Monday, November 23, 2009

Billy says it all

I found this gem in the footnotes of Romans Verse-by-Verse, Chapter 4.

Men prefer “belonging” to a system: (1) Because where faith is not vigorous it comforts the flesh to find oneself among a party.(2) Where direct personal knowledge of Scripture is lacking it is a comfort to the heart to be told “authoritatively” what to believe—what the party to which one belongs, holds, (3) It is abhorrent to the flesh to walk by the Spirit. It is infinitely easier to be occupied with the “Christian duties” practiced or prescribed by your sect. (4) The flesh cannot bear to be little, despised, but desires to be of those that have the regard of “the Christian world” (an awful phrase!). (5) Even among the most earnest Christians the temptation and the tendency have always been to seize upon those truths emphasized by the leaders of the sect they follow and claim those truths and principles as their own! But this in effect denies the unity of the Body of Christ, and that all truth belongs to the whole Church of God.

Now all this is of the very essence of Sectarianism. If your Christian consciousness is of anyone but Christ as Head over all things to the Church, and of any body but the Body of Christ, of which all true believers are members, and you members of them—then you are on forbidden, sectarian, “carnal” ground: “For when one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not men . . . are ye not carnal, and do ye not walk after the manner of men?”

This cuts to the heart of so many matters.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Getting back into it

Somehow, I've just sort of let interpersonal contact drop off to almost nil. I haven't been emailing, calling, or blogging. So to get the ball rolling again...

I just started to read Romans Verse-by-Verse by William R Newell.

So far, it's an excellent book. I'm not too far into it: chapter 3, as of last night.

This commentary is really interesting in its style, depth, and breadth. It deals with Romans in an expository flow (hence "verse-by-verse"), but Newell makes no apology for diatribes, rants, and tangents along the way.

I found this particular quote to be extremely thought-provoking:
I affirm that the present day popular preachers DO NOT KNOW what human guilt, before God, is! DO NOT KNOW that Christ really bore wrath under God’s hand for the sin of the world! DO NOT KNOW that He was forsaken of God, as the whole race, otherwise, must have been! I affirm that they are preaching as if an unrejected, uncrucified Christ were still being offered to the world! They preach the “character” of Jesus, saying “nice things” of Him, and telling people to “follow His example”: while the truly awful fact that Christ “bare our sins in His own body on the tree,” that He was “wounded for our transgressions,” that He was “forsaken of His God”; that “God spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up,”—and that “for our trespasses,” is never told to the poor, wretched people! (Chapter 2)

Newell puts his finger dead on the central problem in modern Beattitudes-based theology. It's easy to try and use the Sermon on the Mount (or any other palatable passage) to define our Christianity. But the Epistles start from a totally different assumption: that the Christ who did and said those wonderful things was subsequently beaten and killed by the people to whom He preached.

God, of course, raised Him from the dead. But we can't just go on as though that hadn't happened. The whole game has changed: any implicit offer made in those sermons were rejected, and God has taken the human rejection of Christ seriously.

The Scriptures uniformly declare that Man is a hostile race, living in a hostile system of our own creation. God has broken into it time and time again to draw us out: each time, we reject His offer. And whether we consider the world before Noah, or the people under Moses, or their rejection of the Law and their stoning of the prophets, or even the explicit rejection of Christ Himself ("we have no king but Caesar!"); there is no attempt God has made to rescue Man from this hell of our own making that hasn't met with instant, deep, and lasting hatred and rejection.

So the Epistles start with the assumption that Christ has been rejected, was actually crucified "by your wicked hands," and we were happy to be rid of Him. From there, it is God's grace in bringing wicked sinners to eternal life through the very murder we committed that becomes the theme of the New Testament.

Now, I don't question that God's eternal purpose was for the Christ to die for us. In fact, the Christ "gave Himself for us," neither the Father nor the Son was taken by surprise in our treachery. Of course that is a foundational belief to Christianity! But actions have consequences, and whatever good God had in mind to bring about through our murdering the Son, our motive was simply to get rid of Him.

Newell is correct. He's an evangelical and a fundamentalist. That's unpopular, but he's correct. Christianity is not defined by the Golden Rule. It's defined by the love of God for wicked sinners. If you're not a wicked sinner, the gospel isn't for you. But if you are, there's some really good news here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


So following up on my claims that the Law is not for the Christian, I thought I'd say something about what the Christian is bound by.

Let's just bear in mind that this is a blog, not a systematic theology or a treatise.

So the first thing to recognize is that we are dead to sin as well as dead to the Law. This gets particularly interesting when we notice 1 John's statement:
sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4)

So on the one hand, we are dead to the Law, on the other we are dead to lawlessness.

What is lawlessness? It's when a person says "You can't tell me what to do!"

This is exactly what Romans 1--3 are talking about: the Jews had the Law and trangressed it; the Gentiles didn't have the Law, and acted lawlessly. And the Gentiles don't get a break as far as God is concerned: they have no excuse for their lawless behaviour, because God has revealed Himself (albeit imperfectly) in creation and instinctively in men's hearts. The Gentiles who acted lawlessly knew they were doing wrong. In fact, Romans charges that they knew what they were doing was worthy of death:
who, knowing the ordinance of God, that they that practise such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but also consent with them that practise them. (Romans 1:32)

It is not that the Gentiles are condemned for violating the Law they were given, but they were condemned for doing what they instinctively know is contrary to God.

And we see again the general principle in the first five chapters of Romans that those to whom more has been given are more responsible. So that the Jews bear more responsibiity than the heathen, as they had the Law. And by the same token, unbelievers from Christian homes and [nominally] christian cultures bear more responsibility than those from heathen or pagan societies.
Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? but after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up for thyself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; (Romans 2:4-5)

But the Christian has died to sin as surely as he or she has died to the Law.

