What I’m Reading: REFORMATION by Carl Trueman

Using blog space to say “Trueman nailed it” is the e-equivalent of using cup space to say “Coffee is hot.” Obviously. Nevertheless, I’m glad to say that Carl Trueman’s collection of essays published as Reformation is a very worthwhile read. I expected it to be a helpful reminder of Reformation history and its relevance to ministry today, and it was. But it’s more practical and devotional than I expected. Trueman connects the dots between Reformation theology and modern pastoral ministry under three basic themes:

  • First, (especially in chapter 2, “Meeting the Man of Sorrows”) Trueman writes with conviction and warmth about the centrality of the cross. “God-centered sermons must by definition be Christ-centered sermons if they are to contain even a drop of grace,” he writes (p. 27). It is in the cross where we see God’s glory, and love, and holiness. But it’s also in the cross where we see God use  weakness and suffering for His glory. “Suffering and weakness are not just the way in which Christ triumphs and conquers; they are the way in which we are to triumph and conquer too” (p. 49). Trueman writes elsewhere, often, against the triumphalism of the modern church and the need for a godly view of suffering and lamentation. This is significant for a church that is comprised of weak, suffering people and is called to reach weak, suffering people.
  • Second (in chapter 3, “The Oracles of God”), Trueman gives a theological and practical discussion on the pastor’s responsibility to preach the Word. There is power in God’s inspired Word, both when it is printed and when it is preached. Thus, Trueman calls preachers to fervent, expository preaching which demonstrates a grasp of systematic and biblical theology. Such text-based preaching is vital in its own right, but also because it teaches people how to read their Bibles (as Dr. Mark Minnick consistently reminded us when I was in school). “As he preaches the Bible week by week,” Trueman writes, “[the pastor] is not simply bringing home the message of salvation on a Sunday but is equipping his people for reading, studying, and appropriating that message of salvation during the week” (pp. 96-97).
  • Finally (and unexpectedly, in chapter 4, “Blessed Assurance”), Trueman unpacks the Reformers’ understanding of assurance. I say this chapter was unexpected because it’s fairly obvious that the Reformers dealt with Christ (part 1) and the Word (part 2). But the issue of assurance was and continues to be a central difference between biblical Christianity and Roman Catholicism—the idea that based on Christ’s finished work we can know that our peace with God is certain and eternal (1 John 5:13). This is a vital doctrine. But it’s also extremely practical, for Bible preaching churches are filled with people who struggle with the issue of assurance of salvation. If you haven’t noticed, you’re either not approachable or not listening. It’s an excruciating struggle, and one for which shepherds must be equipped to help sheep. Trueman addresses the issue by pointing people away from subjective experience and toward objective truth about God and Christ. I do wish he had addressed the experiential “fruit” motif that is prominent in biblical discussions on assurance, as in 1 John. But his pointing us away from ourselves and to God is helpful. Pastors, listen to this challenge regarding the whole tenor of our pulpit ministries:

“In making preaching centre on God, on his saving acts and supremely on Christ, the preacher will automatically be creating an environment where the eyes of the congregation are drawn away from themselves, whether they be preoccupied with a morbid introspection or with an unhealthy excitement concerning their own experiences.”

The church needs leaders who will be relentless in biblical, God-exalting, Christ-centered preaching, and will thus “create an environment” in which people are more mindful of what God has done than what they have done.

This little book is an easy read (just over 100 pages), but very rewarding. It will be a huge help and encouragement to my pastor friends. It will engage your heart, your head, and your humor. Classic Trueman. I commend it to you.


Related Tweet: “Theory: There is no Carl Trueman. D. A. Carson and Patrick McManus write articles together then use CT as a pseudonym.”


The greatest of these is “Sola Scriptura”

Today Protestants around the world give thanks to God for the Reformation, the 16th-century movement which reclaimed the glorious doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone from the obscuring veils of Roman traditions. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther symbolized the heart of the Reformation by posting his 95 Theses in protest at the sale of indulgences by the Church. We summarize the Reformers’ convictions with 5 Solas: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. All of them are precious, but I’d argue that the greatest of them is the first: Sola Scriptura. I elevate it not because it is inherently more significant than the others, but because it is the source of the others (and thus is referred to as “the formal principle of the Reformation”). If we don’t acknowledge the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God, we have no basis to determine the doctrine of salvation—or anything else.

