Category Archives: Theological

John Owen on Romans

John Owen writes in the Introduction to Calvin’s Commentary on Romans:

“We have set before us in this Epistle especially two things, which it behoves us all rightly to understand — the righteousness of man and the righteousness of God — merit and grace, or salvation by works and salvation by faith. The light in which they are exhibited here is clearer and brighter than what we find in any other portion of Scripture, with the exception, perhaps, of the Epistle to the Galatians. Hence the great value which has in every age been attached to this Epistle by all really enlightened Christians; and hence also the strenuous efforts which have often been made to darken and wrest its meaning by men, though acute and learned, yet destitute of spiritual light. But let not the simple Christian conclude from the contrariety that is often found in the expositions on these two points, that there is no certainty in what is taught respecting them. There are no contrary views given of them by spiritually-minded men. Though on other subjects discussed here, such men have had their differences, yet on these they have ever been found unanimous: that salvation is from first to last by grace, and not by works, has ever been the conviction of really enlightened men in every age, however their opinion may have varied in other respects. It may seem very strange, when we consider the plain and decisive language, especially of this Epistle, and the clear and conclusive reasoning which it exhibits, that any attempt should ever be made by a reasonable being, acknowledging the authority of Scripture, to pervert what it plainly teaches, and to evade what it clearly proves. But a right view of what human nature is, when unrenewed, as exhibited in God’s Word, and as proved by history and made evident by observation, enables us fully to account for what would otherwise remain an enigma. No truth is more fully confirmed by facts (and it ought ever to be remembered) than that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God,” and that he “cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” This declaration clearly accounts for the fact, that men of great learning have often misunderstood many things in Scripture, and such things as are plain enough even to the unlettered when spiritually enlightened. The learned Scribes and Rabbins were blind leaders of the blind, when even babes understood the mysteries of the kingdom of God: and no better then the Scribes are many learned men, professing Christianity, in our day.

There is indeed a special reason why, on these points, unenlightened men should contrive means to evade the obvious meaning of Scripture; for they are such things as come in constant contact with a principle, the strongest that belongs to human nature in its fallen state. Other doctrines may be held as speculations, and kept, as it were, at a distance; but when we come to merit and grace, to work and faith, man’s pride is touched; and as long as under he is its prevailing influence, he will be certain, in some way or another, direct or evasive, to support merit in opposition to grace, or works in opposition to faith. When the authority of tradition supplanted the authority of Scripture, the doctrine of merit so prevailed, that the preposterous idea, that merits were a salable and a transferable commodity, gained ground in the world. A notion of this kind is too gross and absurd to be entertained by any who acknowledge God’s Word as the only umpire in religion; and yet what is not essentially different has often been maintained; for to say that salvation is partly by faith and partly by works, is really the same thing, inasmuch as the principle of merit is thereby admitted. Man naturally cleaves to his own righteousness; all those who are ignorant are self-righteous, and all the learned who understand not the gospel; and it is wonderful what ingenious evasions and learned subtleties men will have recourse to in order to resist the plain testimony of Scripture. When they cannot maintain their ground as advocates of salvation alone by merits, they will attempt to maintain it as advocates of a system, which allows a part to grace and a part to works — an amalgamation which Paul expressly repudiates, Romans 11:6.

But it is remarkable how the innate disposition of man has displayed itself in this respect. Conscious, as it were, in some measure of moral imperfections, he has been striving for the most part to merit his salvation by ceremonial works. This has been the case in all ages with heathens: their scarifies, austerities, and mechanical devotions were their merits; they were the works by which they expected to obtain happiness. God favored the people of Israel with the rituals of religion, which were designed merely as aids and means to attain and preserve true religion; but they converted them to another purpose, and, like the heathens, regarded them as meritorious performances, and expected God’s acceptance for the very religious acts which they exercised: and in order to make up, as it were, a sufficient quantity of merit, they made additions to those services which God had appointed, as though to multiply acts of this kind was to render their salvation more certain. The very same evil crept early into the Christian Church, and still continues to exist. The accumulation of ceremonies is of itself a sufficient proof, that salvation by faith was in a great measure lost sight of: we want no other evidence; it is what has been ever done whenever the light of truth has become dim and obscure. We see the same evil in the present day. Outward privileges and outward acts of worship are in effect too often substituted for that grace which changes the heart, and for that living faith which unites us to the Savior, which works by love and overcomes the world. The very disposition to over-value external privileges and the mere performances of religious duties, is an unequivocal evidence, that salvation by faith is not understood, or very imperfectly understood, and not really embraced.

