Archive for the ‘Devotional’ Category

“Worldly men imagine, that there is true excellency and true happiness in those things which they are pursuing. They think that if they could but obtain them, they should be happy; and when they obtain them, and cannot find happiness, they look for happiness in something else, and are still upon the pursuit.

“But Christ Jesus has true excellency, and so great excellency, that when they come to see it they look no further, but the mind rests there. It sees a transcendent glory and an ineffable sweetness in him; it sees that till now it has been pursuing shadows, but that now it has found the substance; that before it had been seeking happiness in the stream, but that now it has found the ocean”

Saw this at http://www.radical.net/blog/2012/04/finding-the-ocean/

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Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old-

http://theessentialowen.com/2012/01/10/arminians-and-the-doctrine-of-election/

A Classical Analysis of Puritan Preaching
ARTICLE BY JOSEPH STEELE AUGUST 2010
INTRODUCTION

Reformed Christians are indebted to the Puritans for a variety of reasons, not the least of which for their contribution to preaching. In many ways, Puritan preaching was the very heartbeat of the Puritan movement. It would be no exaggeration to say that without Puritan preaching there would have been no Puritans. To quote Irvonwy Morgan, “Puritanism in the last resort must be assessed in terms of the pulpit.”[1]

But what exactly is Puritan preaching? How may it be properly distinguished from other forms of preaching? Why has its influence been so palatably felt by succeeding generations? In answering such questions the author will invoke a somewhat atypical method of inquiry. To the author’s knowledge, no such inquiry has hitherto been attempted.

Most readers will be familiar with the trivium or three-fold classical approach to learning. As a means of conveying information to the student, the classical method employed three distinct, yet progressive stages: (1) grammar; (2) dialectic; and (3) rhetoric. According to this classical schematic, the initial phase of learning any subject necessarily involved learning the basic facts about the particular subject, otherwise known as its grammar. The next phase of learning required the student to master the principles or inter-relatedness among those basic facts, thus arriving at a “whole” picture of the individual, basic parts. This second phase is known as the dialectic phase. Lastly, the student was expected to be able to express, either vocally or literarily, the totality of what he had learned in the first two phases. This final expressive phase is known as the rhetoric phase.

We may illustrate a contemporary use of the trivium via the following example: Consider how a mother might teach her four-year old son how to read. Most would agree that she should begin by having the child learn the foundational facts about our language. This will involve memorizing the alphabet and its corresponding sounds. Over time the child will eventually learn the identification and usage of verbs, nouns, and adjectives. In short, the child will learn the grammar of our language. But grammar alone is not sufficient for knowing how to read and write. The child must eventually learn the proper relationships between nouns and verbs, between sentences and paragraphs, between words and books. In short, the child will learn the dialectics of language. But what good is knowledge of language if one is ill-equipped to convey such knowledge to others? Not much. Therefore the child must learn how to express what he has learned. He must learn how to write and speak for himself. In short, the child must eventually learn the art of rhetoric.

How may this author best convey the characteristics and importance of Puritan preaching?–perhaps by explaining them in the classical pattern of the trivium. This paper will therefore chart the foundational facts of Puritan preaching (i.e., its grammar), the principles or inter-relatedness among those facts within Puritan preaching (i.e., its dialectic), as well as the art of expressing the sum total of that knowledge (i.e., its rhetoric).[2] Ultimately, it is the author’s goal that this brief synopsis of Puritan preaching will be useful to the reader (and by extension the church) by engendering better preachers and better listeners of a most lovely gospel.

PART ONE: THE GRAMMAR OF PURITAN PREACHING

~God’s Word as Grammar~

“Think in every line you read that God is speaking to you.”
–Thomas Watson

Just as essential as phonics is for teaching a child how to read, so too the Bible was the sine qua non of Puritan preaching. The Puritans were not just Theo-centric, they were Word-centric. The full-orbed implications of the Reformation maxim sola scriptura were writ large upon the face of Puritan preaching. The lives of the Puritans were uniformly shaped by the revealed will of the Triune God contained in sixty-six books which they believed were divinely preserved for the good of God’s people. Accordingly, the Puritans “loved, lived, and breathed Scripture, relishing the power of the Spirit that accompanied the Word. They viewed Scripture as God speaking to them as their Father, giving them the truth they could trust for all eternity.” [3]

The main concern of Puritan preaching was to transmit God’s infallible word to His people. Puritan preaching was marked by an unadulterated concern to search the Scriptures, collate their findings, and apply them to all areas of life. [4] For the Puritans, all theological language was ultimately God’s language (provided it is true). To that end, how could a preacher possibly endeavor to employ God’s Word from the pulpit without making strident and vigorous effort to understand it not just generally, but particularly? The Puritans aimed simultaneously for telescopic knowledge of the Scriptures as well as for microscopic knowledge; their sermons exhibit appreciation for the texture of both systematic and biblical theology. Indeed, this is hardly surprising because, “Puritan preachers received the Bible as a coherent unit rather than a random collection of unconnected fragments.” [5]

The puritan conviction about the centrality of the Bible in preaching was reinforced by the practice of largely or exclusively limiting the details of the sermon to biblical material. [6] Puritan preaching was expository in nature, meaning that the entire sermon was to be inextricably tied to the text. The mere establishment of a connection between the sermon and the text was not sufficient for Puritan preachers. Quite the contrary, for, according to the Puritans, “The sermon is not just hinged to Scripture; it quite literally exists inside the Word of God; the text is not in the sermon, but the sermon in the text….Put summarily, listening to a sermon is being in the Bible.” [7]

