Thursday, 21 May 2015

Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) @bondbooks

This book is a surprise. Douglas Bond is a greatly appreciated author, but what is he doing dabbling in theological issues? Historical fiction yes, but a defence of the gospel seems rather out of his province. Indeed we learn in the foreword that he questioned this himself when the idea for the book was birthed: 'I'm a storyteller, not a theologian. If this book needs writing so much, leave it to the experts.' But that is precisely the dimension that gives this book its usefulness. He has the flair to connect. And he does it on an important subject, which must not be allowed to be caught up into the ivory towers of the 'experts'. The matter of concern is 'law creep'. This is the term describing a subtle activity of the Devil in every generation to pollute the pure doctrine of the gospel. He works to undermine confidence in free grace within the church of Jesus Christ. How is this manifested? When preachers proclaim the 5 Solas of the Reformation, but then call the law in by the back door to disciple the converts. When imputed righteousness is treated as if it were a dangerous concept. When faithfulness to the covenant is a teaching directed at man, not God, and drowns out the call to faith in Christ.
Bond demonstrates law creep from church history. He shows that no denomination has been free from its corrupting tendency. Everyone asserts that this is an issue in other churches, or for other families, but not for them. And this is the way law creep spreads - no one sees the beam in their own eye. Bond also presents the results from a tour he has undertaken of a spread of churches. Without mentioning names he supplies and analyses key sermon quotes, acting as a watchdog, vigilant but not scathing. He further engages with the radical language of the Apostle Paul in Romans - if this were not in the Bible would it not be condemned in many churches as unsafe? Free grace = cheap grace = loose living. But this is the conclusion Paul is denying. Grace does not lead to ungodliness, not because of the safeguards of the law, but because of the sanctifying effect of love in the heart.
Douglas Bond is definitely not an innovator or a 'new calvinist'. He roots his concerns in Reformation confessions. He is just concerned (as John Newton) that self righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works. In other words, 'correct' churches can harbour works righteousness as much as those where free will and man's doings are rampant.
As a lover of hymns, one very telling point Bond makes is that free will theology cannot be put to music. Isaac Watts could write soaring lyrics concerning the sovereign love of God, but words about the choice of man never get off the ground. In proof, Appendix B contains Bond's humorous attempt at such a hymn.
Each chapter closes with discussion questions in true American fashion. Note that this is not a slim book, and one criticism would be that he has spun out his tale too long. But it is easily read (although the issue makes for uncomfortable reflections).
Grace Works! by Douglas Bond, large p/b, published by P & R Publishing 2014. Price £9.99.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Forty Years in the Wilderness

'The Autobiography of an early Australian Baptist' is how the book is described - but John Chandler started life as an English one! As a young man he emigrated to Australia with his parents and (a fascinating social study) a group of members from a Strict and Particular Baptist chapel in Brighton. He goes on to give a rare firsthand description of the life of an 'ordinary' settler in the State of Victoria in the mid-1800s. Its value is demonstrated in that, though it was left to gather dust by Particular Baptists, it was rediscovered by secular historian Michael Cannon in 1990 and published out of historical interest. He however had no understanding of Chandler's religion and his lack of sympathy for it resulted in drastic editorial work. But at least, although with limitations, this honest and interesting account of the hardships and fortitude of the early white Australians was made public once again.
Those of us who have known of Chandler's book since the 1990s have long looked forward to a time when it might be published again in full, and his faith revealed in addition to his adventures. Gospel Standard Trust Publications (GS) have obliged at last, and with the input of considerable research, brought out a new and complete edition. The original book was scarce but came in two forms. They had different endings. It seems there was a 'diplomatic' version, glossing over some awkward aspects of contemporary church affairs, and also a longer no holds barred version! The new edition contains both endings and also supplies copious footnotes to provide explanations and contexts for many of Chandler's geographical and historical references, which otherwise would be lost on today's readers - especially English ones.
A foreword has been written by Annette Seymour, who is the wife of the current pastor of Zion Chapel, Hawthorn (a suburb of Melbourne) which Chandler was instrumental in founding. This aspect of the book is fascinating to students of Baptist beginnings and beliefs in Australia, but it is disappointing that the GS edition's footnotes give limited attention to it in comparison to the amount of detail provided on secular Australian history. For John Chandler was emphatically a Particular Baptist; his own striking experience of the sovereign grace of God led him to this conclusion. Indeed it is noteworthy that his Calvinistic theology was not an aberration - it had underpinned the labours of Henry Dowling, the founder of the first Baptist church formed in Australia in 1835. For more on him and Australia's Particular Baptist heritage refer to my five part Ryde Rediscovery Series. Ultimately, however, this is not a book of history or theology but a simple autobiography told in a compelling way, and it may be read with profit and pleasure by all ages from teenage years upwards.
'Forty Years in the Wilderness', by John Chandler, published by Gospel Standard Trust Publications, hardback, 288 pp including colour photos and other illustrations. Price £12 - very reasonable indeed.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Freedom from the Law

