This post takes a look at the new animated production of The Pilgrim’s Progress, produced jointly by Cat in the Mill Studio, Herald Entertainment, Revelation Media, and Vision Video. This movie cannot be ignored; it has become an instant bestseller, has spread rapidly worldwide. There are currently plans to have it translated into over a hundred languages, and it has already become the second-most watched movie on the mission field next to the Jesus movie. 

To be sure, this is not the high quality animation of such studios as Pixar or Dreamworks. Yet, produced at a fraction of the cost, the animation is good enough to capture audiences accustomed to the more elaborate productions. This, and the fact that the movie modernizes the language of Bunyan (increasingly difficult for modern ears to grasp), helps to explain the growing popularity of the movie. As for the characters, I enjoyed Evangelist the most, voiced wonderfully by John Rhys Davies (Gimli and Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings).

The Gospel message of the movie adds to its growing admiration. Executive producer Steve Cleary wants to broadcast the good news in a popular medium and in an attractive manner. Didn’t  Bunyan do the same in his allegory as he appeals to the “fowler” who seeks “to catch his game by divers means” (The Author’s Apology for his Book)? In this way, the movie heralds the Gospel effectively. Cleary also knows that while a “message” movie might communicate in an appealing way, it will not appeal to everyone. Many want the entertainment without the message, especially when it's this message.  

So, does the animation carry the message faithful to Bunyan? In general, yes. The film includes most of the main scenes from the book, with the journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City depicting conversion and the Christian pilgrimage to glory. With that said, I was disappointed at times. 

Before commenting more, I confess (at the risk of sounding snobbish) that I’m not a big fan of movie adaptations taking undue liberty with an author’s original work and intentions, especially when they are misrepresented. For example, Disney’s three Chronicles of Narnia movies (2005-2010), while very entertaining and not without merit, so easily strayed from C.S. Lewis that they left me longing for the low-budget yet faithful BBC television-serial (1988-1990) with all of its rudimentary cinematography and special effects.

Of course, the ones who read the books first (and can remember the details!) tend to be the most frustrated with movie versions. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003) so much, as I couldn’t  remember enough of the discrepancies from the Tolkien trilogy I read 20 years earlier in high school. This common tendency helps account for the current movie’s popularity. Less and less people today, even in the church, have actually read The Pilgrim’s Progress and have little to nothing to compare the movie to.  

This animated version at times does depart from Bunyan, though not as much as the 1978 Pilgrim’s Progress movie starring Liam Neeson in his debut film role as Evangelist, and . . . Help, Goodwill, Knowledge the Shepherd, and even Christ on the cross! Interestingly, the animated version seems to follow this movie’s tendency for Apollyon to be transformed into different enemies with the Supervisor demon doing the same. Apparently, it was not enough to have Christian encounter real humans under the influence of the evil one as Bunyan did. 

In any event, let’s consider some areas of departure. First, some things get left out. Characters such as the following from the allegory you will not find:  Simple, Sloth, and Presumption; Formalist and Hypocrisy; Mistrust and Timorous; the four shepherds (Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere) at the Delectable Mountains, and Atheist. Likewise, you will find no Hill Difficulty,Valley of the Shadow of Death, or Enchanted Ground. I realize that a two-hour movie can’t cover everything.  Yet, considering that the  35-minute 1978 cartoon version produced by Baptista (edited from a longer 1950 version that I have yet to see) includes all of these, it’s hard to give a pass for these exclusions (By the way, if you want an animation faithful to Bunyan, get this one. It is low-quality outdated animation, but comes straight out of the allegory).

Second, and in connection with the exclusions,  the movie embellishes many details which, while entertaining, are unneccesary. For example, it starts way too slowly with all sorts of extra characters and scenes and with too much time lingering in the City of Destruction before the journey begins for “Christian Pilgrim” (never referred to as Graceless as in the book). The introduction includes various demons (most notably the Supervisor) and Apollyon himself who appear on several occasions, though the latter only emerges once in the book and the former not at all. One embellishment is the too-clever renaming of the City of Destruction with the backwards “Noit Curtsed” refashioned as “Not Cursed” by a demon named Lux. 