~Christ as Grammar~

“Exhibit as much as you can of a glorious Christ. Yea, let the motto upon your whole ministry be: Christ is all. Let others develop the pulpit fads that come and go. Let us specialize in preaching our Lord Jesus Christ.”
–Cotton Mather

To be Word-centered is to be necessarily Christ-centered. The Puritans understood this architectonic principle and their preaching reflected it. According to Beeke, Puritan preaching “focuses on God’s written Word, the Bible, and His living Word, Jesus Christ.” [8] In accordance with scriptural data such as Luke 24:44-45 [9] and John 5:39 [10] the Puritans read their Bibles through rose-colored lenses tinted by the blood of a crucified savior and risen Lord. It was their goal in every text to solidify that the “great theme and controlling contour of experiential preaching is Jesus Christ, for he is the supreme focus, prism, and goal of God’s revelation.” [11] Hence William Perkins, the great Puritan homiletician, writes that the heart of all preaching is “to preach one Christ, by Christ, to the praise of Christ.” [12]

This twin focus upon God’s Word and the agent of that Word, namely Christ, was the essence of Puritan preaching. Every nuance and detail of their sermons was a mere reflection and out-working of those twin principles. Christ and His Word were the most basic facts of Puritan preaching–indeed they were the grammar of Puritan preaching.

PART TWO: THE DIALECTIC OF PURITAN PREACHING

We have argued that the grammar (most basic and foundational component) of Puritan preaching is the Christo-centric Word of God. This Christ-centric Word was to Puritan preaching what phonics is to the four-year old boy learning to read–it’s everything. And yet, at the same time it’s not everything. Knowing what God said in a particular text is not alone sufficient for transformative, God-exalting preaching. If God’s word, together with proper exegetical and hermeneutical principles, forms the “parts” of preaching, what may we say about the “whole” of preaching? How are preachers to bring their exegetical spade-work to bear upon an audience that, according to God’s word, is totally depraved and spiritually rent asunder by sin? It is in response to that question that our concept of dialectic becomes important. We said earlier that the dialectic addresses the inter-relatedness of foundational facts, and it is precisely within this inter-relatedness that several important dialectics emerge in Puritan preaching. These dialectics are evidential of specific ways in which the foundational facts of Puritan preaching are crystallized and brought to bear upon the parishioner’s mind.

~Organizational Dialectic~

“The receiving of the word consists of two parts: attention of mind and intention of will.”
–William Ames

The very essence of the dialectic in the trivium schematic is the organization it provides for the individual parts. Organization gives a global perspective to what would otherwise be isolated localities. Sentences and paragraphs are to the student of reading what sermon outlines are to the preacher. We might put it this way: just as Greek philosophers were expected to learn the laws of logic, so too Puritan preachers were expected to learn the laws of sermon organization. Puritan sermons were slaves (in a good sense) to methodology and organization. Puritan sermons were intentionally logical, they were–to borrow a phrase from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones–logic on fire. The Puritans were deeply concerned (perhaps too much) about form and structure within their sermons. As contemporary preachers of the gospel, we would be wise to mirror their concern.

William Perkins’ suggested preaching format that appears at the end of his The Art of Prophesying is a cogent example of the logical progression and systematic organization that marked Puritan sermons. Perkins advocates that preachers ought to:
1. Read the text distinctly out of the canonical scriptures.
2. Give the sense and understanding of it being read, by the scripture itself.
3. Collect a few and profitable points of doctrine out of the natural sense.
4. To apply, if he have the gift, the doctrines rightly collected to the life and manners of men in a simple and plain speech. [13]

Because of their deep and reverential commitment to the scriptures, the Puritans often belabored certain points of doctrine with seemingly excessive detail and scriptural proofs. They did this not because they particularly enjoyed prolixity of speech but because they “felt constrained to proceed to buttress each doctrine with the examples and testimonies of Scripture […] to ensure that the doctrine adduced from a specific text had the whole weight of Scripture behind it.” [14]

Ryken provides two very helpful windows into the organizational framework of a puritan sermon:

The Puritan sermon was planned and organized. It may have been long and detailed, but it did not ramble. It was controlled by a discernible strategy and it progressed toward a final goal. The methodology ensured that the content would be tied to Scripture, that the sermon would involve an intellectual grasp of the truth, and that theological doctrine would be applied to everyday living. [15]

The Puritan sermon quotes the text and “opens” it as briefly as possible, expounding circumstances and context, explaining its grammatical meanings, reducing its tropes and schemata to prose, and setting forth its logical implications; the sermon then proclaims in a flat, indicative sentence the “doctrine” contained in the text or logically deduced from it, and proceeds to the first reason or proof. Reason follows reason, with no other transition than a period and a number; after the last proof is stated there follow the uses or applications, also in numbered sequence, and the sermon ends when there is nothing more to be said. [16]

The Puritans stressed organization because they believed in the primacy of the intellect. They believed that grace enters the heart through the mind. According to Packer, “God does not move men to action by mere physical violence, but addresses their minds by his word, and calls for the response of deliberate consent and intelligent obedience. It follows that every man’s first duty in relation to the word of God is to understand it; and every preacher’s first duty is to explain it.” [17] It is the preacher’s job to explain the Bible in a clear, organized manner so that the sheep may approach it and feed upon it.

