Stephen Charnock on God’s Eternality & Immutability: It Matters

CharnockI get it. Thinking about the attributes of God can be tough work, but it is work with a payoff. As our minds do the heavy lifting our hearts reap the benefits of bigger affections. We often think of God in small, bland, and largely insignificant terms. We bring God to our level as we construct our view of him by tiny, often misguided thoughts. Thinking biblically—i.e., theologically—quickly leads to our view of God being shattered as we see him getting larger and larger in immensity, glory, and holiness.

Thinking through God’s attributes also helps us know how God relates to us. A firmer grasp on who God is directly relates to who God is for me. Most of God’s self-revelation in Scripture is relational, or covenantal. God explains himself in the context of how he relates to his creation, especially his own people. The fact that God reveals himself not primarily in philosophical or scientific terms but in relational terms should convince us he wants our theology about him to directly influence our relationship with him.[1}

I’ve started slowly reading A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.[2] Is there any other way to read the Puritans than slowly? Chapter 4 concentrates on Stephen Charnock’s (1628-1680) Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God. Charnock, like any good theologian, doesn’t talk about God’s attributes in isolation from each other as if sometimes God is more of one attribute than the other. Instead, God is all of his attributes to their fullest extent at once. Furthermore, these attributes are actually God’s essence. God isn’t simply loving, but he is love. “For though we conceive the essence of God as the subject, and the attributes of God as faculties and qualities in that subject, according to our weak model…yet truly and really there is no distinction between his essence and attributes; one is inseparable from the other. His power and wisdom are is his essence.”[3]

God’s eternity teaches that there never was a time when he was not. There is no beginning or end to God. “His duration is as endless as his essence is boundless.”[4] Here is one description Charnock provides.

“[God] is not in his essence this day what he was not before, or will be the next day and year what he is not now. All his perfections are most perfect in him every moment; before all ages, after all ages. As he hath his whole essence undivided in every place, as well as in an immense space; so he hath all his being in one moment of time, as well as in infinite intervals of time….He is what he always was, and he is what he always will be.” [5]

As the quote indicates, there is a clear synthesis between God’s eternality and God’s immutability. God always has and will exist (eternal) and he always has and will exist in the fullness of his perfections (immutable). There is no change in God because he eternally exists as the whole essence of all his perfections which are “most perfect in him every moment.” Beeke and Jones quote Charnock to explain how these two attributes of God relate. “Immutability in God is a ‘glory belonging to all the attributes of God.’ God has attributes and perfections that are different, but ‘immutability is the center wherein they all unite.’ What God is, He is eternally and unchangeably.”[6]

Doctrine for Life
Let’s briefly consider how God’s eternality and immutability are what the subtitle of the book suggests, doctrine for life. If God is all of his perfections perfectly—all the time—then I never have to pit his attributes against one another. Nor should I worry if at any given moment he is acting out one of his attributes more than the other. Because every person I know is the opposite of this, unless I intentionally remind myself God is not like us I will think of him in finite and false terms. For example, how I treat you might depend on not only the day but the moment you run into me. If I had some great coffee and an easy drive into work, then I’ll probably be in a good mood and so I’ll act with more grace and patience than normal. However, if my morning gets off to a rough start or the day goes south quickly, then you’re more likely to get the impatient and graceless me.

When I’m not thinking rightly about God I start believing his relationship with me and how he treats me must be similar. Maybe God’s had enough of my failings and is tired of me not getting it—and so I imagine I’m in danger of God deciding to give up or lash out on me. When trials or seemingly avoidable pains are placed on my path I can quickly conclude God is not as good or caring as he used to be. Our faith operates from our theology, and unfortunately our theology often starts to err as it’s built upon false thoughts from our own minds instead of truthful thoughts from the mouth of God (Bible). This is why theology is vital for all Christians. We study the Bible so we can know God better and more rightly.

