The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.[1]

So said Jonathan Edwards in arguably the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil. In fact, if you are like most people, the only exposure you have had to Edwards is this sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Typically included in American literature anthologies, this sermon is taken as a specimen of the fire and brimstone sermon preached to scare the living daylights out of its listeners. Truth be told, Edwards preached just as much, if not more frequently, on the anticipated joys of heaven as he did the fears of hell. Edwards did not preach such sober sermons merely to scare his hearers, but to warn them of the very real dangers facing them and calling them to flee to Christ. This and other sermons and writings are filled with vivid and concrete images. Edwards was such a master of this expressive and picturesque language that we to want to know more about him. 

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a Reformed Congregational pastor, theologian, missionary, and for a brief period of time, college president. The story of Edwards is fascinating and often told. He is the subject of more than four thousand books and articles. My goal in this article is to crack the book cover and reveal some of the early chapters of Edwards' storied life. Before Edwards became famous as a philosophically-inclined theologian, he was a son, a student, and a husband. Let's blow the dust off the story of Edwards's life and settle in for some good reading.

Edwards's Childhood

Jonathan Edwards was a son of the manse. His father was the Reverend Timothy Edwards, pastor of the Congregational church in East Windsor, Connecticut, and his mother was Esther Stoddard Edwards, daughter of the influential pastor Solomon Stoddard. Jonathan was the only boy in his family and was surrounded by seven sisters. Edwards was educated at home with a view toward the ministry.

As you might expect, Edwards was reared with the rigorous Christian piety of his Calvinistic Puritan heritage. His father's congregation in East Windsor was visited with seasons of revival and Edwards was not left untouched by them. His spiritual life had its ups and downs and there were times when Edwards thought he had true faith in Christ. But it was not until he was a college student that he "closed with Christ" in a saving way.

Edwards at College

As was typical of the day, Edwards entered the "Collegiate School" (Later Yale University) at the young age of 13 in 1716. His student years were not all that wonderful. Edwards tended to be shy, studious, and somewhat judgmental towards his less than fully committed classmates. He experienced illness and periods of depression at college too. But it was at college that he came to faith in Christ.

After completing his bachelor's degree Edwards stayed on to work on his MA degree with a view to the pastoral ministry. On 20 September 1723 Edwards graduated from Yale and presented his "Master's Quaestio" on the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone.[2]Between the completion of his M.A. studies and his graduation Edwards briefly pastored a splinter scotch Presbyterian congregation in New York City. Eventually Edwards returned to Yale where he served as a tutor for the next two years (1724-26). Being on campus allowed him access to some of the most significant books of his day in the Dummer collection. 

I should mention one more important thing about Edwards' time in New Haven: It was here that he met his future wife, Sarah Pierpont, the daughter of a well-known minister in the New Haven area.


Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. 


[1]Jonathan Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 22: Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742 (Harry S. Stout, Nathan O. Hatch, Kyle P. Farley, eds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 411.

[2]This thesis can be found in Latin and in English in The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 14: Sermons and Discourses, 1723-1729 (Kenneth P. Minkema, ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 47-66.


Editor's Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in December 2011.

 

Moving on from a Puritan theology of the covenants, we come to consider the foundation of such in the person and work of Jesus Christ. To some extent, we have been introduced to Christ in our consideration of him as the second person of the Trinity, and specifically to our understanding of the doctrine of eternal generation. So, while we will consider the Christ of the early creeds, we will not cover that vital topic in this post. 
 
First, Christ as “the eternal Son of God, became man” (WSC, Q21) in order to fulfill his role as a Redeemer (WSC, Q21).  God, who was determined to have a people for himself could only secure them as such through the “restoring” action, says William Ames (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, 1627), of a mediator between God and fallen and alienated humanity (1 Tim 2:5). He shows his “fitness . . . to perform the work of redemption” of men by taking on flesh, argues Ames. “Christ took our flesh,” notes Thomas Watson, that he might suffer in the same nature as sinners and know “how to pity” them in the process (A Body of Divinity, 1692).
 
Second, Christ in his incarnation was, and continues to be one person in two natures as the God-man. The Puritans affirmed the orthodox Christology of the early ecumenical councils while repudiated the faulty ones of the day (e.g. Socininianism). So, they upheld Christ’s full deity (with Nicea, 325) and humanity (with Constantinople, 381), and the hypostatic union (“one subsistence” with a “twofold way of subsisting” - Ames) of the two natures in one person (with Ephesus, 431, and Chalcedon, 451). As Mark Jones observes, this certainly did not take away Reformed concerns for Roman Catholic and Lutheran tendencies to overwhelm the humanity of Christ with his divinity while affirming the “twofold consubstantiality” of Christ (of the same substance with man and God). Thus, the Reformed orthodox were careful to maintain “the integrity of the human nature” of Christ regarding both his states of humiliation and exaltation (Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology, Reformation Heritage, 2012). 
 
We can see something of this endeavor in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q21-22), which evidences a detailed emphasis on Christ’s humanity. So, Q22 picks up from the two-natures-one-person language of Q21 to more explicitly address manner of the incarnation of Christ who took  “to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.” The Confession (8.2-3) supplements these crisp thoughts with mention that Christ: took “upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities” yet as sinless; exhibited “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, . . .  inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion”; and “in his human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” 
 
Third, in this union of two natures there exists “a personal communication of properties” without “transfusion” (Ames). In other words, Christ performs everything as a person even though their exist operations proper to each nature. Ames observes, “the properties of the one nature” may be “attributed. . . to the whole person” (e.g. Christ died) or to the “other nature because of the person” (e.g. God received to glory 1 Tim 3:16) or things “proper to the whole person” get “attributed to either nature” (e.g. “man” Christ as mediator 1 Tim 2:5). This communication is not just words, yet neither “is it so real that the property of one nature doth pass” to the other.  So, we see in Christ “two understandings,” one divine and all-knowing (John 21:17) and the other human “whereby he knew not some things as yet” (Mark. 13:32). Likewise, he had “two wills, one divine (Luke 5:13) and the other humane together also with a natural appetite (Matt 26:39).” With a proper focus on the communication of attributes (communication idiomatum), Ames rejects Roman Catholic and Lutheran abuse of such in the Lord’s Supper where a real communication of properties wrongly allows the human nature of Christ to be “in many places at once.” He also points out the Roman Catholic “real donation” in which the human nature gets divine abilities (e.g. denied in Matt 26:39).
 