Third, and most troubling (and in connection with the embellishments), are the changes and/or misinterpretations of characters and scenes from the allegory. For example, near the wicket gate (representing faith in Christ), Christian gets pursued by flying demon-dragons (an embellishment) not just to the gate but beyond. In the allegory, Goodwill tugs Christian through the gate to avoid the arrows from the Castle of Beelzebub seeking to kill people prior to faith in Christ. Once in him, the arrows are meaningless. This fact seems to be lost in the animation’s dragons who soar over the gate wall in pursuit of Christian and are fought off by Goodwill.

Then, at the Interpreter’s house, the images covered misinterpret Bunyan, which begins with the change of Mr. Interpreter into a woman (albeit voiced elegantly by musician Kristyn Getty), when the allegory depicts a seventeenth-century pastor (an office limited to men for Bunyan), directing young Christians in spiritual matters. The episode of Passion and Patience seems at first to get the idea of waiting for one’s good things in the life to come. Yet, the later ‘Patience Path’ (an embellishment) near the cross incorrectly applies Patience to waiting to lose one’s burden of sin. The man in the iron cage crying, “No hope” (sadly with no explanation), is improperly linked with the cage later in Doubting Castle. In the allegory, the first cage indicates a professing yet not genuine believer given over to lusts and so apostacy (with no hope of release), while the latter denotes a true Christian’s loss of assurance due to spiritual declension. 

Then, at the Delectable (Delightful) Mountains, the four shepherds symbolizing pastors as spiritual guides are exchanged with the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who is revealed later in the Celestial City in the movie. This is more than just a replacement; it misses the warnings of the shepherds who, in the allegory, show Christian the ongoing dangers of  life and profession through the Mounts of Error and Caution and the Byway to hell.

In summary, I rejoice in the producers’ endeavor to share the gospel through this animated version and the success it has received. Still, in many respects, the movie does not remain true to Bunyan. Indeed, watch it and use it with others, but do so ready to explain the scenes and the discrepancies that occur. With this in mind, read the allegory if you have not already. May the animation spark a renewal of interest to read Bunyan’s classic work. 

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

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Editor's Note: This post has been adapted with permission from William Perkins: Architect of Puritanism, now available at

William Perkins was born in 1558 in Marston Jabbet, in Warwickshire, a few miles north of Coventry. We know relatively little about his upbringing. In his youth he may have suffered an accident, resulting in a degree of lameness on his left side, perhaps only in his left arm. He came up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, and graduated in 1581, becoming and remaining a fellow until his marriage in 1595.[1] But of greater significance for posterity was his appointment as lecturer in Great St. Andrews in 1584.

A lectureship—to be distinguished from a college or university post bearing that description—was a form of ministry developed by the Puritans to establish and advance the preaching and teaching of the Word of God outside of the restraints of the ordinary clerical appointments and worship services of the Church of England. This helped both to guarantee an evangelical preaching ministry where there was none, and at the same time helped to fill vacant pulpits where the stipend was so low as to be virtually unmanageable. Thus, without possessing the advowsons for parishes,[2] the burgeoning Puritan movement effectively created its own.[3]

The lecturer gave regular “lectures,” expositions of the text of Scripture. Thus the Puritan agenda was advanced by creating a detour around the via media of the Elizabethan church settlement, which sought to temper the more radical biblical reformation encouraged by Edward VI on the one hand and the Roman Catholicism of the reign of “Bloody” Mary on the other. The funding and multiplying of these lectureships provided the opportunity for people to hear gospel preaching and to sit under a genuine biblical ministry.

Perkins continued in this ministry in Cambridge until his death in 1604—a remarkable longevity in the exposition of Scripture, and strategically placed to influence young men going into the ministry because it was set in one of only two university cities in England. Expressions of his preaching fill the three volumes of his Works. Here was powerful, passionate, sharply pointed gospel ministry, and clearly its impact lingered on for years to come.

Few people, however, would have predicted William Perkins’s destiny. The story has often been retold that what helped to awaken him spiritually was overhearing a woman say to her recalcitrant child,“Hold your tongue or I’ll give you over to drunken Perkins yonder.” Evidently, as a young man, he had a reputation for wild living (and rumors of that past life persisted).