The truth is it takes work on our part to think of God rightly and not piece together a view of God based upon how fallen people act and upon my own thinking and assumptions. Studying God’s eternality and immutability does me good because it reminds me God is not like me or anyone else I’ve come across. He doesn’t relate to me according to up and down moods he’s in but according to his unchanging and perfect character. If he is perfect in all his attributes and is them perfectly all the time, then I can trust he always deals with me according to his goodness, care, and love. In the midst of either frustratingly confusing circumstances or unbearable pain I might not have answers as to the why but I know the Who. During seasons of life where things seem trivial, or where “darkness hides his lovely face,” or even when our hearts are bursting with gratitude, I can know that God has not changed and he is not being anything other than the fullness of God. As James tells us, there is no variation or shifting shadows in God (James 1:17). In you and I, yes; but not in God. That type of theology not only evokes adoration in the moment but it sustains us for a lifetime.

For Christians who tend to shrink because of weak hearts, doubting minds, troubling fears, or soft consciences, we would do well to commit ourselves to studying God’s attributes—especially his love, grace, compassion, and care. As we start to grow in our theology of what God is really like it becomes an immense encouragement to know he is all those attributes all of the time to their fullest extent. God is always all of his perfect perfections.

Footnotes
[1]. This of course isn’t to suggest God’s self-revelation doesn’t involve philosophy or science, and it certainly doesn’t suggest God is not accurate in his revelation. It simply conveys that God’s revelation comes in the context of relationship. He reveals Himself as Maker, Sovereign, and Redeemer.
[2]. Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).
[3]. Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God (London: Thomas Tegg, 1840), 242. Found in A Puritan Theology, 65.
[4]. Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 175-76. Found in A Puritan Theology, 63.
[5]. Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 178. Found in A Puritan Theology, 63
[6]. A Puritan Theology, 64. Emphasis mine.

John Murray on Active Roles in Sanctification

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One of the reasons why I appreciate reading John Murray is because how succinct he writes. He’s not like the Puritans in that he doesn’t add extra paragraphs answering every objection or to fill in multiple applications. But he’s also unlike present day authors who use three pages to explain something where one substantive paragraph would have been sufficient. He simply states precisely and in matter of fact manner one logical sentence upon another without the compulsion to defend or expand. It’s not perfect and maybe at times there’s a loss because of the things I mentioned he doesn’t do, but overall it’s great to read deep theology that doesn’t have to be long winded.

Here are some of his thoughts on God’s role and our role in sanctification. I think he provides good perspective. He doesn’t steer into a ditch of passivity nor does he overcorrect in the opposite way by making sanctification a moralistic, self-driven pursuit. In an evangelical culture filled with rampant legalism and maturity by spiritual disciplines on one hand and grace without obedience on the other, Murray’s chapter on Sanctification from Redemption Accomplished and Applied upholds God’s role and our role.

I think the last few sentences from the chapter frame a healthy understanding of sanctification. “Sanctification involves the concentration of thought, of interest, of heart, mind, will, and purpose upon the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus and the engagement of our whole being with those means which God has instituted for the attainment of that destination. Sanctification is the sanctification of persons, and persons are not machines; it is the sanctification of persons renewed after the image of God in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The prospect it offers is to know even as we are known and to be holy as God is holy. Every one who ahs this hope in God purifies himself even as he is pure (I John 3:3)” (150).

God’s role and our role together
“It is imperative that we realize our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit. We must not forget, of course, that our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent in the process of sanctification. But we must not rely upon our own strength of resolution or purpose. It is when we are weak that we are strong. It is by grace that we are being saved as surely as by grace we have been saved. If we are not keenly sensitive to our own helplessness, then we can make the means of sanctification the minister of self-righteousness and pride and thus defeat the end of sanctification. We must rely not upon the means of sanctification but upon the God of all grace. Self-confident moralism promotes pride, and sanctification promotes humility and contrition” (147).

There are several things worth mentioning in that quote but here’s one. After reading this I’m reminded how often I begin with spiritual disciplines as a means or grace that are avenues between God and I (or the corporate body). Over time I shift from these disciplines as an avenue to thinking they are sufficient in themselves, as if the Bible reading or prayer itself sanctifies me rather than them being God appointed means of God speaking and acting in my life. Yes, the Word itself is inspired by God but Word and Spirit must come together for me to hear what God has to say to me in His Word. I must at one and the same time increase my commitment to God’s graciously provided means of grace and also be cautious not to become prideful in my exercise of them or shortsighted in relying upon them as ends instead of means. We are, as Murray writes, completely dependent on the Holy Spirit and yet our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent.

