This series, “Bite-Size Bunyan,” shares John Bunyan’s writings in summary form. This fifth “bite” concerns Bunyan’s work, Profitable Meditations, Fitted to Man’s Different Condition: In a Conference between Christ and a Sinner (1661), written to help support his family during his imprisonment, which began in November 1660. The book is basically a confession of faith in verse and marks Bunyan’s first formal attempt at poetry.
 
While not very long and somewhat clumsy poetically, its personal and experiential theology, creative style, and use of dialogue provide a foretaste to several works, including Grace Abounding (1666), A Confession of My Faith (1672), The Pilgrim’s Progress, I and II (1678, 1684), The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680), and The Holy War (1682). As far as poetry goes, this work precedes other “prison” poems soon to come: Prison Meditations (1663), One Thing Is Needful (1665), and Ebal and Gerizzim (1665). 
 
We get a broad taste of Bunyan’s emerging Reformed theology (as already manifested in A Few Sighs from Hell and Law and Grace Unfolded), including such doctrines as sinful depravity, the eternal counsel of redemption, salvation by free grace in Christ from the guilt and power of sin, justification by faith for the forgiveness of sins and imputation of Christ’s righteousness, saints as just and sinful simultaneously, election of sinners to salvation, assurance of grace, perseverance of saints, eternal and irreversible punishment, and the bodily second coming of Christ for consummate salvation and judgment. 
 
That Bunyan sets forth the free offer of the gospel (e.g. “My Mercy’s thine, if thou wilt imbrace”) to all who turn from sin to him (e.g. “from thy evils flie”) does not show the Arminian tendencies of a conflicted Calvinist as some scholars maintain. Bunyan was conviced that God’s sovereign choice exists in Scripture side-by-side (and without contradiction) with the appeal for man to choose. In general, Bunyan also avoids an antinomian demeanor as in: “Christ saves men From Sin, both Guilt and Filth, them to set free, That they in Life and Holiness may dwell.” That being said, he displays the antinomian tendency to stress objective assurance of grace in the promises of Christ at the expense of subjective assurance through the evidences of grace.
 
After an introduction defending the use of verse as a vehicle for Scriptural truth, Bunyan sets forth nine sections of poetry, five couched in dialogue and all supported by marginal Scripture references. In the process, he treats the topics of man’s sinful nature, Christ’s gracious atonement, the conversion of sinners to saints, Satan’s assault upon Christian assurance, Christ’s deliberation with depraved sinners, Christ’s consolation for doubting saints, death’s conquest over sinners, the Christian’s conquest over death, and the Day of Judgment for both the sinner and saint.
 
Bunyan sees fallen man as a servant of Satan, blind to his sin, and ignorant of the judgment to come. God beheld the miserable condition of sinners, and lovingly bought them “to Himself with heav’nly price,” namely the death of Christ to whom we “do run apace” for salvation.  In the process, Bunyan pastorally presents the passion of Christ, as in “Of the Sufferings of Christ” (Stanza XVII, Section II):   
The Wicked Sin’d, the Just did bear the blame
Here is the Myst’ry of the Gospel-love:
That Christ for us should bear the cursed Shame,
And Wrath (that we deserved) from above.
Bunyan then sets forth dialogues between Satan and a struggling Christian, Christ and a presumptuous sinner, and Christ and a doubting soul. The first two serve in part as refutations against a legalistic spirit concerning works and an antinomian spirit concerning grace, respectively, while the third encourages an evangelical spirit concerning grace and works. All three highlight the spiritual turmoil Bunyan he experienced earlier and recorded later in Grace Abounding
 
Next, death personified claims a sinner for whom it is too late to make peace with God. In the end, the sinner bemoans failing to turn from sin to Christ, not only losing every worldly thing but also falling eternally into a “dreadful Dungeon.” In contrast, the saint emerges victorious through Christ, who “triumph’d over [death] in fight.”  Though Jesus himself died, he rose again and guaranteed that, at his second coming, he will also “Raise up his Dead.” 
 
