Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Covenant Theology’ Category

I’ve been reading through The Marrow of Modern Divinity and have found it wonderfully helpful! Let’s face it, covenant theology isn’t exactly the easiest thing to figure out. There are always those nagging questions. E.g.: Was Israel really in some sort of ‘covenant of works’? What is the exact difference between the ‘law’ and the ‘gospel’? Where do works come into the equation of our salvation?

These and many other issues are intuitively addressed and ingenuously explained in this brilliant volume of singularly masterful 17th century English literature. This is both a piece of art and a work of theology. The author (Edward Fisher) has drawn form a broad spectrum of reformed divinity on covenant theology and then translated it (as it were) into very laymen’s terms. This is both church history and biblical exegesis, wrapped into engaging dialogues between four characters: “Evangelista,” “Antinomista,” “Nomista,” and “Neophytus.” The following is an excerpt regarding The Natural Bias Towards the Covenant of Works:

Alas! there are thousands in the world that make a Christ of their works; and here is their undoing, &c. They look for righteousness and acceptation more in the precept than in the promise, in the law than the gospel, in working than in believing; and so miscarry. Many poor ignorant souls amongst us, when we bid them obey and do duties, they can think of nothing but working themselves to life; when they are troubled, they must lick themselves whole, when wounded, they must run to the salve of duties, and stream of performances, and neglect Christ. Nay, it is to be feared that there be divers [many] who in words are able to distinguish between the law and gospel, and in their judgments hold and maintain, that man is justified by faith without the works of the law; and yet in effect and practice, that is to say, in heart and conscience, do otherwise. [1] And there is some touch of this in us all; otherwise we should not be so up and down in our comforts and believing as we are still, and cast down with every weakness as we are. [2]

Thomas Boston’s Notes:
[1] It is indeed the practice of every unregenerate man, whatever be his knowledge or professed principles; for the contrary practice is the practice of the saints, and of them only, “Blessed are the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3). “We are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3).
[2] For these follow from our building so much on something in ourselves, which is always very variable; and so little on the “grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:1), which is an immovable foundation.
The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Christian Focus, Scotland: 2009), 101, 106.

Sinclair Ferguson says of this book:

Anyone who comes to grips with the issues raised in the Marrow of Modern Divinity will almost certainly grow by leaps and bounds in understanding three things: the grace of God, the Christian life, and the very nature of the gospel itself. I personally owe it a huge debt.

Need I say more? “Pick up and read,” my friend. Pick up and read!

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Is the Covenant of Grace a unilateral (or unconditional) covenant of promise (as maintained by theologians such as Dr. Michael Horton in such works as “God of Promise,” now retitled “Introducing Covenant Theology“)? Or is that merely a Lutheran innovation?

No less than the Reformed Orthodox theologian Francis Turretin (1623-87), at least, argued for a unilateral formulation of the Covenant of Grace:

Not without reason did the Holy Spirit wish to designate the covenant of grace under the name of “promise,” because it rests entirely upon the divine promise. In this it wonderfully differs, not only from all human covenants (which consist of a mutual obligation and stipulation of the parties), but from the covenant of works (which although it also had its own promise on the part of God to the doers and so was founded on the goodness of God, still it required obedience on the part of man that it might be put into execution). But here God wished the whole of this covenant to depend upon his promise, not only with regard to the reward promised by him, but also with regard to the duty demanded from us. Thus God performs here not only his own part, but also ours; and if the covenant is given for the happiness of only the one party, it is guarded and fulfilled by the fidelity of only one party. Hence not only God’s blessings fall under the promise, but also man’s duty; not only the end, but also the means and conditions leading us to it. – Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 12.1.11.

And although the promise of the covenant is conditionally proposed and applied to individuals, it does not follow that the promise itself depends upon man’s will and so is not absolute.  That conditional promise is a consectary [consequence] of an absolute promise and it is thus commanded as the duty of man that it may be produced at the same time and at once in the elect as the gift of God. – Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 12.6.3 

Thus, at least for Turretin, it is not wrong to conceive of the Covenant of Grace as a unilateral (or unconditional) arraignment. Although faith is certainly the condition apart from which the promise is void, even this faith is a gift of God and secured by God as part of the promise.