Alva McClain points out that Paul was accused of Antinomianism:
and why not (as we are slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say), Let us do evil, that good may come? whose condemnation is just. (Romans 3:8)
And Alan Gamble has pointed out that the reaction of some to the Gospel is given in Romans 6:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? (Romans 6:1)
Thus, Gamble concludes, if no one accuses you of Antinomianism, you're probably not teaching the Gospel. If we preach Gospel that doesn't make people say, "So you can do whatever you want?" then we're preaching a Gospel that rests on human works.

I think Alan Gamble has hit the nail dead on the head: the proclamation of the true Gospel will inevitably result in charges of "cheap grace". The Scriptural precedent is clear, only consider how many times the Epistles re-iterate that the Law cannot save and you'll see the justice of this remark. People just have trouble grasping the concept of totally free salvation.

But the question remains, are we called to? If we're dead to the Law and dead to sin, what's left?

Even so reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:11)

Wherefore, my brethren, ye also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ; that ye should be joined to another, even to him who was raised from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit unto God. (Romans 7:4)

Christ hasn't saved people from under the Law only to turn around and drop them into lawlessness. But He hasn't saved them from one law just to put them under another either. He has saved us and delivered us to God.

At a minimum, with no further searching the Scripture, we can conclude some basic things. God is holy, and one who is "alive unto God" would naturally reflect this holiness. Just like the Gentiles instictively know some things are contrary to God's nature, so the one "alive unto God" instinctively knows some things become a believer. So we don't lie, cheat, or steal.

But when we search the Scripture we find explicit commands given to the believer in Christ. Some of these parallel very closely what was in the Law, some parallel closely what was in the commands given before the Law. Some are entirely new.

But there is a different animating principle behind them. To quote C. H. Mackintosh, where the Law said "do and live", grace says "live and do". So, as an example, under the Law the disciples were taught:
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15).

But in this new realm of "alive unto God" the Epistles teach:
forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye: (Colossians 3:13)

So where it used to be, "do this and God will forgive," now the teaching is "God has forgiven, so you ought to do this".

Do we see the difference? Under Law we would get what we deserve. Now we are to live out what we've already gotten.

But I would go further and say that where the Law was once a rule of life, we now have a much better standard: the life of Christ. So the Epistles say things like "so also do ye". It's not that we have 613 commandments now, but that we have the Son of God, and we walk in His footsteps. In fact, Ephesians tells us that God has pre-ordained good works for us to walk in. The path is laid out, we just need to follow along.

For the law having a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things... (Hebrews 10:1)

not as without law to God, but as legitimately subject to Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21, Darby Translation)

And this brings us back to the whole question of Antinonmianism. What if we never walk it out? What if the believer just never lives right? Is that OK?

Well, it's not OK... but yeah, in a sense it is.

If I really understand the state from which Christ has saved me: that I really am a worthless blight on the face of the earth but He has saved me not for any good thing in me. If I really get it, then I have to conclude that nothing the believer does---and nothing he fails to do---can phase God. What sort of foolishness is it for me to worry about whether another Christian walks it out when I can see so clearly just how much God has forgiven when it comes to me?

Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

So am I content to just live lawlessly, because I know I can get away with it?

Maybe that thought occurs to me from time to time, but really the Scripture has made a remarkable claim: that my purpose is to be alive to God. He has called me to something more, why am I content not to live it?

And this, I think, is what the legalist doesn't grasp. The legalist thinks in terms of carrots and sticks. There must be a stick to punish and a carrot to coax. But what the Scripture teaches is something very different: the indwelling Spirit of God, a new life in Christ, and a new calling.

We're not just redeemed sinners, regardless of what so many bumper stickers might say. We're new creations, and this really what drives us onwards.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully, (1 Timothy 1:8).

This blog is just a blog. It's good to keep that in mind. I'm just working through some stuff in a semi-collaborative, semi-public way. So this is driven largely by my own day-to-day experiences.

The most recent experiences that have gotten me thinking are some run-ins with several Christian friends who're very interested in the Law of Moses. And then, in the midst of that, I unpacked some boxes in our new house (we just moved a week or two ago) and found the little book by Alva McClain I already wrote about.

So Law's been on my mind a lot recently.

I'm always afraid of being too influenced by what I read, and I have to admit I've read a lot on the subject of Law. Of course my hero, J. N. Darby, had a lot to say about it, as did several others I respect. On the whole, I think Darby had the right idea when he wrote about Law; but his writing is frequently difficult and sometimes obtuse, which I fear has limited the number of people that have enjoyed it. McClain appears to have agreed with Darby in the main, but his book is a lot more clear, which probably makes it more useful.

But in the end, Scripture is really our guide: there's no end of good books, but none of them are our authority.

So with that in mind, I want to get something off my chest. This is what I see in Scripture concerning the Law:

  1. The Law was given by Moses 430 years after Abraham (Gal. 3:17). The timing of the Law is consistent in Scripture: Galatians declares it was given 430 years after Abraham; John's Gospel says "the law was given through Moses" (John 1:17); Jeremiah 31 refers to the Law as "the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt" (Jeremiah 31:32).

    The notion that Adam had the Law in the Garden is a fantasy of the Reformers. I know the Westminster Confession asserts Adam had the Law, but I see no hint of it anywhere in Scripture.

