Does Jesus repent for us? That question was raised in an online discussion group due to a comment made on social media that asserted that Jesus completely repents for us. It reminded me of the heated debate the Westminster divines had with the so-called antinomians in London during the 1640s. John Saltmarsh affirmed that Jesus repented for us and Samuel Rutherford took issue with it. My goal in this article is to look at Rutherford’s response to Saltmarsh. Please note carefully, I am not attempting to interpret or address the brief social media comment. I am only looking at Saltmarsh and Rutherford.
In his survey of antinomianism, Rutherford noted a number of mistakes that the antinomians made concerning the covenant of grace. One was concerning the parties of the covenant (for more on this see here). Rutherford singles out Saltmarsh. He notes that Saltmarsh argues that the new covenant is not properly made with us but with Christ. Saltmarsh is concerned to deny any conditions on our part in the covenant. There are covenant conditions but they were all fulfilled by Christ, the proper party of the covenant. The covenant is only said to be made with us “because we are Christs, I Cor. 3.”
Rutherford agrees that Christ stands for us as the “principall undertaker” and who “articles as the second Adam for us.” Christ is the “Mediator, surety, witness, Messenger, or Angel of the Covenant for us.” The problem, as Rutherford sees it, is that the antinomians like Saltmarsh emphasize the role of Christ in order to deny any conditions or requirements on our part. We don’t need to repent, believe and walk in holiness because Christ has done all of this for us perfectly. Rutherford cites Saltmarsh: “Wee are, (saith Saltmarsh) to beleeve, that our beleeving, repenting, new obedience, mortification, are all true in Christ, who beleeved, repented, obeyed for us.”
Rutherford is careful to point out that everything we do (believing, repenting, new obedience and mortification) is “true in Christ” in two senses. First, they are true in Christ in a meritorious sense. No one believes, repents or obeys perfectly. As Jerry Bridges once said, “Even our tears of repentance need to be washed in the blood of the Lamb.” Christ’s saving work atones for all of our sins, including “the sinfull defects in our believing, repenting, obeying.” Second, they are true in Christ in an empowering sense. We are not able to believe, repent or obey in our own strength. The reason we are able to work out our salvation is because God is working in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. The problem with Saltmarsh’s statement, and with the antinomians in general, is that they do not allow these things to be true in us. After all, if we are not properly parties of the covenant, then there can be no requirements that we need to keep. Rutherford writes: “But Antinomians will not have us to beleeve, they are true in us; as personally, and in our selves, though by Christs strength acting them, or doing, or performing the duties of beleeving, repenting, mortifying our lusts by any obligation of the Law or Gospel commandement.”
Does Jesus repent for us? Well, if you mean that Christ repented for us in that his saving work atones for our imperfect repentance or in that he empowers us by his Spirit to repent, then the answer is yes. But if you mean that Jesus repented for us so that we don’t have to repent then the answer is no. We personally need to repent. As WCF 15.3 says, repentance “is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.”

For part 1 of this series, see here.

There are two errors that need to be avoided regarding the doctrine of the imitation of Christ. One error is theological liberalism or moralism, which teaches that Jesus suffered and died merely to set an example for us to follow. This is a serious error and is, as the puritan Nathanael Vincent stated “heretical in a very high degree.” The other error is what has been historically called antinomianism. This view states that the imitation of Christ is not necessary for salvation. It is this serious error that I want to address in the present article.

Since turning Jesus into a mere example is so horrendous, it is easy to embrace the idea that Jesus isn’t an example at all. We don’t die for our sins. Jesus did. He saves us, we don’t save ourselves. That means, according to this view, that you can’t make following Jesus necessary for salvation. If you do then you are basically saying that you are your own redeemer or at least co-redeemer. And that is nothing short of legalism or moralism. Hence, we must be completely passive in salvation. We don’t do anything whatsoever in relation to our salvation.

There is a certain attractiveness to this position, particularly when its adherents passionately proclaim the all-sufficient work of Christ. The same of course may be said about certain liberal preachers who exalt Jesus and love. The Christian naturally leaps at the name of Jesus, his finished work, and love. Problems arise when we redefine terms and/or when we deny important truths.

Antinomianism denies the requirement of imitating Christ. That is the problem. But before I explain why that is a problem, I want to emphasize that not one iota of a Christian’s imitation of Christ atones for sin or merits eternal life. Nothing that we do contributes to the saving work of Jesus. Jesus, and Jesus alone, saves us from our sins and gives us the right to eternal glory. Indeed, Jesus saves us from all the ways in which we fall short in imitating him. Nathanael Vincent said, “Understand, that no sufferings that you can undergo for Christ’s sake, are satisfactory for your iniquities.” So, why is denying the need to imitate Christ a problem?

First, as Vincent argues in his sermon, the Scriptures teach that one end of Christ in suffering is that he might leave us an example. Peter says that Christ left us an example that we should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:20-21).  Paul says to imitate him just as he also imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). He also says that we are to be imitators of God and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us (Eph. 5:1-2). John says in his first epistle that we ought to walk in the same way that Jesus walked (1 John 2:6).

Second, it is wrong to teach people that you don’t have to imitate Christ or do anything for salvation because you do have to imitate Christ for salvation. Paul says that we need to suffer with Christ in order that we may also be glorified with him (Rom. 8:17). Jesus says that you must hate your life (i.e. put God first, even as Jesus did) in order to keep it for eternal life (John 12:25). Jesus also said that you must follow him, and if you do, then you will be where he is, which is in glory (John 12:26). Vincent wrote: “Conformity to Christ in his humiliation will end in a conformity to him in his exaltation.”

Following or imitating Christ by denying yourself and putting God first is not an option for the Christian. This is not an elective for the extra-spiritual Christian. This is a core requirement. You must follow Jesus. If you don’t and love your life instead, then you will lose it (John 12:25).

Once again, let me stress that our following Christ doesn’t add to the finished work of Christ. You won’t enter glory because you hated your life and followed Jesus. You will enter glory because Jesus died for your sins and rose again for your justification. Hating your life and following Jesus is the way or means by which you travel to glory and possess it. Imitating Jesus is the narrow road that leads to life. Commenting on John 12:20-26, John Brown (1784-1858) wrote:

The terms of discipleship, my brethren, are unaltered, and unalterable. Are we thus servants of Christ? We call him Lord, Lord; but are we following him in self-denied service and suffering? are we lovers of our lives in the sense in which he requires us to be haters of them? – i.e. are we lovers of ourselves more than lovers of him,- fonder of earth than heaven,- more taken up with time than eternity? Let no man be deceived- let no man deceive himself- on this point. A mistake here, even though temporary, is hazardous- if persisted in, must be fatal. We can have no part in making atonement-it is unnecessary-it is impossible; but we must have part in the spirit in which the atonement was made.

In other words, Jesus accomplished salvation for us and the Spirit applies it to us. But we must still work out that salvation with fear and trembling. We need to repent, believe and obey the Lord. Redemption accomplished, applied and exercised.

