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Posts Tagged ‘Doctrine’

The more I’ve read and thought over Christian truth, the more I’ve found this particular idea to be at the heart of so much difficulty and unbelief.

HE WHO GLORIES IN HIS OWN RIGHTEOUSNESS ROBS GOD OF HIS HONOR

Thus the matter stands: we never truly glory in him unless we have utterly put off our own glory. On the other hand, awe must hold this as a universal principle: whoever glories in himself, glories against God. Indeed, Paul considers that the world only becomes subject to God [cf. Romans 3:19] when men are utterly deprived of any occasion for glorying. Accordingly, Isaiah, when he announces that the justification of Israel will rest in God, adds at the same time “and praise” [Isaiah 45:26, Vg.; cf. ch. 45:25, EV]. It is as if he were to say that the elect are justified by the Lord to the end that they may glory in him and in no other. But he had taught in the preceding verse how we ought to glory in the Lord: namely, that we should swear that our righteous acts and our strength are in the Lord [Isaiah 45:24]. Note that not a simple confession is required but one confirmed by an oath, lest you should think it something to be discharged by any kind of feigned humility. And let no man here allege that he does not glory in himself at all when without arrogance he recognizes his own righteousness. For there can be no such estimation without engendering confidence, and no confidence without giving birth to glorying.

Therefore, let us remember in all discussion of righteousness to keep this end in view: that the praise of righteousness remain perfect and whole in the Lord’s possession, since it was to manifest his own righteousness that—as the apostle attests—he poured out his grace upon us “so that he himself may be righteous, and the justifier of him who has faith in Christ” [Romans 3:26, Vg.]. Accordingly, in another passage, having stated that the Lord conferred salvation upon us in order to show forth the glory of his name [Ephesians 1:6], so to speak, repeating the same thing, he afterward adds: “By grace you have been saved… and… by the gift of God, not by works, lest any man should boast” [<490208> Ephesians 2:8-9 p.]. And Peter, when he points out that we have been called to the hope of salvation so “that we may declare the excellences of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” [1 Peter 2:9 p.], doubtless intends that the sole praises of God may so resound in the ears of believers as to overwhelm in deep silence all arrogance of the flesh. To sum up, man cannot without sacrilege claim for himself even a crumb of righteousness, for just so much is plucked and taken away from the glory of God’s righteousness.

– Calvin’s Institutes 3.13.2

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Martin Downes on his blog Against Heresies talks about the deceitfulness of error and the need for Churches to have both a clear external expression of their faith (such as confessions) and a Spirit-wrought internal conviction of the truth. Great post here.

Also, Tabletalk takes on the New Perspectives on Paul. If you’re familiar, curious, or confused about the NPP or N.T. Wright, here would be a good place to start reading.

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I’ve been reading through some of our old confessional documents such as the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession. And I must admit they are a delight to the eye and to the heart.  Article 22 of the Belgic Confession regards justifying faith and the faith of justification:

We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him. For it must needs follow, either that all things which are requisite to our salvation are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in Him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him. Therefore, for any to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy; for hence it would follow that Christ was but half a Savior.

Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works (Rom 3:28). However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.

These documents are tremendously helpful and clear regarding the things we believe.

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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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aalexander2This question, I think it is true to say, is probably on the minds of many more Christians than we would like to admit.  What must I do to be saved?  How can I know I am saved? And although I know some would not have us focus so much on this question (citing the morbid introspective individualism of our times) I would go so far as to say that this inherent heart-cry of the human soul before God, and the answer proclaimed in the gospel, lies at the very center of the Christian faith!

Oh, and the answer goes against every bone of contention in our body, every seeming rule of nature, and every preconception about reality.  And yet that answer is so wonderfully, beautifully, joyously, and rapturously simple.

Below is an account of one Archibald Alexander, who later went on to become the first professor at Princeton Seminary.  He describes the great labor and anguish in which he wrestled with this understanding.  The context is during the great awakenings, where the common expectations, in some places, was that you needed an ‘experience’ in order to be sure of your salvation. People were urged to look inwards instead of outward to Christ.  This only lead to deep spiritual confusion.  Please read.

Being much dissatisfied with my state of mind, and now sensible of the corruption of my heart, I resolved to enter on a new course, and determined to give up all reading except the Bible, and to devote myself entirely to prayer, fasting and the Scriptures, until I should arrive at greater hope. My life was spent almost entirely in religious company, but our conversation often degenerated into levity, which was succeeded by compunction [regret]. Telling over our private exercises was carried to an undue length, and instead of tending to edification, was often injurious. But reserve on this subject was considered a bad sign; and on meeting, the first inquiry after salutation was concerning the state of each other’s souls.

A young women of my acquaintance, who, with others, had gone over to Bedford, appeared more solemnly impressed than most of the company. All believed that if any one had experienced divine renewal, it was Mary Hanna. One afternoon, while reading a sermon of Tennent’s on the need of a legal work preparatory to conversion, she was seized with such apprehensions of her danger, that she began to tremble, and in attempting to reach the house, which was distant only a few steps, fell prostrate, and was taken up in a state of terrible convulsion. The news quickly spread, and in a short time most of the serious young people in the town were present. I mention this for the purpose of adding that I was at once struck with the conviction that I had received an irreparable injury from the clergyman who had persuaded me that no such conviction as this was necessary. I determined, therefore, to admit no hope until I should have the like experience.

