Tom Nettles

A Medley of Reformed Relevance

This edition of the Founders Journal puts together articles on a broad spectrum of specific topics but all informed by the big ideas of the Reformed Confessional heritage.  

Ottavio Palombaro, in addition to having gained a (Th.D.), also gained a Ph. D. in economic sociology along with a BA in cultural anthropology. His expertise includes a wide range of theological, sociological, philosophical, linguistic, and musicological subjects. His article in the Founders Journal focuses on John Knox and his biblical/theological/existential interaction with the question of female leadership broadly conceived. He describes the purpose of the article as an evaluation of “whether the view of John Knox on gender and leadership was Biblical and what lesson can be learned from the controversy between John Knox and queen Mary as applied to today’s shifts in gender and sexuality both in society and in the church.” As a fundamental principle of biblical presentation, Knox said, “So I say, that in her greatest perfection, woman was created to be subject to man.” That principle then is teased out through actual biblical phenomena as noted by Knox and elucidated by Palombaro. To those who may be deluged by post-modern standards having the shock of Knox come before them, concluding that he was a “horrid man,” the author noted that “they are using modern glasses in retrospection, neglecting the contextual historical as well as cultural realm into which Knox blew his apocalyptic trumpet.” None can doubt that Knox was a Calvinist, indeed a fully convinced Reformer with a biblical worldview, but, as Palombaro observes, that does not mean that he was a chauvinist. Rather that could mean that he had a more profound and excellent regard for femaleness than any of today’s so-called egalitarians. Judging from Knox’s grasp of biblical womanhood, Palombaro writes, “Just as women are to submit to their husband in the family, and just as men should be pastor in the church, so the issue of women in the military or transgender males playing female athletics are examples of how Knox had a point in his consideration upon human constitution.” This is a highly relevant and salubrious sip drawn from an aged and tested wineskin.

Chris Osterbrock earned the D. Ed. Min. in Biblical Spirituality from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Presently he is a PhD Student in Historical Theology, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Wellsboro, PA. and is author of What is Saving Faith? Chris presents us with a symphony and chorus of inexhaustible beauty in the “The Stingless Death,.” While this theme of Christ’s victory over death, even the wages of sin, is a universal Christian theme, the author focuses on the Baptist tradition of interpretation and practical application of 1 Corinthians 15:55. Keach, Gill, Wallin, Booth, Fuller, Ryland, Jr., Boyce, and several others have their say on this triumphant song. Osterbrock notes, “The individual authors may elucidate different sides of the gemstone, but Particular Baptist tradition holds together a cohesive interpretation. Herein we examine how this verse was understood in Baptist life through 200 years.” Among the facets of this scriptural gem, Baptist exposition has explained “the providence of God in death, a secured new life to come, a song to be sung in sanctification as well as glorification, and a song applied as a salve to extinguish sin in the present life.” It has given rise to celebrative imagery of intense poetic impulse such as the exclamation of Abraham Booth, “Thy haggard form I plainly discern; but where, where is thy sting? . . . for, behold! Thy sting is entirely and eternally gone. Jesus, the glorious victor, has plucked it from thee.” And finally, this ultimate enemy becomes the path to unblemished holiness. “Here in death,” the author deduces from the expositions investigated, “the Christian finds perfect mortification of sin and depravity, and in death there is the perfect sanctification of the body and soul for glory.”

Craig Biehl earned his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary. His books deal with the power of Reformed theology in promoting Christian spirituality, the power of orthodox thought, and the futile systems promoted by unbelief. In his article, “Are God’s Justice and Mercy Incompatible?” Craig Biehl unfolds the consistency of biblical orthodoxy to engage serious philosophical objections to the Christian doctrine of God. Letting Theodore M. Drange speak for one specific argument against the existence of God, he sets forth this supposedly inescapable moral dilemma. A god who is just—and a god must be just—would “treat every offender with exactly the severity deserved.” But a god must show the tenderness of mercy and so would treat “every offender with less severity” than deserved. Since these necessary attributes for a god contradict, a god cannot exist. Mercy perverts justice, and justice militates against mercy. Biehl brings to this unbreakable dilemma the biblical teachings on the person of Christ and the nature of the atoning work of Christ. “As a man, Christ was the perfect substitute for mankind. As God and man, He was the perfect mediator between God and man. And as God, His suffering and death paid an infinite penalty for the sin of mankind. This He did once for all time, never to be repeated.” The substitutionary, propitiatory atonement made by Christ in covenant obedience to the Father fully satisfies the demands of both justice and mercy. God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ” (Romans 3:26 NASB). Does this violate either absolute justice or the extension of mercy to the violator of God’s law? Biehl shows that “In this way, salvation by faith upholds God’s righteous justice. ‘Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law’ (Rom 3:31).” In this justice-is-contrary-to-mercy objection to the God of the Bible we have “an example of what besets the best of atheistic arguments.” As Creator, Sustainer, and Judge—and whose image actually establishes all the rules of logic, justice, compassion—God solves this apparent moral contradiction “according to His wisdom.” But, as Biehl points out, even this infinitely powerful, logically consistent, and surpassingly wise solution appears to rebellious man as foolishness. But to those who believe, it is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Robert Gonzalez, Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary since 2005,  in “The Saving Design of God’s Common Grace” gives an exposition of this fundamental biblical proposition: though common grace “does not guarantee the salvation of its recipients,” it is nevertheless “saving in its design.” In accord with Romans 2, “God sincerely intends the kindness and patience he shows to all sinners (whether elect or non-elect) to lead them unto saving repentance.” After arguing this case with careful exegesis and in interaction with the hyper-Calvinist wing of theologians, Gonzalez concludes “from the evidence above we may conclude a saving design in the indiscriminate common grace God showers on all men whether elect or non-elect.”

This is of the nature of a Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation theological idea. Although it is perfectly just and holy for God to allow humanity to choose its own course of action on the basis of its preferences, God’s calls to believe the gospel or repent heartily from sin are in their nature calls for restoration to a non-cursed relationship with God. He calls neither to hypocritical faith nor merely feigned repentance. He is under no moral impetus, however, to provide effectual grace by which saving faith and repentance are truly manifested. He may justly leave all men or as many as he deems it fitting and consistent with his wise decrees to continue in their course of purposeful rejection of both his moral commands or his overtures of engagement for restoration. Both the call of the gospel and the call of creation and other manifestations of common grace have as their absolute moral end a cessation of rebellion against God and an inclusion as a true worshipper of Jehovah.

Each of these articles looks seriously at the Reformed confessional stance and shows its powerful relevance to any moral, cultural, or religious issue.

A Statement of Appreciation for Wayne Grudem

Recently I received the prayer letter from Wayne Grudem. He sends these out because he really wants the saints to join in prayer that Wayne’s calling, gifts, experience, and projects be owned of God for his glory and the leavening effect of his truth. The letter this week contained a prayer request to pray in light of the “Ending my teaching career.” He explained that at the end of a theology class “I walked out of the classroom with a kind of weariness that I don’t remember feeling before. The combination of my Parkinson’s disease, my prostate cancer and its treatments, and my 76 years of age all are combining, and the result is that I don’t have the energy that I have previously had.” After consultation with Margaret and trusted observers and advisors, Wayne decided “that this would be my last semester of teaching.” Wayne began his teaching ministry in 1977-1981 at Bethel College in St. Paul. From 1981-2001 he taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In 2001 he began a 23-year tenure of teaching at Phoenix Seminary in Scottsdale, Arizona. Over these 47 years Wayne has taught more than 9,000 students. Now he will do what he has already done so well—write.

It will be worthwhile to consider Wayne’s attitude toward this pivot in life. Having parents that lived into their 90’s, close to two decades could remain (DV) and careful stewardship leads him to say, “I need wisdom from God to know what to spend my time on.” Certainly, readers of this post will sympathize spiritually with that desire and pray for the usefulness of this steward of the gospel.

In reflection on having reached such a corner in life, Wayne pointed to a biblical passage shared with him by Vern Poythress.

Do not cast me off in time of old age;

forsake me not when my strength is spent . . . . 

O God, from my youth you have taught me,

and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.

So even to old age and gray hairs,

O God, do not forsake me,

until I proclaim your might to another generation,

your power to all those to come

(Psalm 7[1]:9, 17-18). 

Giving insight into the operations of Spirit-driven Christian confidence Wayne noted, “I find it interesting that I’m not thinking of old age as something to be feared. It rather feels like I’ve been running a long race and I’ve turned a corner and now I see the finish line in the distance. Thinking that perhaps 80% of the race is over is, for me, a comforting feeling.”

Wayne’s literary contribution in a number of biblical and cultural areas has been profound and formative: spiritual, theological, exegetical, business, political, ethical issues have all been addressed by this theologian. His engagement with topics of many kinds has been so consistent, voluminous, and large that any attempt to give an extensive summary would be impossible. Wayne’s book the Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today [Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988], in addition to his defense of the continued presence of the gift of prophecy, has some stern warnings against flippant or uninformed dependence on an immediate manifestation of Spirit-driven utterance. His appendices on the canon and the sufficiency of Scripture are profound and apologetically assuring. He says, “if someone claims to have a message from God for us concerning what we ought to do, we need never think that it is sin to disobey such a message unless it can be confirmed by the application of Scripture itself to our situation.” (308) He also issues this warning, “if a pastor does not prepare for a Bible teaching, but says he is ‘trusting the Lord’ to bring something to mind, then he is, in my opinion trying to force the Lord to reveal something to him when he speaks. … Stepping into the pulpit without preparing is like jumping off the pinnacle of the temple. It involves refusing to use the ordinary means God has made available and demanding that he provide some kind of extraordinary revelation to rescue you from your dilemma!” (258).

Application of biblical principles to political issues is a mark of Grudem’s sense of stewardship of the whole life. In over 600 pages of text in Politics According to the Bible, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010] Wayne develops his discussion through “Basic Principles,” “Specific Issues,” and “Concluding Observations.” That final section serves as an excellent summary of his conclusions and how the different political party commitments align with his observations. He does not dodge any tough issue and seeks to unfold relevant biblical principles into greatly diverse and detailed issues. The first specific issue is “protection of life” within which he discusses not only abortion and euthanasia, but the right for citizens to own guns. He discusses the CIA, climate change, coercive interrogation, abortion, the economy (under ten categories), marriage and family, national defense, foreign policy, freedom of speech and religion, and other particular issues. In his section on worldview Wayne begins, “The very first sentence of the Bible tells us the most important building block of a Christian worldview: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (116). As he maintains throughout, this is God’s world, and governments and political systems will thrive and be redemptive agents or fail and increase corruption to the degree that they maintain the proper relation between human responsibility, moral vision, and just adjudication.

His Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, a book of almost 1300 pages, is not only concerned about coming to a biblical position on a large number of complex moral issues, but about developing Christian character and a desire to live to the glory of God. As in virtually all he writes, Wayne gives an exposition and defense of the full authority of Scripture as the word of God. He shows that, in addition to informing the mind and shaping one’s actions, Scripture properly conceived has a transforming effect on those who study it, cherish it, and hide its words in the heart with the ultimate effect to be conformed to the image of Christ (107-115). He gives 50 pages to the chapter on “Homosexuality and Transgenderism” dealing with large amounts of biblical material, frank discussions of the variety of unscriptural behaviors, and dissonant arguments from other ethicists. In a discussion of transgender bathrooms and locker rooms Wayne makes the judgment, “Such policies thus attempt to reinforce the lie that a person’s gender is something one can choose, not something determined by biological reality” (880).

Wayne does not shy away from all the tough issues and helps us engage with biblical awareness the possible future fallout of naturalistic relativism as applied to ethical issues.  Parts 2-7 are built on the ten commandments, showing the truth of the Psalmist’s exclamation, “I have seen a limit to all perfection; Your commandment is exceedingly broad” (Psalm 119:96 NASB). Chapters close with a Scripture memory passage and a hymn relevant to the subject discussed. Though the issues are often complex and the stakes for personal integrity and social stability and justice are high, Wayne’s discussions and application of relevant Scriptures give a sweet simplicity to the reasoning process about these matters. An example of a general principle applicable to several questions of moral desire is this: “In every generation there is a temptation to depart from the sufficiency of Scripture with new kinds of legalism that God does not require. Therefore, we must avoid two errors: the error of disobeying Scripture and the error of adding to Scripture more than God requires.” (688).

His Systematic Theology (Second Edition) is close to 1600 pages of intense biblical discussion of dogmatics in seven divisions: the Word of God, God, Man in God’s image, Christ and the Holy Spirit, the application of redemption, the church, and the future. This huge systematic theology has been edited to two smaller versions useful for church studies.

Similar to the experience of many Reformed and Evangelical Christians, Wayne testifies to the pleasing and confirming influence of J. Gresham Machen’s work, Christianity and Liberalism. His evaluation of its helpfulness has prompted him to encourage a serious engagement with the breadth of its doctrine and the biblical potency of its arguments. In the section on Scripture, Wayne includes a table of J. Gresham Machen’s interaction with liberalism by distinct categories along with relevant passages of Scripture and places in Christianity and Liberalism where the issue is discussed.

None should doubt the Christological orthodoxy of Grudem. In the context of a carefully-crafted exposition of the biblical and confessional development of the church’s confession of Christ’s person (663-705), in a section discussing the question of impeccability, Wayne says, “But Jesus’ human nature never existed apart from his divine nature. From the moment of his conception, he existed as truly God and truly man as well. Both his human nature and his divine nature existed while united in one person” (673).

Grudem narrates his broad and deep engagement with contemporary and historical theology both in the text and in well-placed pertinent footnotes. Each chapter includes questions for personal application and a double bibliography. One of these locates page numbers from denominational theologies in chronological order dealing with the subject under discussion. The other is a list of works devoted to the subject. The chapter on atonement has 46 such works listed. On this doctrine, Grudem says, “In conclusion, it seems to me that the Reformed position of ‘particular redemption’ is most consistent with the overall teaching of Scripture” (743). Having staked out his personal position, Wayne warns against unhelpful and spiritually unhealthy “nit-picking that creates controversies and useless disputes” (744). Again, every chapter includes a memory verse and a hymn to memorize.

In his book entitled “Free Grace” Theology: 5 Ways it Diminishes the Gospel [Wheaton: Crossway, 2016], Wayne engaged a modern manifestation of Sandemanianism. Like Andrew Fuller before him, he examined the leading ideas of the “Free Grace” movement in the context of closely reasoned biblical exegesis, confessional history, and the moral character and necessary connection of repentance and faith. Though justification certainly includes a belief of the truth, the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing a person to a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus and his redemptive work involves more than a bare belief of the bare truth. While stating clearly the errors of the “Free Grace,’ Grudem helps the reader understand what prompts such a doctrinal reaction and seeks avenues for nurturing a spirit of fraternity.

The last contribution I will mention is his activity in beginning and bringing to fruition the translation of the Bible called the English Standard Version. Having disagreements with some of the translation theory of the TNIV, Wayne gave much time, energy, and theological expertise to that project from its beginning to its completion. He served on the Translation Oversight Committee for the translation itself and as General Editor for the ESV study Bible.

Space allows no comment on Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, his book on Business for the Glory of God, his commentary on 1 Peter, and scores of papers presented at professional meetings. Wayne has demonstrated genuine Christian character in his family relationships, parents to grandchildren. He and Margaret have served as a team for encouragement and hospitality for many peregrinating fellow Christians. I can speak confidently for many thousands of Christians a sincere word of gratitude to him for his unrelenting and uncompromised love of the Bible, the God of the Bible, the redemption of the Bible and his work to make it known. We pray that his stewardship of the gospel in his post class-room labors will be satisfying as he views the “finish line in the distance.”

God’s Sustaining Grace

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,I have already come;’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,And grace will lead me home.

“Amazing Grace,” or “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” appeared in “Olney Hymns” in 1779, six years after it was first sung in the parish church at Olney. It was number 41 in Book One, devoted to “select passages of Scripture” the lone entry under 1 Chronicles. Newton viewed the prayer of David in that text, 1 Chronicles 17:16 and following, as a review of the operations of divine grace in his experience. David looked to the past, to the present, and then to the future. When the Christian contemplates the grace of God, he sees it in its seamless power, recognizing its effectual workings of the past, observing its sustaining power in the present, and confident of its immutable purpose in the future.

The text of “Amazing Grace” contains the word grace six times. Notably, verse two has the most direct exposition of the operation and effects of converting grace—grace to fear and grace for fears relieved. This is “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). John explains that the first grace was in this, “The law was given through Moses.” The grace that was layered on top of that was found in this: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The powerful grace of the Spirit in using the law to teach the fear of God and the consequences of sin led inexorably to the grace of faith in the completed work of Christ. Led to biblical belief by the Spirit of God showing the glory of Christ, the believer finds such grace as precious when the assaulted conscience under the terrors of God’s curse on lawbreakers find release by the certainty of acceptance. Verse two captures it

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,  And grace my fears relieved;How precious did that grace appear  The hour I first believed!

Verse three continues with the emphasis on sustaining grace, the necessary concomitant to saving grace. All of it is of the same quality and necessary, not only for the power and effectuality of regeneration, but for sustaining faith in a world hostile to the gospel and those who believe it.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,I have already come;’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,And grace will lead me home.

Verse four, five, and six look to the future of God’s sustaining grace in the believer’s life: “As long as life endures. … when mortal life shall cease, … will be forever mine.” Though the final three stanzas do not contain the word grace, the preciousness of the promises communicated find their origin and certain sustenance in sovereign omnipotent grace.

 Newton did not view grace as a cooperative power of God, but a unilateral and effectual exertion of power based on the eternal saving intent of God. In the preface to Olney Hymns, Newton made clear that he did not intend the hymn book to be an element of a polemical dispute with those who “differ with me, more or less, in those points which are called Calvinistic.” [Newton, 3:303] He was not out to promote controversy, but to edify the worshipper and convict the unregenerate of sin and absolute dependence on God. He claimed the freedom, however, as others of a different viewpoint claimed for themselves, to make his hymns as clear as he could on points of doctrine and Christian experience that glorified God and sent the sinner to the merits of Christ and the grace of God without reservation. “The views I have received of the doctrines of grace,” Newton explained, “are essential to my peace; I could not live comfortably a day, or an hour, without them.” As to any accusation that they promote carelessness and diminish evangelistic concern, Newton contended for an opposite viewpoint. “I likewise believe, yea, so far as my poor attainments warrant me to speak,” Newton averred, “I know them to be friendly to holiness, and to have a direct influence in producing and maintaining a Gospel conversation; and therefore I must not be ashamed of them.” {Newton, Works 3:303]

In a sermon entitled, “Sovereignty of Divine Grace Asserted and Illustrated,” Newton began his final paragraph with the encouragement, “Does it not appear from hence, that the doctrine of free sovereign grace is rather an encouragement to awakened and broken-hearted sinners than otherwise?” [Newton Works, 2:413, 414] Newton consistently encouraged his auditory to find in Christ not only a sovereign Savior, but a merciful and willing Savior. In 1800, preaching before the “Lord Maor, Aldermen, and Sherifs,” Newton closed a message on “The Constraining Influence of the Love of Christ” with an earnest appeal to flee from “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord,” for “We have incurred the penalty annexed to the breach of this law.” [Newton 6:516]

To those who are sensible of their desert and danger, the gospel points out relief and a refuge. Jesus invites the weary and burdened sinner, and says, “Him that cometh, I will in no wise cast out. You have heard something of his glorious person, power, authority, and love. He is able, he is willing, he has promised to save to the uttermost all that come to God by him. Oh, that today you may hear his voice, and comply with his invitation! [Newton 5:516.]

When Newton, therefore, wrote of grace, he had in mind the sovereignly chosen, eternal disposition, of love toward sinners viewed as fallen and under just condemnation. From the unit of fallen sons of Adam, the triune God placed electing, redeeming, justifying, persevering love on particular individuals to bring them from being under a sentence of eternal damnation to inherit the status of sons of God and receive eternal life. In a hymn on Leviticus 8, Newton versed, “He bears the names of all his saints deep on his heart engrav’d; attentive to the states and wants of all his love has saved.” [Newton, 3:328] At the same time, that the gospel call is to be sent to all, Newton gave no pause. He wrote, “But Jesus invitation sends, treating with rebels as his friends; And holds the promise forth in view, to all who for his mercy sue.” [3:330] He used Samson’s lion to teach God’s protective grace for believers: “The lions roar but cannot kill; then fear them not my friends, they bring us, though against their will, the honey Jesus sends” [Newton, 3:333]. Contemplation on 2 Kings 2 in the story of Elisha’s healing the waters of Jericho with salt led to this verse. He emphasizes human depravity which can only be healed by grace.

But grace, like the salt in the cruse,

When cast in the spring of the soul;

A wonderful change will produce,

Diffusing new life through the whole:

The wilderness blooms like a rose,

The heart which was vile and abhors,

Now fruitful and beautiful grows,

The garden and joy of the Lord.

