In this webcam interview with Christianity.com Editor, Alex Crain, Dr. Steven J. Lawson discusses the latest volume in his book series called "A Long Line of Godly Men," (published by Reformation Trust).
In volume one of the series ("Foundations of Grace"), Dr. Lawson showed that the doctrine of God's sovereignty in salvation is a belief that is rooted in all of Scripture. Now, in "Pillars of Grace," Dr. Lawson demonstrates how the belief in God's electing grace been upheld in every generation of church history.
Dr. Lawson is the senior pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala., and serves on the ministerial board for Reformed Theological Seminary and the board of directors for the Master's College and Seminary.
[Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt of Pillars of Grace, by Dr. Steven J. Lawson (2011, Reformation Trust)].
At the height of the Roman Empire, a series of magnificent temples punctuated the landscape of the Mediterranean region. Built prominently atop high hills, these architectural masterpieces were among the wonders of the ancient world. The most prominent feature of these splendid buildings was their pillars, a series of columns carved from beautiful marble, studded with costly jewels, and inlaid with pure gold. Such a colonnade would arrest the attention of Roman citizens and foreign travelers entering one of the temples.
However, the primary purpose of the pillars was not cosmetic but functional. Resting securely on a firm foundation, these sturdy posts supported the whole temple structure. From the overhead beams and stone arches to the high-rising walls, vaulted ceiling, and pitched roof, every part of the temple, in one way or another, was upheld by these cylindrical blocks of marble. The entire edifice was bolstered by their strength. If the columns stood firm, the temple held fast. As a result, these ornate pillars came to be a symbol of stability and strength.
This is precisely the imagery used by the biblical authors to portray the strongest leaders in the early church—these men were pillars. The apostle Paul described Peter, James, and John as "pillars" in the church at Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9). These strong men, empowered by God's might, helped stabilize the first-century church by upholding God's Word, thereby strengthening the household of faith. In fact, Paul wrote that the entire church was to be the "pillar and buttress of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). This is to say, the mission of the church, like a sturdy colonnade, is to stand for the truth of the Christian faith. Jesus Christ also used this image, saying that all believers are "pillars" in the heavenly temple (Rev. 3:12)—permanent, immoveable, and secure.
In keeping with this biblical metaphor, the central thrust of this book— Pillars of Grace—is to show that key leaders of the early church and beyond acted as pillars, standing firm on the foundation of Scripture and upholding the truth. Specifically, each of these sturdy men upheld the doctrines of sovereign grace in his hour of history. These stalwarts formed a colonnade, century by century, in support of the truth of God's supreme authority in man's salvation. This long line of godly men began with the Church Fathers and extended through the Monastics, Scholastics, Pre-Reformers, and, eventually, the Reformers themselves. Among them was a wide variety of men, including faithful pastors, godly preachers, brilliant apologists, gifted theologians, prolific writers, and even gallant martyrs. Each pillar was strategically placed by the sovereign Architect and Builder of the church for his appointed time.
As men saturated with Scripture, these "pillars of grace" supported the living temple of God. They were the most formidable teachers in their day and the most faithful defenders of Christian orthodoxy against the many heresies confronting the church. There were many such individuals, but we will focus on the key figures who took the lead in holding forth the poignant truths of sovereign grace. Their commitment to this biblical teaching deserves our careful study as we trace the progression of their lives and ministries within the larger framework of the first sixteen centuries of church history. This book is the second volume of a set titled A Long Line of Godly Men. It is designed to demonstrate that those figures who were most used in the early and medieval church, to one degree or another, held to the truths of sovereign grace that were later taught in the Reformation. From the first century through the sixteenth, the dominant figures in the church were strong men committed to this strong teaching. That is the witness of history and the central premise of this book.
Who were the key figures who joined this parade of spiritual stalwarts that marched with the doctrines of grace? Who took their divinely appointed places immediately after the last authors of Scripture? Who were these early church leaders? Who were these medieval voices? Who were the Pre-Reformers and first Reformers? What did they teach regarding the sovereign grace of God in salvation? This volume is devoted to tracing this triumphant procession of godly men from AD 30, with the birth of Clement of Rome, to 1564, with the death of John Calvin in Geneva.
