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Posts Tagged ‘Books’

I have in hand a copy of Fesko’s new book, Word, Water, & Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism. This looks to be an excellent read — one which I intend to sink my teeth into most hungrily. The endorsement by Joel Beeke reads:

J. V. Fesko’s Word, Water, and Spirit is a major work that both models how to do theology by moving from historical theology to biblical and systematic theology and, most importantly, presents fresh insights for a Reformed understanding of baptism. Fesko’s fair-minded, page-turning history of the doctrine of baptism is itself worth the price of the book. Most enlightening, however, is his biblical-theological survey of baptism as new creation, covenant judgment, and eschatological judgment. The book’s emphasis on God’s judgment in baptism is particularly innovative and helpful. These insights pave the way for treating baptism systematically as a means of grace and as a sacrament in relation to its recipients and ecclesiology. Highly recommended for all who wish to grapple seriously with the doctrine of baptism and its implications.

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As J. V. Fesko points out, understanding our “theology (proper) as it is realized in Christology, […] has a world of implications for our soteriology, especially the doctrine of justification.”

There are some who would argue that the concept of justification is just a metaphor. And since metaphors are merely meant to tell us something about how God relates to us, they are contextual and don’t necessarily signify an actual reality. And since justification is likewise a metaphor (they say), it is not essential nor necessary to our understanding of salvation and may be readily interchangeable with other metaphors — say theosis.

Fesko takes this idea to task in his book, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine:

Scholars have long noted that Christ’s resurrection was his justification. Geerhardus Vos explains that “Christ’s resurrection was the de facto declaration of God in regard to his being just. His quickening bears in itself the testimony of his justification.” There is nothing metaphorical about the resurrection of Christ. It was an event that occurred on the plane of history and is a prophetic declaration of the church’s own resurrection on the final day. As Multmann observes, “The raised body of Christ therefore acts as an embodied promise for the whole creation. It is the prototype of the glorified body.”

Because soteriology, and more specifically justification, is inextricably bound with Christology in the concrete reality of the incarnation, one cannot make the claim that justification is but one metaphor among many other legitimate images of redemption. One can easily see the problems with construing justification as a metaphor when it is compared with its theological antonym, condemnation.

There was nothing metaphorical about Christ’s condemnation by the Pharisees and his subsequent justification by his resurrection. Likewise, there is nothing metaphorical about the condemnation that lies over the unbeliever. For the one who places his faith in Christ and is justified, the condemnation is removed–he is transferred from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of Christ, and therefore Paul can say, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Or, glossed in parallel fashion, “There is therefore now justification for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Prior to the believer’s justification, he is at enmity with God; after his justification, he is at peace with God (Rom. 5:1). If atonement and justification are merely metaphors that compete with other images such as union with Christ, then one must come to the conclusion that sin is also a metaphor: propitiation is God’s metaphorical way of dealing with a metaphorical problem. The glaring problems is, of course, that sin and death are not metaphorical, and neither is the wrath of God, which Christ placates by his crucifixion, which is a propitiation. To place justification, or any other element of the ordo salutis for that matter, into the category of the metaphor does violence to the message of Scripture and destroys the gospel. – Fesko, J. V., Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, (P&R Publishing, 2008), pp. 64-66.

Oh man!

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Today, it seems many Christians think of the word “tradition” only in a negative light. It brings up a bad taste in their mouth which they’d rather do without. Tradition often connotes something merely “old-fashoned”, people set in their ways, or even “dead orthodoxy.”

This is unfortunate since, for one reason, this is not the attitude we get from Scripture. Surely, Christ rebuked the Pharisees for their “holding to traditions” of the elders as opposed to the revealed word of God (Mark  7 comes to mind). But note the fact that it isn’t tradition per se that is the problem but the fact that they are un-scriptural tradition:

“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” Mark 7.8

For many Christians, it probably comes as a surprise that this isn’t the only thing Scripture has to say about tradition. In fact, later on in the New Testament, we find the Holy Spirit inspiring Paul to admonish the saints to “hold to the traditions” handed down to them.

In 2 Thessolonians 2.15 the Apostle writes,

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

Likewise in 3.6 he says,

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.

