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Ligonier Conference 2009

March 21, 2009

The Ligonier Ministries National Conference is drawing to a close. We have come to the final day and began with a message from Dr. Robert Godfrey who preached on “The Holiness of God and the Cross.” He began by saying that even as Christians we tend to have a trivial view of sin which turns sinners into naughty kids and God into an indulging grandfather. We like to sin, God likes to forgive, so what’s the problem?

But this is a complete misrepresentation of who we are and who God is. The essence of true religion is to know God and to know ourselves. If we don’t know God, we don’t know anything worth knowing.

We live at a time when so many churches have become trivial, in their songs, their sermons, their services. This is why Sproul found such resonance in writing a book about the holiness of God. And this is why Dr. Godfrey wanted to draw our attention to Isaiah 6 and then Isaiah 53.

He began by giving an overview of the reign of Uzziah. The Lord prospered Uzziah and gave him success. By the Lord he achieved great power. But in all of this he became proud. When the Israelites suffered they complained, but when they were prosperous they forgot God. Uzziah forgot that all he had and all he had accomplished was from the Lord. The Hebrew word for proud means “lifted up.” He determined in his heart that he was really something. He became corrupt and faithless.

But we are not left with a general picture of the problem of Uzziah’s pride. We are given a horrifying incident in the life of Uzziah. In his pride he seems to have surveyed the nations around him and discovered that all of the other kings were priest-kings who ruled not just as kings but who also served as priests. So all power, civil and religious was concentrated in their hands. He saw no reason that the Holy Place should be off-limits to him.

In his pride he marches into the sanctuary of God and offers incense on the altar of incense before the Lord. He will be priest-king. And there in that spot at that moment, God strikes him with leprosy. He is rushed out by the priests and taken to a palace, and he lived there separated for the rest of his life, cut off from the house of the Lord. And when he died he was known as the leper; this was his epitaph.

At the heart of his reign was this terrible sacrilege. When he died, all they could say was “he is a leper.”

Godfrey spent a few moments describing the temple and the sheer holiness of the temple. And then he asked this: Why was the temple filled with smoke? The Scripture frequently refers to smoke surrounding the Lord. It is a mark of the glory of God, the hiddenness of God, the unapproachability of God. But maybe there is an illusion here to the altar of incense in the sanctuary, to the smoke that rises from the altar. It symbolizes the essence of the temple which is a place of meeting where God meets with his people. The holy God comes and hears the purified prayers of his people. It is a picture of the connection of God and his people. It is a picture of the blessed fellowship between God and his people.

We begin to see how profound was the desecration of Uzziah, that he would come into this place and mar its holiness. Every detail of the altar tells us that God is holy and he is pure; we do not merely wander into God’s presence. The temple is the great children’s book, picture book, of the Old Testament, speaking about how pure God is and how serious he is about his purity and what cost there is for sinners to be able to enter his holy presence. Every detail is a reminder to us that we have no proper instincts about worship.

We see a picture of the holiness of God here and a picture of the sinfulness of man. Isaiah gets it when he cries “Woe is me.” He sees his own unworthiness. Lepers had to cry out that they were unclean and Isaiah is saying here that he is a leper; his lips are leprous. He cannot praise God, he cannot enter his presence, because he is a leper. This is at least part of what is in mind here. Thinking of Uzziah, Isaiah is overwhelmed by leprosy as a sign and symbol of the uncleanness of the people. Leprosy destroyed nerves, leaving you numb and increasingly disfigured. It is a horrifying disease leaving you increasingly shunned by mankind in your pain and disfigurement. This is how Isaiah analyzes his own condition before God. It is not just Uzziah who is a leper, but he is a leper and the Israelite people are lepers.

It is not mere chance that the leprosy broke out on Uzziah’s forehead. The High Priest was to wear a signet on his head that said “Holy is the Lord.” He was to come, at least symbolically clothed, in holiness. But Uzziah had come in corruption of heart; he was then visited with that evidence of his corruption.

Isaiah recognizes his inability to help himself just as a leper could do nothing to help himself.

And now we move to a picture of salvation. We read of God coming to help Isaiah. One of the seraphim flew to him with a coal from the altar, presumably the altar of incense. It is all returning to Uzziah and his sin. The place where he stood in his sin is the place where God begins to redeem Isaiah. He held it with tongs as if it was so hot and holy that even he could not touch it. He brings it to Isaiah and touches his lips and says “now your sin is atoned for, now your sins are forgiveness.” There is forgiveness and atonement only in the action of God. This is a beautiful picture of Isaiah standing with nothing to offer God except for his sin.

We normally think of atonement in relation to the altar of sacrifice, but at least here we see atonement at the place the sin was committed. But the healing has not yet come. Isaiah is commissioned to preach. God has an agent, a servant, to send. Isaiah prophecies in verse thirteen that the nation will be destroyed but the holy seed will still come—the seed in the stump of David. In Isaiah 53 he sees a vision of who this servant will be and what he will be like.

Godfrey then asked us to walk through Isaiah 53 with Uzziah in the back of our minds.