In God’s providence, in the latter half of the sixteenth century Cambridge University was graced with men of high spiritual caliber, including the remarkable Laurence Chaderton. He came up to Cambridge as a Roman Catholic, experienced a radical conversion, and became a fellow at Christ’s College.[4] He had both longevity (c. 1536–1640!) and a correspondingly vast influence. He served as lecturer at St. Clement’s Church for fifty years, and was for thirty-eight years (1584–1622) the first Master of Emmanuel College—a “seed-bed of Puritanism” founded by Sir Walter Mildmay. When he resigned his lectureship at St. Clement’s, dozens of ministers signed a testimonial to him in appreciation of the way their own ministries had grown out of his mentoring. It is impossible to doubt that Chaderton had a significant influence on Perkins.

Whatever the instruments, Perkins was brought to a living faith in Christ, and began to evangelize zealously. He brought the gospel to the poor, to the prisoners in the Cambridge jail, and even to the condemned. And at the relatively tender age of twenty-six, as discerning people saw the maturity of his life and biblical understanding, he was appointed to the lectureship at Great St. Andrews.

Just as Chaderton belonged to a lineage of grace (he himself had been deeply influenced by the godly Edward Dering [1540–1576]), Perkins’s own influence flowed into the burgeoning Puritan brotherhood. He would become tutor to “the learned Doctor” William Ames (1576–1633) who, while professor at Franeker in the Netherlands, in turn influenced the covenant theologian Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669). Then there was his influence on Richard Sibbes who would in turn have an impact by the publication of his preaching on men like Richard Baxter (1615–1691). This chain of influence would touch John Cotton (1584–1652) who in turn, with Sibbes, would influence John Preston (1587–1628). He in due course would touch Thomas Goodwin’s life just as Cotton’s Keyes of the Kingdom would awaken his friend and colleague John Owen (1616–1683) to the congregational way.

Here we find a pattern that seems to appear frequently when God purposes to do a fresh work of grace. Often in retrospect only one prominent individual is remembered, and he is perhaps seen as virtually the only instrument of blessing. But there is always a brotherhood. Men like Moses are always part of a network of brothers—they have an Aaron and a Hur, a Joshua and a Caleb. An Elijah will always have an Elisha and a school of the prophets. A Paul will always have a Timothy and a Titus and Silas. There is always a fellowship of burdened people, lovers of God’s kingdom, praying towards its advancement and encouraging one another. They are strengthened by the knowledge that they are being caught up in a work of God that is far bigger than themselves or their own ministry. William Perkins stood within such a stream and at the center of such a network.

The fruit of this ministry abides in his Works. He is, of course, best known for only some of them. His great work The Greatest Case of Conscience deals with what he saw as the fundamental question—how do you know that you really are a Christian believer? Then there is his exposition of The Sermon on the Mount, that well-loved but often misunderstood part of Scripture. (Most people who say “I don’t have much time for Paul, but I love the Sermon on the Mount” give clear enough evidence that they have either not read it to the end, or they have not understood the words they have read.) Then, in addition, there is his exposition of Galatians and the book whose title has become so closely associated with his name, The Golden Chain.

But in those segments of the scholarly world critical of the evangelical tradition, William Perkins is known for one thing only—a diagram! He called it an ocular catechism. In its own way, it was a stroke of genius, a teaching tool that built on the work of Theodore Beza. It was a visual representation of how the gospel works, tracing the patterns of salvation and damnation from eternity to eternity.[5] In its own way, it was a sixteenth-century PowerPoint presentation of the gospel.

This “chain of salvation” was regularly demeaned in the neo-orthodoxy of the middle part of the twentieth century because of its focus on the divine decrees, and has been critiqued by Barthian theologians because (a priori in their thinking) it lacked genuine Christo-centricity. But one only need look at Perkins’s ocular catechism to see that this is not the real issue. The spine of Perkins’s diagram is his representation of Jesus Christ Himself, the one person, in His two natures—divine and human, in His two states—humiliation and exaltation, and in His three offices of prophet, priest, and king. Thus, every aspect of salvation is related to Him.

In this sense we can be confident in saying that William Perkins was a profoundly Christ-centered preacher.[6]

[1] Under the University laws at the time, a fellowship had to be resigned upon marriage.

[2] The advowson was the title to appoint a resident minister. Appointments were made under a patronage system. In one sense, these lectureships were a shrewd way of creating a parallel (and sometimes rival) patronage system of their own for the Puritan movement.

