Sunday, April 29, 2007

Death By Duty?: Assessing John Owen's Theology of Mortification

It has been the pervasive view concerning the Puritans, and Puritanism, since nearly the end of the nineteenth century[1] that those heirs of the Protestant Reformation turned the Biblical spirituality of their eminent predecessors into a legalistic, “do-it-yourself” religion.[2] Among those accused of such distortions is none other than the towering Puritan theologian John Owen. One of his hallmark works The Mortification of Sin in Believers might understandably be identified as evidence for this charge. For, in the work Owen lays out a strong and hard plan for the fight against sin, and in so doing clearly indicates that it is a duty of man. The last five decades have, however, shed new light on the Puritans as “people,” and opened up much discussion about their theology that is still continuing to produce new ground. It is with this in mind that the question, “Was John Owen a legalist,” becomes significant for understanding better the Puritans. The following paper is an examination of this major work on sin and an assessment of the author’s so-called “legalism” within it. Owen’s work is rich with the gospel, and the misunderstandings of it are simply poor readings of the work.

Before examining the work of this significant representative of the Puritans, however, we must understand who John Owen was. If it is true that a knowledge of a man’s writing will reveal the man himself, then it is equally true that a knowledge of the man himself helps us to interpret correctly his writing.

John Owen was born in 1616 at Stadham, England, near Oxford. He was the son of a Puritan vicar, Henry Owen, and so it was only natural for him to grow up into a Puritan himself. J.I. Packer says of Owen that he “embodied all that was noblest in Puritan devotion.”[3] In fact at his funeral service Owen’s colleague David Clarkson said of him, “Holiness gave a divine lustre to his other accomplishments.”[4] Owen had understood what Clarkson believed was “most needed to humble the souls of men”: (1) Knowledge of God and (2) Knowledge of Self. “The man that understands the evil of his own heart, how vile it is, is the only useful, fruitful, and solidly believing and obedient person.”[5] This certainly described Owen. But he had not come to this knowledge of self merely through academia, but through painful periods of spiritual depression in his own life.

After graduating from Queens College with his M.A. in 1635 Owen delved into more hard and serious study. Even pushing himself to study eighteen to twenty hours a day. But ambitions of greatness were displaced when in his mid-twenties he experienced such a conviction for sin that for the next three months he was academically frozen. It was a period, not uncommon to Christians of his day, where he wrestled with his own sinfulness before a holy God. The results were both steps towards his conversion, and, unlike most Christians of his day, the beginning stages of a thorough and expansive theology of sin.

Greater knowledge of his heart did not, however, lead to a stagnant life and satisfied mind, and Owen once again threw himself, whole-heartedly, into his studies, sleeping only four hours a night. But by 1630 the landscape of Puritan England was changing. Archbishop William Laud was appointed Chancellor of Oxford in 1630 and was highly involved in University life. His new statutes for the Church of England were to be enforced and each student was bound to agree to them. It was this pressure which drove Owen to finally leave Oxford in 1637. Laud had Catholic tendencies and his new statutes reeked of that popish religion which the Puritans were so strongly resistant to. John Spurr describes the changes as follows:

Clergy were instructed to conform to the letter of the Prayer Book, to read the services as and when prescribed, without addition or omission, and to wear the stipulated clerical dress and vestments. Parishioners were to stand for the creed and the gospels and to bow at the name of Jesus. In 1633 the Privy Council instructed the parish churches to follow the lead of cathedrals and to keep the communion table permanently against the east wall, in the position of an altar, and surrounded by rails; the laity should receive communion on their knees at these rails. Preaching was regulated and discussion of predestination especially discouraged.[6]

For Owen these statutes were the teaching as doctrine what were the commandments of men. He saw them as an imposition on the Scriptures and could not abide by them in good conscience. It seems, then, that from an early stage Owen had accepted the old Puritan principle of regulative worship.

After leaving Oxford Owen found himself soon involved in the English Civil war. The war was engulfing the continent at large and lines were being drawn and sides chosen. Owen, naturally, felt compelled to side with Parliament, who was largely Puritan. Throughout the 1640s he served as chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was the leading figure in the English revolution, leading the rebel Puritan army into victory against King Charles I. It was during this period of chaplainry that Owen again felt the consuming depression of conviction for sin. He wrestled and studied and found little consolation until in 1642 God gave him assurance.

He and a friend were going to hear the great preacher Edmund Calamy at Aldermanbury Chapel. Calamy, however, was not there and in his place was a preacher of relative obscurity.[7] The text of his sermon was Matthew 8:26, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” The words grabbed Owen’s attention and held it firmly. Andrew Thompson says of the event, “Immediately it arrested the thoughts of Owen as appropriate to his present state of mind, and he breathed an inward prayer that God would be pleased by that minister to speak to his condition. The prayer was heard, for the preacher stated and answered the very doubts that had long perplexed Owen’s mind.”[8] Finally, he was converted. It was out of this life, in this world, and on the authority of God’s word that Owen’s theology developed.

These were full years for Owen. His popularity spread through his writings and his preaching. His studies too produced both several works (A Display of Arminianism, 1643) and his public transition from Presbyterianism to Congregationalism. The period saw as well the marriage of Owen to Mary Rooke, of Fordham. Together they had eleven children, though, sadly, only one survived. It was the 1650s, however, that would prove to be the most productive years of his life.

After serving as both a state preacher and, again, chaplain to Cromwell, Owen took the job as vice-chancellor of Oxford University. The sermons he preached during these days at both Christ’s Church, Oxford and St. Mary’s were theological seeds that later blossomed into the work we are now here to consider: The Mortification of Sin. There were other works during this period too. Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson list, coming out this period, works on “perseverance of the saints, Christ’s satisfaction, mortification of sin, communion with the Trinity, schism, temptation, and the authority of Scripture.”[9] Writing was the major contribution of John Owen to greater Christendom.

This period of peace, however, did not last. For, a man of Owen’s uncompromising nature is never far from distressing those in authority. The 1660s found Owen out of favor with Cromwell, then protectorate of England, and thrust from his positions in academia. Though continuing to write throughout the 70s Owen had, by 1673, settled into the pastorate of a joint church in London, that he and several other Puritans oversaw. He died as the “Prince of the Puritans” in 1683.

Turning now to consider The Mortification of Sin we must remember the context in which it developed. The work was first published in 1656, but it stemmed from the lectures Owen gave as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. This has bearing on the content of the work. The discourse developed out of those tumultuous years of the 1750s and was originally composed for an audience of young men. Kelly Kapic explains the significance of this information:

One consequence of addressing this youthful audience seems to be that his reflections tend toward the concrete and practical, emphasizing the particular rather than lingering too long on the abstract. Here were young people who were beginning to experience the complexity of sin and self, and Owen was compelled to help.[10]

It seems probable that as Owen watched his students wrestle with sin he recalled his own internal conflict from years before. As these young men now came face to face with that spiritual depression, that he knew all too well, Owen sought to give them the help that he had most needed during his days of struggling. He used his lectures to stress the practical steps that they could take to fight sin. It is most likely this stress on the practical that leads some readers to conclude that Owen is nothing more than a legalist.[11] This reaction, though understandable, is not necessarily warranted. When readers take into consideration this context it can correct the assumptions they have about the practical emphasis of the discourse.