In 1 Corrinthians, he says something similar:

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. [11.2]

So we see then that, according to Scripture, not all tradition is bad. Certainly, all “traditions of men”, since they’re not founded upon Scripture, are to be avoided as worthless before God. However, on the other hand, the Apostolic tradition handed down from the Apostles themselves and established in God’s word is to be affirmed whole-hearteldy.  This tradition of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” [Jude 3] is the one tradition different from all the rests. And we as Christians are called to remember, cherish, and defend this tradition with our very lives.

Michael Horton writes on this in his book A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship. The following is an excerpt:

In the past, people used to convert to other religions or even political parties with great inner turmoil. Even consumer products were marketed on the assumption of brand loyalty. But today, one is expected to morph many times within a given lifetime. Sociologist Peter Berger has appealed to the notion of heresy to describe this widespread phenomenon:

The English word “heresy” comes from the Greek verb hairein, which means “to choose.” A hairesis originally meant, quite simply, the taking of a choice…. Thus, in Galatians 5:20 the Apostle Paul lists “party spirit” (hairesis) along with such evils as strife, selfishness, envy, and drunkenness among the “works of the flesh.” … The heretic denied…authority, refused to accept the tradition in toto. Instead he picked and chose from the contents of the tradition, and from these pickings and choosings constructed his own deviant opinion.

The problems today,  says Berger, is that there is no sense of an overarching authority that would measure deviance. In this environment in which personal choice reigns, heresy–cutting one’s own path apart from everyone else–is now normal. Accepting the authority of someone else, even God, is abnormal. “Modernity creates a new situation in which picking and choosing becomes an imperative.” Everyone has to be eccentric, and every successful enterprise, including the church, must cater to each person’s (or at least generation’s) eccentricities. Why should we “postmoderns” be expected to think and worship in continuity with “premoderns”? A nation that gets its nose out of shape when someone suggests changing the rules of baseball (“It won’t be baseball anymore!”) takes it for granted that God must get over his own personal tastes in order to accommodate ours–and that his church must either surrender or be left for dead. (The only real apostasy is being left behind in the sweep of progress.) – Michael Horton “A Better Way” pp. 47-8.

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Having spent considerable time and energy over the last weeks and months reading John Calvin, that great Genevan Reformer, I now have the splendid opportunity to study Martin Luther as well.  And oh what a joy! It’s as if someone should’ve said to me: “If you liked Calvin (for all the right reasons, of course, not the wrong ones) well you’re going to love Luther.” And they would’ve been right of course.

The same theological, hermeneutical, homiletical, and pastoral insight which made Calvin such a dear and shining light to many, is there in its brash and bold (and yet foundational) form in Luther. And is it ever encouraging to read.  Indeed I can think of few things as delightful to the soul. However, enough already… Let’s get to some Luther quotes.  From his “What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” (1521).

After explaining how some confuse the Gospel as merely referring to the four first books of the New Testament, Luther wrote:

There is, besides, the still worse practice of regarding the gospels and epistles as law books in which is supposed to be taught what we are to do and in which the works of Christ are pictured to us as nothing but examples. Now where these two erroneous notions remain in the heart, there neither the gospels nor the epistles may be read in a profitable or Christian manner, and [people] remain as pagan as ever.

The stout German is obviously off to a good start. But one can leave it to the ‘wild boar’ to run a royal rampage across deception and unbelief. He then defines Gospel per se:

Gospel is and should be nothing else than a discourse or story about Christ, just as happens among men when one writes a book about a king or prince, telling what he did, said, and suffered in his day. Such a story can be told in various ways; one spins it out, and the other is brief. Thus the gospel is and should be nothing else than a chronicle, a story, a narrative about Christ, telling who he is, what he did, said, and suffered–a subject which one describes briefly, another more fully, on this way, another that way.

There you have it. The gospel is a story about Christ.

He then goes on to show that this same gospel is the one we get in the Old Testament as well:

Thus when Isaiah in chapter fifty-three says how Christ should die for us and bear our sins, he has written the pure gospel. And I assure you, if a person fails to grasp this understanding of the gospel, he will never be able to be illuminated in the Scripture nor will he receive the right foundation.

Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do, as if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings or laws. Therefore you should grasp Christ, his words, works, and sufferings, in a twofold manner. First as an example that is presented to you, which you should follow and imitate. As St. Peter says in 1 Peter 4, “Christ suffered for us, thereby leaving us an example.” Thus when you see how he prays, fasts, helps people, and shows the love, so also you should do, both for yourself and for your neighbor. However this is the smallest part of the gospel, on the basis of which it cannot yet even be called gospel. For on this level Christ is of no more help to you than some other saint. His life remains his own and does not as yet contribute anything to you.

