Tag Archives: Roman Catholicism

Pillars of the Reformation

The Reformation started 500 years ago with a protest against indulgences.  Rome had adopted the idea that there is a place called purgatory where believers must spend time before they can expect to arrive in heaven.  Purgatory is a place of torment where the believer  is “purged” (cleansed) from his or her remaining sins.  But one’s time in purgatory could be shortened through the purchase of an indulgence from the church.  Buying this certificate, one allegedly received access to the treasury of merit achieved by Christ and the saints.  It was a win-win for everyone — the church made extra money for the building of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome and the believer could reduce purge time for himself or loved ones.  But a German monk named Martin Luther would have none of it — he published the 95 Theses in 1517, a protest against indulgences.  That was just the start of the Reformation in the early 1500s.

As the Reformation progressed, it became evident that there were five main issues in debate.  We sometimes call these the five pillars of the Reformation — they’re also known as the five ‘solas.’  Let’s review them.

Sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Rome taught that the Bible is authoritative for believers.  But Rome also taught that tradition and the Church are also authoritative.  The Reformation maintained that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority for what we believe and how we live.

Sola Gratia — by grace alone.  Rome taught that believers need God’s grace to be saved.  But Rome also taught that believers need to cooperate with God’s grace in order to be saved.  Salvation is by grace plus good works.  The Reformation maintained that salvation comes by God’s grace alone.  When it comes to the basis of our salvation, we do not merit anything, indeed, we cannot merit anything before God.

Sola Fide — by faith alone.  This has to do with justification.  Rome taught that justification is a life-long process.  At the end of your life, God will make his judgment about you based on what you did, particularly your good works.  The Reformation maintained that justification is an event whereby God declares that the sinner is righteous through Jesus Christ.  Justification is received through faith alone.  In justification, faith is simply receiving Jesus Christ as your righteousness.  Good works are not part of the equation (though they certainly flow forth in the justified person’s life as a fruit).

Solus Christus — Christ alone.   Rome taught that every believer needs Jesus Christ.  However, the papacy also taught that one needs the Virgin Mary and the saints.  Christ is not enough.  Against that, the Reformation maintained that everything we need for our salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.

Soli Deo Gloria — to God alone be the glory.  Rome taught that God ought to be praised for salvation.  However, they included good works in the basis of salvation.  They gave a place to Mary and the saints alongside Christ as the Redeemer.  Human beings had to cooperate with God’s grace for justification and salvation.  The inevitable conclusion is that God gets praise, but so do human beings.  The Reformation objected.  The Reformation upheld the biblical teaching of Psalm 115:1, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory..”  All the credit, all the glory, all the praise, goes to God for our salvation.

These five pillars continue to be vitally important for the church today.  Rome still teaches what it always has.  But perhaps of more relevance is the fact that our natural human tendency is to drift away from each of these teachings.  The natural human inclination is not to give God his exclusive due.  We’re bent towards taking credit for ourselves and not acknowledging God’s exclusive authority in our lives.  Pride is our default mode.  The five pillars put us in a proper posture of humility before God.  Therefore, Christians today neglect the five pillars to their own detriment and, more tragically, to a degradation of God’s glory.  As we celebrate the Reformation, let’s be thankful for these teachings and continue to maintain them.


Do We Have Free Will?

There is an assumption amongst some Reformed people that free will is a completely unbiblical concept.  This may be owing to the fact that often we only hear about free will in the context of Arminianism.  The Arminians, we’re told, believed in free will and so denied God his full credit for our salvation.  On the flip side, the popular belief with some is that Reformed theology denies there is any free will.  In the popular mind, free will is therefore a bad thing.  This is a far too simplistic approach to the matter.  If we dig a little deeper and think a little more, we’ll soon discover that there is a place for free will in Reformed theology.

We need to begin with a definition and an important distinction.

