Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: January, 2016


George Whitefield preaching

George Whitefield preaching


In our last blog post we noted that a proper understanding of Christian doctrine involves spiritual discernment – the inward ability, imparted by the Holy Spirit, to understand and appreciate the great spiritual truths of Scripture. And we briefly alluded to several great preachers down through history who demonstrated this quality in their preaching. This week I thought it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at some of them in particular.

The first one we shall look at is the great Scottish Reformer John Knox. James Melville described Knox’s preaching this way: Knox would typically begin by quietly exegeting the passage at hand, and then after about a half an hour he would turn to application. And the, as Melville put it, he would become “so active and vigorous, that he was likely to ding the pulpit in blades and fly out of it . . . he made me so to quake and tremble, that I could not hold a pen to write” (W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God, p. 270. I have modernized somewhat the archaic Scots’ English.).

John Bunyan was a 17th Century English Baptist preacher and the author of the famous book The Pilgrim’s Progress.   Even though he had very little in the way of formal education he was a very effective preacher. Huge crowds would gather to hear him preach, including, among others, the learned Puritan theologian John Owen. Once King Charles II asked Owen how a learned man like himself co go “to hear a tinker prate.” Owen is said to have replied, “May it please your majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning” (Owen, Works, Vol. I, p. xcii).

So what was Bunyan’s secret? He himself tells us. After having gone through a long and arduous conversion experience, Bunyan was eventually called to preach. He describes his approach this way:

“In my preaching of the word, I too special notice of this one thing,

namely, that the Lord did lead me to begin where his word begins

with sinners; that is, to condemn all flesh, and to open and allege,

that the curse of God by the law doth belong to, and lay hold on all

men as they come into the world, because of sin. Now this part of

my work I fulfilled with great sense, for the terrors of the law, and

guilt for my transgressions, lay heavy on my conscience. I preached

what I felt, what I smartingly did feel, even that under which my poor

soul did groan and tremble to astonishment.

Indeed I have been as one sent to them from the dead; I went

myself in chains; and carried that fire in my own conscience, that I

persuaded them to beware of . . .”

(Grace Abounding, ¶¶ 276,277)

One of the greatest preachers of all time was the 18th Century English evangelist George Whitefield. In 1740 he had the occasion to visit Northampton, MA where the famous colonial American theologian Jonathan Edwards was pastor. Shortly afterwards Edwards’ wife, Sarah Edwards, wrote to her brother James Pierrepont in New Haven, CT and gave him this description of Whitefield:

“It is wonderful to see what a spell he casts over an audience by

proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible. I have seen upwards

of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence,

broken only by an occasional half-suppressed sob . . .

“. . . our mechanics shut up their shops, and the day-labourers

throw down their tools, to go and hear him preach, and few

return unaffected. A prejudiced person, I know, might say that

this is all theatrical artifice and display; but not so will anyone

think who has seen and known him.

“He is a very devout and godly man, and his only aim seems to

be to reach and influence men the best way. He speaks from a

heart aglow with love, and pours out a torrent of eloquence which

is almost irresistible . . . “

(Dallimore, Whitefield, Vol. I, p. 539).

Likewise Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the famous 19th Century English Baptist preacher, had no formal theological training. And yet here is how one listener described his preaching: It was

“. . .one of the richest and ripest sermons, as regards Christian

experience, all the more wonderful as being the sermon of so

young a man, I ever heard . . . such was the simplicity of his

style, the richness and quaintness of his illustrations, his intense

\                       earnestness, and the absolute and admirable naturalness of his

delivery, it told upon his audience generally, and told powerfully . . .

But to return to the sermon, and its effects on the faces! How

intensely fixed were they on the preacher – how eager to hear

every word he uttered – how fearful lest they should fail to

catch the least! Tears were now to be seen trickling down them;

and then, again, pale and careworn though many of them were,

they might be seen beaming with light and joy, and brightening

into smiles.”

(Spurgeon, Autobiography, Vol. I, p. 337)

The great American evangelist D.L. Moody was a man with practically no formal education at all, and yet he was mightily used of God in the conversion of sinners. One of his addresses was described this way:

“His incentives against sin, and his lashings of the conscience,

were awful. He seemed to be wrestling with an unseen power.