  2. Abraham didn't have the Law, although he had a covenant from God. The covenant to Abraham before the Law is the basis of the argument in Galatians: God can't promise Abraham blessings without the Law and then add conditions after the fact.
    Now this I say: A covenant confirmed beforehand by God, the law, which came four hundred and thirty years after, doth not disannul, so as to make the promise of none effect. (Gal 3:17)

  3. The Law was given to Israel under Moses. The Gentiles are not technically "under the Law," as we were never party to the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. This is central to the argument of the first two chapters of Romans: "For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law;" (Romans 2:12).

  4. The idea that "the world is condemned under the Law" is really unscriptural. Gentiles aren't condemned by the Law, but by their innate knowledge of God.
    because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse: because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened. (Romans 1:18-21).

  5. The Law is a single entity in Scripture, a unity. The common divisions of "Moral," "Ceremonial," and "Civil" Law are entirely man-made and fly in the face of the plain teaching of Scripture:
    For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all. (James 2:10).

    Yea, I testify again to every man that receiveth circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. (Galatians 5:3).

    For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one who continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them. (Galatians 3:10).

    Consider that last one in particular: the curse is on everyone who doesn't keep "all things in the book of the law". That includes dietary laws, clothing laws, agricultural laws, moral rules, and yes... even animal sacrifices.

    For some reason, people seem to think they're allowed to pick and choose what parts of the Law they have to keep. The fact is, it's an all or nothing deal. There is not a word in Scripture to indicate you can keep the Law selectively.

  6. The idea that the Lord's death, burial, and resurrection removed some of the Law flies in the face of His explicit statement:
    For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished. (Matthew 5:18).

    If neither jot nor tittle of the Law will pass away, then every single command is still in full force: from the Ten Commandments to animal sacrifices. If we have to keep any of the Law, then we have to keep all of it.

  7. If you are under the Law, and do something the Law forbids, and aren't subject to whatever penalty it prescribes; then you are making a mockery of the Law. Thus Paul's statement:
    Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. (Romans 3:31)

    It is only when there is a total break from the Law that we can be free from its curse without lowering it.

  8. The Law cannot justify a sinner, nor give life to one who is spiritually dead.
    because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight; for through the law cometh the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20).

    We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Romans 3:28).

    yet knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we believed on Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the law: because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16).

    Now that no man is justified by the law before God, is evident: for, The righteous shall live by faith; and the law is not of faith; but, He that doeth them shall live in them. (Galatians 3:11-12).

  9. The Law is as powerless to perfect the believer as it is to justify the sinner.
    For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: (Romans 8:3).

    For Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to every one that believeth. (Romans 10:4).

  10. The Scripture teaches that the life that begins with faith needs to be walked out the same way. We can't finish by law what we begin by faith.
    As therefore ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, (Colossians 2:6).

    This only would I learn from you. Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now perfected in the flesh? (Galatians 3:2-3).

    The typical defense of the legalist is that he isn't denying justification by faith, he is merely showing the Law's place in the believer's walk thereafter. But this is no different from the Galatians! There's no indication in Scripture they didn't know how they were justified: the problem is just that they were trying to add the Law to that.

    Scripture makes it clear that the path begins and ends the same way: by faith in contrast to law. We can't expect to start one way and end another. We walk in the Christ as we have received Him: not with law, but in faith.

  11. Scripture speaks of the one who has been justified by faith and tries to walk by law as stepping back.
    For if I build up again those things which I destroyed, I prove myself a transgressor. (Galatians 2:18).

    but now that ye have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how turn ye back again to the weak and beggarly rudiments, whereunto ye desire to be in bondage over again? (Galatians 4:9).

  12. The believer in Christ is dead to the Law. And Scripture makes this death to Law a prerequisite for two things:

    1. living to God: "For I through the law died unto the law, that I might live unto God." (Galatians 2:19).

    2. being spiritually fruitful: "Wherefore, my brethren, ye also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ; that ye should be joined to another, even to him who was raised from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit unto God." (Romans 7:4).

    This doesn't mean he or she is not responsible to keep the Law, it means that he or she is completely outside the Law's jurisdiction. The believer has no obligation to keep the Law whatsoever. None.

  13. The Law is not dead, the Christian is. 1 Timothy 1 makes that very clear.

  14. The purpose of the Law was to reveal Christ.
    Ye search the scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life; and these are they which bear witness of me; (John 5:39).

    So that the law is become our tutor to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith is come, we are no longer under a tutor. (Galatians 3:24-25).

    There are at least two functions of the Law according to the Epistles:

    1. it showed what He would be like when He came

    2. it showed the sinner's need of the Saviour

So that's a brief summary of what I can see in Scripture about the Law. It's sure not complete, but I think it's a good start.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book Recommendation: Law and Grace

If you've talked with me much, you know I am very fixated with the whole question of Law for the Christian. Last night I picked up a slim volume from my bookshelf, Law and Grace by Alva McClain. It's been on my shelf for a few years now, but I've never taken the time to read it.


I highly recommend getting a copy of this. In fact, I plan to buy several copies to give away. This is a brilliant little gem.

I don't find it as meaty as Darby's books, but then I really didn't expect to. It's far easier to read than some of my favourites; by the same token, it's a much more powerful message because it's more clearly expressed.

But don't think this is a lightweight book. It touches all the essential points of the Scriptural teaching touching the Law in the life of the Christian. And the arguments are clearly and logically applied.

