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My Review of Spurgeon on the Christian Life by Michael Reeves*

It is my humble estimation that Charles Haddon Spurgeon is one of the most gifted preachers of the post Reformation era. His sermons still come alive when read today. It is little wonder then that many have labeled him the prince of preachers and deservedly so. But who was this man? Apart from his preaching what else can a Christian learn from his life and ministry? What did he teach and believe about the Christian life in this fallen world?

These are some of the key questions that Michael Reeves answers in his book Spurgeon on the Christian Life published by Crossway in 2018. Reeves himself captures the essence of his book in the introduction by observing, “This book is about Spurgeon’s theology of the Christian life…Spurgeon was unreservedly Christ-centered and Christ-shaped in his theology; and he was equally insistent on the vital necessity of the new birth. The Christian life is the new life in Christ, given by the Spirit and won by the blood of Christ shed on the cross” (p. 16).

In the first part of the book, Reeves focuses more on the life of Spurgeon. He shows how Spurgeon was a tender, affection, and generous man of deep affection for people. Spurgeon’s sense of humor could also hardly be concealed even when he was on the pulpit. In the second part, Reeves dwells more on Spurgeon’s love for Christ and his word and how this love shaped Spurgeon’s life and ministry. He also shows how John Calvin, the Puritans, and the Reformed theology significantly impacted Spurgeon’s preaching. The third and fourth parts of the book center on Spurgeon’s beliefs and teaching regarding new birth, baptism, sanctification, prayer, Christian’s suffering, and final glory.

Though not a full biography of Spurgeon I would highly recommend this book as an introduction to the life and ministry of Spurgeon, especially, for those who hardly know this man or have read little about him. Many primary sources have been cited in the book, which also act as excellent materials for further study or exploration. These primary sources also allow Spurgeon to speak for himself what he believed about the Christian life. The other strength of the book is that it is very engaging and is easier to read. Many sections of the third and fourth chapter are also good devotional materials.

As the title suggests, my initial expectation was to see more of what Spurgeon believed about many aspects of the Christian life.  However, you don’t get to that until you reach the third and fourth parts of the book. This, in my view, is one of the weak areas of the book. In addition to that my fellow Presbyterian and Reformed friends would find the section on Spurgeon’s beliefs about infant baptism, I prefer to call it covenantal baptism, to be the gloomiest part of the book (pp. 89-91). Reeves focuses more on what Spurgeon believed were the errors associated with paedobaptism without making a fair presentation of what actually the Reformed faith teaches about covenantal baptism.  May be that was beyond the objectives of the book; nonetheless, I wish Reeves would have at least briefly provided some biblical grounds why Presbyterians and Reformed believers baptize their children as well as highlight that covenantal baptism is not a baptismal regeneration as Spurgeon incorrectly argued.

All in all, Spurgeon on the Christian Life is a good book. It is well researched and provides a good starting point to get acquainted with the man who many fondly remember as the prince of preachers. Spurgeon on the Christian Lifewill definitely leave your mind informed and your hart warmed.

*Crossway has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book.

 

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Christianity and Society

The Church and Politics in Malawi

In less than a year from now, Malawians will go to polls to elect their president, members of parliament, and local government leaders (councilors). As always, some of the questions that Christians have now include should Christians join politics and what role should the church play in regard to politics? In this post, I am wrestling with such questions and endeavoring to give answers that I believe are biblical.

We will do well to begin by reminding ourselves that Christ is the King over all the earth (Col. 3:16, 17). He is the one who removes kings and sets up kings (Dan. 2:21). As one Dutch Reformed theologian once observed, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Therefore, Christians can and should join politics if the Lord calls them. They should not be afraid to accept the calling believing that politics is a dirty game as it is often said. For sure, politics like any other human institution can be full of sin at times, but Christianity is not Gnosticism, which believes that the matter or the world is evil. Christianity does not minimize the consequences of the fall on human race yet at the same time it is always hopeful of the power of the gospel and the knowledge that Christ is redeeming his creation including the fallen political systems of our world.

The Westminster Confession of Faith best captures the Bible’s teaching about a Christian’s involvement in politics: “It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate (government official or politician), when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion” (Chapter 31.5). Please notice the emphasis here is that Christians who are called into politics are to maintain piety, justice and peace of their country.

But while Christians could be called to serve as politicians, the calling of the church is different. The church is never called into politics. She is called to pray for magistrates and give them godly counsel when needed to but she should never turn the pulpit into a political podium.  (There is a great nuance here since when Christians join politics it could also be said in one sense that the church is in politics. But I believe that you get what I am trying to put across. The separation of the church and state is never absolute because we will always have members of the church who are also members of the state).

