A while back, I published a relatively critical review of Crawford Gribben’s biography on John Owen. Gribben’s Owen was initially jarring to me. In my previous assessment of his work, I noted that the book was a mixture of “scholarly brilliance and conjecture.” I also noted, “Gribben’s work makes a gripping and interesting narrative.” However, the impression of that review leaned more in the direction of highlighting perceived conjectures than scholarly brilliance. While I still hold some methodological concerns about the book, I want to take a second opportunity to let its excellent qualities shine more clearly. This second review is less a retraction of the previous review than it is a supplement to it, aiming to present readers with a fairer and more appreciative picture of the work.

My methodological concerns relate partly to Gribben’s goal and method. I argued in my previous review that Gribben’s Owen is possible, but not necessary. The crux of the matter is his contention that “the key question is that of motive” (Gribben, John Owen, 11). This reviewer agrees with other historians who argue that motives are not the proper object of historical study. Beyond what a writer tells us in the available documentary evidence, their motives are lost to history. Yet Gribben notes rightly that a speculation free biography is nearly impossible (17). Writing the life of someone who died over three hundred years ago is challenging at best and can be, nonetheless, highly valuable. I am still convinced that he goes too far by suggesting things like the idea that Owen “seems to peer from the canvass disdainfully on the viewer – or, perhaps, upon the artist, whose increasingly dissolute lifestyle would lead to an alcohol-related death less than a decade later” (232). Other comments that reach too far into hidden motives include: “Always a schemer… Owen may have spent his last years developing a series of conspiracies” (258). With regard to the implication of Owen’s brother and assistant pastor in the Rye House Plot to assassinate the king, Gribben wrote, “Owen may have supported them.” Similarly, “Owen may have been evasive to the end of his complex career” (261). Even if some of these surmises are likely, there are still too many “mays,” “seems’,” and “perhaps’” in some places of this work. To this extent, my original concerns stand.

Yet I find Gribben’s possible Owen increasingly compelling for two reasons primarily. The first is the author’s chronological treatment of Owen’s writings. Mastering the entire scope of Owen’s roughly eight million published words is daunting (1), and yet Gribben has likely come closer to doing so than almost all other Owen scholars. Though I do not agree with Gribben at every point of his assessment (and what two scholars agree on everything?), this reviewer finds Gribben’s narrative to be indispensible for research that he is currently doing on the development of Owen’s theology. I do agree with most of his assessments as well. Owen rarely noted changes in his thought over the years and it takes an astute reader to trace and detect such areas. Gribben has done so masterfully, particularly in relation to Owen’s fluctuating views in support of the king and, perhaps, of confessions of faith in the 1660’s (220-223). Regardless of what Owen scholars do with this evidence, Gribben contends rightly that they need to do something with it. Studying Owen’s writings chronologically gives a substantially different perspective on his thought than following Goold’s thematic organization in his Works does.

The second reason why Gribben’s Owen is compelling is that he draws so heavily from the surrounding context at multiple levels. His Owen fits into the political and social setting seamlessly. While this does not remove the problem of partial conjecture throughout the narrative, it prevents readers from treating Owen like a detached theological machine than a life and blood person who affected and was affected by other people. Gribben’s biography is an insightful foray into seventeenth-century English culture from the perspective of a marginalized Independent. Most Owen scholars try to do this, but Gribben has likely surpassed us all.

In sum, my reservations about Gribben’s depiction of John Owen still stand, but the benefits that I have received from the book far outweigh them. It is still a bit jarring to read the conclusion that “Owen made no distinctive and enduring contribution to English or Reformed theology” (270). Yet Gribben notes that Owen was fighting for a dying cause when he died. His greatest theological impact came in the next century and later. He does not deny Owen’s brilliance as a theologian, but he does not illustrate it adequately, in my view. The liabilities of this book are likely inherent to this genre of writing. Perhaps my greatest praise for Gribben’s work is that I can no longer escape him. He has forever changed how I read and see Owen. Agree or disagree with him, no Owen scholar can afford to neglect him. On my second reading, Gribben has persuaded me that we are better off for his work as well.

Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.

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An Introduction to the Death of Death in the Death of Christ by J.I. Packer [ Booklet  |  Download  ]

John Owen's Communion With God: A Study Guide by Ryan McGraw [ Booklet  |  Download  ]

Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw

The Mortification of Sin by John Owen

“And he said, Nay; but I will die here.”— 1 Kings 2:30

In his sermon on the above text, Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) points out that participation in outward Church activities and ordinances cannot save, no more than Joab was saved by clinging to the temple altar. But Spurgeon then turns to discuss the spiritual altar of Christ's sacrifice, where we find utter security and life imperishable:  

Lean with your hand of faith upon your Lord, and say, “This Christ is mine. This offering for sin is mine. I accept it as the gift of God to me, unworthy though I be.”