Fourth, Christ showed his “fitness” as our Redeemer, in part, by undertaking his “office” to “obtain salvation for men” (Ames).  By way of the eternal covenant of redemption, notes Ames, the Father “ordained his Son to this office” as he agreed to “make himself a sacrifice for sin.” This threefold mediatorial office (in line with Reformation, Medieval, and Patristic theology) is “Of a Prophet, of a Priest, of a King” as Christ, respectively: “revealed the whole Will of God that bringeth salvation” (e.g. Deut 18:15), “purged by sacrifice the sins of men, and obtained the favour of God for them” (e.g. Rom 5:10), and “doth dispense and administer all things with power and authority” (e.g. Dan 2:44).  Each aspect of this mediatorial office gets fulfilled in both the humanity and divinity of the Redeemer, says Ames (“each nature doing that which is proper to itself,” WCF 8.7). He had to be God, to “keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession; and to satisfy God's justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation” (WLC, Q38). Likewise, he had to be man,  to “advance our nature, perform obedience to the law, suffer and make intercession for us in our nature, have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; that we might receive the adoption of sons, and have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace” (WLC, Q39).
 
Fifth, Christ as a mediator “purchased redemption” by his “perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself” in which he “fully satisfied the justice of his Father” (WCF 8.5).   While the priestly satisfaction by Christ mentioned in the WCF does not employ the explicit language of penal substitution, this does not mean a return to Anselm’s satisfaction view where Christ, instead of being punished for transgressors, makes payment to restore the infinite dishonor done to the Father (See discussion in J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards). Notice most importantly that he is said to satisfy the “justice” of the Father and not his honor specifically (WCF 8.5 and WSC,Q25). So, Thomas Watson, in discussing the priestly satisfaction of Christ (which he also calls an “atonement”), makes abundantly clear what Christ does for sinners: “Unus peccat, alius plectitur [One man sins, another takes the punishment]” (A Body of Divinity, 1692). Likewise, Watson’s focus on the active and passive obedience as satisfaction finds agreement with Edward Leigh who notes that through Christ we must not only “satisfy God for our unrighteousness, but also perform perfect righteousness, else we could not be admitted to his favor” (A System or Body of Divinity, 1654).
 
Sixth, this satisfaction occurred for all whom the Father has given Christ, the elect (WCF 8.5, cf. 3.6). At first glance, WCF 3.6 and 8.5 seem to make clear that Christ as a mediator purchased redemption particularly for the elect only. In popular language (based on the misleading T.U.L.I.P. expression), Christ’s was a “limited atonement.” Certainly, the Arminian (Remonstrant) contention that Christ died effectively for all (and by implication died definitely for none) gets rejected here. However, as Fesko notes, Confessional expression on the extent of the atonement seems more nuanced than a strict particularism of Christ dying only for the elect. Looking to the scholarship of Chad Van Dixhoorn (The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1652, 5 vols., Oxford, 2012) and in line with the research of Richard Muller, Fesko discusses evidence that the Assembly never openly rejected the British hypothetical universalism (e.g. John Davenant, John Preston, and James Ussher) present at the time. This seems likely based on Assembly debates on extent of the atonement and the later testimony of Richard Baxter about them. Hypothetical universalism had surfaced clearly at the Synod of Dort (e.g. Davenant) and was considered in line with its Canons. It basically proposed, somewhat in line with the common Reformation and Medieval argument that Christ died sufficiently for all and efficiently for the elect, that Christ’s death was ordained to make all humanity saveable yet was efficiently applied to the elect only. This goes beyond the more common idea that Christ’s death was of sufficient value to save all while being ordained for the elect only. Likewise, this ordination of a universal satisfaction for all humanity conditioned on faith differs from Amyraldianism (e.g. Moises Amyraut and John Cameron) setting forth a hypothetical decree of predestination of the whole human race conditioned on faith. Subsequent to this decree, the Amyraldian argues that God decrees faith for the elect only apart from which they would never believe. We may not accept the claims of the hypothetical universalist, but we must give serious consideration to its prevalence and acceptance among the Puritans. 
 
 

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
  8. God's Decrees
  9. Creation and Providence
  10. Covenants
Introduction
In the movie The Princess Bride, Westley has to leave his fiancé Buttercup in order to make his fortune. Buttercup is worried that she will never see him again. Westley reassures her: “This is true love-you think this happens every day.”
 
True love is the reason they will always be together. The rest of the movie puts that reason to the test. Buttercup is forced to marry the prince after she hears about Westley’s death. Westley, however, is not dead. He tracks her down before the wedding and says, to her, “I told you I would always come for you. Why didn’t you wait for me?” “Well…” she says, “you were dead.” Westley replies: “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” Although they face more obstacles, their true love wins out in the end. They live happily ever after.
 
“Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” That is a beautiful sentiment. You can make it work in movies, fairytales and books. But you can’t make it work in real life because love can’t overcome death.
 
Death
Death will bring an end to us and our relationships regardless of how much we love or how much we are loved. ______’s death is another vivid reminder of this sad reality. The Bible says, “…it is appointed for man to die…” Death is universal.
 
Nonetheless, we know that there is something terribly wrong with death. A human body shouldn’t be lifeless or soulless. A wife shouldn’t be without her husband, a mother without her son, and a man without his friend.
 
Death fills us with tremendous sorrow and grief. And rightfully so, because death is our enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). We may try and convince ourselves that death is natural or just the way things are. But we know better, don’t we? The grief and sorrow tell us that this is not the way it is supposed to be.
 
The Bible teaches us that God made us in his own image to love him and to love one another. He made this world for us to live in it and to enjoy it. He didn’t make us to live just a few years and then die for no good reason. Death is an intruder into God’s good creation. Death is our enemy. It teaches us that all is not well with the world.
 
But why? Why do we die? The answer is us. We all die because of who we are and what we do. The Bible typically uses the word “sin” to refer to our problem. Sin is essentially rebellion against God. To sin is to do what is evil, as defined by God. The Bible says that we are all sinners who sin, and that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). That is how evil sin is. Sinners deserve death. Death, therefore, also teaches us that all is not well with us.
 
This is why love in the real world can’t stop death. Our love can’t overcome God’s just punishment of death for our rebellion against him. But that is not true for God. Death does not stop God’s love for those who are in Christ Jesus. His love is true love.
 
True Love
The well-known Bible verse John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Even though we rebelled against him, God loved us. He so loved us that he sent his Son, Jesus of Nazareth, to be the Savior of the world. 
 
