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The Westminster Conference 2005 (1)

Category Articles
Date December 15, 2005

The Westminster Conference met for the first time after fifty years in a new venue at Friends House, London 2005. About 230 were present, mostly men. The first paper on the morning of December 13 was on


The paper was given by George Curry of Newcastle who for 24 years has been the vicar of St Stephen’s, a local magistrate and a trustee of the Christian Institute. The chairman was Erroll Hulse.

Luther said in “The Bondage of the Will” that all men find these convictions in the hearts, the omnipotence and omniscience of God and that there is no such thing as free will said Luther in the Bondage of the Will. That is one of the themes of this book repeated with such clarity. It was written in 1525 when Luther was 42.


Erasmus like Luther had also been a monk and both wanted to see piety increased and the church’s superstitions purged. Erasmus had taken humanistic studies in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge and finally Basle which was his base. By 1515 his scholarship was acknowledged everywhere and he had continent-wide influence. He wrote two important books, “In Praise of Folly” (1509) a bitter satire on monasticism and the corruptions of the church. His second, seven years later, was on the text of the New Testament with annotations. It had a great influence, introducing people to the Christianity of the New Testament and challenging the contemporary Roman church, but his own religion lacked burning conviction.

Luther, on the other hand, had two matters that troubled him, the state of his soul and his standing before God. The sure way forward, said the church, was to avail yourself of what the church offered in terms of indulgences and sacraments, but monasticism was the way par excellence to heaven and so in 1505 Luther entered a monastery. He rose to teach at Wittenburg when he finally became professor of biblical exegesis which position he retained until his death, yet he was still troubled with the state of his soul. The writings of the followers of Occam made much of man’s free will, but a free will contradicted his own experience. In the next years his understanding of the Bible grew and he was convinced that nothing could be contributed to a man’s salvation. By 1515 Luther had understood that righteousness was not just retributive justice but a gift of the divine mercy. As he lectured on Romans in the next year the three great biblical truths of the character of God, the mediatorial work of Christ and the nature of saving faith gripped him.

So Luther came to challenge the medieval doctrines warping the Roman church’s grasp of Christianity. So both Erasmus and Luther were persuaded of the corruption of the Roman church. Would the outspoken Saxon join forces with the clear-thinking Erasmus? No. They were drawn into conflict even though both wanted reform. Erasmus favoured Jerome’s stress on man’s works as a contribution to justification. Luther thought that any contribution had to be ‘works righteousness.’ From late 1516 it became clear to him that good works were consequent on the spiritual transformation of the individual, not on what preceded regeneration.

Luther believed that free will was an empty phrase. Luther wondered if there might be a truce but Erasmus went ahead and wrote his “Diatribe on Free Will” (1524), the author believing it to be a very significant book, sending copies to the pope, emperor and Henry VIII. “The Bondage of the Will”, Luther’s response the following year was much longer.

Luther was passionate about his views considering Erasmus in defending these views to be an enemy of God and the Christian religion. Erasmus saw Luther as the instigator of religious and civil harmony. These differences were not esoteric. Luther saw that this topic dealt directly with the most basic principles of religion, the nature of God and men. Luther produced one of the masterpieces of religion. It sets out how Christians are to live. The Holy Spirit was no sceptic in Luther’s eyes, and what the Spirit has written on our hearts are assertions more certain than life himself.


What were his inner convictions? The limitations of human reason. Luther was not against study or debate. He enjoyed discussion and delighted in research. Salvation is in fact incompatible with ignorance. Luther was prepared to expose erroneous thinking whenever he met it. “Your thoughts are too human . . . you muddle things up . . .” was the sort of accusation he made against Erasmus. Luther took Erasmus to task for not working things through. God’s mercy is effectual for everything, while man’s will achieves nothing godly. Luther ascribes everything to the grace of God. Spiritual truth is spiritually discerned. “I am rude in speech and yet by the grace of God I am not rude in understanding,” he said though acknowledging that Erasmus had an eloquence he lacked.

Luther ascribes to Scripture its supreme authority. To Luther no more disastrous words could be spoken than the affirmation of man’s free will. Referring to one Scripture after another he describes them as a light that shines brighter than the sun. Packer and Johnson call Luther (in their introduction to the Bondage of the Will) as a ‘great Christian warrior and a profound systematic theologian.’ Luther challenged Erasmus to acknowledge that there is nothing the church can settle that the Scripture has not settled first.