A Summary of the Biblical Teaching
Before we begin this journey, we need to remind ourselves of what was put forward in Volume One of this series, Foundations of Grace. There, the biblical case for the sovereignty of God in salvation was clearly—and, I believe, convincingly—made. From the lawgiver Moses in the first books of the Bible to the apostle John in the last book, we noted that there advanced onto the stage of human history an illustrious procession of faithful men who recorded the teachings of sovereign grace throughout Scripture.
Their names comprise the roll call of a great cloud of witnesses. The long line began with the first leaders of Israel—notables such as Moses, Joshua, and Samuel. It continued with other gallant men, such as Ezra and Nehemiah, and extended to the poets of the Wisdom books, revered authors such as Job, David, and Solomon. To a man, they carefully articulated in the inspired text of Scripture the sovereignty of God in the salvation of men. This advancing column then was joined by the major prophets of Israel, who also taught the supreme authority of God in the redemption of sinners— Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Each writer heralded the same standard of truth, that is, the eternal purposes of God in His supreme will to save. The minor prophets also were recruited for this cavalcade of biblical authors, notables such as Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. They, too, held to the determinative will and definite work of God in His saving grace.
The New Testament reveals the same. From Matthew through Revelation, there is a continuation of this succession, each biblical writer recording sovereign grace in salvation. All four of the Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—joined this array as they recorded the profound truths that came from the lips of Jesus Christ. His teaching gave unquestionable testimony to the doctrines of grace. Thereafter, the apostles were divinely commissioned to write yet more of the inspired text. Peter, Paul, and John soon found themselves in this parade of sovereign grace teachers. The remaining biblical authors—the author of Hebrews, James, and Jude—also took their God-appointed places in this long line of godly men.
Beginning with Moses in the wilderness and stretching to John on the island of Patmos, Scripture speaks with one voice in trumpeting the sovereignty of God in salvation. It upholds one standard of truth. It teaches one way of salvation. It asserts the one divine operation by which saving grace is applied to spiritually dead sinners. The various aspects of this glorious truth are known collectively as the doctrines of grace, and all of Scripture teaches these unfathomable riches of God's sovereign grace.
The Bedrock Doctrine: Divine Sovereignty
The sovereignty of God is not a secondary doctrine that is relegated to an obscure corner in the Bible. Rather, this truth is the very bedrock doctrine of all Scripture. This is the Mount Everest of biblical teaching, the towering truth that transcends all theology. From its opening verse, the Bible asserts in no uncertain terms that God is and that God reigns. In other words, He is God—not merely in name, but in full reality. God does as He pleases, when He pleases, where He pleases, how He pleases, and with whom He pleases in saving undeserving sinners. All other doctrines of the Christian faith must be brought into alignment with this keystone truth.
The sovereignty of God is the free exercise of His supreme authority in executing and administrating His eternal purposes. God must be sovereign if He is to be truly God. A god who is not sovereign is not God at all. Such is an imposter, an idol, a mere caricature formed in man's fallen imagination. A god who is less than fully sovereign is not worthy of our worship, much less our witness. But the Bible proclaims for all to hear that "the Lord reigns" (Ps. 93:1). God is exactly who Scripture declares He is. He is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, whose supreme authority is over all. This is the main premise of Scripture.
Nowhere is God's sovereignty more clearly demonstrated than in His salvation of the lost. God is free to bestow His saving mercy on whom He pleases. God says, "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" (Ex. 33:19b; Rom. 9:15). He is not obligated to extend His grace to any undeserving sinner. If He were to choose to save none, He would remain perfectly just. He might determine to save a few and still be absolutely holy. Or He could choose to save all. But God is sovereign, and that means He is entirely free to bestow His grace however He will—whether on none, few, or all.
From beginning to end, salvation is of God and, ultimately, for God. The apostle Paul writes, "From him and through him and to him are all things" (Rom. 11:36). In this comprehensive verse, God is declared to be the divine source, the determinative means, and the designated end of all things. This is most true in salvation. According to this text, every aspect of the operation of saving grace is God-initiated, God-directed, and God-glorifying. Every dimension of salvation is from Him, through Him, and to Him. This is to say, salvation originates from His sovereign will, proceeds through His sovereign activity, and leads to His sovereign glory.