“While we are constantly dependent upon the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit, we must also take account of the fact that sanctification is a process that draws within its scope the conscious life of the believer. The sanctified are not passive or quiescent in this process…And no text [Phil. 2:12-13] sets forth more succinctly and clearly the relation of God’s working to our working. God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relations is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing. And this working of God is directed to the end of enabling us to will and to do that which is well pleasing to him…The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God” (148-49).

Whether or not you agree with his dislike of the word cooperation, I think his point is valid. Cooperation might get across to others what you mean, that both God and the person are involved. But the point he makes should be noted, that we should not suggest it’s a 50/50 work where both sides do the same thing. God works in us and we work with his help. It’s both the order, the relationship of cause and effect, and the right motivation.

I started to put a list together of verses emphasizing God’s role and our role. Hopefully this leads us back to God as the source and help in our sanctification, but also jolts us into renewed energy towards pressing on after Christ. Here are just a few of those verses.

God’s activity
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly.” (I Thess. 5:23)
“God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13)
“Mow may the God of peace…equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever.” (Heb. 13:20-21)
“…the God of all grace…will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (I Pet. 5:10)

Our activity
“so now yield your members to righteousness.” (Rom 6:19)
lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.” (Heb. 12:1)
strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:4)
abstain from immorality.” (I Thess. 4:3)
“Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.” (2 Cor. 7:1)
make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue…” (2 Pet. 1:5)

The Corporate Dimension of Our Sanctification
John Murray doesn’t deal with this in his short chapter (so maybe that’s a weakness) but I thought I would mention it. It’s talked about more often today but we must intentionally remind ourselves that our maturity in Christ isn’t solely a “me and God” thing. The NT provides numerous verses that paint a picture of the corporate role, or the role of the church, actively involved in our sanctification. Just the “one another” verses themselves would give ample evidence of how important the community of faith is for my individual growth. Here’s a sampling of verses on this aspect of being sanctified that we won’t want to miss.

“let us stir one another up to love and good deeds.” (Heb. 10:24-25)
“encourage one another and build one another up.” (I Thess. 5:11)
“teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” (Col. 3:16)
“care for one another.” (I Cor. 12:25)
“Bear one another’s burdens” and “you who are spiritual should restore him [others].” (Gal. 6:1-3)

Three Creeds Every Christian Should Know

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This morning our church recited the Apostles Creed. There are at least two reasons why I’m glad we do this. First, the Apostles creed is accepted by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches so it has been affirmed by Christians for over 1600 years (at least). Second, it’s the most simple of all creeds and formed the base of later creeds, such as the Nicene creed. It’s simplicity is both its weakness and its strength. Later creeds would expand upon the Apostolic creed, but they would not deny anything it contained. The church fathers named heresies because they believed a heresy was  a departure of the Christian gospel, and where the gospel was distorted or lost the Christian faith was distorted or lost. We would be well served by regularly reading and reciting these three creeds, both for our doctrinal orthodoxy and for right worship of our Triune God.

The Apostles Creed
I believe in God the Father Almighty
[Maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried;
[He descended into hell (Hades)]
The third day he rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven; and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; [the communion of saints]; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; [and the life everlasting]. Amen

The clauses in italics are those not included in the “Old Roman Creed” from around 340, but was included in the final accepted version. Compare this to the Nicene Creed (381 version), which simply amplifies the Apostles Creed.

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made:
Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;
And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;
And ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father;
And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets;
And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.
We look for the Resurrection of the dead,
And the Life of the age to come. Amen.

Whereas the Apostles creed summarized the most basic beliefs of the early Christian faith, the Nicene creed took a stance on upholding the deity of Christ and the Triune God. The Chalcedonian Creed (451) outlines the orthodox view of the two natures of Jesus Christ.

The Chalcedonian Creed

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

I’ve not read any of the articles but I feel comfortable recommending The Resurgence’s series on The Concise History of Creeds & Confessions to learn more.

