Hugh Miller and the Mystery of his Death

by Simonetta Carr

On December 30, 1856, thousands of people followed Hugh Miller’s coffin to the Grange cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was dearly loved and respected, particularly for his thought-provoking writings on a wide variety of subjects. As an editor of Miller’s memoirs aptly said, “In choosing him, readers were choosing a friend.”[1]

            A question meandered through the crowd, “Why?”

            On Christmas Eve, after reading some poems to his children and sending them to bed, Miller wrote a suicide note to his wife Lydia and shot a bullet through his chest, muffling the sound. Lydia discovered the body the next morning.

            “Dearest Lydia,” he wrote, “I must have walked, and a fearful dream rises upon me. I cannot bear the horrible thought. God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.”[2]

Searching for Reasons

            Speculations about Miller’s reasons immediately rose. Upon request of his pastor, physicians conducted an examination of his brain, which showed a “diseased appearance.” The final judgment was that the suicide had been committed “under the impulse of insanity.”[3]

            He had not been well for a while. He had complained to his doctor that his brain was “giving way,” and had reported terrible nightmares that left him “trembling all over, and quite confused.” He had also reported sharp pains, like “an electric shock,”[4] passing through his brain and leaving a burning sensation on top of his head. Because of these physical symptoms and the visible appearance of a “diseased brain,” some have suggested a brain tumor. Whatever it was, it was fairly sudden and unpredicted. As most illnesses of the brain, it was also largely unexplainable.

            But people want explanations. Some blamed his mother, who told him stories about frightening Gaelic spirits. Some suggested he could not deal with the apparent contradictions between his faith and his geological studies. Interestingly, this second theory is still strong today. Yet, its proponents don’t know Hugh Miller. He was never afraid of the truth, nor of the questions and challenges that led to its discovery.

Candid Convictions

            In his memoirs, Miller speaks candidly about the evolution of his religious convictions. Born in the port town of Cromarty in 1802, he eventually developed into the typical teenage rebel – “a lad of my own will,” he said, a “Sabbath-breaker and a robber of orchards.” At 16, he left school and became an apprentice stone mason. By that time, his religion was so formal that he found it more consistent, “for the sake of peace,” to call himself an atheist. Later, a scary dream moved him to accept a vague idea of the existence of God, becoming what he reluctantly recognized as a “deist.”

            In 1829, he began his career as journalist, while he continued a passion for geology he had nurtured since his first discovery of a fossil nine years earlier. In the meantime, he continued his progress toward Christianity, although the path was crowded with questions. “I could believe in many things which I could not understand,” he wrote, “but how could I believe in things evidently not beyond the reach of reason, but directly opposed to it?”

            “I could believe that a man is either a free agent or chained down by the decrees of God to a predestined line of conduct, but how could I believe that he was at once free and the child of necessity? And yet the contradiction (as it appeared) seemed to me to be the doctrine of the Bible. … How, thought I, can one man who is a criminal be pardoned and rewarded because another who is none has, after meriting reward, been punished? How can it be said that He who thus pardons the guilty and punishes the innocent is not only just, but that he even does this that he may become just and merciful? It appeared even more strange than even this that the only way of becoming virtuous was, not by doing good and virtuous deeds, but by believing that Christ’s death was an atonement for sin, and His merits a fund of righteousness for which they who thus believe were to be rewarded. Certainly, thought I, if the Christian religion be not a true one, it is not a cunningly devised fable, for its mysteries are either not far enough removed from the examination of the rational faculties, or too directly opposed to the conclusions which they must necessarily form.”[5]

            This last argument must have convinced him, because Miller became not only a convinced Presbyterian, but a champion of the church as the Reformers had intended it. In 1841, he was chosen as editor of a new Evangelical publication called The Witness (second only to The Scotsman in circulation). There, he wrote clearly and forcefully about several religious issues, including the main problem of his day: the church’s acceptance of patronage (when noblemen imposed certain pastors on a congregation). It was the same issue that had divided the church in the 1733 Secession. This time, it resulted in the Disruption of 1843, led by Thomas Chalmers and heartily backed by Miller.

Faith and Science

            His articles on geology were as passionate as his writings on religion, because he considered science and religion as complementary, with science as a tool to glorify God. He conceded that the six days of creation could have been ages, but firmly believed in God as creator and sustainer of all things.

            This view allowed him to infuse his scientific writings with the beauty and poetry that is intrinsic in God’s creation, pointing out – as poets often do – what can be observed but is often missed. But his writings were also well researched and scientifically precise. In spite of being largely self-taught, Miller became greatly esteemed by the scientific community.

            After his death, his wife Lydia edited some of his unpublished works and added some of Hugh’s desired revisions to existing ones. Her motives were both to honor his memory and to continue to communicate to others his passion for geology, producing at the same time an answer that is both rational and biblical to Darwin’s advancing arguments.