The Solidarity of the Trinity
Moreover, divine sovereignty in salvation involves each of the three persons of the Godhead—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three work in perfect unity to rescue the same undeserving sinners. Within the Trinity, there is one saving purpose, one saving plan, and one saving enterprise. Those whom the Father chooses are precisely those whom the Son redeems and those whom the Spirit regenerates. The persons of the Godhead act as one Savior. The Trinity is not fractured in its saving activity. It is not divided in its direction and intent, as if each person of the Godhead seeks to save a different group of sinners. Instead, each member of the Trinity purposes and irresistibly proceeds to save one and the same people—God's chosen people.
Sadly, many believe otherwise. They insist that the Father saves only the few sinners whom He foresees will believe in Christ, thus mistakenly confusing foreknowledge (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:29-30; 1 Peter 1:2, 20), which means "forelove," with mere foresight. They also imagine that Christ hypothetically died for all sinners—a different group from that which the Father saves— naively assuming there is only one meaning for the scriptural words world and all. They further claim that the Spirit saves yet another group, that is, some sinners whom He woos. Sadly, they mistake His internal, saving call (1 Cor. 1:2, 9) for a general, non-saving conviction (Heb. 6:4-5).
According to this leaky scheme, the three persons of the Godhead are purported to be pursuing three different groups of individuals—few, all, and some. Thus, the persons of the Godhead are sorely divided in Their saving activity. Even worse, the sinner—not God—reigns as determinative in his or her salvation. But the Bible teaches otherwise. Scripture reveals a perfect unity within the Trinity, a perfect oneness between the Father, Son, and Spirit in Their saving activities. God's Word teaches that the Godhead acts as one Savior in saving one people. The truth is that man is not sovereign in salvation—God is. All three members work together with absolute sovereignty and unwavering resolve to save the very same people for Their own glory. This is accomplished through the free exercise of the supreme authority of all three members of the Trinity. Consider the part that each plays in this cohesive salvation.
The Sovereignty of the Father
Before the foundation of the world, God chose individuals—undeserving and unworthy though they are—to be the objects of His saving grace (2 Tim. 1:9). The apostle Paul writes, "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4a). That is to say, He chose His elect by Himself and for Himself—a sovereign choice not based on any foreseen good works or faith on their part. This divine election originated within Himself, by His own gracious choice (Rom. 9:16). For reasons known only to God, He selected whom He would save.
Having chosen His elect, the Father gave them to the Son before time began to be His royal inheritance. This gift was an expression of the Father's love for the Son (John 6:37, 39; 17:2, 6, 9, 24). These chosen ones were selected for the highest purpose—that they would praise the Son forever and be conformed to His image (Rom. 8:29). The Father then, in eternity past, commissioned the Son to enter the world to purchase the salvation of the elect. Further, the Father directed the Holy Spirit to regenerate these same chosen ones. Thus, their salvation was foreordained and predestined by the sovereign will of God before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:5).
The names of the elect were then written in the Lamb's book of life (Rev. 13:8; 17:8). Under the direction of the Father, all three persons of the Godhead irrevocably agreed to execute the salvation of these chosen people. This is the sovereign grace of God the Father in eternity past.
The Sovereignty of the Son
Having long ago received from the Father the individual names of the elect, Jesus Christ came into this world to purchase their salvation. With a singular intent, Christ purposed to die for His true church—those given to Him by the Father in eternity past. He declared, "I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:15). Bound by devotion to His chosen bride, Christ "loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Eph. 5:25b).
With this definite design in the cross, Jesus purchased with His own blood all those who were predestined to believe in Him (Acts 20:28). He did not merely make salvation possible. He did not make a hypothetical redemption. Rather, He actually saved. Christ was not shortchanged at Calvary, but acquired all those for whom He paid. Jesus truly secured eternal life for His sheep. Not one for whom He died will ever perish. This is the sovereign grace of God the Son two thousand years ago in His saving death.
The Sovereignty of the Spirit
Moreover, the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit into this world to apply the saving death of Christ to all the elect. As the gospel is proclaimed, the Spirit issues a special inward call to these chosen ones, those elected by the Father and redeemed by the Son. The Spirit powerfully regenerates their spiritually dead souls, raising them from the grave of sin to saving faith in Christ (Eph. 2:5-6). Jesus asserted, "All that the Father gives me will come to me" (John 6:37a). This saving enterprise is unalterably certain because God "draws" (6:44) all these "given ones" to Christ.