I’m using the term free will in the sense of humans being able freely to make choices in life.  When I say “freely,” I mean “without outside compulsion.”  These free choices always entail full moral responsibility for the one who makes them.  If these choices were not free, you could not be fully responsible for them.

The important distinction is a four-fold one about human nature.  In Reformed theology, we distinguish between human nature in four states.  In each of these four states, there is something we need to say about our ability to sin.

First, there is our original condition as created by God.  Adam and Eve were created upright (Gen. 1:31).  They were also endowed with free will — they were able freely to make choices.  They would be morally responsible for whatever choices they made (Gen. 2:16-17).  In their original condition, in true righteousness and holiness, Reformed theologians say that they were created able not to sin.  Before the fall, Adam and Eve could choose not to sin.  But if they did choose to sin, they would be held fully responsible for it.

Second, there is the human condition after the fall into sin.  After Adam and Eve misused their free will, corruption has spread to the entire human race (Gen. 6:5).  We are all fallen.  In our fallen, unregenerated condition, we are not able not to sin.  Unregenerated human beings still have a free will, but they can only use it in a sinful way (Jer. 13:23).  As free will is exercised in that fallen human nature, there continues to be full moral responsibility (Acts 3:14-15).

Third, there is the human condition after regeneration.  When the Holy Spirit causes someone to be born again, he creates a massive change which includes our will and our ability with regard to sinful choices.  We are now new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  In our regenerated state, we are again restored to being able not to sin.  This is what the Heidelberg Catechism is getting at in QA 8, “Q. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  A. Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  Note well:  if we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, then we are able again to begin doing good.  We are free to make good and God-pleasing choices.

Fourth, there is the glorified human state.  After we die, or when Christ returns, we will be perfected (1 John 3:2).  We will not only be sinless, but incapable of sinning.  In our glorified condition, we are even better off than Adam and Eve, for we will not be able to sin.  Our wills will still be free, but we will use our freedom to consistently glorify God.

To summarize:

  • Original state:  able not to sin
  • Fallen state:  not able not to sin
  • Regenerated state:  able to sin or not to sin
  • Glorified state:  not able to sin

Taking all that together, we can speak about free will in this way:  human beings are free to do what is according to their nature.  There is free will, but it is always in the context of one of those four human conditions.  For us as we live on this earth now, it is always in the context of the two middle conditions.  If you are not born again by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your sinful human nature.  Your free choices, for which you are responsible, are always reflective of your spiritual state as a fallen human being.  If you have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, you are free to do what is in accordance with your restored human nature.  You can and do still sin (though you shouldn’t), but you can also say “no” to sin in growing measures (Gal. 5:16 and Titus 2:11-12).

So, where did the Arminians go wrong then?  They didn’t go wrong in speaking about free will as such.  Reformed theology does too — see the Westminster Confession 3.1 or chapter 9 of the Second Helvetic Confession.  The Arminians went wrong in how they view humanity in the fallen state.  They argued that, because of God’s prevenient grace (a grace which comes before salvation), all fallen human beings are able to use their free will to have faith in Jesus Christ.  In other words, they credited all fallen people with the ability to do what Reformed theology claims is only possible for the regenerated.  So, in the Arminian view, non-Christians are free to do what Christians are free to do:  believe in the Saviour.  That’s the problem.  That view runs up against Ephesians 2:1 (and other passages) which maintain that unregenerated people are dead in sin.  If you’re dead in sin, you don’t move towards God — you can’t.

Another question people will sometimes raise:  if there’s human free will, then what about God’s sovereignty?  How can we speak about human beings as free moral agents when the Bible teaches that God is in control of everything?  The short answer is that the Bible teaches both human responsibility and divine sovereignty, without directly laying out how these two fit together.  I think the best expression of this is found in Westminster Confession 3.1:

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

What this means is that God is completely in control of the universe, yet creatures still have a will, and these two truths are not in conflict with one another.

Last of all, what about article 14 of the Belgic Confession?  It says:

Therefore we reject all teaching contrary to this concerning the free will of man, since man is a slave to sin (John 8:34) and a man can receive only what is given him from heaven (John 3:27).

