Book Review: The Fatal Flaw by Jeffrey Johnson

One of the problems with the debate about infant baptism is that many of my Baptist brethren do not see the real issue. They say things like “I don’t see God commanding us to baptize babies” or “I don’t see any babies baptized in the New Testament”. And they are flabbergasted when good, godly Christians like John Calvin, or R. C. Sproul, or John Murray actually believed and practiced infant baptism.

The real issue in the infant baptism debate is not chapter-and-verse prooftexting or evidence in the New Testament, but is one of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the science/art of how one interprets a text, in our case, the Bible. And this is why Jeffrey Johnson’s book is helpful; he understands that the infant baptizer of the Presbyterian or Reformed Anglican strain have incredibly biblical reasons for their practice and he seeks to address their reasons on hermeneutical and exegetical grounds.

Johnson argues that “The fundamental flaw of paedobaptist covenant theology is its attempt to label the Mosaic Covenant as a covenant of grace. The problem is that the Mosaic Covenant contained conditions and covenant-breakers, and these two things are contrary to a covenant based upon grace” (p. 121). Much of the book explains this problem and the underlying hermeneutical issues surrounding it, particularly the relationship of the old and new covenants and the participants in each.

I appreciated Johnson’s discussion of the old and new covenants, as well as his discussion of the Abrahamic covenant. However, his chapter (Chapter 15 “The Meaning of Circumcision”) on the paedobaptist objection to his assertion was weak and weakened the book. The paedobaptist objection is: the covenant of circumcision was not made with Moses but with Abraham. So, in other words, Johnson has targeted the wrong covenant and missed the point. I think his argument regarding the Mosaic covenant has merit, but I believe that his arguments connecting circumcision and the Mosaic covenant were too weak. They could be strengthened and help this crucial point in the book.

Johnson’s book is worth the read for his ideas. However, at times his repetition of ideas and presentation are tedious. Also, strangely enough, his discussion of the Abrahamic covenant is located in the second half of the book, but the ideas contained therein are foundational to understanding his argument. It seems out of order, and should have been moved to earlier in the book.

This book would be good for any Baptist to read to gain a better understanding of covenantal infant baptism and a possible objection to the practice.


Casting Off

Developing Christian character is a two-fold process described in Romans 13:11-14:

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

This phrase “let us cast off the works of darkness” contains the first plank of developing a Christian character: casting off.

The Puritans called this mortification. To mortify something is to put it to death. The works of darkness must be cast off, thrown away, killed. And what works are those “orgies and drunkenness”, “sexual immorality and sensuality”, “quarreling and jealousy”. All of those actions are actions of those who live in darkness. Those who live in darkness are not a part of the kingdom of God.

A Christian is someone who cannot abide for sin to exist in their life. Now, we know that every Christian still struggles with sin. The sinful nature remains because we are fallen creatures. Christ has redeemed us, but until we are with him and glorified through him, we must battle this sinful nature.

And the sinful nature is a slippery thing. Reading that list earlier might have made you feel quite proud of yourself. You are a good Christian after all and you don’t take part in any of that. And this is where you would be wrong. Yes, you might not have externally done any of those things, but Christ in Matthew 5 shows us that our wickedness does not result from external actions, but they spring from the heart. You must not just avoid those sinful behaviors, but the sinful desires, which you might or might not act on, must be put to death as well.

And this brings us back to the idea of casting off. How do we cast off our sin?

First, we must recognize our sinful nature and the shadow it casts in our hearts. Christ redeems us and he gives us a new heart and new life. But we still live in fallen bodies with fallen hearts and fallen desires. Romans 7 is a picture of this: our heart is a battleground between the Spirit of God and our sinful nature. If you do not recognize your heart as a battleground, then you will fall into respectable sins. You might never commit adultery, or murder, or steal. But your heart can be full of sensuality and lust, anger and ire, covetousness and jealousy. And these things are just as wicked in God’s sight because they are also sins against him.

Second, we repent of our sin. Just recognizing our sinful nature is not enough. We must repudiate it and turn from it. Too many times, we are like children caught with our hands in the cookie jar and crumbs on our lips; we are sorry we got caught, but we are not sorry for what we did. This is not repentance. Repentance is not just feeling sorry about what you did. Repentance begins with the recognition that your sin was an affront to the character and majesty of the living God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51:4a). This recognition leads to brokenness: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3); “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).

