The Mystery of the Essence of God Contemplated

Reference to God’s incomprehensible essence also warns us against imagining what God is like, which would lead us inexorably down the road to idolatry. Recognizing God’s infinite and spiritual essence keeps us from thinking that God can be represented in imagery.

Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford, 2004), 20.

Here Paul Helm touches on Calvin’s view that the essence of God cannot be understood by the human mind. We can know about God all that he reveals about himself in his Word, but we can’t know more than that. As Helm notes later, the activities of God, which can be known, should not be confused with the essence of God, which cannot be known by the human mind. I often use the illustration (flawed, I know) that God is like Windows 7 and the human mind is like a calculator. A calculator simply does not have the capacity to run Windows 7. Likewise, we do not have the cognitive faculties to comprehend the essence of God, no matter how hard we try.

Calvin warned against philosophical speculation about the essence of God that goes beyond what Scripture has revealed:

Here, indeed, if anywhere in the secret mysteries of Scripture, we ought to play the philosopher soberly and with great moderation; let us use caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends. For how can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure, a mind as yet unable to establish for certain the nature of the sun’s body, though men’s eyes daily gaze upon it? Indeed, how can the mind by its own leading come to search out God’s essence when it cannot even get to its own? Let us then willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself. For, as Hilary says, he is the one fit witness to himself, and is not known except through himself. But we shall be “leaving it to him” if we conceive him to be as he reveals himself to us (Institutes 1.13.21).

What does this mean for us? We should worship God as he has revealed himself in Scripture, and not try to understand things for which we were never made (Deut. 29:29)!

Your Character Is Just As Important to Your Apologetics As Your Logic

Christians who develop an interest in apologetics often begin to believe that the most important things to learn are logic, rational arguments, and evidential proofs. They can become very focused on making sure their logic is airtight, while completely ignoring the importance of the moral quality of their life.  Historically, however, Christian apologists never separated rational arguments from their moral and ethical lives.

The 2nd century apologist, Athenagoras, challenged those who put too much stock in philosophy and logic, while ignoring their character. He noted that among the pagans were many who were skilled in logic, grammar and rhetoric, but whose character was unchanged by the truth they claimed to know.

For who of those that reduce syllogisms, and clear up ambiguities, and explain etymologies, or of those who teach homonyms and synonyms, and predicaments and axioms, and what is the subject and what is the predicate, and who promise their disciples by these and such instructions to make them happy; who of them have so purged their souls as, instead of hating their enemies, to love them; and, instead of speaking ill of those who have reviled them…to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against their lives? On the contrary, they never cease with evil intent to search out skillfully the secrets of their art, and are ever bent on working some ill, making the art of words and not the exhibition of deeds their business and profession.

William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, Christian Apologetics Past & Present, vol.1 (Crossway: 2009), 77-78.

Athenagoras proceeded to contrast this way of apologetics with the Christian manner, which was a combination of sound argument and pious living:

But among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.

Athenagoras was highlighting a very important truth: apologetics is not all about rational argumentation. It is also about a Christ-like life that stands just as much in contrast to the lives of the heathen as a sound argument. He also encourages us that even if we don’t know the answer to every challenge brought against the Christian faith, the best response is not always an argument to begin with. Sometimes the best response is Christ-like love, forgiveness, compassion and good works. This should hearten every believer that doesn’t feel that he can always give an answer to those who question his faith. We can all live godly lives of character and good works. That will go a long way toward giving an apologetic that will add much power to our logical arguments.

Every Person Possess a Clear and Distinct Knowledge of God

One of the most fundamental truths of Christian apologetics is that every person is born with a clear knowledge of God. I don’t mean that every person has knowledge of a God, but that each individual knows the God who created him. This idea seems counter-intuitive, for we all know or know of people who are atheistic, or at least agnostic, and would deny even belief in a God, let alone knowledge of one. Even many religious people would be hesitant to say that they know God. Yet Romans 1:18-21 tells us that God has revealed himself to every person, that such knowledge of God is plain because God has shown it to them, that the divine attributes are clearly perceived, and finally, that people know God, yet suppress that knowledge. We can conclude, therefore, that every person is either in a relationship of wrath with God, or a relationship of grace. Theologians call this knowledge of God the sensus divinitatis, or sense of divinity. This knowledge of God is implanted into every human being and confirmed by creation and providence.

