Tuesday, September 01, 2020

JIP and WCT




 Here we consider J.I.Packer.’s work on the troubles that may attend the life of a Christian, an important factor in connection with the false promises  of perfectionism, and on guidance, and of evil and the character of evangelism. Not only in divine providence, but also in the lifelong antagonism between the flesh and the spirit, the old man and the new. As he said more than once, ‘I, James Packer, am a man under reconstruction’.


J, I, Packer has an interesting brief piece ‘Westminster and the Roller Coaster Ride’  (to be found in Volume 2 of his Shorter Writings’ (301-304)),  on the connection between the Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter on Providence,  and the ups and downs of our lives. His point is that our lives as Christians resemble ‘a roller-coaster ride – up, . down, jolts, drop. lurch sideways , swing away, never steady’. And he might have added that these movements can not only describe physical states and changes, bodily states, but also psychological changes as well.

God’s providence in ch. V of the Westminster Confession, and those confessions it spawned for Independents and Baptists, does in what he calls ‘masterly’ fashion. So in paragraph 1 the chapter in providence shows that God exercises management and ‘controls over’ everything everywhere all the time, and nothing happens without his being involved’.

The problems we find ourself in most of the time arise because we don’t recognise that God is in control,  but we are soured by when what we planned and counted on goes wrong, say the death of a loved one, or we are beset by illness.  These happenings constitute a problem for our faith. ‘Can God be real and good when such things happen? We ask and we found ourself doubting it’.

This is because our outlook as Christians is that it is God’s purpose is to provide us with a good life in conventional terms - health, wealth, friends, holidays, promotion, successful children and so on. And our faith is snugly kept in a separate container. This is what is at the base of ‘the problem of evil’ which  dominates discussion of theism in the media etc.

The chapter on providence goes on to assert, however, that the natures of things is kept in operation. ‘He ordereth them (i.e. ‘things’) to fall out, according to the nature of second causes (that is, according to the varied created powers of things). A rock does not behave like a sheep, nor a sheep like a human being. Besides this upholding of the natures of created things, God, the first cause of everything , can assert his sovereignty, as it pleases him. The bush can burn, the waters of the Red Sea can be parted, in extraordinary, miraculous ways.

In paragraph IV, we see that God’s overriding power can extend to his creatures who have free will, who are responsible, even though God orders and governs them, including  all other sins. God s in charge  while God remains ‘the author or approver of sin’.

In paragraph V, God’s meticulous sovereignty extends to his fatherly leaving for a while ‘his own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption and deceitfulness of his people’s hearts’ for chastising them for their sins, or to disclose to them the otherwise hidden strength of their corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, to humble them and cause them to depend more closely on God, and to increase their future watchfulness.

As JIP says , We might call our lives to be ‘God’s Upward Bound course, whereby he licks us into shape for future joys’. He cites Psalm 119, 67: ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.’(See also v. 71) And his relation to the wicked, he blinds and harden these, and leaves to them to their own evil ways. Finally he shows that in these two ways, God ‘takes care of his church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof’, As Isaac Watts put it ‘The whole creation is Thy charge, But saints are Thy peculiar care’.

The author ends by asserting ‘Such is Westminster wisdom on providence – concentrated biblical insight tat will never go out of date, What a mercy it will be if it never any more falls out of our own minds and hearts!’

More from the WCF

In fact, most of what we learn from Chapter IV ‘Of Providence’ in the Confession ch V about the framework of the Christian’s life is repeated in Chapters XI ‘Of Justification' and Chapter XVIII ‘Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation, as follows:

Chapter XI ‘Of Justification’ V ‘God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified: and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they  may by their sins fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance

Chapter XII ‘Of Adoption’ ‘All that are justified are enabled to cry ‘Abba, Father’, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him as a Father’

Chapter XIV ‘Of Saving Faith’ ‘ III This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed and weakened, but gets the victory ……through Christ, who is both the author  and finisher of our faith’.

Ch. XVI ‘Of Good Works,  VI ‘God…is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.

Ch. XVII ‘Of the Perseverance of the Saints’, III ‘Nevertheless they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins: and for a time continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure and grieve his Holy Spirit…..’

We see from these extracts of several chapters of the Confession that they confirm JIP’s view of the Christian life, that it often is characterised, from a variety of sources, by fits and starts, setbacks and difficulties, temptations and failures, and not by a steady upward progress, as by God’s grace,  in Christ we are enabled come to our heavenly rest.

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'In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world/. (John 16.33)