How Jesus is able to save sinners from sin and death is quite extraordinary, and it involves his death and resurrection. But the main point that I want you to see is simply this: God saves sinners in and through Jesus. Paul says: “The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
 
Salvation or the gift of eternal life, however, is not like a one-way ticket that you hand out to people. Eternal life is in Christ Jesus our Lord. In John 11, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus himself is resurrection and life. You need to hitch your wagon to his in order to share in his resurrection and life. Or to use a biblical metaphor, you need to be married to Jesus in order to receive what he has.
 
A man and a woman are joined together in holy matrimony by taking a wedding vow. How are we married to Christ? We are married to Christ by faith. We believe in him and look to him to save us and to lead us to glory. That is why John 3:16 says whoever believes shall not perish but has everlasting life.  
 
______ believed in Jesus. He was united to Jesus by faith. He loved Jesus. More importantly, Jesus loved ______. Jesus loved ______ with true love. At the end of the day that is what really counts because no Christian loves Jesus perfectly. ______ didn’t. I don’t. No Christians does. One day we will, but not in this life.
 
We don’t love Jesus perfectly in this life because we are not yet in glory. We are on the road to glory but not yet in it. Let me explain what I mean by using ______ as an example. When ______ became a Christian, he was saved from sin and death and given the gift of eternal life. But he was saved in this broken world. In other words, God didn’t immediately transport ______ into heaven or into the world to come.
 
Practically speaking, this means that ______ didn’t experience the full salvation that God has promised him in Christ. In fact, the Bible speaks of salvation in the past tense and in the future sense. We have been saved and we will be saved. 
 
Jesus says in John 5 that whoever believes in him has eternal life. He will not come into judgment (i.e. condemned) but has passed from death to life. Or as Paul put it: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those are in Christ Jesus.” All believers are saved right now in the sense that their sins are forgiven and they no longer stand condemned before God. They won’t be eternally punished for their sins.
 
But there is also sense in which we have yet to be saved. In Galatians 5 Paul says that by faith we wait for the hope of righteousness. In Romans 8 he says we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
 
This distinction between past and future salvation explains why Christians still die. All of this talk about salvation from death might seem untrue since Christians die like everybody else. They physically die like everybody else because they have yet to receive the redemption of their bodies. That won’t happen until Jesus returns and raises the dead. This aspect of salvation is still future. And as long as it is future, Christians will continue to die like everyone else.
 
But it must also be said that Christians don’t die like everybody else because they have already passed from death to life. They already have a saving, loving relationship with God in Jesus. Thus, when they die, they don’t go into judgment. Rather, they go into the presence of God in heaven. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.  They go to be with Jesus in heaven, where they will be until Jesus comes back to make everything perfect forever. This is why ______s’ former pastor rightly said, Christians don’t die, they go from life to life.  
 
This distinction between past and future salvation also explains why Christians still sin. Again, all of this talk about salvation from sin might seem untrue because Christians still sin, like other people. Indeed, some Christians commit terrible sins. David, a man after God’s own heart, slept with another man’s wife and then had him killed. God’s people still sin. They still sin because they have yet to receive their salvation in full.  
 
One of the beautiful promises of salvation that we Christians have in Christ is that Jesus washes us thoroughly from our sinfulness. By that I mean he will make us perfectly righteous so that we will love him perfectly and love one another perfectly. We have to be perfectly righteous in order to dwell with God and live with him in glory forever. After all, sinners would defile heaven. They would ruin it in the same way we ruin this world with our selfishness, envy, murder, bullying, adultery, lying and so on. Christians need to be saved thoroughly from their sinfulness. They will be so saved by God’s grace but not in this life. That is why they still struggle with sin.
 
So, we don’t presently experience salvation in its fullness. We have been saved and we are on the way to salvation. In this sense, Christians are like Israel in the OT. They have been delivered from slavery in Egypt and they are on the way to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  
 
Now since we haven’t arrived in glory yet, we might doubt whether we will actually make it. The present reality of sin and death might suggest that we aren’t saved or that we won’t be saved. Will my sins as a Christian keep me from being with Christ? What if I struggle with sin right up to the end of my life or commit a sin that results in my death? Will that ruin everything?
 
Absolutely not! You don’t save yourself. Entering glory is not based upon how much you haven’t sinned. It is not based on how many good things you have done. It is based upon Christ and what he has done for you and in you. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. If you are in Christ Jesus, then you have resurrection life!
 
In Romans 8 Paul says that God is for us. And if God is for us then who can be against us? Nothing. Even our sins can’t be against us. Why? Because as Paul says, God has justified us. He will freely give us all things. Christ has died for our sins and he was raised from the dead and he is at the right hand of God interceding for us. Christ is the reason our sins as Christians won’t condemn us!
 
Paul goes on in Romans 8 to say that he is persuaded that nothing, absolutely nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, either now or in the future. Even when we are faithless, he remains faithful (2 Tim. 2:13).
 
So how do I know that nothing has separated ______ from God? True love. That is how I know. God’s true love. Nothing can stop the love of God. Not sin or death. God’s love in Christ is all saving and all powerful. 
 
Conclusion
______’s pilgrimage on earth has ended. His struggle with sin is over and he is at rest. He is with his savior in heaven, which is far better.
 
If you do not know Jesus and trust in him, I hope and pray that you do so now. Life is short. Come to Jesus and live. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but has eternal life.

Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?

As we contemplate the way that God works in the world, He teaches us the right way to live. We learn to praise God for prosperity and trust God through adversity. We learn to live a God-fearing life that is free from wickedness and self-righteousness. Those are lessons it takes a lifetime to learn. But now we return to perhaps the hardest lesson of all: Learning to look beyond our present difficulties and see the work of God, accepting all of the crooked things in life until He chooses to make them straight.

We've already discussed Thomas Boston and his sermon on Ecclesiastes 7:13. Boston ended that sermon by listing some of the many reasons why God makes some things crooked.[1]These were biblical lessons that he had confirmed through his own experience of grief and pain—lessons about the sovereign purposes of God that can help us in our own suffering. Why does God make some things crooked, even when we pray for Him to make them straight?

First, said Boston, the crooked things in life are a test to help us determine whether we really are trusting in Christ for our salvation. Think of Job, for example, who was afflicted with many painful trials in order to prove the genuineness of his faith. Our own sufferings have the same purpose: by the grace of God, they confirm that we are holding onto Christ. Or perhaps they reveal exactly the opposite, that we have never fully trusted in Christ at all, but still need to trust him for our salvation. 

Second, whatever crooks there are in our earthly lot turn our hearts away from this vain world and teach us to look for happiness in the life to come. Suffering is part of our preparation for eternity. Consider the Prodigal Son, who did not head back home to his father until he lost everything he had. When something in your life seems crooked, remember that day is coming when God will make it straight.