William Gadsby (1773-1844) was a Particular Baptist preacher and hymn writer, for many years the beloved pastor of Rochdale Road Baptist chapel, Manchester. His vigorous gospel ministry brought him into inevitable conflict, especially his maintaining that as the gospel proclaims forgiveness of sins through Christ, and deliverance from the condemnation of the holy Law of God, believers are 'dead to the law' (Galatians 2:19). This, Gadsby stated, means that they are "in no sense whatever under it." Such a statement was seized on by his protagonists, already stirred up by his strong emphasis on the sovereign grace of God. To the charge of hyper-calvinist they now added the opprobrious term of antinomian - lawless. Andrew Fuller weighed in against him, and others including John Stevens, who otherwise was in sympathy with his theology.
Until now Gadsby's defence of his position has been locked up in the collated two volume 'Works of William Gadsby', printed by his son John Gadsby in 1851. This was never reprinted in full and is now scarce on the secondhand book market. CBO Publications have therefore rendered a valuable service in drawing together Gadsby's writings on the Law, which filled most of Volume One of his Works. This has been published as a 576 pp paperback 'Freedom from the Law', retailing for a modest £9.95. The editor has rearranged the articles - including 'The Perfect Law of Liberty' and 'The Gospel the Believer's Rule of Conduct' - into a more logical order, and included appendices containing the publications of his opponents which are referred to. It is worthy of note that Gadsby's articles are reprinted from their latest unedited editions published during his lifetime, thus avoiding John Gadsby's editorial pen. It accounts for cross-referenced page numbers being different from those found in Volume One of his Works. This however is a minor difficulty and overall the new format is welcome.
The subject of the Christian's relationship to the Law is still a live and hotly debated one in Reformed and Evangelical circles today. The Apostle Paul said 'we establish the law' (Romans 3:31) - but the question is, how and in what way? Is it by reassigning it to a role in governing Christian obedience, or in reaffirming it as the perfectly holy standard which exposes sin? The one view asserts its continuity in sanctification, the other its completion at justification. Gadsby is very clear as to where he stood on this vexed question and he strongly urged the point that the Law has been fulfilled by Christ on behalf of his people, so delivering them from its piercing claims. Justified by faith, believers are freed - not into a moral vacuum, but in fact to begin to 'live unto God' (Galatians 2:19). With spiritual wisdom, and a pastoral heart, Gadsby keeps to the main points, avoiding the many pitfalls that dot this doctrinal battleground. It was no mere intellectual contest for him; he wrote of what he had experienced for himself of Romans 8:2, and he knew that tender consciences in his congregations needed assurance and not disturbance with a revived Law. He is as equally Christ exalting in his aim in these writings on the Law as in his hymn compositions - the most well known today being 'Immortal Honours'.
This is not a book for philosophers; not every detail is pinned down, but it is a notable contribution to the subject, and more importantly, a spiritually profitable read.

Freedom from the Law by William Gadsby, CBO Publications, £9.95