Really, get a copy of this book. You won't regret it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Play it again, John (Pt. 5)

So our Greatest Hits of J. N. Darby count-down looks like this:
#10 "The Melchisedec Priesthood of Christ" (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 2)
#9 "The Sabbath: or, Is the law dead, or am I" (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 10)
#8 "God's Grace and Man's Need" (available from STEM Publishing)
#7 "Two Warnings and an Example" (available from STEM Publishing)
#6 "Wilderness Grace" (available from STEM Publishing)
#5 "First Resurrection; or, Resurrection of the Just" (Available from STEM Publishing)
#4 "Progress of Evil on the Earth" (Available from STEM Publishing)

I warned you at the outset this can't be a hard and fast ranking. Which ones I consider "top ten" varies from day to day, and the ranking in the top ten change at least daily. No sooner will I post this to my blog, than I'll think of several I should have posted. It might be interesting to see if anyone else has any to add: put them in the comments.

We have three more slots to fill, so here are two more favourite papers by JND:

#3 "Cleansing by Water: and what it is to walk in the light" (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol 23; Available from STEM Publishing)

I wish I had ranked this article as #9 or 10, as it's well worth reading, but I think it would have been better to have ranked it a little lower. Still, what's done is done.

This is a response to a tract, as so many of Darby's papers are, and it can be hard to get into the flow of the article for several paragraphs. But I am continually astonished (and, frankly, shamed) by this statement:
The ground they go upon is the common ground of unbelief in the offering of Christ — the doctrine of continually cleansing and recleansing in Christ's blood. This is wholly unscriptural, and subversive of true Christian standing according to the word — that the worshippers once purged should have no more conscience of sins. Nothing can be clearer or more positive than the teaching of Hebrews 9 and 10 on this subject, where it is elaborately argued, in contrast with the repetition of Jewish sacrifices, and as giving us boldness to enter into the holiest. (p. 281)

Notice how JND classifies the whole idea of recleansing as "unbelief in the offering of Christ." And I have to say, after weighing the question, I am convinced he is correct. The whole idea of going to Christ to be cleansed by blood again is fundamentally a denial of what Scripture teaches: that He has purged our sins.

Now, I want to be the first to point out that I hardly live out the truths in this paper, and I frankly don't think it's entirely correct. But I think it is brilliant nevertheless, and is one of JND's best articles. I have personally read and re-read it many times.

Here's some classic JND regarding 1 John 1:
And note here, what is spoken of is "walking in the light as God is in the light." It is not according to the light, but in it. There is no darkness at all in God. This is the revelation afforded, the message heard... The question is not raised if we walk according to it or not. We are in the full revelation of God without a veil, or in darkness, having no knowledge of God. It is not the question how far we live up to it. But the Christian is really walking there. (pp. 284--285)

This is really the heart of Darby's ministry: the practical effect of positional truth on the day-to-day life of Christians who are having to walk it out down here until the Lord Jesus comes to get us. "Brethren" used to have a real message that was desparately needed by poor downtrodden souls; but now we largely seem content with our "church order" checklists. But I digress.

I personally think Darby's writings on progressive sanctification are among his best. Another of note is "Cleansing and Deliverance" (also available from STEM Publishing ). Really, you should check these out.

#2 Propitiation and Substitution (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol 29; Available from STEM Publishing)

One of my favourite articles by JND is this very short gem. One thing I like about it so much is that it's a great illustration of Darby's thinking: he takes a step back from the point in question and asks "What does the Scripture actually say?" I have found when I do that, the immediate question generally falls apart, and a larger answer emerges.

The specific question of this article is that of atonement. Is it limited to the elect? or is it unlimited?
My intercourse with saints, and especially with those who preach, has led me to discover that a good deal of obscurity in their manner of putting the gospel (and I may add a good deal of Arminian and Calvinistic controversy) arises from not distinguishing propitiation and substitution. I am not anxious about the words, but about the practical distinction, which is very simple, and, I think, of moment. I say the words, because in propitiation, in a certain sense, Christ stood in our stead. Still there is a very real difference in Scripture.

The article examines the question in terms of Leviticus 16, where there are two goats: one is subsititutionary, the other is propitiary. The conclusion is that both the Calvinist and Arminian views are incomplete: both see only part of the truth, and people draw false conclusions from not realizing they only see half the question:
The Arminians take up Christ's dying for all, and generally they connect the bearing of sins with it; and all is confusion as to the efficacy and effectualness of Christ's bearing our sins, for they deny any special work for His people. They say, If God loved all, He cannot love some particularly; and an uncertain salvation is the result, and man often exalted. Thus the scapegoat is practically set aside. (p. 287)

The Calvinist holds Christ's bearing the sins of His people, so that they are effectually saved; but he sees nothing else. He will say, If Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it, there can be no real love for anything else. Thus he denies Christ's dying for all, and the distinctive character of propitiation, and the blood on the mercy-seat. He sees nothing but substitution. (p. 288)

I found this article extremely helpful in seeing this question in a much broader perspective.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Play it Again, John (Pt. 4)

We're not yet done with "The Best of John Nelson Darby." There's a whole lot more meat on them bones, and I'd like to chew a little more of it.  But first I want to take a break and talk about a necessary tangent.

Reading Darby is hard. I'd like to say it isn't, but it is. No sooner do you attempt to read Darby than you discover two features of his writing. First, he doesn't write to be understood so much as to think on paper. His writing is convoluted and poorly organized: paragraphs sometimes span several pages, sentences run on for miles, and long tangents appear every few pages.

Second, he's a brilliant writer. This was a man who spoke umpteen languages (including, apparently, fluent Maori) and spent his life in study. There's a good chance he was smarter than you, and it can be hard to fight through the convoluted prose of someone of superior intellect. It can be particularly unnerving when he includes Latin and Greek in the text: I have just a tiny smattering of Greek, and no Latin at all. Getting past some of those pages has been hard.