The Belgic Confession does not deny that human beings can and do make choices for which they are morally responsible.  The Confession’s argument is here directed against Roman Catholicism which, like Arminianism later on, runs into trouble on the question of the ability of fallen human beings to choose what is right and pleasing to God.  Rome said that fallen man is not dead in sin, but merely injured and in need of some help.  In spite of the injury, fallen man can use his free will to choose what is good.  So, again, the problem is not free will as such, but how it’s understood.

It’s important to understand these things properly because moral responsibility is at stake.  If human beings have no free will, then we cannot be held accountable for the wrong choices we make.  If human beings have no free will, then you can point your finger at God and say, “It’s his fault.  I’m just a robot and he’s at the controls.”  As it is, the Bible is clear that we are fully responsible for our sinful choices.  And, further, as Christians we need not be fatalistic about our sanctification either (“Nothing will ever change!”).  No, our wills have been transformed so that we are free to follow God.  If you have a choice between sinning and not sinning, by God’s grace you can make the choice to not sin.  The Holy Spirit has given you that ability.  Through him, your will is already free and someday it will be fully free!


True and False Catholicism

“Swimming the Tiber” is a popular way of saying that a Protestant has defected to Roman Catholicism (the Tiber River flows through Rome).  If you’re paying attention, periodically you hear of someone “swimming the Tiber.”  Especially if it’s someone who has been extensively trained in Reformed theology, you might be left wondering if the Reformation actually got it all wrong.  You may wonder if perhaps we have misunderstood Roman Catholic doctrine.  You might doubt whether the Reformation is something to be celebrated, or whether it should be deplored as having been unnecessary.  Should we celebrate the 500th birthday of the Reformation or mourn it?

When those sorts of doubts arise, it’s good to take a careful look at exactly what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.  It’s good to compare these teachings with the Word of God.  That’s what I’m going to do in this post.  I’ll take the modern standard of Roman Catholic doctrine as our guide.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in several languages in 1994 and is an excellent compendium of Roman Catholic teaching.  If you regularly have contact with Roman Catholics with an eye to evangelism, it would definitely be helpful to have this book in your library.  From our side, I’ll refer to the Reformed confessions alongside Scripture.  I do this because the Reformed confessions are faithful summaries of what Scripture teaches.   Good editions of the confessions have Scripture proof-texts accompanying and you can always look those up should you question whether a particular point is actually taught in the Bible.

The Most Important Issue

Let’s start with the most important issue.  In my experiences with educated Roman Catholics, this is where any discussion will lead you.  We tend to focus in on hot-button issues:  Mary, the Mass, purgatory, and the like.  However, when we get into some heavy discussion on these issues, appeals are made to authority.  The Reformed person appeals to Scripture.  But the Roman Catholic is not persuaded by appeals to Scripture.  In their minds, Scripture belongs with tradition and tradition stands on an equal footing with Scripture.  The two will never contradict each other.  Thus, in any discussion with Roman Catholics, things will always get bogged down over the question of authority.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) maintains that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture come from the same source:  God.  There is one common source, but two distinct ways in which God’s revelation comes to the Church:

“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit…Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.”

Those statements come from article 81.  Then we read the following in article 82:

“As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone.  Both Scripture and tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.’”

Tradition is more tightly defined in the eighty-third article as what has been handed down from the apostles via oral transmission.  The apostles, in turn, received the tradition from the Lord Jesus.  The Roman Catholic Church also distinguishes between the great Tradition, which is unchangeable, and “various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time.”  The latter “can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium [body of authoritative teachers].”  In short, the Roman Catholic view can be defined as Scripture plus tradition – but both are regarded as having a divine origin and so both are equally authoritative.