            Like her husband, Lydia believed that serious scientific discoveries could only magnify God’s glory, since “the fact of creative power implies an absence of limit to creative power.”[6]

            Hugh Miller has been largely forgotten today, especially outside of Scotland. He is often remembered as an anomaly in his efforts to reconcile faith and science, and his death provokes more discussions than his life. Interestingly, his writings were greatly valued by many geologists of his day, who rarely saw in his perspective the discrepancy many have been trained to see today.


[1] Elizabeth Sutherland, Lydia, Wife of Hugh Miller of Cromarty, East Lothian, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 2002, p. 111

[2] Ibid., p. 108.

[3] Ibid., p. 109.

[4] Ibid., p. 106

[5] Peter Bayne, The Life and Letters of Hugh Miller, Vol. 1, London: Strahan & Co., 1871, p. 204.

[6] Sutherland, Lydia, p. 124.


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Remembering R. C. Sproul

by Jeffrey Stivason

In 1996 I attended a reformed conference in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. That year was my first as a seminarian and my second as a Calvinist. If I remember correctly it was the first reformed conference I’d ever attended. Although it has been over twenty years ago, I still remember the opening night.  The speaker’s contagious laugh lightened the room. He was fun and having fun.  I still remember him saying, “Pittsburgh is the only city in the world whose fight song for their football team is a polka!”  And then he laughed and so did everyone else. That evening we were treated to a great theological mind appealing to us with heart of a preacher.  It was a great night and a wonderful conference and I didn’t even mention the impersonation of Detective Columbo! 

Some of you will have guessed that the speaker that night was Dr. R. C. Sproul. That was not my first exposure to Dr. Sproul but it was one of the first and it was the first time I saw him in person and it was a treat.  I soon found myself a regular listener of Renewing Your Mind and an avid reader of his books.  In the mid 90s I was just beginning my seminary career and Dr. Sproul’s career was in full swing.  In 1994 the airwaves were spreading the radio program, Renewing Your Mind.  In 1995 the Reformation Study Bible was published and in 1997 St. Andrew’s Chapel was established. The Lord was using Dr. Sproul.

The next time I saw him was at Geneva College in or around 1998. It was vintage Dr. Sproul. That night a friend and I went up to him after the lecture to talk.  He was warm and welcoming but when he discovered that we were seminary students a smile spread across his face that I’ll not soon forget.  In those early years of my development the man took on the status of a theological grandfather.  For example, when I was struggling to explain God’s electing grace to others Dr. Sproul was there with Chosen by God.  When my brother died Surprised by Suffering ministered to me.  And after he had been influential in convincing me of amillennialism he demonstrated that his feet were made of clay when he wrote, The Last Days According to Jesus

On December 14, 2017 I was painting my daughter’s room.  My wife came upstairs to tell me that Dr. Sproul had gone to be with the Lord. I had heard that he was in the hospital and I knew that he was not well.  That evening I pulled up one of his Christmas sermons and listened to it as I painted. And as I listened to him extol the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ I experienced a flood of emotion.  He had been and continues to be a wonderful influence for Christ in my life and I am thankful for him. 

C. S. Lewis says somewhere in the Four Loves that when a friend dies something about you goes with him. In other words, that friend is no long there to pull out of you those things that only he could pull out.  Dr. Sproul’s family and friends are surely experiencing what Lewis so astutely described.  However, as a distant admirer I am still affected by his sermons and lectures.  When I hear the chalk crawl across the blackboard on one of his audio lectures I can still see him, arms open and pleading for his audience to embrace not only the teaching but the very God who is holy.

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.


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Union with Christ: A Brief Introduction

by John Hartley

John Owen (1616-1683) said, “That there is such a union between Christ and believers is the faith of the catholic church and has been so in all ages.”

Not only does Owen’s comment dissuade us from regarding this doctrine to be negligible and of optional interest, his comment challenges us not to be found as theological innovators via absentmindedness. We must not forget union with Christ. 

Every spiritual benefit we believers receive – justification, adoption, and sanctification – flow to us out of the person of Jesus Christ. These benefits do not exist alone, each standing off in its silo waiting to be rewarded to the elect if they rap the secret knock upon each door. On the contrary, all the benefits of our salvation exist in a living person and flow to us like the vital sap which exists between vine and branches (John 15:5).

The righteousness imputed and applied to us for justification is the righteousness of a person, Jesus our Lord. The liberties, privileges and name put upon us in adoption are those which belong to a person, Jesus our Lord (Gal. 4:6). The holiness which slowly renovates us in sanctification is the holiness of a person, Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:29). The Holy Spirit takes these from him and makes them mine. Only life begets life.

So we see, union with Christ compels us to keep a person-centered understanding of salvation not an exclusively benefit-centered understanding. The old trope “salvation by doctrine” is rightly exposed and obliterated by the doctrine of union with Christ.