In chapter 52 and verse 13 we see a king who is worthy of being high and lifted up. And two verses later we see that he shall sprinkle many nations as a priest-king. One of the priest’s tasks was to sprinkle blood. Only the Messiah was to be the priest-king and by declaring himself to be both, Uzziah was declaring himself to be messiah.

Here we have a beautiful description of Jesus Christ as God’s only king and priest. In verse 14 and in 53:3 we see Jesus as the king-priest and Jesus as a leper. His appearance was so marred that he was beyond human semblance. This may not be exclusively fulfilled in leprosy but it at least suggests leprosy. He was acquainted with “grief” but this can also be translated as “sickness.” And so we hid our faces from him and despised him as we despise all lepers.

Are you beginning to see what it cost Jesus Christ to be the Savior? When we say he is king it sounds good, when we say he is priest it sounds honorable. And he is those things. But the depth of our salvation is to be found in the willingness of Jesus to become a leper for lepers, to become sin for sinners. “Surely he has borne our sickness.” Jesus was not literally a leper, of course, but just as Uzziah the good king was afflicted with leprosy to show the people the sinfulness of sin, so in some sense we have to think of Jesus as a leper to realize the depths of what it meant for him to take our sins upon himself. We can make this sound like an easy transaction. How hard can sin-bearing be for the eternal son of God? We may slip into such an attitude as the cross becomes too familiar. We may begin to lose a sense of the horror of the cross.

Isaiah 53 celebrates that Jesus became our substitute, that he took the sinner’s place. He entered in to the place Isaiah had gone as a leper. We read that Uzziah was cut off from the house of the Lord for the rest of his life; Jesus was cut off from the land of the living. He was cut off because he had become the sin-bearer.

We see in this passage a picture of what it cost Jesus to take our place; what it took for us to be healed. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice. By bearing God’s wrath on the cross, he has healed our leprosy. What was done for us means that we have a whole different relationship to God. Now we can call God “Father” because, for a time, Jesus lost his Father (speaking metaphorically). Do you begin to see the Savior’s love in this? Do you see the cost of the cross? Do you see what it takes for sin to be forgiven?

We may think “I like sinning and God likes forgiving.” But what a demeaning of the Savior! We tend to live like this, don’t we? As Christians we can sneak a little sin because it has all been paid for. But sin on sin on sin on sin laid there on the Savior on the cross and it was no light and trivial thing. When he died he was buried with the wicked. Perhaps there is an allusion here to Uzziah who was buried with lepers as a leper.

At the end of this chapter, verse 12, we return to Jesus as the priest-king. He is victorious, risen to reign forever as God’s glorious King.

“Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

He bore the sin of many, all of his people on the cross. It is a glorious thing and it is no trivial thing. And he makes intercession for transgressors. He not only died once-for-all on the cross, but he ever lives to intercede for you and me.

Are you a sinner? It is not a trick question. If you are here and breathing you are a sinner! And sometimes that sin becomes a huge weight on us Christians. We may know in our minds that Christ paid the penalty but sometimes our sin still oppresses us. But we have the glorious promise that he has not forgotten us, but he ever prays for us as his people. He continually intercedes for us. He is our priest-king who was a leper but now lives and reigns forever. And the cross, then, stands at the very heart and center of history. It was prepared for by God through all the centuries, through all these pictures, so when Jesus was lifted on the cross we would know what it means. And so Jesus, seeing the cross approach, said “There I will be glorified” because there he would fulfill history, he would fulfill the redemptive plan.

Christ was lifted up as a leper so that lepers might come to find life and to find hope.

March 20, 2009

Late this afternoon we heard from Thabiti Anyabwile on “Cosmic Treason: Sin & the Holiness of God.” He began by joking that his name is Swahili and roughly translated means “suffering for Jesus in the Cayman Islands.” And then he got down to business. He read Numbers 25 and divided his exposition of this chapter into four sections. He wanted to use this passage to make some observations about sin as cosmic treason.

The horrible context of this chapter (1-6)
The height of conflict (7-9)
The honorable commendation (10-13)
The harrowing condemnation (14-18)

The Horrible Context

This episode in the history of Israel follows the exodus in which God drew his people out of bondage. He had given them his Law, telling them that they were to have no other gods apart from him, no gods above him. God pledges to be their God and that they will be his people. Immediately prior to this chapter, Israel had run into Balaam and Balak. Hidden from Israel at this point was the divine hand of God protecting and preserving them.

So how striking it is when we come to Numbers 25 and we see that Israel, the people of God, have fallen into sexual immorality and idolatry. The people began to whore with the Moabites. The physical immorality is merely a symptom of the spiritual immorality and adultery. The tragedy of verse three of this section is that the Israelites yoked themselves to another God. We have not properly understood this passage until we have seen it as treason. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. God in his holy and righteous anger pronounces a death sentence through a violent execution.

Thabiti pointed out things in this passage that define cosmic treason:

Sin is moral in nature, transgressing what is right. It is a negation of what is right. What is good and right for Israel is to worship this one, true God apart from whom there is no other. But rather than do what is right, they denied this God. We live in a culture that denies any wrongdoing whatsoever or denies that our sin is objectively wrong. To speak with people about their sin is to hear that it is not sin, it is not wrong. They establish their own moral authority contrary to God’s.