Oftentimes, the biblical or Reformed view is defined as “Sola Scriptura,” Latin for “by Scripture alone.”  Unfortunately, this often degenerates into what some have called “Solo Scriptura.”  “Solo Scriptura” is the caricature of the biblical view and it is maintained by many evangelicals.  It is the reason why one writer stated, without hyperbole:   “…Evangelicalism has created far more novel doctrines than Roman Catholicism.” [1]  With this view of Scripture, the Bible stands with me all by itself.  I will come with my private interpretation of the Bible and it is valid and authoritative for me.   This “Solo Scriptura” view is not biblical.

The biblical view is that the Bible alone is the most clear and authoritative source of revelation – the only other source being “the creation, preservation and government of the universe” (Belgic Confession, article 2).  The Bible alone is where God reveals all we need to know for our salvation.  The Bible alone has been “breathed out by God” and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).  Scripture must therefore be acknowledged as the only ultimate and infallible norm for Christians.  However, Scripture must always be interpreted in an ecclesiastical context – after all, it is the Church which has been entrusted with the Scriptures.  We may not have an individualistic approach to the Bible.  The Bible always has to be understood not only in its own context, but also in the context of the true Church.  This is why astute Bible students (including ministers) place great value upon commentaries.  Good commentaries (like those of John Calvin) give Bible students an excellent sense of how the Scriptures have been understood by those who have gone before us.

At the same time, it is very clear in our Belgic Confession (article 7) that we cannot consider “any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures.”  According to the same article, we may not place custom or tradition on the same level as God’s Word either.  This is a direct jab against the teaching of the Roman Catholics.  The reason given is biblical:  “for all men are of themselves liars, and lighter than a breath” (cf. Psalm 62:9).  So, the biblical view of the authority of Scripture acknowledges several things:  the supreme and ultimate authority of the Bible, the importance of the Church in interpreting the Bible, and the sinfulness of man has an impact on his interpretation and understanding of the Bible.

This biblical view can be truly labelled as Catholic in the good sense of the word.  This was the view held during the first three centuries of the Church.  It was the view that found acceptance by the majority of the Church through most of the Middle Ages.  Finally, this was the view that re-emerged during the Great Reformation under men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.[2]  The Roman Catholic view as it stands today actually originates around the twelfth century.  As Keith Mathison puts it, “The historical novelty [of this view] is simply not in debate among patristic and medieval scholars.”[3]  In other words, the view expressed in CCC may be Roman, but it is certainly not Catholic.

The Doctrine of Man

We spent a lot of time on that question of authority because it is so critically important.  It lies at the root of most of the other doctrinal problems in the Roman Catholic Church.   We could touch on many other issues, but let’s stay where the fire is hottest.  Let’s briefly examine what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about man.  The Roman Catholic Church holds to a position called “Semi-Pelagianism.”  Pelagius, a fifth-century British monk, taught that man is not conceived and born in sin.  Man is born essentially good and he learns evil by imitation.  Augustine of Hippo opposed Pelagius and insisted on man’s corruption.  Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church adamantly maintains that Pelagius was wrong.  They maintain a doctrine called “Original Sin” and assert that “original sin is transmitted with human nature by propagation, not by imitation.” (CCC, art.419)

Though the Roman Catholic Church holds to original sin, it is defined in a special way:

“Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants.  It is a deprivation of the original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted; it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’  Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.”  (CCC, art.405)

Take note of the view of human nature here:  it “has not been totally corrupted,” it is wounded, inclined to sin.  This is a more pessimistic view than Pelagius, but more optimistic than the biblical view of man as dead in sins and trespasses (cf. Eph. 2:1).  For this reason, we rightly label this doctrine semi-Pelagianism.  Under this doctrine, man is given a significant role in his own salvation.  He is weakened, but once he is baptized, original sin disappears, though its effects may still be seen.  At the end of the day, man retains some good within him.  With a little push from God’s grace, man can help to save himself.

The true Catholic view is quite a bit different.  In article 15 of the Belgic Confession, the truth of Scripture is summarized like this:

“We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has spread throughout the whole human race.  It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother’s womb…It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.”