So when we encounter someone who denies belief in God, or rejects knowing him through Christ, we are dealing with a person who is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. This suppression takes many forms, from outright denial to bitterness against God; from false and pagan notions about God to pious attempts to make God in one’s own image. Yet, every day that clear and distinct knowledge of God bubbles up within the unbeliever, and to make it through the day, he must push down that rising sense of God.

John Calvin described it this way:

There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty. Ever renewing its memory, he repeatedly sheds fresh drops. Since, therefore, men one and all perceive that there is a God and that he is their Maker, they are condemned by their own testimony because they have failed to honor him and to consecrate their lives to his will. (Institutes, 1:3:1)

And later:

[God] not only sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken, but revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe.  As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him…wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. (Institutes, 1:5:1)

This truth has profound implications for the gospel. First, I do not need to prove the existence of God when speaking with an unbeliever. What I do need to do is discern ways that he is suppressing the knowledge of God in his life. Most unbelievers absolutely reek with suppression in some form. That is where I begin to shine the truth of the gospel. Second, although I need to understand the unbeliever’s belief system to some degree, ultimately every unbeliever shares some basic similarities regarding their need of the gospel. Third, although I may use different evangelistic and apologetic strategies in presenting the gospel, I can rest assured that the gospel, as simple as it may seem, is universal enough to be the one message that I will ultimately stress with any unbeliever.

I have found this truth to be liberating to my evangelism. I can approach any unbeliever confidently knowing that when I talk about God, I am telling him things that he already intuitively knows, even though he may reject it. Between this implanted knowledge of God and the perceived creation, he is a person in active rebellion against God. By presenting the gospel as revealed in Scripture, I am applying the one cure to his depraved heart. Though he may reject the gospel, I know that he knows it is the truth and that he needs it.

The sensus divinitatis reminds us that we are dwelling in a world of truth suppressors who desperately need the truth to be presented over and over again to them. With this truth firmly embedded in our hearts we can boldly share the gospel with anyone we meet. May God grant us a firm and unbending grasp of this truth!

Church History You Will Remember and Use

9780310516569_30Church History is one of those subjects that many feel inadequate to comprehend, remember, and use in Christian ministry. Unless one is a history buff, church history texts are often difficult to enjoy reading, and are often not typeset or designed to be memorable or useable. In short, they are quickly forgettable.

Zondervan’s two-volume church history set combines a church history and historical theology approach to walk readers through both the major events of the church and the development of doctrine since the time of the apostles. Skimming through the volumes, I found succinct, yet in-depth, progression through the centuries. Since  volume one is less than 600 pages, the discussion of topics is compressed. Volume two tops out over 800 pages, but for volumes on church history, these are manageable lengths. This is what makes this set valuable for pastors and others in practical ministry that want to refresh and maintain their knowledge of church history. Both the content and the design are conducive to learning and retaining important.


The first volume, Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation (2nd ed., Zondervan, 2013), is written by Everett Ferguson and covers the apostolic period to the Medieval Age. The second volume, Church History: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (Zondervan, 2013) is written by John Woodbridge and Frank James picks up in 1300 A.D. with European Christianity in an age of “Adversity, Renaissance, and Discovery”. The quality of these volumes are exceptional. These titans of church history write from decades of experience and knowledge, and this set will be well worth the money spent on them.

The Harm of Treating Sin Lightly

From John Piper’s forward to John Owen’s book, Overcoming Sin and Temptation:

As I look across the Christian landscape, I think it is fair to say concerning sin, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly” (Jer. 6:148:11, ESV). I take this to refer to leaders who should be helping the church know and feel the seriousness of indwelling sin (Rom. 7:20), and how to fight it and kill it (Rom. 8:13). Instead the depth and complexity and ugliness and danger of sin in professing Christians is either minimized—since we are already justified—or psychologized as a symptom of woundedness rather than corruption.

