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John Owen on Assurance

John Owen on Assurance

I cannot even begin to tell how much I appreciate John Owen. I’ve been slowly working my way through Volume 6 of his works over the last year or so, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it has been life-changing. That an English Puritan who lived in the 1600’s can have such an effect on someone today, is amazing to say the least. But when the foundation for his writing is the timeless word of God, the years have no effect when the subject matter is solidly based on that word and Him who never changes.

One of the areas that Owen and the rest of the Puritans often wrote about was the subject of assurance – how can we know we are loved by God when our own sin testifies against us? In his writing on verse 4 of Psalm 130, he gives 4 rules to guide us when considering this very question. Here is part of what he writes in the first rule:

If you look to have such an evidence, light into, and absolute conviction of, this matter [of assurance], as shall admit of no doubts, fears, questionings, just occasions and causes of new trials, teachings, and self-examinations, you will be greatly deceived. Regeneration induceth a new principle into the soul, but it doth not utterly expel the old; some would have security, not assurance. The principle of sin and unbelief will still abide in us, and still work in us. Their abiding and their acting must needs put the soul upon a severe inquiry, whether they are not prevalent in it beyond what the condition of regeneration will admit. The constant conflicts we must have with sin will not suffer us to have always so clear an evidence of our condition as we would desire.

I like how Owen views assurance as being different from security. I believe that what most of us think of when we think of assurance is not really assurance, but security. This security is similar to what we think of when we think of financial security – I’ve got this much money in this secure place and I don’t really have to think about it, because it takes cares of itself. But the Scripture never views our salvation in that way – that’s why there are so many warnings to those who believe. The warnings are there not because you don’t believe, but because you do believe!

When we consider that all of Paul’s exhortations to mortifying the deeds of the flesh were addressed to churches, not the lost world, we must assume that the members of those churches had things in their lives that needed mortification. They were not already perfect and neither are we.

Our perfection is in Jesus Christ, not ourselves. Even though our felt assurance of his love may fluctuate, his actual love for us does not. In that only may we be secure.

Why Study Theology?

Why Study Theology?

Everyone should study theology because everyone has some belief about God. Even the atheist cannot deny God’s existence without reference to some sort of belief in God. And since the idea of God always deals with questions of creation, existence, law, ethics, morals, sin, the nature and purpose of mankind, and, ultimately, what happens after we die, then it is important that we know what we believe about God.

The Christian particularly needs to study theology because Jesus has commanded that we go into all the world teaching and making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). And there’s no way one to teach without first knowing the subject matter. One reason for this is that all teachers know that the best way to learn your subject matter is to teach it – we learn as we teach. Or, we learn as we talk about it, not necessarily in a formal teaching setting. But the idea is that of communicating these idea about God to others and in the process, we learn, too.

Studying theology and doctrine has a very practical benefit to us. It helps us overcome wrong ideas and helps us make better decisions as a result. You can’t do better if you don’t know better. And in the Word of God we have the help of the One Who know everything. The Bible teaches us that we shouldn’t lie and we see the negative effects of lying all around us. We actually have laws on the books that match up with the Ten Commandments and we ignore those at our own peril!

Or take the Biblical view of monetary debt. How many heartaches and heartbreaks would couples and individuals be spared if they only stayed within their means? But why did they spend more than they made? Could it be because they weren’t patient? Or, maybe they were coveting something and really wanted it, even though others warned them about it? A Biblical doctrine of contentment or a Scriptural view of work would certainly have had an effect if only heeded.

Theology also helps us grow and mature. As we live and deal with the various joys and disappointments in life, Biblical doctrine helps us to keep the right perspective. It helps us to learn from our own and others’ mistakes. We learn to avoid certain things and practices because of what Scripture teaches, but also because we’ve experienced the truth of Scripture first-hand.

Probably the main reason to study theology, though, is this is how we learn about God and ourselves. We can’t know God without learning about ourselves, and we can’t learn about ourselves without knowing about God. This is how John Calvin begins his Institutes – “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” He later states, “we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves.” It is theology from God’s Word that helps us do that.

What is Systematic Theology?

What is Systematic Theology?