The direction of the Belgic Confession seems clear enough.  However, in the seventeenth century, the followers of Jacob Arminius tried to weaken the interpretation of the Belgic Confession.  The Synod of Dort in 1618-19 answered with its Canons that make very clear that man is pervasively depraved.  The Canons of Dort, following Scripture, state without reservation that all men are not merely wounded, but “dead in sin, and slaves of sin.  And without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they neither will nor can return to God, reform their depraved nature, or prepare themselves for its reformation.” (CoD, 3/4.3).  This view is the truly Catholic one, for it encapsulates the doctrine of the apostles (cf. Col. 2:13) that has been maintained by true believers around the world (including Augustine, Calvin and others) for centuries.   This view alone gives all the glory for man’s salvation to God.

Worship

The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the place of Mary, the saints, the Mass and other sacraments, and the use of images are especially objectionable to Bible-believing Christians.  All of these teachings can be lumped together under the general heading of worship.  It has often been noted that worship was one of the central issues in the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century.  It only makes sense, then, that we ask what the Roman Catholic Church believes about worship.

We can do this by looking at how the Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with the first and second commandments.  The RCC traditionally puts the first and second commandments together and calls them the first commandment.  Yet, the Catechism does divide the explanation.  What we call the first commandment is explained as forbidding the honor of other gods as well as a prohibition against superstition and irreligion.  What we call the second commandment is first explained as prohibiting the “representation of God by the hand of man.” (art. 2129).  However, the doors are quickly opened with the following articles:

2130  Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word:  so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.

2131  Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons – of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints.  By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images.”

What is striking about the Roman Catholic understanding of the second commandment is that there is no recognition that this commandment originally pertained to the worship of God through graven images.  This is exactly where the Roman Catholic Church goes wrong in its understanding of worship.  In art. 2132 of CCC, it is stated plainly:

“Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate.  The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.”

In other words, the Roman Catholic Church worships God through these images.  Roman Catholics will say the same about their “veneration” of Mary and the other saints:  we are worshipping God through them and thus the “veneration” is no idolatry.   This is nothing less than a violation of the second commandment.

This was recognized during the Reformation.  The Heidelberg Catechism states that we may not have images “in order to worship them or to serve God through them” (QA 97).  Further, this Reformed Catechism also asserts that the second commandment gives us a basic principle for our worship:  we are not “to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.” (QA 96)  The same principle is found with the Belgic Confession in article 7, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length,” and then also in article 32, “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  This is the application of Sola Scriptura to our worship.

The Roman Catholic Church follows a different route when it comes to worship:  we may add to or take away from the worship of God as we please.  Thus, the RCC has an elaborate ritual for baptism that obscures the simplicity of the sacrament as found in Scripture:  sprinkling or immersion with plain water.  Following their unscriptural worship principle, the RCC adds images and countless other innovations.  The whole procedure and doctrine of the mass, though it often uses the words of Scripture, not only twists those very words, but also adds or takes away from the teaching of our Lord Jesus.

Other Examples

Numerous books have been written documenting the differences between the teaching of the Papacy and the teaching of Scripture.  This article could quickly turn into one of those books!  Before we finish off, here are two more examples of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church contrasted with the teaching of Scripture as summarized in our Confessions:

Regarding justification, Rome teaches:

“Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.  Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.” (art. 1992)

But the Bible teaches:

“Therefore we rightly say with Paul that we are justified by faith apart from observing the law (Rom. 3:28).  Meanwhile, strictly speaking, we do not mean that faith as such justifies us, for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ our righteousness;  He imputes to us all his merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.”  (Belgic Confession, art.22)

Note the difference between an infused justification (“conferred in Baptism”) and an imputed justification that is by faith alone.