Those teaching the Reformed faith in the churches of Christ should not wish for students to long dwell in a piety limited to knowing the correct definitions (sola definitio) of justification, adoption, sanctification, etc. Such definitions must never ever be avoided, but none understand these things sufficiently until they are understood as belonging to a living person who is to be worshipped and adored for possessing such riches and giving us possession of the same through Spirit wrought union with him.

In saying this, we do not mean to diminish the importance of the ordo salutis. A robust doctrine of union with Christ does not diminish a robust prioritizing of justification before sanctification. As grandfathers everywhere have said, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

We can assert that sanctification is never antecedent to justification while also asserting that the foundation of the forensic (justification) is union with Christ. In other words, our mystical organic union with a person, our Lord Jesus Christ, encompasses all the benefits of salvation found in the ordo salutis. Christ has always been the source, the circumference and the center of our life in God. As John Murray said, “Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”

Our union with Christ should be understood as having – as Berkhof taught – an eternal, an objective and a subjective reality.

The eternal reality of this union was in the covenant of redemption, the pactum salutis. Before the foundation of the world the Father covenanted with the Son to redeem and constitute a new humanity. The whole church was chosen, given and united to the Son as representative Head (John 10:29, Eph. 1:4). This is known as the federal union of Christ, an astounding wonder of sovereign grace whereby we had a union privilege with Christ by covenant before we had an actual union with Christ by faith. There was no way we would not be saved!

The objective reality of this union then was in the incarnation of the Son and all which was accomplished by it in history (Heb. 2:14). In an objective sense what he did and suffered we did and suffered in him. As we were offspring of sin from union with the first Adam, we would be offspring of righteousness from union with the second, Christ. So, he says: “Behold, I and the children God has given me” (Heb. 2:13). Being united to our flesh we were united to him objectively in his death, in his resurrection, and in his ascension to the heavenly places of dominion. Everything we needed to accomplish was accomplished in union with him, it just needed application to each of us. Which brings us to the subjective reality of this union.

The subjective reality of union with Christ, what some call our intimate or vital or existential union, is the completion of the union. The Holy Spirit, in due time, applies to us and puts into our possession all which already belongs to us by virtue of the objective union we had with Christ in his accomplishments. By the Holy Spirit we are called, regenerated, given faith and so enabled to appropriate all spiritual benefits in Christ.

In Christ. Two words. Such is the ubiquitous shorthand the apostle Paul uses for this magnificent doctrine throughout his letters. It is simple enough for training children and profound enough for lifelong study and meditation.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

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Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

The Theological Logic of Worship

by Mark Johnston

There once was a time – within living memory for many of us – when you could go to a place of worship and have a reasonable sense of what to expect during a service and not be taken aback by something that seemed out of place. Those days are rapidly disappearing and it is increasingly the norm that there are no norms for a service of praise. This should give us pause for thought.

In the first place because it is a reflection of the extent to which the church is being shaped by the world and not the other way around. Two millennia of the previously pagan cultures of the world being transformed by the presence and influence of the church – especially in the West – are rapidly being put into reverse. Instead of the people of God being ‘salt and light’ and incarnating the presence of God derivatively in the world, the church is incarnating the world under the guise of professed Christianity. The clamour in many congregations and denominations is ‘to be more like the world in order that we might attract the world’. This is not the way that Jesus either taught or modelled. So when the highest activity of the church – gathering for the public worship of God – becomes coloured and clouded by the culture of a fallen world, alarm bells should be ringing.

A second and more specific reason for concern is the way in which the shape, content and contours of worship seem to be more influenced by what puts the worshippers at ease during worship instead of what should fill us with awe and wonder. There is nothing ‘easy’ about approaching the Most High God – the One who is a ‘consuming fire’ before whom the very angels of heaven ‘cover their faces’. We are called to tremble before God, be silent in his presence and draw near only ‘with reverence and awe’. The ‘fear of the LORD’ has all but disappeared from the vocabulary of many Christians; yet it is still ‘the beginning of knowledge and wisdom’ and without it we have no spiritual or moral compass. This does not in any sense mean that ‘the joy of the LORD’ should somehow be absent from public praise; but, rather, that this joy in the fullness of what it means can only come into its own when we appreciate who it is we are praising and the lengths to which he has had to go through the cross to restore us to himself. In the words of David, we are to ‘rejoice with trembling’ (Ps 2.11).

The third and arguably the most important reason to be concerned about the current drift in much Christian worship is that it is quite simply directionless. It has no beginning, middle or end; frequently depending only on the charisma of whoever happens to be the ‘worship leader’ for that day to hold it all together and sustain the interest and attention of the worshippers. (Though the inordinate increase in toilet break traffic that nowadays disrupts and distracts the flow of worship may well speak for itself in terms of worshippers wanting a break from it all.)