The last section concerns the Day of Judgment at the return of Christ in glory, when saints “with comfort on him gaze,” while the wicked are “banisht from [his] face.” The ungodly vainly blame their state on others, even “daubing preachers” (likely a dig at Restoration Anglicans) who gloss over sin. The final discourse between a saint in heaven and soul in hell gleans from Bunyan’s exposition of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) in A Few Sighs from Hell. In light of the warnings of judgment and promises of glory to come, Bunyan ends by urging us all to profit from this work and “Lift up thine heart to God” for his grace.
It is important to notice that the group of articles (9-16) that deal with our salvation in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion should close with an anathema—the only time the word appears in the Articles. Articles 17 and 18 should be taken together, as the “also” in the first sentence suggests–the former explaining the ground of salvation in God’s predestinating grace and electing love and the latter explaining the source in the sole Mediator, Christ alone. The logic of the two articles is simple: if salvation is due to our union in the Lord Jesus for our effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification and other “innumerable benefits which by his precious blood-shedding he hath obtained to us” ("The Communion Exhortation" in the 1552/1662 Book of Common Prayer), then it is impossible to be indifferent, but more, it is blasphemous to him. Cranmer’s Reformatio Legum echoes the same language we have here:
Horrible and insane is the daring of those who maintain that salvation may be hoped for in every religion or sect which men have professed, as long as they strive as hard as they can for innocence and integrity of life according to the light which has been put in them by nature, for plagues of this kind are condemned by the authority of Holy Writ. For there the one and only name of Jesus Christ is commended to us, that all salvation may come to us from him.
XVIII—Of Obtaining Eternal Salvation Only by the Name of Christ

They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.
Like article 17 that preceded it, article 18 is unchanged from Cranmer’s original. Its original and later titles give us the clue we need that the reference here is not to pagans, but to nominal Christians. Cranmer’s more pastoral consequence of article 17 for the Christian, “We Must Trust to Obtain Eternal Salvation Only by the Name of Christ” becomes 1571’s slightly more abstract, “Of Obtaining Eternal Salvation…” It is Christ alone who saves us. Another clue is a historical one. Few people in England had any non-Christian neighbors at that time. Americans may know of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 perhaps do not realize that the Jews had been expelled from England far earlier: by King Edward I in 1290! Jews were not readmitted to the country until 1656 under Oliver Cromwell and full emancipation in England of their civil rights had to wait until 1858. The article does not address other religions in the modern sense of religious pluralism but remains fixed on the visible Church. 
 
So, we must ask the question, “Does this article have any relevance for us today? Surely no church today is interested in practicing religious oppression!” Here we must be blunt. The worst enemies of the gospel are the ministers and members of the mainline Christian churches. They preach another gospel far removed from the exclusive claims of Christ, instead, their teaching proclaims that every person is saved by the rule of life they create and profess, being morally superior to the baser sort because they make an effort to live by that rule–precisely what the article condemns as accursed! Such blasphemy cannot tolerate the truth thus every opportunity is taken to criticize and condemn those who insist on proclaiming the truth of the gospel. The last twenty years of the Episcopal Church in the United States bears testimony to this intolerance in how it has sought to oppress faithful gospel churches by means of the ecclesiastical inhibition and deposition of its ministers, and by means of the secular courts. The Episcopal Church, as of 2015, has spent an excess of sixty million dollars in litigation in their version of an ecclesiastical Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. As the court cases drone on, faithful ministers and congregations are left broken and bereft. New Anglican provinces have arisen, faithful Anglican provinces have provided alternative episcopal oversight to minister and to care for these clergy and churches.
 