I read all the religious narratives I could procure, and laboured much to put myself into the state in which they described themselves to have been, before enjoying hope. But all these efforts and desires proved abortive, and I began to see much more of the wickedness of my own heart than ever before. I was distressed and discouraged, and convinced that I had placed too much dependence on mere means, and on my own efforts. I therefore determined to give myself incessantly to prayer until I found mercy, or perished in the pursuit.

This Resolution was formed on a Sunday evening. The next morning I took my Bible and walked several miles into the dense wood of the Bushy Hills, which were then wholly uncultivated. Finding a place that pleased me, at the foot of a projecting rock, in a dark valley, I began with great earnestness the course which I had prescribed to myself. I prayed, and then read in the Bible, prayed and read, prayed and read, until my strength was exhausted; for I had taken no nourishment that day. But the more I strove the harder my heart became, and the more barren was my mind of every serious or tender feeling. I tasted then some of the bitterness of despair. It seemed to be my last resource, and now this had utterly failed.

I was about to desist from the endeavour, when the thought occurred to me, that though I was helpless, and my case was nearly desperate, yet it would be well to cry to God to help me in this extremity. I knelt upon the ground, and had poured out perhaps a single petition, or rather broken cry for help, when, in a moment, I had such a view of a crucified Saviour, as is without a parallel in my experience. The whole plan of grace appeared as clear as day. I was persuaded that God was willing to accept me, just as I was, and convinced that I had never before understood the freeness of salvation, but had always been striving to bring some price in my hand, or to prepare myself for receiving Christ. Now I discovered that I could receive him in all his offices at that very moment, which I was sure at the time I did. I felt truly a joy which was unspeakable and full of glory.

Charles Hodge, in his Memoir, comments.

There is another lesson of a different kind suggested by the account above given. How different are theory and experience! What becomes of the boasted power of man – of his ability, plenary or natural, to repent, believe, and change his own heart? Had any miserable sophist gone to the youthful subject of this memoir, lying on the ground in his agony in the depths of the forest, and told him, ‘You can if you will’, would it not have been as much a mockery as when Satan said to Adam and Eve, ‘Ye shall be as gods’? It is well enough for men in their studies to split hairs and quibble about ability and inability, can and can’t; but when it comes to the death-struggle, these distinctions are all discarded, and a solemn, fearful consciousness of absolute helplessness is produced. And until in one form or another this sense of impotence is experienced, there is no real apprehension of the help of Christ.

Then, again, when men tell us that conversion is effected when the soul summons all its powers and determines to make God its portion, or purposes the general good, how does this agree with the experience of God’s people? Is conversion, so far as it is a conscious process, a self-determination, [as] much as it is a beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, as that glory is revealed to it through the word and by the Spirit, taking the whole soul captive in admiration, gratitude, love, and submission? Men do not create themselves; they do not come forth from the darkness of spiritual death, to behold the light of God’s countenance and the glories of the new creation, by any energy of their own. The whole change is one of which man is the subject, rather than the agent.

Taken from Princeton And Preaching by James M Garretson. (p 14-17)

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I know one of the issues which comes up sometimes is the fundamental differences between Reformed theology and Lutheran theology.  Certain doctrines such as ‘law and gospel’ or ‘justification by faith alone’ are said to be particularly Lutheran, and that Reformed theology maintains a significantly variant version.

But it appears to me that this distinction may have been overdone. Let me quote the historic Reformed theologians B. B. Warfield:

“It is unfortunate that a great body of the scientific discussion which, since Max Goebel […] first clearly posited the problem, has been carried on somewhat vigorously with a view to determining the fundamental principle of Calvinism, has sought particularly to bring out its contrast with some other theological tendency, commonly with the sister Protestant tendency of Lutheranism. Undoubtedly somewhat different spirits inform Calvinism and Lutheranism.”(1)

“But it is gravely misleading to identify the formative principle of either type of Protestantism with its prominent points of difference from the others. They have vastly more in common than in distinction. And nothing could be more misleading than to trace all their differences, as to their roots, to the fundamental place given in the two systems respectively to the principles of predestination and justification by faith.”