Read Full Post »

Reading through Turretin’s section on the ‘Covenant of Grace and Its Twofold Economy’ has been simply brilliant. Speaking of the Mosaic Law, he picks up the idea of the “spirit of bondage” (Rom 8:15):

This bondage, the spirit of bondage attended (adjusted to the servile economy, Rom. 8:15), which commonly wrought a servile fear of God, the judge, and a dread of punishment. From this continual anxiety and solicitude as it were by the law and its threats sounded daily in their ears (more than alacrity) by the doctrine of grace preached sparingly and somewhat obscurely; not that believers were absolutely destitute of the spirit of adoption…, but because it excited emotions suitable to that condition, in which the heir being still a child did not differ much from a servant.

Hence rigor and severity arose from the legal discourses frequently mingled and the promises of grace repeated somewhat rarely and obscurely; also through compulsion, by which they were impelled to duty through fear of punishment rather than from the love of God and of righteousness; Moses continually like a hard master with his rod, not so much persuading as extorting obedience. Here belongs the terrible apparatus under which the law was given, by which not only the people, but Moses himself also is said to have been terrified. That rigor was not without purpose; the wantonness of Israel could hardly otherwise be thoroughly tamed, whom moses and the other prophets so often reproached for its hard neck and adamantine hearts.
Institutes of Elenctic Theology, volume 2, Section 12, p. 229.

Read Full Post »


Whenever one begins ‘reading up’ on a certain doctrine or a challenging issue, countless hours can go into endless reading.  If the case is particularly thorny, one can often end up even more confused (and frustrated) than ever before. It seems fair to say that the doctrine of baptism is probably one of thorniest issues in recent church history.

My effort here is to merely introduce readers to John Calvin (1509-1564) and his teaching on baptism. It would seem a misfortune if Protestants today attempt to learn about this doctrine all the while overlooking the work of theologians and teachers in our church’s history like Calvin.

Personally, I have found Calvin to be incomparably helpful in expounding biblical truth and clarifying difficult doctrines. Furthermore, his ability to engage polemical issues, take opponents objections in their full force, and then turn them around and dispatch them in a definitive manner, makes his writing seem unparalleled in some respects.

The following is a compilation of  Calvin quotations from his Institutes of the Christian Religion on the doctrine of baptism.  It begins with his explanation of the sacraments in general, moves to the doctrine of baptism itself, and finally ends with a defense of infant baptism. Without further introduction, here is Calvin:

The Sacraments

We have in the sacraments another aid to our faith related to the preaching of the gospel. It is very important that some definite doctrine concerning them be taught, that we many learn from it both the purpose for which they were instituted and their present use.

It is clear from the outset that the sacraments (and thus baptism) are about the gospel, and are as such to be an “aid to our faith.” For this reason, the sacraments were very important to Calvin, and their right use of tremendous importance.

First we must consider what a sacrament is. It seems to me that a simple and proper definition would be to say that it is an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promise of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men. Here is another briefer definition: one may call it a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward him. (4.14.1)

So we see that there are two things here: First (and primarily), the sacrament is a sign and seal of God’s gracious promise of good will toward us in the Gospel. And secondarily, it is an attestation of our own commitment to God.

Word and Sign

Now, from the definition that I have set forth we understand that a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it as a sort of appendix, with the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself, and of making it more evident to us and in a sense ratifying it. By this means God provides first for our ignorance and dullness, then for our weakness. Yet properly speaking, it is not so much needed to confirm his Sacred Word as to establish us in faith in it. For God’s truth is of itself firm and sure enough, and it cannot receive better confirmation from any other source than from itself. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles wavers, totters, and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures wo always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings. (4.14.3)

So, the sacraments come as a confirmation of the word of promise, further sealing it upon our consciences, and strengthening our otherwise always weak and trembling faith.  Once again, the sacraments are gospel, and are intended to help us in our neediness. God has purposed to condescend to our weakness in this way, and instituted this rite – even these sacramental signs. Because of this, we realize that God has considered us weak enough that he would not leave us with only his word, but would further confirm it by visible and tangible signs. That’s how weak we really are.