Regarding the extent of Christ’s atonement, Rome teaches:

“The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception:  ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.”  (art.605)

But Scripture teaches us:

“For this was the most free counsel of God the Father, that the life-giving and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect…This means:  God willed that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which He confirmed the new covenant) should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and tongue all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and were given to Him by the Father.”  (Canons of Dort, chapter 2.8)

Here the difference is between a universal atonement, and an efficacious atonement restricted to God’s elect.  Only the latter is the teaching of Jesus, the only head of the church (e.g. John 10:15).

On these and so many other points, the Roman Catholic Church has departed from the teaching of Scripture.  We may say without hesitation that the RCC represents the spirit of Antichrist.  In fact, the Westminster Confession is not off the mark when it implies that the Roman Catholic Church is a synagogue of Satan (25.5).  And certainly we may agree that the Pope is not in any sense the head of the church of Jesus Christ, “but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.” (25.6).

Through the Apostles’ Creed, we continue to confess that we believe a Catholic Church.  Through the course of our brief examination, we have seen that there is a true Catholicism and a false Catholicism.  There is a church chosen to everlasting life which experiences the unity of true faith – a true faith built upon submission to God’s Word alone.  This is the true Catholic Church.  There is also a church that “assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.” (BC art.29).  This is the false Catholic Church – the Roman Catholic Church.  We are the true Catholics and we should not be ashamed to say so.  Moreover, we should also be eager to bring the true gospel to those enslaved to the many soul-endangering errors of Rome.

[1]  The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Keith Mathison, Moscow: Canon Press, 2001, p.280.

[2] Ibid..

[3] Ibid., p.211.


Book Review: J.I. Packer, An Evangelical Life

J I Packer -- An Evangelical Life

J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, Leland Ryken.  Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2015.  Hardcover, 431 pages, $39.99 AUD.

I had one recurring thought as I read this biography:  what if J. I. Packer had been born somewhere else other than England?  What if, say, he had been born, raised and educated in the United States?  How would his story have played out differently?  As it is, he was born in England and having spent a good deal of his life there did shape his thinking and influence.  Especially the Church of England has been a dominant force in his life.

This is a unique biography of a unique theologian.  The book is unique because of the approach that Ryken takes – he doesn’t merely give a chronological accounting of Packer’s life.  The first part of the book does that, but part 2 attempts to give a picture of the man and what makes him tick, while part 3 works out some of the themes of his life.

J.I. Packer is well-known to many Reformed readers not only because of the quantity he’s produced, but also the quality.  Just speaking for myself, my first Packer book was his volume on the Puritans, A Quest for Godliness.  This had a huge impact on shaping my attitude towards those saints of old.   Later, when I pursued doctoral studies in missiology, one of my required readings was one of Packer’s first books, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God.  This slender book powerfully argued that a Calvinistic belief in God’s sovereignty is definitely not a death-knell for spreading the gospel – quite the opposite!   Many people have also benefitted from Packer classics such as Knowing God.

The biographer’s stated purpose was to give the reader an acquaintance with James Innell Packer.  Certainly I did come away from it with a better understanding of the man and his contributions.  For example, you learn of Packer’s significant involvement with the English Standard Version (ESV) – he was the general editor of the ESV, the theological editor of the ESV Study Bible, and has done editing work on every ESV study Bible published by Crossway.  Packer was also deeply involved in debates surrounding biblical inerrancy – a debate that he considered to extend far beyond the confines of the United States.  Packer was one of the drafters of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  But you also discover some of his personality – he enjoys jazz music, but reckons jazz took a turn for the worse when Louis Armstrong began playing the trumpet, rather than the cornet.

Readers should not expect to find a critical biography here.  Ryken is obviously a friend of Packer and they have worked together on projects like the ESV.  Ryken is careful to cast his friend in the best possible light – which is what you would expect a friend to do.  However, this does have a drawback in that where a critical stance might have been appropriate, Ryken is either silent or restrained.