“Just as little can the doctrine of justification by faith be represented as specifically Lutheran. It is as central to the Reformed as to the Lutheran system. Nay, it is only in the Reformed system that it retains the purity of its conception and resists the tendency to make it a doctrine of justification on account of; instead of by, faith. It is true that Lutheranism is prone to rest in faith as a kind of ultimate fact, while Calvinism penetrates to its causes, and places faith in its due relation to the other products of God’s activity looking to the salvation of man. And this difference may, on due consideration, conduct us back to the formative principle of each type of thought. But it, too, is rather an outgrowth of the divergent formative principles than the embodiment of them. Lutheranism, sprung from the throes of a guilt-burdened soul seeking peace with God, finds peace in faith, and stops right there. It is so absorbed in rejoicing in the blessings which flow from faith that it refuses or neglects to inquire whence faith itself flows. It thus loses itself in a sort of divine euthumia, and knows, and will know nothing beyond the peace of the justified soul. Calvinism asks with the same eagerness as Lutheranism the great question, “What shall I do to be saved?” and answers it precisely as Lutheranism answers it. But it cannot stop there. The deeper question presses upon it, “Whence this faith by which I am justified?” And the deeper response suffuses all the chambers of the soul with praise, “From the free gift of God alone, to the praise of the glory of His grace.” Thus Calvinism withdraws the eye from the soul and its destiny and fixes it on God and His glory. It has zeal, no doubt, for salvation but its highest zeal is for the honour of God, and it is this that quickens its emotions and vitalizes its efforts. It begins, it centres and it ends with the vision of God in His glory and it sets itself; before all things, to render to God His rights in every sphere of life-activity.”

So clearly, there are differences, between the two traditions; Reformed Theology seeks to dig deeper and give all the glory everywhere to God.  But it is essential to realize that they both start at the same point! The same doctrine.  They don’t fundamentally disagree. Calvinism just goes further in explaining it.

So, this begs the question: why would some want to maintain a distance between the Reformed and Lutheran positions? Why would we want to draw separation between these two Protestant traditions which, when regarding these fundamental doctrines, have historically seemed merely to emphasize their solidarity?

_____________

(1) B. B. Warfield Collection, found at: http://www.agessoftware.com/ages_warfield_collection_excerpt_1.html

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promiseI’ve been reading through Michael Horton’s God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, and am finding it very refreshing.  One of striking points he makes is that in the scriptures there are really two different kinds of covenants: conditional and unconditional.  He says, “Some demand unswerving obedience as a condition of their fulfillment, such as the covenant made by the people at Sinai,” (p. 20) and yet others “announce a divine promise” (p. 36).  The idea that God is a promise-making, and a promise-keeping God, should all the more become dazzling in our eyes when we realize just what kind of promises our God has made! These “one-sided” promises (p. 41) — that God has done everything for us — “it is finished” and all we’re to do is look to him in faith and believe.    What a foundation for our assurance! What a mighty fountain of joy and gladness and worship, that “he has done these things and they are marvelous in our sight.” But Horton says, “In our day, as in others, the truth that we are declared right before God on the basis of someone else’s “covenantal loyalty”…namely, Christ’s — is under attack” (p. 18). Here’s the Hort:

“Carriers of the legalistic virus in Galatia and elsewhere were not faulted for having a positive view of the law, but for failing to recognize that its purpose was to lead God’s people to Christ. By seeking to attain the everlasting promise of life through the temporal and conditional covenant of law, Paul’s opponents were actually excommunicating themselves from the true Israel. Not only their explicit sins but their confidence in their own obedience revealed that they were “cut off” from the only one in whom they could be found acceptable. For them, at least, Sinai could only be the emblem of the condemnation that awaits them, since to be “under the law” is (for those who violate it) equivalent to being cursed (Gal. 3:10).

While the principles of law and promise agree on a number of points, they reflect intrinsically different types of covenants. Personal obedience to commands is a radically different basis for an inheritance than faith in a promise. While the Scriptures uphold the moral law as the abiding way of life for God’s redeemed people, it can never be a way to life. Every covenant has two parties, and we assume the responsibilities of faithful partners, but the basis of acceptance with God is the covenant-keeping of another, the Servant of the Lord; and because of his faithfulness, we now inherit all the promises through faith alone, as children of Sarah and citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.

The new Covenant announced by the prophets long ago included both justification and rebirth, imputed and imparted righteousness, forgiveness of sins and a new heart that thirsts for God and his glory. Yet (…) the second side of the coin (a new heart) is the result of the first (justification and forgiveness of sins). As Paul warns, we do not receive justification and forgiveness by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, and then go on to sanctification as a matter of personal achievement (Gal. 3:1-4). In the New covenant, all of the blessings have Christ and his obedience as the only ground qualifying us as heirs. Not some of the blessings, but all of them, are comprehended “in Christ.” That spells the end of both legalism and antinomianism: none of the blessings are the result of our own achievement, and at the same time, those who inherit the blessing of justification are equally beneficiaries of regeneration and sanctification. While our status before God (justification) is distinguished from our inward renewal (rebirth and sanctification), our status cannot be separated from our inward renewal even for a moment. Thus, because of God’s sworn oath by himself, the justified sinner will also be one who perseveres against doubt, temptation, the world, the flesh, and the devil, one day inheriting by that same royal grant rest from all warfare.”  (p. 75-76)

That God has promised and he will not change, indeed has kept his word unto his own hurt — the sacrifice of his only begotten Son.  This is a breath-taking, mind-blowing, heart-rending and life-altering doctrine.  God has done everything! He has justified us and regenerated us so that we can know that we are justified. And what are we to do? Believe. And what do we get? Eternal life? How do we know? God has promised.

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