Naturally, then, we may expect our human pride to despise any notion of our dependency upon God’s provision. We might also expect our mortal enemy to defuse as much confusion and disruption into this ordinance as possible. If this is to be our lifeline, it stands to reason that the flesh oppose it and the enemy seek to over throw it.  And this can be seen in Church history:

What, therefore, was practiced under papal tyranny involved a monstrous profanation of the mysteries [sacraments]. For they thought it enough if the priest mumbled the formula of consecration while the people looked on bewildered and without comprehension. Indeed, they deliberately saw to it that, from this, nothing of the doctrine should penetrate to the people; for they spoke everything in Latin among unlearned men. Afterward, superstition came to the point that they believed consecration duly performed only in a hoarse whisper which few could hear.

Consequently, (and contrary to the Roman practice), “the sacrament requires preaching to beget faith.”

Indeed, it was known even from the beginning of the world that whenever God gave a sign to the holy patriarchs it was inseparably linked to doctrine, without which our senses would have been stunned in looking at the bare sign. Accordingly, when we hear the sacramental word mentioned, let us understand the promise, proclaimed in a clear voice by the minster, to lead the people by the hand wherever the sign tends and directs us. (4.14.4)

Thus, although we know and believe that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom 10.17), and as Luther said, the ears are the organ of the Christian, we still see that God has condescended to give us just these view visible signs. He hasn’t given us very many images, but these are two of them: Baptism, and The Supper.

And as Calvin never seemed to tire from citing the Church fathers (particularly Augustine) to help ground his teaching within the tradition of the church, he does so here:

Augustine calls a sacrament “a visible word” for the reason that it represents God’s promises as painted in a picture and sets them before our sign, portrayed graphically and in the manner of images. (4.14.6)

Received by Faith

Here Calvin moves onto discussing objections regarding those who partake of the sacramental signs and yet are impious and still under God’s wrath.

They are not reasoning closely enough when they argue that the sacraments are not testimonies of God’s grace because they are also offered to the wicked, who, however, do not find God more favorable but rather incur a heavier condemnation.  For by the same argument, because the gospel is heard but rejected by many, and because Christ was seen and recognized by many but very few of them accepted him, neither gospel nor Christ would be a testimony of God’s grace.

A similar thing can be seen in official documents. For most of the people ridicule and scorn that authentic seal, although they know that it was put forth by the prince to attest his will. Some treat it with indifference as not applying to them; others even curse it. Thus it can apply equally to both…

It is therefore certain that the Lord offers us mercy and the pledge of his grace both in his Sacred Word and in his sacraments. But it is understood only by those who take Word and sacraments with sure faith, just as Christ is offered and held forth by the Father to all unto salvation, yet not all acknowledge and receive him. In one place, Augustine, meaning to convey this, said that the efficacy of the Word is brought to light in the sacrament, not because it is spoken, but because it is believed. (4.14.7)

Thus, the sacraments actually hold forth the grace of God in Christ before the hearts of men. This is the free offer of the gospel, proclaimed in the Word, and attested and confirmed in the sacrament. This offer comes to us by God, well-intentioned and sincere.

And yet while some held too low a view of the sacraments (Zwinglian memorialists), others had too high a view (Lutherans, and namely Rome).

On the contrary, we must be reminded that, as these men weaken the force of the sacraments and completely overthrow their use, so, on the opposite side, there are those who attach to the sacraments some sort of secret powers with which one nowhere reads that God has endowed them. By this error the simple and unskilled are dangerously deceived, while they are both taught to seek God’s gifts where they cannot be found, and are gradually drawn away from God to embrace mere vanity rather than his truth. The schools of the Sophists have taught with remarkable agreement that the sacraments of the new law (those now used in the Christian church) justify and confer grace, provided we do not set up a barrier of mortal sin. How deadly and pestilential this notion is cannot be expressed–and the more so because for many centuries it has been a current claim in a good part of the world, to the great loss of the church. Of a certainty it is diabolical. For in promising a righteousness apart from faith, it hurls souls headlong to destruction. Secondly, because it draws the cause of righteousness from the sacraments, it binds men’s pitiable minds (of themselves more than enough inclined to earth) in this superstition, so that they repose in the appearance of a physical thing rather than in God himself.