[Newton, 3:349]

The present experience of grace forms the substance of verse three. Newton viewed that experience in two parts—the dangers, toils and snares, of struggle involved in present sanctification, and second, the settled assurance that grace will lead us home. That idea is an element of and leads into the internal dominant hope (1 John 3:3) energized by the “Blessed Hope” (Titus 2:13) we find in verse 4–“His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.”

Newton described the “fears-relieved” kind of grace (verse 2) in a sermon entitled “Grace in the Blade” on Mark 4:28. Though punctuated with various manifestations of immaturity, lack of knowledge, fright, and terror before enemies, this is a time “remarkable for the warmth and liveliness of the affections.” [Newton 1:202] This new and enthusiastic believer Newton has named “A.”

The next stage, “B,” is “Grace in the Ear.” (Mark 4:28). Whereas desire and perhaps rapidly fluctuating joy and despair characterize “A,” Newton saw conflict as the state of “B” leading to a maturing understanding of the nature of the conflict caused by the operation of the flesh against the Spirit. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come.” The person denominated “B” knows that grace has brought him safe thus far.

Having felt the wrath of God pacified by the blood of Christ, having achieved some spiritual equilibrium, and having seen the deadly enemies of the past held at bay, B may think that little conflict will occur in his future pilgrimage. He learns otherwise very soon. “Alas!” Newton says.” “His difficulties are in a manner just beginning; he has a wilderness before him, of which he is not aware.” God’s operations of grace will include some severe tests to “humble and prove him, and to shew him what is in his heart.” Aiming toward the “latter end” of life with more sustained comfort and anticipatory joy, this stage is designed by God “that all the glory may redound to his own free grace.” [Newton 1:205]

B learns that he lives “in a world that is full of snares, and occasions, suited to draw forth those corruptions.” [206] He is wiling to endure hardship and knows from Scripture that his heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, but he could never anticipate how deeply he could fall if left to his own devices and strength. When he finds respite from breakthroughs of perversity and malicious sin, God gives occasions in which he still will discover “new and mortifying proofs of an evil nature.” Hezekiah and Peter had exalted manifestations of grace followed by events in which, left to their own strength and determination, they fell to a sensible and distressing experience of their own evil nature when unsustained by immediate grace. A variety of experiences will teach B to be more “distrustful of his own heart” and view the way before him with ever-increasing conscious dependence on grace and “to suspect a snare in every step he takes.” [209]

As Newton described his own pilgrimage as person B, he found “multiplied instances of stupidity, ingratitude, impatience, and rebellion, to which my conscience has been witness!” [208] The person in this stage of pilgrimage in grace has a mind is more thoroughly informed by Scripture truth concerning the call to “lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily besets us” (Hebrews 12:1). Parallel to that, and with a maturing grasp of the coordinate operations of the “renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:2) and the “renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5), he has an increased awareness and admiration of “the rich sovereign abounding mercy of the covenant.” [209] “Through many dangers toils and snares I have already come. ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far.”

When the result of grace is the “Full corn in the ear,” the Christian pilgrim can say, “and grace will lead me home.” Newton labeled this stage of pilgrimage as the experience of “C.” He more fully develops this in verse 4, but the threshold to that stage is introduced here. C recognizes more profoundly that whether living or dead, he belongs to Christ. He knows that even if he lives as long as Methuselah, and does not enter heaven for centuries, this will mean fruitful labor for him. It will involve opportunities for glorying in Christ before a wicked and perverse age. Like Paul, he desires to be with Christ, knowing that such a state is far better, but he has learned to be content in any condition in this life and to trust God’s wisdom as to the time and condition of his entry to the heavenly presence of Christ among the “spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), for he knows that, by invincible grace, his place there is assured. “Grace will lead me home,” and that same grace will sustain me while I am here.

Newton described this state of grace as characterized by humility, spirituality, and “a union of heart to the glory and will of God.” [214, 215] He learns humility in looking back “upon the way by which the Lord has led him; and while he reviews the Ebenezers he has set up all along the road, he sees, in almost an equal number, the monuments of his own perverse returns.” [212] He learns a deeper and more humble submission to the will of God in all circumstances. While he is impatient with his own failures in light of God’s immeasurable grace, he learns to bear with others as they also will stumble over the “snares of the world.” [213].

C learns more intensely how deeply rooted is the evil principle that clings to him in this life and thus learns to seek and value more profoundly the operations of the Spirit in mortification of the flesh. He learns how vain it is to cling to temporal things and how excellent it is to increase in the knowledge of God and conformity to Christ. As he looks with confidence to the grace that will lead him home, “He sees that the time is short, lives upon the foretastes of glory, and therefore accounts not his life, or any inferior concernment dear, so that he may finish his course with joy.” [214]

For C, grace still reminds him of the sinful pit from which he was lifted, and reminds him of the snares, dangers, and toils that once were more prominent and threatening than now. He still knows and feels the power of indwelling sin and yearns to be free of its hindrances. Increasingly diminished, however, is the fixture on oneself, and ever more prominent is a joy in savoring and contemplating the glories and beauties of God. “That God in Christ is glorious over all, and blessed for ever, is the very joy of his soul.” [216] They may have great grace for great difficulty and appear to make slow progress in their grasp of the glory of God. They may also have less intense outlays of grace for small difficulties and seem to advance rapidly. In both cases grace makes them endure.

Grace must sustain us from first to last.  Preceded by the grace of election, Christ’s condescension, and victorious resurrection, we are dependent on divine grace even prior to any experience of it in our hearts. Made by grace to fear the curse and brought by grace to embrace the cure, we find grace upon grace. Born spiritually by the Spirit’s grace and secured eternally by the Redeemer’s intercession, grace will lead us home.  The absolute and perpetual need of grace arises from the depravity of our hearts. We are humbled by this but not thrown down for an unending fountain of grace flows from the saving wounds of Christ “since Jesus is appointed to me of God, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; and since I find that, in the midst of all this darkness and deadness, he keeps alive the principle of grace which he has implanted in my heart.” [Newton 1:250, “On a believer’s Frames.”]

John Newton: A Brief Biography

During his final days in December 1807, John Newton said, “What a thing it is to live under the shadow of the wings of the Almighty! I am going the way of all flesh.” A friend replied, “The Lord is gracious.” Newton responded, “If it were not so, how could I dare to stand before him?” Newton’s indebtedness to the amazing grace of God in saving and preserving rebels flooded his consciousness from new birth till death. His Hymn has reminded generations of God’s pervasive grace for two and one-half centuries.

Learning the bare facts of a person’s biography can orient us to his life. Here are some for John Newton. John Newton was born in London, July 24, 1725. His mother died in 1832 and with her perished all instruction in Christian truth. His formal education began at a boarding school when he was eight and ended when he was ten years old. He sailed on a merchant ship with his father from 1836 through 1842. Eventually, Newton served as the master of a slave ship. After years of unrestrained blasphemy, wild and carless living, in which he “bore every mark of final impenitence and rejection”[1] a gracious work of God patiently and by degrees brought him to serious searching around 1748 and saving faith sometime the next year. Eventually, Newton served as a parish minister in the Church of England at Olney from 1764-1780. Along with William Cowper he authored Olney Hymns, published in 1779.

Newton moved from Olney to St. Mary Woolnoth in London in 1780. He was active as a supporter of William Wilberforce in the abolition of the slave trade in England. He maintained his ministry at St. Mary Woolnoth until his death December 21, 1807.

John Newton never forgot the rescue from sin and devastation that God wrought on him. Early in his life he picked up and set down a form of legalistic, self-righteous religion. By 18, he had been convinced by a clever sceptic of the fantastic character of all religion and Newton “plunged into infidelity with all his spirit.”[2] The few years subsequent to this saw him careless in all eternal and temporal things. He was a deserter from a ship, whipped and scorned, tormented by a slave-holding woman, sick almost unto death, and in great dangers in storms at sea. Newton narrowly escaped death on several occasions. In retrospect, he viewed these escapes as special arrangements of divine providence to secure him for salvation and for ministry.

He reached a high position on a slave ship and was given responsibility to manage a long-boat in Sierra Leone in order to sail from place to place to purchase slaves. He had rejected his former infidelity by 1748 and had several times of serious thought about his need of forgiveness. Later as he addressed skepticism and infidelity among parishioners in London, Newton described his escapade with this intellectual difficulty in a letter to his parish, St. Mary Woolnoth, in London.

I know how to pity persons of this unhappy turn, for it was too long my own. It is not only a hazardous, but an uncomfortable state; for, notwithstanding their utmost address and endeavours, they cannot wholly avoid painful apprehensions, lest the Bible, which they wish to be false, should prove to be the truth. It was thus with me, and it must, in the nature of things, be thus with every infidel. To doubt or deny the truth of Christianity is too common; but to demonstrate that it is false, is an utter impossibility. I laboured in the attempt, but when I least expected it, I met with evidence that overpowered my resistance; and the Bible which I had despised removed my scepticism. He against whom I had hardened my self, was pleased to spare me; and I now live to tell you, that there is forgiveness with him.[3]

He made progress in abandoning some of the evil practices of former years but still lacked any consistent grasp of the nature of gospel faith and true holiness. Similar to a line in verse three of “Amazing Grace,” Newton stated, “I was no longer an infidel: I heartily renounced my former profaneness, and had taken up some right notions; was seriously disposed, and sincerely touched with a sense of the undeserved mercy I had received, in being brought safe through so many dangers.”[4]  He seems to have come to genuine faith around 1749; he married February 1, 1750, to a girl he had loved since 1742 when she was 14 years of age. He became master of a ship and was gone for fourteen months, but used the time for reading, discipline, and solitary contemplation. In all he made three voyages to purchase slaves that had been collected by slave traders on shore.

