Do we all come the same way?

Do We all come the Same WayProfessor Donald Macleod argues that we don’t

Or, in the language of Jonathan Edwards, that: ‘God makes men sensible of their misery before he reveals his mercy and love’.

Most of it is devoted, however, not to expounding this doctrine, but to a historical survey designed to prove that this has been the prevailing view in Reformed theology from the beginning (including Luther and Calvin), but particularly among English Puritans. Modern attempts by Perry Miller and others to show that significant figures diverged from this consensus are reviewed and (as a rule) refuted.

Historical discussions

At the same time Doctors Beeke and Smalley lose no opportunity to point out that this Reformed preparationism was completely different from the Roman Catholic doctrine of congruent merit, according to which grace is infused as a reward for doing the best we can; and they are no less insistent that Reformed preparationism has to be distinguished from the Arminian idea that, once sinners are motivated by a sense of spiritual need, grace merely assists them to Christ, without any invincible input on God’s part.

These historical discussions have their undoubted value, but far the most important aspect of this book is the core idea itself. Regardless of the views of the Puritans, is it in fact God’s normal way of dealing with sinners to prepare them for conversion by awakening them, through the law, to a sense of sin and of imminent spiritual peril?

Biblical texts

When we turn to key biblical narratives, the ‘preparatory law-work’ pattern certainly did not always apply. John the Baptist never experienced the agony of soul experienced by his namesake, John Bunyan. Nor is there any hint of a preparatory law-work in the case of the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John (Mark 1.16, 19-20); nor again in the stories of Philip and Nathanael (John 1.43-49), Matthew (Luke 5.27-28) or Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10). Instead, there is instant compliance with the call of Jesus. Self-knowledge would come, of course, particularly in the case of Peter, but it would come later.

At first glance, the story of the Philippian jailer confirms the book’s thesis. Immediately after the earthquake, he appears trembling and suicidal. But this was hardly due to any law-work; or, if there was a law-work, it was of very short duration. And when he asks ‘What must I do to be saved?’, Paul and Silas do not first confront him with the law before presenting him with the gospel. They call him to faith in Christ, speak the ‘word about the Lord’, and baptise him: all, probably, in less than an hour.

The law our schoolmaster?

Even in those New Testament passages commonly appealed to in support of the idea of a normative law-work, all is not as it seems. The best-known of these is Galatians 3.24, which the KJV renders, ‘the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ’. However, the Greek paidagōs was not a schoolmaster. He was a slave placed in charge of an under-age boy, and while one of his duties might be to conduct the boy to and from school he was not himself the schoolmaster. A further difficulty is that what Paul actually says is not that the law was put in charge of us in order to lead us to Christ, but ‘until Christ came’ (ESV) and the ‘law’ referred to was not the law in the narrow sense of the Moral Law, but the law that was introduced 430 years after the Abrahamic covenant (Galatians 3.17) – in other words, the Torah in all its breadth. In fact, this law did not lead the Jews to Christ; and today we are no longer under it.

The principle that Paul lays down in Romans 3.20 still stands, however: ‘through the law we become conscious of sin.’ Yet here, too, caution is required. What the Westminster Confession (10.4) calls the ‘common operations of the Spirit’ can sometimes produce serious conviction of sin in people who never actually come to Christ. How, then, can we tell whether the ‘law-work’ is the effect of a ‘common’ operation or of a ‘saving’ operation?

It can only be, as the Westminster Confession assumes, that those who experience it ‘truly come to Christ’. From this point of view, the intensity or otherwise of the conviction does not matter. It may appear quite unremarkable, but if it leads us to Christ it is sufficient; and, conversely, it may be awesome to behold, and yet if it does not lead us to Christ it is nothing. Here again the cross is the test of everything. Have we come to it?

Creating a stereotype

Faith is indeed born of need, and to divorce it from repentance is, as Bonhoeffer argued, to preach ‘cheap grace’. But the Puritan model of preparatory grace carries its own dangers. One of these is that it suggests a stereotypical pattern of conversion, including not only the same elements but the elements in the same order. Beeke and Smalley are aware of this danger, but nevertheless, as Mark Noll points out, the conversion narratives which Jonathan Edwards recounts in his Faithful Narrative (1737) ‘rapidly became templates for the way many others would picture the normative spiritual journey’; and prominent in these narratives was self-despair and intense conviction of sin.

In reality, no two Christians come to the Lord in the same way.

Once we create a stereotype, anyone whose experience is different may well lose all assurance of salvation, either because she did not begin where others began, or because she never experienced the terrors of the law as others did. We then lose sight of the fact that all that matters is whether we have come to Christ.