Again and again, through personal experience as much as through the comments I hear from fellow Christians, I am struck by what is routinely missing from our acts of worship. The service just ‘starts’ without any sense of it having a beginning. No call to worship, no prayer of invocation or adoration, no opening hymn or song that has the majesty of God as its focus. No sense of approaching God with awe and wonder in the main prayer as worship begins. No confession of sin and prayer for pardon as it progresses. No sense of progression that leads to the climax of worship when we hear the Word of God thoughtfully read and helpfully proclaimed. No hymn or psalm carefully chosen as an appropriate worshipful response to the message for the day. No final word from God: one of blessing and reassurance as we face another week. In short, all too often there is no logic or sense to worship as it unfolds from beginning to end.

Any serious consideration, not only of what the Bible overtly teaches about worship, but also in how we see it modelled in both Testaments, tells a very different story. There is invariably what we can only call a ‘theological logic’ to the worship God wants us to bring to him. That is, we will only be able to bring him heartfelt adoration, in a way that is steadily growing deeper and richer, when there is a corresponding growth in how well we know him, know ourselves and are filled with the wonder of his great salvation in Jesus Christ, his Son.

We see this in the Old Testament in the way individuals respond to God when he confronts them personally with his glory. Almost invariably they are overwhelmed by a sense of their own sin and unworthiness in his presence; but then respond in worship by setting up an altar to God as a tangible and enduring expression of his praise.

We see it very vividly portrayed in the architecture, arrangements and articles of the Tabernacle and its more permanent successor, the Temple. To enter its precincts was to enter a ‘holy space’. Everything about its décor and imagery spoke of an otherworldly place – God’s place. As the worshipper’s eye scanned what lay before him upon entry, in the distance they could see the sanctuary itself: the dwelling place of God. But between them and that holy structure there was an altar – bloodied and stinking with the evidence of creatures slaughtered in sacrifice. There was no access to the place of God’s abode without atonement for the sins that bar everyone from his presence. But sacrifice there was. By God’s command and ultimately through his own costly provision, the way was opened to come to him.

For the priests and those who ministered within the sanctuary as vicars of God’s people, they saw a pale reflection of the beauty and majesty of God and his promised provision for his people’s every need in the adornment and furniture of that place. And, when the High Priest emerged from his ministrations, it was to bless the people and send them on their way with the LORD’s Shalom.

We see the same theological logic of worship mapped out in short compass in the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. Entry point: the glorious God in the glory of heaven. Response: ‘hallowed be thy name’ and ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. Segue: ‘Give us this day…’ – only God can supply what we really need. Confession: ‘Forgive…as we forgive…’. Plea: ‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’. Assurance and blessing: ‘For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen!’ And in all of this, it is the prayer not only taught by Christ, but which we offer through him!

If today’s church could recapture even a little glimpse of these grand contours of the kind of worship that has characterised the worship of the church through the ages it would transform the depth, joy and vigour of what God’s people do when they gather on his day to truly glorify his Name.

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Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Union with Christ Podcast

by Jonathan Master

Union with Christ

While James enjoys a vacation, Jonathan has the pleasure of speaking with Ian Hamilton about Union with Christ, one of the topics Ian will be addressing at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology in Grand Rapids, MI, March 15th – 17th.

Speaking passionately, and quoting a few of his favorite theologians, Ian talks about the benefits that flow from our union with Christ. He connects the relationship between being in Christ, and a life of obedience—offering an antidote for Christians who are struggling with the high calling to be holy. Whet your spiritual appetite with this episode, then head out to the conference in Grand Rapids next month!

Show Notes

·  About Ian Hamilton

·  Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray

·  The Glory of Christ by John Owen

·  Knowing God by J. I. Packer

·  Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards

·  Several readings by John Calvin


Sign up for the opportunity to win one of the free conference registrations! But, if you don’t want to take your chances, you can still register at our website.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Incomprehensible but Knowable: Special Revelation

by Joel Wood

While growing up, my church would sing an old gospel song that said Christ “hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock and covers me there with his hand.” It’s a repeated line, clearly intended to be remembered. The lyrics were an obvious play on Exodus 33 where Moses, hearing God’s willingness to confirm his ongoing presence with Israel on the journey from Sinai to the Canaan, asked the LORD, “I pray, show me Your glory” (Exodus 33:18). Consider for a moment all that Moses had seen to this point: his own physical salvation as an infant, the bush that burned and was not consumed, his call to ministry from the LORD, the plagues upon Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea on dry ground, the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, manna and water miraculously provided in the desert, meeting with the LORD on the top of Sinai for the delivering of the Law, and, to top it off, we read just prior to Moses’ request for a full disclosure of His glory that “[t]he Lord spoke to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). Moses had witnessed, again and again, the power and glory of God in his life. Yet, Moses wants more. How will the LORD respond? Will He grant Moses’ request and show him His glory, which Moses must perceive to be above and beyond all that he had already seen?? Here we see a near ideal intersection of God’s Incomprehensibility and Revelation.