The issue is that it is impossible to share the biblical gospel without sharing the truth claims that it makes. Article 18 rightly explains that we cannot simply relax and assume that some nominal Christian will be saved because they are being faithful in their error. We must share with them the truth of the gospel: eternal life by faith alone in the one Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. To do otherwise is blasphemous because it misrepresents what Christ himself said and overthrows his divine authority. In his farewell discourse to his disciples, the night before the cross, in John 14:6, the Lord Jesus reveals to us the way to God and heaven. He says: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” As God come to earth, Jesus has the right to tell us the way to heaven. Crucially, Jesus also goes onto the negative: “no one comes to the Father except through me.” That is, the only way for human beings to know God as our heavenly Father is through faith and knowledge in Jesus Christ as God and Savior (John 20.30-31). 
 
Article 18 also echoes Acts 4:12 when it says: “For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the name of Jesus Christ whereby men must be saved.” “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Here Peter asserts that there is no other Savior except Jesus Christ. The logic is simple and irrefutable: only Jesus saves because only Jesus died for our sins. Peter also proclaims that heaven (that is, God) has appointed and named his Son, Jesus, as the only one with the authority and power to save and rescue sinful human beings. Notice the allusion to predestination and election here: the name of Jesus is, according to God's divine decree, the name "by which we must be saved." There can be no human option here like, "I will choose to be saved in my way or by my own god or religion." Rather, Peter says, "no, God has decreed and fixed that we must be saved only through faith in Christ.”
 
Article 18 rightly concludes this section of the Thirty-Nine Articles begun in article 9. And it does so with a supreme comfort to the committed Christian and a particular challenge to the nominal one. The believing Christian can have the assurance that we have Christ and are saved because God himself has decreed it. It is not the quality of our faith, but the power of God who guarantees it. It also shakes the nominal Christian from their vagueness and complacency to declare that there is only one Way to be saved because Jesus Christ is the unique and exclusive Savior.

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For previous articles in this series, see:

 

Thus far we have noted what the Westminster Standards teach concerning the nature and purpose of baptism, and the relationship between the Word and sacraments. The Standards' position on these two points suggests that the Assembly rejected the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. In this article, we want to consider a third point: the subject of baptism.
 
According to the Westminster Standards, covenant membership has its privileges, specifically a right to the sacrament of baptism. Sacraments are for those “within the covenant of grace (WLC 172),” and baptism “is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church (WLC 166).” For this reason, unbelievers are not to be baptized until “they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him (WLC 166, WSC 95).” Prior to administering baptism to a child, the Directory for Public Worship directs the minister to inform the congregation that children of Christian parents are “Christians, and federally holy before Baptisme, and therefore are they baptized.”
 
Since the recipients of the sacraments, including baptism, are Christians, holy, believers and members of the covenant, it follows that the sacraments are not converting ordinances. George Gillespie employs this argument repeatedly. He marshals twenty arguments to prove that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting ordinance, the second of which is “That which necessarily supposeth conversion and faith, doth not work conversion and faith.” In order to forcefully press home his point, the Scotsman argues from baptism to the Lord’s Supper. After citing Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 41; 8:26-37; 10:47, Gillespie writes: 
Now if baptism itself (which is the sacrament of our initiation) supposeth (according to the tenor and meaning of Christ’s institution) that the party baptized (if of age) doth actually convert and believe, and (if an infant) supposeth an interest in Jesus Christ and in the covenant of grace…how much more doth the Lord’s supper, necessarily, by Christ’s institution, suppose that the receivers are not unconverted and unbelieving persons?
His fourth argument is that an ordinance instituted only for believers is not a converting but a sealing ordinance. He then proceeds to prove that the Lord’s Supper is such an ordinance by demonstrating, from Roman 4:11, that every sacrament, including the sacrament of initiation is a seal of the righteousness of faith. “If therefore a sacrament be a seal of the righteousness of faith, then it is instituted only for believers and justified persons, because to such only it can seal the righteousness of faith.”
 
The fifth argument is also based upon Paul’s discussion of Abraham and circumcision in Romans 4. Abraham’s justification is a pattern of ours and he “was not justified by circumcision, or (as Aquinas confesseth upon the place) that circumcision was not the cause but the sign of justification.” Gillespie again argues from baptism to the Lord’s Supper. “And if God did, by his word, make a covenant with Abraham before he received circumcision, the seal of that covenant, must it not much more be supposed, that they are within the covenant of grace who eat and drink at the Lord’s table.”
 