The only remedy, as means for this evil, is that which we find employed by Paul in this Epistle. He begins by showing what every man, Jew and Gentile, is by nature; he proves by the clearest evidence, that all have sinned and become guilty before God. And having done this, he discloses the way of salvation which God himself has planned and revealed; and he teaches us, that it is altogether by grace and through faith that we can be saved, and not by works. In order cordially to embrace this latter truth, it is necessary to know the first, that we are sinners under condemnation. It is impossible, according to the very constitution of man’s mind, that he should really and truly accede to the one, without a real and deep knowledge of the other. The whole need not a physician, but the sick. It is only he who is really convinced of sin and who feels its guilt and its burden intolerable, that ever will, or indeed ever can, really lay hold on that free salvation which God has provided. And when this free salvation is really known, all other things compared with it will be deemed as nothing; and then all outward privileges will be viewed only as means, and all outward acts of religion only as aids and helps; and then also all our works, however great and self-denying, will be regarded in no way meritorious, but imperfect and defective, and acceptable only through the merits of our High Priest at God’s right hand.

-John Owen

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What does it mean (practically) to be Gospel Centered?

What does it mean (practically) to live a gospel centered life and to help others in this endeavor?   Scott Thomas & Tom Wood provide some helpful insight in to this in their insightful book, Gospel Coach: Shepherding Leaders to Glorify God.  A few things really stick out to me.
1) What we believe theologically drive how we approach life, discipleship & our pursuit of holiness.
2) We naturally prefer lists and formulas to modify our behaviors more than we have a deep desire to know God.
3) We naturally think that our problems are outside of us and the solutions are inside of us instead of realizing that our sinful, rebellious heart is the problem and the atoning work of Christ is the solution.
4)  “The motivation question is the lordship question.”  This is hugh because what motivates our hearts reveals who our real Lord is – You can’t dodge this question with external pretending, it strips us bare and reveals what we really worship (even if we look great on the outside)!

Moralism-Do Good
“While many leaders may teach and believe they are justified by God’s grace, they effectively deny that same grace by their efforts at being a godly leader. They rely on their own moral ability or on the way other people perceive them as good, moral people; thus, they are blind to their own sin. They trust in themselves or in the faulty judgment of others rather than in the grace of God, the cross of Christ, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. This type of leader often shames his family and the people he is leading into doing better and deals harshly with those who fail to perform to the level of acceptable behavior.
The gospel tells us that our standard for morality is Jesus Christ and that we only attain his perfect morality through his righteous imputation — we are declared righteous on the merits of Christ alone (Romans 4:3–8). As Tim Keller states, “I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe. I am more accepted and loved than I ever dared hope.” A Christian leader who neglects the importance of the gospel relies instead on systems and structures that offer techniques for living a good life. Moralism leads to methods of behavior modification where we seek to change what we do without addressing who we are as sinful people. Moralism does not help us gain favor with God or ease our pressure. In fact, those who rely on systems or structures for living a moral life or managing their sin are neglecting the gospel of Christ.”  Kindle Locations 433-443

