first article declared that with repect to election, God has “determined, out of the fallen and sinful human race, to save in Christ, because of Christ, and through Christ those who, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, believe in this His Jesus and persevere in this belief and obedience even to the end, through this grace.”
  2. The second article says that, following the first article, Jesus “died for all men and for each man. He earned for them all…reconcilliation and the forgiveness of sins. Still, Christ died in such a way that no one actually shares in this forgiveness of sins, except those who believe.”
  3. The third article states that “it is necessary that…through the Holy Spirit, he be born again and renewed in understanding, affection, and will, and all powers so that he might rightlydo the truly good.”
  4. Continuing from the third article, the fourth article goes on to say that the “grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and completion of all good…all good works of which man can think must be ascribed to the grace of God. Butthis grace, it is not irresistible.”
  5. The final article ends in somewhat of an unsatisfying note. The Remonstrants states first that “Those who are united to Jesus Christ by a true faithhave abundant power to fight against Satan, sin, and the world…and that Jesus Christ assists themif only they are ready for the conflict.” But the final concluding point is made that “whether they of themselves through neglect can lose the beginning of their being with Christreject the Holy Spirit once given to them…and abandon grace, must be taught further in the Scripture before we ourselves can teach it.”

A quick survey of the summary of the “five points of Arminianism” highlights for us the deep theological division that was brought into light by the Remonstrance. The first article teaches just what Arminius had taught from Romans 9: that the election of God was based on forseen faith (and the perseverence of that faith) in the individual. In a way, the Arminians were proclaiming a Biblical truth that God saves those who persevere in faith and obedience. However, where the Arminians differed from the Calvinists was that they turned this Biblical truth into the ground of God’s election. Unlike the Calvinists, who understood predestination to refer to certain individuals chosen for salvation, the Arminians considered God choosing qualifications that the individual must first meet before being counted among the elect.

Next, the Remonstrance focuses in on the death of Christ in its second article. They are initially very clear on their position: that Christ died for each and every man (and woman, presumably) who ever lived. Yet, the rest of the article is more vague, and it is not clear how the Arminians resolved the issue that if Christ died for each and every man, why are not all saved? Somehow, for the Arminians, the effectiveness of Christ’s death is triggered by the faith of the believer. Yet if Christ, as they seem to say, died for all the sins of every man, is unbelief a sin? If it is, then surely Christ died for it and must therefore save even those who do not believe. If unbelief is not a sin, then God cannot condemn the unbeliever for his unbelief and must also be saved. It is unclear, then how Christ could have died for the sins of each and every man yet not all be saved, as the article states.

Interestingly, the third article of the Remonstrance appears to restate the traditional Protestant understanding of original sin. The will of man is not truly free to choose to do good apart from the grace of God, and Calvinists would agree with the statement made, in isolation. However, the issue became how article 3 was continued into article 4.

In the third article, the necessity of grace to save fallen man was expounded. In the fourth article, the sufficiency of that grace is denied. Instead, it becomes clear that the Arminian system depends upon cooperation with grace in order to be justified. The sinner must, at the very least, acquiesce to the grace of God before God can save them. The nature of the Arminian conception of grace in article 3 denies that the sinner can do good apart from God’s grace, yet the conception of grace in article 4 requires a cooperative effort with grace in order to be saved. To be consistent, this would require an act of the human will cooperating with grace not to be a good work (since it would require grace to perform) and how this can be so is not enitrely clear.

The fifth and final point was considered quite disingenuous by its critics. It affirmed that grace was able to sustain the believer against sin, the world, and the Devil yet, out of the other side of their mouth (so to speak, as the Dutch Calvinists saw it) they did not know whether the believer could ultimately lose their salvation. This final point of the Remonstrance is indeed a curiously flimsy one. Intended, as it probably was, to come across as a mark of humility and submission to the authority of Scripture, it implied that they hadn’t really thought through what they were teaching. It appears to me, at any rate, that they saw the logical conclusion to their position to lead them to the idea that believers could indeed lose their salvation, but they were unwilling to say so as it would wrench the assurance of salvation out from under the feet of their congregations.

Nevertheless, the Remonstrance was signed by some 42 ministers, and presented a serious challenge to the established Calvinist majority of the Dutch church that needed a response.

A response was offered by the church in the form of the ‘Counter – Remonstrance‘. This document was the result of a 10 day conference in 1611, and used 7 points to refute the Remonstrance. However, this document didn’t so much as settle the controversy, but simply defined the battlegroud. The polarisation of the two sides steadily increased, with the church on the precipice of a major split. Moreover, the most powerful military figure in the Republic, Prince Maurice, left his congregation (which had an Arminian minister) and started to attend a church with a Calvinist pastor. Whilst the political figures like Oldenebarnvelt continued to support toleration for Ariminians, Maurice (and therefore his army) came to support Calvinism. On the brink of civil war, Prince Maurice marched his army into Holland and arrested Oldenebarnvelt in July 1618. A new government, with Maurice at the helm, sanctioned a national synod to address the Remonstrance.

The Synod that did convene later that year would prove a landmark event in the history of the Protestant Church, and the events surrounding the Synod will be the subject of part two.

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Coronavirus and Christ – John Piper

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

With an impressive speed of writing and publication, John Piper aims to offer some hope and grounding to Christians amidst the coronavirus crisis.

Structured around two parts, Piper aims to first show us the the God who reigns over the coronavirus (and, of course, everything else). In the second part, Piper attempts to take our knowledge of God from Part 1 in order to address the question: what is God doing during during the coronavirus? At only 100 pages or so, it is a bite-sized book of reassurance and pastoral solace rather than a full theological treatment.

In this regard, I think Piper achieves his aim very well. The writing is simple, easy to read, and never verbose. The point of the book is to remind the reader of truth that serves as a foundation stone on which to base our lives in a time of crisis and that aim is certainly accomplished.

As it turns out, this is the first Piper book I have read. I think his style, certainly in this book, will be appreciated by many. Personally, the writing felt very informal, which is not to my taste, even in a pastorally oriented book, though the same style will invariably resonant well with some.

In his first section, Piper wants to ground us in the nature of God Himself, as revealed in the Bible. A good place to start, no doubt, but I did find an epistemological issue with regards to the quesiton “why do you trust the Bible?” His answer is very subjective (which he even admits) and is possibly unhelpful. The reason we can trust the Bible is not because of our own internal feelings. In fact, it does seem to slightly undermine his message of having a firm rock on which we stand.