And it's not just that he's a brilliant writer (although he is): another problem is that he wrote almost 200 years ago---language has changed a lot in that time. Darby wrote just about the same time as Jane Austen, and it's worth keeping that in mind when reading his articles. I read an article online a few years ago that argued Darby was anti-intellectual. They were arguing his teachings deliberately hid from secular history and scholarship. This astonishing statement was based on this quote:
History was not written in heaven. I believe that the attempt to interpret prophecy by history has been most injurious to the ascertaining of its real meaning. When we have ascertained, by the aid of the Spirit of Christ, the mind of God, we have, as far as it be history, God's estimate of events, and their explanation. But history is man's estimate of events, and he has no right to assume that these are in prophecy at all, and it is clear that he must understand prophecy before he can apply it to any: when he understands it, he has what God meant to give him, without going farther. I do not admit history to be, in any sense, necessary to the understanding of prophecy. I get present facts, and God's moral account of what led to them, and thereby His moral estimate of them: I do not want history to tell me Nineveh or Babylon is ruined, or Jerusalem in the hands of the Gentiles. Of course, where any prophecy does apply to facts, it is a true history of those facts; but it is much more. It is the connection of those facts with the purposes of God in Christ, and whenever any isolated fact, however important in the eyes of man, is taken as the fulfilment of a prophecy, that prophecy is made of private interpretation; and this I believe to be the meaning of that passage. Of course, when any prophecy is fulfilled, the fulfilment is evidence of its truth, but the Christian does not need this; and evidence of truth and interpretation are two very different things. ("Notes on Revelation" )

The author had latched onto the quote, "I do not want history to tell me Nineveh or Babylon is ruined, or Jerusalem in the hands of the Gentiles" and concluded Darby was afraid to study history.  Of course, the real problem was the author's own [barely functional] illiteracy. He completely failed to grasp that "want" 200 years ago meant "lack" as opposed to "desire".  What Darby was actually saying is, it's not necessary to have a thorough grasp of history to read and understand Scriptural prophecy. He was claiming that Scriptural prophecy is essentially self-contained. He was certainly not claiming that Scripture is historically inaccurate, but that's the general gist the author was attempting to give.

Besides his tendency to "think on paper" rather than striving for clarity, and his use of dated English (hardly his fault when he died in 1882), one difficulty with reading Darby is the context in which he wrote. A good deal of his papers are tracts, letters, or articles written in a theological controversy of the time. This can be more than a little annoying, as we rarely have the papers, articles, or tracts to which he is replying. So an article by JND written in response to Cardinal Newmann might seem a little difficult to get into, if we haven't the original article.

I think, though, that the danger here is more than just the lack of context; the danger is that it can be hard to catch the relevance of an article entitled "Remarks on a Tract by Someone-or-other".  Worse, it can be hard to get past several pages of specific replies to objections to get to the real point of the paper: not the specifics that Someone-or-other brought up, but the arguments from Scripture that strike at the heart of the argument.

See, the real value of reading Darby is not to get a hold of some doctrinal position or grasping some point of theology.  The real value is that this was a man who was perhaps unequaled in his ability to point out the implications of some idea or another. Darby was simply brilliant in his ability to get to the root of a problem; to see how the implications of a relatively minor point would affect, colour, and influence positions on much more major points. Darby had a real gift for seeing watersheds for what they are: minor points that had major implications.

When I first read Darby, I wondered why he spent so much time beating on a small point here or there while more or less ignoring much more prominent points. Eventually I came to see that he was correctly seeing that the "minor" points had much larger implications than what I had thought were much "greater" questions.  His insistence on the imminent return of Christ was not a shibboleth: it was a result of his [correct] appraisal that this minor doctrinal point has major moral implications.  Is the imminent return of Christ a major theological question? not really. But it has major moral outcomes.

But the good news is, reading Darby is worth the effort.

I set out to read Darby about 12 or 13 years ago, because so many people worshiped the man, and at the same time so many vilified him. I had to read this stuff for myself, to try and figure out what the deal was. I started with a set of Notes and Comments on Scripture, which was given me as a gift. I didn't read the whole set, but I read bits here and there. After that, I was given Volumes 16 & 17 of The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby; I read those, then was given Volumes 1 & 3. Shortly after I finished those, I found a used copy of Volume 12. Then I just bit the bullet and bought all 34 volumes plus the index. At this point, I've read Volumes 1--24 and am partly through Volume 25. So I've read enough to have an idea how to "break the code" and get into the books. That's really why I started out with "J. N. Darby's Greatest Hits": I thought I'd share my favourites with both my readers.

So if you're willing to listen to me, I can tell you the best place to start is Volume 12 (Evangelic 1). That's a collection of his gospel messages. They're short, clear, and fairly simple to grasp: a lot of them are transcripts of sermons he preached, and his sermons were much "better" than his writing. He apparently had an easier time being understood when he could see his audience in front of him.

But the real value of Volume 12 is this: it gives you a look  into his mind. Darby was fascinated with God's love and His grace. While following generations have generally painted him as some sort of legalistic fanatic, his own words are much more saturated with his basking in God's love than in blasting people who disagreed with him. If you don't start at the beginning, the rest gets blurry. To Darby, the beginning was the Gospel. So read Volumes 12 (and 21) first.

After Volume 12, I would recommend Volume 16 (Practical 1) and Volume 2 (Prophetic 1) as the next steps. The practical volumes (Vols. 16 & 17) are what we now call "Christian Living" books. I found Volume 16 a lot better than 17, but that might just be me.  But I would suggest getting into Volume 2 fairly quickly too. Darby was a monster of prophecy, and his prophetic works are sheer brilliance.