[3] For a comprehensive account of these lectureships see Paul S. Seaver, The Puritan Lectureships, The Politics of Religious Dissent, 1560–1662 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1970).

[4]Difficult though it may be in our time to imagine, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the influence of a tutor was potentially immense on an undergraduate. Apparently students could live “in close contact with such men, often sleeping in trundle beds at their tutor’s feet.” M. M. Knappen, Tudor Puritanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), 219. It was not unusual in those days for servants to sleep near their masters.

[5] It is described in William Perkins, The Works of that Famovs and VVorthy Minister of Christ in the Vniuersitie of Cambridge, Mr. William Perkins, 3 vols. (London: John Legatt, 1612–13), 1:95 (insert), as A Survey, or Table declaring the order of the causes of salvation and damnation, according to God’s word. It may be instead of an ocular catechism to them which cannot read: for by the pointing of the finger they may sensibly perceive the chief points of religion, and the order of them.

[6] The underlying issue here is the neo-orthodox and Barthian view of the sovereignty of God and the nature of the atonement. English-speaking followers of Barth have been particularly enamored by the work of the Scotsman John Macleod Campbell (1800–1872), especially his major work The Nature of the Atonement (London: Macmillan, 1873). In order to deny the integrity of the Reformed view of the saving work of Christ, Campbell realized that it was necessary to re-theologize its very nature (hence the title of his magnum opus) to defend a universal atonement. While the“domino effect” may not be a logical necessity in the development of doctrine, it usually holds over consecutive generations. The universalism implicit in a universal atonement was certainly implied in Barth and his earliest followers, although not (to my knowledge) explicitly taught. Indeed, on occasion it seemed to be denied on the grounds that this would be to argue logically rather than biblically from a universal atonement. But it has become increasingly clear that succeeding generations have followed what was implicit to draw the explicit conclusion of universalism (and thus, paradoxically have followed the “logic” which was demeaned in the previous generation). At the end of the day the issue here, then, is not Perkins’s lack of a Christology, but the Orthodox Reformed view of the person and work of Christ in general and the nature of the atonement in particular.

Sinclair B. Ferguson (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen) is Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has severed as a minister in his native Scotland and the United States. He has also served as Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.

Related Links

William Perkins: Architect of Puritanism, edited by Joel Beeke and Greg Salazar

Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson

The Works Of William Perkins, vol. 5

The Westminster Standards teach that the post-fall covenants in Scripture are gracious.  Although the covenants are distinct and different in some respects, they are the same in substance.  This is why the Standards speak of one covenant of grace “under various dispensations” and that one covenant “was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel.”  Westminster Larger Catechism 101 says that the preface to the ten commandments teaches us that God “is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people.”  

There are, however, a number of texts that would seem to contradict this confessional teaching.  One such text is 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul refers to the old covenant as a ministry of condemnation and death.  Meredith Kline, for example, has argued that it was only because Paul believed that the “old (Mosaic) covenant order” was “governed by a principle of works” that he could say that it was “an administration of bondage, condemnation, and death in contrast to the new covenant, which he characterized as one of freedom, righteousness, and life.”  

A proper defense of the covenant theology of the Westminster Standards, therefore, cannot ignore or dismiss 2 Corinthians 3.  Anthony Burgess, a leading member of the Westminster Assembly, understood this and addressed the passage in his book Vindiciae Legis, or, A vindication of the morall law and the covenants.

Burgess draws our attention to a number of points that we have to consider in order to properly interpret Paul’s negative statements on the old covenant in 2 Corinthians 3.  One point is that if the Mosaic covenant was “rigidly” and universally a ministry of death, then the Socinian interpretation would be correct.  The Socinians argued that “there was no grace, or faith, nor nothing of Christ, vouchsafed unto the Jewes.”  But this is clearly wrong in part because “we reade that [the Jewes] had the Adoption.”

A second point to consider is the ceremonial law.  When Paul spoke negatively of the old covenant, he spoke against circumcision, the Passover, and the sacrifices.  In other words, Paul spoke against the sacraments of the Old Testament.  But, as Burgess says, “all must confess, that circumcision and the sacrifices did not oppose Christ, or grace, but rather included them.”  Indeed, “we constantly maintain against the Papists, that our Sacraments and theirs differ not for substance” and that the sacraments of the Old Testament “were spiritual means of faith, as truly as baptism and the Lord’s supper are (see also WCF 27:5).”  Consequently, the old covenant administered the gospel of salvation “by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews (WCF 7.5),” and therefore, it was a ministry of life.