I was struck again by this from an unlikely source a few years ago. Victor Hugo wrote the following historical commentary during one of the (rather frustrating) plot lapses in The Hunchback of Notre Dame:

“The sixteenth century shattered religious unity. Before printing, the Reformation would just have been a schism; printing made it a revolution. Take away the printing press and heresy is enervated [weakened, destroyed]. Be it fate or providence, Gutenberg was Luther’s precursor.”

What Hugo is highlighting is the importance of the printed word—indeed, of the printed Word! In God’s providence, the Reformation took place in a time when thought and religion had been freed by Gutenberg’s press. This was no coincidence. An unbending commitment to the Word started, informed, and spread the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s main contribution to the Reformation was his commitment to Scripture, stated often, but never more beautifully or boldly than in his defense at the Diet of Worms:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

“I am bound by the Scriptures.” Yes. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Amen. That’s the Reformation in a nutshell. Indeed, it’s Christianity in a nutshell. Luther and the Reformers didn’t get everything right. They couldn’t have. But their role was like that of a good teacher—not to teach students every fact they will ever need to know, but to teach them how to learn. The Reformers reminded the church how to learn—how to think—by pointing us to the Scriptures and away from human authorities. That was their genius, built upon the genius of pre-Reformers like Wycliffe and Huss. Sola Scriptura!

There is no question that the great doctrines of the Reformation are under attack again today. Much of evangelicalism is “slouching towards Rome.” Our response, as ever, must be to tenaciously hold to the authority of the Scriptures. That’s not as simple as it seems, for there is ever the temptation to amend to the Word our own ideas. When the ideas are old, we call them “tradition.” When the ideas are new, we call them “contextualization.” Regardless of what extra-biblical ideas are called, we must not yield to them. We have a more sure word. We have an inspired Word. We have a sufficient Word. May we truly embrace it as our “only rule of faith and practice” as our creeds require. We can do no other. God help us.

R. C. Sproul Chimes in on the Manhattan Declaration

Sproul. Splendid.

Appropriate Gratitude for John Calvin

calvin cakeI’m grateful for the ministry of John Calvin, who was born 500 years ago today. I’ve especially benefitted from his excellent commentaries for the last decade, not to mention the “trickle down” of his teaching that I’ve gained from teachers and writers dead and living. (I’m especially appreciative of Michael Barrett, whose influence on me toward a Reformed soteriology was first and strongest.) But I’ve also been cringing a bit, fearing that the inevitable fanfare that will accompany this day might be ostentatious and, frankly, embarrassing. Happily—unless you’re a Calvin hater who would do well to consider this comically true advice—the words of gratitude to God for Calvin that I’ve seen have been appropriately simple. Here are some links to my favorite posts and resources, though I’m sure I’m missing many:

  • Dissidens sings “Happy Birthday, dear Calvin” in this brief post. Well done.
  • Theosource offers a brief look at Calvin’s devotional life, humility, and Christ-centeredness here.
  • Ben suggests singing a hymn and praying for the spread of the gospel, which is a great idea. [You might overlook his snarky comment at the end of this otherwise fine post. Give it a rest, pal. It’s a happy day. :) ]
  • John Piper’s biographical lecture on Calvin can be heard or read here.
  • Joe Tyrpak’s biographical lecture on Calvin (given at TCBC around last Reformation Day) can be heard here.
  • Ligonier Ministries offers John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology (which I posted on here) for a donation of any amount. Details here.
  • Desiring God offers T. H. L. Parker’s brief biography for just $2, today only.

Lastly, while it’s good to give honor to those whom it is due, the best way to thank the Lord for Calvin’s influence during a critical time in church history and ever since is to focus on the God whom he loved and served. Soli Deo Gloria!

What I’m Reading: John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology

John Calvin HeartMy exposure to John Calvin’s life and ministry has essentially been limited to very regular (almost weekly) use of his excellent commentaries during sermon preparation for the last 12 years. Thus, I was glad to get my hands on John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, & Doxology, a new book produced in honor of Calvin’s 500th anniversary that contains articles from 20 prominent contemporary Calvinists, including Iain Murray (recent post), John MacArthur, Phil Johnson, Jay Adams, and Jerry Bridges.

I’m only about a quarter of the book, but I’m enjoying it very much. The first several chapters focus on the man John Calvin, whereas the latter portion of the book addresses his doctrine (though it’s not possible to separate the two entirely). The history is fascinating and helpful, especially the portrayals of his conscientious and fervent pastoral ministry. My one complaint would be that the authors too often rehearse the same events. That’s understandable, as they wrote independently of each other, but it’s a bit frustrating compared to a typical biography that continually moves forward.