Luther also claimed that the Bible must be taken in its plain meaning and not fashioned according to our own thoughts. Luther denounced the notion that some of Scripture is recondite and obscure while other parts are plain. That was Erasmus’ position, but for Luther the Bible is perfectly clear as Christ has opened the minds of believers to the Scriptures.

Luther often returns to the character of God, his operations in sovereignty and his scrupulous fairness in dealing with men. “We have to deal with God as clothed in his word,” he said. We must distinguish between God preached and God hidden with the secret things of God. What God wills is right because he has so willed it. The foreknowledge of God destroys the doctrine of man’s free will. For us it is enough to know that there is an inscrutable will. Our response to God is that we may not pry in God’s secret things; we are to bow before God and be silent. All the glory must be given to God, and this will satisfy those who fear God. Our pride is humbled and grace is exalted.

Luther insisted that there were only two kingdoms to which we may belong. If God is in us Satan is out of us, but if God is not in us Satan is. Man’s will is like a beast which will be driven by whoever is riding it, God or Satan. The work of Satan is to hold men so that they do not recognise their helplessness.


Luther had this concern, that the purity of Christian doctrine should prevail. So Luther would harry Erasmus and the sophists until they gave him an explanation of what the will of man could do. One of Luther’s concerns was for the spiritual well-being of Erasmus. To credit a man with a will that is free in the things of God is to credit him with too much.

In “The Bondage of the Will” Luther lays two foundational truths, man in sin is unable to do anything that can earn his salvation, and rather that man is totally dependent on the grace of God. Augustine called it a ‘slave will’ not a ‘free will.’ Does God foresee things contingently? Does mankind do all things of necessity? Luther said he did not appreciate that term ‘necessity’ – as though man was under pressure whenever he did evil against God. Rather sinners acted spontaneously and with volition. This is what we mean by necessity. “How can you believe, trust and rely on his promises if we are not assured of the sovereignty of God?” asked Luther. “God does not lie, but brings all things to pass and that his will cannot be impeded.” In prayer a man recognises this, demonstrating his total dependence on God. Man is not mocked by an impossible commandment but rather is given knowledge of sin, and this drives a man to Christ. Necessity does not destroy responsibility. The power of the free will is this that because Satan rules over the will it rejects God’s grace. Men do nothing by free will; its power is nothing without grace. Free will is an empty term. Only God can do whatever he wills in earth and heaven.

Luther did not undertake this debate for the sake of self-advertisement but to magnify the grace of God. So God’s mercy is received by grace, not by free will. Salvation is a total renewal of man’s nature by the Holy Spirit. The reformers all believed the same. Alas that 480 years after the publication of “The Bondage of the Will” the Scriptural message on the free grace of God is not the throbbing heart beat of the church.

The Discussion from the floor.

Our sympathies were expressed to George Curry for the grievous losses his family have experienced over the past two years. “Were you ever a free willer?” the chairman asked George Curry. “Of course, because I was a sinner.” He was sent to live at a home when his father died and slept in a dormitory with a dozen other little boys, one of whom knelt and prayed each night though much ragged for it. He is the boy who told George that God was a Father to the fatherless, planting that seed in his heart and setting him off on a search which went on for many years until George found Christ. Erroll Hulse acknowledged that he fought against the bondage of the will until Paul’s letter to the Romans presented him with unanswerable truths. Michael Haykin acknowledged that he was converted in 1974 and was in the charismatic movement for some years where many things increasingly troubled him. Then he began to read free grace books which a relative sent to him and they enlightened him. Iain Murray asked us if we called people to turn and make a decision for Christ then were could we be dubbed free willers? Ian Hamilton asked if Edwards called it “The Freedom of the Will” wouldn’t it be better for us to call the will ‘free’ than call it a slave, the will being able only to respond to its own nature as dead in sin and unwilling to please God. The word ‘bondage,’ another said, is better than ‘freedom.’ But we need to move our hearers by presenting an attraction or force that will move their wills.


This second paper was given by Chris Jenkins the pastor of the Litchard Mission in Bridgend, and the meeting was chaired by Graham Harrison. The puritan view of the godly life gets a bad press; puritans are contrasted with the reformers as being legalists, iconoclasts robbing Britain of its joie de vivre. When Mr Jenkins read the puritans for himself he discovered a different reality and no puritan can challenge the stereotype as Thomas Watson. We are to be people of grace and joy. Thomas Watson speaks with enormous authority on Christian living. He rejected the Act of Uniformity and was a refugee when he wrote the Divine Cordial. He is the author of, “The Godly Man’s Picture – Drawn with the Scripture’s Pencil.”


