Rev Dr. Mark Jones in the minister of Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), and also the Lecturer in Dogmatic Theology at John Wycliffe Theological College, South Africa. Mark Powell interviews him for AP.
Why have you chosen to write specifically on the subject of the attributes of God? [“God Is”, Crossway 2017]
One of the things that I’ve noticed as a pastor, especially with preaching, is how much studying the attributes of God has comforted me as a Christian. Yet I’d also noticed that books on the attributes of God are kind of dry. Here are these attributes like immutability, impassibility, and so on, and you are left wondering: “Well, how is this connected to my life?” One thing I wanted to try to do was to bridge together how a particular attribute of God relates especially to Christ and then how does this relate practically to my own Christian life. So, every chapter is structured: the attribute, relation to Christ and then how does this practically apply to my life? That was my goal.
In your book, you refer extensively to the writings of the Puritans. What do you think modern Christians miss by not reading them?
Well, there is probably two sides to that question. The one side is that the Puritans aren’t exactly accessible even in the modern re-prints. The print is small, the books are big, and the headings aren’t always there to guide us. It’s daunting! So read the writings of Thomas Watson or John Flavel and a little bit of Thomas Goodwin to get you going before you tackle John Owen. So, reading the Puritans is a lot of work. It’s sort of like running up a steep hill and you do want to die at times. But then there comes this point where everything starts to make more sense, it all starts to click. You forget the language and you understand why these were the men that they were—and are today. It becomes a little easier to think and breathe and understand how they thought about God and Christ and the church and all those things.
I noticed you had quite a few references to Herman Bavinck. Would you say he’s a favourite?
Yes, Bavinck is a great systematiser of the truth. He was a contemporary of Warfield so these two great minds were on either side of the continent at the same time.
Bavinck was very good at confronting the issues of his day. What do you think are the contemporary issues that we face and how do you think we should respond?
Today the major, major issue is, “Has God really said?” But you know, that goes right back to the Garden with Satan. And that’s just an issue with sin. It’s a question of, “Do we really want to listen to God?” And however, we wrap it up in post-modern and post-enlightenment thought and language, the ultimate issue for any pastor is: “Did God say this?” Also, “Has the church really confessed the truth for two thousand years generally?” So, are we taking on a view that runs counter to that taught by all of Western Christendom? People are doing that without even blinking, as though that’s not a big deal.
Do you think that reading the Puritans in particular helps with that?
The Puritans were able to bring together great learning and pastoral theology, yet this has been completely separated today. So, it’s weird to read a book where you feel like it’s devotional but the learning is couched throughout it. So, that’s been my goal in terms of my own writing.
So, your goal is what you might refer to as conducting “experiential theology”?
Yes, but through reading my book Knowing Christ I want people to realise that I couldn’t have written it without first having done a decade of study on Christology. So, I did a PhD on Thomas Goodwin’s Christology, and read Christology throughout that era. And so, writing Knowing Christ was a result of the type of reading and research that had taken place. To forget all of the learning that had to be done in the hard way and just say, “Well, I’m just going to write a devotional book on Christ” – it just couldn’t happen, for me at least. So, that’s why I would say, we need our scholars, we need some of them to start being pastors and to bring this stuff to God’s people in a way where God’s people are saying: “This isn’t fluff, but this is also going to do my soul good.”
It seems like you modelled your book Knowing Christ on J.I. Packer’s famous book, Knowing God. How do we guard against what Packer warns, about merely knowing about Christ, compared to actually knowing Christ personally?
I would say that the number one way that we are to know Christ has to be through the public worship and the pastor’s responsibility to not just preach about Christ but to preach Christ in a sense where you know Him. The solution has to take place in the pulpit and the worship so that people are being confronted with Christ on a weekly basis and the Scriptures are being preached in a way that unbelievers cannot say: “Oh yeah, I agree with that.” There has to be a sense in which an atheist, a Muslim, a Jew or someone who is not a Christian is uncomfortable because Christ is so explicit. That has been my approach. It has to start in the local church, and the responsibility of pastors like you and I is to cultivate that. And these books are merely aids to that end.
Sinclair Ferguson talks about two thieves either side of the cross – namely, legalism and antinomianism. Pastorally, how do you see the people of God being tempted towards either extreme today?