Piper says that our understanding of God’s relationship with us is based on the Trinity and in God’s holiness, righteousness, and goodness. In doing so, he rightly discounts human suffering as an indication of God’s unrighteousness – a very useful point for us to remember in a time of suffering where people may turn to resent God. Piper also gives a really powerful attestation of the sovereignty of God; he gives a sober and welcome reminder that God gives and takes away life in His wisdom.

He does use some odd language with respect to Divine simplicity, though. “I take that to mean that while there are aspects of His character (His heart) that incline away from grieving us, nevertheless other aspects of His character dictate the holiness and righteousness of grieving us… But neither is He without complexity. His character is more like a symphony than a solo performance” (pg. 39). I think I know what Piper means, but I am not sure the language is helpful.

The second section Piper address what God is doing through the coronavirus. He gives 6 short answers. Of particular interest was that he maintained that God is using the coronavirus as a form of judgement in at least some situations. His distinction between purifying and punitive judgements was a useful and accurate one.

Overall, this book is a timely remind of God’s sovereign purpose in a global crisis, and a welcome call turn our eyes to the Rock and Foundation of all truth, who is sovereign over the coronavirus.

“In the presence of God, no one has a right to life. Every breath we take is a gift of grace. Every heartbeat, undeserved. Life and death are finally in the hands of God.” pg. 42

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9 Things I Learned from the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation is one of the most important events in history. Far from being a relic of the distant past, the theology of the Reformation continues to have profound impact on the lives of many today. Whilst all Protestant churches owe their foundational beliefs to the Reformation, Reformed theology remains largely untouched and, sometimes, wilfully ignored by modern Christians. Indeed, until I was 21, my knowledge of Christian thought was extremely narrow; almost as if there were advanced parts of Christianity to which I was not privy, because studying theology was to be done by ‘those in ministry’. The theological food I was being served in my youth was filling, in that it answered my questions, yet it was bland and unenjoyable. I was satisfied, to an extent, with the answers to difficult questions, but I did not enjoy them – there was no richness or delight to be found. For example, I figured that the best Christians really had to explain the Trinity was “The Trinity is like how water, ice, and steam are the same substance but appear can appear in three different forms” or “Well, it’s not 1+1+1 = 3 but 1×1×1 = 1” or some other, similar response. “If that’s all there is to eat,”  I surmised “then I’ll eat it, bland and unintelligible as it is and not complain.” However, years on, having meandered my way entirely accidentally to come to Reformed theology, I am no longer on a spiritual diet that is the equivalent of crackers and tofu but a luxurious gourmet all-you-can-eat buffet, full of rare filet mignon, spicy chicken jalfrezi, and warm apple crumble. Here are 9 things I’ve learned from Reformed theology.


Salvation

My view of salvation was that it was a state that I had entered into upon making a choice to follow Jesus. We are fully able to make that choice, any one of us, and God is doing His best to save everyone, but we just need to accept His help. Once we choose to take God up on His offer, then we are saved. Jesus died for everyone, and everyone’s sins are paid for, you just need to ‘invite Him into your heart’.

But the Bible never talks about salvation like this. God is always the initiator. If He doesn’t begin His saving work in me, then there is no hope of me being saved! Once I found out that the Bible teaches that we hate God in our natural state (John 3:19-20 etc.) and refuse to come to Him, it became clear that God must first change my heart before I can choose Him. God must destroy our natural heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh before we can come to Christ. In fact, the imagery that the Bible uses is even more stark; we must be brought from spiritual death to spiritual life. God is not waiting for us to accept Him because we can’t; we’re spiritually dead! I was as active in my salvation as Lazarus was in raising himself from the tomb.

Predestination and Free Will

I used to just want the idea, and seemingly inherent contradiction, of predestination and free will to just go away. I wanted to pretend that terms ‘predestination’ and ‘election’ are never ever mentioned in the Bible (they are) and people who mention these terms are using a dodgy translation (they’re not). However, I needed to have at least some answer to this question of predestination. Romans 8 has always been a favourite chapter of mine…except maybe verses 29 and 30 because they had predestination in them so I could have no idea what they meant. So, I settled myself with what is the equivalent of bland theological junk food with phrases like “It’s 100% free will and 100% predestination, simultaneously. It’s just a paradox.” or, similarly, “They are like two parallel lines that meet at infinity” and other such phrases. I was satisfied with this until I read Romans 9 for the first time properly. My nonsensical phrases blew away like chaff in the wind, and my intellectual cowardice had been exposed. I wasn’t solving the problem of predestination and free will by holding to irreconcilable contradictions, I was fleeing from it.

I began to give some serious thought to this issue, and the only way I could ever get these two ideas to reconcile was to change the meaning of either one. Either, we’re not as autonomous as we think we are, or Paul meant something different than what I was assuming election and predestination meant. However, Reformed writers made me realise that nowhere does the Bible even presuppose and assume free will like I was doing. I was warping and bending the text to protect this idea of free will I had to defend at all cost.

It isn’t that we have no will, but that our will is not free – it’s a will in bondage to sin! The concept of a human will in which we are equally free to choose both good and bad is not a Christian idea; it is a pagan concept. We only choose the darkness because we love it; we want to sin so we do and we never want to choose God, so we don’t. Once I understood that, election made sense to me. How can I come to choose God unless He chose me first? I will never choose Him by myself if I am slave to sin. The Reformed faith teaches that because we are slaves to sin, we fully deserve God’s wrath and He is therefore under no obligation to save any of us. Out of His sovereignty, He chooses to display mercy to some, and gives justice to others; in neither instance is there injustice with God. Those who are the elect of God were chosen before the foundations of the world; a people set apart to display God’s grace and His mercy, just as Israel was chosen out of the nations. At the same time, God passes over others, repaying them justice and wrath as their deeds and unbelief deserve. This predestining of some unto salvation is nothing to do with anything God sees in the person, as the Bible maintains it is a gift from God.

Prayer

It began to strike me as odd how people in the Church would pray for unbelievers. Phrases like “change their hearts” and “reveal Yourself to them” and “draw them close to You” are often used, in all different churches that have very differing views on how salvation comes about.

But I came to see that only Reformed theology was consistent with our prayers. If God is doing what He can to save people, what is the point of asking Him to do anything else? If God couldn’t override the free will of people, then what else could He do? But if God is the one that does all of the saving, without our input, then this makes sense! Since salvation is of the Lord, and He is the one who chooses only then can we pray that God would soften the hearts of those who are hostile to Him. I now know that I can pray for God to drastically intervene in someone’s life and for the Holy Spirit to convict them of their sin and turn, in repentance and faith, to Him because that is their only hope!