Newton’s reflections on his nine years in the business of buying and transporting slaves caused him deep shame. In writing “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade,” Newton stated, “I am bound in conscience to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent or repair the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessory.”[5] Having begun in 1745 on the coast of Guinea, mastering a ship by 1750, ready for a fourth voyage in 1754 on his ship, God visited him with a sudden illness and he resigned his ship to another captain. His nine-year involvement in the slave trade came to an end. He had found it disagreeable but did not consider it unlawful and wrong. At a distance of thirty-three years, Newton described the effects of the slave trade, the slave ships, the slave auctions, the life on plantations on captor and captive alike. The slave men endured—if they finally endured at all—difficulties designed for them; the women have to submit to outrages they have no power to resist, “abandoned, without restraint, to the lawless will of the first comer.”[6] He gave himself to join forces with those who argued in Parliament to abolish the African slave trade. He knew of nothing “so iniquitous, so cruel, so oppressive, so destructive” as that.[7]

Through a series of clearly providentially arranged circumstances, Newton was able to find by 1757 a business that allowed him much time for study. He formerly had taught himself Latin, had read many of the Latin classics when on ships, and now determined that he would give himself to learn Greek. This was done to a degree that he could consult and use certain helps in the language in order to draw his personal conclusions as to the meaning of texts. He also read much of “the best writers in divinity” in English, Latin, and French. Soon he began to engage in writing and confined his reading mostly to the Scriptures. He summarized, “I have been obliged to strike out my own path by the light I could acquire from books; as I have not had a teacher or assistant since I was ten years of age.”[8] Having had some opportunities to preach and engaged in an encouraging discussion with a seasoned minister, Newton wrote his wife, “I fear it must be wrong, after having so solemnly devoted myself to the Lord for his service, to wear away my time, and bury my talents in silence, … after all the great things he has done for me.”[9]

Newton grew in his deep conviction that God was preparing him for some work of gospel ministry. For a while he considered joining the Dissenters until his mind was relieved of some of his “scruples” concerning conformity. After receiving approval for parish ministry, several attempts for a parish failed until 1764 when the Bishop of Lincoln approved him and promised to ordain him. He carried through on this, though as Newton reported, “I was constrained to differ from his lordship on some points.”[10]  After being ordained deacon in April 1764, he was ordained as priest in June of 1765 and was appointed to the parish of Olney.

In 1768 he published “An Address to the Inhabitants of Olney.” He began with a pledge of genuine concern for these people in the parish: “Every person in the parish has a place in my heart and prayers, but I cannot speak to each of you singly.” After giving a summary of gospel truth, Newton addressed six groups of parishioners. One, he addressed those who had faith or were convinced of its necessity. He encouraged them to pursue true faith and not to allow distractions to interrupt their quest. Two, those who felt the gospel to be a burden and would not give it a patient hearing he challenged them to examine his preaching and consider the sure approach of death. On what would they lean in that hour? Could they prove his doctrine was out of accord with the New Testament or the doctrinal standards of the Church? Third, he addressed those who abstained from public worship and their profanation of the Sabbath. He feared that they might be given over to a reprobate mind. Others who found time for only one public service a week should not be surprised that God withholds his blessing from them even in that service. Fourth, he lamented how generally the word of God was ignored among the people of the parish. In particular he pointed to sexual sin of multiple varieties. Such person are especially susceptible to divine judgment for God “will not hold you guiltless in the day of his wrath.” He urged these parishioners to humble themselves, repent, and “flee to the refuge provided for helpless sinners in the gospel.”[11] Fifth, Newton addressed the spirit of open impiety and infidelity. He held up his own case as one in which a blasphemer, persecutor, and injurious man “to a degree I cannot express” obtained mercy. “The exceeding abundant grace of our Lord Jesus Christ brought me out of that dreadful state” He urged this sort of unbeliever to seek the Lord while he may be found; if not, do not increase wrath by making jest of the Scriptures, the gospel, and those who love them. Sixth, there was a considerable number that were not believers, but were not openly profane, were regular in their attendance, but probably rested in their outward privilege and thought their freedom from open abominations made them safe. To them he urged, “May the Lord awaken you to a diligent search into your own hearts, and into his holy word, and not suffer you to take up with any thing short of a real and saving change.”[12]

In both parish ministries, at Olney and in London, Newton experienced spiritual success and ministerial distress. At Olney, his influence on William Cowper induced in Cowper “the only sunshine he ever enjoyed, through the cloudy day of his afflicted life.”[13] Cowper’s intense state of mental and spiritual distress had led him to serious plans and attempts at suicide. A mental confrontation with Romans 3:25 and the reality of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ led Cowper to an experiential appropriation of gospel comforts. He moved to Olney in 1767 for the purpose of receiving the preaching and pastoral care of Newton. Cowper devoted himself to consistent and helpful ministry among the parishioners at Olney. Newton and Cowper often discussed evangelical doctrine and spiritual life, sharing common passion for the rescue of their lives by divine grace including their collaboration on Olney Hymns. The publication of Olney Hymns by Newton was Cowper’s first literary appearance. Among these were “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” based on Zechariah 13:1, “Oh, For a Closer Walk With God,” based on Genesis 5:24, and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” containing the line “Behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.” Subsequent to writing this hymn Cowper relapsed into a severe depression for almost a year. Newton gave him consistent pastoral care during this time.

J. M. Ross, the memoirist of Cowper in Cowper’s Poetical Works [14] nursed an intense dislike for Newton and his piety as well as his theology. He called him an “intensely evangelical and energetic divine.” He blamed him for Cowper’s’ relapse into severe depression by characterizing his influence as driving him to “pharisaic minuteness” prompted by religious feelings … unusually gloomy and atrabiliar.”[15] He called Cowper’s happy labors beside Newton in ministry as “the unhealthy nature of the work in which he was now engaged.” Ross possessed the uncanny talent for passing around his insulting evaluations by saying of Cowper, “His thoughts were neither mystical nor profound; they were not even subtle or warmly poetical. Seldom indeed has so genuine a poet possessed so poor an imagination.”[16] Ross did recognize, however, the consistent and even powerful influence Cowper had on the middle classes of Englishmen. The religious received him as a notable ally. He did not “veil in doubtful haze the truths of Christianity,” but with him “all is as orthodox as a sermon.” Englishmen could understand him as “easily as they did their clergymen on Sundays.”[17] The clarity and resonant relevance of Cowper’s poetry was largely due to his years of hearing the sermons of Newton, even if later years and Cowper’s unstable mental condition and wide variety friendships and pastimes cooled their relationships.

Also, at the time that Cowper had lapsed into a period of deep mental and emotional instability, Newton began an extended correspondence with Thomas Scott, writing at least eight letters from June to December, 1775.[18] Scott, verging toward Socinianism and resistant to creedal subscription, looked on Newton as shackled by “enthusiastic delusions” and “rank fanaticism.” Newton dealt tenderly with him. Without insulting him or treating him condescendingly, he discussed both orthodoxy and Christian experience with friendly firmness. Giving only mild defense of the necessity of subscribing a creed and practicing a liturgy, Newton was firm on the specific doctrinal issues that he suspected were at the bottom of Scott’s challenges. “I am far from thinking the Socinians all hypocrites,” Newton assured him, “but I think they are all in a most dangerous error; nor do their principles exhibit to my view a whit more of the genuine fruits of Christianity than deism itself.” In the matter of God’s acceptance of sincerity in place of accurate understand or mental commitment, Newton responded, “It is not through defect of understanding, but a want of simplicity and humility, that so many stumble like the blind at noon-day, and see nothing of those great truths which are written in the Gospel as with a sun-beam.”[19] Newton wrote of total depravity, the necessity of regeneration and its insuperable power, the Trinity, justification and other doctrines as clearly taught in Scripture and verified in experience. “Since my mind has been enlightened, “Newton testified to Scott, “everything in me and everything around me, confirms and explains to me what I read in Scripture; and though I have reason enough to distrust my own judgment every hour, yet I have no reason to question the great essentials, which the Lord himself hath taught me.”[20] Scott’s final reception of these truth and experience of this faith in Jesus was yet several years away. Eventually, however, he was brought to see the truth of Newton’s doctrine and experience and to become the “humble recipient of the kingdom of heaven as a little child.”[21]

Despite his consistent, loving, and biblically faithful labors at Olney, the group of faithful hearers which afforded him joy and support passed away but were not replaced by other persons of similar spiritual experience. Finally the unconverted so dominated the social life of the parish, that on one occasion Newton had to ransom his house from their intent to do violence on a particularly rowdy and riotous evening. Within a year he left Olney for a new appointment in London. Newton told Richard Cecil that “he should never have left the place while he lived, had not so incorrigible a spirit prevailed, in a parish which he had long laboured to reform.”[22]

The move to London did not eliminate the difficulties of an evangelical, experientially-alive Anglican priest in an Anglican parish. Criticism mounted during his first year of parish ministry there, and he felt that an explanatory letter concerning his doctrine and his preaching was necessary. On November 1, 1781, he published “A Token of Affection and Respect to the Parishioners of St. Mary Woolnoth.”[23] Part of the difficulty of a parish ministry in an ecclesiastical establishment is that confidence in the regenerate character of the congregation must be very low. The minister does not minister to a church. His is a task to herd goats  and seek to justify his ministry and his message to those who are naturally and principially opposed to his purpose. The appeal Newton makes to the parish is admirable for its courage, its spirit of legitimate deference, and its undercurrent of evangelism, but as an implied comments on the condition of the parish, it is lamentable.

He admonishes those who are in the parish and have received the baptism of the established Church of England whom he never sees on the Lord’s Day. The auditory is numerous but Newton observed, “I see so few of my own parishioners among them.”[24]  Many to whom the “word of salvation is sent, refuse to hear it.” Also, Newton observed the progress of “infidelity” among them, a general disregard for the Christian religion in particular. He reminded them clearly that the facts, provisions, and conditions of the gospel message were matters of divine revelation and they “cannot wholly avoid painful apprehensions, lest the Bible, which they wish to be false, should prove to be true.”[25] Many others perhaps believe in a formal sense that the Bible is true but give little energy to either knowing or obeying it. They are offended when “a faithful preacher forces upon your conscience” the consequences of careless regard to the dictates of the final judge and, therefore, find sufficient excuse for not hearing him again. Some still attend worship, but do it in other parishes to avoid the intensely Bible-centered preaching of Newton. They should be careful that their contempt is not really against him, though they may delude themselves to think so, but is against “the doctrine of the prophets and apostles, and of Christ himself.”[26]  Newton professed never to have purposely given offense, but also he knew “that if I would be faithful to my conscience, some of my hearers must be displeased.”[27]  How to sort out the meaning of terms of opprobrium used against him, Newton was unsure; he was sure, however, that any term used, such as “Methodist,” even if void of any clear meaning would be “sufficient proof that it cannot be worth their while to hear me.”[28]  Others complained that he preached too long at forty-five minutes when they were quite eager to use a much longer portion of their day to hear useless entertainment or political speech. “It is not so much the length,” Newton warned, “as the subject matter that wearies you.”[29] Other complained that he preached extempore and did not read his sermons. His complaint evoked the most extensive response from Newton. He explained the historical situation which led to reading sermons as a safety measure for the preacher and how that developed into a mark of scholarly preparedness. Newton objected to the impression and showed how extempore reasoning and admonition showed expertise and knowledge in a way that a manuscript did not. Scripture topics, moreover, are fit “to awaken the strongest emotions, and to draw forth the highest exertions of which the human mind is capable.”[30] Since his subject matter is of infinitely “more concern to his hearers” than any other subject upon which men can place their thoughts or employ their tongues, “shall a minister of the gospel … be thought the only man who has chosen a subject incapable of justifying his earnestness.” Given that his office requires him to “unfold the wonders of redemption, or to enlarge on the solemn themes of judgment, heaven and hell” can it be conceived that he should not indulge “such thoughts and expressions upon the spot, as the most judicious part of his auditory need not disdain to hear?”[31] He urged them to consider with penetrating earnestness that eternity was at stake and that they could not be accepted by him in the great day of his appearing if they were not “born from above, delivered from the love and spirit of the world, and made partakers of the love and spirit of the Lord Jesus.”[32] He declared himself without guilt of their blood in that day. To those who believed the gospel, had not deserted their place under his preaching, and maintained a viable experiential fellowship with Christ in his saving work, he gave a serious call. They could assist him to stop the mouths of gainsayers with conduct consistent with gospel faith and spiritual virtue. Such consistent heavenly-mindedness would “constrain them to acknowledge, that the doctrines of grace, which I preach, when rightly understood and cordially embraced, are productive of peace, contentment, integrity, benevolence, and humility.” Many would look for their halting and miscarriages, but the Lord has “engaged to support, to guide, and to guard you, and at length to make you more than conquerors, and to bestow upon you a crown of everlasting life.”[33]