When that is done, a fierce demand may be made upon you. The enemy will probably cry, “Come forth! Come forth!” The selfrighteous will say, “What right has such a sinner as you to trust Christ? Come forth!” Mind you say to them, “Nay, but I will die here.” Your sins and your guilty conscience will cry to you, “Come forth! Come forth! You must not lay hold of Christ. See what you have been, and what you are, and what you are likely to be.” Answer to these voices, “Nay, but I will die here. I will never give up my hold of Christ.” Satan will come, and he will howl out, “Come forth! What right have you with the Lord Jesus Christ? You cannot think that he came to save such a lost one as you are.” Do not listen to him. As often as he howls at you, only say to yourself, “Nay, but I will die here.” I pray God that every sinner here may be brought to this desperate resolve, “If I perish, I will perish trusting in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. If I must die, I will die here.” For certain, we shall die anywhere else. If we trust in any but Jesus, we must perish. “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid.” “Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.” “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not,”— whatever else he trusts to,— “is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.” Make, then, this desperate—

If I must die, here will I die,
Here at the cross I bide;
To whom or whither should I fly?
Where else can I confide

Say to all those who call you away, “Nay, but I will die here”; for nobody ever did perish trusting in Jesus. There has not been through all these centuries a single instance of a soul being cast away that came all guilty and hell-deserving, and took Christ to be its salvation. If you perish, you will be the first that perished with his hand laid upon Christ. His love and power can never fail a sinner’s confidence. Wherefore, may God the Holy Spirit lead you to resolve, “If I must die, I will die here.” Listen to me, soul, whoever thou mayest be out of this crowd, man or woman, whatever thy life may have been, even though it should have been that of a harlot or a thief, a drunkard or a profligate, if thou wilt now believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, thou shalt be saved; for, if not, then God himself will have missed his greatest design. What did he give Jesus for but to save sinners? What did he lay sin upon Jesus for, but that he might take it off the sinner, and let him go free, and be pardoned? If, then, Christ fails, God’s grandest expedient has broken down. That method by which the Lord resolved to show what his almighty grace can do has proved to be a failure if a believing sinner is not saved. Dost thou think that such a thing can ever be? It is blasphemy to think that Jehovah can be defeated. He that believes in Christ shall be saved; nay, he is saved.

If thou art not saved believing in Christ then Christ himself is dishonoured. Oh, let them once know, down in the dark abode of fallen spirits, that a man has trusted Christ and yet has not been saved, I tell you that they will make such exultation over Christ as Philistia made over Samson when his eyes were put out. They would feel that they had defeated the Prince of Glory. They would trample on his blood, and ridicule his claim to be the Saviour of men. If any soul can truly say hereafter, “I went to Christ, and he refused me,” then Christ does not speak the truth when he says, “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” Then he has changed his nature, foregone his word, and foresworn himself. But that also can never be. Wherefore, dear heart, cling to Jesus, and say still, “If I die, I will die here.”

Moreover, if thou canst perish trusting in Christ thou wilt discourage all the saints of God; for if Christ can break his promise to one, then why not to another? If one promise fails, why not all the promises? If the blood has lost its power, how can any of us ever hope to enter heaven? I say it will breed great discouragement in the hearts of all people if this be true; for what a wet blanket would be thrown over all thy fellow-sinners! If they are coming to Christ, they will start back, and say, “What is the good of it? Here is one that came to Jesus, and he did not save him. He trusted in the precious blood, and yet his sin was laid to his charge.” If one fails, why not the rest? I must give up preaching the gospel when once I hear of a man trusting Jesus and not being saved; for I should be afraid to speak with boldness, as I now do.

Ben Ciavolella is a student at Westminster Theological Seminary. He works as a publishing assistant for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 

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Westminster divine Anthony Burgess addressed Antinomianism in his book Vindiciae Legis: A Vindication of the Moral Law and the Covenants. In a passing comment, Burgess noted that God may have allowed “Antinomian errour” to grow in popularity in order rebuke Protestant ministers. He claimed that “in many Sermons, in many a mans ministery, the drift and end of all his preaching is not, that Christ may be advanced.” Burgess was appalled by this and said that it is “a farre greater sin” for Protestant ministers than it is for “Papists” because they should know better. God, therefore, may have allowed antinomian errors to flourish in order to humble preachers who had “not set forth Christ and grace in all the glory of it.” Richard Baxter made a similar comment regarding the rise of Antinomianism. He said that it was due in part to “many godly Protestants” who rarely and unskillfully preached on the “Mystery of Redemption and Grace” and whose messages were “almost all for Humiliation, and too little of the wonderful Love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ.”

Regardless of the accuracy of their observations, it is certainly the case that overreacting to error is a real and present danger. In our zeal to avoid legalism, we may easily slide into antinomianism and vice versa. Ministers aren’t exceptions to this common phenomenon. John Willison (1680-1750), a godly evangelical Scottish minister, observed that preachers may fall into antinomianism or legalism when they only preach part of the story or even when they botch the part that they do preach. His comments are worth quoting in full:

It is possible that some who preach the gospel may pick out some of the glorious truths thereof, such as, The freedom of grace in the salvation of sinners, our justification by the righteousness of Jesus Christ as our surety, the excellency of faith in Christ, the privileges of the covenant and blessings of Christ’s purchase, and may make these truths almost the only subject of their preaching; and yet perhaps manage them so unhappily, as not to lead people to study regeneration of heart, holiness of life, abhorrence of sin, tenderness of walk, and the conscientious practice of all commanded duties. And surely in this way of doing, they in a great measure miss the design of our Saviour’s incarnation, and the end of the doctrine of grace, which is, to destroy the works of the devil, and to teach men to live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world.