I would suggest the next step is Volume 10 (Doctrinal 3). This is a volume almost entirely dedicated to Darby's writings on Law. It is well worth reading and re-reading, but is probably best read after Vols. 12, 16, and 2.

If you really want to, you can read Volume 1 (Ecclesiastical 1) right at the start, but I'd recommend against it until you get used to Darby's unique brand of English via Volumes 12, 16, and 2. Darby's ecclesiastical writings are brilliant no doubt, but they're also detailed and long. There's a lot to be learned there, but it can be hard to dig out unless you've learned to read Darby already.

So I'm going to put up more of JND's greatest hits, but I wanted to get this out there first.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


I ran across a gathering of Christians I was interested in checking out: they're an hour away from us, so we had to get going a little early this morning. But that's OK, we got the kids and everyone ready, made a big pot of coffee, and got out the door only 9 minutes after I had wanted to leave.  We drove an hour through the rainy NorthWestern spring to get to the place they gather just about 15 minutes before the time I had found online. In we went... to find them in full swing. A woman came out from the kitchen area and told us they had started an hour early today then would have a bit of a breakfast or lunch together (she'd been working on that). So instead of 15 minutes early, we were 45 minutes late.

It seemed a little rude to walk in about the time they were wrapping up and presumably join in on food, so we decided to leave. We had a nice second breakfast with hot chocolate at a McDonald's before coming home, and laughed about it pretty hard.

I hold no illusions that a 1-hour drive every week will be a workable solution. But finding a decent gathering that could be a once-a-month thing would be great. More importantly, it's possible someone there would know somebody closer to us, perhaps meeting in a home or something.  That would be great.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves; but these, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves with themselves, are not intelligent. ( 2 Cor. 10:12, Darby)

For do I now seek to satisfy men or God? or do I seek to please men? If I were yet pleasing men, I were not Christ's bondman. (Galatians 1:10, Darby)

I've been pretty quiet on this blog recently, partly because I haven't had a lot to say. I've long thought things would be so much better in general if people with nothing to say made it a point to say exactly that. But I've been thinking, praying and agonizing in private; and those are things that really don't work well in this medium. And frankly, some of my agonizing and prayer really isn't any of your business, so I've kept it to myself where it belongs.

But I've come to some tentative conclusions, and I feel some of them are worth speaking about. The most important is this: I have used the failures, sins, and hypocrisies of other Christians (most particularly "brethren") as an excuse to do things I have spoken out against. I've spent some time in some churches practising some of the things I spoke out against in my blog and elsewhere, and I excused myself by saying things like "brethren do the same thing."

I was wrong to do that. I have forgotten that I am to be Christ's servant, and that means I answer to Him. If I believe Scripture speaks against clericalism, then the fact that "brethren" have de facto clergy really is irrelevant. Others' failure to live up to their convictions doesn't give me license to compromise on mine. I have to answer to Christ, not to the Christians around me.

When we left the "brethren" a year and a half ago, I fell into the trap of allowing the things I had seen there goad me into turning my back on what I believed (and believe) to be what Scripture teaches about the Church. I took my family to visit any number of churches that practised the very things I had said were unscriptural. Some of that was legitimate, but some wasn't. Most of the time I wasn't being malicious. That's not the point. The point is, whenever I encountered a conflict between what I saw in Scripture and what I saw in practice; I rationalized it by pointing out that "brethren" are no better. And that's the problem: even if everything I told myself is true, the "brethren" aren't my rule of life, Scripture is (or ought to be).

I'm not saying everything I've done is wrong. I'm not saying the churches I visited are in sin, nor am I even saying Christ was not in their midst. I'm certainly not telling anyone else what they ought to be doing; particularly not the people who've commented and emailed me with similar experiences and exercises.

I'm saying I put my attention where it ought not to have been. I let my quest for the biblical church take some wrong turns because I ignored the "biblical" part and kept comparing myself to my brothers and sisters in Christ. I ought to have been looking at Him, not at them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Play it again, John (pt. 3)

Among JND's greatest writings are the series of lectures he gave in Geneva in 1840, "The Hopes of the Church of God" (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 2 pp. 278--382). These are written in a clearer and simpler style than he generally uses, which is largely because they are transcriptions of lectures, rather than actual articles. It seems JND was a much better speaker than writer.

"The Hopes of the Church of God" contain eleven addresses, all of which are worth reading. But I draw attention to two that I think are extremely important to understand, if we want to grasp Darby's personal theology: "First Resurrection; or, Resurrection of the Just" and Progress of Evil on the Earth. (Yep, those are both on the STEM Publishing website.)

#5 "First Resurrection; or, Resurrection of the Just"
This is a study into the two resurrections. It demonstrates that the Scripture teaches there are two resurrections: one of the just to life, one of the unjust to judgment. Further, it demonstrates that the testimony of Scripture is consistently that these two resurrections are temporally distinct: they happen quite separately.

The resurrection of the church is a thing of itself, because the church participates in the resurrection of Christ we are raised, not only because Jesus Christ will call us from the grave, but because we are one with Him. It is by reason of this unity, that, in partaking of faith, we are already raised with Christ, raised as to the soul, but not as to the body. The justification of the church is, that it is risen with Christ. (p. 304)

Observe, in the passages concerning the resurrection, not one speaks of a simultaneous rising of just and unjust; and those which refer to the resurrection of the just speak of it always as of a thing distinct. All will rise. There will be a resurrection of the just, and a resurrection of the unjust, but they will not take place together. I will cite the passages successively, which refer to it. It is at the coming of Christ that the church will rise; Phil. 3: 20, 21; 1 Cor. 15: 23. (p. 305)

If you google "Plymouth Brethren" or "John Nelson Darby," you find a multitude of online resources attacking the idea of "secret rapture". It seems every second-year student at any given Reformed seminary has written a paper repeating the slander that JND took his idea of the return of Christ from some ecstatic utterances of a young Irvingite girl. Nonsense. Darby's view of the "secret rapture" was based in the Scriptural teaching that there are two resurrections.