Beneath those burning words men’s faces grew pale under a

a conviction of the broken law of God. Then he began with

the wooings of the Gospel, in a strain of tender and heartbreaking

entreaty; and before he was through the whole audience seemed

completely broken.”

(Pollock, Moody, p. 102)

Billy Sunday was another famous preacher with little or no formal education – he had been a professional baseball player before being converted and becoming an evangelist. Yet even so great a scholar as J. Gresham Machen could not help but be impressed by Sunday’s preaching. Reporting on a meeting in Philadelphia in 1915 at which Sunday spoke Machen wrote:

“. . . the total impact of the sermon was great. At the climax,

the preacher got up on his chair – and if he had used a step-ladder,

nobody could have thought the thing excessive, so dead in

earnest were both speaker and audience! The climax was

the boundlessness of God’s mercy; and so truly had the sinfulness

of sin been presented, that everybody present with any heart at

all ought to have felt mighty glad that God’s mercy is boundless.

In the last five or ten minutes of that sermon, I got a new

realization of the power of the gospel.”

(Stonehouse, Machen, pp. 223-224)

So what was it that made these preachers effective? Certainly part of it was natural gifts, but that does not account for all of it. The deeper reason is that God had done a mighty work of grace in their hearts; the Holy Spirit had made them deeply sensitive to spiritual truths, and had given them an intense love for lost souls. And thus, when the stood up to speak, what struck their listeners was how real it all was – the preacher was real, heaven and hell were real, God was real!

Charles Haddon Spurgeon summed it up like this:

“In preparing a sermon, wait upon the Lord until you have communion

with Christ in it, until the Holy Spirit causes you to fell the power of

the truth which you are to deliver . . . Before you attempt to give out

the word to others, get it into yourself.”

(An all-round Ministry, p. 189).

Oh, that we had preachers like that today!



Having given praise to God for His glorious work of salvation, Paul then goes on in his Epistle to the Ephesians to record a prayer that he had for the believers there. And in his prayer he gives us insight into the proper nature of theology.

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him . . .” (Eph. 1:17; NKJV). The “knowledge” of God is much more than simply knowing a lot of facts about God; it involves knowing Him personally, having an understanding and appreciation of who He is. A second-hand knowledge is not enough; what is needed is a personal acquaintance.

But this kind of knowledge is only possible through “the spirit of wisdom and revelation.” This goes beyond the normal capacity of the human mind to digest facts and information. What is involved here is a spiritual sensitivity that is able to comprehend and appreciate the divine. And this is something that God himself must give us. It is the work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart and mind. It is a matter of “the eyes of your understanding being enlightened” (v. 18).

But what do we come to see and understand as a result of this spiritual enlightenment? Paul mentions three things: 1) “the hope of His calling” (v. 18), 2) “the riches of the glory of His inheritance” (v. 18), and 3) “the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe” (v. 19).

The “calling” is the whole process by which a sinner is brought to salvation in Christ (cf. 4:1; I Cor. 1:24,26). But Paul wants us to be able to do more than just define and defend the doctrine of effectual calling. He wants us to “know what is the hope of His calling.” “Hope” is that firm confidence that comes through faith in Christ. It is nothing less than the assurance of salvation.

Secondly, Paul prays that the believers would come to know what are “the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.” He doesn’t want us just to understand the bare fact of our inheritance; he wants us to appreciate “the riches of the glory” of it – to see how glorious it is, how immensely valuable and worthwhile it is.

Thirdly, Paul prays that they will come to know “what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe.” And here again, it is not just simply that they can define the word “omnipotence”; it is that they will be able to appreciate “the exceeding greatness” of God’s power; that they would be awestruck by it, and moved toward a profound sense of humility and reverence towards God.

It is significant that in each of these three requests the emphasis is on the qualitative aspects of the blessings sought. We are not to be content with simply knowing the bare facts of theology; Paul wants us to appreciate the greatness and the glory of divine things. Paul wants us to see the hope of our calling, the riches of the glory of our inheritance, the exceeding greatness of God’s power. Along with the objective facts there must be a subjective appreciation. Our hearts must be drawn out in love and adoration towards God.

The English Puritan John Flavel put it like this: “ . . . there is but little excellency in all those petty notions which furnish the lips with discourse, unless by a sweet and powerful influence they draw the conscience and will to obedience of Christ” (The Fountain of Life, Sermon X). How many sermons do we hear today that are filled with “petty notions” but do not “draw the conscience and will to the obedience of Christ”?