Even more explicit is the fourteenth argument, wherein Gillespie states that since Baptism itself is not a regenerating or converting ordinance—at least administered to those of age—far less is the Lord’s Supper a converting ordinance. Baptism cannot be a regenerating ordinance because in Scripture a profession of faith is a prerequisite for those of age.
 
Another piece of evidence, therefore, that the Westminster Standards do not embrace baptismal regeneration is their teaching on the subject of baptism. A sacrament that is for Christians, believers and members of the covenant is not compatible with one that confers converting grace.
 
For previous posts in this series, see:
  1. The Nature and Purpose of Baptism
  2. The Word & Sacraments

We have 2 copies of John Bunyan and the Grace of Fearing God for giveaway. Deadline to register is Friday, December 22.

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Matthew Barrett and Michael A. G. Haykin, Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ, Theologians on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015). 296pp. Paperback.
 
As a minister, I would love to believe that everyone in the church would read John Owen. There are few men whom the Father has used under the Spirit’s blessing to impart to my soul a greater love to Christ than Owen. I suspect that many ministers pray that the Lord would enable them to digest the best of what they read in order to pass on to their congregations even a tenth of what the Lord has given to them. In this book, Barrett and Haykin invite readers to follow Owen on a guided tour of the Christian life. They do so with skill and simplicity, passing on to readers part of the blessing that the Lord gave them in studying Owen’s works.
 
The topics in this book are well-chosen. The authors note that it is difficult if not impossible to treat every major theme of Owen’s teaching in a single volume. However, they reflect Owen’s greatest legacy to the church by promoting his goal of aiming at the personal holiness of their readers. In contrast to many modern versions of Christian living, the bedrock of Owen’s teaching was the Bible, the Trinity, and the person of Christ (chapters 2-4). This leads to Christ’s glorious work on our behalf (chapter five), God’s sovereignty in our salvation (chapter 6), and the benefits of redemption that come to both the individual believer and the church (chapters 7-9). The striking way in which Owen wove the highest Christian doctrines into warmhearted Christian devotion keeps married what many try to divorce in the church today.
 
The style of this book is simple and accessible. The authors summarize Owen and digest the best of his thought on Christian living. This is not a scholarly work that sets Owen rigorously in his historical context. Such works have their place and, personally, I have profited from them more in the long run than less scholarly works. Yet not all will have this experience. Ideas need to be understood in context, which requires a lot of work and professional skill. Yet ideas also need to be appropriated and translated for the profit of today’s church. The appendix to the book illustrates the value and power of ministers digesting Owen and mediating his thought to their churches. Haykin provides examples from the long-time pastor of his own congregation as well as several prominent examples from church history. The Lord has used a revival in Owen’s Works to bless the church numerous times in the past and this reviewer hopes and prays that he will do so again and again.
 
As with any book on Owen’s theology, this reviewer hopes that reading Owen on the Christian Life will make you want to read Owen himself. Yet this work strikes at the heart of one of the most vital needs of the church today. The church needs to recover a vibrant, scripturally informed, Christ-exalting, trinitarian view of Christian living. Owen is not the only theologian who taught these themes, but he taught them better than most and he speaks prophetically to the needs of the hour. Read this book to use Owen for what God designed him and all other ministers of the gospel to be; namely, instruments of building up the church in unity and maturity to the fullness of the stature of Christ.
Article 17 of the Thirty-Nine Articles is the longest article of all the articles and marks the transition between what has preceded in articles 14-16 and what follows in article 18. Because of an inflated sense of man’s worthiness before God since the Fall, a stance of humility is necessary when we examine the Bible’s teaching.
XVII—Of Predestination and Election

Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.
As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.
Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.
Before we examine the three sentences that make up the Latin original of the article, it is important to understand that there were only some slight changes made in 1563 and 1571 to Thomas Cranmer’s 1553 original that demonstrates the common mind of the Anglican divines on this biblical doctrine from the time of Cranmer into the 17th century. Their consensus is one voice within the larger chorus of Reformed thinking on the subject that led in just twenty-five years to further clarification in the nine points of the Lambeth Articles of 1595, which anticipated the Canons of Dort by more than twenty years. The Lambeth Articles were intended to supplement article 17 due to the growing influence of Jacob Arminius (1560-1610). The Reformed doctrine of predestination and election is constitutive of Anglicanism. Any suggestion to the contrary reveals more of an alien influence upon Anglicanism rather than the doctrine of the historic formularies. There was little disagreement among the Reformed churches of Europe about the key points of this doctrine. 
 
Gerald Bray notes that just a year before Cranmer wrote this article, Martin Bucer gave a series of lectures at Cambridge on Ephesians, one of the key passages on this teaching [Bray, The Faith We Confess, 96]. Bucer taught that Anglicans ought to preach predestination boldly and clearly, not to condemn the reprobate, but to encourage the people of God in their sanctification. The wording of the article corresponds very well to what Martin Bucer had in mind and to this day remains one of the most balanced statements of the doctrine and its application to the Christian.
 
The first sentence is a straightforward and uncompromising. Election and predestination are grounded in the eternal decree of God for our redemption. Our redemption was not his response to anything inherent in us: neither in our disobedience in Adam or a foresight of faith or a future obedience. He determined in his secret Trinitarian counsel to deliver us from eternal damnation through the person and work of his Son Jesus Christ. It is only the will of God's good pleasure and for his glory, as lost men and women are "vessels made to honour."
 
The sentence next describes how God’s eternal decree is worked out as the Holy Spirit works in the redeemed person, "working in due season." What follows after predestination and election are the remaining logical steps of the doctrine of salvation known as an ordo salutis or “the order of salvation”: 
  • Effectual calling: The elect hear God’s calling and obey it by his grace.
  • Justification: The elect are then justified by the free gift of God.
  • Adoption: The elect are made children of God by adoption.
  • Sanctification: The elect are transformed into the image of God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
  • Perseverance: The elect possess justification by living a life of good works in the obedience of faith.
  • Glorification: By the mercy of God alone, the elect ultimately obtain everlasting joy in the presence of God.
The second sentence sets the boundary of the doctrine in its uses or application to the Christian. The article repeatedly has made it clear that from start to finish at every step it is God who effects his purpose in the chosen. He does so by the Spirit, through grace, freely, by his mercy. The article’s comfort for the Christian is in how it describes the pattern of salvation which expresses salvation by God’s grace alone. Deciding to trust and follow Christ is because in God’s decree to bring his elect in Christ to glory, caused the Christian to do precisely that. Therefore, the benefits of our election are secure in Christ Jesus. Recalling the person and work of the Holy Spirit of articles 5 and 6, Cranmer sets them out as four biblical principles of the Christian life:
  • The Holy Spirit mortifies the works of our flesh.
  • The Holy Spirit turns our minds to higher things.
  • The Holy Spirit establishes and confirms our faith in eternal salvation.
  • The Holy Spirit kindles our love for God.
Cranmer joins Calvin as a theologian of the Holy Spirit. He begins here with the two-fold biblical principle of mortification and vivification: the Holy Spirit helps us to see how we must put to death our old life in rebellion against God and replaces our desire for things earthly with a deeper desire for things heavenly where Christ is. As Romans 12.2 reminds us, so much that we do depend on the renewing of our minds in how we think. We can also see how Christian who may be called to endure terrible affliction and trial in this earthly life, will be strengthened and encouraged as their eternal salvation is reaffirmed in their walk with the Lord Jesus to glory. We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing how that suffering produces endurance (Rom. 5:3). We begin to see more clearly how God’s many providences show his care for us so that we trust him more and more for whatever may lie ahead. We make it our aim to please him (2 Cor. 5:9). 
 
