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Posts Tagged ‘Federal Vision’

How important is the concept of the justice of God? Is it possible we emphasize it too much in Reformed circles? What about the relational of filial aspects of God’s character?  Don’t those come to bare against a strict legal/justice understanding of the way God relates to his children?

Of course, all these questions operate under the assumption that God’s justice is somehow at odds with his relational dealings with man. It construct a false dichotomy which is neither right nor safe.  But perhaps one of the most powerful ways to avoid this false-dicotomy is to realize the beauty in Christ’s fulfillment of God’s justice.  Charles Hodge, that great Princeton Theologian, speaks of this glorious truth:

This is the corner-stone, and the whole fabric falls into ruin if that stone be removed. That God cannot pardon sin without a satisfaction to justice, and that He cannot have fellowship with the unholy, are the two great truths which are revealed in the constitution of our nature as well as in the Scriptures, and which are recognized in all forms of religion, human or divine. It is because the demands of justice are met by the work of Christ, that his gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and that it is so unspeakably precious to whose whom the Spirit of God have convinced of sin. – Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2:492, cited in The Law is Not of Faith, p. 64.

That this justice is “revealed in the constitution of our nature” is an outstanding statement and a most penetrating observation. It is only then, when the law of God (written on our consciences and in Scripture) comes to bear with its mighty weight upon our souls through the convicting power of the Holy Sprit, that the beauty of God’s justice fulfilled on our behalf breaks upon us. It is only then that the concept of justification begins to mean something to us. It is only then that we are awakened to the beauty of Christ’s suffering upon the cross and no longer want to put confidence in the flesh. It is only then that we can truly worship and glory in Christ.

Accordingly, the chief design of Christ’s satisfaction “is neither to make a moral impression upon the offenders themselves, nor to operate didactically on other intelligent creatures, but to satisfy the demands of justice; so that God can be just in justifying the ungodly.” – D.G. Hart, quoting Charles Hodge, in The Law is Not of Faith, p. 64.

Do we need the concept of God’s justice? Why yes we do. It is absolutely good, true, and beautiful.

And this is why we must boldly preach both the law and the gospel.

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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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Over the last week I’ve been digging in more deeply to our understanding of baptism, particularly in light of covenant theology.  However, one of the issues that comes up is that of baptismal regeneration.  Of course, it is generally those who hold to a ‘higher’ (or more potent) view of the sacrament who are labeled with the term.  Lately (in Reformed circles) this issue has come up in response to the Federal Vision movement.  Some critics of the movement claim its proponents hold to some form of baptismal regeneration. Of course, this is generally denied.

Today, I was reading through Josh Moon’s defense of TE Lawrence (Siouxland Presbytery PCA). And in it I found much to think about. Moon argues that Lawrence’s position on baptism (and the benefits it confers) is well within the bounds of our Reformed tradition.  To support this claim he points to Calvin, Ursinus, Owen, Bavinck, Hodge and others. All these great men are then cited as affirming the basic idea that all who are baptized into Christ are indeed “Christians” — and at least should be considered as such by the Church. Now, does that sound all that controversial? Well, I suppose it depends on what one means by  “Christian.”

However, as Moon moved to the ‘Testimony of Scripture’ I think I would have some questions. He writes:

We are told by the complainants that you cannot attribute forgiveness of sins to the potential reprobate. But that is clearly wrong. The unmerciful servant, Jesus says, was “forgiven his debt.” He moved from a state of condemnation to true and real forgiveness. This was no pretended forgiveness. Yet the servant was finally apostate. He failed to live up to the grace shown to him, and so the privilege of that forgiveness was revoked. And that, Jesus says, is how my father will treat each of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. This, remember, is addressed to Peter and Christ’s own disciples. It is a parable about forgiveness and apostasy, and gives the complainants no ground at all for their complaint.