Very few days of his life subsequent to his appointment to Olney were free of his astonished admiration of such a transaction of grace and eternal security. His letter to London parishioners stated, “No person in the congregation can be more averse from the doctrines which I now preach than I myself once was.”[34] In a letter to John Ryland, Jr., Newton pointed to the providence of God in the death of useful ministers and in the calling of the most unlikely persons to gospel ministry. Samuel Pearce was taken very early in life (33 years of age), “not half my age,” wrote Newton, “but undoubtedly he lived to finish what the Lord had appointed him to do. So shall you and I.” Newton considered himself old at 74 but expressed his confidence in divine purpose, “Old as I am, I shall not die before my set time.” He wanted to “improve the present” and be prepared for the future. “Indeed,” he wrote, “I see little in this world worth living for on its own account; though I think no one has less reason to be weary of life. But I am not my own, and desire to have no choice for myself. May we live to His praise and die in His peace.” Further meditation on these phenomena brought Newton to observe, “The usefulness of some is protracted, while others like Mr. Pearce, are taken away early. … He who has the fulness of the spirit will never want instruments to carry on his work. He can raise them up as it were from the very stones.”[35]

Newton regularly called to mind the testimony of Paul as an encouragement. After Paul’s description of the deep rebelliousness and injurious intent of his life, he said of himself that of sinners “I am the chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). For Newton, this meant that even chief sinners could be saved and would thereby magnify the grace of God. He frequently drew attention to Paul’s testimony for he knew that its broad parameters enveloped him in its embrace. In a hymn entitled “Encouragement” Newton wrote

Of sinners the chief,

And viler than all,

The jailer or thief,

Manasseh or Saul;

Since they were forgiv’n,

Why should I despair,

While Christ is in Heav’n

And still answers prayer.[36]

Not only was Paul’s salvation designed for the encouragement of others, but his vibrant apostolic ministry given him by grace stirred Newton with God’s sovereign and surprising intentions. Paul received the grace of God for salvation and further to be an apostle, a preacher, and a teacher (2 Timothy 1:11). In fact, the glorious gospel of the blessed God was committed to his charge (1 Timothy 1:11). The grace to Newton imitated that to Paul even in that. In reflecting on his appointment to the parish of St. Mary Woolnoth in London, Newton wrote, “that one of the most ignorant, the most miserable, and the most abandoned of slaves, should be plucked from his forlorn state of exile on the coast of Africa, and at length be appointed minister of the parish of the first magistrate of the first city in the world—that he should be there, not only testify of such grace, but stand up as a singular instance and monument of it—that he should be enabled to record it in his history, preaching, and writings, to the world at large—is a fact I can contemplate with admiration, but never fully estimate.” [37]

In 1799 Newton wrote John Ryland, Jr. with further expressions of amazement at God’s choice and qualifying of unlikely instruments. “He can call the most unworthy persons, and bring them from the most unlikely places, to labour in his vineyard. Had it not been so, you would have never heard of me. From what a dung hill of sin and misery did he raise me to place me among the princes of his people! Consider what I was and where I was (in Africa) and you must acknowledge I am a singular instance of sovereignty and the riches of His mercy!”[38] When friends thought at eighty years of age that he had gone beyond the competence required to maintain a pulpit ministry encouraged him to step down, he replied, “What! Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”[39]

Newton’s epitaph inscribed on a memorial tablet at St. Mary Woolnoth celebrated the truly surprising grace of God in his conversion as well as in his long and effective ministry.

JOHN NEWTON,

CLERK

ONCE AN INFIDEL AND LIBERTINE,

A SERVANT OF SLAVES IN AFRICA,

WAS,

BY THE RICH MERCY

OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR

JESUS CHRIST,

PRESERVED, RESTORED, PARDONED,

AND APPOINTED TO PREACH THE FAITH

HE HAD LONG LABOURED TO DESTROY.

[1] John Newton, The Works of John Newton, 6 vols (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985) 1:24. Hereinafter designated as Works.

[2] Works, 1:10

[3] Works, 6:569.

[4] Works, 1:32.

[5] Works, 6:522.

[6] Works, 6:535.

[7] Works, 6:548.

[8] Works, 1:50.

[9] Works, 1:54.

[10] Works, 1:55.

[11] Works, 6:559.

[12] Works, 6:562.

[13] Works, 1:61.

[14] William Cowper, Cowper’s Poetical Works. Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo, nd. Hereinafter designated as Cowper’s. An introductory “Life of William Cowper” was written by J. M Ross.

[15] Cowper’s, v.

[16] Cowper’s, xiv.

[17] Cowper’s, xvi.

[18] These letters are contained in Newton’s Works, 6:556-618. Thomas Scott gave an account of his skepticism and his rescue from it in the Force of Truth, London: Printed for G. Keith, 1779. Scott’s “authentic narrative” was published the same year that Olney Hymns was published.

[19] Works, 1:568.

[20] Works, 1:570.

[21] Works, 1:68.

[22] Works, 1:69.

[23] Works, 6: 567-583.

[24] Works, 6: 568.

[25] Works, 6: 569.

[26] Works, 6: 371.

[27] Works, 6: 572.

[28] Works, 6: 574.

[29] Works, 6: 574, 575.

[30] Works, 6: 577.

[31] Works, 6: 578..

[32] Works, 6: 580, 581.

[33] Works, 6:583.

[34] Works, 6: 582.

[35] Grant Gordon, Ed. Wise Counsel, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009) 369, 370.

[36] Works, 3:581.

[37] Works, 1:73. Quote included in the biographical introduction by Richard Cecil.

[38] Wise Counsel, 370, 371.

[39] Works, 1:88

Exposition of “Amazing Grace:” An Appreciation of 250 Years of Edifying Influence

Editorial Comments on Founders Journal

Exposition of “Amazing Grace:”

 An Appreciation of 250 Years of Edifying Influence

The 250th anniversary of the first singing of “Amazing Grace” was January 2023. It was written by John Newton and sung by his parish congregation in Olney, England. This Journal is committed to a theological exposition of that hymn. I have written the discussion of verse three and a biographical sketch of Newton. My pastor, Cam Potts, who preached a series of sermons on “Amazing Grace” at the beginning of 2023, has written how a study of the hymn energized certain pastoral commitments. A seasoned musician and profound theological thinker, Jim Carnes, worship pastor at Southwoods Baptist Church in Germantown, Tennessee, has provided an enlightening discussion of verse one. Paul Taylor gives an edifying exposition of verse 2 and includes a doctrinal investigation of the concept of the fear of the Lord: “ ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”  Erik Smith, a theologically and historically trained business man, discusses verse four by looking at how God’s promise [“The Lord has promised good to me”] is worked out in the various aspects of his providence. How pleasant and assuring it is to consider the truths of which Erik reminds us. Joe Crider, Dean of the School of Church Music at The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has taken on verse five and the often fearful impressions given concerning the time “when this flesh and heart shall fail.” He gives us a look at the vail of death and the pleasant prospects that God’s saving and preserving grace present to believers. Joe Nesome, pastor at First Baptist Church in Jackson, Louisiana, looks at verse six with a peek into the dissolution of this present temporal order (“The earth shall soon dissolve like snow”) that will be replaced by an eternal fellowship with the living God.

Remembering Jesus Christ: The Whole Person

This article is part 14 in a series by Tom Nettles on Remembering Jesus Christ. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13).

A Summary of Chalcedon

Leo’s Tome led to Chalcedon’s clarity.  This creed of 451 A. D. toes the line on the difficult idea of two natures maintaining absolute integrity with full manifestation of the distinct and incommunicable properties of each in one person. Also, for the first time in a creedal affirmation, we find the term theotokos—God-bearer, or mother of God. Often the term provokes an immediate negative reaction because of the self-evident truth that God is self-existent, without beginning, infinite in glory, power, and wisdom, dependent on nothing outside of himself for his purpose, his decrees, or his ability to perform all that he so desires. The implications of Scripture are clear when he declares, “Who hath directed the Spirit of the Lord, or being his counselor hath taught him? With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge, and shewed to him the way of understanding?” (Isaiah 40:13, 14 KJV). Also one would pause before accepting such a doctrinally loaded word because of specific affirmations of Scripture concerning the Son: “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16, 17 KJV).

So how can such a being ever be thought of as having a mother? This is precisely why Paul wrote, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory” (1 Timothy 3:16 KJV). I accept the propriety of the word “God” because of the grammatical context. Paul wrote above about “the household of God . . . the church of the living God,” and begins the confession with the pronoun “hos,” translated “who” with “God” being the only antecedent.

This strange, but clearly revealed, truth of the birth of Christ, shows that the conception by the Holy Spirit of the child in Mary was the moment of the union of God the Son with true humanity in one person, that would be born, crucified, buried, risen, ascended, and would so come again in like manner. As discussed in a previous post on “Remember,” the mystery as announced to Mary (Luke 1:31-33) said that she would “bring forth a son” who would be given the “throne of his father David,” and that he should reign forever and “of his kingdom there shall be no end.” Though she knew not a man, this would happen because “the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee,” creating fertility in her egg without the corruption of a human father. At the same moment of such a conception, “the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.” That means that the Father in his mysterious eternal activity of generating the Son caused a personal assumption of the human embryo by his Son with no lapse of time between the Spirit’s work of conception, the Father’s work of “overshadowing,” and the Son’s condescending to assume the human nature, taking the form of a servant, committed to conduct himself within the framework of humanity. That which was to be born of Mary would be called “the Son of God.” The singularity of this person so conceived, therefore, would be God in the flesh—“The word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

This truth of the birth of Christ, shows that the conception by the Holy Spirit of the child in Mary was the moment of the union of God the Son with true humanity in one person.