On the other hand, it is as possible that others may insist very much in enforcing morality, and make very fine rational harangues of its excellency: and yet make little use of gospel-motives to press it, and be at little pains to shew the gospel-principles from whence it must proceed. Likeways they may preach much against vice and immorality, and warn people of the evil of it; and yet take up but little time to teach them concerning the root and spring of vice, (viz. our fall in Adam, and the corruption of our natures) and the necessity of an inward change by a work of regeneration, for the healing of the inward disease and plague of the heart. Also they may press holy duties very much, and yet make little mention of the true fountain and source of holiness, (viz. our union with Christ by faith, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost) and speak little of the necessity of Christ’s blood to wash our performances. Now, both these extremes in the way of preaching are equally to be avoided.

Since both extremes need to be avoided in preaching, Willison goes on to say that all churches need to make sure that “the obligation of Christians to holiness and good works” are not weakened in the least “by preachers of the gospel, under the specious pretext of exalting free grace; seeing free grace and strict holiness do nobly consist together.”The churches also need to make sure that they prevent “the preaching of morality, and the practice of duties, in a legal strain; that is, in a way tending to the neglect of Christ and his righteousness, or to the disparagement of the doctrine of free grace.”

How do we avoid either extreme in our preaching? First, we need to be aware of our own propensities, which are in part shaped by our past experiences. People who come out of a fundamentalist or legalistic background will tend to lean towards antinomianism, focusing on comfort to the exclusion of duty. And people who come from a licentious lifestyle or upbringing will tend to lean towards legalism, focusing on duty to the exclusion of comfort. As Robert Traill (1642-1716) insightfully pointed out, people have a “greater kindness for that extreme they go half-way to, than for that which they go half-way from.” Knowing the extreme position that we are most likely to embrace is at least a start in being able to avoid it.

Second, we need to be well-grounded and instructed in the whole counsel of God. The Westminster Standards are a great help in this regard, as they were formulated during a time when both extremes were plaguing the English church.

Third, we need to preach the whole counsel of God. One practical help in this regard that is at least worth perusing is the Act concerning Preaching that was passed by the 1736 general assembly of the Church of Scotland.

D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.

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David Clarkson and Soul Idolatry, Part 2: The Remedy Applied

Our last post identified the problem of soul idolatry from David Clarkson's book, Soul Idolatry Excludes Men out of Heaven. For Clarkson, soul idolatry occurred in general “when the mind and heart is set upon anything more than God.” Even the best saints are plagued by this, though no Christian can be habitually overcome. This post applies the remedy for idolatry offered to us by Clarkson.

Obviously, dealing with idolatry presupposes the need to “search it out” in our hearts, “else how can it be avoided?” He suggests reviewing the sections covered to that point (especially with the searching questions he offers) to identify the problem. “If you discover it not,” he warns, “it is because you will not see.” Consequently, “this abominable sin in you is willful, and yourselves inexcusable, and the justice of God clear, if any perish for it.” 

Once you discover idolatry, “bewail it,” with sorrow for your sin and going “then in secret” to “blush before the Lord,” in shame and humility. In full sight of our sin, Clarkson bids us, “Fly to Christ for pardon,” for he alone “can wash off the deep stain of this crimson sin.” One instance of idolatry “though you be guilty of millions” is “enough to sink you into hell,” under the wrath of God of which Christ alone can deliver you. To highlight our need to bewail our sin and fly to Christ, Clarkson begs us to consider the inheritance we lose in order to keep our sin.  At one pointing he asks, “And will you lose the kingdom of God rather than sacrifice this sin?” For Clarkson, the matter is simple: Leave the sin, or lose the Savior and the eternal inheritance which he alone can give. 

Even for Christians who are not losing glory, motions toward idolatry make attaining heaven “exceeding difficult.” Clarkson here wishes to motivate us to wage war on our idols. Clinging to idols makes the way to heaven “woeful and perilous,” and serves to “dash your hopes,” “darken your evidence,” “blast the prosperity of your souls,” weaken the power of godliness and presence of holiness, and bring your souls into a malnourished, diseased, and “languishing condition.” In short, when we give our  hearts over to anything more than God, “this idolatrous plant will suck away all the juice and sap of your souls.” 

Furthermore, it prevents “intimate communion with God, where this tolerated. And what is the life of a Christian without this, but a shadow of death?” In the end, a Christian playing with idols brings his or her soul towards ever closer to apostasy in which the hypocrite is exposed rather than salvation is lost, the latter of which is impossible. With such idolatry eating away “as a cancer” in a most “dreadful” manner, “should not this be a forcible motive” to subdue and expel it? Think about it, when we as Christians value anything above God, it never gives us the comfort, relief, whatever that it promises. Beyond that, not only does it fail to satisfy, it in the end makes us miserable. Yet, how we reluctant we are to cast away our precious. 

Next, Clarkson writes that if you continue in your idolatry, God will likely bring you into some “sharp affliction” even using your idols to embitter your life. So, he turns them into “serpents; so that instead of the comforts you expect to refresh you, you shall find a sting to wound you.” In other words, you are “deluded” if you expect enjoy “your idol quietly” without the Lord making “you smart for it.” 

Likewise, the Lord who afflicts also withdraws “himself from you” in the midst of your idolatry. “And oh,” bemoans Clarkson, “how sad will your condition be, if outward afflictions and spiritual desertions should meet together!” As if God were speaking, Clarkson charges the idolater in this miserable condition, “Go and cry to these idols that you preferred before me, let them deliver you, let them speak peace to you, let them save you, let them free you from the wrath to come, let them secure you from going down into the pit.”  Clarkson ends the section pleading with us to remember these things, “before it be too late.” 