Moon claims that one can indeed have “real forgiveness” and yet, in the end, be damned. He says that this parable (found in the Gospel of Matthew ch 18:21-35) actually teaches about apostasy. My question is whether our Reformed theologians have understood this passage to be teaching what Moon believes it is.

On this passage (Mat 18) Calvin comments:

[I]t is foolish to inquire how God punishes (“how it is possible for God to punish”) those sins which he has already forgiven; for the simple meaning is this: though he offers mercy to all, yet severe creditors, from whom no forgiveness can be obtained, are unworthy of enjoying it.

So it seems Calvin wouldn’t go as far as Moon would in interpreting this parable.

Francis Turretin writes:

Although remission of sins ought to be applied often to daily sins, yet falsely would anyone thence gather that sins once discharged revive and return again by subsequent sins (as some of the Romanists hold), since it is a unchangeable gift of God. Nor does the parable of that ungrateful servant (…[Mt. 18]) prove this. It pertains to nothing else than to show that the remission of sins proposed conditionally does not belong to him in whom the condition is lacking. The design of the parable (which is to be regarded here simply) is no other than to teach that the mercy of God is not exercised towards the unmerciful; nor are sins pardoned by God, except to those who forgive the offenses of others. (Inst. 2.687)

Furthermore, one can read Matthew Henry on this passage who states:

We are not to suppose that God actually forgives men, and afterwards reckons their guilt to them to condemn them; but this latter part of the parable shows the false conclusions many draw as to their sins being pardoned, though their after-conduct shows that they never entered into the spirit, or experienced the sanctifying grace of the gospel.

All of these men interpret this passage in a particular way — and it appears — in a way at variances with Moon. Now, a little later Moon further writes:

We are told that the language of union with Christ cannot be attributed in any sense to the baptized indiscriminately – that it cannot be true for the reprobate. Yet John 15 and Romans 11 both use the language of being “in Christ”, which is union with Christ. And they use that language in speaking of those who might finally be (or have been) cut off. In both cases it is covenantal union in Christ that is then broken. And in both cases the possibility and the reality exist of apostasy. Paul in Romans 11 even speaks of those branches who are being “nourished by the root” who are then cut off.

But on these passages as well, I am curious as to whether our Reformed divines would have agreed with his interpretation. On Romans 11 Calvin writes:

Let us remember that in this comparison man is not compared with man, but nation with nation. (v. 16)

(v. 20: Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.) But it seems that he throws in a doubt as to salvation, since he reminds them to beware lest they also should not be spared. To this I answer, — that as this exhortation refers to the subduing of the flesh, which is ever insolent even in the children of God, he derogates nothing from the certainty of faith. And we must especially notice and remember what I have before said, — that Paul’s address is not so much to individuals as to the whole body of the Gentiles, among whom there might have been many, who were vainly inflated, professing rather than having faith. On account of these Paul threatens the Gentiles, not without reason, with excision…

And here again it appears more evident, that the discourse is addressed generally to the body of the Gentiles, for the excision, of which he speaks, could not apply to individuals, whose election is unchangeable, based on the eternal purpose of God. (v. 21)

But as he speaks not of the elect individually, but of the whole body, a condition is added, If they continued in his kindness I indeed allow, that as soon as any one abuses God’s goodness, he deserves to be deprived of the offered favor; but it would be improper to say of any one of the godly particularly, that God had mercy on him, when he chose him, provided he would continue in his mercy; for the perseverance of faith, which completes in us the effect of God’s grace, flows from election itself.

Otherwise thou also shalt be cut off, etc. We now understand in what sense Paul threatens them with excision, whom he has already allowed to have been grafted into the hope of life through God’s election. For, first, though this cannot happen to the elect, they have yet need of such warning, in order to subdue the pride of the flesh; which being really opposed to their salvation, ought justly to be terrified with the dread of perdition. As far then as Christians are illuminated by faith, they hear, for their assurance, that the calling of God is without repentance; but as far as they carry about them the flesh, which wantonly resists the grace of God, they are taught humility by this warning, “Take heed lest thou be cut off.” Secondly, we must bear in mind the solution which I have before mentioned, — that Paul speaks not here of the special election of individuals, but sets the Gentiles and Jews in opposition the one to the other; and that therefore the elect are not so much addressed in these words, as those who falsely gloried that they had obtained the place of the Jews: nay, he speaks to the Gentiles generally, and addresses the whole body in common, among whom there were many who were faithful, and those who were members of Christ in name only.