Again, the Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful here: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate” (Chapter 31.5)

It is important to notice that the confession does not completely prohibit the church from petitioning or advising the government. When the civil magistrates have asked the church for advice, the church should do so gladly and dutifully. “The Church and State may co-operate in the advancement of objects common to both; but each of them must be careful to act within its own proper sphere- the one never intermeddling with the affairs which properly belong to the province of the other.”[1] Nonetheless,  the cooperation of the State and the Church must never mean blurring the line that clearly separates the two.

That said, the next question I anticipate is: doesn’t the church ought to have a prophetic voice in society? Certainly, the church has a prophetic voice in any society; but it does not mean that she as an institution should become directly involved in the politics because that is not why Christ established his church. Christ often demonstrated that his mission was to be differentiated from that of the state. For example, Jesus refused a request of a certain man who asked him to mediate between him and his brother regarding their inheritance and specified that he was not a judge of a civil court (Luke 12:13:14). Another example is when Jesus was before Pontius Pilate. Christ refused to associate the Church with the kingdoms of this world when he clearly told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence,” (John 18:36).

What if the government oppresses its citizenry?  Isn’t the church supposed to defend the poor and vulnerable and even be willing to pick up arms to fight against a wicked state? The Bible calls Christians to obey only the lawful commands of the magistrates. Therefore if the magistrates command what is unlawful, the church ought to stand up and declare as the early church that she will obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). Nevertheless, it’s never the calling of the church to be in forefront picking up arms against the state.

The Reformers, more especially, John Calvin ably discusses how the Church should respond to “wicked and intolerable” governments. He notes that the Church which in this case means members of the visible church (whom Calvin also refers to as private citizens) should never directly pick up arms against the state but rather support other magistrates who after observing the wickedness of their government/leadership have mounted resistance. This teaching is sometimes called the Doctrine of Lesser Magistrates. Calvin writes,

For if there are now any magistrates of the people appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings…I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with the duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.[2]

The Church is not a lesser magistrate (an opposition party). The lesser magistrates, especially those who are Christians, have a responsibility to restrain the evil of unjust kings over their subjects. In cases where the greater magistrates (governing authorities) are oppressing their citizens, Christians should come behind the lesser magistrates and support, pray, and encourage them in their efforts to curb the evil or injustices from the greater magistrates. All this is to be done within the bounds of the just laws.

[1]Robert Shaw, The Reformed faith: exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith(Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2008), 398.

[2]Calvin,Institutes of the Christian religion.IV.XX.31

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Christianity and Society, Christianity and theology

Polygamy is NOT “African Christianity”

Last week one of Malawi’s Paramount Chiefs, Chief M’Bwelwa V was quoted by the country’s media warning the Presbyterian church in northern Malawi to stop preaching against polygamy and drunkenness. The chief’s warning has received mixed reactions. However, one reaction I have found interesting is the one that argues for “decolonization of theology.” In case of polygamy, proponents of decolonization of theology argue that polygamy is a Ngoni culture or  African culture hence African theologians and pastors should develop a theology that doesn’t condemn it because, the proponents further argue, the teaching against polygamy was imposed upon Africans by Western missionaries.

There is a lot that can be said about this fallacious argument; however, I would like to briefly point out two things: First, looking at the history of Christianity in Africa we know that even African theologians like Tertullian in 2nd and 3rd Century AD and St. Augustine in 4th Century AD condemned polygamy.

Tertulian wrote,”We do not indeed forbid the union of man and woman, blest by God as the seminary of the human race, and devised for the replenishment of the earth and the furnishing of the world and therefore permitted, yet singly. For Adam was the one husband of Eve, and Eve his one wife, one woman, one rib,” (Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to  AD 325 Vol. IV by Alexander Roberts).

St. Augustine in his treatise, On Marriage and Concupiscence, argued: “That the good purpose of marriage, however, is better promoted by one husband with one wife, than by a husband with several wives, is shown plainly enough by the very first union of a married pair, which was made by the Divine Being Himself” (Book 1, Chapter 10).

So, it is misleading to argue that preaching against polygamy is a Western theology. It is NOT! Our own forefathers  taught against polygamy long way before Western missionaries stepped their foot on African soil because our forefathers were faithful to God’s word and not their culture.

Some of my fellow pastors and church leaders who have to preach against polygamy in Malawi

Second, the proponents of decolonization of theology point to the fact that no where in the Bible is polygamy explicitly condemned except in the case of office bearers in the church (1 Tim. 3:2, 12). However, we know that when God the designer of marriage first established it married one man and one woman. More importantly human marriage is a reflection of the perfect marriage of Christ and his bride the Church. Christ has only one bride so should also those who say they follow Christ.