A third point for consideration is the connection death has with the gospel.  The law is said to work death, but the gospel is also said to be the savor of death.  Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at Geneva, observed that the Gospel without the Spirit is also a ministration of death because we can’t believe by our own strength.   

In light of these considerations, how then can Paul contrast the old covenant with the new covenant in terms of life and death?  He is able to do that because he sets the new covenant over against old covenant, not as it was given by God, but as it was misinterpreted by the Jews.  God did not give the law to Israel “for their destruction because it’s said to work wrath, and to be the instrument of death.”  The old covenant bore witness to Christ and administered Christ to OT saints.  The problem was that the Jews set the old covenant in opposition to Christ.  They viewed the law “as sufficient to save them without Christ” and thus they based their salvation on their observance of it.   But the “law separated from Christ, did nothing but accuse and condemne, not being able to help the soul at all.”  The Jews, therefore, turned the old covenant into “a killing letter, even as if we should the doctrine of the Gospel without the grace of Christ.”  After all,

“if any Jew, had stood up and said to Moses, Why do you say, you give us the doctrine of life; it’s nothing but a killing letter, and the ministery of death, would he not have been judged a blasphemer against the Law of Moses?  The Apostle therefore must understand it, as seperated, yea and opposed to Christ and his grace.”

According to Burgess, Paul is not saying that the Mosaic covenant is not gracious, or that it did not administer salvation to the saints in the Old Testament.  Paul is saying that the Mosaic covenant, as misinterpreted by his opponents, kills and is a ministry of condemnation.  2 Corinthians 3, therefore, does not contradict the Westminster Standards’ view that the Mosaic covenant is a gracious covenant.

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

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Though he only published a sermon during his own lifetime, Stephen Charnock (1628–1680) wrote quite a bit on Christology, salvation, and theology proper. Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God is one such work, and it continues to receive high praise. As J.I. Packer once wrote,

The discourses are the product of a big, strong, deep, reverent mind; they are in every way worthy of their sublime subject and are one of the noblest productions of the Puritan epoch. Charnock displays God’s attributes as qualities observable in the concrete actions of the living God of which the Bible speaks. The technical terms, and sometimes, arguments of scholastic theology are employed, but always with a biblical orientation. Charnock has no desire to speculate but only to declare the works and ways, the nature and character, of the God of the Bible. [1] 

“Technical” and “scholastic” may not excite us at first, but many have found this book insightful, and even devotional. One can see why; take, for example, this passage on divine goodness, as Charnock explains why God can be nothing less than Infinite Goodness: 

The notion of goodness is inseparable from the notion of a God. We cannot own the existence of God, but we must confess also the goodness of his nature. Hence, the apostle gives to his goodness the title of his Godhead, as if goodness and godhead were convertible terms (Rom. 1:20). As it is indissolubly linked with the being of a Deity, so it cannot be severed from the notion of it. We as soon un-deify him by denying him good, as by denying him great. 

Optimus, Maximus, the best, greatest, was the name whereby the Romans entitled Him. His nature is as good as it is majestic; so doth the Psalmist join them (Ps. cxlv. 6, 7), "I will declare my greatness; they shall abundantly utter the memory of thy great goodness." They considered his goodness before his greatness, in putting Optimus before Maximus. Greatness without sweetness, is an unruly and affrighting monster in the world; like a vast turbulent sea, always casting out mire and dirt. Goodness is the brightness and loveliness of our majestical Creator. To fancy a God without it, is to fancy a miserable, scanty, narrow-hearted, savage God, and so an unlovely, and horrible being. For [God] is not a God that is not good; he is not a God that is not the highest good. 