Why do we have so few effective preachers today? A great deal of the problem has to do with the way modern pastors are trained in seminaries. In the cloistered ivory towers young men, often with relatively little Christian experience, are subjected to dry academic lectures about disputed points of theology. Few of them, when they graduate, can see any point to systematic theology at all. They then go forth into churches to dispense comforting bromides about how Jesus wants to help people with their everyday problems.

So what made the great preachers of the past effective? Interestingly it was not formal theological training. It is, in fact, amazing to see how many of them down through history lacked such training – everyone from John Bunyan in the 17th Century to Billy Graham A.W. Tozer and Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 20th. Some were well educated, but in other fields. Charles G. Finney was trained as a lawyer; Lloyd-Jones as a medical doctor. Others, like D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday, had practically no education at all.

What was fairly typical of them, however, was a dramatic conversion experience of their own, sometimes the result of a spiritual crisis that could last for months. They were also men of prayer – they would spend hours on their knees in communion with God. Thus when they approached theology, they were interested in the concrete realities of the human condition: man’s fall into sin, Christ’s redeeming work on the cross, the miracle of the new birth. And when they preached their listeners were struck by the vividness with which they could describe spiritual realities. For them heaven and hell were real places and sinners were called upon to make a decision that would effect their eternal destiny.

Their listeners would often remark on the earnestness and evident sincerity of these preachers – they preached with passion, and it was not in the least bit forced or contrived. What a contrast with the dull, lifeless sermons we hear too often today!

Strictly speaking a revival is a revival of spiritual life within the church; the conversion of sinners is only an aftereffect. And since most churches look to their pastors for spiritual guidance and leadership, revival must start with them. Pastors need to look beyond the formal training they received in school and behold the living God in His eternal glory. They, and all the rest of us, must come to see “what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe.”


The Sealing of the Spirit

So far we have seen the roles that the Father and the Son play in our salvation. But it does not end there; the Holy Spirit has an important role to play as well, a role that is often overlooked by the modern church.

So far our text (Eph. 1:3-14) has told us that we have been predestined to adoption (v. 5), have received redemption (v. 7) and an inheritance (v. 11). But those things are either invisible or in the future; how can we know today that any of it is true?

The answer is that God has given us the Holy Spirit now. “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13; NKJV). A seal was used to authenticate a letter or document, as well as to secure a door or container. In our context, when the Holy Spirit comes into a believer’s heart it has the effect of authenticating his salvation. The Spirit is something that we can possess now that guarantees what we will later possess in glory. This is further underscored in the next verse where the Holy Spirit is described as “the guarantee of our inheritance.” The word translated “guarantee” is an interesting one. It is actually an ancient Semitic word (not Greek) used in commercial transactions and it referred to a kind of security deposit or down payment that guaranteed full payment later on. Thus the Holy Spirit is a kind of pledge or down payment on future glory.

The text says that the Holy Spirit is a guarantee “until the redemption of the purchased possession” (v. 14). This phrase is difficult and has occasioned much debate among the commentators, but I think that the interpretation that best fits the context is that the “purchased possession” is the future glory that awaits us (cf. I Thess. 5:9) and the “redemption” is when we actually receive it (cf. Eph. 4:30).

Significantly the Holy Spirit is referred to in our text as “the Holy Spirit of promise” (v. 13). As Jesus met with His disciples at the Last Supper He promised them that they would not be left alone, even though He would soon be departing from them. “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever” (John 14:16; cf., 16:5-15). And thus when the Holy Spirit came upon the gathered believers at Pentecost it was the fulfillment of the promise that Jesus had made to His disciples. It was also the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy about the end times:

“And it shall come to pass afterward

That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh . . .”

(Joel 2:28,29).

But what exactly is the sealing of the Spirit? And how do we know if we have received it? First of all, the text indicates that it is something that happens to every genuinely born again believer: “. . . after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, in whom also, having believed, you were seated with the Holy Spirit of promise” (v. 13). In other words, it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of believer that seals him. And every genuine believer has the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of him. “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:8).

But what does the Holy Spirit do in the life of a believer? First of all, He leads us and guides us into truth. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26; cf. John 16:12-15). This is not to say that we are to be guided by your personal, subjective feelings and do things that are contrary to Scripture. Rather, the Holy Spirit helps us understand and appreciate the spiritual realities described in Scripture. But more about that in our next blog post.