Sin is personal in nature. It is against God himself, provoking his wrath. Sin is apostasy, turning away from God. Our culture teaches that sin is not often against anyone but is just a mistake or a blooper. But this passage makes it clear that our sin does land on something. It lands squarely in the sight of a holy God who will not look upon sin. Our sin is an offense against God, a personal rebellion against him. It not only incites his anger but is also treasonous, rebelling against the rule and love of God. Israel is often called God’s wife. Can you think of a more treasonous act than to declare union with a husband but then to commit adultery with another?

Sin is dangerous in that it provokes the wrath of God. The scariest thing in the world is people living like there is no danger associated with their sin and God’s wrath. They have a kind of false assurance where they think they are okay with God, but have no saving, covenantal relationship with God. There is no situation more dangerous than that.

Sin is so treasonous that God declares a death penalty against it. It brings the danger of God’s judgment.

The Height of Conflict

God has spoken in verses four and five about the judgment of those who will engage in apostasy and in verse six we see the start of it. This is a vivid illustration of the treason we are talking about. God has been correcting, in fiery anger, the sin committed against him. While the people are gathering outside the tent of meeting, an Israelite man sees the people gathered around and does not join in the covenant worship of God. Instead, he walks by, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of God himself. And all this while the people are weeping over his sin. The whores are creeping while the people are weeping. It is a striking display. This is brazen sin. He is thumbing his nose at God.

Phinehas sees this, picks up a spear, follows this man into his tent, and in the very act of sexual immorality he drives it through the both of them. He kills the Israelite man and the Midianite woman. It is his action that stops the plague God has sent on his people, killing 24,000 of his people.

Sin is contempt toward God. Most people believe sin is a mistake, a mess-up. But at the very heart of sin is contempt toward God and toward his holiness and righteousness in particular.

Sin poisons our sympathy so that we side with the sinner in his sin before we side with God in his holiness. What is your reaction when you hear this? What is your reaction to Phinehas and his action along with God and his action in killing 24,000 people? Were you identifying with the sinful man and woman or with Phinehas and his action? Did you have instinctive and impulsive action that caused you to identify with the whore in their whoredom rather than the judge and his javelin?

Sin leads to our ruin as God puts down our rebellion. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil to cut off the memory of them from the earth. The wrath of God is revealed against ungodliness. Our sin leads to our ruin apart from Christ.

Sin should cause weeping before God because it is the offense that it is before God. We ought to be people weeping over sin. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.

Honorable Commendation

As a priest Phinehas’ job is to represent God and to make sacrifices on their behalf. He understands his calling and this is what God commends in him. Phinehas is jealous with God’s jealousy. And so it ought to be with God’s people, so it ought to be with the men who stand behind the pulpit and teach the children of God. When God is most glorified and honored, his people are most satisfied. What else should a pastor care about than that God should be made known and that he should be loved and glorified? To care most about anything less than the glory of God is treason.

Sin requires discipline. God is dealing with his people as a Father loves his children. He does this so that we may participate in his holiness. God’s love walks hand-in-hand with his holiness. Resolve now that if you stumble into sin that you will receive God’s correction.

Sin requires atonement. God’s wrath must be turned away; there must be reconciliation between the sinner and the holy God. Phinehas the priest points us toward the great High Priest. It is Phinehas who makes the sacrifice that appeases God in Numbers 25 but it is Christ who will make the full and final sacrifice to appease God.

Numbers 25 is about the gospel of our Lord, about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He does this not for a moment, not for a chapter of the Old Testament, but eternally. It was Christ who was the true priest of God.

Harrowing Condemnation

The only point the names of these people is mentioned is in the final few verses of this chapter. Sometimes you hear names that are forever associated with treason. Verses seventeen and eighteen identify these two as the Benedict Arnold’s of the book of Numbers. God calls them to account for their cosmic treason and calls to account the Midianites as well. He uses the Israelites as the means of punishment against this nation. God exercises his judgment in this time and in this way.

With time running out Thabiti spent just a few moments closing with a powerful call to respond to the gospel.

March 20, 2009

This morning Alistair Begg preached on “The Breath of the Almighty: The Holy Spirit” and used as his text John 16:5-15. I jotted down some notes…

The nature of this topic, he said, makes it virtually horizonless. Considerations of any doctrine, but particularly this one, that are not grounded within the controls of the Bible itself, may lead to all kinds of flights of fancy. There has been as much confusion within evangelicalism about the person and work of the Spirit as there has been in any other part of the Bible.

There are many places we might have gone to in Scripture but Begg chose this one, John 16. The main dimension that is represented in these words which speak of the necessity of his departure. This news has been a source of consternation and grief.

He broke his talk into three parts:

1. The necessity of Christ’s departure
2. The identity of the Helper who is sent
3. The activity of this Helper or Counselor

The Necessity of Christ’s Departure

He tells them that he is leaving and reveals that this is to their advantage. If he does not go away, the Helper will not come to them. The disciples were clearly in need of his help but he told them not to be unduly troubled because help is on the way. We are familiar with all of this but it is perhaps helpful to ponder at what expense this promise was accomplished. Jesus is not just speaking to the pragmatic benefit of another Helper. If you read the gospels you’ll see the intimacy between the Father and the Son and it is meaningful and precious to Christ. Here he says he will ask the Father who will send this Helper on the Son’s behalf.