Navigating the strait of the imitation of Christ requires skill. You need to avoid the Scylla of theological liberalism or moralism and the Charybdis of antinomianism. Jesus is not merely our example or merely our redeemer. He is both. “He hath bequeathed blessings never enough to be valued, in his testament: he has also left us an incomparable example (Vincent).”

Editor's Note: This is the final post in a four-part series on the life and relevance of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661).  Find previous entries here

Rutherford as a Preacher

There is no getting around the fact that Rutherford was an exceptional preacher. Historian Robert Wodrow even goes so far as to refer to him as "one of the most moving and affectionate preachers in his time, or perhaps in any age of the church." That makes it all the more fascinating that he is said to have had poor elocution and a voice that was "rather shrill." One of his friends (note, a friend, and not an enemy!) once described his preaching voice as "strange...a kind of skreigh [or, screech], that I never heard the like."

What is it, then, that made Rutherford's preaching so moving and memorable? There are at least two things that I think set his preaching apart. We would do well to learn from each of them and to apply them to our own contexts.

  1. Rutherford was a Christ-centered preacher.  

    By this I mean that Rutherford's preaching was focused upon Christ in a way that was unique in the seventeenth century. His sermons, more than those of his contemporaries, concentrated on communicating the overwhelming beauty of Christ. This is probably best seen in the story told by Wodrow of an English merchant who was once traveling through Scotland in the seventeenth century. Upon coming to Irvine, the merchant was able to hear David Dickson preach and described him as "a well-favoured, proper old man, with a long beard" who "showed me all my heart." Then in St. Andrews, the same merchant heard Robert Blair and described him as "a sweet, majestic-looking man" who "showed me the majesty of God." And after Blair, he heard Rutherford and described him as "a little, fair man" who "showed me the loveliness of Christ." It was this great concern for the loveliness of Christ that dominated Rutherford's preaching and that made it so appealing to his hearers.  

    If there is one thing that is missing from much 21st century preaching, it would seem to be this central theme that we find in Rutherford. The Evangelical church today seems to be full to capacity with "practical" sermons on topics like "how to improve your marriage" or "how to be a better parent" or "how to mange your money." However, there is precious little preaching that seeks to exalt the majesty of Christ and to open people's eyes to the sheer beauty of the precious Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

  2. Rutherford had an obvious unction in his preaching that flowed from his communion with Christ. 

    One need only read through Rutherford's Letters to see how intimate his communion was with Christ. He was a man enflamed with love for Christ, longing to be like Christ and to be with Christ. Over and over again he refers to Christ as "that soul-delighting, lovely Bridegroom," "the Rose of Sharon," "the fairest...sweetest...most delicious Rose of all His Father's great field," "the Chief among ten thousands," and "the fairest among the sons of men." This is what has kept his Letters in print ever since their original publication almost 400 years ago: they exude the aroma of Christ and communicate Rutherford's own passion for Christ to all who take them up. And this is clearly what comes through in his preaching as well. His preaching was simply an overflow or an expression of his own love affair with Christ. It was, according to Rutherford's contemporary Richard Baxter, a communication of his heart to the hearts of his hearers.

    This communication affected not only the content and the language of his sermons but also the manner in which they were presented to the congregation. The same friend that described the "strange" sound of his voice also said this about his preaching: "Many times I thought he would have flown out of the pulpit when he came to speak of Jesus Christ." Rutherford did not stumble upon a pulpit and lukewarmly acknowledge that he might or might not have a couple of things to say that the congregation might or might not find interesting. He was a man gripped by the overwhelming beauty of Christ and compelled into the pulpit by his longing to see others know Christ the way he did.

Before moving on, we need to pause and consider what lessons and encouragements we can glean from Rutherford's preaching. I find it interesting that Rutherford was regarded as an exceptional preacher and yet his elocution and his preaching voice were not what we would look for in a preacher of renown. This should be a lesson to us that elocution, the sound of our voices, and even our physical appearances (remember, Rutherford was said to be "little" and "fair," not tall, dark, and handsome!) will not determine whether or not we will be great preachers so much as our relationship with Jesus Christ. Eric Alexander once said that he used to read E.M. Bounds' Power Through Prayer at least once every year to remind himself that the power in his preaching and in his ministry stemmed not from his gifts and abilities so much as from prayer and his relationship with Christ. Rutherford seems to have understood this. Humanly speaking, our pulpits will be weak until and unless we understand it too.

In spite of Rutherford's exceptional preaching ability and his all-out efforts on behalf of Christ, he still saw precious little fruit during the first few years of his ministry in Anwoth. And I think that there is encouragement in this also for current and future preachers of the gospel. There will not always be visible fruit from our labors in pulpit ministry. In fact, there may be seasons in which we receive no visible confirmation of our ministry at all. And yet we will still be called on to pour ourselves out and to spend ourselves in service to Christ. Numbers of conversions is not our primary goal so much as faithfulness in our calling. Even if we see little or no fruit from our ministries, we should be encouraged to know that a great preacher like Rutherford also experienced times when he saw little or no fruit from his ministry. This should make us more reliant upon God, who alone brings the increase, and less reliant upon ourselves and our abilities.

The End

After the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, Rutherford again found himself at the center of controversy. His book Lex, Rex was declared to be "a book inveighing against monarchie, and laying ground for rebellion" and was, therefore, recalled and burned in Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Rutherford himself was removed from his positions in the university as a professor of divinity and principal of St. Mary's College, deprived of his pastoral charge in the church, divested of his stipend, and placed under house arrest. He was charged with treason and called to appear before parliament to respond to the allegation. Many of his friends feared he would face execution along with James Guthrie and Archibald Campbell, the Marquis of Argyll. Rutherford himself said that "he would willingly dye on the scaffold...with a good conscience." But before he could do so, he became ill and was prevented from answering parliament's summons by what he referred to as an earlier and more important "summons before a superior Judge and judicatory." His message to parliament was: "I behove to answer my first summons; and, ere your day arrive, I will be where few kings and great folks come."

Rutherford died shortly thereafter, near the end of March 1661. But he did not die without leaving one final exhortation for those who were gathered around his bedside. It was the same message that had consumed him in life that also consumed him in death—the loveliness of Christ: "He is the cheife of ten thousands of ten thousands! None [is] comparable to him, in heaven or in earth. Dear bretheren, doe all for Him; pray for Christ, preach for Christ, feed the flock committed to your charge for Christ, doe all for Christ. Bewarr of men-pleasing, ther is too much of it amongst us."

Guy M. Richard is Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He formerly served as Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS.

This article was originally featured on reformation21 in February of 2009. Stay tuned next week for part four!