Then the Holy Spirit helps us in prayer. “Likewise the Spirit also helps our weakness. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26).

And then, of course, the Holy Spirit produces His “fruit” in us. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22,23). The new birth, the indwelling of the Spirit, results in a changed life. We now have a desire to live a life that is pleasing to God.

And then there is the presence of spiritual gifts. “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all” (I Cor. 12:7). The passage then goes on to enumerate a variety of spiritual gifts, including wisdom, knowledge, faith, healings, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (v. 11).

And then there is the element of assurance. In Rom. 8:16 we read, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Here the Holy Spirit, who dwells inside of us, is communicating directly with our spirits and assuring us that we truly are God’s. Surely this is “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! / O what a foretaste of glory divine!”

It must be kept in mind, however, that the Holy Spirit is a person and we are individually persons. Therefore the relationship between the Spirit and ourselves is dynamic and variable. It is possible to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). It is also possible to “grieve the Holy Spirit” as well (4:30).

What the modern church most desperately needs today is a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. It needs to return to a theology that recognizes our dependence upon God, and it needs to fall on its knees and ask for the Spirit to return in power and glory. It needs to ask the Spirit to purify the church and empower its ministries. Only then will we see genuine revival.


Christ our Redeemer

As we saw in our last blog post God is to be praised because He “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3; NKJV), and we saw how that our salvation was rooted in a plan that God had even before He created the world. But a plan is nothing but an unfulfilled wish unless something happens to bring it to fruition.

It was Jesus who made it happen. God “made us accepted in the Beloved [i.e. Christ]” (v. 6). “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (v. 7). “Redemption” involves the payment of a price which has the effect of securing the release of prisoner or slave. In our case the problem was our sin which had alienated us from God. We by nature are sinners and we routinely break God’s law. As a result we are under God’s wrath and condemnation. To remedy that problem Christ came into the world and shed His own blood on the cross. In that way He paid the ransom and set us free from the penalty of our sins. And thus we receive “the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (v. 7).

To the forgiven sinner this is the most wonderful blessing of all. To know oneself to be a sinner, to have inexcusably broken God’s law, is to feel the despair of divine judgment. And then to have that sin forgiven, to be treated as though you had not sinned at all, is a relief beyond all measure. I was a sinner hopelessly lost; and yet now I am forgiven! That is grace indeed.

“Guilty, vile and helpless, we;

Spotless Lamb of God was he;

Full Atonement! Can it be?

Hallelujah! What a Saviour!”

Philip P. Bliss

But more than that our text tells us that “we have obtained an inheritance” (v. 11). An inheritance is something that you receive upon the death of the testator, the person who made the will. Paul doesn’t tell us here exactly what this inheritance is, but Peter describes “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Pet. 1:4). Here on earth we may not have much at all. But for the redeemed there is the prospect of eternal glory in the age to come. As Paul himself would say in another context, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).

For Paul when Christ came into the world it was even more than the accomplishment of redemption; it was the decisive turning point in human history. For Paul was preeminently the Apostle to the Gentiles; and in his letter to the Ephesians he was writing to a church that was largely made up of believers from Gentile backgrounds. What was striking about this is that prior to the coming of Christ God’s dealings with the human race were confined almost exclusively to one small nation, the nation of Israel. But now the offer of salvation has been extended to the entire human race. And so Paul could speak in this passage of God “having made know to us the mystery of His will . . . that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ . . .” (vv. 9,10). He goes on to explain in Chapter 3 that the “mystery’ which has now been revealed is that “the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6).

Here we see God’s grace in full display. God’s grace and mercy would now extend to the darkest corners of the earth. Persons of every station and walk in life would be brought to Christ. And the church, the mystical body of Christ, would be made up of persons from every nation and language. To someone from a Jewish background prior to the time of Christ this was virtually inconceivable. It was an unprecedented display of God’s grace and love.

Here again Paul emphasizes that this is all a part of God’s eternal plan. It was all “according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (1:9), and we were “predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will” (v. 11). The text does not go into detail about how God can control events while preserving human responsibility, but it is nonetheless true that God is in control and achieves His purposes in history, and that includes our predestination unto salvation. We cannot claim any credit for ourselves for the blessing we receive – it is all of God’s unmerited favor. And it is also that “we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory” (v. 12).