This reality was revealed to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, so that when Mary traveled to stay with her for some months, Elizabeth greeted her with these words: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42, 43). These words confirm the rather startling title given to Mary in this creed. They do point out that Mary, among all the women of the earth from the creation till the close of history was given this extraordinary blessing from God, (though she knew the truth of the words “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also”), to be the one through whose seed the Messiah came. The real intent, however, of such a title, and such an observation from Elizabeth, was that this single child, this one person enfleshed the Creator and sustainer of all that has been made as the one who also would be mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.

Efforts to avoid the apparent clumsiness of the term, “God-bearer,” leads to erroneous assertions. To say “Mother of Christ” or “Christ-bearer” in order to avoid using the word “God” does not escape the problem unless one is willing to assert that the Christ she bore was not God. If one seeks to avoid the hypostatic union of the two natures by saying the unity was only of sympathetic will, as the human person borne by Mary had established in his soul a complete union of purpose with the Son of God, then one is back to the error of adoptionism. The best option, given all the biblical data and the soteriological purpose of the incarnation, is to affirm the term, theotokos, for it captures all the power implicit in the Johannine assertion, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

On the basis of Leo’s letter, therefore, the following paragraph was set forth by the council of Chalcedon as an explanation of the doctrine consistent with the Creed of Nicea.

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 soul and body; consubstantial 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.[1] 

When the council of Chalcedon met, a committee was appointed to finalize its statement of orthodoxy. The committee considered several documents that had been produced during the controversy between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople and the “Tome” of Leo concerning the position of Eutyches. This committee produced a document that succinctly and clearly stated the position of the council.  Given the tensions present, and the fact that this is committee work, it is remarkable for its chaste conservatism, its doctrinal clarity, and its avoidance of metaphysical speculation. The pure “creedalism” of its assumptions, its anathemas, its pretensions to virtual canonical status would probably be resisted by the free-church, sola scriptura, orientation of Baptists and some others, but the careful expressions of the doctrine of Christ’s person should be joyfully embraced as a lucid, profound, and biblically accurate guide to both doctrine and interpretive principles.

Several items of theological and interpretive importance are distilled in this short statement. First, the creed seeks the consent of the reader that this formula is a true presentation of Old Testament prophecy, the teachings of Christ himself, the true doctrinal tradition of the church fathers, and the unalloyed meaning of the Nicene Creed.

Second, Jesus Christ really was God incarnate, the second person of the eternal Trinity. The eternal word that was with God (the Father) and was God (the Son) truly dwelt among men as a man. Jesus was not a mere phantom, nor a separately-personed man adopted or merely inhabited, but the one whose scars, whose hands and feet, were those of the one that was Lord and God (John 20:28).

Third, Jesus the Christ was truly and fully human. Not only was his body of the same stuff as our body, but he had all the soulish, rational, and spiritual aspects of humanity including human affections. His affections and perceptions constituted a soul that would be “exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death” (Matthew 26:38). He was of the same essence (“consubstantial”) as us but without the intrusive and corrupting factor of sin. Though people could clearly see that he was an extraordinary person (Matthew 16:13-16; Luke 7:14-17; John 3:2), none ever thought that he was less than a man.

The eternal word that was with God (the Father) and was God (the Son) truly dwelt among men as a man.

Fourth, without any mixture or confusion of the two natures that would compromise the integrity of either, Jesus was one person. All that he did as a person was an expression of the peculiar and distinguishing attributes of each nature. This perfect union in one person is emphasized by the vigorous expression of Mary as theotokos and the insistence that “the property of each nature” not only is preserved but concurs “in one Person.” All that he did as prophet, priest, and king was done in his capacity of Christ, so that each nature, concurring in the one person, contributed essentially to the proper fulfillment of each office. For example the First London Confession of the English Particular Baptists says, “That he might be such a Prophet as thereby to be every way complete, it was necessary that he should bee God, and withal also that he should be man; for unless he had been God, he could never have perfectly understood the will of God, neither had he been able to reveal it throughout all ages; and unless he had been man, he could not fitly have unfolded it in his own person to man.”[Lumpkin, 160]

Fifth, one must distinguish between nature and person. The personhood of Jesus was founded on the personhood of God the Son. The human nature was assumed by the Son of God but did not exist as a separate human person. That was the tendency of Nestorianism that fell short of the doctrine of the hypostatic union, that is, this one single person that was born of Mary from the moment of conception and every moment subsequent to his conception was both the eternal Son of God and the son of Mary, thus descended from David.  This distinction between person and nature indicates that the properties of personhood are consistent, whether it be of God or man, while the natures are distinct. Though the personhood consisted of the personhood of God the Son, its properties were consistent with Jesus’ human nature expressing itself in a fully personal way, so that in his communications, friendship, and affections in his humanity, there was nothing that was impersonal.

Hallelujah, What a Savior!

Victories of the past do not suffice for the present. Champions of error will continually seek to reclaim ground that they lost. Those who cherish the advances of truth from the past must seek to establish a bond with the courage, strength, and clarity of yesterday’s captives of truth and uncorrupted worship. Each generation has an increasing burden as well as blessing of stewardship. Revelatory truths stated and defended through careful thinking, hard work, and wrenching conflict must not be lost. Contemporary challenges must be dismantled while the grounds of defense must be reclaimed. Implications for present issues and for further understanding of the richness of divine revelation becomes a part of the stewardship of those who desire to “continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel” that they have heard, embraced, and found to be their very life.

[1] Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 2:62, 63.

This article is part 14 in a series by Tom Nettles on Remembering Jesus Christ.

Join us at the 2024 National Founders Conference on January 18-20 as we consider what it means to “Remember Jesus Christ” under the teaching of Tom Ascol, Joel Beeke, Costi Hinn, Phil Johnson, Conrad Mbewe and Travis Allen.

Remember Jesus Christ – the Creed of Nicea

Never has there been any point in God’s eternal existence when the Son was not begotten by the Father. If there had been, then the relation of Father and Son would be merely temporal and there would be no way of maintaining a singularity in the divine essence while affirming a real plurality of persons. Without generation as an eternal operation of God, tritheism or modalism are the only alternatives. This truth of eternal generation helps in the interpretation of certain passages of Scripture. For example, no doctrine gives greater aid in understanding John 5:26 than this. “For as the Father hath life in himself; so he hath given to the Son to have life in himself” (KJV). 

This article is part 12 in a series by Tom Nettles on Remembering Jesus Christ. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11).

The first of the ecumenical creeds was formulated in a council called by the emperor Constantine. According to historians Eusebius of Caesarea and Lanctantius, Constantine was converted to Christianity as he prepared for a battle with Maxentius in the year 312. His victory, which he attributed to Christ, made him the sole ruler of the western portion of the Empire. After a dozen years of gaining more knowledge of the church’s organization and doctrines, Constantine, aware of a theological controversy that stirred the church, made arrangements for church bishops to meet in Nicea (present day Iznik in Turkey) to settle the dispute. Around 300 bishops were able to come with only half a handful of representatives from the west.
The controversy that prompted the call to Nicea focused on the teaching of a presbyter of Alexandria Egypt named Arius (260-336). Arius strongly concluded that the monotheism necessary to Christianity eliminated the possibility of any other personal entity sharing the status of absolute deity. In a letter to his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia in 318 during the initial tensions of the controversy, he complained that Alexander “greatly injures and persecutes us . . . since we do not agree with him when he says publicly, ‘Always Father, always Son, ‘Father and Son together,’ . . . ‘Neither in thought nor by a single instant is God before the Son.’” Arius instead taught that “before he was begotten or created or ordained or founded, he was not.” He, that is, the one called the son, is not “a part of the unbegotten in any way” but was “constituted” by God’s “will and counsel, before times and before ages.”[1]
Arius’s affirmation, therefore, of the lordship of Christ could not mean that he was co-eternal with the Father and of the same nature. The phrases anathematized at the end of the Nicene Creed 325 represent some of the phrases that Arius used to define his understanding of Jesus, the Christ. Because only God is eternal, Jesus is not; and so, “There was when he was not.” Since he is begotten, he must have come into existence subsequent to the Father and, therefore, “begotten” is taken as a synonym for “created.” Since he is created, he cannot be of the same eternal immutable substance as the Father and is, on that account, of a different substance. Since he is a created moral being, even though the first of all created things, he is mutable and could have sinned. The Father, however, endowed him with the power of creation, set him forth to be the redeemer of the fallen race, a task that the Son effected without blemish and thus gained the status of savior. In order to be like us and succeed where we failed, he had to take our flesh. In his person, however, his humanity consisted only of the body while the created logos constituted the rational soul of the person Jesus.
This savior concocted by Arius, therefore, was neither God nor man. The views of Arius show that a single theological principle pressed with a relentless, but false, logic uninformed by other revelatory propositions leads to destructive conclusions.
Among the most important of the biblical theologians opposed to Arius was a young deacon at Alexandria named Athanasius (296-373). Athanasius had written a book entitled On the Incarnation of the Word.[2] In it he had discussed how the incarnation of the Son of God solved an apparent dilemma. God intended to bring his creature man to a state of glorious fellowship with God. He also threatened that if his creature disobeyed then death would be the certain outcome. How can God complete his purpose for man and at the same time keep true to his word? The incarnation is God’s answer to this apparent dilemma. The one who was both God and man could take the death man owed for “all men were due to die,” thus fulfilling the veracity of God’s word and the honor of God. At the same time, he brought to glory the human nature that he shared with the creature, thus fulfilling the divine purpose for man. Athanasius was well-armed in biblical knowledge and in theological reflection for the vital corrective that the Arian speculation demanded.
Though the Council had negative fall-out in church-state relations and the eventual authority of canon law, the most important result of the Council of Nicea was the adoption of the creed. To show the pivotal importance of the substance of this creed we will point to five short insertions. Eusebius of Caesarea (the first church historian) proposed the confession used at baptism by his church (or something very similar) as a possible statement to bring unity to the deeply divided council. When the Arian party agreed to sign the proposed statement, the party led by Alexander of Alexandria (d. 328) and his young deacon Athanasius (296-373) knew that no real unity could be gained by such a tactic. A creed that simply embraced the serious doctrinal disagreements would only perpetuate substantial disharmony and lead to constant dispute. Preeminently, ambiguity about the legitimate object of worship would in fact endorse a principle of idolatry and capitulate to the impression that Scripture itself was not clear in its christological focus. The wisdom of God would be impugned for leaving us without clarity on the status of the one he called “My beloved Son.” What could be more absurd in Christianity that to leave the christological issue a matter of opinion, ambiguity, and diverse formulation?
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Regaining and Clarifying Our Memory: Embracing a Whole Christ

This article is part 13 in a series by Tom Nettles on Remembering Jesus Christ. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12).