The context aside, however, the text itself, when closely examined, reveals a gospel-rich theology. Those two great theological foundations underpin the entirety of the work: (1) Know yourself, and (2) Know God. Though Owen spends a great amount of space instructing his hearers on self-examination, he never forgets to remind them of the importance of that second principle. Kapic comments, “Affirming the importance of honest introspection does not blind Owen to the fact that this exercise will lead a person to despair if it is not also paralleled with a study of the grace of God.”[12]

Owen does indeed teach, as the Bible does, that mortification of sin is a duty of man. So he writes, “The mortification of indwelling sin remaining in our mortal bodies, that it may not have life and power to bring forth the works or deeds of the flesh, is the constant duty of believers.”[13] The battle against sin in the flesh is not a suggestion; it is a required fight for every Christian. Furthermore, this battle must be waged daily, constantly. There is real obligation. The foundation of this statement, however, is found in God’s Holy Word. Owen is expositing Scripture, not waxing legalistically on the duty of man. The whole work is built off of Romans 8:13, “If you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body you shall live.”[14] Expounding on the text Owen says:

Indwelling sin is compared to a person, a living person, called, the “old man,” with his faculties and properties, his wisdom, craft, subtlety, strength; this, says the apostle, must be killed, put to death, mortified- that is, have its power, life, vigor, and strength to produce its effects taken away by the Spirit. It is, indeed, meritoriously, and by way of example, utterly mortified and slain by the cross of Christ; and the “old man” is thence said to be “crucified with Christ” (Rom. 6:6), and ourselves to be “dead” with him (Rom 6:8), and really initially in regeneration (Rom. 6:3-5), when a principle contrary to it and destructive to it (Gal. 5:17) is planted in our hearts; but the whole work is by degrees to be carried on toward perfection all our days.[15]

To suggest that Owen is being legalistic here is to misunderstand the nature of Biblical commands.[16] Paul clearly said, “Put to death the deeds of the flesh,” as an imperative. But Owen does not merely leave mortification at “duty,” he continues, as his Scriptural support does, to testify that the Spirit does the work through us. “The principal efficient cause of the performance of this duty is the Spirit…All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit.”[17] Man cannot do this work, only the believer and only by the Spirit. “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”[18]

In chapter three of his work Owen delineates the great fault of Roman Catholics in the pursuit of mortifying sin, it reveals the author’s intent to convey grace and not legalism in the discourse. He states that the Catholic Church fails to mortify sin because they use “ways and means…invented by them” and “were never appointed of God for that purpose.”[19] “Now, there is nothing in religion that has any efficacy for compassing an end, but it has it from God’s appointment of it to that purpose.” It appears that he is criticizing those attempts at self-mortification that are without the Spirit, and as such are in vain. And even when the Catholic does use the right means he again does so without the Spirit. He uses prayer, fasting, watching, and meditation, but “subordinate to the Spirit and faith, they look on them to do it by virtue of the work wrought.”[20] The discourse, however, is not a treatise against Roman Catholics; it is a discourse on the defeat of sin by the gospel, and there is to be found the central argument against those who insist on a legalistic interpretation of the text. Owen’s means for mortification is not “duty,” but “gospel grace.”

At the root of legalism is confusion over the doctrine of sanctification. It fails to grasp, what Owen did, that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are Biblically compatible. So he writes, “[The Holy Spirit] does not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience. The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience.”[21] Those who would accuse Owen of being legalistic in his presentation of man’s duty, miss the numerous comments he makes throughout the work that remind his readers that God must do the work of mortification through them. This “reminder” comes particularly in two ways: (1) Through references to the Spirit as the means, and (2) Through the Gospel. It is these “reminders” that make The Mortification of Sin a balanced teaching of the doctrine of sanctification.[22]

Speaking of Owen’s contribution to the study of sanctification Kelly Kapic writes:

There are two extremes often found in the church when dealing with [questions concerning sanctification]. On the one hand, there are those who seem to believe that we are saved by grace and sanctified by works: here grace is problematically reduced to the initial work of salvation. On the other hand, in an effort to avoid “works righteousness,” others tend to collapse justification and sanctification; the danger here is that the biblical call to active, faithful obedience by the believer can be nullified, and inappropriate passivity can set in. Rather than these two extremes, Owen follows the more traditional Reformed perspective that upholds another model of sanctification. True and lasting resistance to sin comes not through will power and self-improvement but through the Spirit who empowers believers with a knowledge and love of God.[23]

Owen’s theology is not legalism, it is, in fact, the Biblical, balanced, view of the Christian life that expects man to do his duty, and anticipates fruit from the Spirit’s work through him. Some of the way in which Owen speaks of the Spirit was discussed above, but here we zero in slightly more on his pneumatology.

Owen made great contributions to the protestant understanding of the Holy Spirit, not all of which we can consider here, but he was particularly helpful in expounding upon the role of the Spirit in sanctification. In The Mortification of Sin Owen offers two justifications for his assertion that the Spirit is the one who mortifies sin. (1) The Father promised to believers the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit for their sanctification. Owen finds scriptural support for this conviction as well, he writes:

The taking away of the stony heart- that is, the stubborn, proud, rebellious, unbelieving heart- is in general the work of mortification that we treat of. Now this is still promised to be done by the spirit, “I will give my Spirit, and take away the stony heart” (Ezek. 11:19;36:26), and by the Spirit of God is this work wrought when all means fail (Isa. 57:17-18).[24]

(2) Sanctification is a gift from Christ that is communicated through the Spirit.[25] Owen states, “All communications of supplies and relief, in the beginnings, increasings, actings of any grace whatsoever, from [Christ], are by the Spirit, by whom he alone works in and upon believers.”[26] In view of this pneumatology it seems unreasonable to credit legalism to Owen. There is duty in Owen’s theology, just as there is in Scripture, but it is a duty motivated by grace and accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Dr. Michael Haykin agrees when he writes:

For Owen…the believer has a duty to be constantly mortifying, or “putting to death,” the sin that still indwells his mortal frame. But equally important for Owen was the fact that such a duty is only possible in the strength that the Holy Spirit supplies, for he alone is “sufficient for this work.”[27]

The Biblical view of sanctification, that is of the mortification of sin, includes both duty and grace. To attempt to mortify sin without one or the other is to fail at the task. And Holy Spirit-empowered-duty avoids the pitfalls of both passivity and legalism.

Through references to the Spirit, like the ones listed above, Owen reminds his readers of the gospel-rich theology he holds. But it is in the second means of reminding them, that readers will find the greatest defense against critics: Owen’s use of the Gospel, itself. If the concept of Spirit-empowered-duty does not sway his accusers then perhaps the amazing manner in which Owen speaks of the cross will.

The gospel is the centerpiece of Owen’s theology of mortification. The death of Christ, not the duty of man, is the immediate cause of our sanctified hearts and lives. Owen expresses this truth mostly at the end of the book, but he sprinkles the gospel message throughout the whole of the content. Readers can see it if the presumed legalism of the author does not blind them. So Owen writes in chapter 4:

Adoption and justification, not mortification, are the immediate causes of life, vigor, and comfort. In the ways instituted by God to give us life, vigor, courage, and consolation, mortification is not one of the immediate causes of it. They are privileges of our adoption made known to our souls that give us immediately these things.[28]

The blessings of sanctification, those blessings of a healthy spiritual life, are not results of mortifying sin, but of being justified by Christ. It is these kinds of caveats that demonstrate Owen’s resistance to “work’s righteousness” and self-preservation in the faith. It seems likely that Owen knew some would be prone to take these practical principles and run fast, feeling secure in their salvation, all the way to hell. Again, he qualifies this practical advice with continued reminders of the gospel: “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.”[29]

The author continues this work with a rather specific and lengthy list of practical guides to the mortification of sin. He says we should meditate on the guilt of sin, think of its danger and evil, that we should wait on God, and that we should consider our natural tempers.[30] But all these steps are “preparatory to the work aimed at…[and not]…such as will effect it.”[31] When Owen finally approaches, in the last chapter, directions for the work o mortification itself he has only one: set faith at work on Christ for the killing of your sin.[32] Here the richness of the gospel is brought forth from his pen.