The starting point is Ps.32:6, which describes believers as a forgiven people. Godliness is the sacred impression of a man who has been translated from carnality to spirituality by the work of God. There is no hint of perfectionism in Watson, godliness being a life of costly preparation for heaven, as grace works chiefly in man’s hearts; “the dew lies on the leaf,” says Watson, “the sap is in the root and godliness is a holy sap.” The whitewashed sepulchres have their beauty in the paint. So hypocrisy reigns and Christ is carried in the Bible and not in the heart.


This takes the bulk of the book; there are 24 marks of the Spirit’s work of grace, such as,
One who is growing towards God in knowledge, faith, character and worship;
One who delights in Christ and is passionate for God’s glory;
One who is growing in humility through dependence on prayer focusing on heaven, love for the saints and contentment;
One who is practical in his religion a doer of spiritual works, walking with God and loving his neighbour.

How can we illustrate these truths?

1. A godly man is growing towards God. There is a great difference between one who reads about a country and one who lives there and has tasted its food. Watson gives us the biblical essence of knowing God through Jesus Christ. We must continue in the faith grounded and settled; the experiential is never far away. We are to burn with affection; we are to know the truth. There is a dynamic work of grace and we are to be growing towards God in faith, love and character. Not a grace stirs until faith has set it working, says Watson. As faith works in our lives it stirs us to duty, and love sweetens it.

We cultivate the character of God with a godlike disposition. A godly man is made holy and this holiness is the essence of his glory. The holiness of God is his abhorrence of sin and we share that attitude. The godly man grows in worshipping God; he approaches God through Jesus Christ.

We also delights in Christ. The godly man wants to serve God not himself. He is bound to God and does his work. He follows his master and is satisfied with his master’s portion. He stands up for the honour of his master. God is the best master and he brings liberty, honour and security into our lives.

There are civil duties too, but when we delight first in Christ then these things fall into place. Christ is precious in his person and his work. If we prize Christ then we set him above all things, and we will weep for all that is not of Christ. The godly man weeps of the great contrast between his status in Christ and his everyday sinful actions. A godly man delights in the indwelling Spirit and he brings the word of God to action in the believer. He brings us the assurance of the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit.

Growing in Humility

It shows itself in self-loathing. A humble saint takes the crown of honour from his own head and puts it on the head of Christ. The humble man expresses this humility by relying on the Lord in prayer. Everyone that is godly shall pray to you (Spa. 32:6). Humble godly prayer is doctrinal, in the Spirit and it is fervent. It is fuelled by faith and is always offered in the name of Christ. Prayer weeds out sin and waters grace. There is great sincerity in this humble godly man. The beauty of a Christian lies in this, that he has truth in the inward man. A godly man lives in the world but belongs to Jerusalem above. He burns with holy zeal. He is not a man-centred enthusiast; he is solidly doctrinal and sanctifying. He is a patient man and shines like a star on a dark night. He bears his trials, and he mortifies fleshly discontentment. The godly man does not indulge himself in any sin. He does not give the breast to it and feed it.

Being Practical in his Religion

He is good in his relationships as a father, magistrate, master, servant, preacher. He does spiritual things in a spiritual manner. He is not only committed to doing holy things but the holy doing of things. He is striving to walk according to the full latitude of God’s law. Obedience to God’s will is the first duty of man. He will obey one command as well as another. He knows intimacy with God. He is visibly holy. He is inwardly humble and outwardly reformed. He is visibly making progress in grace. He is anxious to take others with him, so he works for others. He is a pipe to bring living streams to others.

Growth in godliness is the great assurance that he is saved. This is his box of evidences that he is saved. Whoever has one of these characteristics has everything in embryo.


Watson stirs the affections. Let men seriously know their misery. There is no conversion without godliness. The ungodly are dead in sins and have no right to the covenant of grace. The godly are prudent, happy, brave and rational. Who would not exchange a dark prison for a glorious castle? It breathes great peace and enduring prosperity.

The helps to godliness:

Go through the narrow gate. Love not the world. Accustom yourself to holy thoughts. Watch your heart, make spending your time a matter of conscience. Think of your short stay in the world. Remember that godliness is the purpose of your creation. Be often among the godly. Do not be amongst the waves of the sea. Let us take heed of the things that will draw us from our profession and rather use all means to strive for a real work of grace in your soul. Make judicious choices and a real knowledge of God. Make you calling and election sure.