This is a tragically light healing. I call it a tragedy because by making life easier for ourselves in minimizing the nature and seriousness of our sin, we become greater victims of it. We are in fact not healing ourselves. Those who say that they already feel bad enough without being told about the corruptions of indwelling sin misread the path to peace. When our people have not been taught well about the real nature of sin and how it works and how to put it to death, most of the miseries people report are not owing to the disease but its symptoms. They feel a general malaise and don’t know why, their marriages are at the breaking point, they feel weak in their spiritual witness and devotion, their workplace is embattled, their church is tense with unrest, their fuse is short with the children, etc. They report these miseries as if they were the disease. And they want the symptoms removed.

We proceed to heal the wound of the people lightly. We look first and mainly for circumstantial causes for the misery—present or past. If we’re good at it, we can find partial causes and give some relief. But the healing is light. We have not done the kind of soul surgery that is possible only when the soul doctor knows the kind of things Owen talks about in these books, and when the patient is willing to let the doctor’s scalpel go deep.

What Owen offers is not quick relief, but long-term, deep growth in grace that can make strong, healthy trees where there was once a fragile sapling. I pray that thousands—especially teachers and pastors and other leaders—will choose the harder, long-term path of growth, not the easier, short-term path of circumstantial relief.

Incredible Source for Defending the Doctrine of Scripture

ImageThe doctrine of Scripture is in need of defense in every generation. In our day the challenge is presented by those who want to say that the idea of inerrancy arose out of a corruption of Christian theology by Greek and modern philosophy, and that the Bible’s testimony about itself is much more chastened regarding its certainty. In two weeks at the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting in Baltimore, academic heavyweights such as Al Mohler, Peter Enns, John Franke and others will debate this issue in what could amount to a showdown. In addition, hundreds of papers will be presented on this issue.

Thy Word is Still Truth, edited by Peter Lillback and Richard Gaffin will prove, I believe, to be an important resource in the present “Battle for the Bible.” A critical issue in the debate is which position, inerrancy or non-inerrancy, has historical pedigree. Lillback and Gaffin, president and professor of NT theology, respectively, of Westminster Theological Seminary, have assembled almost 1,400 pages of historical writings on the doctrine of Scripture from the Reformation to today. This volume includes confessions, creeds, sermons, and key passages by orthodox theologians. In the process they establish quite clearly that orthodox theology has always held to the belief that the Scripture is without error in all it affirms, and that it stands as the starting point and authority for all human knowledge. This is a personal matter for Lillback and Gaffin as they explain in the introduction:

In recent years , this understanding of God’s Word has been repeatedly challenged–not simply by those in the liberal Protestant tradition, but also by those in the broad evangelical perspective. In fact, in the past few years, Westminster addressed related issues in its own theological crisis, which was motivated by differing hermeneutical perspectives and broader understandings of confessional boundaries. Resolving the conflict required an extensive and often painful process of theological clarification, historical reappraisal, and financial risks, because the debate impacted friends of the seminary who took varying perspectives on the issues raised.

I was a student at Westminster when this was happening in the mid-2000’s, so I know that this historical study became a critical foundation upon which the defense of the historic doctrine of Scripture stands. Thy Word is Still Truth is an invaluable resource for those who believe historical theology still matters.

Extravagant and Extraordinary Grace

Two recent books on the subject of grace complement each other wonderfully and deserve a consideration for your next read.

imagesExtravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness by Barbara Duguid (P&R, 2013) is a distillation of wisdom on suffering drawn from her own life and from the letters of John Newton. Duguid, wife of theologian Iain Duguid, asks the question, “Why do real Christians still sin so much, even after they have been saved for decades?” She suggests that the problem is probably not the reality of our sin, but rather our unbiblical expectations of what Christian growth should look like. Growing in grace, she says, is more about humility, dependence, and exalting Christ that it is about defeating sin.

The goal of Extravagant Grace is to recover a more biblical theology of sin and sanctification, a theology that was “familiar and dear” to many pastors in the 17th and 18th centuries, but is “largely lost to a contemporary church overwhelmed by individual triumphalism and the myth of the victorious Christian life. As a result, many Christians live lives of deep discouragement and anguish, hiding their shameful struggles from one another.”

This book is full of gems from Newton. “The characteristic state of [the maturing believer] is conflict.” What a neglected truth! “[The maturing Christian’s] great business is to behold the glory of God in Christ; and by beholding, he is changed.” How true this is! “But that we are so totally depraved is a truth which no one ever truly learned by being only told it.”