What is the source of our mortification? Is it Self-improvement or personal striving? Not according to Owen:

How shall faith act itself on Christ for [the killing of your sin]…By faith fill your soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in Jesus Christ for this end and purpose, that all your lusts, this very lust wherewith you are entangled, may be mortified.[33]

It is Jesus Christ’s provision as “Prince and Savior,” not man’s work, that is the end of our sinning. Anyone, by this point, still clinging to the interpretation of The Mortification of Sin as legalism need only read a few lines further to be hit with another blow of John Owen’s gospel-rich theology. Continuing his discussion of how faith acts itself on Christ for the mortifying of sin Owen says:

Let, then, your soul by faith be exercised with such thoughts and apprehensions as these: I am a poor, weak creature; unstable as water, I cannot excel. This corruption is too hard for me, and is at the very door of ruining my soul; and what to do I know not. My soul is becoming as parched ground and an habitation of dragons. I have made promises and broken them; vows and engagements have been as a thing of naught. Many persuasions have I had that I had got the victory and should be delivered, but I am deceived; so that I plainly see, that without some eminent succor and assistance, I am lost, and shall be prevailed on to an utter relinquishment of god. But yet, though this be my state and condition, let the hands that hang down be lifted up, and the feeble knees be strengthened. Behold, the Lord Christ, that has all fullness of grace in his heart [John 1:16], all fullness of power in his hand [Matt 28:18], he is able to slay all these his enemies. There is sufficient provision in him for my relief and assistance. He can take my drooping, dying soul and make me more than a conqueror [Rom. 8:37].[34]

Owen would lay waste to all boasts of self-promotion and prideful work’s righteousness. The poor weak creature has nothing to offer God and is indeed desolate and on the brink of ruin. Only Christ’s provision is his salvation. This is pure gospel teaching that Owen advocates. The mortification of sin is the work of the Spirit, accessible only through the death and resurrection of Christ. Legalism leaves man with the weight of his sin still bearing down upon him, but Owen declares that the gospel of Jesus frees us from that burden:

Let faith look on Christ in the gospel as he is set forth dying and crucified for us. Look on him under the weight of our sins, praying, bleeding, dying; bring him in that condition into your heart by faith; apply his blood so shed to your corruptions. Do this daily. [35]

Owen would have his audience know themselves. Know their hearts, their weaknesses and distempers. He would urge them to know their sins and their guilt because of sin. Yet amidst this duty Owen would urge his audience to know God. Know his mercy and grace, know his precious Son crucified. Yes mortification is required of the Christian. And yes we are responsible to work out our salvation. But if we do so with the gospel, then the Spirit of Christ works in us and through us for our sanctification. This gospel-rich theology is the foundation of all mortification and with that knowledge readers are free to read The Mortification of Sin with hope for their own sanctification.

The significance of this discussion certainly has manifold benefits. For starters it preserves the honest interpretation of Owen’s classic work on sin. Beyond this point it reveals to us more of who this great Puritan theologian was. He was not the hard, bitter, stoic, prude, who as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford made strict rules for the performance of religion. Rather John Owen is the brilliant, sensitive, and pastoral theologian who writes comfort his audience with the gospel of grace in Christ Jesus. And, furthermore, he writes out of the storehouse of his own depression and his own victory through this gospel. At the larger level this discussion reveals fresh evidence that the Puritans were not the killjoys of the seventeenth century. They were pastors, theologians, Christians, and men who struggled with the very same issues that men struggle with today, and they found hope and, yes even, joy in the gospel.

[1] See Joel Beeke & Randal J. Pederson, Meet The Puritans. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2006. xiv.
[2] See R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. United Kingdom: Paternoster, 1997.
[3] John Owen, Sin & Temptation. ed. James M. Houston. Portland: Multnomah, 1983. xviii.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] John Spurr, English Puritanism 1603-1689. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. 87.
[7] Owen would later in life try to discover the identity of this man, but to no avail.
[8] Andrew Thompson, The Life of Dr. Owen. In The Works of John Owen. Vol. 1. 7th Printing. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000. xxx-xxxi
[9] Meet the Puritans. 458-459.
[10] Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor, Overcoming Sin & Temptation: Three Classic Works of John Owen. Wheaton: Crossway, 2006. 25.
[11] The “readers” to whom I refer as sensing legalism in this work are both general and specific. This paper aims to prevent others from making the same mistakes that I initially made, when first considering this work in early 2002. I refer to them and myself with that word “readers.” I am also seeking here to correct the mistakes of 19th century critics who assed the Puritans as prudes and legalists, though I am not less acquainted with their works.
[12] Ibid. 31.
[13] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin. In Justin Taylor & Kelly Kapic, Overcoming Sin & Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen. Wheaton: Crossway, 2006. 49.
[14] Quoted in the text. 45.
[15] Ibid. 48-49.
[16] Readers would do well to note the amount of Scripture that Owen references throughout the work.
[17] Ibid. 47.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid. 58-59.
[20] Ibid. 59.
[21] The quote continues, “He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.” Ibid. 62.
[22] For more concerning Owen on sanctification see Sinclair Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987.
[23] Ibid. 32-33.
[24] Ibid. 60.
[25]I am indebted to Michael Haykin, for this analysis. See, Haykin, Michael A.G., “Spirituality: John Owen on the Holy Spirit and the Mortification of Sin.” Evangelical Times (Nov. 1999), [journal on-line], accessed 14 April 2007; available from; Internet.
[26]Kapic and Taylor, 60.
[27] Michael Haykin, “Spirituality: John Owen on the Holy Spirit and the Mortification of Sin.”
[28] Kapic and Taylor, 64.
[29] Ibid. 79.
[30] Owen shows sensitivity here in noting that sin will look different for each man, owing to their own natural tendencies and character.
[31] Ibid. 131.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid.132.
[35] Ibid. 138.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Bound to Be Friends: Slavery and Friendship in the Lives and Thoughts of James P. Boyce and John A. Broadus

The years 1861-1865 were times of intense division. They saw not only the disunity of the United States, as the South broke from the North, but these years saw divisions between religious denominations as well. Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists all divided over the issues surrounding the War Between the States. Among Baptists the division affected everything from seminary education to mission work. The split between Northern and Southern Baptists was not the only dividing line over the issue of slavery, for there were distinct positions held within Southern Baptists as well, even among the faculty of their leading seminary. Yet it is significant that the differing views held by the faculty did not spell disaster for the fledgling seminary. John Albert Broadus and James Petigru Boyce disagreed on the virtue of slavery, and yet their friendship remained firm to the end of their lives.

In 1858 a nomination committee of The Southern Baptist Convention had appointed Boyce and Broadus, along with Basil Manly Jr. and E.T. Winkler, to serve as professors for the new seminary. Both Winkler and Manly declined, however, and Boyce and Broadus stood alone to serve the Seminary. Their affections for one another could have only increased upon this event. They had much in common to solidify their friendship. Both were scholars and theologians, as well as preachers.[1] Both were Southerners through and through, and even when the tensions increased between the states both Boyce and Broadus remained loyal to the South. Neither was either man in favor of the cessation. Writing to is brother-in-law Boyce said:

I have been all along in favor of resistance, by demanding first new guarantees, and if these were not granted, then forming a Southern Confederacy…I know I am cautious about taking any step without arranging for the consequences.[2]

Likewise Broadus writes to Miss Cornelia Taliaferro saying:

Very many people here are as much opposed to a dissolution of the Union as you or I, but there can be little doubt that a majority of the voters in the State would be in favor of seceding with any other state.[3]

Both men were concerned about rash moves from their fellow Southerners. Yet the nature of their resistance was quite distinct. Without any qualms Boyce declared to his sister, “It is as a pro-slavery man that I would preserve the Union.”[4] Broadus on the other hand expresses no sympathies for slavery; rather he joins the secession because he believes it is his duty as a citizen of Virginia.[5] He writes:

I may be believed, perhaps, when it is understood that I was most earnestly opposed to the action of the state in seceding, and deeply regret it now. I have at this hour no sympathy with secession, though of course it would be worse than idle to speak against it now, and though, equally of course, I mean to do my duty as a citizen here.[6]

Boyce’s advocacy for slavery can be seen not only in his expressed sentiment that he was an “ultra pro-slavery man,”[7] but also in his identification with the faults of the institution itself. Writing to His brother-in-law and friend H.A. Tupper, Boyce states:

I believe I see in all this the end of slavery. I believe we are cutting its throat, curtailing its domain. And I have been, and am, an ultra pro-slavery man. Yet I bow to what God will do. I feel that our sins as to this institution have cursed us, - that the Negroes have not been cared for in their marital and religious relations as they should be; and I fear God is going to sweep it away, after having left it thus long to show us how great we might be, were we to act as we ought in this matter.[8]