Repentance happens whether one is caught in their sin or not, because repentance involves the recognition that “against you [God], you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51:4a). We repent because we have sinned against God. And it is only when we understand that fact that we can truly repent.

When we repent, we also turn from the lie of sin to the truth of God. We trust that he and only he can fix the mess we have made. We trust that he knows how we ought to live. And we trust that his call to obey is not a burden but a blessing. We desire to be made new and to live in that newness. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10) This is where the character that God wants to create in us all begins: casting off our wickedness in the power of Spirit through the grace of the Son.

Why Your School Can’t Develop Your Child’s Character

When I worked in a government school, one of the emphases from the administration and the state was developing character in the students. The principal passed out to us a curriculum on “social-emotional learning” which was designed to develop in the students’ character with the aim of making them better students. There were lessons on how to shake someone’s hand, why traditional gender roles were incorrect, how to study, how to manage one’s time. The purpose of the program was this: if we raise the character of the students, the students will succeed in learning which will translate into better STAAR test scores.

You can imagine how the students responded to this: they hated it.

The kids whose parents were involved were insulted because social-emotional learning program assume that the parents are not involved and doing their job. After all, character formation is, by God’s design, in the purview of the parents. The students whose parents were not involved hated it because they had never been told to manage their time or to shake someone’s hand or how to study. They had never been told they needed to develop character in the first place and they were certainly not going to start now.

So what was the problem? The problem is that character built in a secular system does not address the heart issues; it only addresses external issues. The character development program of the government school was merely a behavior modification program with an end towards the school’s achievement of better rating from the government. In the end, the school wanted kids to have better character so that they would sit down and shut their traps for five minutes to hear the lesson in order to improve test scores.

So how is the development of Christian character different? 1 Timothy 1:5 provides part of the answer:

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

Paul addresses Timothy to instruct the Ephesian believer for that purpose that they would have a pure heart, good conscience and sincere faith. The character development programs of the government cannot get to the heart level. They cannot change the heart. A student can do every bit of social-emotional learning, can jump through every hoop the school places before him, but his heart will remain untouched. In fact, he will probably get the idea that character is nothing more than external compliance with the authority.

So what is the process of developing a character in which the heart changes? Romans 13 provides the answer.

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Christian character recognizes that their are sins which must be put to death and their are positive qualities, namely the qualities of our Lord, which must be put on. Christian character also recognizes that none of this can happen outside of Christ; Christ is the one who brings the new heart (Ezek. 11:19; Heb. 10:22). And it is with this new heart that true character development can begin.

Developing Christian character is a two part process: (1) casting off the works of darkness and (2) putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. These two parts will be discussed in posts over the course of the next two weeks.

It’s Elementary, My Dear Watson

Thomas Watson, a Puritan minister in the 1600s, wrote a short book on an important subject: repentance. In fact, he shows how repentance is a foundational element of the Christian faith. Here are a few quotes from it:

“It is a great duty incumbent upon Christians solemnly to repent and turn unto God.” (p. 13)

“Whether faith or repentance goes first, however, I am sure that repentance is of such importance that there is no being saved without it.” (p. 12-13)

“He that can believe without doubting, suspect his faith; and he that can repent without sorrowing, suspect his repentance.” (p. 19)

“Godly sorrow shows itself to be ingenuous [genuine] because when a Christian knows that he is out of the gun-shot of hell and shall never be damned, yet still he grieves for sinning against that free grace which has pardoned him.” (p. 22)

“Godly sorrow, however, is chiefly for the trespass against God, so that even if there were no conscience to smite, no devil to accuse, no hell to punish, yet the soul would still be grieved because of the prejudice done to God.” (p. 22)

“A natural man’s confessions run through him as water through a pipe. They do not at all affect him. But true confession leaves heartwounding impressions on a man.” (p. 29)

“Blushing is the colour of virtue. When the heart has been made black with sin, grace makes the face red with blushing.” (p. 39)