~Applicatory Dialectic~

“It would grieve one to the heart to hear what excellent doctrine some ministers have in hand, while yet they let it die in their hands for want of close and lively application.”
–Richard Baxter

Church pews are full of people who “know” the central tenants of the Christian faith and yet sadly remain unchanged by them. There are also people in the pews that sincerely love the doctrines of the Christian faith but remain perpetually unsure of their practical relation to daily life. The Puritans were keenly aware of both of these phenomenons. Consequently, the Puritans labored to bring the text of scripture to bear upon the individual consciences of each and every listener. Puritan preachers worked hard to be practical, for they realized that “doctrine is lifeless unless a person can ‘build bridges’ from biblical truth to everyday living.” [18] Thus Thomas Hooker can write, “When we read only of doctrines these may reach the understanding, but when we read or hear of examples, human affection doth as it were represent to us the case as our own.” [19] The puritans achieved practicality in preaching predominantly through the use of application. [20]

The breadth of Puritan application was anything but narrow. Ryken summarizes William Perkins’ seven categories of application from the Art of Prophesying, depending on the individual conditions of the listeners:

I. Unbelievers who are both ignorant and unteachable….II. Some are teachable, but yet ignorant….III. Some have knowledge, but are not as yet humbled….IV. Some are humbled….V. Some do believe….VI. Some are fallen….VII. There is a mingled people…. [21]

Perkins’ application matrix did not stop here for he devised six types of application to all seven types of listeners in any one sermon. Taken to its full extent, every doctrinal statement of the sermon would require forty-two distinct applications in order to make application to every class of listener. This was, of course, not possible. But according to Packer,

[…] anyone making an inventory of puritan sermons will soon find examples of all forty-two specific applications, often developed with very great rhetorical and moral force. Strength of application was, from one standpoint, the most striking feature of Puritan preaching, and it is arguable that the theory of discriminating application is the most valuable legacy that Puritan preachers have left to those who would preach the Bible and its gospel effectively today. [22]

It is clear that Puritan preachers were not content with the bare relaying of facts and information. Instead, their preaching was oriented toward specific goals and the best way to accomplish this, in their mind, was to strike at the center of the listener’s conscience. What better way to accomplish this than through personal application of the text? According to Beeke, “Applicatory preaching is the process of riveting truth so powerfully in people that they cannot help but see how they must change and how they can be empowered to do so.” [23] This type of preaching, as one might expect, was inherently confrontational without being cruel. Applicatory preaching is not “safe” preaching, for it involves meddling with the minds and wills of men. Beeke illustrates it well,

[…] applicatory preaching is often costly preaching. As has often been said, when John the Baptist preached generally, Herod heard him gladly. But when John applied his preaching particularly, he lost his head. Both internally in a preacher’s own conscience, as well as in the consciences of his people, a fearless application of God’s truth will cost a price. [24]

God, we suspect, would have it no other way.

~Discriminatory Dialectic~

“There is not a sermon which is heard, but it sets us nearer heaven or hell.”
–John Preston

When children are learning to spell errors are legion. One soon discovers that the discriminatory use of a dictionary is quite necessary. The discriminatory function of the gospel is similar to the discriminatory use of a dictionary–they both divide truth from error. Once all the data of scripture has been assembled for a particular text, the Puritan preacher was aware that the conclusion of that data would necessarily provoke distinctions among his audience. Truth by definition is exclusive and therefore any pulpit proclamation of the truth would divide the hearers in some way. This division in the Puritan mind was both unavoidable and absolutely necessary.

The purpose of Puritan preaching was never peripheral. Rather, it was preeminently bent toward the producing and sustaining of the new birth. Such a purpose obviously presupposed that some men were yet spiritually dead. A common theme in Puritan preaching, therefore, was the elucidation of a dividing line between the saved and the lost. If what the Bible says is true (and the Puritans believed it was) then preachers were under necessary compulsion to draw such a line in nearly every sermon. [25] And not just draw the line, but know how to influence those on either side of the line. The Puritan Joseph Hall put it this way, “The minister must discern between his sheep and wolves; in his sheep, between the sound and the unsound; in the unsound, between the weak and the tainted; in the tainted, between the nature, qualities, and degrees of the disease and infection; and to all these he must know to administer a word in season.” [26]

Discriminatory preaching, says Beeke, “clearly defines the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, opening the kingdom of heaven to one and closing it against the other.” [27]

The Puritan preachers did not follow this discriminatory model of preaching because it was faddish to do so. They followed it because they saw it in the Bible. In the Puritan mind, Jesus was the greatest of the discriminatory preachers. His sermon on the mount was the magnum opus of pulpit discrimination. Puritan preachers understood well that granting a false security to spiritual hypocrites was the most destructive of spiritual medicines.

PART THREE: THE RHETORIC OF PURITAN PREACHING

We have discussed at length both the foundational facts of Puritan preaching, namely its reliance of the Christo-centric Word of God, as well as various dialectical devices that the Puritans employed to bring those foundational facts of Scripture to bear upon the minds of men. We are now prepared to discuss various factors that shaped the actual delivery of Puritan sermons. It is not our goal to investigate the technical components of such delivery (i.e., its length, volume, syntax, etc.) as much as it is the man behind the delivery. Puritan preachers did not ascend their pulpits as mere voice boxes. They went instead as whole men, bearing the full integration of flesh, personality, and spirit. They did in fact bear a common allegiance in the science of rhetoric, but their rhetoric was not a naked science. Their proclamation of the Word of God–as heralds of Christ–gives evidence of spiritual vitality in fullest measure.