Moving on to the means to deal with idolatry, Clarkson first tells us (speaking to unbelievers and manifesting preparationism), “get new natures” and cry out to the Lord “for the spirit of regeneration.” While no one may enter heaven without a renewed heart as the foundation for saving faith in Christ, Clarkson disappoints here. He would have done much better to point the sinner to the Savior rather than a regenerated heart as his or her hope.

Next, in a manner reminiscent of his colleague Owen’s Mortification of Sin (1656), he instructs us as believers, “Mortify your lusts.” Here, I found myself wishing Clarkson had elaborated more. Still, he at least provides these mortifying duties:

  • “Search out your lusts” growing in the ability to discern them. 
  • “Be ashamed of them.”
  • “Acknowledge them” in humility before the Lord “frequently” and “seriously.”
  • “Cut off the occasions which nourish” or “support them.
  • “Beat down your bodies, and bring them into subjection” abstaining from “lawful liberties” if enjoying them means “yielding any encouragement to your lusts by them.”
  • “Cry unto God for strength against this great multitude,” which must be seen “as more dreadful than an host of armed enemies.”
  • “Bewail them as your greatest afflictions.”
  • In faith draw on the power of your crucified Savior through whose strength alone “you must conquer” as you crucify unmortified lusts and “die daily unto them.” 

Finally, he ends by challenging us not to overvalue “outward things,” which “is the birth and food” of soul idolatry. In the end, the “choicest worldly enjoyments” are vain, uncertain, dissatisfying, deceitful, and unprofitable. With this in mind, we must recognize that “lawful comforts” can be “the most dangerous snares” as we feel secure in them and pursue them “too eagerly.” Such a warning he applies to our enjoyment of friends, family, and recreations. 

Here, the church today must pay great attention as we, in Christian liberty, enjoy the lawful comforts and pleasures of life to an excess as we “let out our hearts to them.” So, then, I close my post with Clarkson’s groaning closure to his book:

Oh, how many who escape the gross pollutions of the world, and are far from excess of riot, are miserably ensnared in the inordinate using and affecting of lawful things! Here we lie most open to Satan; therefore; if ye would avoid this idolatry, be most watchful and jealous in these things.

Bob McKelvey (@mckelvrj) is an OPC minister and serves as the Director of Research and Dean of Students at the Greystone Theological Institute. He is the author of Histories that Mansoul and Her Wars Anatomize: The Drama of Redemption in John Bunyan’s Holy War and a contributor to Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism. In connection with his Bunyan studies, he has written an allegory of his own, one for children: Nutonius of Acornshire.

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Scripture reports that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Understand that Satan's deception extends beyond disguising his person; he also disguises his activities. Especially when Satan tempts Christians, he presents sins as things that are not so bad, and sometimes even good.

Wasn't this what Satan did in the Garden of Eden? He claimed the forbidden fruit would open the eyes, make man like God, and impart the ability to know good and evil. Eve’s conclusion: It was good to eat the fruit (Gen. 3:6-7). 

Brooks gives several examples of this kind of temptation that resonated with his seventeenth-century culture. Believers are tempted to be proud (says Brooks) when Satan deceives us into thinking that pride is really only neatness and cleanliness. Christians are tempted to covet when covetousness is repackaged as thriftiness. Drunkenness is recast as nothing more than enjoying fellowship with friends. Riotous living is excused as merely a stage through which all youth pass. 

Here are several examples that may resonate with today's culture:

  • Men are tempted to give free rein to their bad tempers when this sin is portrayed as merely exercising firm leadership as the head of one's family. 
  • Women are tempted to nag and manipulate their husbands when they are deceived into regarding such behaviors as only encouraging their spouses to do what's right. 
  • Children are tempted to dishonor their parents when they think they are only exercising their God-given rights as individuals.
  • We allow ourselves to wallow in self-pity when we rationalize it as suffering unfairly for Christ's sake. 
  • Believers are tempted to indulge in pornography when Satan persuades them that they are merely fulfilling normal sexual desires in a way that doesn't hurt anyone. 
  • Impatience is justified as a determination to get things accomplished. 
  • Irreverence in worship is excused as friendliness, warmth, and avoiding stuffiness. 
  • When we are argumentative in religious discussions, we are tempted to justify our lack of kindness because we are defending the truth. 
  • We are tempted to wear immodest clothing when we recast the subject as fitting into our culture for the sake of the gospel. 
  • An employee is tempted to steal from his employer when he regards his theft of money, goods, or time as a just compensation for the employer's alleged injustices. 

Sadly, sin corrupts our minds so that we make ingenious defenses for sinful conduct (e.g. Eph. 2:3; 4:17, 18; Titus 1:15; 2 Tim. 3:8; Col. 1:21; Rom. 8:6-7). Indeed, we are chillingly adept at putting a virtuous face on sin. Satan encourages this activity; he excites the remnants of sin in us to think about sin itself in an unbiblical (and sinful!) manner. 

A sanctified mind is one of our best defenses against temptation. Sin frequently appeals to our feelings; in this regard, it is often irrational. It uses our emotions to overwhelm our better judgment. But when our mind is informed by the Word of God, it exposes sin to the purifying light of God's truth. It is our mind that says, "No! This sexual lust will not make me happy. It will not fulfill; it will make me miserable. It will destroy the joy and contentment that only God gives.” 

A biblically-informed mind argues against the often emotional appeal of temptation; it unmasks sin that masquerades as virtue. In so doing, a sanctified mind promotes real godliness (and real contentment).