“Many have sinned away shame: ‘the unjust knoweth no shame’ (Zeph. 3.5). It is a great shame not to be ashamed.” (p. 43)

“Sound repentance begins in the love of God and ends in the hatred of sin.” (p. 45)

“Hypocrites will hate some sins which mar their credit, but a true convert hates all sins, gainful sins, complexion-sins, the very stirring of curruption. Paul hated the motions of sin.” (p. 46)

“What a shame it is when magistrates can show height of spirit in their passions but no heroic spirit in suppressing vice.” (p. 47)

“Loving of sin is worse than committing it.” (p. 47)

“Dying to sin is the life of repentance. The very day a Christian turns from sin he must enjoin himself a perpetual fast. The eye must fast from impure glances. The ear must fast from hearing slanders. The tongue must fast from oaths. The hands must fast from bribes. The feet must fast from the path of the harlot. And the soul must fast from the love of wickedness. This turning from sin implies a notable change.” (p. 52)

Is Repentance a Work for Salvation?

A recent series of YouTube videos from a New Independent Fundamental Baptist pastor (that is a mouth full isn’t it?) denies that repentance is a part of salvation or sanctification. This raises a series of questions: is he correct? What actually is the purpose and role of repentance?

The pastor in the videos denies any role of repentance in salvation because he does not want to be guilty of teaching salvation by works. This is understandable; a pastor certainly does not want to give anyone the impression that one can save themselves through reforming their moral behavior. But has this pastor thrown the baby out with the bathwater? Yes, he has.

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles commanded believers to repent. In Matthew 4:7, Jesus says, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In Mark 1:15, Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Acts 2:37-38, “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”

Are Jesus and Peter commanding the people to save themselves when they command people to repent? Of course not! The passage from Acts makes it clear that the hearers of the Word understood they could not save themselves; this causes them to ask Peter what they need to do. They realized that salvation from their sins lay outside themselves.

So what is the role of repentance in salvation? Repentance is the proper recognition of one’s state before God and to desire to turn from that state. This is why Jesus in the Mark passage cited above commands the people to “repent”; they must acknowledge their pitiful estate before him and then turn away from their sin. Now, I believe the pastor would accuse me of teaching works salvation at this point. I just said that a person must turn away from their sin. In the video, he asks which sins. The obvious answer is all of them. Repentance does not require a complete and exhaustive understanding of every sin one has ever committed. Peter did not lay that forth in his Pentecost sermon, yet he still commanded those who would turn to Christ to repent. They must repent of all of their sin. They must acknowledge that they have sinned against God and they must acknowledge they need someone else to deal with their sin.

So why isn’t this works salvation? Because this is all done by faith. One of the misunderstandings of this group is what it means to believe or to have faith. In their analysis, faith’s only meaning is the one found in Jude 3. Faith in that verse is used in the sense of the total truths of the Christian faith. In their view, belief or faith equals assent to Christian truths. I do not deny this use of the word faith and believe. The Christian faith is a set of truth claims. But believe is much more than just assenting intellectually to truth claims.

But repentance is done not separate from faith in order that faith would be given. No, repentance and faith are both gifts given to the believer by God. Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” What is the gift of God here? It is the total gift of salvation; is it is not just grace or just faith, but the whole of salvation. (We know this because the word translate “it” is a neuter relative pronoun, thereby referring to who previous statement; if the neuter relative pronoun were feminine we would know that referred to either grace or faith since both of those words are feminine in the original language.)

But wait! Doesn’t this verse say nothing about repentance? This is where we take the previous commands from Christ, Peter and the rest of Scripture and we draw a conclusion; if Jesus and Peter commanded these things, repentance and belief, for salvation that means that they are both a part of salvation even if only one or the other is mentioned.

Repentance and faith are so closely tied in the New Testament that to divorce one from the other is an interpretive crime. This pastor has allowed his concern for a systematic category (salvation by faith) to trump other teachings of Scripture.

Reading Systematic Theology

Since May, I have been working my way through Michael Horton’s systematic theology, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. It is not a short book, coming in at over 1,000 pages. But there is something to be said for reading a systematic theology cover-to-cover.