Sanctification is a Thing of the Past

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Don’t get confused by the title. I’m not one more 20something Christian ditching the importance of personal growth in the name of authenticity or liberties. I’m referring to the fact that there’s a definitive aspect of sanctification that takes place at a person’s conversion. And unfortunately, in our concern to keep Christians focused on growing, evangelical theology (or to the degree there is such a thing) has so focused on progressive sanctification that we’ve nearly lost the doctrine of definitive sanctification. Don’t get me wrong, progressive sanctification—which means our ongoing growth in Christ through this lifetime—is essential and needs to be taught. But, my contention is that progressive sanctification detached from its definitive aspect takes the firm foundation of God’s action on our behalf out of the equation.

In my opinion, one of the reasons why in our fight against sin we feel like it’s a battle too big to be won is because we don’t realize what actually happens to us and for us at salvation. We’re not only justified when we believe in Jesus (and we are justified at that moment) but we’re also set apart as holy. Definitive sanctification refers to the initial act of sanctification that occurs at the moment of salvation when we’re united to Christ and thereby made holy and freed from sin’s power.

NT Texts
The New Testament emphasizes the work of Christ for us and how he accomplishes what we need for holiness. It teaches that sin has already been conquered for us so there’s no reason to let it rule us. We can obey the command to be holy because we have been made holy. We can put to death the deeds of the body because we participated with Christ in his death. We can progress in sanctification because of the definitive sanctification that took place.

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul reminds the church that they’re no longer characterized by past sins because of what happened at conversion. Well what is it that happened? “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (I Cor. 6:11; see also Heb. 10:10). Paul states that we were sanctified, pointing to the fact that at the moment of salvation God sets us apart as his own possession and purifies us from our uncleanness.

The main subject of Romans 6 is our death to sin in Christ and why this means we don’t have to continue to walk in sin. We’re no longer slaves to sin because sin’s hold on us was broken when we died and rose with Christ. Whereas in Adam we were plunged into corruption and sin, in Jesus (the second and final Adam) we spring forth with new hearts and an imputed righteousness. Paul foresees the question arising of whether our status of righteousness means we can go on sinning and Romans 6 answers this question by saying how can we continue in sin if we have died to it. What he means is that the power of sin has been broken and we live as new creatures. When a slave is set free from a horrible master he would not continue to live under his rule. For us to continue to walk in sin is to choose to serve an awful, murderous master who we have been freed from. For this reason Paul asks, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

Romans 6 highlights our union with Christ, which entails us participating in his death and resurrection. We are participants not in the sense that we helped complete the task but that we receive the full benefits because in a very real sense when Christ died we are reckoned as having died in him and when he rose we also rose with him.
John Murray summarizes the meaning and effect of this wonderful truth. “This means, therefore, that not only did Christ die, not only was he buried, not only did he rise from the dead, but also all who sustain the relation to him that baptism signifies [union with Christ] likewise died, were buried, and rose again to a new life patterned after his resurrection life. No fact is of more basic importance in connection with the death to sin and commitment to holiness than that of identification with Christ in his death and resurrection.”

We’ve only looked at a few instances but they point to the reality that sanctification conveys in Christ we are freed from sin’s power, cleansed from its defilements, set apart as God’s treasured possession, and made holy. There is no sin too great to be overcome and Christ has won the victory for us over sin. The hope resides in our real identity in Christ which we simply strive to live out by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is not about becoming something new or doing something new but living in light of what Christ has done for you. When sin seems like too great a foe or you’re struggling to walk in holiness remember your true identity in Christ. He has already equipped you by setting you free from the pollution and power of sin.

To read more, here are a few resources:
John Murray on Definitive Sanctification
J.I. Packer video on why union with Christ is essential to sanctification
Possessed by God by David Peterson

There’s Something About Mary…the mother of Jesus

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In my recent trip to Europe (hence the grainy pic above) where I visited several beautiful, historic Catholic churches there were several questions that came to mind. As a Protestant, one of them was why the big deal about Mary? My Catholic tour guide (he was fantastic) paralleled the current Pope to Michelangelo in their preference to pray to Mary over Jesus. I’ve heard that before but it still always strikes me as curious. Why the need to make Mary more than the biblical authors do and when did it all start?