There is a danger, too, of linking repentance too exclusively to the law. In the very nature of the case, the law can produce only a legal repentance, in which fear of punishment predominates and in which there is no inducement to return to a heavenly Father. Such a repentance may certainly be an element in the journey to faith, but not all Christians experience it, and not all who do experience it become Christians. In fact, there is no outside-of-Christ state from which there is a guaranteed progression to the one place of safety: ‘hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3.3).

Evangelical repentance always includes a turning to God, and as such it is a result of faith, not a preparation for it. In David’s case, for example, his broken heart (Psalm 51.17) comes after God’s declaration of forgiveness (2 Samuel 12.13) and reflects his confidence in God’s steadfast love (Psalm 51.1). The Shorter Catechism sounds this same note (A. 87): the sinner turns to God not only ‘out of a true sense of his sin’, but also with ‘apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ’. His mercy is there before our repentance; and it is because we have faith in his mercy that we cast ourselves upon it.

Three offices of Christ

We have tended to see Christ primarily as the answer to guilt, the one who brings relief to troubled consciences.One result of this has been to throw his priesthood into special prominence. But Christ is not only priest. He is also prophet and king, and while faith will eventually attach itself to all three offices, it seldom does so all at once. It usually begins with one. That one is often his priesthood, and the sinner’s starting-off point is often a tormented conscience. But that is not the only point of entry into the Christian life, because sin has brought more than guilt. It has also brought ignorance and anxiety. While many, then, will first come to Christ to find peace for their troubled consciences others will come because he is the answer to their quest for the truth; and others because they seek assurance that someone has the world in his hands.

They set off from different points and they will tell different stories. But each will have the Son; and she who has the Son has life.

Donald Macleod is former Professor of Theology at the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh, now retired. The full version of this review is available on Donald Macleod’s blog at

REFORMATION HERITAGE BOOKS. 297 PAGES. £15.10 ISBN 978 1 601 782 342


This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Five points of encouragement

5 Points of encouragement

John Piper explains how the doctrines of grace encourage and stimulate his Christian faith

The five points of Calvinism are not unimportant.

Where we stand on these things deeply affects our view of God, man, salvation, the atonement, regeneration, assurance, worship and missions.

Somewhere along the way (nobody knows for sure when or how), the five points came to be summarised in English under the acronym TULIP. — Total depravity (that we are all helpless sinners unable to save ourselves). — Unconditional election (that God chose a number that no man can number of sinners to be saved, not for any good in them but totally of his grace). — Limited atonement (that Christ died specifically for these sinners and atoned for their sin). — Irresistible grace (that those whom God has chosen will inevitably be brought to faith in Christ). — Perseverance of the saints (that none of these shall be lost).

Let me explain something of how these biblical truths impact my spiritual life.

These truths make me groan over the indescribable disease of our secular, God-belittling culture.

I can hardly read the newspaper or a Google news article or look at a TV ad or a billboard without feeling the burden that God is missing. When God is the main reality in the universe and is treated as a non-reality, I tremble at the wrath that is being stored up. I am still able to be shocked. Are you? Many Christians are sedated with the same God-ignoring drug as the world. Some think it is a virtue that God be neglected, and invent cynical names for people who speak of God in relation to everything.

These teachings are a great antidote against that neglect and that cynicism. Christians exist to reassert the reality of God and the supremacy of God in all of life. We are therefore in need of a great awakening. These truths keep me aware of that and impel me to pray toward it. For only a sovereign work of God can make it happen.

These truths make me confident that the work which God planned and began, he will finish — both globally and personally.

The truth that God will use all his sovereign power to keep me for himself is supremely precious. I know my heart. Left to itself my heart is proud and self-centred and an idol factory. Few prayers are more needful for me than these words from a hymn: ‘Let thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to thee’. Yes, I need — and I want — him to chain me to himself everyday. To seal me. Capture me. Keep me. Hold on to me.

And the doctrines of grace are the perfect satisfaction for these desires. This is exactly what God has promised to do for me. ‘I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me’ (Jeremiah 32.40). ‘I will uphold you with my righteous right hand’ (Isaiah 41.10). I go to bed at night quietly confident that I will be a secure believer in the morning not because of my free will, but because of God’s free grace. This is worth more than millions of dollars. These truths make me see everything in the light of God’s sovereign purposes — that from him and through him and to him are all things, to him be glory forever and ever.

Through the lens of these doctrines I see that all of life relates to God and that he is the beginning, the middle, and the end of it all. There’s no compartment where he is not all-important. He is the one who gives meaning to everything (1 Corinthians 10.31). Seeing God’s sovereign purpose worked out in Scripture, and hearing Paul say that ‘[he] works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1.11) make me see the world this way. Reality becomes supercharged with God. He is the all-pervading glory in all that is. Everything is from him and for him.

These truths make me hopeful that God has the will, the right and the power to answer prayer that people be changed.