Shortly put, God’s incomprehensibility is the doctrine that says while thoughts about God in the mind of man can be true and accurate, they can never be complete. This requires God to reveal himself to us and to do so in a way that we can understand what He has chosen to reveal. In fact, Presbyterians confess that “[t]he distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant” (WCF 7.1). Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 4:7, “And what do you have that you did not receive?” In other words, what do we have that didn’t come from somewhere or someone else? Applied to our knowledge of God: what do we know about God that He Himself has not told us? In a certain sense, theology is a one-way street. We cannot attain to the heavenlies. The heavenlies must come down to us. In Exodus 33, what did Moses know about God that God had not shown him or caused him to experience? Moses knew that the glory of God, as much as he had seen and experienced, was more, was greater.

As Moses asks God to show him the fullness of his glory, God understands what Moses does not: God’s full glory would destroy Moses. God tells him “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Consequently, we have pictured, acted out, and recorded for us the state in which all of us find ourselves as we seek to know God, that we will never comprehend Him, but our greatest delight is found in the pursuit of any apprehension of Him. We can know God, but we can never fully understand Him. How was this seen? God tells Moses that He will hide him in the cleft of the rock and cover him with His hand. As His glory passes by, God keeps Moses from seeing it fully, but allows him to see the backside, or the tail end, or, simply, a fraction of His glory. God is pleased to reveal His glory to Moses, but only part of it. Why? Because He knows that while Moses could see His glory, could understand His glory, and could even know quite a bit about His glory, the fullness of it all could never be fully contained in the mind of Moses. It would destroy him.

Has God revealed Himself to us? We know this to be true (Hebrews 1:1-3)! Has God revealed ALL of Himself to us? No. The corollary questions and answers are these: can we know God? Absolutely. Can we FULLY know and comprehend God? Absolutely NOT. All that we can know about God we will find in His Revelation of Himself to us, but, even then, we will know it partially and imperfectly. Praise Him, that he has been as kind to us as He was to Moses: He has hidden us in the Rock, He has covered us with His Hand, and He has shown us but a glimpse of His glory, enough of Him that we might love and serve and be changed, but not destroyed by Him.

Joel Wood is the pastor of Trinity RPC in Burtonsville, MD, between DC and Baltimore. He holds M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is 1/4 of The Jerusalem Chamber podcast, a roundtable discussion about the doctrine, worship, and piety of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

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Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

A Contrast in Growth

by Jeffrey Stivason

Everybody loves the Joseph story.  Chapters thirty-seven through fifty with the minor exception of chapter thirty-eight seem to be all about Joseph.  And that is exactly why we have to remind ourselves that the story is not Joseph’s but Jacob’s story.  Genesis 37:2 reminds us that these are the records of the generations of Jacob.  When we apply this understanding to the Joseph story we find some very interesting lessons.[1]

Take chapter forty-two as an example.  Most commentators tell us that although this text is an unrepeatable event in the history of redemption the take home value for us is the test devised by Joseph, which will eventually lead to reconciliation.  Apparently, one can forgive but before reconciliation can take place the relational waters must first be tested or so we are often told. 

However, let me suggest that since this is the book of the generations of Jacob we look at chapter forty-two from Jacob’s perspective.  For instance, let’s ask a simple question.  How does this chapter begin and end?  Let’s take a look.  It opens and closes in exactly the same way – with Benjamin in Jacob’s death grip!  Remember that the chapter opens with Jacob chastising his sons as to why they had not gone to Egypt in order to buy food.  Why were they simply standing around looking at one another?  But only ten sons set out for Egypt because Jacob would not send Benjamin for fear that harm would befall him (42:4).  And when the brothers returned needing to take Benjamin down to Egypt in order to free Simeon and also to enjoy the liberty of trading in the land during the famine – Jacob said no, my son shall not go down with you.

Let me ask you a question.   Do you see what Jacob has done?  First, as a father he has failed.  He seems to be willing to allow his family to die of starvation in order to preserve the life of Benjamin from some unforeseen accident while traveling to Egypt.  But as bad as that is there is something far worse.  Jacob is the patriarch of God’s people through whom the promise would come.  But Jacob does not appear to care.  His only thought is for Benjamin’s safety. 

So, these two episodes set up the chapter but they do much more.  Chapter forty-two functions as a spiritual growth chart wherein we are invited to contrast and compare the growth of Jacob with that of Joseph in several areas.  First, think about their level of contentment.  As we have already said, the chapter opens and closes with Jacob’s unwillingness to lose another son.  However, compare Jacob’s response to God’s providence with that of Joseph’s response to his own situation.  At the end of chapter forty-one Joseph is second in command and now has a family of his own.  And we notice something interesting about his firstborn son.  His name was Mannaseh for Joseph said that “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (41:51).  This should not be read as if Joseph is merely writing off his father’s house.  After all, he gave his two sons Hebrew names!  No.  Joseph is saying that he has learned to be content with the situation in which God had placed him.  What a striking contrast to that of his Father.