Most of the time, systematic theologies are used as reference volumes. You have a question and you wonder what old so-and-so thought about it. You get his systematic theology down off the shelf and find the chapter or section on baptism in the table of contents and off you go. And this is one of the most helpful things about systematic theology: it arranges information topically making the information easy to find. And many systematic theologies, e.g. Grudem, are written in this way; each chapter is self-contained and you do not really have to understand too much of what was said before or what was said after because that chapter stands alone.

But Scripture and doctrine do not function in this way; Scripture and doctrine are webs and a change, or flaw, in one part of the web affects the whole. However, systematic theology can make it seem that doctrinal belief is a buffet and you go down the line of theological loci choosing this and that from the smorgasbord of doctrines and dogmas available. This is why you can have Christians who have a monophysite anthropology yet reject soul-sleep, or why you can have dispensationalists who are paedobaptists, or…and the list goes on. People can hold contrary or even hostile theological positions because they do not see theology as an interrelated whole. They fail to see web of theological loci shooting out from any theological point.

And this brings me back to what I said about reading a systematic theology cover-to-cover. To understand a writer’s system, you must understand the method behind their madness. In other words, you must read the prolegomena, or the introductory discussion of a theologian’s method for “doing theology.”

And this is why Horton’s systematic does not have the same buffet-like feel as Grudem’s. There is a prolegomena that sets the stage. Each chapter builds on the foundation, and then upon the foundations built in successive chapters and sections. To jump into the middle would lead one to be very confused or misled. And this comports more with both how Scripture works and how doctrine works as well.

A great example involves the convenantal milieu of Scripture. Horton introduces early on that he believes covenant is what ties Scripture together as well as providing the superstructure through which we should understand doctrine. This becomes clear in his discussion of humanity, sin and salvation. These are not disconnected loci but rather parts of the whole with the covenantal superstructure tying them together. This is a key point and to misunderstand it is to misunderstand many of the arguments that he makes.

Reading Horton’s systematic theology has been satisfying and helpful; he is helping me to remember things which I have forgotten and to see things from perspectives that I had not considered before. These things make reading a systematic theology cover-to-cover worth the effort. So if you want to take on that challenge, I have some book recommendations below:

Condensed or shortened systematics:

Full-length systematics

Book Review: Expositional Preaching by David Helms

David Helm has a written a fine book of crafting an expositional (or expository or text-driven or whatever your preferred term is) sermon. The book is meant as a introduction to expositional preaching, as well as providing a brief refresher course for those who have been preaching for a while.

Helm does an incredible job taking the read through how to exegete a text using a translation, reflecting upon the text theologically and applying the text to the heart of the hearer. In the first chapter, he provides some pitfalls which a preacher might fall into if the preacher allows contextualization to rule the sermon rather than allowing the text to rule the sermon. This seems to be in response to seeker-sensitive preaching or preaching more in the vein of Andy Stanley.

However, if the aim of this books was an introduction to expositional preaching, the book did not meet this aim. Why? After all, it is a good book and I do recommend that every pastor read it. It is a good refresher. The reason is simple: this book is an introduction to expositional sermon crafting, not preaching. Preaching is not just the preparation of sermons, but also the delivery of them. A sermon is not preached until it is preached!

In this short book, there is not even a chapter or section on delivery which is disappointing. Perhaps it was because of the series of books this book falls into which seek to be short introductions to different aspects of pastoral and church life and there was no more room in the book.

Whatever the reason, this gives the reader, especially the young pastor, the impression that preaching is just the preparation of sermons. Delivery does not matter. But the delivery of the sermons does matter. Many a great sermon has been dashed upon the rocks due to poor and inadequate delivery. Can the Lord use a poorly delivered sermon? Yes and I am certain that the Lord has used poorly delivered sermons in the past, is using them currently and will use them in the future.

But the reason a section on delivery is needed in this book is that quality delivery of sermons ensures that the message of Gospel is clearly understood so it can clearly be accepted or rejected. The Gospel is an offense, as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians, and people will reject it, but I never want someone to reject the Gospel because of my poor delivery of sermon, rather the offense of the cross.

All of that being said, I still recommend this book even with that glaring omission. It is worthwhile to read and will help you in the preparation and the crafting of sermons.