The warrant for prayer is that God may break in and change things — including the human heart. He can turn the will around. ‘Hallowed be your name’ (Matthew 6.9) means: cause people who are not hallowing your name to hallow your name. ‘May your word run and be glorified’ (2 Thessalonians 3.1) means: cause hearts to be opened to the gospel. This is what God did for me in answer to my parents’ prayers. It is what I now gladly do for others. I take the new covenant promises and plead with God to bring them to pass in people’s lives and among all the mission frontiers of the world. And the reason I pray this way is that God has the right and the power to do these things. No human autonomy stands in the way.

Prayer is where most Christians sound like Calvinists. Most sincere Christians pray with the assumption that he has the right and power not only to heal human bodies and alter natural circumstances, but also to sov-ereignly transform human hearts. In other words prayer is based on God’s ability to overcome human resistance. That is what we ask him to do. Which means that the doctrine of irresistible grace is the great hope of answered prayer in the lives of people for whose salvation I plead.

These truths remind me that evangelism is absolutely essential for people to come to Christ and be saved, and that there is great hope for success in leading people to faith, but that conversion is not finally dependent on me or limited by the hardness of the unbeliever.

The doctrines of grace make evangelism among spiritually dead sinners possible. Without the sovereign grace of God we may as well be preaching in a cemetery. Because we are preaching in a cemetery. That is what this world is. The truth of total depravity means that the preaching of the cross is foolishness to the natural man, and ‘he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Corinthians 2.14). So evangelism only makes sense in the light of the doctrines of grace. We really believe God can raise the dead. And we know he uses the human means to do it. ‘You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God’ (1 Peter 1.23). The sovereign work of God in giving new life to the dead human heart is ‘through the word of God.’ And Peter adds, ‘This word is the good news that was preached to you’ (1 Peter 1.25). It’s the gospel. This is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1.16).

Therefore the doctrines of grace give hope for evangelism in the hardest places. Dead is dead. Muslims or Hindus or hardened European post-Christian secularists are not more dead than any other ‘natural man.’ And God does the impossible. He raises the dead (Ephesians 2.1-6). When faced with the hardheartedness of the rich young ruler Jesus said: ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’ (Matthew 19.26). As I look out on the remaining task of world missions, I do not despair. Rather I hear Jesus say: ‘I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice’ (John 10.16). Not: they may. But: they will. So I say: this cannot fail. The doctrines of grace enflamed world missions in the lives of William Carey and David Livingston and Adoniram Judson and Henry Martyn and John Paton and thousands of others. And that is the effect it has had on me, as I have tried to do my part in promoting the great work of frontier missions.

These truths make me sure that God will triumph in the end.

‘I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose”’ (Isaiah 46.9-10). The sum of the matter is that God is God. He is absolutely sovereign. And he is gracious beyond all human analogy. He has planned, is performing and will complete a great salvation for his people and his creation. He has done it so that he gets the glory in us and we get the joy in him. And it cannot fail. ‘The counsel of the Lord stands forever’ (Psalm 33.11).

To find out more about how these doctrines have changed John Piper’s life, read the book Five Points (ISBN 978 1 781 912 522, £5.99. Christian Focus).

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Definite atonement

Definite AtonementPaul Levy interviews David and Jonathan Gibson for EN about the new book they have edited on the purpose of Christ’s death

en: You have edited a book over 700 pages long on an obscure doctrine known as definite (‘limited’) atonement? How did it come about?

DG/JG: Some of the traditional ‘Calvinistic’ approaches to the doctrine of definite atonement can be a bit forced and too hasty in trying to prove the doctrine; some are more biblicist than biblical and don’t see the doctrine as a biblico-systematic conclusion. There also exists a lot of caricatures of the doctrine from opponents, which reveal that it has not been properly understood. So we felt there was a need for an in-depth, comprehensive, but careful treatment, one which looked at the doctrine from a number of perspectives – historical, biblical, theological and pastoral. We assembled a line-up of leading scholars to produce a volume written at a rigorous level. We also wanted the book to have a warmth and winsomeness that might diffuse some of the heat associated with definite atonement and allow the glory of this truth to sparkle and shine. We didn’t want to win an argument; we wanted to help the convinced and win the unconvinced.

en: How would you define definite atonement? Is it another name for what some call ‘limited atonement’?

DG/JG: Here’s a succinct definition: the doctrine of definite atonement states that, in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishments of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit. In a nutshell: the death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone; and not only was it intended to do that, but it actually achieved it as well. Jesus will be true to his name: he will save his people from their sins.