Interestingly, what Darby held to be the hope of the Christian, the resurrection of the just, "brethren" themselves moved away from very quickly, talking about "rapture" where Scripture talks about "gathering together unto Him" (2 Thess. 2:1, KJV). I have found in my own experience, non-biblical terminology can be very, very dangerous.

But the repeated attacks on JND and the teaching of two distinct resurrections are alone enough to make me think he was really onto something. As he himself might point out, it is always resurrection that proved the point of disbelief in the Acts. Paul on Mars Hill was interesting to tha pagans, until he mentioned resurrection. Then some scoffed, but some wanted to hear more. Resurrection is the watershed of the Gospel: the point that divides faith from unbelief.

If the first resurrection - that of the just - is not to be taken literally, why should the second - that of the unjust - be so taken? As the object of our hope, and source of our consolation and of our joy, it is but a small thing to know that the unjust shall be raised; but the precious thing - the essential - is to know that the resurrection of the just will be the consummation of their happiness; that in it God will accomplish His love towards us; that, after having given life to our souls, He will give life to our bodies, and will make of the dust of the earth a form suitable to the life which has been given to us on the part of God. We never read in the word of God of glorified spirits, but always of glorified bodies. There is the glory of God, and the glory of those who will be raised. (p. 309)

I would say this is probably the most important prophetic paper by JND.

#4 Progress of Evil on the Earth
This paper presents Darby's understanding of the Church in Ruin. You must grasp this idea to make any sense of his ecclesiology. This is the idea he first presented in his 1828 paper "Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ" (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 1). It is this one idea that really drove "exclusive brethren" in their ecclesiology: that the Church had become apostate, and that the apostasy would not be cured until God Himself judges it at the end of the age.

What we are about to consider will tend to shew that, instead of permitting ourselves to hope for a continued progress of good, we must expect a progress of evil; and that the hope of the earth being filled with the knowledge of the Lord before the exercise of His judgment, and the consummation of this judgment on the earth, is delusive. We are to expect evil, until it becomes so flagrant that it will be necessary for the Lord to judge it. (p. 310)

This one paper contains a wealth of teaching that mainstream Dispensationalists have really neglected. I would say this one paper presents most clearly what the difference is between mainstream dispensationlism and the [more Scriptural] simpler dispensationalism of early "brethren".

In brief, the consistent dispensational approach JND took predicted a growing apostasy in the Church. Apostasy began in the Apostles' time, and really grows without remedy until the Lord judges it. He saw the presence of the church on earth as really no different than any other period of God's earthly dealings: it fails early and irrevocably, then there is judgment.

Of course this flies in the face of both Amillenianlism (including full Praeterism) and Postmillenialism: it denies that there will be any such thing as a righteous society on earth until Christ Himself establishes it after His physical return.

This is a great paper: it's well worth the 30 minutes to read. In fact, this whole collection is worth your time.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Play it again, John (pt. 2)

I want to share some more of "The Best of J. N. Darby". So today we're going to the very first volume by JND I would recommend someone try reading: Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 12. This is a collection of Darby's gospel messages, and it is really required reading for someone wanting to see first-hand what this Darby fellow was all about.

There are three papers in this one volume to which I particularly want to draw attention: "God's Grace and Man's Need," "Two Warnings and an Example," and "Wilderness Grace."

#8 "God's Grace and Man's Need" (available from STEM Publishing)

The first might be Darby's best gospel message. It's short, gets right to the point, and makes the case very simply that God offers justification freely to man, because man has nothing to offer God. It was always God's plan not to demand from man, but to offer forgiveness freely, based on the One Man's offering Himself without spot to God.

To turn for a moment to the use man made of the law, in contrast with God's purpose in it: God used it, as we have seen, that the offence might abound - that sin might appear exceeding sinful. Man set about to make himself righteous by the very thing by which God was proving him a sinner, and sin exceedingly sinful. This you are doing, if you are seeking to satisfy the demands of God's righteousness by your own ways. Man seeks to save himself by the righteousness of the law; but God's use was not that, for He never thought of saving any but by Jesus.

#7 "Two Warnings and an Example" (available from STEM Publishing)

This is a brief study of three main characters in the Garden of Gethsemane: the Lord Jesus, Peter, and Judas Iscariote. It's well worth a read, as it contrasts the unregenerate, the carnal Christian, and the Perfect Man in under stress.

When Christ was praying, Peter was sleeping; when Christ was submitting as a lamb led to the slaughter, Peter was fighting; when Christ was confessing in suffering, Peter was denying Him with cursing and swearing. This is just the flesh: sleeping when it ought to be waking; in energy when it ought to be still; and then denying the Lord when the time of trial comes.

#6 "Wilderness Grace" (available from STEM Publishing)

This is an interesting study: it contrasts God's dealings with Israel from the time they crossed the Red Sea until Sinai, with His dealings with them once they received the Law.