The second point of contrast is the test to which Joseph submits his brothers.  When the ten sons of Jacob come down to Egypt they fail to recognize Joseph though he does not fall short in recognizing them.  He accused them of being spies but they claimed to be honest men.  So, Joseph put them to a test.  In effect, he says to them, you say that you are honest men, well and good, then go and bring this younger brother back to Egypt that I may see that you are telling me the truth.  But to ensure your honesty I will retain one of your brothers.  Interestingly, even Joseph seems to apply a certain level of fairness in determining which brother to retain or hold responsible.  The oldest brother, Reuben, indicates his innocence (v. 22) and apparently Joseph believes him and so retains the next in line, Simeon.  The point is Joseph is willing to test their sincerity.  He is charitable.  He is willing to see what God will do.  He is willing to test their honesty.  However, by contrast, Jacob is absolutely unwilling to trust his own sons with their little brother – Benjamin.  Not even Reuben can persuade him otherwise.

The third point of contrast has to do with wisdom.  As we read the Joseph story we find a young man who has grown and matured.  In his younger days he might have revealed himself to his brothers without a thought but not now, not twenty years later.  Joseph has matured.  He is willing to see what God will do.  He is operating according to wisdom.  But again, this is not the case with Jacob.  He cannot see past Benjamin.  Jacob has remained in so many ways the same old man whose willingness to play favorites had ripped his family apart. 

It is interesting that when we read the Joseph story we often look for ways in which Joseph casts a long shadow into the New Testament in order to help us in some way or another to see Jesus.  But I wonder if that methodology is misplaced when looking at chapter forty-two.  In fact, I wonder if the real comparison to be made is not necessarily between Jacob and Joseph so much as it is a comparison and contrast between Jacob and God the Father.  Whereas Jacob was unwilling to release his son – God was not unwilling.  In fact, we can’t help but think Jacob would not have released Joseph even if it meant the salvation of God’s people and that is why God removed him.  And here he is still unwilling to release Benjamin.  But again, not our God and Father!  When we were yet sinners He sent Jesus, his only begotten Son, to die for His people that they might have life and have it abundantly.  True Christian growth comes when we begin by remembering God’s sacrificial love toward us.

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.

[1] Some of my insights were prompted several years ago by Sinclair Ferguson’s wonderful sermon series on the life of Joseph still available on Sermon’s Audio.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Upheld by everlasting Arms

by Mark Johnston

For those of us who are pastors, one of our regular responsibilities is to use scripture to minister to the specific needs of our people. This should never merely be spiritual equivalent of offering placebos to those who are struggling – a kind of psycho-spiritual pick-me-up to make them feel better about themselves. Quite the opposite, the verse or passage we may read to our members should be explained and applied in a way that shows them there is substance in the words offered to them.

One such verse is found in Moses’ final words to the Israelites at the end of Deuteronomy. As he faces the sobering reality that he himself will not enter the Promised Land, but only see it from a distance (Dt 32.48-52), he addresses the tribes of Israel with words of blessing (Dt 33.1-29).

These were poignant words both for the man of God and for the people he had led through the wilderness these past 40 years. Together they had faced all manner of fears and challenges, yet through it all God had been true to his promise and now they were within sight of Canaan. The people were on the verge of entering the land, but Moses could only see it from a distance. Yet, whatever personal sadness he may have felt under the circumstances, Moses could rest in the knowledge that the future of Israel was secure in God’s care.

This comes out quite pointedly in the way Moses blesses the 12 tribes. The blessing for each tribe is custom-made. God does not offer one-size-fits-all blessings to his people; but, rather, tailors them to their circumstances and need. But what is so striking about these blessings is the ‘bookends’ between which they are sandwiched. They speak of the very essence of the God from whom these blessings flow. In that sense the spotlight is not focused so much on the detail of each tribe’s benediction; but the God who gave it – in particular, his love and care for his people Several things are worth noting about how Moses describes God in relation to the blessing he confers on his people (Dt 33.26-27).

The God who is One-of-a-Kind

Moses says of this God, ‘There is no-one like the God of Jeshurun’ (Dt 33.26). This was an unusual way to speak of God, at least from where we stand. However, ‘Jeshurun’ was a kind of pet name God used for his people Israel – one that spoke of the special relationship he enjoyed with them. So for Moses to say there was no-one – no other god – who was like the God of Israel was a reminder to them that he was and is unique.

The name ‘Jeshurun’ meant ‘upright one’. It clearly harked back to Abraham as the Father of Israel who ‘believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness’ (Ge 15.6). His ‘righteousness’ [uprightness] was not earned by his own good works; but imputed by an act of divine grace. In that sense, Yahweh was immediately set apart from all the other gods and demigods of the Ancient Near East. He alone freely provided what was needed for salvation; whereas all his pretended rivals expected it to be earned.