For 17 years, I taught the Bible Doctrine course at Zion Christian Academy in Columbia, Tennessee. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am now not able to do this. Since I have no students to teach for the first time since the year 2000, I’ve decided to write (or at least try to write) what I would have said in class and post it on my blog. This is intended for students around 16 to 18 years of age, and is based mostly on Wayne Grudem’s book, Bible Doctrine. Outlines of this course can be found at

What is Systematic Theology? Why is it important? These two questions form the basis for our study of Bible Doctrine. When starting any study, it’s necessary to define your terms. This is especially true when it comes to the study of Scripture. The lack of definition (or worse, the avoidance of definition) will always lead to a lack of clarity, which will always lead to a lack of understanding, which will always lead to defective practice.

We see this illustrated in Proverbs 4:7 – “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” If wisdom is the application of knowledge, then it follows that the more clear our knowledge or understanding, the better our practice should be.

We also see this in Hosea 4:6 – “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee…” Here our standing with God is conditioned on our knowledge, or lack thereof. But it’s not just ignorance that is condemned, but the attitude, as well.

So if attitudes and actions are the results of how we think about God and His Word, then it is most important to have a strong understanding of what that Word is and what it means.

Systematic Theology is any study that answers the question, “What does the whole Bible teach us about any particular topic?” Notice what this doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean we scour the Bible looking to find out if Donald Trump or Barack Obama is the Anti-Christ. It doesn’t mean that we try to live by the rules of the Old Testament today without reference to the New Testament. But it does mean that we take all of Scripture seriously and let it speak to us. There is a balance in our study, consistent with Christian beliefs throughout history.

Accuracy and precision are very important in studying the Bible. The details matter. We should not think of the way we study Scripture as less important than the way we study anything else. When I was being treated for oral cancer of the tongue, precision was very important in the surgery and the radiation that followed. One wrong move could have disastrous results. The same is true in theology. One wrong assumption, one wrong definition, one misunderstanding could have disastrous, eternal results.

So always beware of those who downplay precision and clarity and those who say that it doesn’t really matter as long as you believe. But, believe what? When you start to answer that question, you have just stepped into the world of systematic theology, because you’re now giving a definition and explanation of what you believe and we can watch your life to see if you’re serious about it or just giving lip service.

Not all doctrine is the same. There are some beliefs that are more important than others. Major doctrine is that set of beliefs that have to do with our eternal salvation. Belief in God is major, the person of Christ is major, the doctrine of sin is major, and heaven and hell are major. Minor beliefs are important, but not necessarily of eternal significance. Whether music is used in worship is minor, mode or subject of baptism is minor, and form of church government is minor. And where these things are made major, you will always have division, which Scripture say we should avoid (1 Corinthians 1:11-17).

A systematic study also means that it’s organized. We’re not opening the Bible at random to get our word from God today. All of Scripture is God’s Word, and God Himself organized it into books. The books of Moses are different from the Psalms, and the Prophets are different from the Apostles. If we ignore God’s own divisions, how can we learn what God is teaching? Organization simply means order and many of us need the discipline of an orderly, organized study of God’s Word, not just focusing on our favorite parts, but all parts in their place.

The purpose in all of this is the practical outcome we get from an organized, detailed, defined study of Scripture. As we think about God and His character and His creation, we are transformed in our attitudes and actions. If people truly meditated upon the seriousness of their sin against God and each other, and the ultimate outcome of that sin, they would certainly try to alter their courses. But when people ignore those things, we get the world that we presently live in with murder, theft, lying, assault, etc. Most people are looking for joy, happiness, and peace, but few find it because they’re looking in the wrong places and we can easily see the results of that. Jesus Christ says, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” – and that is a tangible, practical effect that comes from a systematic study of theology.

The Sinner’s Encouragement

The Sinner’s Encouragement

Come as a sinner and you will find all in your favor – all, the door open and every face smiling upon you. But if you attempt to come as a saint, and you are dubious whether you are so or not, you will come as an impostor and a hypocrite; and you will be detested – there can be no doubt that you are a sinner. Well, then, come in your real character and you will be welcome. Every thing in the councils of heaven favors a returning sinner – election, particular redemption, vocation, justification, etc. – all, all are in his favor and give him every encouragement he can want and God can give. But impostors are abhorred. And such is everyone who assumes a character which he is not sure belongs to him.