Previous posts in this series:

Robert Spinney (PhD, Vanderbilt) is professor of History at Patrick Henry College, where he teaches American history and historiography. He is the author of City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago and World War II in Nashville: Transformation of the Homefront, as well as an American history textbook and numerous ministry-related booklets. Dr. Spinney formerly served as a pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Hartsville, TN, and at Winchester Baptist Church in Winchester, VA.

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How can we be salt and light in our world, so that instead of being “trodden under foot” or “hidden under a bushel” (vv. 13, 15), we can resist evil and do good, and moving unbelievers to glorify God as our Father in heaven?  To answer that question, let’s listen to the wisdom of the English Puritans.

Practical Applications for Today

What have we learned about being the salt of the earth and the light of the world, as Christians and as Christ’s church on earth? Here are four concluding lessons:

  1. Know what your position is, what your resources are, and where your strength lies. You must be in Christ by faith, and under Him as Lord. The gospel must be “the power of God unto salvation” in your hearts and lives, as Christ works in you by His Word and Holy Spirit. In fact, the Word of God must be your rule of faith and life. And You must have grace to be gracious, and light to be light. Remember that your strength lies in God! “The God of Israel is He that giveth strength unto his people” (Ps. 68:35). Draw strength from Him by the continuous exercise of faith laboring in prayer: “Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your hearts before him” (Ps. 62:8).  
  2. Beware, lest your salt lose its savor and the light be hidden under a bushel. Great pressures are exerted by the world to entice, cow, or coerce us into a situation of compromise with the man-centered values and ways and ends of the world. Our power to influence the world for good lies in our resolve to be faithful to our God and our Savior at all costs. We must fear God and not men. We must obey God and not men. We must be willing to be hated of all men for Christ’s sake. Nor can we bring the light of God’s Word to bear on the life of the world if we retreat into a safe place of our own where we hide from the world and preach only to ourselves. The church is not to be a monastic cloister or an underground bunker. Whether we like it or not, Christ has set His city on a hill, to be seen of all men. He bids us lift up the gospel as a candle put on a candlestick, to give light to all the world. We cannot fulfill our mission if we hide ourselves away and talk only to ourselves.
  3. Let your vision for Christian life and witness be as high and holy, as loving and gracious, and as wide and open-handed as the gospel itself. We cannot call men to faith in Christ if we do not walk by faith in Him. We cannot call men to repentance if we are hardhearted and impenitent. We cannot commend the grace of God to others if we are ungracious and unforgiving in our dealings with them. We cannot proclaim the love of Christ for sinners if we are unloving toward one another. We cannot expect the world to be better than we are, or have higher standards than we have set for ourselves as Christians.
  4. The Word preached must become the Word practiced. Your faith in Christ and love for God must be translated into visible terms. Men must see your good works. These works must be done in obedience to God’s Word, out of faith in Him; and done to His glory, out of love for Him. Those who see them will see God’s grace at work in you and say, “Blessed be the God whom these Christians serve! He is great and good, and mighty to save!” Many will be gained to Christ by your godly conversation; others will at least be put to shame by their own evil deeds. “The righteous shall see it, and rejoice: and all iniquity shall stop her mouth” (Ps. 107:42).

More In This Series: 

  1. Salt and Light
  2. Like a Little Salt
  3. Let the Light Shine
  4. Working Lights
  5. Lights for God's Glory

Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.

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Adoption has been occasionally undervalued and neglected in church history. Yet Paul treated adoption as the end to which the Father predestined his elect (Eph. 1:5). Adoption is the sum of our privileges, or our “inheritance,” in Christ. Our adoption is in Jesus Christ, the natural son, that we might become adopted sons and daughters. The wisdom and prudence of God displayed in redemption through Christ’s blood—and the resultant forgiveness of sins—is the mystery of God’s will for our salvation (v. 6-9).

As God chose us in Christ, so the God, who works “all things according to the counsel of his will,” calls us in Christ, that we might reach the end of our predestination by receiving the inheritance entailed in our adoption, “to the praise of his glory” through faith (v. 10-11). “The Holy Spirit of promise” is God’s seal of these promises to us and he is the down payment of the inheritance that God’s children enjoy partly now and will receive fully in glory (v. 13-14). In this respect, everything in heaven and earth, including all three persons in the Holy Trinity, move and act in concentric circles toward adoption as the goal of the redemption of God’s elect.

Authors who did treat adoption often struggled with what to do with it. For some, such as Calvin, adoption was too big an idea to place alongside other benefits such as justification and sanctification. Adoption pervaded and encircled them both in his writings. For others, adoption was neglected in theological systems, but prominent where it appeared in biblical exposition. The Westminster Confession of Faith had the honor of being the first Reformed confession to include a chapter on adoption (chapter 12). Edward Leigh (1602-1671), a lay correspondent with the Westminster Assembly, was also one of the earliest theologians to write a dogmatic theology including a chapter on adoption. His treatment of the subject is helpful in understanding the doctrine itself and its relation to other elements of salvation.

Union and communion with Christ were the great realities standing behind Leigh’s view of adoption. He treated adoption following his treatment of the nature of union with Christ and saving faith and prior to his chapter on justification. This is a bit different than the order of WCF 12, which introduced union with Christ via effectual calling (ch. 10) and then treated justification (ch. 11), adoption (ch. 12), and sanctification (ch. 13). Reformed authors agreed, however, that union and communion with Christ served as the fountainhead of the application of his purchased benefits. The idea of first importance was that believers must be united to Christ through faith, so that all that Christ is and does might become theirs. The Spirit dwelling in their hearts constituted this union. All of the benefits of redemption (the ordo salutis) resulted from communion with Christ in his benefits, which, in turn, flowed from mystical union with him.