Moses had more in mind when he said of God, ‘Who is like him?’ He was thinking about the fact that the gods of the nations were nothing more than variations on a theme. They were parochial – gods of fertility, war, commerce and every conceivable sphere of life. But Israel’s God was the God of life in its totality. Furthermore, the gods of the nations were nothing more than exaggerated expressions of humanity in its different forms – with all its faults and foibles. Not so with the God of the patriarchs. He was utterly unique.

At the beginning of their wilderness journey, Moses had embedded this truth into the liturgy of Israel through the great ‘Shema’ – ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one’ (Dt 6.4). This was not a tantalising early allusion to the Trinity; but to what theologians call, ‘the unity of God’. That is, his uniqueness. So, just as Israel was assured of the uniqueness of God in his care for them; so too for his people through the ages. He truly is ‘one-of-a-kind’.

The God who is a Refuge for his People

Moses speaks of God as being his people’s ‘dwelling place’ or, ‘refuge’ (Dt 33.27). He uses identical language in the psalm that he probably penned from a personal perspective at the same time as he spoke these words to Israel (Ps 90.1-2).

It is a vivid word picture of the kind of security that God alone is able to provide. For Israel this had been very real over the preceding 40 years. God had literally made his presence felt by means of the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Far from caring for them remotely; he bound his presence to them personally.

Moses presses this point home by reminding his listeners that Yahweh is ‘the eternal God’ and that he supports them by means of his ‘everlasting arms’ that are underneath them. Even the children who heard those words that day got the message! Memories of their own fathers’ strong arms and the sense of safety they felt in their grip said it all. The God who is immense and glorious is the God who is gentle and kind in his dealings with his people. In a very special way this points us to Christ as we meet him in the Gospels. He is the One whose power extended over the winds, waves and even demons; yet he could say to the weak and fearful, ‘Come to me and rest’.

The God who will overthrow the Enemy

At face value the final clause in Moses’ words about God seems to jar with what is promised about rest; but, in reality, it is an integral part of it. ‘He will drive out your enemy before you, saying, “Destroy him!”’ (Dt 33.27).

From the immediate vantage point of where Israel was at that time, Canaan was before them; but it was still under the control of their enemies. Only under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’ successor, would the land be conquered and its cities secured – all manifestly through God’s personal intervention.

This clearly picks up on the very first glimpse of the gospel in Genesis. The saving liberation promised through the Seed of the Woman would only be secured by his crushing the head of the serpent (Ge 3.15). The New Testament makes no attempt to play down this element of the gospel. John the Baptist announces it as he heralds the coming of the Servant of the LORD (Mt 3.10-12). But it is John the Evangelist who explicitly states that ‘the reason Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work’ (1Jn 3.8). This he did when, as apparent victim, he became the Victor, declaring his triumph over Satan once and for all.

The words Moses spoke to Israel on the borders of the Promised Land were precious in terms of the assurance they gave for Israel’s future. But they are brought into sharper focus with the coming of Christ. In the words of Fanny Crosby’s well-known hymn,

Safe in the arms of Jesus,

Safe on his gentle breast.

There by his love o’ershaded;

sweetly my soul shall rest.

The everlasting arms that were pinned to a Roman gibbet on Calvary underpin the security of all who put their trust in him for eternity.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Incomprehensible but Knowable: A Lisping God

by Steven McCarthy

The writings of French reformer, theologian, and pastor John Calvin are often remembered by the Latin phrase “brevitas et claritas”. Calvin wrote to be understood, and avoided using more words than would be helpful. To get to the point then, in English, the phrase means “brevity and clarity”. Unfortunately, many don’t understand Calvin, though this is often because they don’t actually read him, but only what others have written about him. At the same time, others will read Calvin, and yet still not understand him. To be sure, if someone says John Calvin is “incomprehensible,” it is not a complement. However, when Calvin and the broad consensus of Christian thinkers before and after him describe God as “incomprehensible”, it is to God’s glory and praise.

While Calvin wanted his writings about God to be understood, he realized there are limits to explaining God. We need to be careful here. In Christianity, God is knowable. He can be understood with certainty and rightly known. However, “comprehend” paints a picture of encircling and grasping with exhaustive completeness. The God of the Bible, the Creator, is too great to enclose in the limits of creaturely minds. Though pastors in training often earn Masters of Divinity degrees, they simply cannot master God, but can only be mastered by him, or fail to be. How than can we know God, if he is beyond us? Together with affirming God’s “incomprehensibility”, Calvin emphasized that God graciously overcomes our natural inability so that we truly can know him.

Let me note a few memorable passages from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion [I.xiii.1, I.xiv.1] showing some practical results of affirming God’s incomprehensibility for the big picture of knowing God.