Extravagant Grace is a book that will especially mean much to women, but men shouldn’t shy away from it. Duguid’s insight into the experience of the average Christian is one from which every pastor should learn. I highly recommend this great book.

extraordinary-graceExtraordinary Grace: How the Unlikely Lineage of Jesus Reveals God’s Amazing Love by Gary Chapman and Chris Fabry (Moody, 2013) is very different from the previous book, but no less edifying. The book is, according to the authors “a study of God at work among ordinary people.” It is an exploration into seven characters in the genealogy of Jesus. It brings OT figures like Abraham and Rahab to life with descriptive prose and imaginative descriptions of their thoughts and emotions. These are characters who “failed, fell or chose badly.”

The effect of the grace of God in the lives of these Bible characters, we are told, is not that we will be compelled to please God with a holy life but that we allow the holy life of Jesus to live in and through us. This allows us to become an agent of grace to others.

Chapman and Fabry tell these stories to remind us that it is only by God’s grace that we are forgiven and accepted.


Theologians of Glory or the Cross?

In the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 Martin Luther set forward his radical new theology publically for the first time. This prompted two significant responses. First, the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer became a follower of Luther, and second, Johann Eck was moved to debate Luther the next year in Leipzig, a debate that moved Luther to greater clarity regarding the nature of the gospel and the Reformation.

Most significantly at Heidelberg, Luther distinguished between theologians of glory and theologians of the cross. Theologians of glory see the things of God as a path of glory, whereas theologians of the cross see the path as one marked by suffering. In application, the former sees ministry as a way to glory, outward success, large numbers, adulation. The latter see the ministry as a path of self-sacrifice and deferring glory until God judges one’s ministry by his standards. The theologian of glory, says Luther, is “completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened” and “misuses the best in the worst manner.” A theologian of the cross, on the other hand “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

Carl Trueman applies this to present day churches and pastors:

Sad to say, it is often hard to discern where these theologians of the cross are to be found.  Yes, many talk about the cross, but the cultural norms of many churches seem no different to the cultural norms of — well, the culture.  They often indicate an attitude to power and influence that sees these things as directly related to size, market share, consumerist packaging, aesthetics, youth culture, media appearances, swagger and the all-round noise and pyrotechnics we associate with modern cinema rather than New Testament Christianity. These are surely more akin to what Luther would have regarded as symptomatic of the presence and influence of theologians of glory rather than the cross.  An abstract theology of the cross can quite easily be packaged and marketed by a theologian of glory. And this is not to point the finger at `them’: in fact, if we are honest, most if not all of us feel the attraction of being theologians of glory.  Not surprising, given that being a theologian of glory is the default position for fallen human nature.

Trueman is right. It is rather easy to spot ministries led by a theologian of glory. They are everywhere and their ugliness stands in sharp contrast to the beauty of the cross. It is harder, though, to see it in ourselves. When we do recognize it in ourselves, says Trueman, there is only onw remedy:

The way to move from being a theologian of glory to a theologian of the cross is not an easy one, not simply a question of mastering techniques, reading books or learning a new vocabulary.  It is repentance.    

Read it all here.

Christ to the Terrified and Smug

To those who are afraid and have already been terrified by the burden of their sins, Christ the saviour and the gift should be announced, not Christ the example and the lawgiver. But to those who are smug and stubborn the example of Christ should be set forth, lest they use the gospel as a pretext for the freedom of the flesh, and thus become smug.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 27, 35

Preachers, Know When to Quit!

There are few things more disheartening as a congregant than hearing a forty minute preacher preach for fifty minutes, a thirty minute preacher preach for forty minutes, or a twenty minute preacher preach for thirty minutes.  Somehow, that last ten minutes can weaken and even destroy the impact of all that has been said in the sermon to that point.  There is no virtue in length for the sake of it.  I think I’ve heard two preachers in my entire life who could preach for an hour; and most preachers I know would be much better if they shaved at least five or ten minutes off their typical length.  Get up there, say what you’ve got to say as clearly as you can, and then sit down again.  That’s all that’s necessary.   As Luther says elsewhere in Table Talk (2643a), `I hate a long sermon, because the desire on the part of the congregation to listen is destroyed by them, and the preachers hurt themselves.’   And, as usual, Luther got it right.

Carl Trueman, “Luther on the Marks of a Good Preacher, II”