Third, the crooked things in life convict us of our sins. The reason that anything is crooked at all is because there is sin in the world, including our own sin. The Holy Spirit often uses the crooks in our lot to touch our conscience, reminding us of some particular sin that we need to confess. Remember Joseph's brothers. When things went badly for them in Egypt, they thought at once of their guilt before God for selling their brother into slavery, many years before (see Gen. 42:21). It would be a mistake to think every time we suffer that it must be because of our sins. But it would also be a mistake to miss the opportunity that every suffering brings to repent for any unconfessed sin.

Fourth, the crooked things in life may correct us for our sins. There are times when suffering serves as an instrument of God's justice, as a punishment for our sin. So it was for David, after he had murdered Uriah: the sword never departed from his house (see 2 Sam. 12:10). When we suffer, it may be that as a consequence for our sin we are under the judgment or the discipline of God.

These are not the only reasons why God makes some things crooked. Thomas Boston listed several others. Sometimes God allows us to suffer in order to keep us from committing a sin, or else to uncover a sinful attitude of the heart so deep that it could only be revealed by suffering a painful trial. Or maybe—and this is the happiest reason of all—God puts a crook into our lot in order to display his grace in our godliness. We are prone to what Boston called "fits of spiritual laziness," in which our graces lie dormant. But when we have a crook in our lot, it rouses from our spiritual slumber and produces "many acts of faith, hope, love, self-denial, resignation, and other graces."[2]

The point of listing these possible reasons for our suffering is not to suggest that we can always figure out why God has put some particular crook in our lot. The point rather is that God knows why He has put it there. When something in life seems crooked, we are usually very quick to tell Him how to straighten it out. Instead, we should let God straighten us out! In His sovereignty over our suffering, God is hard at work to accomplish our real spiritual good, not just in one way, but in many ways. Therefore, we are called to trust in him, even for the things that seem crooked. 

Whenever we are having trouble doing that, the first thing we should do is consider the work of our Savior. Remember that our Good Shepherd once had a crook in His lot—a crook that came in the shape of a cross. In His prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked His Father if there was any way to make Calvary straight instead of crooked. But there was no other way. As Jesus considered the work of God, He could see that the only way to make atonement for His people's sin was to die in our place. So Jesus suffered the crooked cross that it was His God-given lot to bear. And He trusted His Father, waiting for Him to straighten things out when the time was right by raising Him up on the third day. 

If God could straighten out something as crooked as the cross, then surely He can be trusted to do something with the crook in your lot! This was the testimony that James Montgomery Boice gave the last time he spoke to his congregation at Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church. Dr. Boice had been diagnosed with a fatal and aggressive cancer; he only had weeks to live. This was the crook in his lot. So Dr. Boice raised a question that was based on the sovereignty and the goodness of God. "If God does something in your life," he asked, "would you change it?" To say this the way that Qoheleth would have said it, "If God gave you something crooked, would you make it straight?" 

Well, would you? Would you change your disability or disease? Would you change your job or your finances? Would you change your appearance, or your abilities, or your situation in life? Or would you trust God for all the crooked things in life and wait for Him to make them straight, just like Jesus did when He died for you on the cross? 

Dr. Boice answered his own rhetorical question by testifying to the goodness of God's sovereign will. He said that if we tried to change what God has done, then it wouldn't be as good; we would only make it worse.[3]The Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes said something similar. "Consider the work of God," he said. "Do not try to straighten out what God has made crooked." Our Savior said the same: “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk. 22:42). 



[1]Boston, The Crook in the Lot, 3:511-16.

[2]Boston, The Crook in the Lot, 3:515-16.

[3]James Montgomery Boice, "Final Address at Tenth Presbyterian Church," in The Life of Dr. James Montgomery Boice, 1938-2000, edited by Philip G. Ryken (Philadelphia, PA: Tenth Presbyterian Church, 2001), 44-45.


Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God's Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture. 


Editor's Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in July 2009. To read more from Philip Ryken's "The Crook In the Lot" series,  see the list of articles below:

  1. The Crook In the Lot 
  2. Good Days, Bad Days
  3. Avoiding Two Dangers

 

 

Moving on from God’s historical execution (past and present) of his eternal decrees (timeless), we consider the “special act of providence” that God the creator exercised toward man when he was created (WSC, Q&A 12). In other words, God stooped down to freely enter into a relationship with man who was created in his image. This stems from what the Puritans would have regarded as a fitting summary for the entire Bible, God is determined to have a people for himself, a people in a living relationship with him by way of a covenant. Let’s consider in general (with all of its diversity!) a Puritan theology of the covenants. 
 
First, the Puritans manifested a mature covenant theology with connections to the development of such from the sixteenth century. Connections existed with such Reformers as Johannes Oecolampadius, Heinrich Bullinger, Wolfgang Musculus, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Zacharias Ursinus, Caspar Olevianus, Robert Rollock and William Tyndale. Rather than erecting something new, the English Reformed built upon groundwork already laid and without some supposed softening of the doctrine of predestination and in connection with such developments a two-covenant theology of works and grace associated with a two-Adam federal representation, an emerging emphasis on a pre-temporal covenant between the Father and the Son, the revelation in history of the covenant of grace immediately after the fall, election as the foundation for the covenant of grace and the unconditional yet bilateral nature of the covenant of grace. Prominent background figures for the emergence of a Puritan covenant theology include Robert Rollock (1555–1599), William Perkins (1558–1602), and William Ames (1576–1633). This seventeenth-century settlement of covenant thought can be seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648) but also in related contemporary works such as Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645), and John Ball’s Treatise on the Covenant of Grace (1645), both published as the Westminster Assembly sat. The Westminster Confession of Faith, exhibiting continuity with the Irish Articles (1615), in general sets forth the standard two-covenant approach in which God condescended to Adam in the covenant of works, which when broken made the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ necessary. 
 
Second, God entered into a “covenant of life” with man at the time of creation through Adam as a federal head (WSC, Q&A 12). In the Scriptures, covenants were established by God and between him and man as relational agreements. In a covenantal relationship, he promised and determined to be the God of his people and promised that they would be (and should be determined to be) his people. This covenant of life, also known as a covenant of “works” (WCF 7.2) was founded “upon the condition of perfect obedience,” and was made with Adam as a federal or “common head and representative for all mankind” after him (Thomas Vincent, An Explicatory Catechism, 1678). For the Puritans in general, God condescended in grace (unmerited favor not redemptive grace as shown to sinners) to Adam in the covenant of works by offering him something for his perfect obedience that he could never truly merit. So John Ball, in his Treatise speaks of God covenanting in “free grace and love” and offering a reward for his obedience “in strict justice,” but not according to merit. God could give less to Adam without doing any sort of “injustice” to him.
 