Trinity

It must be simply stated that my view of the Trinity was very confused when I was a much younger Christian. No-one seemed to have provided a meaningful explanation of what we as Christians believed about the Trinity, and this was all mixed up with heretical analogies about water and fire and three-leafed clovers. The objection that the Trinity was contradictory because it’s 3 gods and yet 1 god seemed difficult for me to refute. Moreover, the person of Jesus seemed to me to be very well explained. He was the obvious one. In fact, if you were to talk to me at, say, 17, you might get the impression that I knew and loved this Jesus (almost as much as I loved myself)  but be utterly ignorant that I believed in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unless directly asked. It is not that I didn’t believe in the Trinity, but because my knowledge of who the Son is so vastly outweighed my consideration of the other two persons, I couldn’t say anything meaningful. Perhaps, especially in light of some Christian festivals I attended, I could say something about how the Holy Spirit made people speak in nonsense languages and violently shake on the ground, but I couldn’t find much of that in the Bible.

Yet, in the Reformed faith, I have found something truly trinitarian. Not just in name, but in core belief. Firstly, I now understand that the Trinity isn’t some inherent contradiction, but that in the Godhead there exists, and always has existed, one divine being in three united yet distinct, co-eternal and co-equal persons. The Father is neither created nor begotten, the Son begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son, each with equal glory yet they have distinct workings. In salvation, for example, the decree of election flows from the will of the Father as He bequeaths the elect to His Son, who purchases their redemption by His obedience on earth as a man when He lived, died, and rose again, and who with the Father sends the Spirit, to work in the lives of men and women, convicting them in their sin, and leading them to the truth. This is the trinitarian gospel and we can give thanks and praise to each person of the Trinity for their work in our salvation!

Sin

A great failing of the churches or parachurch activities I’d been involved in is that sin was always minimised to as to make it, not acceptable, but less offensive to ‘sensitive ears’. Words were even used that would make our sin appear almost harmless or accidental. Phrases like “Jesus takes our messiness” or “God can forgive your mistakes” were prevalent in how I formed the concept of wrongdoing against God.

This strategy was abysmally insufficient to help me understand how serious sinning against a holy God is. A mistake is missing your exit on the motorway, or spelling ‘accommodation’ with only one ‘m’. Sin is the breaking of God’s holy law; it is treason in the presence of the King. I would come to think things like “I really didn’t sin much today” whereas I now realise that I don’t think I have ever kept the commandment to love the Lord with my heart, soul, and mind. I constantly fail to love my neighbour as myself. I am often envious of others, constantly selfish, and devote myself to the idols of my life almost unceasingly. In fact, I am chief of all sinners (Paul only said that he was the worst of all sinners in 1 Tim 1:15 because he hadn’t met me yet) and before I realised this truth, I had no real urgency in killing my sin. As the Puritan writer John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you”. I only wanted some of the bigger ‘mistakes’ I had made to be taken care of by God, instead of realising that I need to constantly repentant of all of my evils that are utterly repugnant to the Lord and start putting my old ways to death so I can serve Him!

Biblical Authority

Quaint phrases and good ideas that ‘sounded right’ would often dominate my Christian thought. This is evident in my thoughts about free will that I have mentioned before and in other areas I am no different. It is amazing to me how much rubbish I manage to pick up out of the ether; things I have just assumed about Christianity because they ‘seemed about right’. But, because I did not understand the Bible’s true authority on my life my mantra became “I like to think of God as…” or “I don’t think God would…”.

Now, I can see that I was just creating a god in my own image. As Christians, we ought to be able to provide a justification for our beliefs in Scripture. The Bible is not just “Best Instructions Before Leaving Earth”, like it is some sort of manual but it is the Holy Word of God and should be the foundation of our entire worldview. It’s standards are absolute and its decrees and decisions final. The Bible is inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. That means that no matter what I think  God might be like, or how I think He might want me to act, if there does not exist a sound Scriptural reasoning for my convictions, then I am wrong. The truth is not found in my feelings and emotions, but in His Word. With this comes the obligation of discernment; testing the concepts of man, however good they sound, against the Word of God.

Creed, Catechism, and Confession

To be frank, I had never been told what a catechism was, nor had I heard of confessions of faith, and the two creeds that I did know were just things recited at communion services as part of the liturgy. I don’t think I had even heard that the denomination that I grew up in, the Church of England, had a doctrinal confession until I was around 20. In fact, the Christianity to which I held was almost entirely devoid of historical truth and the idea of setting out specific beliefs to which I hold, and building on men of great faith who had gone before, was entirely foreign.

Whilst I am still new, in general, to catechesis and confessionalism, I can now appreciate their importance in keeping the body of believers within doctrinal boundaries. Without confessional Christianity, we are wandering blindly in the dark. Perhaps we will find our way eventually, but more than likely we will go astray and will be ignorant of the monsters that lie in the shadows. The creeds and confessions exist to give a sound guide by which we may navigate the faith, whilst catechesis serves to help us remember these truths and teach them to others. Whilst all these resources are not infallible or inspired like Scripture, they are incredibly useful for examining, strengthening, and defending the Christian faith.

Sacraments

My view of the sacraments was, one might say, loose. Other than necessary components for the Christian life because the Lord commanded these rituals in memory of Him, I wasn’t really sure why we baptised or distributed the bread and wine at communion. Also, why did people care what the ‘proper’ way to administer these sacraments was? Isn’t it just personal preference? What if I wanted to have communion with crisps and apple juice, what was the difference, ultimately?

In other words, my view of these sacraments was so low it could have dropped though the floor. While Reformed theology has never come to a unanimous consensus to how we should administer these sacraments,  it is evident to me that these parts of our Christian life are vitally important and our disagreements matter, even if they should not divide us. These are the signs and seals of the covenant of grace that God Himself made with man. Our baptism should be treasured because it should be an outward mark of our remission sin and our union with Christ, as true believers. At the Lord’s table, we should come and examine ourselves in the light of the cross, remembering all that Christ did for us when He shed His blood and broke His body and to spiritually receive and feed upon Him. In fact, so important are these means of grace towards us that the Bible says that, if we “eat and drink without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself.” (1 Cor 11:29). These sacraments should be guarded and treasured in the hearts of every believer and we should praise God every time we witness a baptism or partake of the Lord’s Supper for His grace in giving us these signs and seals of His marvellous promises!