The orthodox party of Nicea prevailed for less than a decade. Challenges to the formula of Nicea soon began to multiply. For a brief period, Arianism was made the received doctrine of the empire.

Two other theological issues arose that called for closely reasoned biblical exposition. One concerned a construction of the human nature of Christ that compromised his full humanity by eliminating his human reason, human will, and thus, all true human initiative. This was propounded by Apollinarius. His zeal for the deity of Christ and the necessity of his sinlessness and incorruptibility led him to deny that Jesus had a human soul (thus no human reason, and will, and motivation).

Another issue concerned the person of the Holy Spirit. Was he a creature or was he, like the Son, of the same essence with the Father? Those who claimed the Spirit’s works were the works of a creature were known as “Fighters against the Spirit.”

The Emperor Theodosius I called a council in 381 at Constantinople in order to reaffirm the theology embraced at Nicea fifty-six years earlier and to give closure to the controversy over the Holy Spirit and the humanity of Christ. The creed of Nicea was reaffirmed with several phrases inserted to give clarity to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. We find, “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Also, we find, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.” The phrase, “And the Son,” filioque in Latin, was added to the western version of this creed during the time of Charlemagne. It affirms the double procession of the Holy Spirit in eternity who is, even as love flows eternally and personally between Father and Son, “the perfect bond of unity” (Colossians 3:14).

Although the Constantinopolitan creed gave a measure of balance to affirmations concerning the persons of the Trinity and locked Arianism outside the pale of orthodoxy, it did not give a detailed synopsis of the relation of the uncreated (God) to the created (man) in the person of Christ. That the eternally generated Son of God had taken to himself real humanity was now beyond dispute. The manner of this assumption of the human nature, however, and the appropriate words to use in asserting this truth still seemed to elude a clear, biblically defensible, theologically sustained definition.

Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, in response to a Mary-cult developing in his diocese, found it absurd to use the word theotokos, God-bearer, for Mary. He preferred the term christotokos, Christ-bearer. While firmly sustaining both the human and the divine, conscientiously resisting the tendency to fuse, and lose, the human into the divine nature, Nestorius was perceived as erring on the other side. It seemed that he maintained such an individuality in the human nature that he treated the nature as a person. He viewed the union as one only of undivided moral purpose, or a divine indwelling of the man born of Mary. His was a kind of high adoptionist Christology.

Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, kept the pressure on Nestorius insisting that he anathematize the positions attributed to him. To mke his position clear, Nestorious should affirm, “If anyone does not confess that Emmanuel is God in truth, and therefore the holy Virgin is theotokos—for she bore in the flesh the Word of God become flesh—let him be anathema.”[1] Unable to consent to this anathema, Nestorius was exiled after the Council of Ephesus (431).

Cyril’s language, however, gave rise to a group known as Monophysite (one nature) and Monothelite (one will). They contended that Christ, because of infinite greatness of his deity, had only one nature. The humanity was like a drop of honey absorbed into the ocean. In this vein of thought, Eutychus declared, “I confess that our Lord was of two natures before the union, but after the union I confess one nature.” This formula was resisted by Flavian, the bishop of Constantinople, and was condemned by a council in 448 that used the terminology of “two natures,” obviously protecting the full human nature, existing in the one Christ.

Eutyches, representing this as Nestorianism, with support from Theodosius II, called a synod in 449 composed of those that revered him and his theological instincts to approve his formula. Flavian’s attempt to attend this council and provide a reasoned objection resulted in his being grossly manhandled so that he died.  This synod soon was termed the Latrocinium, Robbers’ Synod, by those that opposed Eutyches.

During the time of this theological, and sometimes physical, punch and counter-punch, the bishop of Rome, Leo, appealed to by both parties in this dispute, gathered enough information about what was at stake to weigh in with unusual clarity and vigor. Before Flavian’s ultimate conflict, Leo wrote him concerning his view of the issue. This letter, so profoundly practical and biblical in its content, has gained a just commendation through the centuries. Known as Leo’s Tome, its argument virtually sealed the issue concerning the relationship of Jesus’ human nature and his divine nature in the single person.  When a new council was called in 451 at Chalcedon to revisit the Eutychian problem, Leo’s letter was read. Many of those in attendance greeted its reading with the words, “Peter has spoken.” This should not prejudice those who reject the papal primacy or the Petrine succession of Rome against the power of the reasoning and synthesis of biblical truths present in this document. Edward Hardy wrote, “It is a fine specimen of the straightforwardness and clarity of the Latin mind—as also of the Western approach to the mysteries of Christianity from the facts of faith rather than the speculations of philosophy.”[2]

Leo’s reasoning, in fact, from the commonly accepted confession of Christians and the biblical material concerning the incarnation of the Son of God is tightly constructed and profound.  The argument is Bible-centered and doctrinally coherent.

Leo said that if Eutyches “was not willing, for the sake of obtaining the light of intelligence, to make laborious search through the whole extent of the Holy Scriptures,” at least he should have learned from the common confession, particularly the implications of its words, “His only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary.” Failing that, he should submit to the implications of the gospel descriptions of the person and work of Christ which show that “in the entire and perfect nature of very Man was born very God, whole in what was his, whole in what was ours” except for the corruption of sin.

As for the formula set forth by Eutyches (“out of two natures into one”), Leo indicated the greatest disdain. “I am astonished,” he told Flavian, “that so absurd and perverse a profession as this of his was not rebuked by a censure on the part of any of his judges [in 448], and that an utterance extremely foolish and extremely blasphemous was passed over.” Leo noted that it was just as impious to say that the only-begotten Son of God “was of two natures before the incarnation as it is shocking to affirm that, since the Word became flesh, there has been in him one nature only.”[3] How could two natures exist in the Son of God prior to the incarnation? Also, how could one that was not fully man as a result of the incarnation ever reclaim for humanity the moral image of the divine and the warrant to eternal life?

A method of biblical citation emerges in Leo’s letter that helps the student of the Bible with an important principle of interpretation. His synthesis of texts employs a theological observation called the communicatio idiomatum—the fellowship of peculiar properties. This means that many texts in the Bible which would otherwise be confusing are perfectly clear when one sees the integrity of two natures in one person, Jesus Christ. Often Scripture asserts an action or attribute of one nature that, strictly speaking, holds true only for the other nature. Such is Paul’s statement in Acts 20:28, “to feed the church of God which he purchased with his own blood.” God does not have blood, but the person who purchased the church by his death, did have blood and also was God. The same inference we draw from the words of Jesus in John 3: 13: “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.” Jesus had never been in heaven as Son of man, but as Son of Man he is the same person that as Son of God had come down from heaven. Even at that moment, as he spoke, as Son of Man united in person with the eternally generated Son of God, he was in heaven. Though he stood before Nicodemus, isolated in time and space by his body and by every property of his humanity even as Nicodemus himself was, unlike Nicodemus, he also resided in heaven. As he spoke, his eternal generation from the Father, an eternal and immutable property of his personhood as Son of God, explained the meaning of “which is in heaven.” The communicatio idiomatum gives the key to a proper grasp of such a text.

Sometimes Scripture will indicate a condition of the whole person that is true only of one nature (“Before Abraham was, I am” John 8:58). These kinds of texts are the seed bed for the theology of two natures in one person, and, once established, the theology becomes a principle of interpretation for a large number of texts. For example, consider the following used by Leo himself in the famous “Tome” in which he argued and illustrated that in this single person “the lowliness of man and the loftiness of Godhead meet together.” Though it does not belong to the same nature, it is true of the same person, to say, “I and the Father are one” and to say, “The Father is greater than I.” We find clearly stated the same mysterious truth in Paul’s statement, “For had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory?” When Jesus asked who he the Son of Man was, why does he commend the answer, ”Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God?”

Leo also kept pressing that the ontology of the person of Christ served the interests of the salvation of sinners, “because one of these truths, accepted without the other, would not profit unto salvation.” It would be equally wrong, as well as dangerous to the soul, to believe the Lord Jesus to be God only and not man, or man only and not God.

At the time of the Olivet discourse, Jesus made the puzzling affirmation, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36). Jesus, speaking by the Spirit and in his humanity, had been isolated from that knowledge. He could state with perfect accuracy and verity that, in his perfect manhood, the Son did not know what the Father had decreed concerning the coming in glory of the triumphant, risen, ascended, redeeming Son of Man (37, 39, 44). In his humanity, Jesus increased in wisdom. His knowledge and his perfect ability to apply it continually increased throughout his life as the man who was being perfected, that is, brought by degrees to a full and immutable righteousness (Luke 2:52; Hebrews 5:8). This event was hidden even from him, in that peculiar capacity, at this time.

In his commentary on Matthew, John A Broadus observed: “If there was to be a real incarnation of the Eternal Word, then the body he took must be a real body, and the mind a real mind. How his divine nature could be omniscient, and his human mind limited in knowledge, both being united in one person, is part of the mystery of the Incarnation, which we need not expect to solve.”

If Christ in his perfection of moral rectitude and full commitment to all that the Father willed, had this event hidden from him at this time, and yet trusted fully even though he would go through the torturous propitiatory death, how willingly and joyfully should we submit to the mystery of our future with absolute trust in a faithful creator and Father.  In this way, we “Remember Jesus Christ” and emulate his submission to and trust in the Father’s wisdom and will.

[1] Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers, 353

[2] Hardy, 359.

[3] Hardy, 359-370.

This article is part 13 in a series by Tom Nettles on Remembering Jesus Christ.

Join us at the 2024 National Founders Conference on January 18-20 as we consider what it means to “Remember Jesus Christ” under the teaching of Tom Ascol, Joel Beeke, Costi Hinn, Phil Johnson, Conrad Mbewe and Travis Allen.

Remember Jesus Christ – The Creed of Nicea

This article is part 12 in a series by Tom Nettles on Remembering Jesus Christ. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11).

The first of the ecumenical creeds was formulated in a council called by the emperor Constantine. According to historians Eusebius of Caesarea and Lanctantius, Constantine was converted to Christianity as he prepared for a battle with Maxentius in the year 312. His victory, which he attributed to Christ, made him the sole ruler of the western portion of the Empire. After a dozen years of gaining more knowledge of the church’s organization and doctrines, Constantine, aware of a theological controversy that stirred the church, made arrangements for church bishops to meet in Nicea (present day Iznik in Turkey) to settle the dispute. Around 300 bishops were able to come with only half a handful of representatives from the west.