Of course, to be a bit simplistic, I think part of the problem clearly lies in the fact that most people were illiterate in the church’s history, and the Bible was, unfortunately, kept away from the eyes and ears of the people. However, I still found something intriguing and wondered if any Catholics who once belonged to these ancient churches ever asked why Mary wasn’t in the story pictures. By story pictures, I’m referring to those paintings (usually on ceilings) that were meant to tell biblical stories–often the overarching biblical story–to people who couldn’t read and wouldn’t have Bibles even if they could read. What I noticed is that in these paintings of biblical stories (meaning stories actually based on the texts) is that other than the birth of Christ, Mary remains noticeably absent from the other paintings. Wouldn’t anyone in the church ever have wondered why Mary was being elevated when she’s clearly absent from the paintings retelling the biblical story? Yes, there were many paintings and statutes of Mary throughout the churches I went too, but these weren’t part of the paintings retelling the biblical story. I find this fascinating. My hope isn’t to offend Catholics but to really understand more of the history behind mariology.

After returning home, I was given the chance to read a bit of early church history in preparation of teaching a session at our church. Since I don’t do well with letting things go I thought I’d do a tiny bit of digging as to when references to Mary developed as something more than just the virgin mother of Jesus. I’m just scratching the surface on this and related issues so I’d appreciate any feedback or sources.

I’ve been reading a bit of Irenaeus since my talk focuses on the rise of bishops and why apostolic succession was so important for the church’s unity. Irenaeus was the first guy I came across who talks about Mary in detail, although I later found that he probably was reiterating what he read in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho the Jew. [Note: Although Justin Martyr parallels Mary with Eve he seems to focus on what both of them conceived, not their merit or actions.] It seems like (from my limited reading) Mary was referenced early as the church combatted Gnosticism. Most forms of Gnosticism denied the genuine humanity of Jesus, so Mary the mother of Jesus was used to defend the humanity of Jesus. It seems this quickly progressed into something more. This is a good time to stop and remember that the earliest theologians (2nd-3rd century AD) were still grappling both with who Jesus was and what salvation actually meant. Unfortunately, many of these early church fathers had a theology of salvation or atonement that was quite under-baked. Once persecution settles down and Athanasius enters the scene we’re provided with a much more robust theology. Back to Irenaeus, who is known for how he sees the NT recapitulating the OT. In his Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, he takes the biblical parallel between Adam and Jesus as the 2nd Adam (cf. Rom 6 & I Cor. 15) and stretches it so that Mary parallels Eve. Here’s one quote (thank you Google Books):
“And just as through a disobedient virgin[,] man was stricken down and fell into death, so through the Virgin who was obedient to the Word of Go man was reanimated and received life….For it was necessary that Adam should be summed up in Christ, that mortality might be swallowed up and overwhelmed by immortality; and Eve summed up in Mary, that a virgin should be a virgin’s intercessor, and by a virgin’s obedience undo and put away the disobedience of a virgin.” (Dem 33)

After this, other patristic theologians wrote similar things (Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome) and it seems like Mary’s role and importance grew at different times in later history. Then, in the 19th and 20th century we can see how Roman Catholic dogma had progressed to not just seeing Mary as playing an important role in bringing Life through Jesus, but to actually playing a part in redemption with Jesus. In 1854, Pope Pius IX put into dogma via papal bull the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, stating that Mary was conceived without original sin. Then, in an Encyclical from Pope Pius XII in 1954, he states the following (there are several similar statements): “39. Certainly, in the full and strict meaning of the term, only Jesus Christ, the God-Man, is King; but Mary, too, as Mother of the divine Christ, as His associate in the redemption, in his struggle with His enemies and His final victory over them, has a share, though in a limited and analogous way, in His royal dignity.”

I was more interested in the historical factor of where an interest in Mary came from (and still am since this is only one factor among many). As a bible-thumping Protestant, I strongly uphold our redemption in the 2nd Adam, and since Mary is never mentioned or hinted at in regards to our salvation or paralleled as a 2nd Eve I strongly disagree with Roman Catholic theology in this regards. Not only is it a big stretch to making Mary a 2nd Eve because Jesus is a 2nd Adam, but it also seems to be a big stretch even to get from the quotes of the early church fathers on Mary being significant (because she conceived Jesus and therefore conceived life) to the later Roman Catholic teaching that she is an associate in our redemption.