But what is a sacrament received apart from faith but the most certain ruin of the church? For nothing ought to be expected from it apart from the promise but the promise no less threatens wrath to unbelievers than offers grace to believers. Hence, any man is deceived who thinks anythings more is conferred upon him thorough the sacraments than what is offered by God’s Word and received by him in truth faith.

From this something else follows: assurance of salvation does not depend upon participation in the sacrament, as if justification consisted in it. For we know that justification is lodged in Christ alone, and that it is communicated to us no less by the preaching of the gospel than by the seal of the sacrament, and without the latter can stand unimpaired. (4.14.14)

Thus, the sacraments (just like the word) brings the gospel to us, but is only effectual by faith. It must be mixed with faith. Apart from faith in Christ (the object of our faith) the sacraments (just like the word) only brings judgement to us. And poor souls are deluded who believe they can receive anything from God apart from faith in Christ. Separated from faith in Christ, the sacraments only condemn unbelievers.

The Sign Must be Distinguished from the Thing Signified

Hence that distinction (if it be duly understood), often noted by the same Augustine, between a sacrament and the matter of the sacrament. […]

He speaks of their separation when he writes, “in the elect alone the sacraments effect what they represent.” Again, when he writes thus of the Jews: “Although the sacraments were common to all, grace was not common–which is the power of the sacraments. So also the laver of regeneration is now common to all; but grace itself, by which the members of Christ are regenerated with their Head, is not common to all.” (4.14.15)

… by not lifting our minds beyond the visible sign, to transfer to it the credit for those benefits which are conferred upon us by Christ alone. And they are conferred through the Holy Spirit, who makes us partakers in Christ; conferred, indeed, with the help of outward signs, if they allure us to Christ; but when they are twisted in another direction, their whole worth is shamefully destroyed. (4.14.16)

Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace. But they avail and profit nothing unless received in faith. As with wine or oil or some other liquid, no matter how much you pour out, it will flow away and disappear unless the mouth of the vessel to receive it is open; moreover, the vessel will be splashed over on the outside, but will still remain void and empty. (4.14.17)

The Similarity between the Sacraments in the New Testament and the Old Testament

When these things are individually pointed explained, they will become much clearer.

For the Jews, circumcision was the symbol by which they were admonished that whatever comes forth from man’s seed, that is, the whole nature of mankind, is corrupt and needs pruning. Moreover, circumcision was a token and reminder to confirm them in the promise given to Abraham of the blessed seed in which all nations of the earth were to be blessed, from whom they were also to await their own blessing. […]

Accordingly, circumcision was the same thing to them as in Paul’s teaching it was to Abraham, namely, a sign of the righteousness of faith; that is, a seal by which they are more certainly assured that their faith, with which they awaited that seed, is accounted to them as righteousness by God. But elsewhere at a more appropriate occasion we shall pursue a fuller comparison of circumcision and baptism.

Baptisms and purification disclose to them their own uncleanness, foulness, and pollution, with which they were defiled in their own nature; but these rites promised another cleansing by which all their filth would be removed and washed away. And this cleansing was Christ. Washed by his blood, we bring his purity before God’s sight to cover all our defilements. (4.14.21)

So we see that just as the Israelites were to look beyond the sign of circumcision to the things signified (even Christ who was to be cut off for them) so too our sacraments today are the same.  Theirs looked forward in anticipation to the baptism of Christ in his death, and ours look back at it already accomplished.

As for our sacraments, the more fully Christ has been revealed to men, the more clearly do the sacraments present him to us from the time when he was truly revealed by the Father as he had been promised. For baptism attest to us that we have been cleansed and washed; the Eucharistic Supper, that we have been redeemed. In water, washing is represented; in blood, satisfaction. These two are found in Christ “… who” as John says, “came in water and blood” [1 John 5:6]; that is, to wash and to redeem. The Spirit of God is also witness of this. Indeed, “there are three witnesses in one: the water, the blood, and the Spirit” [5:8].

In the water and the blood we have testimony of cleansing and redemption. But the Spirit, the primary witness, makes us certain of such testimony. This lofty mystery has been admirably shown us in the cross of Christ, when water and blood flowed from his sacred side [John 19:34]. For this reason, Augustine has called it the wellspring of our sacraments. (4.14.22)

And now Calvin gets into the heart of the issue: Just what is the similarity between the Old and New Covenant? Where do we draw the line between continuity and discontinuity?