In a marginal note, Leigh wrote,  “Unregenerate men have many communications from Christ, [yet] no communion; that [communion] is founded in union.” He added, “Communion with God, through Christ, by the Spirit is the great duty and privilege of the gospel” (Edward Leigh, Body of Divinity, 1654, pg. 510). Because communion with Christ included every aspect of the application of redemption, it brought honor and comfort with it. Note as well Leigh’s explicit and experimental appeal to each person in the Trinity, which is also needed greatly in theology today.

The next question was how to classify the benefits that flow from communion with Christ. Leigh attempted to do this by noting that in this life, the benefits that believers receive from Christ are either relative or moral (510). Adoption and justification came under relative changes because they referred to changes in our relation to God and to his church. Moral change includes our sanctification and its completion in our glorification. Leigh acknowledged here that some placed adoption first under the category of communion with Christ while others placed justification before it. He did not say why he chose to place adoption first, which may reflect a level of modest hesitancy to determine the issue decisively.

What, then, is adoption? Leigh argued that with adoption we are made children of God “in the Sonship of Christ” (510). He added the qualification that God has three kinds of sons. He has sons by nature (Christ), by creation (Angels), and by volition (the saints). Each kind of sonship relates to the others, while retaining their own character. Christ is the Son of God by nature and not by adoption. He is God’s only natural Son and his Sonship is by eternal generation only, whether before or after his incarnation. The angels are God’s “sons” because he is their Father by creation. This picked up on the language of Job 38:7, among other places, where the “sons of God” likely refers to angels.

By contrast to the angels, human beings lost their right to sonship by reason of sin. They are neither sons and daughters of God by nature, like Christ, nor by creation, like the angels. They can become sons and daughters of God by grace in Christ only. With these qualifications in view, Leigh defined adoption as, “the gracious sentence of God the Father on a believer, whereby for Christ’s sake he calls believers his children, and really admits them into the state and condition of children” (511). In his view, this included divine election (volition), the consent of the adopted (whose hearts the Spirit changes), and legal transition to sonship in a courtroom. The primary idea was that adoption is a legal transaction creating a set of family relationships. This is why Reformed authors tied adoption so closely to justification. Whether it preceded or followed justification, both benefits were relative changes that brought legal ramifications. Yet while both are legal, adoption is also more personal, which enabled it to be more comprehensive as well.

Yet some differences exist between divine and human adoption that offset its glory (511). First, human beings cannot put a new nature into the adopted party, but God can. Second, people often find some good in the adopted party, but God’s children have no good beyond what he puts into them. Third, men adopt because they have no children to inherit, but God did not need us due to his infinite delight in his own Son and his possession of the angels to glorify him. A bit later in the century, Herman Witsius (1636-1708) would write that believers are children of God by new nature via being born of the Spirit, by marriage through union with Christ, and in adoption by the Father’s electing love. As Paul put it, adoption is purely “according to the counsel of God’s will.” This shows us the magnitude and beauty of the Father’s electing grace coming to its own.

How, then, does God effect adoption in believers? (511). Leigh wrote, “It is done by applying Christ’s sonship to them.” This placed a premium on the Spirit’s work in uniting Christians to Christ by faith. Even though Leigh taught that Christ’s Sonship was unique and incommunicable to us, he rooted our sonship in union and communion with Christ’s person. Christ could not be an adopted Son, even according to his humanity, because this would violate biblical and historic Christology. Christ’s personhood constitutes his Sonship. Sonship is not a divine attribute, but a predicate of the whole person, who has two natures. Yet union with the natural Son makes us adopted sons and daughters because the Father who is well pleased in his only begotten Son is well pleased with those who are united to the Son as well.

If adoption has been neglected at times in church history, then it began to shine more prominently in seventeenth-century Reformed thought. However, it was (and is) hard to determine how adoption relates to the other elements of the ordo salutis. Most Reformed authors in the late seventeenth-century placed adoption after justification, making justification the legal ground of adoption and adoption the bridge between relative and moral changes in salvation.

This is certainly plausible. Yet Leigh noted well, “All the work of redemption is sometimes expressed by it,” such as in John 1:11-12 (511). Its benefits include being cut off from our old family and being engrafted into God’s family (511). By means of adoption, we receive the Spirit of sanctification, we have the honor of sons, we have the boldness of access of sons, and we have the inheritance of sons. The Spirit works faith in us to bring us to Christ and Christ then gives us the Spirit afresh as the Spirit of adoption.

In short, we have a “double right to heaven” in redemption and in adoption (511). This produces a child-like character in us that includes likeness to Christ, respect towards God, and the Spirit of prayer by which we come to the Father to supply all that we need (511).

Leigh’s treatment of adoption is rooted in Christ, makes sense of how adoption is related to justification and sanctification, and reflects good Christology. Above all, it is both modest and glorious, humbly walking on solid, biblical ground.

Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.