My favorite chapter thus far is “The Churchman of the Reformation” by Harry L. Reeder. His writing style is extremely engaging, and his treatment of the various aspects of Calvin’s pastoral ministry (Pastor/Leader, Pastor/Preacher, Pastor/Teacher, Pastor/Writer, Pastor/Shepherd, and Pastor/Evangelist/Missionary) is worth the price of the book. (Alas, for me it was only $5—I should have blogged about the deal!)

(Update: You can get it today for a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries. Details here.)

If you’re looking to learn more about this imperfect but unfairly maligned hero of the faith, give A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, & Doxology a read. And if you already have, I’d love to hear your take on it.

John Wycliffe: A Fascinating Case Study of a Political Churchman

I’m studying several biographies of John Wycliffe (link) in preparation for a lecture on his life this Sunday evening. At the same time (a happy coincidence), I’ve been studying what I believe to be the dangers of politicizing Christianity, especially for church leaders. (link 1, link 2) The two studies converge remarkably, for Wycliffe is known for both his political and theological stands in 14th century England.

Early in Wycliffe’s ministerial career, he was called upon to assist England in its attempt to throw off the political and financial dominion of the Pope. A century and a half earlier, in 1213, England’s King John (the thumb sucker from Disney’s Robin Hood for all you history buffs) had essentially given England to Pope Innocent and his successors, actually laying his crown on the floor in subservience, submitting to rule as the Pope’s vassal, and promising to pay the Pope an annual tribute of 1000 marks. The exercise of that authority waned for a time, but in Wycliffe’s day, in 1365-66, Pope Urban V tried to reassert that authority over a much-strengthened England, requiring that King Edward III and England pay him 33 years’ worth of “back taxes” (if you will), an enormous amount of money. To make matters worse, the Papacy was then in the middle of “The Babylonian Captivity,” ruling from Avignon, France—England’s long-time enemy, with whom England was engaged in the Hundred Years’ War. Infuriated, both King and Parliament appealed to John Wycliffe, the pride of Oxford, to provide a compelling answer. A loyal Englishman, he complied, writing his Determination in defiance of the Pope’s claim to civil authority and thereby endearing himself to his King and country as a national hero. For a time.

However, when in his later years Wycliffe opposed the Pope and his Church for religious rather than political abuses, his popularity diminished. He was summarily abandoned and rejected—by friends, by Parliament, and even by his beloved Oxford. People love having a national pastor, it seems, so long as he keeps his nose out of the Scriptures.

Was Wycliffe right to invest his considerable influence in the political issues of his day? Well, one can’t deny that the Roman Church (which owned roughly one third of all English property) had grievously overstepped its authority in a way that was bad both for the country and Christianity. Further, it was both a political and spiritual matter, as involved not only the state but the Church. Perhaps most importantly, England’s defiance of the Pope provided another crack in the armor of the Church, preparing the way for the ultimate defiance of the Roman Church in the Reformation some 150 years later. Wycliffe had a right to speak as an Englishman as well as as a Christian, just as American Christians today have the right and responsibility to influence our nation as engaged citizens, especially when there are biblical issues at stake.

That said, it’s interesting to me that Wycliffe devoted the final years of his life to spiritual matters—opposing the Roman Church for theological matters (such as Transubstantiation), translating the Scriptures into English, and training and deploying faithful preachers, the Lollards. The results of these endeavors changed the world, one soul at a time.

The Morning Star of the Reformation was popular as long as he used his brilliant mind and eloquent tongue for political ends. But when he preached the message of the gospel? He was an embarrassment to his nation—and a mighty tool in the hand of God.

Perhaps there’s something to be learned here.


Note: It is a bit difficult—and perhaps a bit misleading—to use Wycliffe as “a case study of a political churchman.” On the one hand, it is undeniable that he was a nationalistic champion for England for taking up its cause against Rome. Thus, biographers such as Douglas C. Wood refer to the “political phase” of his life (vs. later spiritual/theological phases). On the other hand, it is equally true that Wycliffe argued effectively against church participation in government—be it Rome’s abuse of it’s power, or the tendency for clergy to fill political offices, both of which he condemned. So in one sense, he was the consummate “political churchman,” while in another sense, he was opposed to “political churchmen.” It’s complicated.