First, it is harmful to speculate in areas where Scripture is silent. Instead we must treat what is laid down in Scripture as sufficient:

When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious. [Augustine, Confessions, XI.12] Let this admonition, no less grave than severe, restrain the wantonness that tickles many and even drives them to wicked and hurtful speculations.[i]

It is the person who attempts to be wiser to God who is shown the fool. Therefore, Scripture – not our own wisdom – must be the lens through which we “see” God:

For just as eyes, when dimmed with age or weakness or by some other defect, unless aided by spectacles, discern nothing distinctly; so, such is our feebleness, unless Scripture guides us in seeking God, we are immediately confused.[ii]

Speaking of what we can in fact be know about God from observing the created order, the vast yet limited scope of the natural universe places guardrails on our thinking about the Creator:

Therefore let us willingly remain enclosed within these bounds to which God has willed to confine us, and as it were, to pen up our minds that they may not, through their very freedom to wander, go astray.[iii]

In addition to limiting our knowledge of God to what his own self-revelation in Scripture and nature make inescapable, the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility prevents us from adopting crude, overly simplistic readings of Scripture, such as attributing a physical body to God because the Bible speaks in terms of God’s “mouth, ears, eyes, hands, and feet”:

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.[iv]

God’s speech to us in Scripture is like a parent’s baby-talk with their newborn. Thus, God for Calvin is a Being naturally too great for us to know, yet so gracious that he personally condescends to make himself known to us.

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Walton, NY, a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA, and a Th.M. student in Reformation and Post-Reformation Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI. He lives with his wife and three children in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York.

[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 1: 160–161.

[ii] Ibid., 160-161.

[iii] Ibid., 161.

[iv] Ibid., 121.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Reconsidering Revoice & its Advocates

by Jeffrey Stivason

As a pastor, more often than not I sit with people who tell me that the gospel of grace is not enough. It’s not enough to restrain their anger, subdue their addiction and comfort their loneliness to name just a few of the things that the gospel is apparently impotent to cure. Some might even take umbrage with my using the word cure at the end of the last sentence. 

Think about it, this is in part how the church has gotten itself embroiled in the whole attempt to revoice the gospel in our present culture.  Late last year, Wesley Hill wrote in First Things, after last year’s Revoice Conference, “[I] knew the character of my same-sex desire…I was skeptical of the effectiveness of any therapeutic interventions.”[1] But the article isn’t just about the failure of therapeutic treatments aimed at homosexuality. Hill also seems to implicate the means of grace as useless instruments in the wreckage of failed attempts.  

Hill’s end result is to capitulate. In other words, Hill writes that at some point he felt free to ponder whether his “sexual orientation be something that God does not want to remove.” Now, to ponder the question is permissible but to actually argue the position that God wants sin to remain in his saints is contrary to God’s program of sanctification in the saint. The believer is definitively removed from the kingdom of darkness and set down in the kingdom of the Son of God’s love so that he might not offer his members as instruments of wickedness but rather as instruments of righteousness.  The aim and goal of the Christian life is holiness and it stands to gospel reason that God does not stand in the way the believer’s progressive conformity to Christ.

At this point, Hill may, must and does argue that homosexual orientation is not sin.  Perhaps the question begging to be asked is why talk about your sexual orientation as something God does not want to remove but rather to leave like a thorn in the flesh? Is your sexual orientation a sinful thorn or not? Nevertheless, what does Hill mean by homosexual orientation?  He writes,

A sexual orientation is such a complex and, in most cases, it seems, intractable thing; I for one cannot imagine what ‘healing’ from my orientation would look like, given that it seems to manifest itself not only in physical attraction to male bodies but also in a preference for male company, with all that it entails,” such as conversation and emotional intimacy.[2]

According to Hill, his sexual orientation is so deeply part of who he is as a person that he can’t imagine not being homosexual.  At this point, one wonders whether Hill believes that sexual orientation is a thorn in his flesh as he described in First Things or if it is an intractable thing so personal that healing would reckon him unrecognizable at least to him. One senses it is the latter.

Remarkably, Hill goes on to argue that the fruit of one’s homosexual orientation can and actually does produce what Scripture describes in the life of the believer as good and godly behavior. He writes,

“Scripture would use other language, other categories, for describing what I’m doing in forming chaste same-sex friendships, and it wouldn’t describe it in negative categories. On the contrary, Scripture celebrates same-sex love.”

Thus, for Hill, the homosexual orientation is actually spiritually productive. He writes, “Just as chaste chivalry, to take just one example, can be an expression of heterosexuality, so we’re suggesting that chaste friendship (or a number of other ways of expressing love) can be an expression of homosexuality.” Thus, according to Hill, homosexual orientation is not sin but in fact actually produces the fruit of godliness called for in Scripture.

So, is the gospel of grace enough? Well, Hill might say that the gospel enables the Christian with a homosexual orientation to put off those things unbecoming of any Christian, namely, sexual immorality. However, the question begging to be asked is one of identity. Who is the believer in Christ? It is this question to which Hill is allergic. In fact, so allergic that he must argue that his homosexual orientation is so benign so deeply part of him that it need not be redeemed but is, in fact, productive.  As I read Hill, my biggest fear is that someone will think that an innovative explanation can provide more than Christ who has come clothed in the gospel of grace.

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.