The last sentence reminds the Christian of the importance of the sufficiency of Scripture. As we teach biblical doctrine, we must apply biblical doctrine within the bounds set by the Scripture. The article underlines the fact that Scripture applies the doctrine of election and predestination to encourage God’s believers. It defends that gospel from ideas of human merit and impresses upon the believer the absolute security we enjoy in the gospel. It is not to be preached to all the world. Pastors must be sensitive in the preaching not to promote unhelpful speculation. We know that those who are not chosen for eternal salvation are condemned, and the article by implication here affirms reprobation or double predestination that article 4 of the Lambeth Articles will confirm later. But the Christian pastor is also reminded that we must take care in how we apply it to specific individuals in the congregations of the local church or in the various hypothetical scenarios of the one who has never heard the gospel. We are not to speculate, but to preach the gospel made possible by God's gracious predestination.
 
For previous articles in this series, see:
  1. Introduction
  2. One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
  3. The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
  4. The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
  5. The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
  6. The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
  7. The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
  8. The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)
  9. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 1 (Art. 9)
  10. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 2 (Art. 10)
  11. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 3 (Art. 11)
  12. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 4 (Art. 12)
  13. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 5 (Arts. 13-14)
  14. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 6 (Art. 15)
  15. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 7 (Art. 16)

Thanks to our friends at The Banner of Truth, we have a copy of The Valley of Vision by Arthur Bennett to give away.

This giveaway is for U.S. mailing addresses only.

Deadline is Friday, December 8.

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In the last article we looked at the nature and purpose of baptism according to the Westminster Standards. We noted that the Standards emphasize the sealing function of baptism and that as a seal it is designed to confirm the baptizand’s interest in Christ and to strengthen faith and all other graces. This suggests that the Standards do not teach baptismal regeneration because a sacrament designed to confirm and not make saints does not confer or convey converting or regenerating grace.
 
Another reason that the Standards do not teach baptismal regeneration is its teaching on the relationship between the Word and sacraments. The Standards teach that God uses the Scriptures to convert sinners. The faith, whereby sinners are enabled to savingly believe the Gospel is “ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word (WCF 14.1).” The reading but especially the preaching of the Word is “an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners (WSC 89).” In fact, the ability to convince and convert is evidence Scripture is the word of God (WLC 4).
 
That the Standards do not explicitly relate the work of conversion to the sacraments may be significant, particularly when considered against the background of the writings of the members of the Assembly. Richard Vines approvingly cites the teaching of Whitaker, namely that the Word and sacrament are instruments of grace. The difference between the two is that “the Word begins and works grace in the heart (For faith comes by hearing) but the Sacrament is objected to the eye, and doth not begin the work of grace, but nourishes and increases it, for faith is not begotten by the Sacraments, but only augmented.” Vines then uses this same distinction between the Word and sacrament as his third reason to prove that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting ordinance. He writes:
Thus the Word is the only instrument of God to beget faith, or work conversion, and there are many expressions of Scripture, tending to prove it…the Word is the great Charter of Gods Covenant; His Covenant is to make us his, to entertain us as his, and so the Word is a seed of our new birth, and the milk or meat of our spiritual growth. Unto this Covenant or Indenture hang two seals…for their certioration and comfort.
George Gillespie concurs with Whitaker and Vines. Profane and scandalous persons are to be excluded from partaking of the Lord’s Supper but not from preaching because the Word is to convert and confirm, while the sacraments are to confirm only. He writes:
The word is not only a confirming and comforting, but a converting ordinance…whereas the sacrament is not a converting, but a confirming and sealing ordinance, which is not given to the church for the conversion of sinners, but for the communion of saints. It is not appointed to put a man in the state of grace, but to seal unto a man that interest in Christ and in the covenant of grace which he already hath.
Support is garnered for this distinction from notable Reformed theologians. Gillespie says that Ursinus distinguishes between the Word and sacraments as between converting and confirming ordinances. And:
Paraeus puts this difference between the word and sacraments: that the word is a mean appointed both for beginning and confirming faith,—the sacraments are means of confirming it after it has begun: that the word belongs to the converted and to the unconverted,—the sacraments are intended for those who are converted and do believe, and for none others.
The Reformed distinction between the Word and sacraments, as explicated by various Westminster Divines, therefore, provides further evidence that WCF 28.6 should not be interpreted as teaching that baptism conveys initial grace. The Word, and not the sacrament, is set apart by God for conversion.
Hunter Powell, The Crisis of British Protestantism: Church Power in the Puritan Revolution 1638-44, Politics, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015). 264pp. Hardcover. $105.00.