We want to move away from ‘limited’ atonement for two reasons. First, because ‘limited’ carries an innate negativity, when in fact this doctrine is immensely positive; and,secondly, because everyone limits the atonement. As John Murray put it: ‘Unless we believe in the final restoration of all mankind, we cannot have an unlimited atonement. On the premise that some perish eternally we are shut up to one of two alternatives – a limited efficacy or a limited extent; there is no such thing as an unlimited atonement’. So we prefer ‘definite atonement’, where the adjective definite does double-duty: it conveys that the atonement is specific in its intention (Christ died to save his people) and effective in its nature (it really does atone).

en:There are doctrines that divide and doctrines that unite. Why edit a book on a doctrine that seems to have produced more heat than light over the years?

DG/JG: Andrew Fuller said ‘if all disputed subjects are to be reckoned matters of mere speculation, we shall have nothing of any real use left in religion’. But the main reason why we wrote on this controversial topic is because we believe the doctrine, properly understood, produces more light than heat.

There are immense theological riches that come from believing in definite atonement. The doctrine illuminates the glorious indivisible Trinitarian work of God in Christ. The cross reveals the glory of the whole blessed Trinity, and understanding that Jesus did not die as a mere substitute but as a representative substitute – as King, Husband, Head, Shepherd, Master, Firstborn, Second and Last Adam – brings our union with Christ into a whole new light.

If we are united to Christ, then we are united to him at all points of his activity on our behalf. There are missional and pastoral benefits too from believing in definite atonement: we can do the work of evangelism and missions with confidence, knowing that Christ will redeem people from every tribe because he actually died for them; there is also the wonderful personal assurance that God’s love is particular and not just general: ‘the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’. As Luther said: ‘The sweetness of the gospel is found in the personal pronouns’.

en: Definite atonement has been called a ‘textless doctrine’ (Dr. Broughton Knox, Late Principal of Moore College, Sydney). How do you respond to that criticism?

DG/JG: Broughton Knox was a good man, and did great good for Moore College, the Sydney diocese, and George Whitefield College in South Africa. However, his comment fails to understand the kind of teaching that definite atonement is. Like so many other doctrines in the Bible, such as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, or Christ’s imputed righteousness, definite atonement is a biblico-systematic doctrine. No one text proves or disproves many of the doctrines of the Christian church. Rather, Christian doctrines are constructed by holding together a whole range of texts, while at the same time synthesising internally related doctrines that connect to the doctrine in view.

So, in the case of definite atonement, all the atonement texts in the Bible must be held together, while at the same time, synthesising internally related doctrines – such as eschatology, election, union with Christ, christol-ogy, Trinitarianism, and doxology – that directly impinge upon the intent and nature of the atonement. In short, to speak of ‘doctrines’ being ‘textless’ is to misunderstand the theological discipline of doctrine.

en: If definite atonement is true, how then should we preach the gospel? More pertinently, can we say to unbelievers, ‘Christ died for you’?

DG/JG: We should preach the gospel exactly as we would if unconditional election is true or if God’s foreknowledge of who will come to believe in him is true. In other words, no one knows who the elect are or who God knows ahead of time will choose him, or, in this case, those for whom Christ died. It’s none of our business. The secret things belong to the Lord our God. The Father has his elect, Christ knows his church, the Spirit knows those whom he will draw – we will have to wait until eternity to know who exactly these people are. In the meantime, our job is to get on with preaching the gospel universally and indiscriminately to all.

We encourage people to follow the example of the Apostles in preaching the gospel, and from the records we have in Acts and the Epistles, the phrase ‘Christ died for you’ does not appear. Therefore, the question becomes mute, because we know that, in their preaching, the Apostles turned the world up-side-down – as did many ‘Calvinist’ ministers and missionaries: George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, David Brainerd – to name but a few. So the efficacy of gospel preaching is not dependent on including the phrase ‘Christ died for you’.

en: What would you say to those readers who remain sceptical about the doctrine?

DG/JG: We have not always believed in definite atonement and we each arrived at the doctrine via different theological journeys. At first, we were both hesitant about the doctrine. But it was faithful expositions of the Scriptures in different churches that, over time, led us to see the truth, beauty and goodness of the Triune God’s saving work for a particular (and undeserving) people. lege! Tolle, Listen to Augustine: ‘Tolle, lege!’, which being translated means, ‘Buy this book from Amazon and read it for yourself.’ What have you got to lose? Why not read it with an open mind and give it a fair hearing? If you still disagree, then at least you’ll have an even clearer view of Christ’s atoning death. The book is not just for scholars; it is scholarly, but it is primarily written for pastors, theological students, and lay folk who enjoy being stretched.

en: Okay, but it’s a big book, and most folk are unlikely to read all of it, so where should they start?

DG/JG: With the Preface, as it sets the tone for the book. After that, the Introduction, Garry William’s two chapters on the intent of penal substitutionary atonement and the problem of double payment for an unlimited atonement. Henri Blocher’s chapter is a very helpful overview of the whole doctrine – it sort of encapsulates the argument of the book as a whole. Finally, John Piper’s chapter will stir the affections as well as the mind.

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057