Boyce had been a long time advocate of Christian love and charity towards slaves. Tom Nettles points out, “When J.P. Boyce served as pastor at Columbia, South Carolina, he faithfully instructed the slaves of the community in Christian truth and ‘fundamental duties of a Christian life’.”[9] In his biography of the man Broadus recalls, “A wealthy and highly educated young minister was fitly employed in such labor for the benefit of the slaves.”[10] Many Southerners had raised concerns for the slaves. P.H. Mell, J.L. Dagg, and E.T. Winkler had a vision for ministry among Southern slaves, including both evangelism and social needs. The “sins” which Boyce identified in the institution, however, appear so minuscule in the larger picture that they mar his genuine care. That care for their marriages, and encouragement in spiritual matters was sufficient ministry among the slaves only affirms the “ultra pro-slavery” character of the theologian. Broadus did not always do a better job of affirming the full humanity of Negroes. He had, on one occasion, referred to them as “lesser human beings.” His post-war sentiments, however, bear the fullest description of his position. In a funeral sermon preached for the Confederate dead Broadus said:

I verily believe that it is worth all our dreadful financial losses, all the sufferings of the long and frightful conflict, yea, and the blood of our precious dead, to have [the questions concerning slavery] behind us forever.[11]

To preach to a Confederate crowd about the loss of their sons, husbands, and brothers saying that their deaths were worth the price to see the end of slavery convinces one of the convictions of the preacher.

Both men were true Southerners, but while Dr. Boyce tended to romanticize the institution, his colleague bore no sentimentality toward it. Broadus was, in this respect, much like that great Southern General Robert E. Lee, who though he had slaves longed for the day when he did not. The letter of Broadus’ own servant to him bears some of the marks of the relationship they shared. We read:

My Dear Master:
As I feel like writing a few lines, and to show you that I think of you very often, I take the present opportunity of doing so. I am quite well now, thank the Lord, and we are all so far as I know, and I hope when these lines reach you that you and yours may be quite well. I heard from Mr. Saint Clair’s yesterday- all well. My dear master, I hear much of the coming election. I hope that Mr. Lincoln or no such man may ever take his seat in the presidential chair. I do most sincerely hope that the Union may be preserved.[12]

The end of the letter records that the servant, “Uncle Dick” as he was known, was “wanting to go up to see” his wife but was unable, but hoped “to go soon to visit her”, and even to “live nearer her.” These lines lead us to consider the amount of freedom Broadus permitted his slaves. The ability to freely[13] choose to go visit and even live nearer his wife was unique to Uncle Dick.

The distinction between the men’s views on slavery is often hard to pick out. Both men served the Confederacy with preaching throughout the war. Boyce was a chaplain for the 16th South Carolina Infantry, and Broadus preached for various Generals, including General Lee and General Jackson, and rode along with several infantries for an extended period of time.[14] Boyce was a former student of the great Northern Baptist statesman Francis Wayland, who was strongly opposed to the institution of slavery.[15] Boyce had, always, a great affection for his mentor and he must have been influenced some by the man’s opinions on the incompatibility of Christianity and slavery. Boyce’s concerns about the “sins” of slavery may suggest the influence of his mentor in the face of such a prejudiced culture. But it is difficult for a 21st century observer to comprehend just how much pressure Southern culture applied to a man to convince him that God had ordained slavery.[16]

Broadus too was influenced by the Southern slave-owner culture. His comments that Negroes were “a lesser degree of human being” reveal as much. But a post-war article in the Louisville Courier Journal evidence one of the most insightful remarks about Africans (though still somewhat tarnished with prejudice). Broadus writes:

We must not forget that the Negroes differ widely among themselves, having come from different races in Africa, and having had very different relations to the white people while held in slavery, many of them are greatly superior to others in character, but the great mass of them belong to a very low grade of humanity. We have to deal with them as best we can, while a large number of other white people stand off at a distance and scold us. Not a few of our fellow-citizens at the north feel and act very nobly about the matter; but the number is sadly great who do nothing and seem to care nothing but to find fault.[17]

In Broadus’ mind the Negroes were not to be treated simply as a race, a collection of people, but as individuals with distinct personalities and from distinct backgrounds.

Determining Broadus’ precise opinion on the institution of slavery is not simple,[18] and becomes complicated when one recognizes the general context of Broadus’ writings. He writes as a Christian among a highly polite and refined Southern culture. Southern Christian thought on slavery was often critical of the violence and torture done by Southern slave-owners, while at the same time being fully in favor of the institution (Boyce being evidence). But it is particularly in his post-war comments and writings that one finds support for Broadus as an anti-slavery Southerner. In both the funeral sermon for the Confederate dead and the Courier Journal article from1893 we find such clues. More support is uncovered in the biography of James Petigru Boyce that Broadus penned in that same year. Speaking of Dr. Boyce’s, and other Christian’s, involvement in evangelizing the slaves Broadus states:

While events were rapidly moving towards the great and awful conflict of ten years later, numerous ministers throughout the South, chiefly Baptist and Methodist, were faithfully laboring to convert and instruct the vast multitude of colored people among whom they found themselves called to the work of the ministry. By no means all was done that ought to have been done; when and where has this been the case about anything? But thousands and ten thousands of Christian men and women did feel the burden of these lowly souls laid upon themselves, did toil faithfully and often with great sacrifice to bring them to the Saviour, and lovingly to guide their weak and ignorant steps in the paths of Christian life.[19]

And now that the long conflict is long past, and we are facing the most remarkable problem that any civilized nation was ever called to attempt, - the problem of slowly and patiently lifting these people up to all they can reach, - it were well if mutual misjudgments could be laid aside, if the faithful work of many Christians in those trying years could be on all sides appreciated, and the whole undertaking before us could be estimated in part by its best results, and not simply by its worst difficulties.[20]

Recognizing the obvious condescension of the author and setting that temporarily aside readers can also identify a complete submission to the dissolution of slavery and a desire to move on freely to the new relationships resulting from it. Broadus willingly confessed that these were not “black demons, as some who hated them then and now would have us believe.” No these “were and are simply black men.”[21]

The support only builds as one reads Broadus’ reflections on the then popular book Uncle Tom’s Cabin; a book which the preacher says was “deeply impressed with the real and supposed evils of slavery,”[22] and a book that was “exceedingly well written, having some passages of rarely equaled power, and being altogether, as a far as I can judge, a very remarkable book.”[23]

The differences are evident in their writings and personal thoughts if not clearly stated by both parties. Boyce’s clear vocalization of ultra pro-slavery and the complete absence of favorable comments on the institution by Broadus are significant when accompanied with the weight of the latter’s other comments. The most amazing thing about this exploration in Southern Baptist studies, however, is that their differences did not dissolve their friendship. Speaking of the legacy that Broadus left behind as a friend, historian Tom Nettles writes:
Broadus also gained great admiration for the sincere attention he gave to friendships. Throughout his life, even from childhood, he believed friendship to be the most cherished human gift to be given or received. Broadus loved and appreciated all sorts of people.[24]

As best that this author can tell the correspondence between Boyce and Broadus never touched on the issue of slavery. Perhaps this was out of consideration for their friendship, or perhaps their focus was entirely devoted to the “life work” which they were doing in the establishment of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In either case they remained friends until death. Upon deciding to join the faculty of the Seminary Broadus wrote to his friend:

Do not fear that I shall change my mind and, my dear Boyce, suffer me to say, that few personal considerations about the matter are so attractive to me as the prospect of being associated in a great work with you. I rejoice in a warm and mutual friendship now, and I trust we shall ere long learn to love each other as brothers. Pardon me for just saying what I feel…[25]
Their friendship was left untainted by the slavery issue, while the world around them, so it seemed, was marred by it. If John Broadus felt that he was both “prayed for” and “cursed”[26] by Northerners after the war, then he must have delighted to know that in the heart of his friend he was a “dear.” At the closing of his memorial for Boyce Broadus writes:

O brother beloved, true yokefellow through years of toil, best and dearest friend, sweet shall be thy memory till we meet again.[27]

The Battle Between the States rent the nation in twain, divided Baptists in two, and yet, by the grace of God, never did such for the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. So that even after the war they could jointly affirm that they were committed to die themselves before the seminary did. Though James P. Boyce and John A. Broadus viewed slavery through different lenses, they were, in the end, bound to be friends.

