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What is Union School of Theology? What does your role as president of the school entail?
About five years ago, I became president of Union, a Reformed seminary that has been faithfully serving the United Kingdom church since 1936. As I saw it, though, the church situation in Europe had become so bad that we needed to take decisive new steps. The first was to go multilocational, to make a solid theological education as accessible as possible wherever people are. In God’s grace, we now have more than thirty locations across Europe and North America. We also set up research and publishing arms to raise the theologians and teachers of tomorrow and to feed European churches with solid theology.
Perhaps even more importantly, we established Union Mission, a ministry that channels the financial support of donors into church growth projects, especially those of the leaders we have raised. The Lord has blessed this so richly that we have now distributed more than $1 million to help resource the leaders we have trained. Now, as our school, publishing, research, and mission work together, Union provides a mission ecosystem that can accelerate healthy, sustainable church growth.
What are your hopes for Union School of Theology?
My longing is to see the reformation of Christ’s church and to see her grow through shaping, deploying, and supporting wise and godly servant-leaders. Now across Europe, I see institution after institution drifting from their biblical moorings and seeing so many shipwrecks, so I want to pray and do all I can to keep Union faithful. And not just faithful on paper—not only do I want our students to have robust biblical convictions; I want them to live and serve with integrity to those convictions. I want us to raise leaders who truly delight in God, who grow in Christ, who will be servants of the church, and who yearn to see the glory of God filling the earth.
What is a common pitfall that students of theology must strive to avoid?
Probably the commonest pitfall is forgetting that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). All too easily, theological studies can become exercises in puffing ourselves up. After a year or two’s study, infatuated with new theological concepts, the student can be filled with a gnostic pride. His love for God dies in the devilish thrill of acquiring a knowledge that means power. Then this skewed knowledge proves its own perversity in his character as he becomes a graceless and unkind theologian, ever itching for a chance to show off his prowess. But there is no true knowledge of God where there is no right fear of Him. The fear of God is the only possible foundation on which true knowledge is built: all knowledge acquired elsewhere is counterfeit and will eventually prove itself as such.
What is the greatest need of the church in the United Kingdom and in Europe as a whole?
The United Kingdom and Europe are about a generation ahead of the United States in terms of our collapse into post-Christian secularism. Amid this, the church is starving for lack of leaders and teachers. If the church is to re-grow in a healthy way, it needs faithful leaders who walk in wisdom and integrity and who feed the church the pure Word of God.
I’m also convinced that if the church is to turn back the tide of unbelief, the church in the United States cannot stand aloof from the problems of the church in Europe. And the church in Europe must prepare the church in North America for the gathering storm. We must stand together for the cause of Christ.
Why is a proper understanding of the Trinity so crucial for Christians?
Christianity is not primarily about lifestyle change; it is about knowing God. To know and grow to enjoy Him is what we are saved for. However, as John Calvin once wrote, if we try to think about God without thinking about the Father, Son, and Spirit, then “only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.” In other words, to know God as Father, Son, and Spirit is to know the living God, truly: it is the point of our existence.
Moreover, if we content ourselves with speaking of God vaguely or abstractly, without the Father, Son, and Spirit, we will never know the beauty and glory that distinguishes the true God from idols. If, for example, we content ourselves with being mere monotheists and speak of God only in terms so vague they could apply to Allah as much as the Trinity, then we will never enjoy or share what is so fundamentally and delightfully different about Christianity. Such vagueness is the source of all spiritual coldness.
What is a common mistake Christians often make when thinking about the Trinity?
Think how many times you have heard, “Dear Father . . . thank You for dying for us”; “Dear Jesus . . . thank You for sending Your Son. We pray this in Jesus’ name”; etc. Throwing the Father, Son, and Spirit into a blender like this is politely called modalism by theologians. I prefer to call it moodalism. Moodalists think that God is one person who has three different moods (or modes, if you must).
The trouble is, once you puree the persons, it becomes impossible to taste Their gospel. If the Son is just a mood God slips in and out of, then for us to be adopted as children in the Son is no great thing—when God moves on to another mood, there will be no Son for us to be in. And even when God is in His Son mood, there will be no Father for us to be children of. The moodalist is left with no assurance and a deeply confused God. Somehow the Son must be His own Father, send Himself, pray to Himself, and so on.
What does it mean to fear God?
The fear of the Lord that Scripture commends and that the gospel produces is not a fear of punishment (see Jer. 33:8–9). It is the sort of fear Hosea describes when he prophesies how “they shall come in fear to the LORD and to his goodness” (Hos. 3:5, emphasis added). In fact, it is Jesus’ own filial fear that believers are brought to share. Jesus is the Spirit-anointed Christ, who Isaiah prophesied would be filled with “the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD” (Isa. 11:2–3, emphasis added).
According to Psalm 130:4, this delighted, fearful wondering at God is caused especially by the forgiveness the gospel brings us. For it is our justification by faith alone that turns our natural dread of God into the fearful, trembling adoration of beloved children. “Oh! that a great God should be a good God,” John Bunyan wrote, “a good God to an unworthy, to an undeserving, and to a people that continually do what they can to provoke the eyes of His glory; this should make us tremble.”
Is the Reformation over? Why or why not?
Justification was the matter of the Reformation, and fundamental disagreement still remains between Rome and the heirs of the Reformation over justification. The catechism of the Roman Catholic Church still defines justification as “not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man.” According to Rome, justification is a process of inner renewal, of becoming more inherently just or righteous. Rome, therefore, teaches that eternal life is “at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits.” This is quite different from the Apostle Paul’s understanding, that justification is a divine declarative act whereby God pronounces the sinner righteous in Christ by grace alone through faith alone (see Rom. 4:4–8).
So, the Reformation is not over because the controversy of the Reformation has not been resolved. Rome has not changed. But also, the Reformation cannot be over because the Reformation was not, principally, a negative movement, about moving away from Rome; it was a positive movement, about moving toward the gospel. The Reformation cannot be over until the church has been completely reformed and made faithful to the Word of God.
Which doctrine of the Reformation do you think is most in danger of being lost or forgotten today?
Justification by faith alone! Quite simply, Christians will never love God and lean into the Christian life without it. You will not love God unless you know He loves you first. You will not love Him unless you know a security to enjoy Him in. Therefore, justification by faith alone must be the very foundation of healthy Christian living. Without it you will not have a life of Christian joy and integrity before God. Justification by faith alone means we can approach a holy God with absolutely honesty about our failure and we can approach Him with absolute boldness because of Christ and not because of anything we've done.
How does the doctrine of union with Christ offer Christians comfort and assurance?
John Calvin once wrote, “It is indisputable that no one is loved by God apart from Christ: ‘This is the beloved Son,’ in whom dwells and rests the Father’s love. And from him it then pours itself upon us.” His point was that the Spirit unites us to the beloved Son so that instead of asking, “How righteous am I?” to know how I stand before God, I ask, “How righteous is Christ?” And then I smile. For amid my ups and downs, He is utterly righteous, yesterday, today, and forever—and all His is mine.
When we forget our union with Christ, we think we are what we do. But when we remember our status in Him, we become much more immune to both pride and failure. In Him, I am no failure. In Him, what have I to be proud of but Him?