– Thomas Charles, Spiritual Counsels, pgs 387,388.

Some thoughts on cancer and job loss and trusting God

Some thoughts on cancer and job loss and trusting God

I know that’s kind of a depressing headline, but it’s something I’ve experienced within the last five years. Of the two, I think treatable cancer is preferable. But it’s not that cancer is easier (there’s nothing easy about it), but that losing a job that you’ve had for seventeen years is a real gut punch – cancer is merely less of a gut punch.

In both cases, there were no precipitating causes. I was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue – I’ve never smoked, dipped, or chewed tobacco and never drank alcohol (the main causes). My job was teaching Bible and History at a Christian school – seems like a sure thing, doesn’t it (as long as I don’t do something to get fired, which I didn’t). But against all the odds, I got cancer and I got canned.

One of the reasons cancer is easier is that there’s really no one to blame, at least no one that you know physically, in person. Theologically, some would want to blame God, but I can’t do that because I’ve been teaching Bible Doctrine for the last seventeen years and I know that God is good, and therefore not to blame. I could blame Adam, since his sin is the cause of all misery, sickness, and death, but he’s been dead for a long time. Then you could switch back and try blaming God again because you think He could have stopped it, but didn’t. Then you sit around wondering why. I’ve always told my students that when you ask God a “why” question, the answer is always that it’s His secret will that He doesn’t reveal to us. So you might not ever know or find out and you just have to trust God, because (again, just to remind you) He’s good. So you gradually come to terms with God’s will and trust Him because of His goodness and power and knowledge.

But a job loss is something entirely different – there are people to blame! Especially if the boss is an unpleasant fellow. You really feel that you have some sort of justification for your feelings of betrayal, your wanting some revenge, and that everyone needs to know something has gone horribly wrong! Why?! Why?! Why?! For some reason, the “why” answer about God’s secret will just isn’t as satisfying when you start to think about losing your income, your insurance, and your ministry, and that certain people have messed it up. But satisfying or not, it’s still the right answer.

What’s really bothered me through both of these events is how easy it was to trust God when my life and health were at risk as opposed to trusting God when my income was at risk. Or how it was easier to trust God for healing as opposed to trusting God to find another job.

One of the books I’ve been reading lately that has helped a little is Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God. Here’s what he says on page 174:

We may think we have true Christian love until someone offends us or treats us unjustly. Then we may begin to see anger and resentment well up within us. We may conclude we have learned about genuine Christian joy until our lives are shattered by an unexpected calamity or grievous disappointment. Adversities spoil our peace and sorely try our patience. God uses those difficulties to reveal to us our need to grow, so that we will reach out to Him to change us more and more into the likeness of His Son.

And this on the next page:

It is not the adversity considered in itself that is to be the ground of our joy. Rather, it is the expectation of the results, the development of our character, that should cause us to rejoice in adversity. God does not ask us to rejoice because we have lost a job, or a loved one has been stricken with cancer, or a child has been born with an incurable birth defect. But He does tell us to rejoice because we believe He is in control of those circumstances and is at work through them for our ultimate good.

There it is – two of the three major fears that we all dread, and are what I’ve gone through in the last five years. And it’s the same answer that I’ve been teaching for the last seventeen years. A Puritan author somewhere in my reading talked about real adversity being a major wound and not a just a small scratch. It’s not easy, not easy at all.

I remember at one point in my cancer treatment thinking, “This is the hardest thing that I’ve ever done.” Four and a half years later, after losing my job (which I really loved and really thought God had called me to do), I’m thinking, “THIS is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.” Perhaps my memory has failed me, but perhaps not.

As I write this, I’m still in search of a job, so I can’t give a “happily ever after” ending. At least not yet. Trust continues to alternate with discouragement, but the still small voice of hope keeps coming through. And that’s what faith and trust are all about, even when you get cancer and even when you lose your job. You trust God for the healing and you trust God for employment.