The nature of this necessity lies not just in the benefit to the disciples but in the entire drama of redemption. That which the Father planned, the Son in his death will procure, and that which the Son procures, the Spirit will apply. By the time the Apostles are writing their letters, that which is introduced in the gospels is being explained.

The Identity of the Helper

This word has a legal dimension of an advocate, but also has dimensions of counsel, guidance and so on. He is also called the Spirit of Truth.

We first need to notice that the Holy Spirit is a unique person and not simply a power or an influence. He is spoken of as “He,” not as “It.” This is a matter of import because many people refer to him in the neuter as an “it.” We have to understand that the third person of the Trinity is personal and as a person he may be grieved, as a power he may be quenched, in terms of the exercise of his will, he may be resisted.

Second, we need to see that he is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Son. It is the Father who is sending AND the Son who is sending and the Spirit acts for them both. The giving of the Spirit is never done in isolation from the work of Christ and the will of God.

Third, we need to see that the Holy Spirit was the agent of Creation. It is the breath of the Almighty that hovers over the face of the waters. It is the power and energy of the Spirit that is referenced in the act of Creation. It is the Spirit who is the irresistible power by which God accomplishes his will.

Fourth, we need to see that the Holy Spirit is the agent of God’s new creation in Christ—he is the author of the new birth.

Fifth, we need to see that he is the author of the Scriptures.

His identity is as “another” helper, another of the same kind rather than another of a different kind. He comes along side, he is the one whom Jesus says is with you and will be in you. His ministry is personal and permanent. He is the one who will remain with you forever.

The Activity of the Helper

What are the active dimensions to which Jesus introduces us here?

He will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness and judgment. What else would a Holy Spirit do? How could he come into an impure world without confronting the sin within it? We think of Jesus who, out of divine necessity, had to cleanse the temple. And the Holy Spirit also confronts the world by proving the world guilty—guilty of unbelief, of being out of line, of lives that are crooked, of culpability.

The work of the Spirit will be to bring the fact of that guilt home to the lives of individuals. You have a small foretaste of this before Christ dies on the cross. The two criminals are at first jeering at him but then the one thief turns to Jesus in faith. The Spirit of God confronted the thief at the very end of his life with the fact of his unbelief, with the fact that he faced the judgment of God.

In all of this the work of the Spirit is to be understood Christologically—always in the relationship to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The activity of the Spirit is also to glorify Jesus. He takes what is Jesus’ and declare it to the world. He glorifies Christ both to the disciples and in the disciples. He comes and he makes his home with them. And as he does this, they become increasingly like him (because you become like people you spend time with). The communion to which Christ refers does not negate the dimension in each of our lives that we have a right expectation of intimate communion with God. Part of the work of the Spirit is to come to us when Satan rightly convicts us of sin to remind us that we have an advocate with the Father. It was a tremendous thing for Jesus to go away because until that time he was able to be in only one place. But the sending of the Spirit universalizes the person of Jesus. It also internalizes the presence of Jesus; he was with them but now he is in them. What is the ultimate work of the Holy Spirit if it is not to conform the child of God to the image of the Son of God? God’s eternal purpose is to conform us to the image of his Son. And this is what he does right now so that we are now being transformed into that same image. And when he finishes his work he will appear and we shall be like him. Everyone who has this hope within him purifies himself even as he is pure.

March 19, 2009

The subject of God’s holiness has been a theme at Ligonier Ministries since its infancy and it is good to revisit that theme this year, one year before Sproul’s book The Holiness of God reaches its twenty-fifth anniversary. And who better to introduce the subject and kick of the conference proper than Dr. Sproul? He preached tonight from Isaiah 45:1-8.

This is one of the strangest portions of divine revelation found anywhere in Scripture. At the time of its writing, Israel was in captivity to Babylon. But the message in this text is not addressed to somebody from Babylon. It is addressed to the future king of the Persian empire which would defeat the Babylonians and eventually liberate Israel to return to their homeland.

In verse 45 we read this word: “Thus says the LORD to his anointed (his messiah), to Cyrus.” This verse scandalizes the Jewish people that God would call a future gentile king his anointed. He is saying that he will give power to this king and his armies to lay waste to the dominant power. God is going to do all of this so Cyrus might know that God is the Lord.

Sproul has tried to imagine what would be going through Cyrus’ mind when he hears this prophecy for the first time. He sees Cyrus hearing these words in which this foreign deity announces that he would like to have a word with this king. Cyrus may well think “this is the lord of Israel but I am the lord of Babylon. This other lord must want to get together with me to plan out this military campaign.” But God does not allow him to rush to this conclusion. He adds to his declaration, “…there is no other. Besides me there is no God.”

Tonight we want to focus on this refrain: I am the Lord, there is no other. This declares the uniqueness of God, of the God of the Old Testament. We will consider what it is about the God of the Bible that is unique.

When we talk about the holiness of God, the term “holy” has two references:

  • God’s otherness, the sense in which he is different from anything in the created world.

  • His perfection in righteousness, his purity.