This is likely the most significant work written to date on the thorny subject of church power in British Reformed orthodoxy. Powell focuses on debates over the nature of church power primarily from 1638-1644 (p. 2). He aims to redefine and to clarify categories related to debates over church government at the Westminster Assembly. He does so by treating primarily the view of the so-called five “dissenting brethren” in relation to the Scottish commissioners, setting both their historical context. This is such a paradigm shifting work that it is one of the most important books that anyone interested the Westminster Assembly and its theology could take up and read. It shows how Westminster debates over church government were not as neat and tidy as many have assumed and how the question of church polity fits into the broader context of Reformed orthodox theology.

This book challenges historical conceptions of Presbyterian polity at the Westminster Assembly. Powell modifies the common narrative of church government debates at Westminster, which often treats these debates as an exercise in how long it took the Assembly to fall in line with the Scots. Instead, Powell shows how the Scots achieved a high degree of unity with the Apologists (Congregationalists who were known later as the Dissenting Brethren) over the question of the seat of church power. While English Presbyterians in the Assembly were divided over whether church power was seated in the local church and was then communicated to Presbyteries, or whether church power was seated in Presbyteries and was communicated to particular churches, the Apologists and the Scots agreed that Christ communicated church power to the congregation as a whole and to its elders directly and in two distinct ways. According to men such as Rutherford on the Presbyterian side and Burroughs on the Congregational side, the only significant difference that existed between them resided in the power of synods, especially with respect to excommunication. The Apologists denied that synods could execute this censure while the Scots affirmed that they could. However, many English Presbyterians opposed both the Scots and the Dissenting Brethren by denying that the elders of local congregations could excommunicate members without a synodical act. This meant that both the Scots and the Dissenting Brethren held minority positions at the Assembly. At the end of the day, the real Grand Debate at the Assembly was not over Presbyterianism vs. Congregationalism, but between the Assembly as a whole and Erastian opponents, which included debates between Presbyterians over the proper seat of church power. The Scots held the tenuous position of attempting to accommodate the Apologists on the one side and of preventing the fracture of the Presbyterian majority on the other side over the question of the seat of church power. The Scots agreed with the Apologists over church power, but they agreed with the Presbyterian majority over the governmental power of Presbyteries.
 
This work gives us a unique window into debates at the Westminster Assembly. Part of the reason why Powell’s research creates such a seismic shift in how we read Assembly debates over church government lies in the sources that he used. Previous research relied on pamphlets written by authors outside of the Assembly rather than on records of Assembly debates and the writings of the Westminster divines. Powell guides readers by the hand through the Assembly debates in a way that makes history come to life. The reader can virtually feel the tension in the air and recognize the temperaments and personalities of the divines in their proceedings. He shows that all primary sources are not equal and that we gain a different picture of events when we follow the actors in the story instead of the spectators in the crowd commenting on the play. This does not mean that his historiography is flawless. In comparing the polity of the famed Voetius with the Congregationalists at Westminster and in highlighting Voetius’ enthusiastic endorsement of the Congregationalist John Cotton’s Keys of the Kingdom, Powell makes almost no appeal to primary sources. However, his treatment of the vital subject of church government at Westminster gives a picture of the development of varied versions of Presbyterian polity that Presbyterian ministers in particular bypass to their great detriment.
 