Third, Adam sinned and broke this covenant of life, bringing man under the wrath of God and subject to death and eternal punishment. So, when Adam fell into sin (defined as a lack “of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God,” WSC, Q&A 14), all mankind “sinned in him and fell with him” (WSC, Q&A 16). The Puritans spoke of “original sin” in its historical orthodox understanding, which involved the “imputation” of Adam’s sin, as his “disobedience” has “become ours” through his representative headship (Ames, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, 1627). In summary, the relationship established by the covenant of life (works) was broken with man having “lost communion with God” and coming under his wrath to be subject “to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever” (Q19).  
 
Fourth, God made a second “covenant of grace” to deliver perishing sinners through a Redeemer, Jesus Christ, by free grace and according to unconditional election (WCF 7.4, WSC, Q&A 20). Still, while there existed grace in the covenant of works, the covenant that followed manifested “grace” to fallen sinners through the strict merit accomplished by Christ as the Redeemer. So, WLC, Q&A 31 makes the two-Adam two-covenant theology prevalent among the Puritans very clear in stating that the  “covenant of grace was made with Christ, as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed” (based on Gal 3:16; Rom 5:15-21; Isa 53:10-11; 59:20-21). Jesus Christ as the Second (“last”) Adam (1 Cor 15:45) and as the federal representative accomplished what the first Adam did not - perfect obedience to the covenant of works. Furthermore, he undid the failure of the first – taking the full wrath of God in death as punishment for sin (Isa 53:6; 2 Cor 5:21). Our sins are imputed to him and his righteousness imputed to us (see John Owen, "The Doctrine of Justification by Faith through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ," 1677). Thus, as John Owen attests, “the covenant of works, both as to its commands and sanction, in the obedience and suffering of the mediator” is accomplished within the framework of the new covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace (Exposition of Hebrews, 8:1-10:39 in Works, 22:89,90).
 
Fifth, the Puritans differed on how they viewed the Mosaic covenant in relation to the covenants of grace and works. The Puritans differed on how to understand the moral law, effectively written on the heart within the covenant of works, as set forth in the Mosaic Covenant given at Sinai. Was it 1) a restatement of the covenant of works, 2) a mixed one of nature and grace, 3) a third subservient one related to tenure in the land, or 4) in substance an administration of the covenant of grace? The last of these was most common and was manifested in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which  sees the Mosaic Covenant in substance as the covenant of grace “differently administered in the time of the law” through the various types and shadows of the ceremonial law pointing ahead to the substance in Christ. Yet, even in such a scheme, it was possible to see the Mosaic Covenant depending on one’s status in Christ. In this way, “believers be not under the law as a covenant of works” (implying that unbelievers are) but only as “a rule of life” the duty in which they walk as conditions of the covenant of grace (WCF 19.6). This is the distinction that Anthony Burgess makes even as he sees the Mosaic Covenant in substance as a covenant of grace as he observes that the law “largely” considered relates to its presentation within the context of grace (“with the preface and promises adjoined”) and “strictly” considered relates to its presentation within the context of works as a “rule of righteousness” demanding “perfect obedience” (Vindiciae Legis, 1646, 222-223)
 
Sixth, the covenant of grace made with Christ implied an eternal “covenant of redemption” among the members of the Godhead. While an eternal covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) is implied in WCF 8.1 and explicitly stated in the otherwise identical section of the 1658 congregational Savoy Declaration (8.1), Puritans varied on the matter of covenant of redemption and whether it was the same as or distinct from the covenant of grace. WSC, Q&A 20 only says that God “did enter into a covenant of grace” without explicitly saying with whom. WLC, Q&A 31 gets more to the point and seems to imply an eternal covenant of grace made “with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.” In his comments on this declaration, Vincent, sees an eternal covenant made with Christ as the mediatorial representative of the elect, which existed as “the foundation of all that grace that was afterward promised in that covenant of grace.” In the end, as J.V. Fesko (The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights) points out, “from the earliest days of the reception and interpretation of the Confession” (and so Catechisms), we can safely conclude that “the covenant of redemption was viewed as compatible with” it (and so them). 
 
Seventh, the Puritans in general viewed the covenant of grace as both absolute and conditional. In general, the source of the covenant of grace, notes John Von Rohr, the Puritans saw in the “trans-historical” covenant of redemption (made between the Father and the Son) with its emphasis on Christ, the second Adam, as the foundation (The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought, 43-44). In this way, those who participate in the covenant of grace historically are those “elected for this favor” by predestination, which “lies behind covenant composition” and in this way “the covenant of grace” is absolute. Yet, in a manner in which they sought to distance themselves from the antinomian tendency to speak of the absolute nature of the covenant of grace in an imbalanced manner, the Puritans also saw the covenant as conditional keeping promise and duty together. So, Watson says that “the main condition” for the covenant of grace “is faith,” with works required not “as the condition of life” but “as signs of life.” Still, the focus is on the condition of faith in order to “exclude all glorying in the creature.”
Richard Snoddy, The Soteriology of James Ussher: The Act and Object of Saving Faith, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). 287pp. Hardcover.
 
James Ussher (1581-1656) was a prominent theologian in Northern Ireland in the seventeenth-century who, until recently, has been largely neglected at present. He was archbishop of Armagh and he was invited to participate in the Westminster Assembly, though he declined due to his loyalty to the king (30). Richard Snoddy’s study of Ussher’s soteriology is one of the first attempts in recent scholarship to bring Ussher out of the shadows into the historical limelight. As readers have come to expect from this Oxford series, Snoddy’s treatment of Ussher’s soteriology is contextual sensitive, reflecting his national and international contexts. This makes this study a useful entry point into seventeenth-century trajectories of important aspects of the Reformed doctrine of salvation in Christ.
 