To bring into the wilderness, and not at once into Canaan. Being in the wilderness implies all sorts of trials. It may seem strange to sight, that they who had just been singing the song of triumph and deliverance (chap 15) should be allowed to be three days in the wilderness without water; and then, when they came to water, should find it so bitter that they could not drink of it. But God permits these trials, in order that we may see our own need and prove His faithfulness. From the Red Sea to Sinai Israel proved the grace which belongs to us now.

If you are at all interested in reading Darby, you really need to start with Volume 12 of Collected Writings. It gives perspective to everything else he wrote, as well as being the most readable and approachable of his writings.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Play it again, John

I've wanted to post a "Best of John Nelson Darby" for quite some time, and haven't really gotten to it. But there's no time like the present.

I started reading JND when I was in University, largely out of curiosity. I figured someone so widely reviled but also widely adulated must be worth a read. In the last ten or fifteen years, I've read a little over half of Darby's work. I've read the first 24 volumes of The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby cover-to-cover, and I've browsed and dabbled in a good deal of the rest.  This doesn't make me a bona fide expert on Darby, but it means I've read a good deal more of what he actually wrote than the vast majority of people who talk about him.

Darby had some flaws, but I would have been honoured to meet him. I still consider him among my favourite authors.  It was he who wrote in a letter, "The eyes see farther than the feet go." He realized he understood more than he actually walked out. Would that I did half so well as he!

I'd like to offer a list of "Darby's Top Ten". But I'm not sure how easy or feasible it will be, so I've decided to post about several of my favourites, one or two at a time. I'll list them as some sort of ordered list, but please understand at the outset that the listing is largely arbitrary. #1 today might well be #7 next week.

#10  "The Melchisedec Priesthood of Christ" (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 2)
This is listed in the "Prophetic" volumes of CW, but it's possible it ought to have been listed in the "Doctrinal" section. It is available STEM Publishing.

Melchisedec is one of the "mystic figures" of Scripture. He appears in Genesis 14, is forgotten until Psalm 110, then fades away again until Hebrews.  Like Elihu in Job, Melchisedec  comes from nowhere, makes astonishing statements, and disappears again. Hebrews says Christ is like him, "having neither father nor mother,"  etc.

Interestingly, Melchisedec is the first priest named in Scripture, but he doesn't do what we most associate with priests: he offers no sacrifice. He gives Abram food and drink, blesses Abram and God, accepts a tithe of Sodom's spoils, and disappears. This is in contrast with the Levitical priesthood, which centers on sacrifices.

JND draws comparisons and contrasts between Melchisedec and Aaron, and discusses the place the Christ plays in His role as Priest, with insights drawn from Melchisedec's actions in Genesis 14.

#9 "The Sabbath: or, Is the law dead, or am I" (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 10)
Available from STEM Publishing. 
This paper discusses the role of Law in the Christian life. It is unfortunately slightly rambling---one gets the impression it might have been a discussion over coffee, rather than a published article---but it's actually very good, if one is patient in reading.

JND presents the core of Dispensationalism very succinctly in it:
Without law [flesh] is lawless; with law it transgresses; with Christ it rejects and slays Him, and in him even who has the Spirit as a believer, lusts against it. (p. 276)
Dispensationalism centers on the idea that God tests man; not to find out whether man is good, but to prove he isn't. 

I've said it time and again: "brethren" weren't a movement about church order or prophetic interpretation. As a movement, "brethren" arose out of an understanding of personal salvation and  sanctification that stood at odds with the sacramentalists on the one hand, and the staunch Reformers on the other.  This is the same balance Cranmer and Hooker had tried to maintain two centuries earlier.

Modern dispensationalists have really turned away from dispensationalism in every realm except (possibly) prophecy.  But early "brethren" took the Dispensationalist position in its entirety, including and emphasizing the conclusions relating to sanctification and Christian living. 

Flesh may remain in us, as the old stock in the grafted tree, as a thing hostile to the Spirit, for exercises and humbling profit, so that we may overcome, and have our senses exercised to discern good and evil; but it is never formed into a new (till glory changes all); it is as a nature hostile and condemned, and only that; not subject to the law of God, nor can be; enmity against God, where it has a mind at all. The second Adam is, morally and spiritually speaking, substituted for the first, does not restore and recover it. Without law it is lawless; with law it transgresses; with Christ it rejects and slays Him, and in him even who has the Spirit as a believer, lusts against it. (p. 270)

It is because men have believed in a recovery of man in flesh — and so a continuance of law, which applies to men alive in flesh, only spiritualized and suffused into a new system of grace — that they have argued for the maintenance of law; while others have sought to prove that the law was dead, and did not bind, Christ having abrogated it and introduced something more suited to man. Both are alike wrong. It may seem presumptuous to say so; but the word of God has authority above all men, as I am sure the great body of those I refer to would cordially acknowledge. (p. 278)

I... produce from Scripture the testimonies which shew that we are not under the law; yet not because the decalogue or law is abolished or buried, but because
we are dead, buried, and risen again in Christ; because we are a new creation, redeemed out of the position we were in in flesh. That we are redeemed from its curse no one denies, so that I do not argue that point, all important as it is: that we are not justified by it is admitted in terms, but I think not really known and held, and is closely connected with our argument: still it is admitted in terms, and hence I do not argue it here. (p. 279)
This is the key to the dispensationalist of denying the Law is the Christian rule of life: not that the Law has been abolished (it most certainly has not), but that the Christian has been done away with, and is now a new Creation, one to which the Law has never been applied in Scripture.  Of course, dispensationalists themselves have departed from this, saying the Law has ended with the Cross. This is untenable in the face of 1 Timothy 1, but I digress.

So those are the first two "Best of JND" articles on the list. I have several others I want to share, but I'll reign in my enthusiasm for another day.