In short this mode [of understanding Christ as simply an example] does not make Christians but only hypocrites. You must grasp Christ at a much higher level. Even though this higher level has for a long time been the very best, the preaching of it has been something rare. The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. [emphasis mine] – Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2005). 93-95.

Well, I don’t know how one could ever strike any more deftly at the very vitals and heart-beat of unbelief.  This penetrates to the core of all false teaching and apostasy which teaches us not to believe in Christ as everything for our salvation, but rather someone and something just shy of it.  Some thing (no matter how small or seemingly reasonable) must be left outstanding.  And just as surely one believes this then all one’s glorying in Christ and his cross falls faint to the ground.

And what’s more, the human heart, in its pride, ever resists such a free gift from our Gratuitous Benefactor and Heavenly Father. And as much as we might think we can today find evidence to the contrary, there’s nothing we like less than a free handout — and from God, least of all. It restlessly tugs against such an offer of absolute and unconditional grace. And of course our sinful hearts are joined in a distorted chorus by the world and the devil, ever providing a relentless deluge of resistance.

And yet the Gospel truly is good news… the best in the world…in all creation. May God by his mercy grant us ears to hear, and hearts to understand, how great and marvelous his love is toward us. Amen.

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John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, goes great lengths to destroy any foundation under the feet of those who would insist on good works (even Spirit-wrought, regenerate, and sanctified works) as playing any part in our justification and right standing before God. He also offers insight as to why this form of legalism so easily offers itself to the minds of sinners like us.

If upon hearing again and again of the free offer of the gospel (the lavish forgiveness of sins, the gratuitous gift of perfect righteousness, and the gracious reconciliation with the Father) one finds his or her heart only more hardened or, as it were, unimpressed, it proves only our need to take recourse in one thing:

We Must Lift Up Our Minds to God’s Judgement Seat that We May Be Firmly Convinced of His Free Justification

1. No one is righteous before God’s judgment seat.

Even though all these things are by shining testimonies shown to be perfectly true [Calvin is referring to his treatise on free justification], still, how necessary they are will not be clear to us until we set before our eyes what ought to be the basis of this whole discussion. First, therefor, this fact should occur to us: that our discourse is concerned with the justice not of a human court but of a heavenly tribunal, lest we measure by our own small measure the integrity of works needed to satisfy the divine judgment. Yet it is amazing with what great rashness and boldness this is commonly defined. Indeed, one can see how there are none who more confidently, and as people say, boisterously chatter over the righteousness of works than they who are monstrously plagued with manifest diseases, or creak with defects beneath the skin. That happens because they do not think about God’s justice, which they would never hold in such derision if they were affected even by the slightest feeling of it. Yet surely it is held of precious little value if it is not recognized as God’s justice and so perfect that nothing can be admitted except what is in every part whole and complete and undefiled by any corruption. Such was never found in man and never will be.

In the shady cloisters of the schools anyone can easily and readily prattle about the value of works in justifying men. But when we come before the presence of God we must put away such amusements! For there we deal with a serous matter, and do not engage in frivolous word battles. To this question, I insist, we must apply our mind if we would profitably inquire concerning true righteousness: How shall we reply to the Heavenly Judge when he calls us to account? Let us envisage for ourselves that Judge, not as our minds naturally imagine him, but as he is depicted for us in Scripture: by whose brightness the stars are darkened [Job 9:5-6]; by whose strength the mountains are melted; by whose wrath the earth is shaken; Whose wisdom catches the wise in their craftiness; beside whose whose purity all things are defiled; whose righteousness not even the angels can bear; who makes not the guilty man innocent; whose vengeance when once kindled penetrates to the depths of hell. Let us behold him, I say, sitting in judgment to examine the deeds of me: Who will stand confident before his throne?
– John Calvin, Institutes, 3.12.1

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In light of the recent debates (in the PCA) over our understanding of the forgiveness of sins (and what that means when we say it), it is helpful to read old guys like Caspar Olevian who helped shape our confessional understanding of Reformed doctrine. Reading through ‘Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant‘ I come to what he calls the “forgiveness of sins” (remissio peccatorum). And how does he define it but in terms of justification. He calls it “the greatest question in the entire world” (p. 148). What question?