We should not forget that the first person to have a polygamous marriage was Lamech from the ungodly line of Cain (Gen. 4:19). In case of the patriarchs like Jacob or David we should note that theirs were not the ideal situations. Although they were God’s people what they did was not right and never reflected what their God had initially intended. So although proponents of decolonization of theology will cite these examples, they know that they are not good examples. So why dwell on bad examples when the Bible tells us to, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8)?

 

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My Life as a Christian

Lessons and Highlights from Twin Lakes Fellowship 2018

With one of the keynote speakers, Rev. H.B. Charles of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida.

From Monday to Thursday last week I had an opportunity to attend a gathering of ministers, elders, seminary professors, and seminarians called Twin Lakes Fellowship (TLF). The First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi (PCA) organizes the fellowship with this vision in mind: “We seek (by brotherly persuasion, helpful publication, friendly discussion, and compelling example) to build a church that will be faithful to the following commitments: expository preaching, biblical worship, biblical and confessional theology, a biblical understanding of the Gospel, a biblical understanding of conversion, a biblical understanding of evangelism, a biblical understanding of church membership, a biblical understanding of mutual accountability in the church, a biblical understanding of church government, and a biblical view of Christian discipleship – and thus a church with a shared vision of ministry.”

As always, this year’s gathering was rich and full of sound and God-glorifying teachings, exhortations plus fellowship. This year’s TLF granted me an opportunity to fellowship with brothers from the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), Free Church of Scotland, Southern Baptist, and other denominations. I was significantly edified and encouraged by various sessions and interactions with my brothers. While I cannot exhaust everything in this post, here are some of the highlights and lessons from TLF 2018:

We cannot do ministry without the Holy Spirit. The keynote speakers, H.B. Charles and Geoff Thomas, emphasized on our need for the Holy Spirit to empower us not only for ministry but also for our personal walk with Christ. Without the Holy Spirit our preaching and shepherding is in vain. I know that many of us know this truth very well but how often do we live as if we don’t know it. So, it was a blessing to be reminded again of our need and dependence upon the Holy Spirit who not only empowers us but also continually intercedes for us. As H.B. put it, the Holy Spirit is our ultimate prayer partner.

The best of men are men at best. Jon D. Payne gave a lecture on the life and ministry of Dr. David Martin Lloyd Jones fondly known by many as the doctor. We praise the Lord for the life and faithful ministry of Dr. Jones who as Payne put it is probably the greatest preacher of the 20th Century. Yet despite being used greatly by Christ, the doctor just like all of us was also a man of weaknesses both personal and theological. Payne focused more on the latter and highlighted some of the doctor’s shortcomings in the area of pneumatology (doctrine of the Holy Spirit). D. Martin Lloyd Jones like many of the Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians today believed in the baptism of the Holy Spirit subsequent to conversion. He even supported the charismatic movement of his day in private but never in public. As I sat and listened to the lecture, I recalled one of my professors in seminary who often reminded us: the best of men are men at best. The best among us are made of feet of clay. This truth calls for humility and teachable spirit when fellow brothers point us to our own shortcomings, which we might be unaware of.

Never neglect the courts of the church. I was encouraged to hear of what the Lord is doing in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The denomination is slowly recovering from the liberal direction it had taken over the past four decades or so. One of the factors that has contributed to this good development is conservative men taking initiative and being fully involved in the courts of the church, especially, at presbytery and synod levels. These brothers have with patience and endurance fought the good fight without despair. The Lord is now rewarding their faithfulness. One lesson I gathered as I heard this uplifting news was to never forget that the Lord is still at work even in our church courts although they might be imperfect and often heavily tainted with our sin.

The power is in the word itself. Using the parable of the growing seed in Mark 4:26-29, David Strain encouraged us to continue steadfastly with the means of grace ministry. He focused more on the power of God’s word. As preachers, we have been called to do two things: sow the seed and harvest when the fruit is ready. What happens between the time of sowing and harvesting is none of our business. “Growth is God’s business, faithfulness is ours.” The power of the gospel is not in our gifts, skills, academic abilities, or anything in us. So we should never be tempted to think that we could improve the gospel in any way. What a comforting truth! I praise the Lord that I was at TLF this year because this is exactly what I need to hear.