Corporate Worship

With a lot of modern church worship, especially those that strive to follow in the footsteps of the large megachurches around the world, the focus is very much on developing a feeling within the congregation – specifically in times of song. Some would go so far as to say it is emotionally manipulative but I think a more accurate term is emotionally driven. In fact, a lot of singing in praise felt more like a concert or performance than anything else. However, I was entirely comfortable with this frame of corporate worship as an immature Christian and I did not think much of it.

I never understood, for a long time, that there really exists correct and incorrect ways of worshipping God. Biblically, there does exists a category of worship that we can define as ‘unacceptable’ – just ask Nadab and Abihu. However, largely speaking, although the manner in which we worship was something I was challenged about first, it is the content of the worship that I continue to struggle with. The Reformed faith places such an emphasis not only on the Scriptures but in sound theology that a lot (not all, but a lot) of the modern praise songs come across as repetitive, shallow, and self-focused. It’s too much about us; too much about how our faith makes us feel, and worship should not be based on our feelings. It’s not a question of style, but about content. As the modern church, we have slowly embraced an affective principle of worship, rather than a regulative or even normative principle.

Finally, I now realise how important the ‘corporate’ is in our corporate worship. A quick look at Colossians 3:16 shows us “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Our singing in praise should be from the gospel, for one another, and to the Lord. When was the last time a song at church taught you something that made you go away and study the concept after church, or ask your minister? When was the last time a song at church admonished you? There is a sense in which we must teach and admonish our brothers and sisters in the church, week by week, in the things of the gospel through our songs. This is just one of the many reasons why the Reformed faith considers the regular attendance of a local congregation of such vital importance. If I am gaining the same spiritual benefit by listening to hymns on my own and singing praise with my church family, then there is something wrong with how I view worship.


In essence, what the Reformed faith has taught me is how valuable the five points of the Reformation are, and how to live by them. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) – that the Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith and has unique authority in Christian lives. Sola Gratia (Grace Alone) – that God saves us by nothing but pure grace. Sola Fide (Faith Alone) – that this grace in us is manifested in our faith, that gives us union with Christ, and the only basis for our salvation. Solus Christus (Christ Alone) – that this faith must be placed in the person and work Jesus Christ alone. Soli Deo Gloria (The Glory of God Alone) – that all we are, and all we do, is to bring glory to the God who saved us!

Hitting the Target: The Canons of Dordt, Part 3

Readers may be familiar with the ‘five points of Calvinism’ (which has already been shown in part two to be somewhat of an anachronism) that seek to summarise the Canons of Dordt in five points that spell TULIP. Whilst this is an imperfect, yet admittedly useful acronym the Canons themselves are arranged in the order ULTIP, to correspond with the order of the articles of the Remonstrance.

Here, I will look at the first two heads of doctrine of the Canons of Dordt (to be read in full here for reference).

The First Head of Doctrine

The first head of doctrine concerns the predestination and election of God, often summarised as teaching unconditional election (the ‘U’ in TULIP). The Canons teach that God elects, out of the sinful mass of humanity, a people for Himself. Those to whom God predestines to give the gift of faith are truly saved; others are left in their sins. The basis of this predestination unto salvation of the elect, the Canons stress, is not on the basis of forseen faith in the believer. Over against the Arminians, the Canons (specifically in article 9) express that the faith of the believer is not a prerequisite condition upon which God saves, but faith flows forth from God’s election.

Perhaps clearest and most forceful refutation of the Arminian position is found in article 7 (emphases in all quotes are my own):

“Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He has out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of uprightness into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect and the foundation of salvation.  This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God has decreed to give to Christ to be saved by Him, and effectually to call and draw them to His communion by His Word and Spirit; to bestow upon them true faith, justification, and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of His Son, finally to glorify them for the demonstration of His mercy, and for the praise of the riches of His glorious grace; as it is written: “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him, in love having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He bestowed grace upon us in the Beloved” (Eph 1:4-6).  And elsewhere: “Whom He predestined, these He also called, and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Rom 8:30).”

The Canons, in multiple articles, are quick to point out that those whom God does not elect (or passes over) are not treated unfairly. In this sense, the Canons clearly define, as in article 15 below, that this predesination is a “double predestination”. That is, the election is not simply God electing some special people, and then the rest of humanity are left to choose whether to believer or not. Rather, due to the fundamental condition of humanity (as the third and fourth heads of doctrine will flesh out later), those who are not elected never believer because they will alway choosing to sin against God. Therefore, all the non – elect are necessarily predestined by omission and this is the decree of reprobation.

The Canons are careful to refute the misrepresentation that implies that God is the author sin in the lives on the non – elect in order to damn them. This is the view known as “equal ultimacy”. This is a ‘positive – positive’ view of double predestination. It holds that God works equally in the predstination of the elect as He does the reprobate: ‘positively’ working new life in the hearts of the elect and, in the same and equal manner, ‘positively’ working new evil in the hearts of the reprobate. The view of the Canons is instead a “positive – negative” double predestination. God ‘positively’ works new life in the believer, and ‘negatively’ refrains from giving mercy to the reprobate. Calvinists are often accused of believing in equal ultimacy, but the Canons explicitly rule it out as blasphemous. Instead, God condemns the reproabte out of the sin they themselves have wrought in their sinful nature, by their own choice. God in no way needs to work evil in our heart to cause a just basis for His condemnation. In the words of article 15:

“[N]ot all, but some only, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom God, out of His sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure, has decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but, permitting them in His just judgment to follow their own ways, at last, for the declaration of His justice, to condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins.  And this is the decree of reprobation, which by no means makes God the Author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares Him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous Judge and Avenger thereof.”

The articles of the first head of doctrine address some more pastoral concerns. Some people, the Synod envisaged, would worry about being unchangeably numbered among the reprobate and therefore would never be saved. They saw their struggling Christian life as a liability for assurance of their salvation and perhaps thought to give up hope in the face of the knowledge that some people are not predestined to salvation by God. The Canons answer this concern most helpfully in article 16:

Those in whom a living faith in Christ, and assured confidence of soul, peace of conscience, an earnest endeavor after filial obedience, a glorying in God through Christ, is not as yet strongly felt, and who nevertheless make use of the means which God has appointed for working these graces in us, ought not to be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, nor to rank themselves among the reprobate, but diligently to persevere in the use of means, and with ardent desires devoutly and humbly to wait for a season of richer grace.  Much less cause to be terrified by the doctrine of reprobation have they who, though they seriously desire to be turned to God, to please Him only, and to be delivered from the body of death, cannot yet reach that measure of holiness and faith to which they aspire; since a merciful God has promised that He will not quench the smoking flax, nor break the bruised reed. But this doctrine is justly terrible to those who, regardless of God and of the Savior Jesus Christ, have wholly given themselves up to the cares of the world and the pleasures of the flesh, so long as they are not seriously converted to God.”