More In This Series:


As we have seen in our study of the preceding articles in the Thirty-Nine Articles, article 25 on the sacraments maintains that they are not only badges and tokens of Christian men’s profession, but “…certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.” And according to article 26, the unworthiness of ministers does not hinder the effect of the sacraments, since the sacraments belong to Christ. From these general principles, Cranmer continues his exposition on the sacraments in a more specific study of the sacrament of baptism.
XXVII—Of Baptism

Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.
Article 27 is nearly identical to Cranmer’s 1553 original, with a change to the last sentence, “The custom of the Church to baptize young children is to be commended and in any wise…” Parker's 1563 redundancy of the “…sign and seal of our new birth,” was edited in 1571 to the fuller, “…sign of regeneration or new birth,” which explains the signification of the visible sign and seal. It is significant that both Archbishops Cranmer and Parker had infants in mind in this article, even though our English translation has “young children” in the last sentence. Cranmer’s Latin original uses the word parvuli, the word used most frequently in the Latin Vulgate for “infant.” We may also add that Cranmer’s 1549 and 1552 Book of Common Prayer lacked a baptism service for adults. It appears for the first time in 1662.
When we come to the specifics of the article four doctrines are listed: 
  1. The baptized infant who receives baptism is grafted into the church. The baptized infant is brought into the visible church, recalling article 26 that the visible church is a mixture of the converted and unconverted, but comes under God’s visible means of grace in the preaching of the pure Word of God (article 19).
  2. God’s promise of the forgiveness of sin and the adoption as son and daughters of God by the power of the Holy Spirit is visibly signed and sealed. The assurance of baptism “received rightly,” that is, by faith in God’s promise that the good work he has begun in you he will bring to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1.6).
  3. The gift of faith (in those whom God has sovereignly chosen and effectually called – article 17) will be confirmed. Baptism strengthens and confirms faith because once the promise has been received in trust serves as its own reassurance that what was apprehended as a sign will be fulfilled in reality.
  4. God’s grace is increased through prayer. The grace of God brings fruit in our lives as we live in the obedience of faith, seeking him in prayer. The article is intentionally general in its application here so that the prayers of the parents and godparents for the child and the intercession of the child themselves are included. 
The article takes care in explaining the way in which the Spirit uses baptism throughout the entire course of the believer’s life thus avoiding two errors of the time that remain common among North American Anglicans today. The first error is the error of those who would so subjectivize the symbolism of the water sign that the believer turns inwardly toward their own actions, decisions, and experiences. Such an inwardness runs contrary to the gospel distorting the reality of saving faith. The faith that turns away from our own resources and doings to the amazing grace that is the believer’s in the Lord Jesus Christ. The second error is the Roman Catholic doctrine ex opera operato which asserts that baptism's sign of regeneration is efficacious simply in the fact of its use. The reception of the sign of water becomes the reception of what it signifies: spiritual regeneration. Leaving no place for that same saving faith which finds Christ himself unveiled in the sign or to the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The Thirty-Nine Articles, like other reformed confessions, is clear on the connection between baptism and regeneration. It is important for Anglicans to note once again how the historical formularies must be read as a whole, the Articles setting the theology of the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Common Prayer bringing detail and nuance to the articles. Consider the thanksgiving prayer from the 1552/1662 "Publick Baptism of Infants" which is often a proof-text for baptismal regeneration:
We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this Infant with thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for thine own Child by adoption, and to incorporate him into thy holy Church. And humbly we beseech thee to grant that he being dead unto sin, and living unto righteousness, and being buried with Christ in his death, may crucify the old man, and utterly abolish the whole body of sin; and that, as he is made partaker of the death of thy Son, he may also be partaker of his resurrection; so that finally, with the residue of thy holy Church, he may be an inheritor of thine everlasting kingdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
In order to twist the meaning of the prayer to mean that every child who receives the sign of baptism is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, one must also dismiss what article 17 has said concerning election! It is clear that our Anglican forebears thought that infant baptism was efficacious only for the elect until the Roman Catholicizing outliers who followed Archbishop Laud made too much of this in the 1620s and 1630s. 
Instead, we can again see how sola scriptura is affirmed. Article 27 and the Prayer Book follow Acts 2:38 in how baptism with water, marks outwardly the baptism with the Spirit that inaugurates us into the life of union with Christ: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Here repentance, water baptism, the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit are seen as correlative aspects of the one reality of entrance into Christ. It is the Spirit of God that brings to us forgiveness and salvation. Faith is confirmed and increased as it draws all that is signified and sealed by water baptism. Note how it is not faith that is signed and sealed, it is Christ. Article 27 reminds us that the work of the Spirit in generating and activating faith is the means between the sign and the reality signified. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “God saved us, not because of deeds are done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5; cf. Eph. 5:26; Heb. 10:22).

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.

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)
  16. Grace Alone! (Art. 17)
  17. Christ Alone! (Art. 18)
  18. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 1 (Art. 19)
  19. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 2 (Art. 20)
  20. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 3 (Art. 21)
  21. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 4 (Art. 22)
  22. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 5 (Art. 23)
  23. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 6 (Art. 24)
  24. The Sacraments: Part 1 (Art. 25)
  25. The Sacraments: Part 2 (Art. 26)