Election & Predestination

Most Evangelicals today think that they understand the gospel – the word “evangelical,” after all, is derived from the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news” (euangelion). In our modern American self-help culture, however, we are naturally led to think in terms of individual freedom and self-initiative. Hence we like to think of salvation as an offer made by God to the human race, and we are free to accept it or reject it as we choose.

There is a sense in which that is true, of course. God does make the offer and we do have to decide and bear the consequences of our decision. But there is far more to salvation than just that. Salvation is fundamentally God’s work, and we are the passive beneficiaries. God saves us; we do not save ourselves.

This is brought out clearly in a passage at the beginning of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Having greeted the believers at Ephesus Paul then launches into an extended benediction – a kind of hymn of praise to God: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3; NKJV). The praise goes to God – “”Blessed be God.” Why? Because of what He has done for us: He “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing.”

Paul then goes on to elaborate, explaining what each person of the Trinity does in our salvation: the Father (vv. 4-6), the Son (vv. 7-12), and the Holy Spirit (vv. 13,14).

The role of the Father can be summed up in two words: election and predestination. Some people recoil at these two words. Doesn’t God want everyone to be saved? Doesn’t He give us a free choice? In a sense He does. But according to our text our salvation originates in God’s eternal decree.

Paul begins by saying that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (v. 4). The word “chose” (exelexato in the Greek) bears the clear and unmistakable meaning of selecting some persons or things from out of a larger group. Furthermore the verse says that God “chose us” – not just some general plan of salvation, but “us,” as individual human beings. And He did this “before the foundation of the world,” i.e., before we even existed to make any choices ourselves. In other words, the whole thrust and emphasis of the passage is that our individual salvation originates in the plan of God – he was the One who took the initiative, not we ourselves.

And what is the aim of God’s plan? “ . . .that we should be holy and without blame before Him.” But how can this be? We are by nature fallen sinners. God is perfectly holy and just. How then could we ever be seen by Him as “holy and without blame”? As Paul will go on to explain, it is through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

But God does not just have a plan; He executes it. “ . . .having predestinated us to adoption.” The word “predestine” means to determine beforehand. And in our case what God has predetermined is that we should receive adoption as sons. We are to be brought into a relationship with Him in which He is our Father and we are His children. And again God did not just settle on a plan or method; He predestined “us.” Thus some form of determinism is definitely in the picture, and it is a determinism that affects us as individuals.

All of this is done “according to the good pleasure of His will” (v. 5). God’s “will” is what He wishes or desires. The “good pleasure” is whatever pleases Him. Thus the determining factor in our election and predestination is what pleases and satisfies God. It is God’s will that ultimately determines what happens to us.

At this point all sorts of difficult questions arise. Why doesn’t God choose everyone for salvation? Why did He even allow sin to enter into the picture in the first place? Questions such as these may be impossible to answer, for they require us as finite human beings to probe the infinite mind of God. When Job and Paul were inclined to ask such questions the answer they got was “who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom. 9:20; cf. Job chapters 38-41). All we can go by is what has been pleased to reveal to us in Scripture. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law’ (Dt. 29:29).

But our text does give us a clue: God does all of this “to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved” (v. 6). What election and predestination do is to shine the spotlight on God’s grace. If we were all innocent bystanders, and God arbitrarily chose some of us for salvation and the rest for eternal punishment, the4n that would make God look like a cruel and arbitrary tyrant. But we are not innocent bystanders; we are guilty hell-deserving sinners. The non-elect simply get what they justly deserve. God metes out His perfect justice. The elect, on the other hand, get what they do not deserve — the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life. But they cannot take any credit for themselves for the gift that they receive. There just as hell-deserving as the rest. Their salvation is due entirely to God’s free, unmerited favor. The proper question to ask is “why me and not others?,” and the answer is certainly not anything in me that somehow makes me better than the others.

The condemnation of the non-elect serves to highlight the grace shown to the elect. The condemnation of the non-elect shows us what we all deserve. If all were saved we would no doubt take our salvation for granted, as though it were a kind of government entitlement program. But not all are saved. Some receive the punishment justly due them, thus highlighting God’s justice. The others receive a free gift they did not deserve, thus highlighting God’s grace.

What all of this should do for those of us who are saved is to move us to a profound sense of gratitude toward God for all that He has done for us, who were so undeserving of it.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,

That save a wretch like me . . .”