This book is both simple and thorough. The author introduces Ussher’s life and work, followed by treatments of key aspects of his soteriology. Subjects include the nature and extent of the atonement, justification by faith, sanctification, and personal assurance of salvation. One of the author’s great contributions to the study of Ussher is the fact that much of his primary source argumentation comes from Ussher’s unpublished sermon manuscripts and notes (11). This provides readers with access to material that they could not obtain elsewhere. Drawing from both Latin and English works, as well as from British and continental authors, Snoddy situates Ussher in the broader context of Reformed thought, revealing both what was common and what was peculiar about his teaching. In contrast to most Reformed authors, Ussher taught a form of hypothetical universalism, with the result that Christ died for all men and not for the elect only (78). In common with most Reformed authors, however, he affirmed that justification entailed both the forgiveness of sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. If anything, he strengthened this Reformed emphasis by treating forgiveness and imputation as implied in each other inseparable rather than as constituting two parts of justification (110). Such issues were filtered through the broader theme of union with Christ, which the author rightly calls “a central theme in Puritan theology and devotion” (123). The Reformed view of sanctification then flows from the broader theme of union with Christ (chapter 4). This leads finally to the question of personal assurance of salvation. The author argues that, in contrast to Calvin, Ussher believed that assurance was possible through faith exercising a reflexive act on itself and not merely toward Christ (213). Such points enable readers to grasp better the general contours of the Reformed doctrine of salvation and where Ussher fit into this broader tradition.
 
There are a few minor points at which the author appears to overreach his conclusions slightly. For example, he lists Bullinger, Musculus, and Ursinus among authors who leaned toward hypothetical universalism (78). This is controversial claim that requires a bit more evidence and explanation. In addition, the author notes that some Reformed writers made union with Christ the central aspect of soteriology while others preferred to exalt legal categories (122). This appears better to match contemporary debates, which Snoddy cites, than it does historical categories. A broader appeal to the standard systems of theology current in Ussher’s time could help clarify this issue. Lastly, Snoddy distinguishes between “habitual” and “habit” (156). He argues that something that was habitual referred to a disposition while a habit was acquired by repeated action. However, in the seventeenth-century, it seems better to say that there were two ways of forming a habit. The soul could already be habitually bent in the direction of sin or of righteousness, on the one hand. On the other hand, habits could be acquired through practice as well. In this way, a disposition could be strengthened through practice. In each case, further evidence could have sharpened the author’s excellent treatment of such subjects.
The author concludes that Ussher has only recently begun to receive the scholarly interest that he deserves, adding that Ussher exemplifies “the creativity of Reformed theologians in this period” as they sought to defend the sovereignty of God against increasing attacks (245). Ussher was an important theologian and soteriology is an important topic in Reformed thought. This volume is thorough and readable introduction to both.

It is one thing to say that we believe in the sovereignty of God, but it's another thing to live that out in a world that often seems meaningless. No sooner has the Preacher told us to consider the works of God than he struggles with some of the implications of God's sovereignty. 

Remember, the Preacher is totally committed to telling us the truth about life, in all its vanity. Here he tells us that sometimes life seems desperately unfair. "In my vain life I have seen everything," he says. "There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing" (Eccles. 7:15). 

This is the exactly the opposite of what most people would expect in a world that is governed by a good and righteous God. The righteous people are the ones who ought to rejoice in their prosperity, while the wicked suffer adversity until finally they are forced to admit that God is in control. All too often, what we see instead is what the Preacher saw: righteous people dying before their time, while the ungodly keep on living. 

This paradox almost seems to contradict what the Bible says in other places. God told his people that if they did what he said, he would bless them with long life in the land of promise (e.g. Deut. 4:40). He also threatened to punish his enemies with death for their disobedience. But sometimes things are not the way they are supposed to be. Godly pastors are martyred for their faith, while their enemies live to terrorize the church another day. Innocent victims get cut down in the prime of life; their killers escape or get lenient sentences. It's just not fair! 

These injustices are some of the crooked things in life that we wish we could straighten out. But knowing that we cannot do this, the Preacher gives us some practical advice: "Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?" (Eccles. 7:16-17).

Some scholars believe that these verses are cynical, and maybe they are. Maybe the Preacher is saying something like this: "Look, if the righteous perish, while the wicked live to prosper, then why be good? Take my advice: don't try to be a goody two-shoes. I'm not telling you to be evil, of course. It would be foolish to tempt fate by living a wicked life. I'm just saying that if only the good die young, then there is nothing to be gained by trying to be good."

On this interpretation, the Preacher is advising "a kind of middle-of-the-road approach to life, not overzealous about wisdom or foolishness, righteousness or wickedness."[1]

 This kind of reasoning would have been right at home with the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, who often advocated a life of moderation. Do not be too good, or too evil, they said. Too much piety or too much iniquity will lead to an early grave. This also happens to be the way that many people think today. They know better than to live a life of total wickedness because deep down they believe that God will judge people for their sins. Yet secretly they suspect that trying to be holy will take all of the fun out of life. Generally speaking, they try to be good, and they hope that they are good enough to get by God on the Day of Judgment. But their consciences are troubled too little by their sins. As long as they are not overly righteous, or overly wicked, they are happy the way they are. 

If that is what the Preacher means, then he must be looking at life under the sun again, leaving God out of the picture for the moment and thinking about good and evil the way that only an unbeliever can. 

There is an alternative, however. When he tells us not to be "overly righteous," he might be telling us not to be self-righteous. Grammatically speaking, the form of the verb that the Preacher uses in verse 16 may refer to someone who is only pretending to be righteous and playing the wise man.[2]In that case, the person the Preacher has in mind is too righteous by half. He does not have the true holiness that comes by faith, but the hypocritical holiness that comes by works. 

After all, if God's standard is perfection—if we are called to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength—then how could anyone ever be "overly righteous"? No, our real problem is thinking that we are more righteous than we really are. Somehow there never seems to be any shortage of people who think that they are good enough for God. 

All of this leads H. C. Leupold to suspect that a "peculiar type of righteousness was beginning to manifest itself in Israel, an overstrained righteousness which lost sight of the ever-present sinful imperfections of men and felt strongly inclined to argue with God and to find fault with Him because He was apparently not rewarding those righteous men as they deemed they deserved to be rewarded."[3]

In response, the Preacher warns us not to be self-righteous. We should not think that trying to be more righteous will save us on the Day of Judgment. Nor should we think that we are so righteous that we do not deserve to suffer any adversity, that it is unfair for someone like us ever to have a crook in our lot. When we think too highly of ourselves, resting on our own righteousness, then it is easy for us to say, "I don't deserve to be treated like this. Doesn't God know who I am?" It is also a very short step from saying that to saying, "Who does God think he is?" So the Preacher cautions us not to be, as it were, "too righteous." In saying this, he is warning against a conceited righteousness that "stands ready to challenge God for His failure to reward" us as much as we think we deserve.[4]

That is not to say that we should be unrighteous, of course. The Preacher warns against this mistake in verse 17, when he tells us not to be too wicked. His point is not that it is okay for us to be a little bit wicked, as if there were some acceptable level of iniquity. When it comes to sin, even a little is too much. His point rather is that there is great danger in giving ourselves over to evil. It is one thing to sin from time to time, as everyone does. The Preacher will say as much in verse 20: "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins." But there is a world of difference between committing the occasional sin and making a deliberate decision to pursue a lifestyle of theft, deception, lust, and greed. "Don't be a fool," the Preacher is saying. "If you live in sin, you will perish." 