Those who are granted faith in God, however weak, however troubled, however discouraged, should not be worried about reprobation as He is gracious to carry even the feeblest of us. The doctrine about reprobation ought to convict those who are in no way desirous of the things of God and lust only after the pleasures of the flesh.

Furthermore, the case of infant mortality is also considered briefly in article 17, calling on Christian parents that they ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy.”

After the initial 18 articles, the Canons procede to offer 9 rejections of Arminian errors. The most important of these rejections is Rejection 4, which explicitly calls out the idea that “in the election unto faith this condition is beforehand demanded that man should use the light of nature aright, be pious, humble, meek, and fit for eternal life, as if on these things election were in any way dependent” as a mark of the Pelagian heresy of the 5th century, where men must do good works in order to earn their slavation. This was the fundamental error of the Remonstrance’s first article that the Synod categorically denied, both in a positive (through the articles) and negative (through the rejections) fashion.

The Second Head of Doctrine

Whilst the first head of doctrine was the longest, the second was the shortest, with 9 articles and 7 rejections. In terms of the familiar acronym, TULIP, the second head of doctrine corresponds to the ‘L’ – limited atonement. Since this is the most controversial section of the Canons, it is worth taking some extra care here.

First is to note that the popular English slogan for what the Canons teach here is misleading. It is not misleading in the sense that it is false, but in that it is not really specific to what the Synod was attempting to convey. From the beginning, we must recognise that every theological system in Christianity (unless you are a Universalist and believe in the salvation of every single human being) limits the atonement in at least some way. All of them – Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy. The issue at stake is about in what manner the atonement is limited.

In the discussion here between the Arminian and Calvinist views, it would be useful to recall what the Arminians themselves wrote in the Remonstrance of 1610. Article 2 states:

“Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer

Clearly, the Arminians held to a universal or unlimited view of the extent of the atonement. That is, they believe that Jesus’ sacrifice was applied to, and was intended for, the redemption of every human being. However, the Arminian position held that the efficacy or effectiveness of the atonement is limited. If everyone has the atonement of Christ applied to them, then it cannot be effective in all of them since all are not actually redeemed and forgiven. Therefore, the Arminians presented a system where the atonement has an unlimited extent, but a limited effect.

Over and against this, the Synod taught that the atonement should properly be considered as having a limited extent. That is, Christ’s death on the cross was only ever intended to redeem His elect. In doing so, the Synod recognised that whilst the extent of the atonement was limited, its effect must be unlimited and completely effective. In other words, Christ’s death accomplishes salvation for each and every person to whom it is applied, since it is only applied to the elect.

It is important to note that the Canons make it clear that despite the atonement being limited in its extent, that does not mean that the Gospel should only be preached to some and not to all. Article 5 proclaims:

“Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life.  This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”

Although many attack Calvinists for thinking that ‘limited atonement’ must mean we ought to limit those to whom we preach the Gospel, the Canons of Dordt deny this. The simple reason is that nobody knows who the elect are. If God dictated to us who the elect were, we would only need to preach the Gospel to them. But since He has not chosen to do so, we must share the Gospel widely in the earnest hope that God will use our preaching to save sinners. All those He does save through the proclamation of the Gospel are shown to be of the elect.

However, whilst the Gospel ought to be shared freely and widely, we must recognise that God has predestined to save His elect (as in the first head of doctrine above). Article 8 expresses the reality of the extent and efficacy of the atonement succinctly:

“For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them, free from every spot and blemish, to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever.”

The Canons make it abundantly clear that while the Arminians claimed that Jesus made salvation possible for all people, the Calvinist view teaches that Jesus’ death on the cross actually and effectively saves all those for whom it was intended. To put it somewhat more crudely, the cry of Calvary for the Arminian is “Jesus might save some, if they choose to believe”, but for the Calvinist it is “surely God has guaranteed the salvation of His people”.


The third, fourth, and fifth heads of doctrine are the subject of part four.

Hitting the Target: The Canons of Dordt, Part 2

A controversy that brought the Dutch church to the edge of a major split, the division over the Remonstrance was examined in part one. The response by the new Dutch government was to call a Synod of Reformed ministers in order to resolve this crisis.

The Synod was called for the 13th of November, 1618, in the city of Dordrecht (often abbreviated in English as ‘Dort’ or ‘Dordt’). There was a large backlash to the calling of the Synod as many Arminians felt that the Calvinists in the Dutch church were not in to position to objectively judge the issues in dispute. The Calvinists responded that they were upholding the Reformed teaching and so must be given the opportunity to judge the innovations of the Remonstrants against the established standard. However, the Calvinists did concede that, in the interest of fairness, the Synod was to be an international affair, gathering the views from delegates from across the Reformed world. This would mititgate any bias on the grounds of Dutch politics so that the true heart of the theological issue would be examined. Furthermore, the Arminians had the right to make their views heard at the Synod directly rather than relying on, potentially partisan, second – hand accounts.

The invitations to the Synod produced some embarrassing moments for the organisers. First was the snubbing of the Scottish Church. An invitation was sent for a delegation from King James I of England (VI of Scotland). He appointed a delegation of five bishops from England to the Synod (including the distinguised Bishop of Salisbury, John Davenant). The Presbyterian Church of Scotland was not impressed by this entirely English delegation. King James acquiesced and added a Scot (Walter Balcanqual) to the delegation. However, Balcanqual was actually a member of the Church of England, which displeased the Scots all the more.

The English (and Scottish) delegation notified the Dutch that they ought to have honoured seats in the Synod, owing to being the delegation from the greatest Protestant monarchy of Europe. Unfortunately, the French delegation also claimed a right to the most honoured seats on the basis that they were the delegation from the greatest of all monarchies in Europe. This potentially problematic seating arrangement was avoided since King Louis XIII (a papist) informed the French delegation that they would not be permitted to re – enter France on the return journey if they were to go to the Synod. At the Synod itself, the Dutch left visibly empty seats for the non – existent French delegation, placed just below the English seats.

Whilst delegates from England, Scotland, German territories (Palatinate, Hesse, Nassau, Bremen, and Emden), the German – speaking Swiss cantons (Zurich, Bern, Basel, and Schaffhausen), and the Dutch Republic itself, it was shaping up to be a truly international Synod, even without the French delegation. Yet more embarrassment was to await the Dutch. They’d forgotten to invite anyone from Geneva, which had arguably been the most important centre of Reformed learning for 80 years. A late invitation was sent and accepted.