Only the second of these is a communicable attribute; the first belongs to God alone. It refers to his transcendent divine nature in which he is other than us.

In systematic theology when we try to detail the attributes of God, we struggle with the limitations of human language to do this. Theologians have relied on three distinct methods in which we describe the being and character of God.

The favorite of Augustine is the way of negation. In this way we define something by saying what it isn’t. God, then, is infinite. All this means is that God is not finite. A second way we use this way of negation is with the term “immutable.” All this tells us is that God is not mutable. Nothing defines creaturely existence like the idea of change. We are all constantly changing. That is simply the world in which we live in; but this category cannot be applied to God. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

The second way is taking normal, earthly categories and exalting them to the nth degree. So we say that we, as humans, have the capacity to learn and to increase in knowledge. We may have plenty of knowledge, but we do not have all knowledge. We may have science, but God has omniscience. We all exercise some degree of power, but none of us have all power, omnipotence.

The third way is the way of affirmation. And this begins to take us to the extreme edges of our ability to comprehend God. We say that God alone is eternal and self-existent. Of all the theological attributes of God that are found in the theological tomes of history, the one that most sends chills up Sproul’s spine is the word aseity. If there is any word in the English language that captures the otherness of God, it is this one. It refers to his self-existence, that God and God alone has the power of being in and of himself.

A great quote as he discussed modern science which posits creation without a Creator: “Nothing has no is-ness.”

If there ever was a time when nothing at all existed, what could possibly exist now? Nothing! But if something exists now, it tells us that there never was a time when there was nothing. Everything that we know of, including the universe, had a beginning. Everything is contingent, derived from something outside of itself to lend being to it…except for God. He is not created. There was never a time when he was not. Eternally he is. He has that power of being in and of himself. There is nothing more profound to say about God than the way he reveals himself in the name “I Am Who I Am.” I Am the LORD and there is no other.”

Aquinas’ offered two proofs for God’s existence that rose above all others and Sproul discussed each of these quite briefly.

The first proof is that God is the “ends necessary,” that he possesses necessary being. He alone has being that is necessary and this makes him holy. We can define necessary being in two ways, ontologically and logically. When Aquinas said God has necessary being, he was saying that he’s the kind of being who cannot possibly not be. God is who he is from everlasting to everlasting and he cannot be anything other than what he is eternally in and of himself. His being is also logically necessary. There is no reason why Sproul should exist. There was a time when he did not exist. He can claim no logical necessity for his existence. But you need to leave your reason behind when you explore the idea that God does not exist. You have to stop thinking logically to think that the universe came into being by itself without God. Nothing could be more irrational that something comes from nothing. Logic demands that if something exists now, something always existed or you have to choose an irrational alternative.

We also need to consider from this text what this God does. He brings the light and the darkness, he brings well-being and calamity. After 9/11 it was unthinkable to the American people that God could have anything to do with calamity. We are people who believe that God can bless a nation but refuse to believe that he can also judge a nation. We believe this because we do not know who God is. The God of popular religion is not holy. This is not the God of Isaiah 45—the God who brings calamity, the God who brings the bear market and the bull market, who pulls kingdoms up and tears kingdoms down. “I will raise you up Cyrus, but I can also tear you right down.”

The two books Sproul has written that have received more attention than any other, he says, are The Holiness of God and Chosen by God. He so often hears how much people like the first but hate the second. One of two things must then be true: either you didn’t understand The Holiness of God or you didn’t understand Chosen by God. The God who is holy is the God who is sovereign. The God who is transcendent in his majesty is the Lord. He brings good things and he brings bad things. This is the God with whom we have to do.

He closed with these words: “Let me give you some pastoral counseling if you do not like this God: tough!” This God is the only one we have. You may try to make and fashion another one; you might prefer a different one. But there is no other. “I am the LORD your God, there is no other…”

March 19, 2009

The “John Calvin” Mini-Conference wrapped up with a Q&A session featuring the four men who had delivered addresses. It was moderated by John Duncan. This is roughly how it went…

Why is Calvin still important 500 years later?

Ferguson - because he was really the first great biblical exegete. Other theologians made a mark here and there, but none so great as Calvin. He had a genius for being to capture what the text was saying and what its implications were.

Lawson - Location, location, location. He finds himself in an important historical context in the greatest forward movement of Christianity since the second century. It was a perfect time for Calvin’s ideas to explode in a way that could influence successive generations unlike those that had come before. There was a kind of domino effect from Calvin on down through history.

Mohler - Calvin really was the combination of the systematician and the preacher. As great as Luther may have been, he did not leave behind a systematic theology. In Calvin’s day, to consider what was at stake, the crucial question surrounded what was the true church. We still talk about Calvin today because we face many of the same challenges today that he faced in his day. No one answered these questions with the quintessential clarity of Calvin.

Duncan - Calvin taught the people who in turn taught the successive generation so that people who were influenced by Calvin may not have even know his name. He was training the best of the current generation to train the next generation. It was only centuries later that we began to understand the magnitude of what he had done.

Where should people start to learn about Calvin?

Ferguson - If you are daunted by the Institutes, begin with The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. You will probably find that Calvin is not as daunting as it may seem. If he didn’t know that Packer was going to do it, he probably would have called this book Knowing God.