Related Links

Adoption in Christ: What It Means to Be an Heir, with David Garner 

"Adoption as New Life" by David Garner

Children and Heirs: God's Glorious Adoption [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Adoption (A Place for Truth Series) [ Print Booklet  |  Download ]


David Clarkson and Soul Idolatry, Part 1: The Problem Identified

Recently, I was preaching from 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, where we learn of the church turning “to God from idols to serve the living and true God,  and to wait for his Son from heaven” (ESV).  I took the opportunity to study the theme of idolatry more fully and came across the post of our own Ben Ciavolella. He had just that week posted some comments by Samuel Rutherford about idolatry, specifically concerning that “master idol,” that “whorish creature,” that “house devil” – the self.  I gladly and smartingly made use of this treatment in my sermon. 

My study  then led me to Puritan David Clarkson (c1621–1686), who had served briefly as a co-pastor with John Owen at the end of the latter’s life. Specifically, his  Soul Idolatry Excludes Men out of Heaven, will be the focus of this and my next post. First, we will identify the problem of “soul idolatry,” then the remedy for it. 

The work started with Ephesians 5:5, “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (KJV). The idolater, here, notes Clarkson, is the one in whom any of these reign (more than simply remain), namely, the sexually immoral, the impure, or the greedy.  By implication, “every reigning lust is an idol; and every person in whom it reigns is an idolater,”  and one excluded from heaven. 

Clarkson defines idolatry as giving “honor and worship to the creature which is due only to God (Rom 1:25).” So, when such worship is given “to other things, whatever they are, we hereby make them idols and commit idolatry.”  Worship “due to God” alone “is not only given by heathens to their false gods; and by papists to angels, saints, images, etc.; but also by carnal men to their lusts.” Idolatry occurs whether we bow externally to a carved image or internally to anything that enslaves our heart. 

Accordingly, Clarkson focuses in the work on the internal “soul” idolatry “when the mind and heart is set upon anything more than God; when anything is more valued, more intended; anything more trusted, more loved, or our endeavors more for any other thing than God.” Thus, Clarkson warns the reader, “He that serves his lusts, is as incapable of heaven as he that serves or worships idols of wood or stone.” 

Clarkson then provides thirteen acts of soul worship, all of which can be expressed in a positive way towards God in Christ or in a negative way towards an idol. The section prevents anyone from escaping its convicting grasp in exposing soul idolatry related to such objects as ourselves, family, money, possessions, pleasures, ease, accomplishments, fame, friends, safety, and power. In consideration of idolatry, Clarkson observes that “we make our god,” instead of or above the true God approached in Christ, that which: 

  1. “we most highly value,” 
  2. “we are most mindful of,” 
  3. we treat as “our chief aim,” 
  4. “we are most resolved” for or determined to pursue, 
  5. “we must love” or adore, 
  6. “we most trust” or place our confidence in or dependence upon, 
  7. “we most fear,” 
  8. “we make our hope” or expectation of acceptance, 
  9. “we most desire” or long for, 
  10. “we most delight and rejoice in,” 
  11. “we are most zealous” or “fervent” for, 
  12. “we are most grateful” to for what we receive in life, and 
  13. we “are more careful or industrious” for or spend the most effort upon. 

As Clarkson considers how far-reaching this internal soul idolatry is, he asks (among other similar questions), “Where is that man that does not give that soul-worship to the creature which is due unto the Creator?” He makes clear that even the best saints cannot in this life escape the tendency towards idolatry. In them, it “abides” and while “weakened” is by no means “annihilated.” So, Christians may “be guilty of idolatrous acts and motions” but not in a “habitual” way. True believers do not give way to such motions in an “unresisted” conscious manner but instead grieve over and judge themselves for them. 

The habitual idolater gives himself over to the idol and loses heaven as a result. For example, Clarkson observes that we (according to Jesus in Matt 6) “cannot serve God and mammon,” or be “more careful and industrious to please men, or yourselves, than to please God; to provide for yourselves and posterity, than to be serviceable unto God.” In modern parlance, one characterized as a materialistic workaholic will not make it to heaven. Yet, at what point does this define someone rather than simply denote a struggle they have? At what point has money and stuff effectively taken the place of God?

Such a question we cannot easily answer. In a society where addictions and counseling for them abound [e.g. drugs – prescription or illegal, pornography, alcoholism, narcissism (worship of self), co-dependency, food – related to conditions such as gluttony, orthorexia (eating heathy), bulimia, or anorexia], we must tread carefully. In ministering to others, we must avoid delivering either crushing despair or false hope to the struggling sinner. 

In the next post, we will consider the remedy that Clarkson gives us against idolatry. For now, it important to set forth his summary response: “Fly to the blood of Christ for pardon, to the power of Christ for strength,” as we strive to be “diligent in the use of mortifying duties” to bring such idols under subjection. In true believers, there will exist a true “resistance” to “cry to the Lord with strong cries” against the idols of our lives. 

Bob McKelvey (@mckelvrj) is an OPC minister and serves as the Director of Research and Dean of Students at the Greystone Theological Institute. He is the author of Histories that Mansoul and Her Wars Anatomize: The Drama of Redemption in John Bunyan’s Holy War and a contributor to Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism. In connection with his Bunyan studies, he has written an allegory of his own, one for children: Nutonius of Acornshire.

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This is Satan's most common scheme: He presents the bait and hides the hook. Satan presents sin as fun, satisfying, profitable, and pleasurable, while concealing the miseries and pain that always accompany sin. 