As an example, let’s take one of the most controversial affairs in Packer’s life:  his involvement with the 1994 statement entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT).  This was an effort to unite Roman Catholics and evangelicals on a common theological basis in order to take a joint stand against social evils like abortion.  Unfortunately, this common theological basis resulted in the lowest-common denominator form of essential doctrines like justification.  Packer was a key player in the events leading to ECT and a signer.  Ryken spends several pages on the controversy, but he doesn’t mention exactly what the critics’ concerns were.  This is completely overlooked.  So are subsequent developments in this saga.  Packer teamed up with Michael Horton to produce another document, Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue.  This document, also from 1994, was signed by numerous high-profile Presbyterian and Reformed theologians besides Packer.  Ryken doesn’t mention it.  Nor does he mention another ecumenical statement from 1998, The Gift of Salvation.  This was produced by many of the same people involved with ECT in 1994, including Packer.  The Gift of Salvation again compromised on the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the interests of ecumenicity with Roman Catholics.

Towards the end of the book, Ryken exclaims that he cannot understand why certain groups and individuals get so angry at Packer (page 411).  It’s a mystery to him.  I can solve that mystery:  it’s because Packer is rather inconsistent on some key teachings.  For example, he claims to hold to the ultimate authority of the Bible, yet he is lenient on evolution.  He claims to believe in justification by faith alone as a foundational doctrine, yet he readily gives this up when working with Roman Catholics.

Throughout his years in the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada, Packer “consistently endorsed leniency regarding the presence of liberal forces within Anglicanism” (page 321).  In a conversation with Ryken, Packer noted that other churches deal with errors through discipline;  he then made the novel claim that “debate is also a form of discipline” (page 314).  However, he was almost always on the losing end of important debates and the liberal forces for which he had endorsed leniency pushed him out of the Anglican Church of Canada.  This happened in 2008 over the issue of same-sex marriage.  We can commend Packer for maintaining the biblical position on marriage no matter what the cost.  However, at the same time, one wonders what would have happened if he had been more forceful all along with gospel-deniers in Anglicanism, of which there have been plenty.  Would they have forced him out sooner?  More importantly, was leniency really biblically justified (cf. Gal. 1:6-9)?

It’s not a perfect biography, but it was certainly an interesting one.  Readers will gain an understanding of the life and times of this unique, and sometimes perplexing, theologian.  The writing is excellent and easy-to-understand (like Packer himself), but because of Ryken’s approach, there is some overlap and repetition between the parts.   This isn’t the first biography of Packer, but it is the latest.  I’m also quite sure that it won’t be the last – much more remains to be said about his life and legacy, for better and for worse.


Are the Saints in Heaven Aware of Our Miseries and Trials?

JosiahsReformation

When you’ve taught catechism to the youth of the church for a few years, you start to know where questions will pop up.  When you deal with Lord’s Day 18 and the subtle argument found there relating Christ’s ascension with his presence here on earth and the polemics with the Lutherans, you can reasonably expect that your catechism students won’t be asking any questions.  But when it comes to Lord’s Day 22 and the doctrine of the last things (eschatology), you might want to slot in an extra class just to deal with their questions.  It’s not just young church members who have questions — I’ve noticed that older church members do too.  We all wonder what “perfect blessedness” in the hereafter really involves.  One question that I’ve been asked and have often pondered is whether believers in glory are aware of goings-on here on earth, including the suffering and grief we might experience.  I’ve always been inclined to say “no.”  After all, how can “perfect blessedness” include concern and anxiety over what is happening with your loved ones who are not (yet) in glory?