Lawson - Read his sermons. The preaching of the word is the primary ordinary means of grace. Begin with his sermons on Galatians and Ephesians.

Mohler - Dive into the deep end of the pool by reading the introduction to the Institutes. Even if you need to read them two or three times, read them! It is one of the greatest works of Christian devotional literature ever written.

Duncan - I suggest going through the Institutes with your pastor or with a good teacher who has read through them before. I also some lectures from Rutherford House (?) by Sinclair Ferguson.

What is one thing about Calvin that is unknown or misunderstood that Calvin heir’s should know?

Ferguson - I know what his favorite game was. It was keys - you would throw a set of keys over a table and whoever puts it over the edge of the table wins.

Mohler - People often miss the suffering of the man. He was a man who suffered almost every day of his life with infirmities, sicknesses, pains and had to study and teach under the most difficult of circumstances. Despite this, in his writings you find such joy in his piety.

Duncan - If all you know is that he is the “Tyrant of Geneva” you may need to know that he was not a citizen of Geneva until the last years of his life. The idea that he was in full control of the city is simply fiction. He also a great power in the missionary movement that sent missionaries around the world.

Lawson - Calvin’s personal logo summarizes his life. It is an open hand being offered up to God and a heart in the palm of the hand that was his heart offered to God. His life, his heart, given to God promptly and willingly. When you combine this kind of godliness with this kind of genius, it is a powerful force (much like Jonathan Edwards).

Ferguson - He had an amazing number of friends who very much loved him. This is, in many ways, the measure of a man in contrast to the caricatures we often hear.

Lawson - Many people are unaware of how long and how strenuously he was opposed in his church.

Calvin is often criticized for his role in the execution of Servetus. Summarize what happened and our take on the situation.

Duncan - Servetus was a heretic, viewed by both Catholics and Protestants as a heretic. In any city in Europe there were heresy laws in those days; Geneva was not the only one with such laws. There were certain expectations in terms of public theology and morality that were expected of anyone. He was warned not to come to Geneva and was warned that he would be arrested and tried. He was subsequently condemned by the council to the burned at the stake. Calvin asked for the sentence to be changed to something quicker and less painful but this was denied.

Mohler - It is difficult to think of this from our perspective in a modern democratic republic. The medieval world is really unthinkable to us. In that day every single European state defined heresy as treason. To go against the religious beliefs of the state was to commit treason against it. Heresy was a threat to the entire society. This is true even today; however, government is not the right agent to deal with heresy. One of the big complexities to understand Calvin’s Geneva is to understand the role in Geneva in separating church and state. Servetus was the kind of heretic who would have known that everyone knew of his heresy. He was a needler, liar, etc, etc. The modern world gets it wrong in thinking that heresy is a minor crime while treason is a major one. But we would not call upon the city or state to judge such a person but instead we would rely on the church.

Ferguson - Calvin has become the whipping boy for something that continued for another 100 years.

Lawson - Calvin did not put him to death; he was not even a citizen of Geneva at the time and had no say in political matters. The consistory were his enemies at the time and had no love for Calvin. Servetus was given the option of being sent back to France and he begged to stay in Geneva because he knew that what would happen there would be far more gruesome. Calvin did, indeed, give support to what was taking place, but it was not in his hands to do it.

Mohler - Intellectual honesty is rare in this situation. To single Calvin out in this case is really an ad hominem attack. This civilization understood that heresy was the greatest of all crimes and was judged to protect people from error. They did this in the wrong way, but how much better are we who consider heresy a small threat?

What was Calvin’s relationship with Luther and Luther’s followers?

Ferguson - It was distant. They had almost definitely never met. It is clear in Calvin’s writing that he felt the church owed an enormous debt to Luther; he regarded Luther as almost a new Apostle. There were elements of Luther’s theology that troubled him, but he was as careful as he could be that he corrected this theology without making it clear what theology he was correcting.

Mohler - You have to make a distinction between phases of Calvin’s theology. He always considered Luther like a spiritual father. He had a very warm respect for Luther. His relationship with Melancthon was very interesting; he had good correspondence with him, but there was always a distance. As he saw Melancthon addressing different issues, he became troubled about continued refusal to bring the Reformation to its necessary conclusion. There was lots of indebtedness and affection and a hope for greater unity, but ultimately some disappointment.

Are there aspects of Calvin’s thought that we should not follow?

Mohler - You’ve got two Baptists here. [much laughter] One issue is this: what is Calvinism? When people think Calvinism they are often thinking of just a Dortian summary of theology. I am a Baptist who is indebted to Calvinism (as are all Baptists, whether they know it or not). It is wholesome to look back to that indebtedness and acknowledge our debt to him. When you look at the totality of what Calvin taught, there are many Presbyterians who are not thoroughly Calvinistic. I am going to be very thankful for all I receive, but I think Calvin would be the first to say that he had no desire to create “Calvinists.”

We’re familiar with the five points of Calvinism. What was truly central to his theology?