[1]Though history tells us that Broadus far exceeded his friend in preaching.

[2]John A. Broadus, “Memoirs of James Pettigru Boyce.” Selected Works of John A. Broadus. 4. (Cape Coral: Founders, 2001). 184-185.

[3]A.T. Robertson, Life and Letters of John A. Broadus. (Philadelphia: American Baptist Society, 1901). 177.

[4]Broadus, 185.

[5]For further reading on Broadus’ devotion and loyalty to the South see Tom Nettles, Baptists: Beginnings in America. (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2005). 299.

[6]Robertson, 181.
[7]Quoted in John Wesley Brinsfield Jr., The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of Civil War Chaplains. (Macon: Mercer UP, 2005). 13.

[8]Broadus, 185.

[9]Nettles, 345.

[10]Quoted in Nettles, 345.

[11]Ibid. 299-300.
[12]Robertson, 177.

[13]Many slaves were permitted only to visit their wives on special occasions, as long as they were not too far apart. The freedom of Uncle Dick to simply go when he had time, and even greater to move nearer her, is almost unheard of, even among those slaves who belonged to good men.

[14]Many men urged Broadus to become a full chaplain in the Confederacy, but the preacher’s health did not permit him to make such a commitment. “Stonewall” Jackson wrote to a friend of Broadus’ saying, “Write to him by all means and beg him to come. Tell him that he never had a better opportunity of preaching the gospel than he would have right now in these camps.” Upon hearing that Broadus was to come Jackson is quoted as saying, “That is good; very good. I am so glad of that. And when Doctor Broadus comes you must bring him to see me. I want him to preach at my headquarters, and I wish to help him in his work all I can.” Quoted in Robertson, 199.

[15]See Francis Wayland, Elements of Moral Science.

[16]See John L. Dagg, The Elements of Moral Science. (Charleston: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1859); and P.H. Mell, Slavery: A Treatise, Showing that Slavery is Neither a Moral, Political, nor Social Evil. (Penfield: Printed by Benj. Brantley, 1844).
[17]Quoted from “A Sermon on Lynch, Law, and Raping: Preached by Rev. E.K. Love, D.D. at1st. African Baptist Church, Savannah, Ga., of which he is pastor, November 5th, 1893.” (Augusta: Georgia Baptist Print, 1894). 11.

[18]Some would suggest entirely impossible. To such critics I acquiesce that complete certainty is impossible, but, I argue, that a historian may, with humility, infer that Broadus was anti-slavery from his post-war statements about both the War and former slaves.

[19]Broadus, 91.

[20]Ibid. 92. Tome Nettles speaking of this quote from Broadus says, “With all of its errors (and even with the continuing paternalism and implicit condescension of Broadus’ statement), the relationship [between slaves and masters] nevertheless did produce some positive results for eternal good.” (Nettles, 348).
[21]Quoted in Nettles, 349. The full quote, like many others, does carry the tint of prejudice, but it is important to let the egalitarianism of it be as equally evident, so I have here only quoted those parts which point to Broadus’ affirmation of the humanity of the slaves.

[22]Broadus, 91.

[23]Clyde E. Fant, and William Pinson. 20 Centuries of Great Preaching. 5. (Waco: Word Books, 1976). 47.

[24]Nettles, 317.

[25]Robertson, 159.

[26]Paul Harvey, “Yankee Faith and Southern Redemption: White Southern Baptist Ministers, 1850-90” in Religion and the American Civil War. eds. Randall Miller, Harry Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson. (New York: Oxford, 1998). 176.

[27]Quoted in Nettles, 319.

Ezekiel 34 In Light of the Three Horizons of Scripture

Ezekiel chapter 34 stands in stark contrast to the all too often painted picture of God as harsh and unloving in the Old Testament. This divinely inspired chapter serves as a gracious warming cloak for the cold judgment of God that permeates the preceding chapters. D.L. Moody saw this same comfort evident in the chapter. He writes:

Notice the “I wills” of the Lord God on behalf of His sheep. The shepherd and the sheep:-
v. 11 I will search them and seek them out.
v. 12 I will deliver them.
v. 13 I will bring them out.
v. 13 I will gather them together.
v. 13 I will bring them in.
v. 14 I will feed them.
v. 15 I will cause them to lie down.
v. 16 I will bind up the broken.
v. 16 I will strengthen the sick.
There are a good many lean sheep in God’s fold, but none in His pasture.[1]

Ezekiel 34 must have been a breath of fresh air to its immediate recipients, but it should call us to praise as well. By studying this text in light of the three horizons of Scripture we will be able to discern just how it plays such a significant role in the lives of so many from such distinct periods in history.

When I speak of the three horizons of Scripture I am using a technical term that identifies the different levels at which we read and interpret the Bible. The textual horizon is the first level. At this horizon we are seeking to understand what the author intended to convey in the immediate context of that passage and to his original audience. This means we must pay attention to the background, the setting, and the situation of those whom he is addressing. The second level seeks to place a specific text within the larger context of the testament or covenant which it falls under. Passages in the Old Testament fall under the old covenant and those in the New under the new covenant. This distinction helps to determine at what point in God’s redemptive plan the events of the passage are taking place. The final horizon is labeled the canonical. This horizon takes into account a passages place in the whole canon of Scripture. While there is some overlap here between the epochal and canonical the significant distinction is that in the Canonical horizon we are identifying a passages relation to the cross specifically. All of scripture is pointing us to the cross and so it is through the lens of the New Testament that we must read the Old. That being said let us begin looking at Ezekiel 34 on all three of these horizons.

We begin with the textual horizon, that is the immediate context of the passage. Here we are seeking to discern what the author intended to convey, and thus what God intended to convey through that author, to his original audience. In this passage Ezekiel is declaring a prophesy of judgment against the rulers of Israel. They are the careless and self-indulgent shepherds of verses 1-10.

The prophet is speaking out against the wickedness of Judah, and warning them of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. The northern kingdom of Israel had been exiled to Babylon in 597 B.C., and Judah would soon join them in being exiled from the land. It is part of God’s punishment on Judah. So in verses 21-33 of chapter 33 we read of Jerusalem’s destruction, even the desolation of the temple. But chapter 34 is the silver lining in the black sky. It is hope for those who had lost what they saw as the center of God’s covenant with His people: the temple. It was the promise of future restoration, the promise of God’s communion with His sheep, and the deliverance from captivity. The intent of the author was to offer hope and encouragement to a people who had been swept away into exile. It was to quell the fear that God had abandoned them, and to re-assure them of the promise of a king from the Davidic line who would rescue them from their captors.

As we move into the epochal horizon we can note that there is a fair amount of overlap (both with the textual and the canonical horizon). Before delineating the obvious overlaps, however, let’s set up the larger epochal horizon. Patrick Fairbairn gives a good help here when he writes:

This passage evidently points, both as to its subject, and the language it employs, to a quite similar and earlier prophecy of Jeremiah (chap. xxiii. 1-6), where, in like manner, the false shepherds are denounced and judged, that the way might be opened up for the appearance of the Lord’s true shepherd. In both prophecies alike, what is meant by the shepherd is manifestly not priests or prophets, but kings and rulers…[2]

Here is one of the great foci of the passage: the promise of a King. Fairbairn rightly connects this passage with that of Jeremiah 23:1-6. In both passages there is the promise of a future “shepherd,” that is a King, who will rescue God’s people and usher in a time of peace and of security. Both passages are set in the larger context of the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah: God’s anointed one.