It is the glory and crown of a Christian to be grey-headed and godly. Watson encourages those of us who find the battle with sin unbearable. A smoking flax he will not quench. The river of grace will never dry up. We are to remember our mystic union with Christ. My beloved is mine and I am his. The bridegroom has received the bride. See how rich believers are; they are married into the crown of heaven. So love your husband Christ though he is reproached and persecuted. He is of unparalleled beauty. If you are married to him then this calls for joy. Adorn this marriage relationship. Christ’s bride must shine forth in gospel purity.

How do we live a godly life? He would say to submit to Christ as King; repent of your sin; receive his grace; submit to his grace; love him as your husband. It is this emphasis on grace which is Watson’s contribution to biblical godliness.


What are the means of grace to grow in godliness? Experience and knowledge – how are they linked? The charismatic men had a big emphasis on experience. Other evangelical men said that the love of God shed in our hearts was not experiential. People say, “When you are converted do not expect to feel any different.” Is that right? The Lutheran view of that assurance is that God works in and by and through the word. The Calvinist says yes indeed, but with the word too. Charles Hodge on the means of grace is most helpful on this point. Most Christians have a 2 legged stool – doctrine and practice – but you need the third leg of experience. My children know that I love them. There are important social tests in I John. “Where would you love to be? With the people of God?” “Yes”. Aren’t there levels of assurance and deeper and stronger assurance? God can withdraw himself to help us make love Christ more? Is there a relationship between godliness and assurance?


Michael Haykin the author and principal of Toronto Baptist Seminary was the speaker in the final session of the day. Robert Oliver was the chairman.


Concerning the fall of the western Roman Empire many reasons are given for this event, some very bizarre. 210 reasons have been listed in a recent book. The historian Gibbon said that it was linked to the rise of Christianity – many able men went into the church rather than work for the Empire. Capable resources were removed, said Gibbon, who was very hostile towards Christianity. Military decline is the most likely reason for the collapse of the Empire, though the east did not collapse. Recent historians talk of the decline positively describing the steady movement of immigrants so that the appearance of whole areas imperceptibly changed for ever. Brown, the authority on Augustine, talks of the ‘decay’ of the Empire but not of its fall. Others do talk of its fall; massive defeats in battle resulted in Roman leaders speaking of the end of the world approaching, and ‘the end of history.’ In 406, on the last day of the year, the Rhine river froze to such an extent that a huge swathe of warriors crossed the old barrier and poured into the western Empire never to return, ultimately taking France, Spain and north Africa from Rome. Then there was the 3 day sack of Rome in 410 by the Vandals, and then in 455, twenty-five years after Augustine’s death, another sack of the city took place. Rome was declining and falling.

What were Christian reactions to the sack of Rome?

Rome had long ceased to be a powerful government centre. There were other important centres such as Constantinople. The pagans blamed the abandonment of the old gods as the reason for the fall of Rome. Many Christians were stunned by all the horrors, e.g. Jerome talks of how he was overwhelmed by all the reports and his letters reflect this. “If Rome perishes how shall we look for help?” he says. He cannot conceive of a Rome-less world. Psalm 79’s opening verses concerning the fall of Jerusalem were taken and were applied to Rome. “This is what we have gone through.” But earlier authors like Tertullian would have compared pagan idolatrous Babylon to Rome not Jerusalem. Some Christians did not even recognise the Empire as their kingdom.

The Roman Emperor Constantine believed he had been called by God to be the church’s protector. Jonathan Edwards thought Constantine’s work was glorious, but other mainstream evangelicals differed from that assessment. John Wesley considered the greatest blow struck at evangelical Christianity was what Constantine did especially his thinking that he was serving evangelicals by his establishing Christianity as the empire’s official religion. But Constantine was sincere in believing he was the church’s patron, thinks Michael Haykin. This was combined with a deep ambition for personal power.

So the whole understanding of the Roman Empire had to be evaluated by Christians. Eusebius basically waffled away claiming the Roman peace was the direct fulfilment of prophecies of peace on earth. So Eusebius ended his history on a high note of optimism “. . . God has been leading history so that the Empire would become Christian” – that was Eusebius’ opinion. He praised Constantine as a visual image of the heavenly pattern. The Roman state has become a sacred realm, and so it was no wonder that Christians were devastated at the fall of Rome. Christians thought the end of the world was imminent. So Augustine sounded a note that few Christians would contemplate.