All is not lost in Scotland. I should confess that I have a special place for Scotland in my heart. As a Presbyterian from Malawi, Scotland is my “holy” land so to speak since it was the Scottish missionaries who first brought Presbyterianism to Malawi in the late 1800s. Over the years I have been hearing depressing stories of Presbyterianism dying in Scotland. But I was encouraged last week to hear stories of God’s powerful work there. I met some brothers who are involved in planting churches in the toughest and poorest neighborhoods of Scotland through 20 Schemes Project. My heart rejoiced and I praised the Lord for the great things he is doing in the once called ‘land of the Book.’ I will continue to pray for revival in the land of the Scots as I also continue to pray for revival in Malawi and North America.

“Brother, we are praying for you and we will get behind God’s work in Malawi.” During the fellowship I had a couple of opportunities to share my desire of returning to the land of my birth to plant confessional Presbyterian churches as well as train young men for ministry. Confessional Presbyterianism has been on its deathbed for a long time in Malawi. There is a need to revive it, the Lord willing, as one way of combating false teachers and prophets that have gone out deceiving people and hewing cisterns that will not satisfy. The work is huge and who is sufficient for these things? For sure, not me! But praise God that Christ is sufficient and has promised, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.” Oh, what a promise! So I was greatly encouraged to see the brothers getting excited with the work and praying for it.

As the week came to an end, I packed up to fly out of the warm and beautiful spring of Jackson, Mississippi into the snowy and gloomy spring of Lansing, Michigan (not complaining at all for I have learnt to give thanks in all things). Throughout the way I praised the Lord for a rich fellowship of like-minded brothers. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity…It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” (Psalm 133:1, 3).

 

 

 

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Christianity and theology

A Review of God’s Grace in Your Suffering by David Powlison

Crossway asked me to consider applying and joining their Blog Review Program. I gladly did and was approved hence from time to time you will see or read reviews of their books on this blog. I trust and pray that these reviews will be helpful to you as you consider reading or recommending books. My reviews will focus more on books about Bible studies/devotions, spiritual growth, theology, Christian living, Christian leadership, and pastoral ministry. God’s Grace in Your Suffering by David Powlison is my first review in this program. Crossway has provided me with a complimentary copy of the book.

One wise and godly man once noted that there are always three groups of people in this world. Those who are just coming out of hard times, those who are passing through hard times, and those who are about to enter into hard times. He was very right. We are all acquainted with suffering, pain, sorrow and hardship. None of us is immune to it and God never promises immunity to suffering even for his own children as David Powlison rightly observes at the beginning of his book, God’s Grace in Your Suffering.

However, although God does not guarantee immunity, he does assure and provide his children with grace and help in their suffering. This is the point that Powlison is driving home in his book by answering two key questions: “When you face trouble, loss, disability, and pain, how does the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ meet you and comfort you? How does grace and goodness find you, touch you, work with you, and walk with you through deep waters?”

Powlison ably answers these questions by taking the reader through the verses of that famous hymn which is a favorite to many Christians, “How Firm the Foundation.” As he makes his way through the hymn Powlison also shares his personal experiences of how the truths of the hymn have positively impacted him. Although most words of the hymn are direct quotes from the Scriptures, the book could have failed miserably if it focused on the hymn alone. But I am thankful that Powlison takes us beyond the hymn to the Bible itself and to the Christ of the Bible as the true source of encouragement and comfort in our trials.

Another recommendable thing about God’s Grace in Your Suffering is that it is very practical. Powlison has endeavored to accomplish this by engaging the reader and asking probing questions that enables the reader to apply the truths of Scripture to his own situation. True to its own assertion, this book is a workshop of an afflicted soul.

I think I would be right to say that when passing through hard times one has no time for jargons or hard reading and would greatly appreciate a book that hammers the nail right on its head. Powlison has also managed to do just that in this book. God’s Grace in Your Suffering is an easy reading yet full of profound truths hewn from the ever-trustworthy word of God.

 

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Christianity and theology

What About the Confessions and Catechisms?

One thing that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches are known for is the confessions and catechisms. The Presbyterian churches tend to subscribe to the Westminster Standards, which consists of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The Reformed churches lean more towards the Three Forms of Unity, which consists of the Belgic Confession of Faith, Canons of Dort, and Heidelberg Catechism.

One question I often hear regarding the confessions and the catechisms is why do we have them? Is the Bible not enough? Of course, the Bible is enough and we always need to remind ourselves that the confessions and catechisms are subject to the authority of Scripture. The confessions are not there to compete with the Bible rather they are there to aid in understanding various doctrines of the Bible. They don’t have their own authority. Their authority is derived from the truths of Scripture contained in them.