Paul T. Nimmo and David A. F. Fergusson, The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016). 345pp. Paperback.
What is Reformed Theology? This is a valid and important question. Answering it may be more difficult than appears at first. Unlike Lutheran churches, which maintain confessional unity around the Book of Concord, and the Roman Catholic Church, which rests on its tradition and magisterium, Reformed churches have neither a single unifying set of confessional documents, nor an infallible authority structure furnishing them with a universal definition. The contributors to the Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology reflect the ambiguity noted in defining Reformed theology in the introduction (2-4). This means that its authors present both historical and contemporary Reformed theology with varying degrees of clarity, which makes some chapters of this book more useful than others for understanding its topic. This review seeks to clarify the nature of Reformed theology through interacting with representatives of the varied perspectives presented in these essays. My primary contention is that some of the authors of this book help us better understand Reformed theology in light of Reformed prolegomena while others take us too far afield.
The essays in this volume present a wide range of theological and historical perspectives. The Cambridge Companion outlines both historical and contemporary Reformed theology in light of key topics, historical figures, and diverse contexts. The editors set the tone for the struggle to define Reformed theology by arguing that the five Reformation solas are too broad for this purpose and that the Canons of Dort are too narrow (4). In doing so, they depict Reformed theology as more nebulous in nature than many of their fellow contributors. The topics treated take readers from Scripture (Todd Billings), through Confessions (Michael Allen), Election (Rinse Brouwer), Christology (Bruce McCormack), Sacraments (Paul Nimmo), and finally to the Christian Life (Cynthia Rigby). All of these chapters are interesting and useful, though the first two represent the most standard expressions of Reformed theology among them, while Rigby’s essay on the Christian life moves from traditional Reformed views of personal godliness to a seemingly this-world oriented eschatology with an overriding concern for social justice.
The historical figures included are limited to Zwingli, Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, and Barth. While Barth is a controversial theologian and his relation to the Reformed tradition continues to be debated, including Schleiermacher, who is often regarded as the father of liberal theology, in a list of significant Reformed authors presses a finger on the problems of definition that pervade this volume. However, each section admirably justifies how each figure in question developed his thought from distinctively Reformed origins. This sketches a picture, albeit limited, of persistence and change in Reformed theology.
The eight essays in the section treating contexts comprise the bulk of the work and contain, in this reviewer’s opinion, some of its most valuable contributions. The chapters on Puritanism (Hardman Moore), Scholasticism (te Velde), continental Europe (Busch), the British Isles (D. Fergusson), and North America (James Bratt) exemplify the clarity characteristic of most contemporary historical studies of Reformed orthodoxy. The chapters on Africa, Asia, and ecumenism, however, do more than chronicle the development of Reformed churches in these countries. They all run the risk of transforming Reformed theology, though in varying degrees, into descriptions of what churches with Reformed origins in each of these regions believe currently rather than explaining how they relate to the historic Reformed confessional tradition. While this is truer for some of these chapters than for others, it marks all of them. This illustrates the ways in which the authors in this volume attempt either to define Reformed theology subjectively in terms of what churches currently believe and practice, or objectively in relation to the historic Reformed tradition. The remainder of this review uses examples from each of these perspectives and adopts the second one in order to define Reformed theology more clearly.
Some of the essays in the Cambridge Companion raise the question of whether any Reformed identity remains. The most striking example of this is Isabel Apawo Phiri’s chapter on “Reformed theology in Africa” (285-295), which represents a subjective approach at definition. She treats the nature of Reformed churches in Africa in light of their history and what she calls “sexism” and “homophobia.” She observes that Africans tend to respond to issues from an ecumenical rather than a confessional perspective (286). She notes appreciatively that African “Reformed” churches, through Pentecostal influences, incorporate witchcraft and beliefs concerning the spirits of ancestors into healing services (289). She also insinuates that Reformed theology may have been a primary cause of apartheid. Her pejorative uses of “sexism” and “homophobia” place anyone who in any way limits the participation of women and homosexuals in church offices based on their reading of Scripture and the Reformed tradition in error and immorality. While her criticisms of many Reformed missionaries to South Africa during the colonial period are valid, readers may wonder whether she has adopted opposite extremes. The implications throughout her chapter are that African Christians adopt the Reformed label without any historic Reformed content and that they are better off redefining Reformed theology in terms of their own traditions and cultures. The result is a “Reformed” community that is detached from historic confessional doctrine, is Pentecostal and syncretistic in practice, and exercises intolerance towards anyone who interprets Scripture as excluding women from office and as viewing homosexuality as sinful. Regardless of the merits of any of these positions, this approach to Reformed theology tends to isolate African “Reformed” churches from any historic uses of the term “Reformed.” This undercuts the catholic unity on which Reformed theology was built and which its creeds defined and delineated. Phiri’s version of “Reformed” theology leaves readers with the question whether that term remains a useful description of her ecclesiastical tradition.
Some chapters of the Cambridge Companion, however, provide enough material to resolve the problems it raises over defining Reformed theology. Eberard Busch’s chapter on Reformed theology in continental Europe comes closest to defining Reformed theology adequately. He provides five characteristics the Reformed confession, all of which stem from the doctrine of God and of Scripture. These are the “fundamental directing power” of Scripture, the “seminal importance” of the covenant, a “unique interpretation” of the law and the gospel, predestination, and “appreciation of church order” (240-244). These characteristics all stem from the doctrine of God and of Scripture as the two principia of historic Reformed theology, which entail the absolute supremacy of the Triune God and the absolute authority and sufficiency of Scripture for doctrine and life.
Some Christians might ask how these emphases actually distinguish Reformed theology from other branches of the Christian tradition. Seeking to answer this question reveals the character of the Reformed system by contrasting it with other theological traditions. God is transcendent in glory (contra the Socinians). He is Lord of all, determining the end from the beginning, including all of his creatures and all of their actions (contra Arminians). He is sovereign in salvation, including the Spirit’s work of enabling us to receive and embrace Jesus Christ through faith (contra Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, and most Lutheranism). The Father elects his people unconditionally in his eternal love, the Son purchases the elect in his glorious grace alone, and the Spirit powerfully applies the redemption purchased by Christ by changing the hearts of unwilling subjects and working faith in them in their effectual calling (Eph. 1:3-12; contra most other theological traditions). As for Scripture, while Socinians, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans affirm Scripture authority, all differ from the Reformed by degrees with reference to its sufficiency. Reformed theology teaches that the Bible is the only rule of faith and practice, whether by way of express statement, approved, example, or good and necessary consequence. We can neither add to it nor take away from it in doctrine, worship, or in church government (Deut. 4; 12; Matt. 15; Col. 2). Socinians take away biblical doctrine by denying the application of the text through inferences. Roman Catholics add to Scripture by way of the magisterium and church extra-biblical church traditions. Lutherans and other evangelicals neglect Scripture sufficiency in relation to applying the doctrine to the principles of worship and church government. The Church of England has always been an anomaly in relation to this last point, though holding all other points mentioned above in common with other Reformed churches.
These doctrinal commonplaces of Reformed theology drive readers back towards historic Reformed confessions to move toward definition. Like “Puritanism,” Reformed theology can be harder to define than many assume. Yet unlike “Puritanism,” Reformed theology has well-defined confessional documents with well-identified areas of confessional commonality. All of the above noted areas point us to summaries of the Reformed system that look at lot like the three forms of unity, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Standards, the London Baptist confession, with other like confessions. With some denominational differences, Reformed churches share common goals with regard to the absolute supremacy of God and the absolute authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Every Reformed system rests on these first principles, which determine largely what it means to be Reformed. Thus, Reformed theology is characterized by unity without uniformity and by diversity without disintegration. Any meaningful definition of Reformed theology cannot be reduced merely to a set of doctrines or to churches who call themselves Reformed. Matching the character of Reformed theology itself, we must define Reformed theology both biblically and historically. Anything less evacuates the term of value. For better or worse, this drives us, with Busch and others, to Reformed confessions as representing distinctively Reformed interpretations of Scripture.
In conclusion, asking what it means to be Reformed admits diverse answers. If one asks what characterized the historic Reformed confession, then the answer must have historical content. However, if one asks for characteristics of who take the name “Reformed,” then he or she can define Reformed theology however he or she wants to. Yet if the term “Reformed” is to retain any value, then history must take precedence. Though Reformed theology is rooted in Scripture, churches claiming to interpret Scripture without any clear connection to historic Reformed confessions virtually evacuate the term of meaning. Before asking whether Reformed theology is true, one must know what Reformed theology is. This means that historical descriptions of Reformed theology are clearer than self-designations. Developing a Reformed theology that is rooted in Scripture and connected to the historic Reformed tradition is necessary to maintain the catholic character of Reformed theology, which is one of its greatest strengths. While the editors assert that in Reformed theology “the idea of confessional uniformity is unpersuasive” (3), this does not negate the reality of confessional unity. The primary value of the Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology is that its chapters represent the consequences of two opposing ways of defining what it means to be Reformed. In doing so, this book makes us ask difficult questions as it displays usefully the prospects and challenges facing Reformed churches today.