No other Christian had such an impact on the Reformers. They see themselves as recapturing his emphases. It was a revival of Augustinianism, “as all great revivals of religion must be” observed Warfield. Born in 354 in Tagaste Augustine’s middle-class Christian mother Monica had considerable influence over him. In his teenage years he was licentious and in his twenties became gripped by spiritual despair. In his early thirties Augustine was struck by a chant of children to “take and read” and the reading of Romans changed his life. In Book 9 of the Confessions he describes his conversion and asks, “In all those years where was my free will?” In 387 he was baptized by Ambrose and soon returned to North Africa hoping to found a small community, a kind of monastery. They made him an elder, and soon he was made a bishop and a preacher of the gospel. He was given a year in which he studied the Scriptures which activity changed his thinking. He was humbled emotionally by the words quoted in Romans 9, “Jacob I have loved and Esau have I hated.” He studied Romans exhaustively and saw how erroneous was the teaching of man’s alleged free will. Divine grace alone was sufficient to explain the Christian life in its origin, continuance and consummation, and that equipped him to battle with Pelagianism. His vocation as a preacher of the gospel in north Africa was enormously significant. The heart of his life was his preaching every week, Saturdays as well as Sundays and many other days. Most of the sermons were transcribed – there are 569 extant today, in fact thirty were discovered in the last decade in Germany with his lively comments preserved in the text, “Did you understand that?” and his cries of “Step back” as they were pressing in on him.


He wrote the book between 413 and 427 getting the title for it from the psalms and Revelation 3:12 and chapter 21 with its picture of heavenly Jerusalem. He also took the image from Galatians and Ephesians. There were two cities/communities – each with a confluence of individuals. There are two cities in this world and no one before Augustine had used this approach to church history. The City of God is a vast book a quarter of a million words in length with diversions and repetitions. It is not easy to bring out a summary of the book but it presents Augustine’s mature reflection on God at work in history. Alaric and the Visigoths had taken Rome, but Augustine had been meditating on this for years and he would inevitably have written some time on this theme. He was in his late fifties beginning the book and was 73 when he finished it.

Books 1-10 have two main sections, 1-5 deal with the fall of Rome. They are a theodicy, that is, explaining how God can allow believers to lose lives and property and freedom. Godly women were raped and where was God in all this suffering? Death is going to come to us all and where do we go afterwards? Heaven or hell. Purity is a virtue of the mind he tells the defiled women. He urges them not to contemplate suicide. Other Christians were martyred and those spared felt enormous guilt. Happiness and glory lie before us, Augustine reminded them. These blessings are not to be experienced now. You judge your life only in the light of eternity. In this world there is imperfection and weakness.

Books 11-22 Augustine is criticising the Eusebian myth of history that God’s purposes were tied up with the Roman Empire. Augustine says that in the city of man the earthly was made by self and glories in man, the lust for domination lords it over his princes. But the second city was made by God and is for his glory. In the city of God there is a loving relationship between ruler and ruled. It is quite otherwise in the earthly city. Its inhabitants are ruled by gangs of criminals on a large scale. There is no identification of the city of God with this community.

The city of God is a pilgrim city and is from above. This city has no home in this world but it is on its way to the true world to come. Augustine looks at Babylon and Rome and he sees the earthly city. The eschatological end of that place will be the divine judgment while the heavenly city find its end in the glories of heaven.

What has Augustine achieved in his massive work? The emphasis that the Christian life is a pilgrimage. This City of God can never be identified with any earthly empire. In this age the City of God goes through hardships. Health, wealth and prosperity are not the inevitable result of following God. How is your suffering borne? That is the challenge.

There is an ambiguity about history. Christians should be good citizens of every earthly community, being meek, compassionate, caring for refugees etc. A key place is Book 19; he looks forward to the future and exults in the glory that lies before us urging men and women to turn their hearts to the Lord.


Our problem today is rampant individualism, without any commitment to any particular city. Have we lost that strong sense of the purpose of Christ in making a new people? Aren’t many churches collections of individuals lacking any community sense? Is there anything in the City of God that explains Augustine’s intolerance for any other Christian groups? [Remember, he pleaded with the Donatists for 15 years to end their hospitality and persecution – they were burning down some Christian churches]. Did Augustine teach that political systems were evil and that Christians should have nothing to do with them? [No. Augustine dedicated the book to a Roman official.]

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