Therapy-Smile & Be Happy
“Therapy is the belief that adherents enjoy psychological benefits by participating in something good. This is not a religion of repentance from sin or of living as a servant of a sovereign God. Rather, therapy encourages us to pursue the goal of feeling good, happy, secure, and at peace with the world. It seeks to attain a state of subjective well-being by resolving problems and avoiding conflict with people. It’s about doing good things so that you feel good about yourself.
There is a dangerously fine line between serving God and serving ourselves. Ministry leaders may tend to overuse their “speaking for God” attitude to encourage followers to find their own happiness, since, as they say, “God wants you happy.” Others may encourage disciples to apply “easy-to-follow steps to personal wholeness.” Some leaders may lean toward the “be nice and smile” solution, ignoring the effects of sin. A person who embraces the therapeutic mind-set often focuses on the positives and avoids conflict at all costs — even if it involves compromising principles or the clear teaching of Scripture.
Many well-meaning Christian leaders offer therapeutic solutions to the problems we face. They often suggest that we simply need new hobbies or retreats or routines. One church leader said in an article that his best way of dealing with ministry stress is to listen to soothing music, hang out with some good friends, get a massage, and shoot his guns. Another leader said, “I take mental holidays while I am at church during the week.” Still another said, “I have a note card that I wrote to myself that I stuck inside my desk. It simply says, ‘Lighten up and smile.’”6 These are all different ways of dealing with stress, and each takes a different approach to ignoring the root problems in the heart. I seriously doubt that a note card encouraging me to lighten up and smile will be of any benefit when a family member gets cancer or I’m counseling a friend who has just lost a child. Sadly, much of the “advice” given out by church leaders today is unbiblical. With our churches filled with leaders who believe these things, is it any wonder that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is thriving in the church?”  Kindle Locations 445-462

Deism-Be There if I Need You
“Deism is the belief that there is a God who exists, who created the world, but who is now uninvolved in the affairs of life. God exists, but he basically leaves us alone. At a practical level, deism conceives of God as a Divine Butler who waits for us to call on him to intervene in times of great need or as a Cosmic Genie who exists to grant our wishes. If our plans and goals do not succeed as we expect, God gets the blame for our disappointment and pain.”  Kindle Locations 464-467

Man Centered vs. Gospel Empowered
“At its core, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is based on a humanistic, man-centered way of seeing our problems. And it offers solutions that we can manage and accomplish in our own strength and wisdom, without depending on God. In this sense, it is directly opposed to the gospel of God’s grace, which declares us dead in our sins, desperately in need of salvation that only God can provide through the atoning, all-sufficient work of Jesus Christ.” Kindle Locations 472-475

“The main focus of most life coaching today is not pathology — a thorough examination of the nature of our problems and their causes, processes, development, and consequences. Rather, humanism is focused on behavioral change through increased awareness and choices to allow for desired future results and solutions to current “problems in living.” In other words, much of life coaching is less concerned with issues of sin, rebellion against God, and our need for a Savior; it is about helping us achieve our self-determined goals in life, enabling us to seek happiness in fulfilling our personal desires.”  Kindle Locations 491-496

Many of those theories are based on the assumption that the client is basically good and that the answers to the maladies of life are found by “looking inside” and focusing on our desires. Rogers taught that man is good and that corruption enters our lives from the outside.”  Kindle Locations 498-500

“But this is a wrong assumption that is based on the notion that people are inherently good, that rather than being inherently selfish they are simply in need of self-discovery. In contrast, we contend that any approach that relies on a client-centered coaching approach, even if it flies under the banner of being Christ centered, is fundamentally flawed.
The Scriptures clearly reject the presupposition of our moral goodness, insisting that the effects of the fall stemming from human disobedience and rebellion against our Creator are much worse than we dare believe. The apostle Paul wrote:  I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. — Romans 7:18–20”  Kindle Locations 519-527