Infinite goodness is more necessary to—and more straitly joined with—an infinite Deity, than infinite power and infinite wisdom. We cannot conceive him God, unless we conceive him the highest good, having nothing superior to himself in goodness, as he hath nothing superior to himself in excellency and perfection. No man can possibly form a notion of God in his mind, and yet form a notion of something better than God; for whoever thinks anything better than God, fancieth a God with some defect… .[2] 

We might wonder at times if our God truly is a good God. Or perhaps we simply don't give it much thought, focusing more on other attributes, like omniscience or omnipotence. But as others have pointed out, we dare not neglect any of God's attributes. And why would we want to? God's goodness is a tremendous comfort, because the infinitely wise, infinitely powerful God—the One who made all things and sustains all things and will judge all things—is infinitely good.  

When we remember this, we join the ranks of David who sang, "Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!" (Ps. 34:8). 

- - - - - - - 

[1] Quoted in Meet the Puritans, by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 145.

[2] Stephen Charnock, Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God, vol. II (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1874), 216.

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

"Here Comes the Worship Cop!" at Mortification of Spin

Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson

"A Cross-Shaped View of God's Attributes" by Aaron Denlinger

The Attributes of God by A.W. Pink

Divine Simplicity, edited by Jeffrey Stivason  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]

PCRT '87: How Great Thou Art  [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

What is essential in an adequate list of Divine attributes?

Summarizing the attributes of God is a difficult task, and hardly two lists of divine attributes agree. In this light, many people have asked, “Where is the love of God in the Westminster Shorter Catechism?” The fourth question describes God as “a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” If the Scriptures say, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8), then is it not irresponsible to omit love from a list of divine attributes?

It may be helpful to readers to understand the interrelationship between the divine attributes in the context of the Westminster Assembly in order to know where love fits. When understood in context, the relationship between divine goodness and divine love shows that love is still present in the Catechism by implication. 

Amandus Polanus illustrates how older Reformed authors tended to treat divine love as flowing from divine goodness. While his position was not unique, his treatment of it is both clear and helpful for understanding the relationship between the divine attributes and how these ideas found expression in the Shorter Catechism. Even if readers do not end up agreeing with him at every point, his material can only help to understand the perspective of older Reformed theology on this point. This can help us better assess our understanding of the interrelationship of the divine attributes today as well.

Polanus opened his treatment of the relationship between divine goodness and love by citing Jerome Zanchi. Zanchi wrote that the goodness of God is the fountain of the grace, love, mercy, patience, and clemency of God (“Bonitas Dei est fons gratie, amoris, misercordiae, patientiae, clementiae Dei;” 1039). Polanus then added that the goodness of God is, in order of nature, prior to the grace, love, mercy, patience, and the clemency of God. The basic assumption behind these connections seems to be that goodness is an absolute divine attribute, while love is a relative one.

Modern readers who are unfamiliar with these terms should understand that this does not mean that God is identical with some of his attributes, yet not others. Instead, it means that his essential properties express themselves in particular ways relative to creation. Thus, justice is an essential attribute, while wrath is justice expressed in relation to--or relative to--sinful creatures. Polanus continued by arguing that the goodness of God’s nature gives birth to grace along with all of the other attributes that he lists (1039). He added that this was why Psalm 117 placed goodness first, then mercy, so that we might understand that goodness is the fountain of mercy. So it is with divine love. He noted that Titus 3:4-5 placed goodness and love in a parallel order and that this order was intentional (1040). In his view, in other words, the Bible treated goodness as a broader category than mercy and love. In addition to these statements about goodness, he concluded by saying that love proceeds from grace, mercy proceeds from love, and clemency and patience proceed from both of these. Goodness was thus a wide category that included grace, love, mercy, patience, and clemency.

This does not demean love as a divine attribute as much as it recognizes divine simplicity and the fact that divine attributes primary help us make distinctions in talking about God instead of importing real distinctions into his nature or essence. This does not mean that his attributes are only empty names, but it does mean that they express various facets of the character of a unique Being that mutually inform and imply one another.

The Westminster divines intended the Shorter Catechism to be a concise summary of Christian doctrine. This means that they intended to include as many things as they could in the fewest words. In their minds, this meant that love was included under goodness. This did not mean that love was not integral to the divine nature. God is love, and God is all of his attributes. Whether we agree with the idea that love is subsumed under goodness or not, it should at least comfort us (and ease the consciences of some) to know that love is still included in the Catechism.