The Spirit grants them repentance (2 Tim. 2:25) and authors saving faith within them (Phil. 1:29; 2 Peter 1:1). In this effectual act, the Spirit opens the spiritually blind eyes of the elect to see the truth (2 Cor. 4:6). He opens their deaf ears to hear His voice (John 10:27). He opens their closed hearts to receive the gospel (Acts 16:14). He activates their dead wills to believe the saving message (John 1:13). The Spirit overcomes all resistance and triumphs in the hearts of the elect. This is the sovereign grace of God the Holy Spirit within time.
Forever Kept by Sovereignty
Once converted, all the elect are kept by the power of God forever. None of the Father's chosen ones will ever be lost (Titus 1:1-2). None for whom the Son died will ever perish (Rom. 8:33-34). None who are regenerated by the Spirit will ever fall from grace (Titus 3:5-7). All the recipients of the saving grace of God will be ushered into glory forever (Rom. 8:29-30). This broad sweep of salvation reaches back to eternity past and stretches forward into eternity future. Salvation is one indivisible work of grace. Those chosen by God before time began will remain saved forever. All the elect will be preserved throughout the ages to come. God Himself will guard them and cause them to stand faultless before His throne (Jude 24).
This view of sovereign grace is breath-taking, awe-inspiring, soul-humbling, and joy-producing. Above all else, this view is God-glorifying. In each of the doctrines of grace, the glory of God is central. Only a salvation that is from Him and through Him can be to Him. Electing grace redounds "to the praise of his glorious grace" (Eph. 1:6a). Redeeming grace promotes "the praise of his glory" (1:12b). Regenerating grace is "to the praise of his glory" (1:14b). This is because all saving grace is sovereign grace. It is this view of salvation that brings greatest glory to God alone.
Humbled by this lofty truth, Jonathan Edwards wrote, "Those who have received salvation are to attribute it to sovereign grace alone, and to give all the praise to Him, who makes them to differ from others."1 Should not this be our response as well? May we all fall to our knees and affirm that "salvation and glory and power belong to our God" (Rev. 19:1). May the truth of God's sovereignty in our salvation cause highest praise to be given to Him. "To him be glory forever. Amen" (Rom. 11:36).
Pillars Rise from Strong Foundations
As stated above, this is a summary of the biblical teaching that was carefully laid out in Volume One, Foundations of Grace. The scriptural case was presented that the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, teaches the sovereignty of God in salvation. Virtually every biblical author, as well as Jesus Christ Himself, explicitly teaches these cardinal truths of God's sovereign grace in saving sinners according to His eternal purposes. The Bible speaks with one voice, declaring that "salvation belongs to the Lord" (Ps. 3:8a).
The doctrines of grace—radical depravity, sovereign election, definite atonement, irresistible call, and preserving grace, plus the umbrella doctrine of divine sovereignty and the necessary antithetical doctrine, divine reprobation— are the cornerstone truths of our Christian faith. When forged together, these doctrines form the bedrock of what we have called the "foundations of grace."
Sturdy pillars must rest on a strong foundation. So it is that this volume is titled Pillars of Grace. Here we will seek to discover the core convictions of those men, from the Church Fathers to the Reformers, whose message embraced the teaching of the biblical authors. Century by century, these leaders in the church ministered the Word of God and upheld the truth of sovereign grace. It is the intention of this book to demonstrate that the primary leaders of the early and medieval church believed the doctrines of grace in rudimentary but increasingly consistent form.
Beginning with the Apostolic Fathers in the first and second centuries and proceeding through the Reformers in the sixteenth century, these men held to these truths and expressed them in their pulpits and with their pens. The dominant figures in the early history of the church were strong men with an understanding of sovereign grace. Who were the godly men who formed this long line? They were the first pastors and theologians of the Christian era. They were the philosophers and apologists of the embryonic centuries of the church, defenders of the truth who resisted heretical teachings. They were the faithful men who took their stand on the sure foundations of sovereign grace. They were the saints who were most gripped with a high view of God. They were the pillars of grace.
1 Jonathan Edwards, "The Sovereignty of God in Salvation," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. II (1834; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979), 854.