“To experience their full God-ordained potential, a Christian leader must first recognize that he or she is a forgiven sinner made righteous entirely through Jesus Christ and not through their own merit or ability. Transformation occurs as Christians appropriate the gospel and live by faith in what God declares true in Jesus. Those who have been transformed by the power of this message recognize that every wrong action, thought, or emotion is fundamentally a form of unbelief in the gospel, in what it declares to be true.
Though a person can believe the message of the gospel, functionally we often reveal a deeper, heart-level belief that our power, approval, comfort, and security are more worthy of pursuit than God. Since Jesus Christ is the only way that God has provided for us to be saved, we sin when we find our meaning and worth in anything other than our identity in Christ. This sin is a form of idolatry, a refusal to believe the good news that God has saved us in Jesus alone, instead looking to and relying on someone or something to give to us what only God can give. David Powlison explains this connection between biblical idolatry, sin, and our hearts:
Has something or someone besides Jesus Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear, and delight? It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings. In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question. Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substitute?
Whereas the humanistic approach to coaching tells us that the problem we face is “out there” and the solution we need is inside of us, the gospel teaches us the exact opposite, namely, that the problem is really inside the heart and mind and the answer to our problem is outside of us — not in our work or effort — but in Christ alone. The gospel is the ultimate solution for every problem we face, and the answer is obviously not something we find inside of us. The power of the gospel comes when we look away from ourselves, relying on Jesus. As we trust in Jesus and his work on our behalf, we receive the supernatural power of God through the gracious gift of his Spirit.”  Kindle Locations 535-552

Thomas, Scott; Wood, Tom (2012-05-08). Gospel Coach: Shepherding Leaders to Glorify God. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Are you obeying well enough to be accepted?

“And I said, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.” (Nehemiah 1:5–7 ESV)

The Israelites current situation (verse 7) was due to their disobedience to the covenant relationship that God had established with them.  The Mosaic Covenant was given at Mount Sinai to the Israelites (Exodus 19:4-6) and it said that if they would obey then God would bless them.  The Old Testament chronicles a people who consistently failed to obey God’s commands because they had defective hearts (their hearts were stained with sin and lacked the ability to fully obey).  A major hope for the Israelites was the day when God would give them new hearts – hearts upon which His laws would be written (Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:16, 29:4, 30:6; Jeremiah 31:31–34; Ezekiel 36:26–27).

But, we are no longer under this covenant (Rom. 6:14–15; 7:1–6; 2 Cor. 3:4–18; Galatians 3:15–4:7).  He has written His laws on our hearts (Romans 2:25-29, 8:14; Galatians 5:16, 18, 25; Colosians 2:11; Hebrews 7:18-19, 8:8-12, 9:9, 14, 10:1, 15-18, 10:22).  We do not live under performance based righteousness; we do not earn additional favor from God when we obey.  Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly so God’s blessing toward us is based solely on the finished work of Jesus Christ – not on our performance or obedience to the law.  The old covenant said, “If you obey then I will love and bless you”; the new covenant says, “you are loved and blessed because of the sacrifice of Jesus – now obey”.  One attempts to earn favor with God, the other is a reflection that we already have God’s favor.

A theological conversation with John Wesley

I heard this from a friend some time ago and found it very helpful.  Most earnest Christians, when pressed, will land as Wesley did in this conversation.

“Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers.  But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions.  Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?

Yes, I do indeed.

And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?

Yes, solely through Christ.

But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?

No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.

Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?

No.

What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?

Yes, altogether.

And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?

Yes, I have no hope but in Him.

Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things where in we agree. (Moule, 79ff.)”

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But God, being rich in mercy, made us alive

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:1–10 ESV)

The bible clearly tells us that we are dead.  The idea of being terminally ill has become a popular one, but it is not biblical.  When we realize that we had no contribution in our salvation, we become overwhelmed with gratitude and awe that God would call some one like us out of darkness and in to light.  When we understand that God’s radical, unconditional grace, one way love then we are moved to worship.  All of the acceptance and approval that we all long for we now have in Christ, it frees us to stop pretending, remove our mask and walk freely.  “THANKS BE TO GOD THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD.”  At the point at which we recognize our deep need (oh wretched man that I am) is the point at which the gospel becomes real and impact-full.

Wimpy Theology Produces Wimpy Women (and Men)

“Wimpy theology makes wimpy women. That’s my assumption that I bring to this evening. Wimpy theology simply does not give a woman a God that is big enough, strong enough, wise enough, and good enough to handle the realities of life in a way that magnifies the infinite worth of Jesus Christ.

Wimpy theology is plagued by woman-centeredness and man-centeredness. Wimpy theology doesn’t have the granite foundation of God’s sovereignty or the solid steel structure of a great God-centered purpose for all things.”

Excerpted from a sermon by John Piper.  This is just as true of men as it is of women.  Read more here.