Ferguson - For Calvin there is such a unity that I don’t know that he would give precedence to any one of them. There seems to be two things that happen as his theology grows from one edition of the Institutes to the next. The first was the impact of Romans on his thought. The second thing that seems to dominate their development is his immense Trinitarianism, both its unity and distinctiveness. In some ways it seems that he’s almost the first Christian writer to get this just right.

Mohler - The knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves is the beginning and end of Calvin’s theology. When they talk about Calvinism and jump straight to the five points, we need to realize that we are reducing Calvin’s great concern and passion for the knowledge of God to this important dimension of how God justifies sinner and how he determined before the world was created that he would save a people through his Son. I would warn against reducing Calvinism to those five points even while affirming and defending those points. You can miss the whole in the parts if you are not careful.

Duncan - We need to remember that Calvin never did write out five points. Those five points stemmed from his work but only fifty years after his death as a response to five points of Arminianism.

How has Calvinism become to be seen as a loyalty that takes precedent over our identity as Christians?

Ferguson - When Calvin’s teaching came under attack and others rushed to his defense, you tend to get -isms. This is one of the reasons people need to go back and read Calvin himself and when they do so they find a world very different from the one they expected to find.

Mohler - [I couldn’t quite catch or nicely summarize this one. Apologies]. I did appreciate his exhortation to read Calvin (whether sermons or books) with an open Bible. Calvin would expect no less!

Duncan - Our non-Calvinistic friends can be hurt by the attitude that Calvinism is Christianity. It is helpful that someone have a high view of God, of Christ, of the Bible, than it is to attach themselves to any label. The good reason that we use label is for theological shorthand, as it allows us to say a lot really quickly. It allows us to affirm and deny certain things in just a word. If people are afraid of Calvinistic terms and analogies, simply go in as a Bible-believing Christian, go to Scripture, and see what God says to you and to them from his Word.

Leave us with something very important you’ve learned from Calvin’s life or writings

Ferguson - He has been the model of what a gospel minister in a local congregation should be.

Lawson - To understand Calvin is to understand Calvin the preacher. He was many things, but primarily a preacher. This is what is so desperately needed in churches today.

Mohler - I am in agreement with the other two so will just add this. Calvin was also a teacher and he understood the necessity of the church to be a school. We want the churches to again be the schools of Christ. I want to die like Calvin died, studying and teaching and preaching to the end. Calvin didn’t retire; he died.

Duncan - Calvin taught me that the fundamental problem we face as human beings is idolatry. There are true worshippers of God and idolaters; that is all. The doctrine of the atonement—Calvin gave the best biblical explanation of the atonement that had been given in 1560 years. There have been great ones since, but none before.

March 19, 2009

After a rather tasty lunch we gathered again, this time to hear Sinclair Ferguson speak about “The Doctrines of Grace.” He began by reading Ephesians 1 and said that no man has had a greater impact on his thinking than John Calvin.

When we speak of the doctrines of grace, we tend to think about five particular distinctive and controverted doctrines that we find within the realm of Reformed theology. Calvin’s theology and the theology of Scripture has much more to say about the grace of God in salvation than just these five points.

He followed this structure:

  1. To say something by way of background about the teaching about grace on which Calvin was reared.
  2. The doctrines of grace on which Calvin expounded.
  3. The nature of grace which John Calvin sought to extol.

The Grace on which Calvin Was Reared

Some people mistakenly believe that until the time of the Reformation, grace was a foreign concept in Christianity. The Reformers understood, though, that the medieval theologians had misspelled, misunderstood grace. As they spelled out the doctrines of God’s grace, they saw that grace had been adulterated and was no grace at all. It would not bring the delight of joy and assurance of salvation to the soul.

The Roman Catholic Church was dead set against the doctrine of grace because they felt it would give people license to live however they wanted to live. Of course this is a problem the Apostle Paul faced as well. This is why The RCC has always regarded the doctrine of justification (according to Protestantism) as a legal fiction. They cannot see justification as something so simple as a declaration.

The Reformers came to see that it was possible to know that you were justified. The church taught that unless you had some special revelation from God, you could never know that you had done enough to be saved. All you would be left with is endless years in purgatory with maybe a little reduction based on the overflow of merit from the saints. The consequence of all of this was the absence of joy, the impossibility of assurance. The assurance of salvation was considered the greatest of Protestant heresies.

Calvin saw that the righteousness given to us is the very righteousness of Christ, counted to the believer. It is the righteousness of the final judgment, brought forward into the present. Sin, when punished, cannot be punished again. We can stand before the judgment seat of God, fully righteous and all by God’s grace.

The Doctrines of Grace on which Calvin Expounded

When Calvin speaks of the doctrines of grace (in many ways and in many places) his great desire is to point us to salvation in God by Jesus Christ. Here Ferguson spent a few moments covering each of the five points, showing how Calvin may have explained them. As you may know, the five points as we understand them today, though they are based on Calvin’s teaching, are a reaction to later theological developments which sought to deny this theology. So Ferguson reached just a little further back to explain these terms using what might have been Calvin’s words.

The best line from this section of Ferguson’s address were these: “Two words: Institutes! Read!”

The Nature of Grace which John Calvin Sought to Extol

With time running out, he had only a few moments to dedicate to this topic.