In addition to assisting us understand the Bible’s teaching better, the confessions and catechisms also help us to let others know exactly what we believe. There are so many churches that claim to teach the Bible. However, not all these churches truly teach the Bible. Therefore since “we teach the Bible” can mean different things to different people, the confessions and catechisms help us to communicate exactly what we believe the Bible teaches. As one theologian put it, “We are not a cult where we hide our beliefs from others. We are a church, so we proclaim our faith to the world. Good (confessions and) catechisms help us to do that. They say, “Here’s what we believe. You can study them, question them, reject them, or embrace them.”

Catechisms are also essential tools when it comes to shepherding and teaching the little hearts of our children. I have in mind here the shorter catechism and the Catechism for Young Children. These summarize the key doctrines of the Bible in simpler terms that even a child can understand. But make no mistake to think that since they were written mainly with children in mind then adults cannot benefit from them. To the contrary many adults have also benefited from reading and memorizing these catechisms.

When I was a child, my grandfather bought me the shorter catechism and taught me God’s truth from it. I imbibed and memorized its truths with the innocent zeal of a child. Later in my teenage years I wandered away into the world but the Spirit of God continued to use those truths stored in my mind to convict me of my sin and eventually begin the gracious work of bringing me back to faith.

Lastly but not least, the confessions and catechisms also help those who have been called to serve as ministers or elders to be accountable to their fellow elders and ministers. When one is ordained into the office of an elder or pastor they declare to their fellow elders or ministers their subscription to the confessions and by doing that they are in essence saying, “Brothers, I believe the same things you believe and what our forefathers in the faith have always believed over the centuries. If at any time my life or my teaching is not in agreement with these truths, please hold me accountable. Show me my error and help me back on the path of truth.” The confessions and catechisms, therefore, help elders or ministers to be brother’s keeper.

 

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Uncategorized

Martin Bucer: Faithfulness in Obscurity

Many readers of this post would know Martin Luther and John Calvin. These are the names that usually come to mind whenever we think of the Sixteenth Century Protestant Reformation. But how many are familiar with Martin Bucer? How many of us will be able to write at least a paragraph on this reformer? The point I am trying to drive home by these questions is that unlike Luther and Calvin, Bucer is one of obscure reformers of the Sixteenth century. Yet he was the man the Lord used to mentor the great theologian of the Reformation era, John Calvin.

Martin Bucer was born on November 11, 1491 in the town of Schlettstdat in France. Later, he became a Roman Catholic monk in Dominican order. In 1581, Bucer was in the city of Heidelberg, Germany when Martin Luther came to the city for a disputation. In the debate, Luther asserted God’s sovereign grace in salvation and that salvation is by faith alone. This marked the turning point for Bucer who attended the disputation. He fully embraced the doctrines of grace and began to preach the same. He later settled in Strasbourg and labored faithfully in teaching, preaching, and shepherding God’s people for years.

Somehow, John Calvin came to know Bucer and wanted to spend the rest of his life in Strasbourg writing and laboring alongside him. So in April 1536, Calvin left Paris for Strasbourg. But due to the war between King Franz I of France and Emperor Karl of Austria, he could not take a direct route. He decided to go through Geneva.

In Geneva, William Farel, another reformer, persuaded him to stay and co-labour with him. So Calvin settled in Geneva and began to biblically reforming the church but some resisted Calvin’s reformation efforts. Eventually the Genevan city council expelled Calvin from the city in 1538 and he headed to Strasbourg where he labored with Bucer and pastored a French refugees church for three years.

In the period of three years, the Lord used Bucer to mentor the younger Calvin. Calvin himself wrote this of Bucer: “(Bucer is the man of) profound scholarship, his bounteous knowledge about a wide range of subjects, his keen mind, his wide reading, and many other different virtues, remains unsurpassed today by anyone, can be compared with only a few, and excels the vast majority.”[1] Undoubtedly, Bucer had a great impact upon the great theologian and pastor yet Bucer remains little known to many today.

Again, the point I am trying to put across is that just like in the Bible where we have saints who were used mightily by God but are little known, we also have little known reformers who played a great role in the Reformation. Bucer is an encouragement to many who are laboring faithfully for the Lord yet the world knows little or even nothing about them. Your faithfulness is not nullified by your obscurity. The Lord sees it and he will surely reward it. Not all of us were predestined to be the “Calvins.” Some of us are the “Bucers,” but in everything we ought to be thankful and give glory to Christ for he is really the one who is at work through us all (1 Cor. 3:6-11).

[1] Keith Mathison, Ligoneir Ministries, http://www.ligonier.org/blog/martin-bucer-reformer-and-his-times/ accessed on November 30, 2017.

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