~Sanctified Rhetoricians~

“If a man teach uprightly and walk crookedly,
more will fall down in the night of his life than he built in the day of his doctrine.”
–John Owen

Puritan preachers understood well the danger of pulpit hypocrisy. Since preaching was an inherently spiritual activity, it was therefore impossible to proclaim the importance of spiritual life via a life that was itself spiritually malnourished. Both Puritan preachers and their congregations placed a high premium upon the importance of having “godly” ministers of the gospel. The Puritans understood that the relationship between the pastor and his congregation was symbiotic. If the pastor was spiritually stagnant how could the congregation expect a living flow from his mouth? William Perkins stated it well, “He [the pastor] must first be godly affected himself who would stir up godly affections in other men.” [28] The record of Perkins’ life confirms this for he was greatly loved by his congregation for his purity of life. It is said of Perkins, “He lived sermons, and as his preaching was a comment on his text, so his practice was a comment on his preaching.” [29]

Acute knowledge of the cause-and-effect relationship between the preacher’s personal character and his fruitfulness as a pastor led the Puritans in the constant pursuit of a sanctified life. They knew that their ministries depended upon it. Indeed,

A minister’s work is usually blessed in proportion to the sanctification of his heart before God. Ministers must therefore seek grace to build the house of God with sound experiential preaching and doctrine as well as with a sanctified life. Our preaching must shape our life, and our life must adorn our preaching. [30]

The Puritan David Dickson is famous for charging a minister at his ordination to study two books together: the Bible, and his own heart. [31] Packer notes, “Their strenuous exercise in meditation and prayer, their sensitiveness to sin, their utter humility, their passion for holiness, and their glowing devotion to Christ equipped them to be master-physicians of the soul. And deep called to deep when they preached, for they spoke of the black depths and high peaks of Christian experience first-hand.” [32] The Puritan John Boys summarized it timelessly, “He doth preach most who doth live best.” [33]

~Spiritual Rhetoric~

“Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.”
–Thomas Watson

The Puritan preachers were men of robust intellect and disciplined study. History shows us that they prepared their sermons carefully with painstaking and meticulous detail. [34] Their appreciation for sound logic and intellectually stimulating argument is largely lacking for parallels in the history of humanity. The Puritans were not, however, foolish enough to depend upon their intellect and study for the gathering of souls and the perfecting of the church. They knew fundamentally that preaching, though highly dependent upon the intellect, was reaching for a goal that the intellect could not definitively move, namely a dead soul.

They prayed. In fervent prayer they sought the Spirit to accompany their work in the pulpit. Anyone who envisions Puritan preaching as devoid of spirituality and anchored in a logical quagmire has yet to understand it. Baxter writes, “Prayer must carry on our work as well as preaching; he preacheth not heartily to his people, that prayeth not earnestly for them. If we prevail not with God to give them faith and repentance, we shall never prevail with them to believe and repent.” [35] John Bunyan picks up the refrain, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed….Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge to Satan.” [36]

In short, the Puritans believed in the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit when it came to conversion. They understood that the ultimate success of gospel preaching was not left to the man in the pulpit. Packer speaks for the Puritans when he says, “Man’s task is simply to be faithful in teaching the word; it is God’s work to convince of its truth and write it in the heart. The Puritans would have criticized the modern evangelistic appeal, with its wheeling for ‘decisions,’ as an unfortunate attempt by man to intrude into the Holy Spirit’s province. It is for God, not man, to fix the time of conversion.” [37]

~Simple Rhetoric~

“It is a by-word among us: It was a very plain sermon: And I say again, the plainer, the better.”
–William Perkins

Despite the proclivity of words that dominated the speech patterns of their day, Puritan preaching was aimed endlessly at simplicity. “Plain speech” was their consummate goal. It bears saying that our present culture’s love for verbal paucity and childish grammatical construction may make us the least qualified to evaluate the actual impact of such an aim. Our present culture seems ignorant of the fact that one can speak long and yet be simple.

It was specifically William Perkins’ The Art of Prophesying that forever changed the homiletical landscape of Puritan England. Perkins was primarily responsible for the universal adoption of the new Reformed method by the seventeenth-century Puritans, a method which was characterized by a plain style of preaching that delivered sermons in an easy to grasp progression of exegesis, doctrines, proofs, and uses. [38] Unfortunately, to be sure, this “plain” preaching was not always quite so plain. Nevertheless, Puritan preaching must be judged less by its supposed “plainness” and more by its results. According to Pipa, “In our day Puritan preaching is considered prolix and scholastic, yet in its time, Puritan preaching revolutionized England and paved the way for the Long Parliament and the Westminster Assembly.” [39]

It is the author’s conviction that current students of Puritan preaching often equate mistakenly the Puritan concept of “plainness” with lack of complexity. Puritan preachers like Perkins were aiming for simplicity of speech and unadorned logic, not necessarily brevity and anti-complexity. Their style may have been difficult as times, but its theological and practical fruit are undeniable even up to our present hour. At the end of the day we can only say that the proof is in the pudding. The plain style of preaching advocated by Perkins did not return void in Puritan England and left an indelible mark on the face of Christianity for enduring centuries.

According to Ryken, “Plain preaching was defined by what it lacked as well as by what it contained […]. What the Puritans did not want was a pastiche of quotations or an embellished style that called great attention to its own ostentatiousness.” [40] The Puritans understood the tendency for men in the pulpit to make preaching into a mere exercise of ego. Instead of rendering praise unto the Triune God, the congregations of such men would be tempted to render praise unto the medium and not the source. William Perkins was a staunch critic of such ego-centric preaching.