Most congregations will have those two types. Or there may be more of an emphasis on the one rather than the other. And what I’ve noticed in people, as well as congregations, is that you have to look at every congregation in a cultural, historical context, maybe even where they’ve come from. But the root error is always the same as Ferguson mentions. I think the solution isn’t that a congregation who is antinomian needs more law, and that the legalists need more grace. The solution is that the pastor needs to find what is the actual truth and preach that over a period of time and let the Word do its work, to bring people back into what is a more Biblical picture of the Christian life.
So, for me that’s been my observation. The other thing I would say about legalism and antinomianism is that they’re both very sensual positions. The legalist loves his rules because he can manage his rules. And he gains a heightened sense of superiority because he can keep these rules. And the antinomian has his own types of rules, or lack thereof, and they can keep those very easily. And so, they’re both very similar types of human beings. They both like to be in control of certain situations. And antinomians are in control when they feel like they don’t have to do certain things, and legalists are in control when they can do certain things and it’s manageable in their own strength, and so it gives them a certain control.
Is it fair to say then that both responses are a kind of “false worship”?
Yes.Well, the tricky thing is…this is my experience, I won’t speak for others, it’s not like we have in our church antinomians and legalists. We’ve got people along a big spectrum. And there are some with maybe a little bit of an antinomian/legalistic streak but they’re not fully fledged, and they are genuine Christians. The ones who concern me the most are not so much the antinomians who have a bit of that streak but the proud Pharisaical legalists who really think that they’ve got it all together. It’s the people who down on others. Now the antinomians can actually look down on others if they believe those other don’t get grace. That’s the big phrase in America. “Oh they don’t get grace.” But that’s just legalism again. You’re really saying, “You don’t get my way of doing things.” So, yes, false worship is a possibility, but I’d also like to say people can worship God, but there can still be some error and they need to be brought or taught a better way forward.
Now our two cultures, Canada and Australia are very similar in that both are constitutional monarchies. You seem to be ahead of us in terms of your social progressiveness in many ways. What lessons do you think the Australian church can learn from what you have experienced over the past five to ten years?
Our denomination in Canada has morphed into the Presbyterian Church of America so it’s a weird dynamic for us as Canadians because I’m dealing with Canadian social issues but my denomination is an American denomination. And then everything that goes on in America really drifts into Canada whereas not much of what we do drifts into America. So, in terms of what I’ve learned, is that once you start to give up the Scriptures in one area or a classical understanding of how the church has operated, everything else starts to quickly go with it. Ultimately God’s Word will triumph and so we have to remember that we have a massive advantage: God is on our side. The Scriptures are on our side. History is on our side and some of these new, latest and greatest things will die. And I’m not saying this as some kind of triumphalist, but I do think that I can remain confident in the fact that God’s Word will ultimately triumph.
How has studying the Puritans impacted your day to day life? How have you changed personally as a result of reading their works?
First, the Puritans were very courageous men. They were men in a distinct age, they were men in a distinct religio-political context where they had to make decisions that would cost them ultimately. Some got thrown out of the Church of England because they wanted to remain firm to their convictions. Others left England and Scotland and other places and gave up prestigious positions at times. So, when I’m reading them I’m not just reading them as theologians divorced from a context; I’m reading them as those who knew what it was to pastor during times of plagues, sometimes fires, persecution, wars, and so on. There is an edge to their writing where you see that these are men who know what it is to be Christians in difficult circumstances. They were pastors who knew what it meant to suffer in a very tangible way that we don’t quite yet know in Australia, Canada, and America. I think it shows in their writing compared to ours. And I don’t think there’s much we can do about it.
Finally, are there ways in which your own life is different now as a result of reading them?
I’m grateful about what they’ve been able to teach me about theology in a way that has relevance to my daily living. So, the little “Obs” (which stands for “observation”) where they have a discourse on some doctrine and then a paragraph which is an observation or “doctrine for life”. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t remember some aspect of Christ or the Trinity that hasn’t been given to me as a meditation by the Puritans and for which I’ll be forever grateful. I can’t wait to meet them in heaven and thank them because they have richly blessed my understanding and life.