Dr. Daniel I. Block notes the larger context of the messianic prophecies in his commentary on Ezekiel. He writes:

The shepherd will be David. Although this ruler is explicitly identified as David only twice outside this book, Ezekiel’s identification of the divinely installed king as David is based on a long-standing prophetic tradition. On the one hand, the 8th-century prophet Hosea had looked forward to the day when the children of Israel would “return and seek Yahweh their God and David their King.” On the other hand, Ezekiel’s diction is closer to Jer. 30:8-10, which also combines the appointment of David with the anticipated restoration of the nation. There is no thought in these prophecies of the resurrection of the historical king, as some kind of David [revived]. Ezekiel’s use of the singular “shepherd,” and his emphasis on … “one,” also preclude the restoration of the dynasty in the abstract, that is, simply a series of kings. He envisions a single person, who may embody the dynasty but who occupies the throne himself.[3]

Dr. Block has noted that the messiah, or the “divinely installed King,” as David had a long-standing tradition in Israel’s prophetic history. He gives evidence in the examples of Hosea and Jeremiah. His comments stress, as well, the centrality of David in this passage.
In their sins the people of Judah had broken the Davidic Covenant, and as a result God had abandoned His dwelling place among them, in the temple on Mt. Zion.[4] At stake in their disobedience was the fulfillment of God’s promise to David: that one of his descendants would reign on his throne forever. Such a danger must have undoubtedly been in the back of the minds of the people of Judah as they foresaw Jerusalem laid waste and as they were shuttled off to a foreign land.

With such a background, then, it becomes evident why God revealed to the people that this “true shepherd” would be David. The prophecy was to be a boost to their confidence in God’s trustworthiness. He had not forgotten, nor abandoned, His covenant with David. This true shepherd was to be of the Davidic line, he was to be the anointed of God, the Messiah, just as 2 Samuel 7:1-17 says. For our purposes in this discussion we could simply look to verses 12-13:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

The immediate context of that passage is referring to David’s son Solomon. But as one reads the history of Solomon you find a man far short of God’s standard, a man who divides the kingdom in half, and who eventually dies, leaving the nation wondering who is this anointed son of David that was to come and establish an eternal throne? They continued to wait for his appearing.

The image of the king as a shepherd of the sheep of Israel has two underlying notions to it. This is where we will see some of that overlap I mentioned a moment ago. The connection between David and this “true shepherd” who is the future king of Israel is all the more relevant when we grasp that David himself was at one time a shepherd. By calling this new king a shepherd the prophet is immediately connecting him with the Davidic dynasty, without saying so specifically.

The second connection is between this “true shepherd” and God Himself. There are several other places in Scripture where God refers to Himself as a shepherd. Genesis 49:24 is one example, but Lamar Cooper is probably right when he identifies Psalm 23 as the best known example. Cooper writes:

David provided insight not only into God’s role as “Shepherd” but also into the responsibility of kings to be rightly related to God. The king was to be the undershepherd and God the true King and Shepherd. Psalm 23 was David’s personal commitment to this principle. “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Ps. 23:1) was a personal declaration that he, David the king, had a King/Shepherd, who was Yahweh.[5]

The whole of Ezekiel chapter 34 re-enforces this connection with the powerful and comforting “I will” statements of God. Verse 11 reads, “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” God is the shepherd of Ezekiel 34, it He who will seek out His sheep. He will rescue, gather, feed, bind up, strengthen, seek, and cause to lie down. Yahweh, God, is the shepherd and none other.

Through the “Redemptive-Historical” lens we can see that Ezekiel 34 is a prophecy concerning the coming Messiah. The promise to David of a descendant who would possess a special favor with God was apprehended by the whole nation and they waited anxiously for the appearing of this Davidic king. The exile, however, dashed their hopes and left them not only without a king, but without a land for a king to rule over. It is from this point on that the messianic promise takes on the form of the prophetic. The prediction of the coming king assures the people that God has not forgotten and will still keep His promise to David. Ezekiel 34 is right in line with these prophecies as the true shepherd of Israel will bring the people back into their own land, put them at rest, and rule over them as God’s appointed representative.

As we move into the final horizon of Scripture, the canonical, we find ourselves wrestling with the connection between the “true Shepherd” and the Lord God Himself. How are these two connected? How can God say, “I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country” (34:13), and still also say, “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (34:23)? Who is going to feed God’s lambs, David or the Lord Himself? The answer to this mild dilemma is resolved in the person of Christ Jesus. For the answer is “both.”

If the chapter as a whole falls in line with the long-standing prophetic traditions pointing to the Messiah, then it points to the man whom we know to be that Messiah. Not David himself, not Solomon, not Hezekiah, but Jesus Christ. In Jesus we find both the descendant of David and the divine being perfectly present. It is, through Christ, both God and David who feed the sheep. Hear the words that our savior uses to describe His own ministry to God’s sheep, the resemblance to Ezekiel 34 is unparalleled:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. (John 10:14-18)

Note that Jesus calls Himself the “good shepherd,” in obvious contrast to the evil shepherds. Those evil shepherds of Ezekiel 34 who fatten themselves up while the sheep starve. This “good shepherd” is in stark contrast to the hired hands who “sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:12-13).

Viewing scripture along this third and final horizon allows us to go back and read Ezekiel 34 from this side of the cross. What Ezekiel and those of his time saw only in shadow we see in more full light: that Jesus is the Messiah, the true shepherd of God’s sheep. With the words “I am the good shepherd” Jesus resolves the dilemma of how both God and David can tend the lambs. There is only “one shepherd,” and that is Christ, the individual in whom reside both divinity and humanity. He is the God-man, and that is why He is the true shepherd.
In the canonical horizon of scripture we see the beautiful picture of God’s redemptive plan revealed. The true shepherd was not meant to redeem Israel from physical captivity and enslavement, but from spiritual bondage to sin and death. This the shepherd does by laying down His life for the sheep. Ezekiel 34 with its description of restoration, redemption, security, and the covenant of peace points us to the cross of Christ where all these promises find fulfillment. The prophet Ezekiel declares that God will “make with [the sheep] a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods.” The question we must ask is how, how will God make this covenant of peace with them?

Covenants were made with the shedding of blood and in them God binds Himself to do something for man. What more beautiful picture do we have of God binding Himself to man, and a covenant being made with the shedding of blood than at the cross? It is at the cross, where the true shepherd laid down His life for the sheep, that we see a covenant of peace established. Here is the fulfillment of what Ezekiel says, “They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid” (v. 28). And it is echoed in Jesus’ own sentiments in John 10. There He says:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (vv. 27-30)

As Ezekiel predicted so Jesus promises: security for the sheep within the folds of God. No wild beast, foreign nation, or scheme of man and Satan can snatch them from the Father’s hand.
Does Ezekiel 34 make you rejoice friends? Do you see in the text the future promise of our restoration, our salvation, our peace and security? This is a text that was intended to give great comfort to a people in physical slavery, to remind them of the hope to come in the messiah. It was a text that pointed toward the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies that had been declared throughout Israel’s history at different times. But God, in His infinite wisdom and sovereignty, included this text in our Bibles so that we would see His plan to redeem us from of old.

God has had a plan to bring sheep who are not of Israel into His folds for a long time, indeed before the foundations of the world even. And all throughout history He has been revealing that plan. As we read Ezekiel 34 we see that nothing would deter God from seeing His plan to full fruition. Let us pause for a moment, then, and consider what astounding grace is displayed here. God inspired chapter 34 of Ezekiel to emphasize the surety of His plan to redeem a sinful, wretched, and offensive people like us. How amazing that we should be called the sheep of God at all, let alone that God should give us this chapter to show how throughout history He was bringing all this to completion in the death of His Son. Let Ezekiel 34 take root in your heart and compel you to rejoice friends.

[1]D.L. Moody, Notes from My Bible. Quoted in William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985). 1061.
[2]Patrick Fairbairn, Ezekiel and the Book of His Prophecy. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1863).
[3]Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25-48. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). 297-298.
[4]See I.M. Duguid, “Ezekiel.” In New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. ed. Graeme Goldsworthy and D.A. Carson. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000). 230.
[5]Lamar Eugene Cooper, The New American Commentary. Vol. 17. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994). 301.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Contrasting Theologies of Justification: Martin Luther and The Council of Trent

In October of 1517 Martin Luther had no intention of breaking with the established church. When he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses for discussion to the church door in Wittenberg he was concerned primarily with the practice of selling indulgences. Over the course of the Reformation, however, Luther came to see the point of breaking with the Roman Catholic Church was not simply over indulgences, but over the larger issue of soteriology. For Luther the larger banner of the Reformation was “Justification by Faith Alone,” and it was on this point that he and the church clashed. A contrast of their positions on the role of works in justification follows, as a means to identify the distinguishing marks of Lutheran[1] justification.