Contra Rome, Puritan preachers wanted the Word of God living in the minds of men and that meant communicating it in such a way so as to insure its lodging. Richard Sibbes claimed that “truth feareth nothing so much as concealment, and desireth nothing so much as clearly to be laid open to the view of all: when it is most naked, it is most lovely and powerful.” [41] Puritan preachers endeavored to reach all men with the gospel, both the learned and the unlearned. This meant writing sermons that common folk could imbibe and learned men could appreciate. William Perkins obviously understood this for it was said of his preaching, “His sermons were not so plain but that the piously learned did admire them, nor so learned but that the plain did understand them.” [42]

~Sincere Rhetoric~

“I preached, as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”
–Richard Baxter

All of the aforementioned culminated in what scholars often refer to as experiential or affective preaching. Beeke defines it as such,

preaching that seeks to explain in terms of biblical, Calvinistic truth how matters ought to go, how they do go, and the end goal of the Christian life […] it addresses the entire range of Christian living, focusing heavily on a believer’s well-being and maturity. With the Spirit’s blessing, the mission of such preaching is to transform the believer in all that he is and does to become more and more like the savior. [43]

All in all, experiential preaching characterized the Puritan preacher’s sincere desire to measure the experienced knowledge of himself and his congregation against the touchstone of Scripture. Experiential preaching was more than anything else an appeal to both the heart and minds of men, women, and children. It aimed to change them, not just land on them. Richard Baxter carries the meaning well when he says,

As man is not so prone to live according to the truth he knows except it do deeply affect him, so neither doth his soul enjoy its sweetness, except speculation do pass to affection. The understanding is not the whole soul, and therefore cannot do the whole work….The understanding must take in truths, and prepare them for the will, and it must receive them and commend them to the affections;…the affections are, as it were, the bottom of the soul. [45]

Puritan preaching was not lecturing; it was a desperate calling unto souls. It was a sincere plea to be right with God at the expense of all else. Because of its magisterial content, preaching ought to be a serious and sober engagement. According to Richard Baxter, “Of all the preaching in the world, I hate that preaching which tends to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with tickling levity and affect them as stage plays used to, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence for the name of God.” [46]

CONCLUSION

This paper has charted the foundational facts of Puritan preaching (i.e., its grammar), by which we refer to the Puritan’s extreme reverence for and submission to the Christo-centric Word of the Living God. We also observed three main principles of interrelation (i.e., its dialectic) which Puritan preaching used as a means of conveying the truth of that Christo-centric Word, namely organization, application, and discrimination. Lastly, we explored the Puritan art of expressing the sum total of its homiletical knowledge (i.e., its rhetoric) as seen in the spiritual character of the preachers themselves and the simple and sincere style of their preaching.

Hopefully the reader has gained a renewed appreciation for the significance of Puritan Preaching for the ultimate sake of preserving that which the modern church is far too prone to forget. If we are to avoid the eclipse of affective gospel preaching in our own day we must become students of the Puritans for they–perhaps more so than any other epoch of redemptive history since the Apostolic age–embodied the essence of biblical preaching. History has indeed validated the truthfulness of that statement because (to the author’s knowledge) preaching modeled after the Puritan method has never failed to benefit the church and thus give pleasure to Him who gave himself up for the church.

Husband to Elizabeth and father of four. Joe is a a student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. Joe served as an active duty officer in the Marine Corps for eleven years and is currently serving as an instructor pilot in the Marine Corps Reserves. An aspiring pastor, Joe travels to Europe this summer to investigate Reformed church planting amidst American military communities stationed abroad. http://www.reformation21.org/

This is an excerpt from an article written by Dr. John H. Armstrong. 

 

“The church in every age is in constant need of reforming. The followers of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century recognized this need, speaking of semper reformanda (always reforming). Calvin and the theologians of Geneva also recognized this need. These theologians did not seek to “reinvent the wheel.” They were not radicals, at least in the sense that this term has commonly been used. They were determined to express the gospel properly, believing that justification by faith alone was the articulus cadentis et stantis ecclesiae (“the article by which the church stands or falls”). For them the whole reforming movement hung upon this recovery. Here was the material of the gospel. Here evangelical religion was truly defined. Let him who denies or ignores the doctrine of justification by faith alone realize that he is no longer an heir of the evangelical movement begun in the sixteenth century. He may still use the term “evangelical” but he uses it merely as an adjective to describe his conservative beliefs. He must understand that he is not evangelical in the truest, historical sense of the term.

In our time sola fide is once again being considered by both serious theologians and interested laity. Increasingly careful readers of Scripture are coming to understand that justification by faith alone is central to healthy, biblical Christianity. It is vital that the church be shown the significance of this truth. A recovery of sola fide will clarify the gospel that we believe and communicate. It will strengthen our confidence in God to do His work through the proclamation of that gospel and it will enable us to build up holy worship which is supremely addressed to God alone. For these reasons alone we need to note several modern errors regarding sola fide:

1. Sola fide leads to faith placed in the proper person and place.

Contrary to much modern evangelistic terminology “inviting Jesus into my heart” is not the invitation of the gospel. This oft-used phrase, based mistakenly upon John 1:12, Revelation 3:20, etc., is not what the Scripture tells the sinner to do. The gospel tells the condemned man that he must “look to Christ” (in faith) as His substitute. He must “believe” and “trust.” As long as we persist in thinking of faith as a mystical transaction wherein Christ comes from one place, outside of me, into another place, inside of me, we will have the tendency to fall into some of the same errors inherent in Roman Catholic confusion.

The gospel is the good news of what God has done outside of me in the actual person and historic work of Jesus Christ. This gospel is a message of historic, objective reality. It is not an experience, at least not my experience. It is the good news of Christ’s experience—He suffered, He died, He arose and He ascended to the right hand on high. This is the message preached by the apostles.

The message of righteousness through Christ alone, imputed to me on the basis of faith alone, is a message grounded in something entirely external. I am “reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10), not by my religious experience.

There are two aspects of God’s work in salvation—His work for us and His work in us. In asserting justification by faith alone we do not confuse these as the church has been prone frequently to do. Faith, true faith, must be grounded in His work for us, not in my response or experience. A hundred ecstatic experiences and a moving testimony of how I felt when I invited Christ into my heart will not make me right with God. The essence of God’s work within me is to teach me to rely wholly on His work outside of me as the sole basis of my salvation. Sola fide protects this important point, and the church today needs this protection desperately.