Editor's Note: This is the third post in a four-part series on the life and relevance of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661).  Find previous entries here

A Ministry of Sacrifice and Suffering 

Being called to the small, obscure parish of Anwoth did not give Rutherford an opportunity to take it easy and get by with only minimal effort, which has no doubt been a temptation to many ministers in similar conditions. Instead, he gave the work of the ministry his all. Rutherford was said to be "always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always catechizing, always writing and [always] studying." He slept no more than six hours each night, in order that he might devote himself more fully to the work of the ministry. He regularly rose to begin each day at 3 a.m., spending the early morning hours in prayer and communion with Christ. Over the course of his lifetime, he wrote 13 major theological treatises, a detailed catechism, a short discourse on predestination, several political works, an account of the deathbed conversion of the Viscount Kenmure, and a testimony detailing the work of the reformation in Scotland. In addition to this, he carried on a letter-writing ministry with friends and parishioners until near his death in 1661. He served the church at the Westminster Assembly so faithfully that he was commended by the Assembly for his "great assistance" and "constant attendance." And he preached somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500-2000 sermons over the course of his ministry. 

Rutherford gave himself completely to the work of the ministry. He was a man driven to accomplishment for the sake of Christ. In this he was in good company; John Calvin was likewise driven, such that he once lamented his perceived uselessness as a minister of the Gospel because he had not done anything in the past month besides preach a measly 20 sermons and lecture a mere 12 times! Calvin and Rutherford were men who wearied themselves in doing kingdom good. Far from gaining the reputation of not being able to make it in the "real world" of modern commerce, Rutherford, and Calvin, labored sacrificially and relentlessly. The pastorate was anything but a fall-back option for them. They were servants pressed into duty by the most high God, and their work ethic reflected it. Young ministers and church leaders today would do well to learn from this kind of an approach to the ministry.

Rutherford's early ministry was marked from the beginning by profound difficulty. The first few years he spent in Anwoth were discouraging ones. In spite of his strong work ethic, Rutherford still reported that he had seen very little visible fruit after his first two years of ministry, and he doubted that there was even one person who had benefited spiritually from his preaching and teaching: "I see exceeding small fruit of my ministry, and would be glad to know of one soul to be my crown and rejoicing in the day of Christ." Even after nine years, Rutherford could still lament, "I fear I have done little good in my ministry."

Obviously this is Rutherford's own evaluation of his ministry. And perhaps it is an overly pessimistic one, stemming from his own acute awareness of his deficiencies and shortcomings. But Rutherford is not atypical at this point. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once reportedly once evaluated his own influential preaching ministry similarly by acknowledging that he would not even cross the street to hear himself preach. Most ministers, I think, are all too aware of their deficiencies and struggles as preachers and pastors to be able to evaluate the impact of their ministries with anything but a degree of pessimism. It certainly would seem to be the case for Rutherford. But although he may have been discouraged about the impact his ministry was having in Anwoth, his friends and parishioners were apparently nowhere near as melancholy. For, as many of his biographers tell us, Rutherford was in Anwoth only a short time before he gained a reputation for being an effective preacher and pastor—a reputation that extended far beyond the bounds of the parish of Anwoth.

Rutherford's early ministry was also marked by profound suffering, which makes the extent of his accomplishments all the more astounding (not to mention convicting, for those of us who have had much easier lives and, yet, accomplished much less!). Within the first few years in Anwoth, Rutherford had to face the deaths of at least one child, his wife, and his mother, and his own ill health. His wife, whom he referred to as the "delight of mine eyes," died near the end of his third year in Anwoth (only the fifth of their marriage), after a thirteen-month struggle with an illness that Rutherford later described as an "exceeding great torment night and day." Her death wounded him so deeply that even four years later he said that it was "not yet fully healed and cured." During his wife's illness, Rutherford himself struggled with a tertian fever for about 3 months and was unable to carry out many of his pastoral duties. In his Letters, he laments that "life was never so wearisome" as it was for him at this juncture.

Following the publication of his first theological treatise, Exercitationes Apologeticae Pro Divina Gratia in 1636—which he published after being in Anwoth for 8 or 9 years—Rutherford was called before the Court of High Commission in Edinburgh, found guilty of non-conformity, and exiled to Aberdeen for the next eighteen months. While in Aberdeen, he was kept at a great distance from his congregation, forbidden from preaching (his "one joy out[side] of heaven") and openly preached against in his hearing and insulted by passers-by in the streets. Though the signing of the National Covenant in February 1638 temporarily released him from his persecutions and enabled him to return to his beloved Anwoth, it did not provide permanent emancipation.

Ministry in St. Andrews

The 1639 General Assembly removed Rutherford from Anwoth, despite Rutherford's protests and those of his congregation as well, and sent him to St. Andrews to serve as professor of theology at the university there. Rutherford ultimately acquiesced to their wishes on the condition that he could share in the regular preaching duties at the town kirk. This request was granted, and Rutherford moved to St. Andrews in October 1639. 

The next 11 or so years were by far the most productive of Rutherford's life. During this time, he wrote and published 9 of his 13 theological treatises; he remarried and had 7 children with his new wife, all but one of which died before he did (4 of the 7 died during this 11-year period); he was selected by the church to represent it as a commissioner to the Westminster Assembly; he was named Principal of St. Mary's College and Rector of the university as a whole; he received at least three different offers to teach from universities outside of Scotland; and, besides sharing the preaching responsibilities in St. Andrews, he was widely sought after by the church at large as a preacher and pastor.

It was particularly this last part—the preaching—that Rutherford cherished most. No matter how gifted and influential he may have been in the classroom (and there is good reason to believe that he was quite gifted and profoundly influential), there can be no doubt but that Rutherford's real passion was to preach. That was the main reason he objected to the General Assembly's wishes to relocate him to St. Andrews. He could not bear to be kept from preaching. He had had his share of "silent Sabbaths," as he called them, while in exile in Aberdeen. And he did not like them one bit. He longed to preach. It was his "one joy, next to...Christ." And apparently it was something that he did quite well (as we will see next week). 

Guy M. Richard is Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He formerly served as Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS.

This article was originally featured on reformation21 in February of 2009. Stay tuned next week for part four!

More In This Series:


Right Reception of the Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper was to be taken seriously, after much preparation, careful self-examination, and Christ-centered participation. Edwards wrote, “’Tis the most solemn confirmation that can be conceived of.... It is more solemn than a mere oath.”[1] He later added, “Those who contemptuously treat those symbols of the body of Christ slain and His blood shed, why, they make themselves guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, that is, of murdering Him.”[2] This solemnity is in keeping with the magnitude of the sacrament. Edwards said, “Christ is the greatest Friend of His church, and that which is commemorated in the Lord’s Supper is the greatest manifestation of His love, the greatest act of kindness that ever was in any instance, infinitely exceeding all acts of kindness done by man one to another. It was the greatest display of divine goodness and grace that ever was.”[3]

The Lord’s Supper is an encounter with Christ, the Puritans said. Both God and the believer act towards each other. Perkins said God’s action is “either the offering, or the application of Christ and his graces to the faithful.” The action of faith in the believer “is the consideration, desire, apprehension, and receiving of Christ in the lawful use of the sacrament.”[4]