Surely this is part of what Scripture calls the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). We are tempted to believe that our happiness and fulfillment require us to indulge some sin. The “passing pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25) seem irresistible, in part because temptation presents to me only the alleged benefits of sin. Far from conferring benefits, however, sin is the very thing that cripples us. When we commit sin, as Brooks puts it, wrath, misery, shame, and loss are always close behind (p. 29). 

Sin is bad for many reasons; one of them is that it wreaks havoc in a man's soul. It promises satisfaction, but delivers emptiness. Sin leads to more and bigger sins. It either makes us feel guilty and ashamed (which is bad), or creates moral numbness in us so we no longer feel guilt and shame over our sin (which is worse). But Satan hides these hooks and presents only the bait. 

Satan used this ploy successfully in the Garden of Eden. He told Eve that the forbidden fruit would open her eyes, thus causing her to be like God (Genesis 3:4-5). The serpent presented the bait, and said nothing about the hook. Richard Sibbes, one of Brooks' contemporaries, wrote, "Satan gives Adam an apple, and takes away Paradise. Therefore in all temptations let us consider not what he offers, but what we shall lose." Satan also tempted the Lord Jesus Christ in this manner: He offered Christ the largest bait imaginable, namely all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:8-9). 

The bait looks attractive because we believe that sin leads to happiness. Temptation offers shortcuts to fulfillment; it promises quick contentment. But obedience to God is the only sure route to satisfaction. God's laws are guidelines given by a loving Creator who desires for His creatures to flourish. Holiness—not sin— leads to happiness. Sin's remnants in us rebel against this truth, which is why we often struggle with obedience to God's will. Satan exploits these vestiges of sin in us and fans our doubts about whether God's way is truly the best way. 

When we are tempted, the alleged benefits of a sin appear large-just like a juicy worm appears large on a fisherman's hook. The worm does taste good to the fish when he swallows it. But along with the worm comes a hook. Expect Satan to entice you with bait that has special appeal to you. "Satan, like a fisher, baits his hook according to the appetite of the fish," observed Thomas Adams, one of Brooks' fellow pastors. 

Sin's hook is painful. It injures, damages, enslaves, and sometimes disables. Sin leaves long-term (and occasionally life long) scars. Although God forgives sin, He frequently allows us to live with the consequences of our sins.

Christian, believe God's assessment of sin: It brings misery. 


Previous posts in this series:

Robert Spinney (PhD, Vanderbilt) is professor of History at Patrick Henry College, where he teaches American history and historiography. He is the author of City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago and World War II in Nashville: Transformation of the Homefront, as well as an American history textbook and numerous ministry-related booklets. Dr. Spinney formerly served as a pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Hartsville, TN, and at Winchester Baptist Church in Winchester, VA.

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How can we be salt and light in our world, so that instead of being “trodden under foot” or “hidden under a bushel” (vv. 13, 15), we can resist evil and do good, and moving unbelievers to glorify God as our Father in heaven?  To answer that question, let’s listen to the wisdom of the English Puritans.

Your Spiritual Light Moves People to Glorify God

Christ said that the purpose of letting our light shine in good works is that that they may “glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16b). John Ley said, “All good children seek their fathers’ honour,”[1]and so must we, if we are children of God. As Matthew Poole said,

“You are not in your good actions to aim at yourselves, to be seen of men, as Matthew 6:1, nor merely at doing good to others;... but having a primary and principal respect to the glorifying of your Father; for, ‘Herein is my Father glorified, if ye bear much fruit’ (John 15:8).”[2]

Why do our good works move men to praise God? You might think that good works can only win praise for us, since we do them. However, Christ assumed here that all our good works come from the grace that God planted in us (Matt. 15:13). Poole said that it is hard to understand how our good works result in men giving glory to God, “if they proceed from mere power and liberty of our own wills, not from his special efficacious grace.”[3]As the apostle Paul explained by divine inspiration, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Henry rightly concluded, “Let them see your good works, that they may see the power of God’s grace in you, and may thank him for it, and give him the glory of it, who has given such power unto men.”[4]

Your good works are a crucial complement to the preaching of the word. Baxter said, “The good works or lives of Christians is a great means ordained by Christ for the convincing of sinners, and the glorifying of God in the world. Preaching doeth much, but it is not appointed to do all.”[5]Henry again exhorts us, “Let them see your good works, that they may be convinced of the truth and excellency of the Christian religion.... The holy, regular, and exemplary conversation of the saints, may do much towards the conversion of sinners.”[6]

What a great responsibility we bear when we take the name of Christian! Baxter reminded Christians that “The world will judge of the scriptures by your lives, and of religion by your lives, and of Christ himself by your lives!”[7]

Who is adequate for these things? Yet remember that what the world needs to see is not perfect people, but sinners who have been saved by grace, are being saved by grace, and will be saved by grace. They need to see pilgrims on the road to the Celestial City, who stumble and occasionally get side-tracked, but who press forward until they reach the kingdom of heaven.

If we persevere in doing good, even under persecution, we will overcome evil with good.

More In This Series: 

  1. Salt and Light
  2. Like a Little Salt
  3. Let the Light Shine
  4. Working Lights

[1]Westminster Divines, Annotations, on Matt. 5:16.

[2]Poole, Annotations, 3:22

[3]Poole, Annotations, 3:22

[4]Henry, Commentary, 1631.

[5]Baxter, “What Light Must Shine,” in Puritan Sermons, 2:490.

[6]Henry, Commentary, 1631.

[7]Baxter, “What Light Must Shine,” in Puritan Sermons, 2:490.

Joel Beeke(@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.

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