2. Sola fide sees ultimate personal fulfillment in the next life.

This doctrine preserves me from looking for some kind of internal fulfillment in the present life that will fully satisfy. If I receive the salvation of God by faith alone then nothing I can or will do can make me more His child. Our fascination with perfectionism is patently observable in the modern evangelical church. What we need is a big dose of the realism of Martin Luther who, writing against a man named Latomus from his cell in Wartburg, said, “Every good work of the saints while pilgrims in this world is sin.” Because of sin none of us will ever experience, in this life, the fulfillment of God’s salvation. The Holy Spirit, who lives within the believer, is a down payment on what is to come. He is not the fulfillment. That follows in the age to come. Justification by faith alone, properly understood, will preserve believers from much disillusionment in the area of expectations that are false and destructive of genuine faith.

Christ is our ideal Man, the only human person in whom God’s purpose for man is perfectly fulfilled. In Him all aspiration is fulfilled, all hope is realized. Human nature is perfected here. This is the importance of faith alone, for through faith we are brought into union with this Man. He is the Man at God’s right hand. His humanity is my humanity. His righteousness is my righteousness. As Paul writes, “In Him you have been made complete” (Colossians 2:10). I like J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase of this: “Your own completeness is only realized in Him.

3. Sola fide keeps us from both antinomianism and legalism.

Justification by faith alone preserves the church from both antinomianism and legalism, both of which are rampant in the modern church. Romans 8:33-34 says, in part, “God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?” Here we observe that the opposite of justification is condemnation.

It is faith that receives God’s gift. God’s gift is the righteousness of Christ. The justice of God, revealed in the Law, requires exact and perfect obedience. Man cannot be saved unless the law is fulfilled — every jot and every tittle. God does not look the other way when He saves the believing sinner. His holiness demands perfection. This is why faith alone is so important. The law must be honored and kept. If we are to be saved it must be justly and perfectly in accord with the demands of the law of God. Sola fide establishes the law. It protects against “cheap grace,” or antinomianism, because it truly upholds the law. Christ’s righteousness, which is ours in Him by faith, consists in perfect obedience to His Father’s law in our stead, on our behalf.

This guards, furthermore, against legalism. Why? Because we cannot earn or maintain God’s grace. We can only accept it with the hands of faith which look outside ourselves to Another. His sacrifice is vicarious. It is mine by faith, and it alone can satisfy God. John Bunyan said it well when he taught that Christ wove a perfect garment of righteousness for thirty-three years only to give it away to those who trust Him alone to save them.

The Holy Spirit’s role in the preaching of the gospel is to bring men and women to the place where they put their faith in “the righteousness of…Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). This righteousness of faith is not a quality seen within our hearts, or felt by us experientially. It must not be confused with the work of regeneration or sanctification, which is Rome’s error. This righteousness remains in and with Christ alone. John Bunyan, writing in Justification By an Imputed Righteousness, illustrates this well by saying: “. . . the righteousness is still ‘in Him’; not ‘in us,’ even when we are made partakers of the benefit of it, even as the wing and feathers still abide in the hen when the chickens are covered, kept, and warmed thereby.” Sola fide keeps the believer from falling into the legal ditch of associating anything done in us or with our cooperation contributing anything at all to our righteous standing before God.

4. Sola fide promotes genuine reformation and revival.

This doctrine of sola fide prompts genuine interest in true revival. The First Great Awakening in America most likely began in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Jonathan Edwards was preaching a series of sermons on this doctrine of justification by faith alone. As he set forth Christ and His righteousness one woman came under deep conviction and the spark of a great movement of God was lit.

In our time much talk regarding revival centers exclusively around experience. We desperately need the perspective of the gospel if we would pray for revival that will honor God and bring showers of true blessing upon the church. Revivalism, of the type seen in the past 150 years or so, has much more in common with Roman Catholic doctrine than sola fide. Until men and women cry out, “How can I be made just in the sight of a holy God?” rather than, “How can I find peace, save my marriage or remove the financial pressures of the moment?” I do not think we shall see another Great Awakening. As Puritan Thomas Taylor wrote, “The reason so few are willing to ask ‘What must I do?’ is because so few will ask, ‘What have I done?’

Modern evangelicals, with their emphasis upon the infusion of power, security and peace are much closer to Rome at this point than most of them could possibly imagine.

5. Sola fide must not be ignored by modern evangelicals.

Finally, we need to guard against the modern tendency to ignore sola fide altogether. This particular tendency, due either to ignorance, willful distortion, or a lack of concern for this great biblical truth of the Protestant Reformation, is observable in many quarters. A recent example can be seen in the much discussed document Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994).

Here we have a total absence of the truth of sola fide. One wonders what kind of evangelicalism lists doctrines that remain as differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics and ignores sola fide. This is precisely what was done in this document. I find it a sad day when evangelicals consider what unites and divides us with Roman Catholics, and this important evangelical truth is completely passed over in silence. Has Rome come to embrace the Protestant understanding of sola fide? Not at all, as we have seen. Has evangelicalism, on the whole, lost its grip on this truth? I fear this is so. All efforts to recover this truth are a welcome sign that the blessing of God may fall once again upon Christ’s church. Let us pray and labor to that end!”

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther tacked up 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg. With this act, he hoped to provoke a discussion among the scholars about the abuses of the indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. He was not trying to create a public furor by any means, but within a fortnight, these theses had spread through the country like wildfire. The last thing Luther had in mind was to start some kind of major controversy, but nevertheless major controversy did begin.