This book is the kind of history that Presbyterian churches in particular need. It forces readers to listen to the Westminster divines and to assess them on their own terms and in their own world. Modern readers may not always like what they find in reading books like this one. Yet this work is necessary to help explain what the Westminster Assembly did and did not intend to say in its affirmation of Presbyterian polity. Presbyterians were not all cut from the same cloth and not all Congregationalists were as far away from some Presbyterianism as we may tend to think. Above all, this book provides us with an admirable example of how the Scots and the Apologists pursued catholic unity in their theology without threatening their distinctives. This provides us with a model of doctrinal precision, spiritual maturity, and catholic charity that has potential to serve the church well today.

 

 

What does baptism do? A number of different answers have been given to this question. At one end of the spectrum are those who say that it is a converting ordinance. At the other end are those who claim that baptism is a mere sign of our salvation and profession of faith. Although it has been argued that the Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that baptism is a converting ordinance in that it is the instrument and occasion of regeneration by the Spirit and union with Christ, I will present a number reasons this is an incorrect reading of the Confession. This article will look at the first reason.
 
The Confession should not be interpreted as teaching the doctrine of baptismal regeneration because that doctrine is incompatible with what the Confession teaches about the nature and purpose of baptism. Unquestionably, the Westminster Standards emphasize the sealing function of the sacraments. Each time a sacrament is defined, generally or specifically, its sealing nature and purpose is mentioned (WCF 27.1; WCF 28.1; WCF 20.1; WLC 162; WLC 168; WSC 92). In one place, seal is used as a synonym for sacrament (WCF 30.3). A similarity or agreement between baptism and the Lord’s Supper is that both are seals of the same covenant (WLC 176). Interestingly, the sections on baptism contain more references to the concept of seal and confirmation than those on the Lord’s Supper.
 
This emphasis on depicting baptism as a seal is significant because the purpose of a seal, according to the Standards, is to confirm interest in Christ (WCF 27.1), and to strengthen a believer’s faith and all other graces (WLC 162; cf. WCF 14.1). Confirmation and conversion are two distinct functions, and so confirming grace is to be distinguished from converting grace. Although, as Richard Vines granted, confirming and converting grace may be the same in substance, even as every degree of heat is of the same nature as the first degree, there is still a difference between first coming to Christ and being strengthened and confirmed in Christ. Since the Word fulfills both functions, it is feasible that a sacrament could do so as well. Nevertheless, if baptism is divinely designed for sealing and confirming then one key implication would be that it is not a converting ordinance because sealing and confirming presuppose the existence of that which is being sealed and confirmed.
 
Several members of the Westminster Assembly highlighted this implication in their own writings. Daniel Featley observed that sacraments are properly and precisely seals and therefore they do not begin our incorporation into Christ but rather continue and confirm it. Similarly, Samuel Rutherford said that the true and formal effect of a sacrament is to seal and confirm which is “but a legall strengthening of a right, and not the adding of any new thing.” Thus, “Baptisme is not that whereby we are entred into Christs mysticall and invisible body as such, for it is presupposed we be members of Christs body, and our sinnes pardoned already, before baptism comes to bee a seale of sinnes pardoned.”
 
George Gillespie believed the Reformed have consistently taught that sacraments are not converting ordinances because God instituted them as sealing ordinances. They are, therefore, designed “not to give, but to testify what is given, not to make, but confirm saints.” Or as Walaeus, one of many Reformed theologians cited as evidence, asserted against “Papists” and some Lutherans, “sacraments do instrumentally confirm and increase faith and regeneration, but not begin nor work faith and regeneration where they are not.”
 
Does the Confession teach baptismal regeneration? The Confession’s teaching on the nature and purpose of baptism suggests that it doesn’t because a sacrament designed to confirm and not make saints does not confer or convey regenerating grace.
 
*This article and the rest of this series is based upon D. Patrick Ramsey, “Baptismal Regeneration and the Westminster Confession of Faith.” The Confessional Presbyterian 4 (2008): 183–193.