Justification by faith alone was a theme which Luther could find in almost any passage of Scripture. In a sermon on the Good Samaritan, in 1536, Luther, speaking of the two parts of Scripture that he saw, said:

I experience indeed that God’s law is holy, right and good, but it is my death…Therefore another part is added, the Gospel, which speaks of consolation and teaches salvation, and whence we are to obtain it, so that the law may be satisfied…Thus when we now come before God the Father and are asked: whether we have also believed and loved God, and have wholly fulfilled the law; then the Samaritan will step forth, Christ the Lord, who carries us lying on his beast, and say: Alas, Father! Although they have not wholly fulfilled thy law, yet I have done so, let this be to their benefit because they believed in me. Thus all saints must do, however holy and pious they may be, they must lay on Christ’s shoulders.[2]

Here was the great distinction between the Reformer’s theology of justification and that of the established church. Luther had no place for works in his soteriology. He wrote, “Good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works.[3] The Roman Catholic Church, however, was not convinced of Luther’s position and protested it with great ardor.

The formal response of the church to the reformation came in 1545 at the Council of Trent. The Council made no ambiguous statements about their position on justification. Man was justified before God by both faith and good works, and faith, furthermore, was a progressive work. Chapter IX reveals plainly the reaction the church had to the reformer’s view of justification, they titled this chapter: Against the Vain Confidence of Heretics. It reads:

But, although it is necessary to believe that sins neither are remitted, nor ever were remitted save gratuitously by the mercy of God for Christ's sake; yet is it not to be said, that sins are forgiven, or have been forgiven, to any one who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the remission of his sins, and rests on that alone; seeing that it may exist, yea does in our day exist, amongst heretics and schismatics; and with great vehemence is this vain confidence, and one alien from all godliness, preached up in opposition to the Catholic Church. But neither is this to be asserted,-that they who are truly justified must needs, without any doubting whatever, settle within themselves that they are justified, and that no one is absolved from sins and justified, but he that believes for certain that he is absolved and justified; and that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone: as though whoso has not this belief, doubts of the promises of God, and of the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ. For even as no pious person ought to doubt of the mercy of God, of the merit of Christ, and of the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, even so each one, when he regards himself, and his own weakness and indisposition, may have fear and apprehension touching his own grace; seeing that no one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God.[4]

It is important to note that this is an argument against Luther and the Reformers. Observe that word “alone”. The document insists that no one is saved by his “confidence…of the remission of his sins…alone.” Had such a statement come from Calvin we could conclude that this was an argument for continuous faith and repentance, and a living out of the Christian life.[5] From a Catholic document, however, it must be understood in light of their broader theological foundation. Faith alone without works may have been a tenet of Reformed and Lutheran theology, but no one, according to the Council of Trent, was saved who rested on this faith alone. They refer to their contrary contemporaries as “heretics” and “schismatics”. And it repeatedly, though falsely, assumes that this new justification doctrine depends on the assurance of the person that he is saved, in other words dependent on “faith alone,” as they mischaracterize it.

The Council of Trent repeatedly defines justification by stating what it is not. In the Canons on Justification we read several of these assertions. Canon VII reads:

If anyone saith, that all works done before Justification, in whatsoever way they be done, are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God; or that the most earnestly one strives to dispose himself for grace, the more grievously he sins: let him be anathema.[6]

If the denial that works dispose one for grace, that is merit one grace, is considered heretical, then it seems rather obvious that the embrace of such teaching would be acceptable. The Canons continue with further revealing comments, such as:

Canon IX: If anyone saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of justification…let him be anathema.[7]

Canon XI: If anyone saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them…let him be anathema.[8]

The word “co-operate” in Canon IX, and “inherent” are key to understanding the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. It is not that the Catholic Church teaches justification by works; this is a simplistic and erroneous understanding. For the church clearly understands the importance of faith. R.C. Sproul stated correctly when he said that the Roman Catholic Church teaches, “Faith is necessary for justification…but not sufficient.”[9] The word “co-operate” reveals that faith must be accompanied by both the sacraments, and good deeds (see Chapter V, Chapter VI, and Canon XXIV). The word “inherent” points to the Roman Catholic churches denial of total depravity. While the church willingly acknowledges the sinful nature of man, it denies that man’s free will is lost. “If any one saith, that, since Adam’s sin, the free will of man is lost and extinguished…let him be anathema.”[10] Inherent within man is an ability for man to dispose himself towards the grace of God, to prepare himself for justification. This is quite distinct from Luther’s theology.

Luther’s teachings on justification are most clearly laid out in his work The Freedom of a Christian (1520). In the address he writes, “faith alone, without works, justifies, frees, and saves.[11] Again Luther distinguishes between the two parts of scripture and identifies, in this distinction, how justification must be by faith alone.

Here we must point out that the entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts:

commandments and promises…The commandments show us what we ought to do but do not give us the power to do it. They are intended to teach man to know himself, that through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own ability…Then, being truly humbled and reduced to nothing in his own eyes, he finds in himself nothing whereby he may be justified and saved. Here the second part of Scripture comes to our aid, namely, the promises of God…Thus the promises of God give what the commandments of God demand and fulfil [sic] what the law prescribes…It is clear, then, that a Christian has all that he needs in faith and needs no works to justify him.[12]

There was no work that man was capable of doing to please God, Luther points out. It is in believing the promises of God alone that man finds himself, like Abraham, credited with righteousness, that is justified.

The great distinction between the two doctrines came down to an issue of glory for Luther. God must get the glory, he determined, for all of salvation. Preaching from Galatians 3, in a sermon on New Years Day, Luther warned against the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of justification, saying:

Now if God confers his grace because of their works, their careful preparation, Christ must be without significance. What need have they of Christ if they can obtain grace in their own name and by their works? And this doctrine they teach openly; indeed, they defend it with their utmost power and with the Pope’s bulls, condemning a contrary teaching as they very worst heresy. Therefore I have warned, and still warn, all men that the Pope and the universities have cast Christ and the New Testament farther out of the world than ever did the Jews or Turks. Hence the Pope is the true Antichrist, and his high schools are the devil’s own taverns and brothels. What does Christ signify if by effort of my own human nature I can obtain God’s grace? Or, having grace, what more will I desire?[13]

Luther saw the inconsistency in the Catholic Church’s position, and rejected it with a verbal violence like few others had or have since. He did this because he saw what was at stake, not only true salvation, but the very glory of God. The base level of their divergent views came to this: who gets the glory for salvation?

Luther could speak with experience on this subject. In the monastery he had wrestled with the question: How does one become right with God? When he found in the Scriptures that one is justified by faith alone, he determined to defend it with all his might. He had worked and failed to achieve assurance of salvation. “If ever a man got to heaven by his monkary it was I,” he stated. But that monkary left him deflated and despairing, only faith in Christ’s work on his behalf was a sure guarantee for salvation. This Luther vocalized with all his heart; works were no avail only believe Christ. While the Council of Trent espoused faith and works, Luther shouted Justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, plus nothing!

[1] I will use the term Lutheran throughout this paper to refer to the theology of the man himself, Martin Luther. The Lutheran church over the course of history has rejected some of its founder’s doctrines and I do not claim to represent their current teachings.
[2] The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther. Vol. 3. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000). 34.
[3] From Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian. Quoted in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1950). 178.
[4] The Cannons and Decrees of the Sacred and Oecumnical Council of Trent. Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848). 36-37.
[5] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers. (Nashville: Broadman, 1988). 224-228.
[6] Ibid. 45.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid. 46.
[9] R.C. Sproul “The Importance of Preaching on Justification,” an address delivered at the Together for the Gospel Conference. Delivered April 27, 2006 at the Gault House in Louisville, KY.
[10] Council of Trent. Canon V. 45.
[11] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian.” In The European Reformations Sourcebook. Ed. Carter Lindberg. (Malden: Blackwell, 2000). 39.
[12] Ibid. 39-40.
[13] Complete Sermons of Martin Luther. Vol. 3. 283-84.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Who is the Prodigal Son?