From the discussions at Wittenberg, the disputations began to accelerate and escalate. Copies of the theses reached Rome and critical meetings were scheduled with the young monk. In these debates, Luther was maneuvered into proclaiming publicly that he had questions about the infallibility of church councils and also that he thought that it was possible that the pope could err. In 1520 a papal encyclical was issued which condemned Martin Luther as a heretic. Luther burned the document in a public bonfire and his defiance before the church was now a matter of record.

In response, Martin Luther picked up his pen to challenge the entire penitential system of the Roman Catholic Church, which undermined in principle the free remission of sins that is ours in the gospel. By doing so, he was unswervingly advocating his commitment to sola fide, the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

In 1521, Luther was summoned to the Imperial Diet, an authoritative meeting that involved the princes of the church, called by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to be held in the city of Worms in Germany. Luther was an outlaw. For him to appear at the Diet was to risk his very life; therefore, he was given safe conduct by the Emperor to attend. With a few friends, Luther traveled from Wittenberg to Worms. The eyewitnesses of that episode tell us that when Luther’s little covered wagon appeared around the corner of the bend, there were lookouts posted in the church tower at Worms. All the people were agog waiting for the arrival of this notorious person. When Luther’s caravan was sighted, people were throwing their hats in the air, blowing trumpets, and creating all the fanfare of the arrival of the hero. It was the 16th century answer to a ticker-tape parade.

Things, however, became very solemn in a hurry because the next day he appeared before the Diet. His books were stacked on a table in the room, and he was asked and ordered to recant of his writings. This surprised Luther because he thought he was going to have an opportunity to defend his writings; but the only question really of any importance that was asked of him was this: “Are these your writings?” And when he said yes, they said, “Are you ready to recant of them?”

Hollywood has their version of Luther standing there boldly with his fist in the air saying, “Here I stand!” and so on. But instead he dropped his chin on his chest and muttered something that nobody could understand, so they asked him to speak up. “What did you say?” He said, “May I have 24 hours to think about it.” And so Luther was granted a reprieve of 24 hours to return to his room to contemplate the seriousness of this occasion.

The prayer that Luther wrote in that ensuing 24-hour period was one of the most moving prayers I have ever read in my life. In that prayer, Luther cried out for God in his sense of total loneliness fearing that God had abandoned him, and proclaimed, “O Lord, I am Thine, and the cause is Thine, give me the courage to stand.”

And on the morrow, Luther was called once again back to the court and was told to reply to the question. He said to the Diet, “Unless I am convinced by sacred scripture or by evident reason, I cannot recant, for my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” And with that there was an instant uproar.

The Emperor himself later indicated his regret that he even gave Luther a safe conduct, and immediately put a new price on his head. As Luther was leaving the city, his friends staged a kidnapping to protect him and took him away in a fast horse through the forest. They hid him for a year in Wartburg at the castle disguised as a knight. During that year, Luther undertook the task of translating the Bible from the biblical languages into German. And that perhaps was his most important legacy of that time – that he made the Bible available to the common people. And with that the Reformation was born.

—R.C. Sproul

From the book “Night of Weeping and Morning of Joy” (Found at monergism.com)

They live by faith. Thus they began and thus they are to end. “We walk by faith and not by sight.” Their whole life is a life of faith. Their daily actions are all of faith. This forms one of the main elements of their character. It marks them out as a peculiar people. None live as they do.

Their faith is to them “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It is a sort of substitute for sight and possession. It so brings them into contact with the unseen world that they feel as if they were already conversant with, and living among, the things unseen. It makes the future, the distant, the impalpable, appear as the present, the near, the real. It removes all intervening time; it annihilates all interposing space; it transplants the soul at once into the world above. That which we know is to be hereafter is felt as if already in being. Hence, the coming of the Lord is always spoken of as at hand. Nay, more than this, the saints are represented as “having their conversation in heaven,” as being already “seated with Christ in heavenly places,”(Eph 2:16 ) as having “come to Mount Zion , and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem , and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born. which are written in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb 12:22 ). The things amid which they are to move hereafter are so realized by faith as to appear the things amid which they are at present moving. They sit in “heavenly places” and look down upon the earth, with all its clouds and storms, as lying immeasurably far beneath their feet. And what is a “present evil world” to those who are already above all its vicissitudes and breathing a purer atmosphere?

Such is the power of faith. It throws back into the far distance the things of earth, the things that men call near and real; and it brings forward into vital contact with the soul the things which men call invisible and distant. It discloses to us the heavenly mansions, their passing splendor, their glorious purity, their blessed peace. It shows us the happy courts, the harmonious company, the adoring multitudes. It opens our ears also, so that when beholding these great sights we seem to hear the heavenly melody and to catch the very words of the new song they sing, “Thou art worthy . . . for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9).

It, moreover, points our eye forward to what is yet to come: the coming of the Lord, the judgment of the great day, the restitution of all things, the kingdom that cannot be moved, the city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God. While thus it gives to things invisible a body and a form which before they possessed not in our eyes, on the other hand, it divests things visible of that semblance of excellence and reality with which they were formerly clothed. It strips the world of its false but bewildering glow, and enables us to penetrate the thin disguise that hides its poverty and mean-ness. It not only sweeps away the cloud which hung above us, obstructing our view of heavenly excellence, but it places that cloud beneath us to counteract the fallacious brightness and unreal beauty which the world has thrown over itself to mask its inward deformity.