The final delegation had a total of 84 delegates and 18 political commissioners. There was also a large contingent of the Remonstrants that arrived in December 1618 to defend their views. However, the Synod only named a leading 13 Arminians to attend the Synod. Not so much as delegates, but in order to stand trial as defendants of their theological unorthodoxy. The leader of these 13 was Simon Episcopius. The previous Remonstrant leader after Arminius himself had died, Uytenbogaert, had fled to Antwerp, in the Spanish occupied Netherlands.

The opening speech in defence of the Remonstrance was made by Episcopius. The speech was noted as a particularly dull affair, lasting over two hours. One British observer to the Synod, John Hales, noted that Episcopius had finally come to the part for which the Synod had all been wating: the end. Later one, the Arminians were to be expelled from the Synod by the president, Johannes Bogerman, for speaking at great length in unhelpful ways. They never returned.

The discussion of the Remonstrant theology by the Synod was no simple task by itself. In one particularly heated moment, the former theological faculty member of the University of Leiden, Francis Gomarus, challenged Martinius of Bremen to a duel on the floor of the Synod over a particular theological formulation. Fortunately, other members of the Synod kept heads cool enough so that peace prevailed without the need for the death of another Synod delegate.

Finally, however, the Synod approved a response to the Remonstrance in April, 1619. They were officially proclaimed in May of the same year. Based around the five point format that the Remonstrance used, the Synod of Dordt produced its Canons (meaning ‘rule’) as a five point ruling against the Arminians. Incidentally, here lies the origin of the so – called ‘five points of Calvinism’. Calvinism, as a nickname (originally given by Lutherans) for Reformed theology, has nothing to do with Calvin himself (at least not directly) and is itself much broader than simply the five points that the Canons of Dordt lay out. A full expression of true Calvinism (or, more accurately, Reformed theology) can be found in such confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, or the Belgic Confession, and catechisms such as the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms. Calvinism never has had five points, but simply five answers to the five errors of Arminianism.

Following the format provided in the Remonstrance, the Canons of Dordt are organised around five heads of doctrine. As noted above, the third and fourth articles of the Remonstrance are paired together since article 3 is only problematic when considered alongside article 4.

The Canons are a significantly longer document than the Remonstrance. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the members of the Synod chose not to write the Canons in academic language but rather to make the Canons readable for the average church member. The Canons could have been much more concise if they had used for technical theological language, but their benefit to the common man would be diminished. Secondly, not only did the Canons state a their positive position on each of the five points, but they also answered some perceived objections that the Arminians might raise. Each head of doctrine (the third and fourth combined as one section) has up to 18 short articles stating the Synod’s teaching upon which they agreed and up to 9 short rejections of misunderstandings and errors.

The Canons themselves can be read in their entirety here. I would highly recommend reading them (at least the five heads of doctrine) for yourself. A brief overview of each head of doctrine will suffice in part three.

5 things I have learnt from the book of Judges

As a part of my Bible reading throughout 2020, I am highlighting 5 things from the books of the Bible that have stood out to me and taught me.

Here are 5 things I have learnt from the book of Judges.

Forgetting the Lord Leads to Sin

After finishing the book of Joshua, you can’t help but be optimistic. God has provided Israel with the laws and they ways they ought to live in order to prosper in the long sought – after Promised Land. However, quickly, realisation dawns that life in the Promised Land will not be quite so simple. In fact, it’s extremely convoluted and chaotic, not to mention somewhat sickening and gory.

Despite first appearances, there is a clear literary structure to the book of Judges. It goes something along the lines of the following:

  • Israel ‘does evil’ in God’s sight. This is usually prefaced with phrases like ‘And Israel forgot the Lord their God’, which is the author’s perpetual reminder about the true cause of Israel’s sin, regardless of the other circumstances.
  • God hands Israel over to be conquered and oppressed by other nations as a judgement for their sin.
  • The Israelites finally decide to remember God and cry out for help.
  • God raises up a member of the nation of Israel as a Judge to deliver them from their oppression.
  • There is peace for a time under the Judge.
  • Israel then ‘do evil’ in the sight of the Lord as they ‘forget the Lord their God’ once more, and the cycle begins again.

The root problem with the horrific scenes in the book of Judges is found here. They forget the Lord their God. They chase after idols – not just the physical carvings and statues they worship, but the idols self – gratification, greed, and power. This pattern is excatly replicated in our own lives – we enter into sin because we forget, either deliberately or through neglect, the Lord our God.

“Everyone did what was right in their eyes”

After reading through the law of God in the first five books of the Old Testament, these words evoked a sense of foreboding. In fact, when we consider they way the Bible portrays the moral judgement of mankind, these words are nothing but chilling. Yet, the quote that ‘everyone did what was right in their own eyes’ is a common refrain of the book of Judges. Invariably, the author of the book uses it as an epitaph in the decline of the moral state of Israel as they slide into evermore egregious acts of violence.

Specifically, we see:

  • The story of Ehud (Judges 3:15 – 30) who fashions for himself a dagger to assassinate Eglon, king of Moab on the pretence of giving him a message from God.
  • The story of Jael (Judges 4:17 – 22) who harbours Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army, in her tent. She gives him a bottle of milk for his thirst before driving a tent peg through his skull.
  • The story of Gideon (Judges 6 – 9) who, initially a coward, overcomes his fear by faith in the Lord. However, he then leads Israel into idolatry by his own arrogance and then starts an inter – tribal civil war.
  • The story of Jephthah (Judges 10 – 12, see below), who ends up sacrificing his daughter in order to earn favour from God.
  • The story of Samson (Judges 13 – 16), who slaughtered Philistines for fun, and slept with a prostitute, Delilah, before going back on his promise to God and revealing to her the source of his supernatural strength. After being delivered to the Philistines, and having his eyes gouged out in captivity in the Philistine temple, he single – handedly demolished the temple, killing everyone in the temple, including himself.

However, this particular phrase should not be confined to the nation of Israel in the time of the book of Judges. If one could write an appendix of this current age of subjectivism and postmodernity, it could so easily be ‘everyone did what was right in their eyes.’ Those in the secular world would consider this a successful moral guide for society, but the book of Judges teaches us that it leads to some horrific scenes, justified by a twisted understanding of morality. If the book of Judges teaches us anything, it is what happens when a society allows its memebers act according to what is right in their own eyes.