The controversy that prompted the call to Nicea focused on the teaching of a presbyter of Alexandria Egypt named Arius (260-336). Arius strongly concluded that the monotheism necessary to Christianity eliminated the possibility of any other personal entity sharing the status of absolute deity. In a letter to his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia in 318 during the initial tensions of the controversy, he complained that Alexander “greatly injures and persecutes us . . . since we do not agree with him when he says publicly, ‘Always Father, always Son, ‘Father and Son together,’ . . . ‘Neither in thought nor by a single instant is God before the Son.’” Arius instead taught that “before he was begotten or created or ordained or founded, he was not.” He, that is, the one called the son, is not “a part of the unbegotten in any way” but was “constituted” by God’s “will and counsel, before times and before ages.”[1]

Arius’s affirmation, therefore, of the lordship of Christ could not mean that he was co-eternal with the Father and of the same nature. The phrases anathematized at the end of the Nicene Creed 325 represent some of the phrases that Arius used to define his understanding of Jesus, the Christ. Because only God is eternal, Jesus is not; and so, “There was when he was not.” Since he is begotten, he must have come into existence subsequent to the Father and, therefore, “begotten” is taken as a synonym for “created.” Since he is created, he cannot be of the same eternal immutable substance as the Father and is, on that account, of a different substance. Since he is a created moral being, even though the first of all created things, he is mutable and could have sinned. The Father, however, endowed him with the power of creation, set him forth to be the redeemer of the fallen race, a task that the Son effected without blemish and thus gained the status of savior. In order to be like us and succeed where we failed, he had to take our flesh. In his person, however, his humanity consisted only of the body while the created logos constituted the rational soul of the person Jesus.

This savior concocted by Arius, therefore, was neither God nor man. The views of Arius show that a single theological principle pressed with a relentless, but false, logic uninformed by other revelatory propositions leads to destructive conclusions.

Among the most important of the biblical theologians opposed to Arius was a young deacon at Alexandria named Athanasius (296-373). Athanasius had written a book entitled On the Incarnation of the Word.[2] In it he had discussed how the incarnation of the Son of God solved an apparent dilemma. God intended to bring his creature man to a state of glorious fellowship with God. He also threatened that if his creature disobeyed then death would be the certain outcome. How can God complete his purpose for man and at the same time keep true to his word? The incarnation is God’s answer to this apparent dilemma. The one who was both God and man could take the death man owed for “all men were due to die,” thus fulfilling the veracity of God’s word and the honor of God. At the same time, he brought to glory the human nature that he shared with the creature, thus fulfilling the divine purpose for man. Athanasius was well-armed in biblical knowledge and in theological reflection for the vital corrective that the Arian speculation demanded.

The views of Arius show that a single theological principle pressed with a relentless, but false, logic uninformed by other revelatory propositions leads to destructive conclusions.

Though the Council had negative fall-out in church-state relations and the eventual authority of canon law, the most important result of the Council of Nicea was the adoption of the creed. To show the pivotal importance of the substance of this creed we will point to five short insertions. Eusebius of Caesarea (the first church historian) proposed the confession used at baptism by his church (or something very similar) as a possible statement to bring unity to the deeply divided council. When the Arian party agreed to sign the proposed statement, the party led by Alexander of Alexandria (d. 328) and his young deacon Athanasius (296-373) knew that no real unity could be gained by such a tactic. A creed that simply embraced the serious doctrinal disagreements would only perpetuate substantial disharmony and lead to constant dispute. Preeminently, ambiguity about the legitimate object of worship would in fact endorse a principle of idolatry and capitulate to the impression that Scripture itself was not clear in its christological focus. The wisdom of God would be impugned for leaving us without clarity on the status of the one he called “My beloved Son.” What could be more absurd in Christianity that to leave the christological issue a matter of opinion, ambiguity, and diverse formulation?

Much of the clarification was attached to the phrase in Eusebius’s confession “begotten from the Father.” The first defining clarification is in the words, “from the substance of the Father.” This means that the Son’s existence is not an act of the will of the Father at a point outside his own eternity, as openly asserted by Arius. Athanasius contended, “Created things have come into being by God’s pleasure and by his will; but the Son is not a creation of his will, nor has he come into being subsequently, as the creation; but he is by nature the proper offspring of the Father’s substance.” The Son’s co-eternality is intrinsic to the very existence of the Father as Father. If God’s essential character is Father, then he could never be without his Son. One of the truths we know about God is his eternal paternity, and thus, from that substance the Son eternally exists as Son.

A second defining phrase is in the words “true God from true God.” Jesus was not inferior in his divinity; he was not constituted as a deity by dint of accomplishment; he was not granted the position or title as a reward for hard and faithful work. Because he was begotten of the substance of the Father, his deity is a true eternal deity, and his Sonship means that he is of the substance of his Father, truly divine. The Son of God is a true Son in the natural and moral image and likeness of his Father.

Third, the creed denied Arius’s understanding of “begotten” by saying “not made.” The idea of begetting is a different reality from creating. That which is begotten shares the nature of the begetter. In his hard-hitting, intensely doctrinal, polemical refutation of Arianism entitled Contra Arianos, Athanasius points to the use of the term begotten in Scripture as sealing the reality that sons are of the same nature as their fathers. “The character of the parent determines the character of the offspring.” Humans, as created, arise in time and beget in time and their begotten ones follow them in time; but they are not different in nature. “But the nature is one,” Athanasius affirmed, “for the offspring is not unlike the parent, being his image, and all that is the Father’s is the Son’s.”

The Son of God is a true Son in the natural and moral image and likeness of his Father.

That sons follow fathers in time is not essential to the reality of begetting but only an accident of our state of being created and thus limited by time. That our children follow us in time does not mean they are of a different nature, but only that in creatures the process of begetting proceeds from generation to generation.

God as a begetter relates to his only-begotten as Son to Father, sharing the same eternal attributes while also maintaining eternally distinguishing traits of personhood. For this reason the doctrine of eternal generation was important to Athanasius. Never has there been any point in God’s eternal existence when the Son was not begotten by the Father. If there had been, then the relation of Father and Son would be merely temporal and there would be no way of maintaining a singularity in the divine essence while affirming a real plurality of persons. Without generation as an eternal operation of God, tritheism or modalism are the only alternatives.

This truth of eternal generation helps in the interpretation of certain passages of Scripture. For example, no doctrine gives greater aid in understanding John 5:26 than this. “For as the Father hath life in himself; so he hath given to the Son to have life in himself” (KJV). Self-existence is an attribute of God only. The Father has this attribute necessarily and, as eternally generated by the Father, so that attribute distinctive of deity constitutes the self-existence of the Son. “In him was life” (John 1:4). The Jews understood this ontological relationship of Father to Son to involve equality of essence. When Jesus called God his Father in a distinctive way, therefore, the Jews “sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the Sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18 KJV).

Fourth, the council adopted a controversial word to assure that none could interpret Christ’s nature as inferior to or other than that of the Father in any sense. The word was controversial because it was used by a theologian named Sabellius in asserting that the essence of divinity has appeared in three modes as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each of these manifestations is God, and, in sharing the same essence, are in reality only one person. Modalism, as it was called, was heretical and prejudiced some of the concerned against that word. The problem lay in the failure to define a difference between “essence” on the one hand, and “person” on the other. Tertullian (ca 160-ca 220) had successfully sustained the distinction in his Latin writings in deploying the terms una substantia and tres personae. His influence protected the West from the difficulty perceived in the mono-essentiality of Father and Son. In spite of the scary associations of the language among the Greeks, however, the creed affirmed that the Son is of “one substance with the Father.” If he is begotten of the substance of the Father, ascertaining that he is “true God of true God,” and that his begottenness can in no way be construed as createdness, then it is not only appropriate, but necessary that the term homousiov, same essence, substance, nature, be affirmed of the Son.

Never has there been any point in God’s eternal existence when the Son was not begotten by the Father.

Fifth, in light of the strange anthropology of Arius, the creed attached to the phrase “was made flesh,” the exegetical appositive “was made man.” Arius believed that the only thing really human about Jesus was his flesh. His rationality was constituted by the created word, or son. When John wrote, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” he never meant that Jesus had human flesh only but no human mind, affections or spirit. The phrase, “made man,” should not have been necessary to insert, but in light of the bizarre idea of Arius, this had to be defined.

Note also the soteriological concern involved in this. It was in pursuit of “our salvation” that he took our humanity into his eternal Sonship. Had he, the Eternal Son of God, not assumed our nature, he could in no wise be our savior. He could not have lived for us in order to grant us his righteousness; he could not have died for us to bear our load of sin, guilt, and punishment. “The free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (Romans 5:15).

The Creed of Nicea is not Scripture and has no authority as a creed. Its synthetic arrangement, however, of clearly biblical ideas, and its clarifying exegetical phrases give aid to the Christian in declaring with the mouth the esteem for and dependence on Jesus as Son of God and Savior that should be in the heart. This creed is a faithful expression of the announcement given by the angels at Jesus’ birth: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.” If we “Remember Jesus Christ,” with clarity, confidence, gratitude, and worship these confessional affirmations we can recite from the heart. This is my translation of the Christological portion of the Nicene creed of 325.

We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things seen and unseen; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten out of the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God out of God, light out of light, true God out of true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father, through Whom as an intermediary all things came to be, things in heaven and things on earth, Who on account of us men and on account of our salvation came down, and was enfleshed even to the point of true manhood, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and dead.

“Remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead, of a seed of David, as preached in my gospel. …If we deny him, he himself will deny us” 2 Timothy 2:8, 12b).

[1] Edward R.Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954) 329, 330.

[2] Hardy, 55-110.

This article is part 12 in a series by Tom Nettles on Remembering Jesus Christ.

Join us at the 2024 National Founders Conference on January 18-20 as we consider what it means to “Remember Jesus Christ” under the teaching of Tom Ascol, Joel Beeke, Costi Hinn, Phil Johnson, Conrad Mbewe and Travis Allen.

Seed of Woman, Source of Life

Seed of Woman, source of life,

Fought against the death of man.

Sin, death, hell all caused the strife,

Full salvation was the plan.

“Strike his heel with poisoned fang!

Now he’s gone and in the grave,

Me he will no more harangue

Vain the plan from death to save.”

Myst’ry baffled every one.

Man by Holy Ghost conceived,

God the Father’s only Son

Crushed the snake and wrath relieved.

Bethlehem, the starting place

(Little town of no esteem)

In his body dwelt the race

By his death he would redeem.

Based loosely on Genesis 3:15

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