That is, our righteousness before God, that Christ gave himself for our unrighteousness…. Why did he rescue us? Not because of our merit, but of his grace. This is our consolation, that the Gospel is an infallible testimony to us, that God is not only our creator, but also our Father… (p 148)

It is the greatest question in the world because it is the heart of the Gospel of Christ. Why else is the ministry the gospel (and particularly the preaching thereof) so vitally and urgently important? Olevian comments on Romans 1:16 “The Gospel is the Power of God unto salvation to all who believe:

We speak about the purpose for which God instituted the ministry of the gospel. The purpose is that the Lord might powerfully lead to salvation those who believe, sealing in their hearts the gracious remission of sins and renewing the heart into his image and beginning in them eternal life. (p. 148)

So we see here the “remission of sins” is ‘sealed’ to the believer — as is the ‘renewal’ of the heart. Both (justification and sanctification) come as a fruit of the Gospel and are freely given to us by God, in Jesus Christ, by the work of the Spirit

And what’s more, this gospel must be preached to unbelievers and believers alike: for the conversion of the former, and the strengthening and of the latter. But this “benefit” (which we should read as including forgiveness of sins), as R. Scott Clark points out, “is restricted to those who believe, i.e. those ‘predestined by God’.” (p. 149)

Olevian calls this Gospel the “principal doctrine” of the Scriptures.  And what is this doctrine? “…how sin, the wrath of God, and eternal death, are removed…” He writes, “…the principal life-giving doctrine, by the outpouring of the Spirit of God was, is, and shall be, the promise of the Gospel. (p. 148)

Furthermore, as far as our justification is concerned, Olevian sees this gospel as set in opposition to the law. But he makes clear that this doesn’t mean the gospel wasn’t present in the Old Testament times as well:

Thus the Holy Spirit constantly affirms throughout Paul that the doctrine of the gospel about the forgiveness of sins and eternal life given freely for the sake of the Son to those who believe, is not in any way new. But from the beginning of the world Christ was promised with his gospel. In order that this might be understood the distinction between law and Gospel must be considered. (p. 150)

So we see here that for Olivian, the gospel was about the forgiveness of sins through the justifying work Jesus Christ imputed by faith unto the believer. And, to further stress this point, it wasn’t to the unbeliever that these things were given — but to “those who believe”. Forgiveness and justification go together. And with them come regeneration, sanctification, and ultimetely glorification.

And, brothers and sisters, this is why the Gospel is so awesome (for lack of a better term).  Just as surely as you know (and are convinced) that you are a sinner and have sin in you; and just as surely as you know you’re going to eventually die because of this; you can also be just as assured that Christ is in you; and because of that fact you are also righteous; just as assured that you have everlasting life in you and that will never perish but will surely be raised from the dead. Just as sure! Think about that. This is definitely good news — the best in the world! And it is for all who believe.

And finally, in view of the recent controversies (great and small, near and abroad) over the nature of the Gospel, it’s helpful to read someone like Olivian who tells us that these kind of difficulties aren’t new. They will always follow the church wherever she goes. Why? Because in this world, the powers of darkness and the principalities and rulers of the air won’t stand for the gospel to be proclaimed among the nations. In fact they’re straining all their efforts (whether by schism, heresy, or persecution) to thwart this very process. But should that discourage us? Well, it didn’t disuade men like Olevian.  In his commentary on Romans he would write: “The world…claims I have asserted a new doctrine, but the Gospel is not new.” (p. 147)

May we, too, live with that conviction.

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B.B. Warfield:

It is, nevertheless, the very cor cordis of the Gospel that is here brought under fire. The one antithesis of all the ages is that between the rival formula: Do this and live, and Live and do this: Do and be saved, and Be saved and do. And the one thing that determines whether we trust in God for salvation or would fain save ourselves is, how such formulae appeal to us…. Just in proportion as we are striving to supplement or supplant His perfect work, just in that proportion is our hope of salvation resting on works, and not on faith. Ethicism and solafideanism—these are the eternal contraries, mutually exclusive. It must be faith or works; it can never be faith and works. And the fundamental exhortation which we must ever be giving our souls is clearly expressed in the words of the Hymn, “Cast your deadly doing down.” Only when that is completely done is it really Christ Only, Christ All in All, with us.

Taken from Covenant Justification and Pastoral Ministry (p. 329)

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