The Judges Point to Christ, the Judge

It would be an understatement to say that the judges of Israel in the book of Judges were flawed people. They acted corruptly, selfishly, and sometimes violently. It was clear that they knew precious little about fulfilling their God – givened role and how to serve Him. They provided some deliverance from Israel’s oppression, but the nation quickly lapsed back into idolatry. God uses them to save His people temporarily, but not permenantly.

With all these flaws and shortcomings of the judges, it might be difficult to see where they fit in the Bible’s overall narrative. However, one thing that jumps to mind is that Christ is frequently alluded to as the Judge of humanity in the New Testament (c.f. John 5:22; Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1, etc.) The judges of Old Testament Israel were but a pale shadow of the true Judge of Israel, Jesus Christ. He, like the aforementioned judges, will deliver His people from oppression. However, He, unlike the others, will judge with righteousness, justice, and mercy, rather than sinful corruption.

Christ is the greater Samson. Instead of opening his arms to demolish a temple to kill his enemies, He opened His arms on the cross, to save His enemies.

Christ is the greater Gideon. Gideon won a great battle against Israel’s armies without an army, yet Christ won a greater battle against the enemy of His bride, Satan, without a sword (Judges 7:16 – 23). He is the true Bread that will strike down His enemies (Judges 7:9 – 15).

It is Christ to whom all the judges are point. They were the imperfect judges who oversaw partial deliverance for God’s people, but on the last day, the perfect Judge will shepherd in an eternal deliverance for His Church.

The Heart is a Factory of Idols

The book of Judges shows, as much as anything else, how easy it is to fall into idolatry. It is the systemic problem; a root problem from which many other issues blossom.

Yet it is not as if their own propensity to idolatry was not pointed out to them repeatedly by God. They were instructed to drive out all the people from the lands, lest they be enraptured by the idolatrous gods of the native peoples. However, we know this does not happen (Judges 1:27 – 2:3) and God makes it clear that the Israelites’ disobedience has led them into idolatry. The reason that God knew that the idols of the Canaanite gods would ensnare Israel is because humanity’s sinful nature is always lusting after idols; new and old. It is in our fallen nature to honour ‘the creation rather then the Creator’ (Romans 1:25) and to be trapped by idols in our hearts.

It’s not as if our hearts are any different! In fact, the parallel statement in the New Testament is found in Romans 12:2:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

In other words, instead of driving an idolatrous people from the land, drive out the idolatrous influences of your mind. This is a spiritual conquest of Canaan, with the battleground swapped for the spiritual influences of heart and mind for the land of Palestine.

Why Not To Make Foolish Vows

I am sure that everyone has made promises and oaths that were unwise. Promises we never expect to keep, or even promises we know we can never keep. Indeed, God had instructed Israel as to how sacred vows are (Deuteronomy 23:21 – 23) and explicitly mentions that vows are not to be broken (Numbers 30:2). Of course, this reflects God’s character completely: His word is completely sure; He is unendingly and perfectly faithful and so His law to His people reflects that. God’s high view of keeping vows corresponds to His own guarantee of His faithfulness.

With that in mind, it would have been innate in the Israelite psyche that oaths and vows were simply not to be made lightly, for if they were made, then their word would bind them. Thus, when we read Judges 11:29 – 31, it leaves a chilly sense of foreboding:

“Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.'”

Jephthah made this vow living, as he did, in house where animals would often wander through the house and its courtyard. In fact, animals would often occupy the ground floor, and the family would live on the first floor. Expecting, no doubt, that an animal would be first to leave his house on his return, Jephthah made this most tragic of vows. The hauting question, of course, would be: what if it is not an animal? Verse 34 provides the answer:

“Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter.” (Judges 11:34)

Horrorstruck, Jephthah tears his robes in sign of grief (Judges 11:35) but says that he must carry out his vow. This shows incredible selfishness on the part of Jephthah. He knows that God requires vows to be kept, but Jephthah must also have known that human sacrifice was also viewed as a most repugnant sin (Deuteronomy 18:10 – 12). Therefore, he chooses to try and save himself, claiming he is doing God’s will by keeping his oath at the expense of his daughter’s life, rather than repenting before God and acknowledging that his hasty vow has led him to something immoral.

Jephthah did not understand God’s nature. He did not see God as a God who fogives the penitent but only as a slave master whose law must be followed. He separated God’s law from God’s character (the very essence of legalism) and in doing so he, and his poor daughter, paid a terrible price.

We learn from Jephthah, then, to humble ourselves rather than blunder on in our folly; throwing ourselves on the mercy of God the Father, who does not, ultimately, take pleasure in burnt offerings (epsecially human ones), but rather a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:16 – 17).


Of course, there is much more to the book of Judges than just these 5 points, but they are the ones that stood out to me as I read through Judges in 2020. Enjoy reading it for yourself!

2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 4: The Age of Religious Conflict – Nick Needham

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The final edition of Needham’s as yet unfinished Church history series, covering from about 1560 to 1740. The structure of the book has changed subtley to reflect the much more diverse nature of the Church in comparison to the earlier volumes.

In this volume, the Lutheran Church is considered in its own chater, followed by the Continental Reformed faith, then two chapters on the Puritans (mostly in England), one on the Scottich Covenanters, two on the enduring Roman Catholic Church, and then the final chapter on the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Given such diversity within the 16th and 17th century post – Reformation Churches, the structure allows the reader to only focus on one tradition at a time, which makes it most helpful to follow.

Much as the last volumes, the writing is excellent and engaging, the biographical portrayals lively, the respective movements considered are all well defined (where possible!), and the source texts at the end of the chapter are, as always, most illuminating. Some particular highlights include:

  • The explanation of the origins of the Thirty Years’ War was, at least from a religious point of view, clearly explained. This is personally a conflict that I hadn’t had much prior knowledge of, so I found this particularly useful.
  • The discussion of Moise Amyraut was fascinating. He is such an enigmatic character. Indeed, the whole issues of some potentially Amyraldian influences in the Westminster Assembly was interesting to consider and the effects of hypothetical universalism on the final draft of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
  • The English civil war was explained in a nuanced light that I appreciated. Too often, the definition of the term ‘Puritan’ is made in such a way that makes the English civil war too simplistic (and, of course, the Puritans are the ‘bad guys’) . Indeed, the whole definition of the term ‘Puritan’ is so nuanced, as Needham shows. He takes the stance that before the civil war, a Puritan was, broadly, an Anglican who sought further reformation of the Church of England. During the civil war and Cromwellian eras, Needham uses the term Puritan to mean those who wished to self – consciously advance Protestant ideals under in a national church context. After this time (the ejections of the Purtians from the national church in 1662), the term ‘Puritan’ is abandoned in favour of ‘Nonconformist’ (or if they left voluntarily before 1662 as ‘Separatist’). I very much welcomed the rigorous methodology in defining such a key term of 17th century English Church history.
  • Moreover, the Covenanters of Scotland were given significant space in the book and I personally found their coverage particularly well written. I expected to be ‘bogged down’ in covering the Scottish Church but I was pleasantly surprised!