John Payne describes Owen’s view of the Lord’s Supper as “a sanctified dramatization of the love of God for His people,” in which “those who exercise faith in Christ experience and partake of Him in the Supper.”[5] Owen called the elements of the Supper “the cream of the creation: which is an endless storehouse, if pursued, of representing the mysteries of Christ.”[6]

The Puritans said participants should prepare for the Lord’s Supper with quantitatively large and qualitatively rich periods of time engaged in meditation. Owen said, “The using of an ordinance will not be of advantage to us, unless we understand the institution, and the nature and the ends of it.”[7] More than mere understanding is required, since “God’s covenant promises are not ‘spiritually sealed’ by the sacraments unless received by faith and an obedient heart.”[8]

This meditation should not cease when the sacrament begins; rather, it should intensify. Owen preached “Twenty-Five Discourses Suitable to the Lord’s Supper” between 1669 and 1682. In this work, Owen instructed the congregation under his care to receive the most benefit from participating in the sacrament. He urged his congregation to first meditate on “the horrible guilt and provocation that is in sin.”[9] Next he urged the congregation “to meditate on God’s purity and holiness, that is, that holiness that would not ‘pass by sin, when it was charged upon his Son.’”[10]

The focal point of the Lord’s Supper is the person and work of Jesus Christ. These are “together received through the exercising of sincere faith.”[11] This outworking of faith is the attempt to see the Son as it were with spiritual eyes. Owen said to his congregation, “That which we are to endeavour in this ordinance is, to get...a view of Christ as lifted up; that is bearing our iniquities in his own body on the tree.... O that God in this ordinance would give our souls a view of him!”[12]

One result of this spiritual sight is the mortification of sin. Owen said, “We labour by faith so to behold a dying Christ, that strength may thence issue forth for the death of sin in our souls.”[13] Another result is the vivification of faith: “God hath appointed him to be crucified evidentially before our eyes, that every poor soul that is stung with sin, ready to die by sin, should look up unto him, and be healed.”[14]

These results are not due to the pursuit of some extra-biblical, mystical experience, but to the cooperative work of the Spirit along with the believer’s personalization of objective biblical truth. At the Lord’s Supper, Owen said, “Christ and His benefits are objectively offered, and received through the exercising of faith and the sovereign agency of the Holy Spirit.”[15] Doolittle wrote, “Let faith make particular application of this blood in all its virtues and efficacies, and say, ‘Here, O my soul, here is pardoning blood, and it is yours. Here is quickening, softening blood, and it is yours. Here is justifying, sanctifying, pleading blood, and this belongs to you.’ This will draw forth faith to do its work at the Lord’s Supper.”[16]

Goodwin compared the sacrament with the sermon and wrote, “Of sermons, some are for comfort, some to inform, some to excite; but here in the Sacrament is all thou canst expect. Christ is here light, and wisdom, and comfort, and all to thee. He is here an eye to the blind, a foot to the lame; yea, everything to everyone.”[17]

Just as careful meditation and preparation were to be used prior to the sacrament, the believer should continue meditating and thinking afterward. As a believer, said Doolittle, I must:

Consider with myself if I have received any benefit thereby.... [I will know this] by the increase of my faith in Christ and love for God; by my greater hatred of sin and power against it; by my longing after the enjoyment of God in heaven; by my prizing this ordinance above my necessary food; and by my resolutions, in the strength of Christ, to suffer for Him who died for me.[18]

Intense participation in the Supper was no mere mental assent to the doctrinal accuracy of the cross, but a heartfelt engagement. Willison offered this meditation for the communicant at the Table: “O now let the sight of a bleeding Saviour make me a weeping sinner. Had I been upon Mount Calvary…could I have stood by with dry eyes or an unconcerned heart, especially when I considered that he suffered all this in my room, and for my sins?”[19] Emotional engagement is so integral to the sacrament that multiple emotions should be expected. If these emotions conflict, the believer should be encouraged, for sorrow (because the believer’s sins put Christ to death) will not prevent joy (at Christ’s death for those sins). Doolittle anticipated a believer’s question, “‘But must I both rejoice and sorrow too? Will not either sorrow keep me from rejoicing, or rejoicing prevent my sorrowing?’ No, he responded, both these may be; both these must be. This mixture of affection well becomes a believer at the Lord’s Table. You may mourn that your sins put Christ to death, and yet you may rejoice that Christ would die for your sins.”[20]

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.


[1] Edwards, Sermons, 76.

[2] Edwards, Sermons, 107.

[3] Edwards, Sermons, 86. In his sermon “Christians Have Communion with Christ,” Edwards writes, “I would exhort you to...a serious and careful and joyful attendance on the Lord’s Supper” (Sermons, 150).

[4] Perkins, “A Golden Chaine,” in Works, 1:72.

[5] Jon D. Payne, John Owen on the Lord’s Supper (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 64.

[6] Owen, Works, 9:540.

[7] Owen, Works, 9:583.

[8] Payne, John Owen on the Lord’s Supper, 34. See Joel R. Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 211.

[9] Owen, Works, 9:559, emphasis in original.

[10] Owen, Works, 9:559, emphasis in original.

[11] Payne, John Owen on the Lord’s Supper, 62.

[12] Owen, Works, 9:593.

[13] Owen, Works, 9:582, emphasis removed.

[14] Owen, Works, 9:571. Cf. Galatians 3:1.

[15] Payne, John Owen on the Lord’s Supper, 75, emphasis added.

[16] Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 96.

[17] The Works of Thomas Goodwin, ed. Thomas Smith (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 11:408.

[18] Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 146.

[19] John Willison, A Sacramental Directory…To which are added (by Way of Appendix) Meditations and Ejaculations proper for Communicants before, in Time of, and after partaking of the holy Sacrament (Edinburgh: Sam. Willison and Matt. Jarvie for Alexander Donaldson, 1761), 301.

[20] Doolittle, A Treatise Concerning the Lord’s Supper, 100. Cf. Paul’s paradoxical description of himself as “sorrowing yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).

