To Tell the Truth…O Help Me, God
When I first became a Christian, I was blessed to have a man of books placed in my life. He gifted me a steady diet of books by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Although I have read Lloyd-Jones for almost twenty five years now, I have never used him as a reference for theological consideration. I have found him reliable in everything until this week. It troubled me. It humbled me. It made me glad I have never read any theologian or pastor exclusively. Even the best can make a mess.
The good doctor preached numerous sermons on the “sealing of the Holy Spirit” in his exposition on Ephesians 1:13. In fact, pages 243-300 are dedicated to this subject in God’s Ultimate Purpose. As I read, my spirit was discomforted with his exegesis and interpretation of passages pertaining to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Far from being a Pentecostal, the longtime minister at Westminster Chapel, London, was a conservative evangelical (b. 1899–1981).
Can reliable men of God be unreliable? I would argue affirmatively. There are some good lessons for us to practice, to protect ourselves from our theological heroes of the faith. It is important for us to guard ourselves against error in doctrine and practice, in an age of multiplied distortions. Thank God for those who have gone before us, and who have told us which reliable men we should read. But, as noted, we must be cautious in reading anyone and everyone.
First, we are reading theology with the Spirit of God helping us. When we are uncomfortable with something we are reading, it may be the Holy Spirit causing the discomfort. We must not ignore the Spirit, who leads us into all truth (Jn 16:13). All men are fallible, and fallible men must prove to be reliable, and then we should wisely seek other wise counselors on the subjects we read. We need the Spirit to help us, so we should pray before and even during our reading sessions.
Second, theologians are only as good as the accuracy of their work with the Scriptures. Lloyd-Jones used the classic texts to support “sealing” being a separate experience from “conversion.” These are found in Acts 2, 8, and 19. Sometimes Acts 10 is included by others. An argument, with Acts of the Apostles as its doctrinal foundation, will always be suspect. The reason for this is that Acts is an historical accounting of the earliest years of Christ’s church. It is not a book of doctrine and theology.
The letters of the apostles were mostly written to answer questions of theology and practice. So when one arrives at 1 Corinthians 12:13 there is a normative principle explained by Paul, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Clearly, the baptism of the Spirit does not separate normal Christians from super Christians. The promise of the Spirit, the experience of baptism, is a one-time event at one’s conversion.
Third, Lloyd-Jones demonstrated a good practice of name dropping other reliable theologians from different eras who seemed to agree with his position. This, too, has its shortcomings. Good men have ended up on the wrong side of theological disputes. Some of them are even humble enough to retract their earlier erroneous statements.
Christianity has rarely benefited, when its cognoscenti walk in stubborn pride. In this case, the spectacular experience of famous men of God was employed to support a distinction between regeneration and sealing. Wesley was warmed at Aldersgate. Edwards wrote an extensive volume on Religious Affections regarding extra-conversional ecstasies. Others, even Puritans, were employed as witnesses, to what Lloyd-Jones argued for with the sealing of the Spirit.
Confusion in language is nothing new. Here is where Lloyd-Jones fails to speak of the “filling of the Spirit,” which is a more likely explanation of others’ experiences. The sealing or baptism of the Spirit is a one-time experience, which aligns rightly with the one-time experience of regeneration and conversion. In contrast, the filling of the Spirit is a surge of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in seasons of His choosing. These sometimes result in revival. Sealing is a beginning. Filling is an unexpected grace that comes and goes. Sealing is made upon every Christian, but filling is not experienced by all and not in all seasons.
Fourth, we must make it a practice to regularly study systematic theology to help ground us in orthodoxy. A systematic theology is an organized collection of doctrinal studies. A helpful corrective to my following Lloyd-Jones into the doctrinal ditch came from a subsequent study of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Grudem tackles the problem of sealing/baptism with remarkable clarity. He offers a helpful explanation of how Lloyd-Jones and Pentecostals reason their position. He then shows their mistakes.
Interestingly, I never read Grudem for my daily diet, as I do Lloyd-Jones, but I frequently reference him for correcting and clarifying subjects in my own theology. When I am unsure of Grudem, I pick up Louis Berkhof for a double check. Rarely, do I need to go beyond these capable theologians to understand and hold confidence in a doctrinal position. I am blessed to have a few more Systematic Theologies for extended reference. A recent addition of John Frame in this category of books has added to my delight and assurance. Frame is more Reformed than Grudem, but his clarity is equally outstanding.
Fifth, we can benefit from a daily reading of a confession of faith. As the years have passed I have come to read the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, the Westminster Confession, and the Belgic Confession. Reading one article per day is a habit that solidifies my doctrinal orientation. Through a simple daily reading of a few paragraph of doctrinal content, over a period of years, I am able to detect when I read something else that is off the mark. This was true in the case of reading Lloyd-Jones. One might say that a red flag went up the more I read. Where did the red flag come from? It was something built in over time through daily regimen.
Sixth, we can hold off in writing theology for public consumption. I was blessed with this wisdom when I attended Dallas Theological Seminary. I am unsure which professor to credit, but I remember his wise words, “Men, do not write anything until you are at least forty years old.” The wisdom is profound because there are men who wrote theology in their twenties and thirties, who spend the rest of their lives retracting what they wrote, in the ignorance of their youthful ambition in the ministry. John Calvin may be the exception.
Take A.W. Pink for an example. He began publishing in 1918, and although he wrote much during the next thirty four years, his earlier writings are worth avoiding because his theology had not yet settled. Theology is like wet cement. It is wet, and it must have time to dry. Most theologians will tell you how their theological position shifted over the years. Michael Horton is a classic example. He began as a Talbot man (Dispensationalism), and today, He thrives as a widely published Reformed professor at Westminster Seminary — California. He is not alone. The point is that theology is learned, and it takes time to learn it and trust it enough to share with others.
Finally, these things are written because we are not just learners of the Word, we are tellers, too. As we mature as Christians, we become more confident in communicating the faith given to us by God. We also remember the faith of our fathers passed along to us. They did not all agree, either, but some proved more reliable than others. Time has rewarded the likes of Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc. with the recognition of their contribution to our understanding of the Christian faith. As we stand upon their shoulders, our voices now cry out to the people of the world. Our pens or keypads are now the ones contributing to the body of knowledge, for Christ to be made known and understood. We must be exercised and tested in these matters.
In summary, our problem was introduced as a reliable pastor/theologian offering a deficient position. We learned that God’s Spirit, confessions of faith, systematic theologies, our own exegesis, and historical theology can help us stabilize our theological positions. We must remain teachable, but we also must mature. Let me learn much, and let me preach and teach much. Let me be humble, to correct my mistakes, for I want to tell the truth…O help me God.
David E. Norczyk
Spokane Valley, Washington
December 14, 2020