One thing becomes clear: with Abraham and all his children after him, although the sign of the promise differed for them (circumcision / baptism, passover feast / Lord’s Table), the thing signified always remained the same — namely the person of Christ and his work as part of the Covenant of Grace.

But we must utterly reject that Scholastic dogma (to touch on it also in passing) which notes such a great difference between the sacraments of the old and new law, as if the former only foreshadowed God’s grace, but the later give it as a present reality. Indeed, the apostle speaks just as clearly concerning the former as the latter when he teaches that the fathers ate the same spiritual food as we, and explains that food as Christ [1 Cor. 10:3]. Who dared treat as an empty sign that which revealed the true communion of Christ to the Jews? […]

Now, that the comparison should be appropriate, it was needful for him to show that there is no inequality between us and them in those boons in which he forbade us to boast falsely. He therefore first makes them equal to us in sacraments. And he leaves us no shred of privilege which could make souls hope to go unpunished. Nor is it lawful for us to attribute more to our baptism than he elsewhere attributes to circumcision when he calls it the seal of the righteousness of faith [Rom. 4:21]. Therefore, whatever is shown us today in the sacraments, the Jews of old received in their own–that is, Christ with his spiritual riches. They felt the same power in their sacraments as do we in ours; these were seals of divine good will toward them, looking to eternal salvation. If our opponents had been skilled interpreters of The Letter to the Hebrews, they would not have been thus deceived. (4.14.23)

Here we see Calvin touching on issues that haven’t seemed to go away in our day either. The question boeing: How much, then, is our baptism likened unto their circumcision?

But by way of objection they will quote what they read concerning “circumcision of the letter” in Paul [Rom. 2:29], that it has no place with God, confers nothing, and is empty. For such statements seem to press it down far beneath our baptism. Not at all! The very same thing could justly be said of baptism. But this is even said, and first by Paul himself, when he is showing that God cares nothing about the outward washing with which we are initiated into religion, unless the heart also be inwardly cleansed and persevere in purity to the end. Then it is said by Peter when he bears witness that the truth of baptism rests not in outward washing but in the testimony of a clear conscience [1 Pet. 3:21].

But in another place (they will say) Paul also seems completely to despise the circumcision made with hands when he compares it with Christ’s circumcision [Col. 2:11-12]. I reply: in this passage its dignity is not in any way reduced. There Paul is disputing against those who require it as necessary although it has already been abolished. He therefore admonishes believers to forsake the old shadows and stand fast in the truth. These teachers (he says) urge you to have your bodies circumcised. Yet you have been spiritually circumcised both in soul and body. You therefore have a revelation of the reality, which is far better than the shadow. But someone could have objected, on the other hand, that men ought not to despise the figure because they had the thing itself, inasmuch as among the patriarchs too there was that putting off of the old man, of which Paul is there speaking; yet outward circumcision was not superfluous for them. Paul forestalls this objection when he immediately adds that the Colossians had been buried with Christ through baptism [Col. 2:12]. By this he means that baptism is today for Christians what circumcision was for the ancients, and that therefore circumcision cannot be enjoined upon Christians without injustice to baptism. (4.14.24)

This then represents the clear continuity of substance between the old and new sacraments, not withstanding their differences in form. Although the signs differs, the thing signified is the same: Christ and all his benefits to be apprehended and embraced by faith alone.

This concludes part 1 on Calvin’s discussion on the sacraments in general. The next continues with Calvin’s discussion on the doctrine of baptism itself.

Read Full Post »

What comes first, logically: Federal union, or voluntary union?

There is a federal (covenantal) union with Christ which is antecedent to all actual union, and is the source of it.  God gave a people to his Son in the covenant of redemption.  Those included in that covenant, and because they are included in it – in other words, because they are in Christ as their head and representative -receive in time the gift of the Holy Spirit and all other benefits of redemption.  Their voluntary union with Christ by faith, is not the ground of their federal union, but on the contrary, their federal union is the ground of their voluntary union.  It is, therefore in Christ, i.e. as united to him in the covenant of redemption, that the people of God are elected to eternal life and to all the blessings therewith connected. – Charles Hodge

Read Full Post »