Previous Posts in this Series

  1. Introduction
  2. Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
  3. Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
  4. Biblical Simplicity in the Lord's Supper
  5. Qualifications for Admission to the Lord's Supper
Having considered God in his essence and attributes then his unity of essence in the diversity of three persons, we will know give attention to his decrees (eternal purposes) according to the Puritans. In the next post, we will then discuss how those decrees are carried out in creation and providence. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (SC) gives us a good starting point: “God’s decrees are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (e.g. Acts 2:23; Eph 1:11-12). 
First, God, according to his all-knowing and perfectly wise will, unchangeably decreed or purposed from eternity all things that would come to passAs William Ames attests, the decree of God denotes “his determinate purpose of effecting all things by his almighty Power.” God plans according to his “Counsel” or “deliberation concerning the doing of every thing in the best manner” according to “perfect judgment” (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity). Accordingly, notes Ames, God’s “constancy” denotes the fact that his decrees remain “always immutable,” as the “Counsel of the Lord, it shall stand” (Prov. 19:21) without fail.
Second, the decree of God does not nullify the liberty or contingency of second causes. While God’s purposes come to pass necessarily (according to his ordained power), he could have decreed otherwise (according to his absolute power). Thus, he freely purposed everything and not by utter necessity. Likewise, God’s decrees do not annul “liberty or contingency of second causes” (WCF 3.1, see also 5.2) in which humans act freely (without “violence” to their wills, WCF 3.1) and contingently (they could have chosen otherwise) and without God being the “author of sin” (WCF 3.1). Thus, argues Ames, God “did so dispose all things,” as Pharoah hardening his heart, yet he as a man “did work freely in these things.” So, the Puritans maintained that divine sovereignty (by God’s will hidden from mankind) was compatible with human freedom and responsibility (by God’s will revealed to mankind). Thus, Christ’s death by the “determinate counsel” of God occurred at the same time by the “wicked hands” of men (Acts 2:23). Such thinking was by no means novel and extended back through many of the Reformers (e.g. Ursinus, Calvin, Luther), medieval theologians (e.g. Aquinas), and patristics (e.g. Augustine). 
Third, the decree of God extends to salvation as he predestines those who believe on Christ. The general consensus among the Puritans was that some humans and angels being “predestined unto everlasting life,” with the rest “foreordained to everlasting death” (WCF 3.3, e.g. Rom. 9:22-23). This latter concept of reprobation was sometimes stated (as William Perkins did following Calvin) in the manner of a straightforward double decree in which God elects some to salvation and the rest to damnation while others focused on the single decree of election (as John Arrowsmith did following Augustine) to salvation while leaving the rest to be damned for their sin. This passing over does not deny “foreordination” to judgment (see WCF 3.3) but clearly seeks to place hold sinners responsible for their judgment. In line with such reasoning, WCF 3.7 makes clear that God was “pleased . . . to pass by” and “ordain . . .to wrath” the non-elect “for their sin.” In the end, God still sovereignly chooses to pass by the reprobate yet with an emphasis on human responsibility. Wrapped up in this discussion was the matter of how God’s decrees unfolded in relation to fallen man. Did God elect men to salvation logically before the decree for the fall as in supralapsarianism (“above the fall”) or after it as in infralapsarianism (“below the fall”)? The Puritans varied between supralapsarian (e.g. Perkins) and infralapsarian (e.g. John Owen) though the WCF favors the latter.
Fourth, God’s decree makes no allowance for the concept of middle knowledge or a foreknowledge view of election. The Puritans and Reformation and medieval theologians before them, made a distinction between God’s natural/necessary and free/voluntary knowledge. The former (in line with what we discussed about God’s absolute power) was completely internal and concerned the essential knowledge of all things that could possibly be (not just actually would be). The latter (in line with his ordained power) concerned that which God freely decreed and would actually come to pass. In this regard, what God knows will take place he has decreed to occur. 
During the time of the Reformation, the Jesuit Luis de Molina (1529-1599), proposed the concept of “middle knowledge” (scientia media), between natural and free knowledge, in the attempt to reconcile divine sovereignty and human freedom. In middle knowledge, God possesses the awareness of all possible outcomes connected to what man would freely choose (supposedly without such choices decreed) in all possible sets of  circumstances. Based on what someone freely chooses in a given set of circumstances, God purposes to bring such to pass. The problem with this, of course, is that it attributes to humans an absolute sort of freedom in which they make choices independent of God. Instead, if he had certain knowledge of what comes to pass based on certain conditions, then he must have decreed it and the circumstances to bring it about, which in no way takes away from the free choice of man whose liberty was ordained by God. 
Where the concept of middle knowledge created the greatest controversy came in connection with the soteriology of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) who popularized a foreknowledge view of election based on middle knowledge. In other words, based on “foreseen faith” of an individual freely and independently expressed, God elected him or her to salvation. This view as maintained by Arminius’s followers (the Remonstrants) was soundly condemned at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) where William Ames was present as an English representative. He testified that if the decree of predestination is based upon the idea of “foreseen faith,” the very “Idea of God” depends on something outside of himself (Marrow of Sacred Divinty).  So, argues Thomas Watson, “If God's decree be eternal and unchangeable, then God does not elect upon our faith foreseen, as the Arminians maintain.” Instead, “As many as were ordained to eternal life, believed.' Acts 13:48. They were not elected because they believed, but they believed because they were elected” (A Body of Divinity).

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.

For previous posts in this series, see:

  1. What is Puritan Theology?
  2. William Ames and Puritan Theologizing
  3. William Ames and Shorter Catechism Q&A 1
  4. The Two Lights
  5. Scripture
  6. God Is
  7. Trinity
One of the great fictional adventure stories of all-time is one of the oldest: The Odyssey by Homer. In this book, the main character, Odysseus, along with his crew, are sailing home. During their long journey, they are forced to sail through a narrow strait between two rock peaks.
There were two mortal dangers on either side of the strait. They were called Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla was a six-headed monster and if they got too close to her then she would swoop down and snatch six men for her dinner. Charybdis was a whirlpool and if they got too close to it then the whole ship would get sucked in and be completely destroyed.
Unfortunately, there was no middle ground. You couldn’t steer between them. If you steered out of range from Charybdis then Scylla would get you. And if you avoided Scylla then Charybdis would get you. You had to pick your poison. Odysseus was advised to steer close to Scylla and row as fast as they could. Losing six men is better than losing the whole crew. That is what Odysseus did. But they paid the price. Scylla snatched up the six strongest men on the ship.
When it comes to the imitation of Christ we need to be careful to avoid two mortal errors. On the one hand we must not fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus merely came to set an example for us to follow. And on the other hand, we must not believe that we don’t have to follow his example. These two errors are sometimes referred to as theological liberalism or moralism and antinomianism. Unfortunately, some people think that these are the only two options available. There is no way to navigate between them. Like Odysseus in The Odyssey, you have to steer towards one or the other. Indeed, some have steered to one simply to avoid the other. A hatred for liberalism and moralism has led some to be sucked up by the whirlpool of antinomianism. But there is a third way. We can and we must navigate our way between these two errors as did the puritan Nathanael Vincent did in his sermon entitled, "How Christ is to be Followed as our Example" (Puritan Sermons, 4:437-451).
The church I serve, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, was born out of a necessary conflict with theological liberalism, which has plagued the church in one form or another for centuries. One of its key tenets is that Jesus is merely an example for us. Jesus didn’t atone for our sins on the cross so that believers might be forgiven. Rather, Jesus died to show us the way to live, that is, how to love God and one another. If we imitate Jesus then we will be able to create or recreate heaven on earth. We redeem ourselves and the world by loving one another just as Jesus loved us.
Although proponents of this view speak passionately about Jesus and love, they do not proclaim the Gospel. This view is not Christian in the least. It is a damning heresy. Vincent wrote:
To say that this [Christ suffered to leave us an example] was the principal end of his passion, to deny his satisfaction as if it were impossible or needless, is heretical in a very high degree. To deny the blood of Christ to be the price of our redemption, is to ‘deny the Lord that bought us.’ And truly, the only propitiatory sacrifice for sin being rejected, there is no other remaining, ‘but a certain fearful looking-for of judgment and of fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries’ (Heb. x. 27).”
Jesus is not just our example, or even primarily our example. He is, as Vincent put it, our example and our Redeemer. Or as J. Gresham Machen wrote in 1923, Jesus is not only the example of our faith, he is the object of our faith. In fact, if Jesus isn’t our redeemer then he isn’t a worthy example, because, as Machen pointed out, Jesus claimed to be far more. Since Jesus claimed to be our redeemer, then if he isn’t, he is a liar, or an ignorant and arrogant man, or something worse. He would not be the kind of man that you would want to follow.
Furthermore, we couldn’t imitate Jesus if he weren’t our redeemer. Showing us what we need to do and how we are to do it, isn’t going to help us because our fundamental problem isn’t ignorance. Our root problems are sin, sinfulness, death and the devil. If Jesus doesn’t save us from those things, then we won’t be able to love one another as Jesus has loved us. All the education and examples in the world can’t rescue the condemned sinner enslaved to sin who lies under the power of the evil one.
Thus, with respect to the imitation of Christ, we need to avoid the Scylla of theological liberalism or moralism. We also have to avoid the Charybdis of antinomianism, which we hope to consider in the next article.