Thus it is that faith enables us to realize our true position of pilgrims and strangers upon earth, looking for the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. It is into this that we are introduced by faith at our conversion. For what is our conversion but a turning of our back upon the world and bidding farewell to all that the heart had hitherto been entwined around? It is then that like Abraham we forsake all and go out not knowing whither. Old ties are broken, although sometimes hard to sever. New ones are formed, although not of earth. We begin to look around us and find all things new. We feel that we are strangers—strangers in that very spot where we have been so long at home. But this is our joy. We have left our father’s house, but we are hastening on to a more enduring home. We have taken leave of the world—but we have become heirs of the eternal kingdom, sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty. We have left Egypt , but Canaan is in view. We are in the wilderness, but we are free. Ours is a pathless waste, but we move forward under the shadow of the guardian cloud. Sorrowful, we yet rejoice; poor, we make many rich; having nothing, yet we possess all things. We have a rich inheritance in reversion and a long eternity in which to enjoy it without fear of loss, or change, or end.

Walking thus by faith and not by sight, what should mar our joy? Does it not come from that which is within the veils? And what storm of the desert can find entrance there? Our rejoicing is in the Lord, and He is without variableness or shadow of turning. We know that this is not our rest; neither do we wish it were so, for it is polluted; but our joy is this, that Jehovah is our God, and His promised glory is our inheritance forever. Our morning and our evening song is this “The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot. The lines have fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage” (Psa 16:5).

Why should we, then, into whose hands the cup of gladness shall ere long be put, shrink from the vinegar and the gall? Why should we, who have dearer friends above better bonds that cannot be dissolved, be disconsolate at the severance of an earthly tie? Our homes may be empty, our firesides may be thinned, and our hearts may bleed: but these are not enduring things; and why should we feel desolate as if all gladness had departed? Why should we, who shall wear a crown and inherit all things, sigh or fret because of a few years’ poverty and shame? Earth’s dream will soon be done; and then comes the day of “songs and everlasting joy”—the long reality of bliss! Jesus will soon be here; and “when he who is our life shall appear, then shall we also appear with him in glory.”

Shall trial shake us? Nay, in all this we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. Shall sorrow move us? Faith tells us of a land where sorrow is unknown. Shall the death of saints move us? Faith tells us not to sorrow as those who have no hope, for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, them also that sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him. Shall the pains and weariness of this frail body move us? Faith tells us of a time at hand when this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and death shall be swallowed up in victory. Shall privation move us? Faith tells us of a day when the poverty of our exile shall be forgotten in the abundance of our peaceful, plenteous home, where we shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more.

Shall the disquieting bustle of this restless life annoy us? Faith tells us of the rest that remaineth for the people of God—the sea of glass like unto crystal on which the ransomed saints shall stand—no tempest, no tumult, no shipwreck there. Shall the lack of this world’s honors move us? Faith tells us of the exceeding and eternal weight of glory in reserve. Have we no place to lay our head? Faith tells us that we have a home, though not in Caesar’s house, a dwelling, though not in any city of earth. Are we fearful as we look around upon the disorder and wretchedness of this misgoverned earth? Faith tells us that the coming of the Lord draweth nigh. Do thoughts of death alarm us? Faith tells us that “to die is gain,” and whispers to us, “What, are you afraid of becoming immortal, afraid of passing from this state of death, which men call life, to that which alone truly deserves the name!”

Such is the family life—a life of faith. We live upon things unseen. Our life is hid with Christ in God that when He who is our life shall appear, we may appear with Him in glory. This mode of life is not that of the world at all but the very opposite. Nevertheless, it has been that of the saints from the beginning. This is the way in which they have walked, going up through the wilderness leaning on their Beloved. And such is to be the walk of the saints till the Lord comes. Oh, how much is there in these thoughts concerning it, not only to reconcile us to it, but to make us rejoice in it, and to say, I reckon that the sufferings of this present life, are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us! For all things are ours, whether life or death, things present or things to come, all are ours; for we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. Yea, we are heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ. “This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord” (Isa 54:17).

We know not a better type or specimen of the family life than Abraham or Israel in their desert wanderings. Look at Abraham. He quits all at the command of the God of glory. This begins his life of faith. Then he journeys onward not knowing whither. Then he sojourns as a stranger in the land which God had given him. Then he offers up Isaac. Then he buys for himself a tomb where he may lay his dust till the day of resurrection. All is faith. He lives and acts as a stranger. He has no home. He has his altar and his tent, but that is all—the one he builds wherever he goes, in the peaceful consciousness of sin forgiven and acceptance found; the other he pitches from day to day in token of his being a pilgrim and a stranger upon earth. And what more does any member of the family need below, but his altar and his tent—a Saviour for a sinful soul, and a shelter for a frail body until journeying days are done?

Or look at Israel . They quit Egypt . There the life of faith begins. Then they cross the Red Sea . Then they take up their abode in the desert. They have no city to dwell in now. They have no fleshpots now—nothing but the daily manna for food. They have no river of Egypt now— nothing but a rock to yield them water. All is waste around. All is to be of faith, not of sight. They are alone with God, and the whole world is afar off. They rear their altar, they pitch their tents, as did Abraham, with this only difference: above their heads there floats a wondrous cloud, which, like a heavenly canopy, stretches itself out over their dwellings when they rest, or like an angel-guide, it takes wing before them when God summons them to strike their tents that it may lead them in the way. Nay, and as if to mark more vividly the pilgrim condition of the family, God Himself, when coming down into the midst of them, chooses a tent to dwell in. It is called “the tabernacle of the Lord,” or more literally “Jehovah’s tent.” Jehovah pitches His tent side by side with Israel ’s tents, as if He were a stranger too, a wanderer like themselves!

This is our life. We are to be strangers with God as all our fathers were. It is the life of the desert, not of the city. But what of that? All is well. Jehovah is our God, and we shall soon be in His “many mansions.” Meanwhile, we have the tent, the altar, and the cloud. We need no more below. The rest is secured for us in Heaven, “ready to be revealed in the last time.”