It is one of the most famous stories in the entire Bible, right up there with Noah and Moses, and only second to the Garden of Eden and the Cross. The Prodigal Son has been borrowed by a number of English authors, and re-told for a number of purposes. But who is the “son” in this account? There are two main interpretations of the parable that Jesus tells: 1) The Prodigal Son is a believer who has for a period of time hardened his heart and runaway from God; and 2) The Prodigal Son is an un-believer who is coming to faith within the story. The differences here are significant and will certainly have implications for ones view of salvation and sanctification. So, which is it? That is the aim of this paper.

Arguments for the Son as a Believer
The story of the Prodigal Son has great sentimental value to many Christians. For in the story they see a God who forgives sins, even when Christians themselves have wandered far from God. There is the notion that God always welcomes them back, no matter what. Such an interpretation is based, primarily, on a view of sanctification that does not assert the necessity of fruit in the Christian life. In this view, anyone who professes salvation in Christ is saved regardless of whether his or her life ever evidences a change. There are others, however, who do not hold to this understanding of sanctification and yet still support this interpretation of the Prodigal Son. Let’s look at the textual evidence they offer.

The first defense offered for this theory is that the Prodigal is the son of the Father. We are not speaking of a stranger, or a hired hand, or a distant relative, but of the immediate son of the Father. This connection would necessitate that the Prodigal is part of the family. If the Father is God, and no one debates this, then it seems that the Prodigal is in the Father’s family, as a son. Furthermore the two previous parables that Jesus tells indicate that the lost sheep is of the flock, and the lost coin belongs to the widow. There is present, in the stories, a relationship of possession: The Father’s Son, the Shepherd’s Sheep, and the Widow’s Coin. Such an interpretation is the one held by the editors and commentators of The New Oxford Annotated Bible. They write, “The parable illustrates God’s grace towards those who rebel and return.”[1] But the interpretation has a few holes.

For starters, the concept of the carnal Christian is not found in scripture. Lewis Sperry Chafer asserts that “the added demand that the unsaved must dedicate themselves to do God’s will in their daily life, as well as to believe upon Christ [is a] confusing intrusion into the doctrine that salvation is conditioned alone upon believing.”[2] His assertion, however, misses the point. It is not simply that the regenerate heart must dedicate itself to do God’s will daily, but, in fact, the regenerate heart will desire to dedicate itself to do God’s will daily. This is confirmed by Paul’s words to the Colossians, who were once “hostile in mind” (1: 21) towards God, but now have “faith in Christ Jesus” (1:3). The heart longs for God once it has been awakened. It is not an issue of placing the burden of obedience on man; obedience is the rightful response to the God whom the redeemed man loves.[3] There are a multitude of other passages that add weight to the argument that good works and obedience are the fruit of genuine conversion (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 2:20; Rom. 6:6; 1 John 3:9-10; John 14:15, 23; 1 John 2:3-4; 1 John 2:19).[4]

Secondly, however, is the issue of the textual argument. At first glance this defense seems reasonable. The Prodigal Son may be viewed as a Christian since he is admittedly referred to as the son of the Father, who represents God. This is a viable interpretation of the passage. Provided that one is not simply trying to assert a doctrine of Carnal Christianity, which is elsewhere refuted, this interpretation can be accepted. But, as I aim to show in the next part, it does not follow the best hermeneutic and fails to explain two key phrases in the passage.

Arguments for the Prodigal Son as Unbeliever
Both sides of the argument agree that the main point of the parable is the merciful forgiveness of God. The divergent views arise, however, over the details of the parable. The difficult task in interpreting parables is not to press the analogy too far. In the early church the common practice was to interpret parables allegorically. So Robert Stein writes, “Tertullian… allegorized the parable of the prodigal son…as follows: The elder son represented the Jew who is envious of God’s offer of salvation to the Gentile; the father is God; the younger son is the Christian; the property is the wisdom and natural ability to know God which man possesses as his birthright; the citizen in the far country is the devil; the pigs are demons; the robe is the sonship lost by Adam through his transgression; the ring is Christian baptism; the celebration is the Lord’s Supper; and the fatted calf slain for the celebration is the Savior at the Lord’s Supper.”[5] This is obviously over the top, for none of these connections are made elsewhere in Scripture, nor does the text indicate them.

The keys to good interpretation of parables is multi-faceted, but one important principle is to maintain the distinction between the two types of details in the story. “The task is to distinguish between ‘local color’ (details not meant to carry spiritual meaning) and theologically loaded details (those which do have allegorical significance).”[6] In the parable of the Prodigal Son the relationship between the father and the son is part of the local color. To focus on the Father/Son relationship as the basis for the interpretation of the parable is to over emphasize it. There are a number of alternative arguments that may be derived from this same focus, such as: 1) Jesus is the Son and God is the Father. The Son’s leaving the Father and going into the far county refers to the Cross. The return the celebration represent Christ’s ascension, while the robe, the ring, and the other gifts given to the returned son symbolize His restored position at the right hand of God and the redeemed saints.[7] 2) That the son is all people, since we are all God’s children, and the return to God, and the Father’s forgiveness, are simply evidence of God’s unconditional love for all of humanity, whether they are Christian or not. Needless to say not all the interpretations are right. There is a way, however, to challenge them based on a reading of the two other noteworthy phrases in the text.

The interpretation of the Son as a backslid believer fails to grapple with two key expressions in the text: “‘For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.” The two key expressions here “dead and alive” and “lost and found” are of great significance. Here we have two phrases that Jesus has used elsewhere to identify the spiritual state, not of believers, but of non-believers.

The beginning of the chapter, v. 1-2, identifies the context of the parable. Tax collectors and sinners are drawing near and the Pharisees and scribes are annoyed by this, they “grumble” about it. In light of their grumbling Jesus tells three parables, according to Luke. First, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, second the Parable of the Lost Coin, and then the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In light of the context there is reason to assume certain correlations between the parable and reality, such as: Father = God, Son = sinners coming to God, and the Older Brother = The Pharisees. It also seems logical to conclude that Jesus is referring to spiritual matters in the parable, not simply physical relation. Thus, when we apply a good hermeneutic to the parable we conclude that the Prodigal Son is, not a Christian who was spiritually dead and is now alive (or spiritually lost and now found), but a non-believer coming to God, whom the Father willing forgives and loves. This hermeneutic identifies the obvious connections in the text, maintains the focus of the parable, and adequately applies it to reality (i.e. God welcomes all sinners who repent and turn to Him).

The Prodigal Son is indeed the most beloved parable of the Bible. Yet love for this parable is most commonly connected to the wrong interpretation mentioned above. It seems to me, however, that the correct interpretation amplifies the attractiveness of this parable. It is not simply the Christian, the one who has repented and placed faith in Christ, whom God loves. It is also the wretch, the sinner, the vile “tax collector,” who comes covered in mud and pig filth that the Father loves. It is a testimony to the truth that the Father gladly welcomes all sinners who come to Him, no matter how “dirty” they are. The passage is not meant to tell us anything specific about salvation, but it clearly identifies the love and forgiveness of God in the event of conversion, and this is a truth that we can certainly love.

[1] The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 127, n. 15.
[2] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology. vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1993). 384.
[3] This is not to say that the redeemed man never sins, nor that he always desires God and obeys Him. There is a distinction which the Bible makes between being Unregenerate, and still struggling with sin. Cf. Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986). 106-111.
[4] For further reading see John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005); The Gospel According to Jesus. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994); Ernest C. Reisinger, Lord & Christ: The Implications of Lordship for Faith and Life. (Philipsburg: P&R, 1994).
[5] Robert H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings. (Louisville: WJK, 1994). 45.
[6] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991). 237.
[7] This is an actual interpretation I read from one pastor. There are a number of theological difficulties with this interpretation, however, that go far beyond mere hermeneutics.