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a four-part series on the life and relevance of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661). Read part one here

Rutherford's Conversion

Rutherford received the M.A. degree in 1621 from Edinburgh and, two years later, was appointed Regent of Humanity for the university. He was chosen for this position over three other candidates—who far exceeded him in years—because of his "eminent abilities of mind, and vertuous [sic] disposition." Shortly after being named Regent in 1623, however, Rutherford was embroiled in two controversies that called this virtuous disposition into question and resulted in his being removed from the university. The more serious of the two controversies is recorded in the city records of Edinburgh for February 3, 1626. There we are told by the Principal of the university John Adamson that Rutherford had committed a great scandal by falling in fornication with his eventual wife Eupham Hamilton. Unfortunately, this account does not completely square with the university's record, which states that Rutherford resigned on account of an "irregular marriage."

Because the details lying behind this charge are nowhere given, a great debate has ensued over the years as to what exactly happened. Those who dismiss Adamson's charge against Rutherford do so largely on the basis of the difficulty they have in believing that Rutherford could commit fornication one year and then be appointed minister in Anwoth the next. While this is a legitimate point that ought not to be treated cavalierly, it, nevertheless, seems best to conclude that Adamson's charge was in fact correct. For one thing, the committee that was formed to investigate the charge against Rutherford and to appoint a replacement for him in the event that the charge was substantiated, did in fact appoint a replacement, which suggests that they did in fact find that the charge was substantiated.

Before moving on, it may be helpful to pause for a moment and to consider what lessons there might be for us to learn from Rutherford's sin of fornication. There is, in the first place, a stark warning here to those who are ministers of the Gospel or who are candidates for the ministry. The allurement of sexual immorality has ensnared far too many men and done untold harm (from a human perspective) to the cause of Christ. We need to be on guard against this in our own lives. In the second place, there is a warning here to those who might think they are above this sin and that something like this could never happen to them. Although it is true that Rutherford was probably not converted at the time he fell—as we will soon see—he was nevertheless described as being of a "vertuous disposition." The example of Rutherford and many other at least outwardly godly men should be enough to alarm us and to teach us that none of us, no matter how virtuous, are above the reaches of this (or any other) sin.

This was clearly a profoundly difficult time in Rutherford's life, one in which he was confronted like never before with the corruption of his own heart. As a result, Rutherford appears to have experienced Christian conversion. On this there is little disagreement among his biographers; even some of those who deny the charges of fornication still trace his conversion to this point in time. If they are right that this event did precipitate Rutherford's conversion, then it would help to explain why he might have been shown leniency and been appointed as minister in Anwoth only a little over a year after committing what certainly would have been a serious sin in the eyes of the church.

One of the most convincing reasons for tracing Rutherford's conversion to the time of the fornication scandal is that this event sets the paradigm for the remainder of Rutherford's Christian life. From this point on, Rutherford's Christianity becomes deeply experiential, which one would expect to find following conversion, especially a conversion brought on by a public humiliation such as Rutherford endured. Beginning at this decisive moment and continuing throughout the remainder of his days, Rutherford's life becomes marked by a profound sensitivity to the sinfulness of his own sin. And this, in turn, ensured that his life would also be marked by a profound gratitude and an overwhelming appreciation for what Christ accomplished on the cross on his behalf. These two aspects of Rutherford's life—a profound awareness of his sin and a profound gratitude for Christ's finished work on the cross—will uniquely qualify and equip him to speak so powerfully to the souls of others.

Rutherford's Ministry in Anwoth

Sometime in mid-1627, Rutherford was called to the small, rural parish of Anwoth in Galloway, in the southwest of Scotland. The church building—the stone ruins of which still stand—is reported to measure 18' wide by 60' long. And, as those who have seen it will testify, it seems much smaller than that in actual fact. (Many churches today have Sunday School rooms that are bigger!) But as insignificant as Anwoth was in terms of its population, it had a geographical and a political importance that far outpaced its size. Anwoth was located on the highway between England and Ireland, and it was the parish of the Viscount Kenmure. Kenmure's wife, Jane Campbell—one of Rutherford's closest friends and correspondents—was the sister of Lord Lorne (Archibald Campbell), who was later to become the Marquis of Argyle and the most powerful nobleman in all Scotland.

However, when Rutherford accepted the call to come to Anwoth in 1627, these political factors remained quite unknown to him. We see something of Rutherford's humility and his lack of earthly ambition in the fact that he accepted the call to the small, rural parish of Anwoth in the first place and, in the second place, that he did so at a stipend that was significantly less than the average for his day (n.b., Rutherford's stipend was approximately 40% of the going rate for the day!). Perhaps because of his public scandal with his eventual wife, Rutherford felt unworthy of a larger parish with a larger stipend. Whatever the case may be, he still exhibited a selflessness and humility that is rarely seen today in the church. Some ministers tend to look for the most significant calls they can with the largest salary packages they can get. Rutherford's humble and unassuming approach was an altogether different thing.

More interestingly, Rutherford not only chose to accept the call to the small, rural parish of Anwoth for an extremely low stipend, but he also chose not to leave once he got there. The General Assembly actually had to force him to leave in 1639, in order that the church might make better use of his talents and gifts as a professor of divinity at St. Andrews University. Rutherford did not play on his newly acquired political connections in Anwoth to seek wider fields of influence for himself or to magnify his own name. Nor did he seek to move on to greener pastures. He preferred to stay where God had placed him. Of course, one possible explanation for Rutherford's not wanting to leave Anwoth is that he did not want to be taken away from the political connections that he had so recently established there and that he wanted to capitalize on them for the propagation of the cause of Christ in Scotland. But, even if that is true, it does not change the fact that Rutherford's overriding motivations were not selfish but wholly selfless. In a way that is contrary to much contemporary thought, Rutherford placed a far lower value on himself and his own ministry than did the church at large.

Guy M. Richard is Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He formerly served as Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS.

This article was originally featured on reformation21 in February of 2009. Stay tuned next week for part three!