Perhaps it would be better to treat love as an absolute rather than a relative divine attribute because love begins with intra-trinitarian love, rather than with the inherent goodness of the Creator spilling over into God’s relation to his creatures. In either case, we should remember that God’s goodness is gracious, loving, merciful, patient, and kind. Likewise, his love is good, and harmonizes with all of his other attributes. God always does what he does because he is who he is and he is never only partly himself in anything that he does.

We will always struggle to speak adequately about God’s attributes. We should not neglect any of them. Yet we should also be charitable and try to understand why our forefathers expressed themselves the way that they did and we should imitate their devotion to the good God who is love.

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

Related Links

"A Cross-Shaped View of God's Attributes" by Aaron Denlinger

The Attributes of God by A.W. Pink

Divine Simplicity, edited by Jeffrey Stivason  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]

PCRT '87: How Great Thou Art  [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]


The Westminster Standards teach that Christians are obligated to obey the Ten Commandments. The fact that the Larger and Shorter Catechisms include a detailed exposition of the Ten Commandments indicates this. Moreover, chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession of faith says that the law delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, is the moral law and continues to be a perfect rule of righteousness, informing and binding true believers to walk accordingly. The Ten Commandments are for Christians in the New Testament.

There are biblical reasons, of course, for this traditional Reformed position. Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, and that whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17, 19). Paul says that the gospel, far from overthrowing it, upholds the law (Rom. 3:31). He also cites the commandments as binding upon the New Testament church (Eph. 6:2; Rom. 13:8-10).

There are, however, other texts in the New Testament that seem to contradict the Reformed position. These verses must not be ignored or neglected, but embraced and rightly handled. The puritan Anthony Burgess said that the “perpetuall fault among the Antinomians” is that “they onely pitch upon those places, where Christ and his grace is spoken of; but not of those Texts, where duties are commanded, especially those places of Scripture, where the Law of God is wonderfully commended, for the many reall benefits that come by it.”  In other words, the Antinomians majored on the verses that seemed to support their position and minored on the ones that created trouble for them. Of course, they aren’t the only ones who have fallen prey to this problem, as we are all susceptible to it regarding any theological issue. And the way to fix this problem, as Burgess says, is to “look to all the places of Scripture.”

In his book against Antinomianism, Burgess is careful to follow his own advice, addressing the verses that seem to teach the abrogation or limited duration of the moral law. In the remainder of this article, we will look at what he says about one of those verses, Romans 6:14: “you are not under law but under grace.”

Burgess says that the common interpretation of the phrase “under law” is that it refers to being under the condemnation or curse of the law. A Christian is not under law in the sense that he is not under the curse of the law. This may well have been the majority understanding among the divines at the Westminster Assembly because they used Romans 6:14 as a proof text to support their statement that “true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned (WCF 19.6).”

Burgess, however, dissents from the majority position.He doesn’t think that this interpretation fits with the context of Romans 6 and 7.Paul is not discussing justification but sanctification. He is not talking about the condemning power of the law or its counterpart of “grace for pardoning and free justification.” Rather, he is talking about the dominion of sin, how the law works all manner of evil in every unregenerate man, and its counterpart of grace to walk in newness of life. Burgess thus sides with Theodore Beza and thinks that “under law” is akin to “under sinne.” He writes: “Now then this is the Apostles argument, Let not sin reign in you, for now you are not under the Law stirring up sin, and provoking it in you, but under grace; not justifying or pardoning, as properly and immediately meant here (though they were under that also) but sanctifying and healing.”

According to Burgess, Paul is not saying that Christians don’t have to obey the Ten Commandments because they are under grace; he is saying that Christians are not unregenerate, under the reign of sin, and provoked to sin all the more by the law. They are delivered from the dominion of sin and enabled to be obedient from the heart because of the saving, sanctifying grace of God. In the words of the Apostle John, Christians do not find God’s commandments burdensome because everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world (1 John 5:3-4). Romans 6:14, therefore, does not contradict the Reformed position that Christians today are obligated to obey the Ten Commandments.

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

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Satan downplays the seriousness of sin so that we think it poses no danger to our soul. “But it's such a harmless sin," he tells us, 

“It's so small. No one will be hurt. It's just a little pride, a little worldliness, a little compromise, a little sexual immorality. Only you and God will know, and God understands. There will be no victims and no negative fallout. You may engage in this sin (carefully, of course) without harming your soul.” 