So there are two dangers. One is a temptation for the religious person: self-righteousness. The other is even more of a temptation for the non-religious person: unrighteousness. Both of these errors will lead to destruction; they may even lead to an untimely death. But there is also a way to avoid both of these dangers, and that is to live in the fear of God. The Preacher says: "It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them" (Eccles. 7:18).

This verse is difficult to understand, but when the Preacher tells us to "take hold of this" and not to withhold our hand "from that," he is referring back to the advice that he gave in verses 16 and 17. So he is saying something like this: "The right life walks the path between two extremes, shunning self-righteousness, but not allowing one's native wickedness to run its own course."[5]When we do this, we will avoid the death and destruction that will surely befall us if we live sinfully and self-righteously. 

To say this more simply, the right way for us to live is in the fear of God. Notice in verse 18 that the person who "fears God" will escape the dangers of death and destruction. The fear of God is one of the great themes of the second half of Ecclesiastes, as the book moves from the vanity of life to the fear of its Creator. When we get to the end of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher will tell us to "fear God and keep his commandments" (Eccles. 12:13). Here he tells us to fear God and escape the coming judgment.



[1]Longman, 196

[2]R.N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 120-21.

[3]H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), 163.

[4]Leupold, 164.

[5]Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 114.


Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God's Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture. 


Editor's Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in June 2009. To read more from Philip Ryken's "The Crook In the Lot" series,  see the list of articles below:

  1. The Crook In the Lot 
  2. Good Days, Bad Days

 

 

How can God, who is simple (theologically speaking), unchanging and impassible, meaningfully interact with a world that is constantly changing? The Westminster divine Anthony Burgess had to face this issue in his interactions with the so-called antinomians in London during the middle of the 17th century. My goal in this present article is to give an overview of the discussion that led him to address this particular issue.
 
In repudiating the antinomian position on punishments and chastisements, Burgess took the time to look at how God’s interactions with the world comport with his unchanging character. More specifically, how can God be unchangeably just when he administers different degrees of punishments to people for the same sin or when he allows the wicked to prosper? We might be tempted to think that God is not just with the wicked, and that he is more just with the one who suffers more and less just with the one who suffers less. Yet since God is unchangeable, he can’t stop being just or become more or less just. How are we to explain this apparent discrepancy? That is the point Burgess addresses.
 
The doctrine of immutability also surfaced, along with impassibility, in an objection against the importance of repentance as advocated by the orthodox. Since God doesn’t change because of what we do (he isn’t hurt by our sins or made happier by our obedience), sin isn’t such a great offense against God. Therefore, repentance isn’t such a big deal. Here is the objection in Burgess’ own words:
Why should there be such pressing of mourning and repenting for sin, and that because it is such an offence to God. For seeing God is all-sufficient and happy enough in himself, our sins do not hurt him, or make him miserable, no more then our graces adde to his happinesse, but as he is above our graces, so he is also above our sins: seeing therefore God is incapable of any injury from man, why should sin be such an offence?
The attributes of God played a part in Burgess’ discussion of justification. Justification involves forgiveness. But what kind of act is God’s forgiveness? Is it an immanent act or a transient act? An immanent act “is that which abides in God, so that it works no reall effect without,” whereas a transient act “is when a positive change is made thereby in a creature.” For example, God’s decree is an immanent act and creation is a transient act. The antinomians, along with some prominent Reformed theologians, argued that forgiveness is an immanent act. In refuting this position, Burgess expounded upon the simplicity and immutability of God.
 
One of the arguments that the antinomians used to defend the doctrine of justification before faith involved the immutability of God. They argued that if we are not justified before faith then God hated us before he loved us in justification. That would mean that God changed and therefore “why should Arminians be blamed for saying, 'We may be the children of God today, and the children of the devil tomorrow?'” In other words, God’s immutability demands eternal justification. To answer this objection Burgess had to show how God’s immutability comports with a transition from wrath to grace. He faced a similar dilemma in discussing the love of God. How does the eternal and unchanging love God relate to the creation, fall and redemption of mankind?
 
Interactions with the antinomians over important soteriological issues required Burgess to discuss the doctrine of God. Throughout the discussion, Burgess attempted to show how God is able to relate to his mutable creatures, without compromising the traditional doctrine of God.
 
Lord willing, we will begin to look at how he did that in the next article.

Many of us may struggle with the feeling that the church is already too old-fashioned. If so, why should we study church history? Shouldn't we stop looking backward to the 16th century and start living in the 21st century?

Contrary to our concerns, the church has always realized that a forward-looking church is also a backward looking church. Likewise, well-balanced, progressive Christians will be students of church history. 

The Bible supports this. Christianity, as revealed in Scripture, is an inescapably historical religion. The Christian conception of time itself is linear, not cyclical. That is, time has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is within this spectrum of time that the great themes of the Bible are all rooted. The Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration of humanity are not merely ideas; they are real events that remind us of the importance of history. 

Most Christians would agree that it's important to study this history (the Bible's history of redemption). But God's actions in history are significant and worthy of study whether they are recorded in Scripture or not. Consider the words of the Psalmist: "I remember the days of old; I meditate on all your works; I muse on the work of your hands" (Psalm 143:5). Along the same lines, the Apostle John ends his Gospel with these words: "And there are also many other things that Jesus did which, if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25). We don't know all of those works but they are real history as are all the other works of God.

The word "remember" is used 164 times in 39 of the 66 Bible books. In repeating this word, God is saying, "Don't neglect the past." Or as C.S. Lewis so memorably put it, "Don't be a chronological snob,"  only valuing the era in which you live. Henry Ford exemplified such snobbery when he said, "History is bunk." It's not. Instead, it's filled with meaning that God calls us to learn in our day. 

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul reviews a portion of Israel's history, particularly their exodus from Egypt and their subsequent desert exile. Paul tells us in verse eleven that "all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition..." 

Similarly, Stephen's sermon (Acts 7) is one monumental history lesson. It begins with the call of Abraham, moves to the people's bondage in and deliverance from Egypt, and an account of the construction of the tabernacle and temple. The point of this lesson is that the Jewish leaders have not learned from history. Instead they have perpetuated the sins of their fathers.