In his book, Josiah’s Reformation, Richard Sibbes indirectly addresses this question.  In the last chapter, this Puritan author exposits 2 Chronicles 34:28.  Here God is addressing King Josiah through the prophetess Huldah:   “Behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place and its inhabitants.”  Sibbes notes that one of the things to take away from this verse is a clear indication that the Roman Catholics are wrong in praying to Mary and other saints.  After all, God promised this saint (Josiah) that he would be taken out of this world with the consequence that he would be unaware of the disaster that would come on the people of God after his lifetime.  This consequence is not peculiar to Josiah, but is true of all human beings brought to glory.  It was and is a blessing for saints to be relieved of their concerns for their loved ones.  Sibbes goes a step further and notes the absurdity of the Roman Catholic view.  He says, for the sake of argument let’s grant that saints in heaven are aware of what goes on down on earth and can hear the prayers of unglorified believers and extend help.  But they are still finite creatures, aren’t they?  Writes Sibbes, “How can one saint give a distinct answer and help to perhaps a thousand prayers, as the virgin Mary hath many thousand prayers offered her?  How can she distinctly know and give a distinct answer to every prayer?”  It’s only possible if she is no longer human.

For our purposes, however, we can note that Josiah was taken out of this world with the promise that he would be unaware of the miseries and trials to follow his death.  Is there any indication in Scripture that this is not true of all believers?  Does the Bible anywhere teach that Christians are taken to heaven but still weighed down with concerns over what takes place on earth?

What about Ecclesiastes 9:5-6?

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

These verses played a part in a controversy in the Netherlands over the doctrine of soul sleep.  Some (e.g. Telder) taught that “the dead know nothing” means that when you die you have no conscious awareness of anything on earth or in heaven.  Your soul essentially falls asleep.  Two comments:  1) It is dangerous to hang a doctrine on a passage from a difficult book like Ecclesiastes.  This type of wisdom writing can easily be misused.  2)  The context here demonstrates that the Preacher’s perspective is related to “all that is done under the sun.”  If anything, you can only restrict what is said here to life on the earth.

In Luke 16, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  The parable shows the rich man looking down on earth after death and having concern for his five brothers left behind.  However:  1) The rich man is not in glory, but in hell.  If this is indicative of something of the after-life, it’s only telling us that the damned continue to be aware of the miseries and trials of this earth.  2)  But, this is a parable and again care needs to be taken in interpreting this as definite doctrine about the hereafter.  Our Saviour often worked within the understanding of his listeners about these things.  If what’s said here can be confirmed from other passages in Scripture, we can be more dogmatic about accepting it as divine revelation concerning the hereafter.

If there’s one passage that comes close to leading us to believe that saints in heaven are aware of the trials of saints on earth, it would have to be Revelation 6:10-11.  When the sixth seal was opened, John saw the souls of the martyrs under the altar.  We then read in Rev. 6:10-11,

10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Doesn’t this seem to suggest that at least some saints (the martyrs) in heaven are aware of the travails of some of the saints on earth?  These verses need to be read carefully.  The glorified martyrs’ cry of “how long?” is related to the avenging of their blood shed while they were on earth.  In response to that, they are told to wait until the number of the martyrs is complete.  This suggests at most a general knowledge that the final judgment has not yet come, but not necessarily an awareness of the particulars of everything going on in the world left behind.  Moreover, the genre here also has to be taken into consideration.  This is apocalyptic literature and vivid imagery is used that’s not always intended to be understood literally.  The classic example is Satan’s chain in Revelation 20:1.  Satan is an angel, a spiritual being, so he obviously cannot be bound with a literal physical chain.  Similarly here, in Revelation 6, the language may simply be trying to convey the eagerness that heaven and its inhabitants have for final justice at the last day.  But that doesn’t mean that Oma looks down from heaven and sadly sees me getting grumpy and irritable with my family here (for example!).

When all the biblical evidence is considered, we have to conclude that “perfect blessedness” in heaven involves being unaware of the particular trials and struggles that saints on earth continue to experience.  We can expect that when we are graciously brought to glory, we will not have our eyes directed back from whence we came, but to Christ, to our God and Saviour.  We will be perfectly living in communion with him — and he will take care of looking out for our loved ones left behind, he will continue to be aware of their sufferings, temptations, and trials.  And as all-powerful God, he is the one who can actually do something about all of it.  In heaven, we will be content to leave it all to him — that’s perfect blessedness.