Calvin says there is no such thing as grace, only Jesus Christ. There is not something outside of Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit dispenses to you like a lump sum. There is only Jesus Christ which is why one of the most significant and startling things Calvin says is that all that Christ has done for us is of no value to us unless we get, by faith, Jesus Christ himself. And in just a moment you can see how the whole medieval system with priests and sacraments and sacrifices and saints and Mary was immediately exploded and destroyed. What the Spirit is doing and bringing you into is the same as the Lord Jesus himself. There is nothing between—no pope, no bishops, no sacraments, no priests—only the Holy Spirit bringing you to Jesus who is all your righteousness and all the righteousness you will ever need.

From Calvin we learn this: it is all there for you in Christ, so drink from no other fountain than Christ. We are all, even in our evangelical hearts, liable to sink back into errors that make us think there is something in us that qualifies us, something that Jesus Christ could give me without giving himself and me giving myself to him. This is Calvin: it is all of God, it is all in Christ, it all comes through the Holy Spirit.

This is a very, very good introduction to Reformed theology as taught by the greatest of the Reformers. I am often asked what I would recommend to those who are just trying to learn about Calvinism (or who are trying to learn the truth behind Calvinism). This is a great place to begin.

March 19, 2009

The 2009 Ligonier Ministries National Conference begins today. Though the conference proper does not kick off until after dinner, the Pre-Conference, “John Calvin—Celebrating a Legacy” began bright and early. This mini-conference features messages from Al Mohler, Steven Lawson, Sinclair Ferguson and Ligon Duncan. They will each speak one time and will also participate in a panel discussion.

Al Mohler began with this reflection: the legacy of John Calvin is now represented by a half millennium of influence. Calvin would no doubt be shocked to learn that, 500 years after his birth, several thousand people would gather in a Pre-Conference to talk about his legacy. That so many are gathered here is a testimony to God’s faithfulness to his church.

Mohler’s task today was to introduce John Calvin as a preacher and a teacher. And indeed, the focal task of Calvin’s ministry came down to these two tasks. He excelled in both.

The first portion of Mohler’s address was biographical, a quick overview of Calvin’s life focusing on his tasks of preacher and teacher. It was too fast to easily summarize, so I will leave it to those who are interested to watch the webcast. Calvin believed there were four offices within the church: preachers, teachers, elders and deacons. This message revolved around the first two.

Having given this thumbnail sketch of Calvin’s life, Mohler spoke about Calvin as a teacher. Calvin left behind a significant legacy of teaching material, even down to his personal correspondence which was filled with teaching. Early in his career he desired a quiet life of reading and writing, but he was compelled to take up the pastorate in Geneva.

He saw two offices that had a distinct teaching function. The task of the teacher was to prepare those who would have the sacred task of teaching the Word of God. Before he was a preacher in Geneva, he was involved in this teaching task. The preacher was the key agent to whom God would speak to his people, but the preacher needed to be taught; hence, Calvin was convinced that there needed to be a learned clergy. His singular aim was that the church be properly taught the Word of God and be protected from error. Here Mohler looked to the Institutes giving a quick overview of their contents, style and usefulness, even in our day.

The need Calvin perceived is a need that continues today, perhaps even more emphatically. Teaching suffuses all that he does, all that he offers to the church, all that he was.

In all the world, there is only one office higher than the teacher and that is the preacher. Calvin desired to be first a teacher, but once he became a preacher, he took up this task with a passion. His theology of preaching begins with his understanding that God speaks through his preachers, through the Word. Calvin did not deny natural or general revelation but saw that God speaks through a human voice in a special way in the act of preaching. Preaching is not a human invention but a means God had already used to speak to his people of old and a means he would now use again to instruct his church. It is an act of God’s kindness and accommodation that he speaks to us through a human voice; if he spoke through his own voice, we would be destroyed.

Calvin understood the majesty of preaching because he understood the majesty of God. Calvin’s mode of preaching was verse-by-verse, book-by-book so he would not selectively avoid things he did not wish to teach. In this way God’s people receive all that they need and not just what the preacher determines the people need. The preacher is neither to add nor subtract from Scripture.

Calvin believed preaching is the Word of God in at least three ways:

  • Preaching is the Word of God because it is the exposition of the Bible
  • Preaching is the Word of God because the preacher is sent and commissioned by God and given his authority to speak in his name
  • Preaching is the Word of God because it is revelation, revealing the treasures of God’s Word.

Calvin looked to three movements in his day, offering both agreement and disagreement with each of them. From these we can see some of the emphases of his ministry.

The enthusiasts - they were right in that they preached the necessity of the Holy Spirit but wrong in that they said there was no need for preachers.

The Church of Rome - they were right in that the church is to listen attentively to the preacher but wrong in that the church taught that Christians did not need to verify the minister’s words according to Scripture.

The fanatics - they were right in that believers are to read the Bible on their own but wrong in that they downplayed the need for guidance from teachers and preachers.

Mohler offered these four hallmarks of John Calvin’s preaching:

  • Centrality of Scripture
  • Systematic exposition
  • Simplicity of expression
  • Practical application

And here he recommended Steve Lawson’s The Expository Genius of John Calvin as a useful, accurate summary of John Calvin’s teaching ministry.