Not only are we to learn from history, we must also be teachers of history. Psalm 145:4 says, "One generation shall praise our works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts." The result of this command to teach God's history is recorded in Psalm 44:1. "We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, the deeds You did in their days, in days of old". 

There are also practical considerations that urge us to study God's history. The following six reasons help demonstrate the value of learning from and teaching history. Knowing history helps us:

1. Appreciate the Sovereignty of God 

If you were to spend just one hour reading an accurate overview of church history, you might wonder how the church has continued to exist at all. From the Roman persecutions of the first three centuries to atrocities of today, the church has undergone tremendous opposition. The study of Church history reminds us of Christ's words: "I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18, Cf. Belgic Confession, Art. 27).

2. Apply Debated Biblical Teachings

We look to the practices of the early church to help us understand such important issues as church membership, baptism, worship and government involvement. For example, how do we know on which day we should rest from our labors and join together with other believers for worship? Not everyone agrees that the Bible answers this question with absolute clarity. But when we consider that the early Christians worshipped on the first day of the week and that this pattern has continued in a nearly unbroken string for 2,000 years, it lays a very strong precedent for modern churches to consider.

3. Defend Against Heresies and Cults

Take Athanasius. He fought a vigilant battle in the 4th century against the teachings of Arius, who denied that the Son is essentially equal to the Father. In the mind of Arius, Christ was neither fully God nor fully man, but belonged to an entirely different category.

Athanasius argued that only by the real Godhead coming into union with the full manhood in Christ could fallen men be made right with God. In other words, Jesus can only save if he is God.

Given that the Jehovah's Witnesses are modern-day, self-conscious followers of Arius, understanding Athanasius' arguments (especially in his bookOn the Incarnation) is extremely valuable today.

4. Resist Being Captivated by Fads

Many churches today are desperately trying to overhaul their image to be more hip. Churches seek to impress by embracing cultural fads of style, technology, music, movies and even shock-jock approaches to sexuality.

As historian Bruce Shelley once wrote, "Church history tends to separate the transient from the permanent, fads from basics."   

5. Reevaluate Common Church Practices

Ever wonder why, in some churches, when a minister gives a call to repent and believe the room becomes filed with sentimental music? Those stirred by religious sentiment are encouraged to come forward to make a decision. Why?

Likely, these are a few remnants of Charles Finney's 19th century revival techniques, which at the time were considered "new measures" of evangelism. There was, of course, a theological reason for the introduction of these new measures. Finney believed that God could not regenerate a person without that person's help. From this context it makes sense to encourage people to "give God permission" to save them.

A more expansive view of history would help us to understand that true revivals have come about not by novel advertising techniques or psychological manipulation but by the regular, powerful expository preaching of God's Word.

6. Live Courageous Christian Lives Today

Isaac Watts, the 18th century British Hymnist, asks a number of powerful questions making the point that the study of church history can be a spur to faithfulness:

"Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the lamb, and shall I fear to own his cause, or blush to speak his name? Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas? Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood? Is this vile world a friend to grace, to help me on to God? Since I must fight if I would reign, increase my courage, Lord; I'll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by Thy Word." 

Until the Lord comes again, the church is appropriately called the church militant. Many before us have fought well. But the fight continues.

Studying the history of the church soberly reminds us that we take our place in the ranks of the army of God. We take up the same battle-beaten armor that the saints of old used. We use the same weapon, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we fight, not only to continue our heritage but to leave a lasting legacy for future generations as well.


William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has written several books and numerous articles. He and his wife, Amy, have four children.


This article was originally published on reformation21 in October 2010. 

Trusting in the sovereign goodness of God helps us know how to respond to all the joys and trials of life.  Whether we are having a good day or a bad day, there is always a way for us to glorify God. So the Preacher says: "In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him" (Eccles. 7:14). 

Some days are full of prosperity:  The sun is shining, the birds are singing, there is food on the table and money in the bank.  If there is work to do, it is the kind of work that you enjoy doing.  If you are taking the day off, you get to spend it the way that you want to spend it, with the people you love.  Every day like that is a gift from God that calls us to be joyful. 

But not every day is like this. Some days the sun isn’t shining, the birds aren’t singing, and nothing seems right with the world.  There may be food on the table, but there is no money in the bank.  Work is a chore; vacation is boring; and you may feel like you don’t have a friend in the world.  Yet this day too is a day that comes from the hand of God, a day that is under his sovereign control.  The Preacher does not have the heart to tell us to be joyful on such a difficult day, but he does call us to a wise consideration of the ways of God.  When adversity comes, recognize that this too is a day that the Lord has made.  "Shall we receive good from God," Job asked on the day of his adversity, "and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10).  No, we should acknowledge that both the good days and the bad days come from the hand of God.

The Preacher says further that it is impossible for us to know what will happen in the future.  Given what he said at the beginning of verse 14, we might assume that the righteous people are the ones that prosper, while the wicked always suffer adversity.  Yet sometimes exactly the opposite occurs: the righteous suffer adversity, while the ungodly prosper.  Thus it is impossible for us to predict what will happen in coming days.  As the Preacher says, "man may not find out anything that will be after him" (Eccles. 7:14).  We have no way of knowing whether the coming days will bring us greater prosperity or more adversity.  

Living with this kind of uncertainty need not cause us anxiety or despair; rather, it should teach us to leave our future in the hands of God. Most of us would prefer to control our own destiny.  Instead, we should entrust our lives to the loving care of our sovereign God.  If we do this, we will be well prepared for both the good days and the bad days.  In his comments on this verse, Martin Luther gave the following pastoral advice: "Enjoy the things that are present in such a way that you do not base your confidence on them, as though they were going to last forever...  but reserve part of our heart for God, so that with it we can bear the day of adversity."[1]

This is all part of what it means to "consider the work of God." When the Preacher tells us to "consider," he is telling us to do something more than simply see what God has done.  He is telling us to accept what God has done and surrender to his sovereign will.  He is telling us to praise God for all our prosperity and trust God through every adversity.  The Puritan Richard Baxter said it well: "Take what He gives, / And praise Him still, / Through good or ill, / Who ever lives."[2]


[1]Martin Luther, "Notes on Ecclesiastes," in Luther's Works, trans. and ed. by Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1972), 15:120.

[2]Richard Baxter, quoted in Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), 68.

Editor's Note: To read more from Philip Ryken on the subject of God's sovereignty, head over to his previous article in this series.


Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God's Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture. 


This article was originally published on reformation21 in June 2009.