This is a lie. Despite its appeal to your flesh, you must rject this temptation as a falsehood straight from Hell. All sin is a vandalizing of God's world; all sin is a criminal violation God's authority. Sin both offends and betrays God. As Cornelius Plantinga explains: 

"Sin is not only the breaking of law but also the breaking of covenant with one's Savior. Sin is the smearing of the relationship, the grieving of one's divine parent and benefactor, a betrayal of the partner to whom one is joined by holy bond." (Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary, of Sin, p. 12) 

This is why the Bible never suggests that so-called small sins are insignificant. Every sin is big. Of course, some sins carry more obvious consequences, and some sins hurt more bystanders than other sins. But even the smallest sin is an act of treason against the Creator. Sin is a personal affront to God: Deliberate sin is the equivalent of slapping God in the face. This is why Adam plunged the human race into misery and was banished from Eden for what we would likely consider a small sin. Adam didn't murder or commit adultery; he ate a piece of fruit! This was a massively serious sin, however, because it (like all sin) was a defiant rejection of God's legitimate authority. 

Is not resisting so-called small sins a better test of true love for God than avoiding what we regard as big sins? The earthly consequences of big sins are frequently so frightful that even non-Christians refrain from them. Because of the threat of legal punishment or the prospect of public scorn, even unbelievers often frown on adultery, condemn murder, and disapprove of theft. But in small sins, the issue of obedience or disobedience is more clearly a matter of principle. When the consequences of sin are less apparent, do you still obey God? Do you obey God simply because He is God? Do you avoid sin only because of its painful earthly consequences, or rather because you love your Creator? 

Sin corrupts our thinking so that we do not see how "small sins" damage our souls. Due to sin's very nature (and not its smallness or bigness), it distorts our character and perverts our abilities. Small sins are like small amounts of the HIV virus: They weaken our spiritual immune system, compromise our overall spiritual health, increase our vulnerability to other sins, and insure that we will grow only more ill in the future. Small sins numb our consciences. They nurture soul-level corruption and lead to other sins. Brooks is right: in the end, there is more misery in the smallest sin than in the most severe hardship. 

Small sins also often lead to big sins. We frequently entertain small sins when we feel empty, lonely, depressed, or angry. We want our spirits to improve-we want a “mood enhancer” – so we indulge in a sin in hopes that it will make us happy. Often it does; there is usually a momentary thrill when we do something forbidden, and sin is often pleasurable (at least initially). Our little sin seemingly has the desired effect of injecting excitement into our lives. 

However, this sin-induced mood enhancement wears off. Only the Lord Jesus Christ can create sustained fulfillment and contentment in our souls. And ao qe soon find ourselves back where we started: Empty, lonely, depressed, or angry. But now, the little sin that electrified us last month no longer carries the same thrill that it had before. It is no longer exotic, because we have explored it. Indulging in our little sin has normalized that sin to us. 

At this critical moment, temptation does not say to us, “The old course of action-finding pleasure in sin-failed.” Instead, the Tempter says, “Finding pleasure in sin is the right course of action; just do more sin." To enhance our mood now, we must graduate from our little sin to a bigger and more exciting one. In time, however, we will become bored with this bigger sin as well ... and will need an even bigger one to obtain the same mood-enhancing effect. 

This is the classic process of addiction which alcoholics and drug addicts know it all too well. The longest running addiction on planet earth is the addiction to sin. When we say that we are sinners, we mean that are sin addicts; Christians are recovering sin addicts who suffer relapses. As with the alcoholic, so with the sin-oholic; he hopes to find in his vice the satisfaction that only God gives. A little sin is to the sinner what a little whiskey is to the alcoholic: A doorway to self-destruction. 

Both sinner and alcoholic desperately need to resist temptations in order to be healthy. “It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich," says Proverbs 10:22,"and He adds no sorrow to it.” God gives spiritual highs that come with neither hangovers nor destructive addictions.

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

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PCRT '89: Whatever Happened to Sin ( Audio CD | MP3 Disc | MP3 Download )

"The Labyrinth of Temptation": Calvin on Genesis 22 by Aaron Denlinger

Lead Us Not Into Temptation by Mark Johnston


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw

The Mortification of Sin by John Owen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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