Needham goes to great lengths never to wholly demean, nor hero – worship, any one particular individual or group/tradition in the Church. In fact, it is a most refreshingly balanced read that gives credit, concessions, and charitable readings where they are dew. Most notable, Needham’s coverage of Cyril Lucaris was particularly excellent.

The only major things I found slighlty disappointing were:

  1. The continued lack of information regarding textual transmission or textual criticism. Needham openly states he believes it to be beyond the scope of the series, but I did leave me a little disappointed.
  2. The section on Roman Catholic Gallicanism was a little laborious. This is probably due to my lower interest in the topic as opposed to, say, the Puritan era. The danger with such a broad overview of Church history is those areas of particular traditions that you care little about. This can hardly be helped, but I felt it slightly tedious all the same.

It must be said that I thoroughly enjoyed each and every volume in the series so far, and I eagerly anticipate Volume 5. I will be among the first to order it, I am sure!

5 things I have learnt from the book of Joshua

As a part of my Bible reading throughout 2020, I am highlighting 5 things from the books of the Bible that have stood out to me and taught me.

Here are 5 things I have learnt from the book of Joshua.

God is With Us

As Israel prepare to cross the Jordan river out and into the land of Canaan, the promised land, God gives them this amazing promise:

“Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  (Joshua 1:7 – 9)

Entering into a new and unknown land, embarking on the daunting journey of building an entire nation, you would not blame the Israelites for being overwhelmed as they entered the promsied land.

Yet, God encourages them in their new venture. He reaffirms the promises that He made to them in the book of Deuteronomy, in that they will be successful and will prosper in keeping God’s law. However, He then goes even further and promises His eternal covenant faithfulness to Israel by being with them wherever they went. Centred on the tabernacle and, later, the temple, the presence of God among His people became the central tenet of God’s people.

What a great act of condescention, for God to dwell with sinful humnanity! Yet, this is only a shadow of the great condescention of Christ, who came to Earth as ‘Immanuel’; God with us.

The Futility of Thinking You Know Better Than God

This is a fault to which we are all subject, in one way or another, whether we are conscious of it or not. We like to think that we know better than God. This is particularly true of situations where we cannot see why God would instruct us to do something (or refrain from doing something) for reasons we can’t yet see.

Such is the case with Joshua in the land of Canaan. God excplicitly lays out to Joshua to drive the people in Canaan fully from the land (Numbers 33:50 – 56). However, Joshua does not obey, and instead he does not drive all the people out completely. Some remain, albeit having to do a form of forced labour as servants.

The real problem, was that the idols of the Canaanites remained within Israel, and ultimately lead Israel astray and bring them into the idolatry of their pagan ancestors. Fundamentally, Joshua thought he knew better than God and decided to keep some of the Canaanites as servants, but it leads to renewed idolatry in the land; exactly what obeying God’s instruction would have guarded against. With reflection and hindsight, Joshua could see how his belief that he knew better than God had such dire consequences.

God’s Faithfulness in the Face of the Impossible

When you read through Joshua 12, and you read all the kings defeated first by Moses, and then by Joshua, in the conquest of Canaan, you start to wonder how the (relatively small) nation of Israel managed to do what they did and fully enter into the promsied land.

Joshua, alone, fights and defeats 31 kings (Joshua 12:24) in the process of his campaign of conquest. Personally, if I were told before hand that I had to defeat 31 separate kings on the way to victory, I would not believer it to be possible. I would most certainly give it up as a lost cause.

In fact, to any human being and human strength alone, this is almost certainly a lost cause. The purpose of the Holy Spirit in the pages of Joshua making this point about the number of kings defeated is just so we’d see that these were victories of God, and not victories of man. No human army alone could accomplish what the Israelites achieved and so we are pointed to the faithfulness and power God in both upholding His promise and having the power to bring about the comprehensive victory!

The Worship of God Requires Carefulness

How could we describe the ways in which we are to worship God? With sincerity, perhaps? With passion? Devotion? Faith? Truth?

All these are of course good and right, but how often do we think that we must worship God with carefulness? Twice in the book of Joshua, we are told to be careful when we worship God.

“Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Joshua 22:5)

“Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God.” (Joshua 23:11)

God tells the people of Israel that they must be careful in loving God because if they are not, then they will be ensnared by the culture around them that will lead them astray.

To guard themselves, Joshua points the people to the commandments that God issued to them. To walk in light of the law that God has revealed is the only way for Israel to prosper as a nation, as God had warned them in the book of Deuteronomy.

In an age where novelty and invention in worship are commendable assets, Joshua paints a very different picture of what service and obedience to God looks like. If we are not careful, we may drift off into Paganism. We cannot think we can trust ourselves to invent ways by which to worship God, instead we must be careful to observe His commandments serve Him with our hearts.

The Deadly Influence of Pagan Culture

Directly related to the section above, not only does the book of Joshua instruct and teach us to be careful in our worship of God, but it also gives a glimpse into what falling into the clutches of a Pagan culture looks like for the worship of God’s people.

Cynically, we might say that this part of the book of Joshua does not really apply to us today since we don’t live in an age where people make Pagan sacrifices to carved idols. However, the influence of Pagan culture is often much more subtle than that. Immediately after warning Israel to be careful to love God, Joshua then says:

“Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, but you shall cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day…

For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you.” (Joshua 23: 6 -8, 12 – 13)

Whilst the trap for Israel may well have been bowing down to carved ‘gods’ in the form of animals or other creatures, the idols of the culture into which we are born can be as equally pervasive and dangers.

Whenever we impose the standards of our culture and society on the Church, we are falling into this very trap. When acceptance by those outside of the Church becomes important; when we allow the culture to criticise the law of God, then we have been infiltrated by the very same Pagan philosophy that so captivated the Israelites of Joshua’s time. What our culture holds dear and what the ancient Canaanite culture holds dear may not have a lot in common, but their lure away from God’s word is exactly the same.

Just as Israel ought to have taken every precaution to rid themselves of the corrupting influence of the Pagan Canaanite culture, so we should endeavour to do the same with ours.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)


Of course, there is much more to the book of Joshua than just these 5 points, but they are the ones that stood out to me as I read through Joshua in 2020. Enjoy reading it for yourself!