But if it be asked respecting individuals, “How any one could be cut off from the grafting, and how, after excision, he could be grafted again,” — bear in mind, that there are three modes of insition, and two modes of excision. For instance, the children of the faithful are ingrafted, to whom the promise belongs according to the covenant made with the fathers; ingrafted are also they who indeed receive the seed of the gospel, but it strikes no root, or it is choked before it brings any fruit; and thirdly, the elect are ingrafted, who are illuminated unto eternal life according to the immutable purpose of God. The first are cut off, when they refuse the promise given to their fathers, or do not receive it on account of their ingratitude; the second are cut off, when the seed is withered and destroyed; and as the danger of this impends over all, with regard to their own nature, it must be allowed that this warning which Paul gives belongs in a certain way to the faithful, lest they indulge themselves in the sloth of the flesh. But with regard to the present passage, it is enough for us to know, that the vengeance which God had executed on the Jews, is pronounced on the Gentiles, in case they become like them. (v. 21)

It seems abundantly clear that Calvin is not applying this passage to the elect in the same way as Moon, but deliberately makes a distinction: Some are in the covenant in a way different than others. Some can’t be ‘cutoff’.

On John 15 Calvin similarly won’t go where Moon goes:

(v. 6) Not that it ever happens that any one of the elect is dried up, but because there are many hypocrites who, in outward appearance, flourish and are green for a time, but who afterwards, when they ought to yield fruit, show the very opposite of that which the Lord expects and demands from his people.

To be fair, I am not saying that these interpretations are necessarily diametrically opposed or incompatible with each other (although maybe they are). However, there might be overlap. But, if so, it’s not clear. It seems there is at least a substantial differences between the way Calvin (and others) interpret these texts and how Moon and Lawrence do.

Now, I’ve met Pastor Moon, and have no ill feelings toward him at all. In fact, this December, I heard him preach on the ‘Preservation of the Saints’ which I thought was very good and which blessed me tremendously. However, I’m writing this because I find this language concerning, and frankly, contrary to what I have heretofore held to be correct.

Is there such a thing as ‘temporary forgiveness’? And if there is, is it based on ‘temporal justification’?  Is there any forgiveness without justification? Any forgiveness without atonement? Any atonement without the blood of Christ? And is there any blood of Christ spent on damned reprobates? May it never be.

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Commentating on 2 Timothy 4:8

“Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day”

Calvin has this to say about the final judgment and rewards according to works:

“Because he mentions “the crown of righteousness” and “the righteous Judge,” and employs the word “render,” the Papists endeavor, by means of this passage, to build up the merits of works in opposition to the grace of God. But their reasoning is absurd. Justification by free grace, which is bestowed on us through faith, is not at variance within the rewarding of works, but, on the contrary, those two statements perfectly agree, that a man is justified freely through the grace of Christ, and yet that God will render to him the reward of works; for as soon as God has received us into favor, he likewise accepts our works, so as even to deign to give them a reward, though it is not due to them.”

That’s encouraging to read.  And this stands so apposed to the notions of covenantal nomism and final justification according to works taught by the Federal Visionists and other covenant moralists.  Calvin calls it “absurd”. He goes on.

“Here two blunders are committed by the Papists; first, in arguing that we deserve something from God, because we do well by virtue of our freewill; and secondly, in holding that God is bound to us, as if our salvation proceeded from anything else than from his grace. But it does not follow that God owes anything to us, because he renders righteously what he renders; for he is righteous even in those acts of kindness which are of free grace. And he “renders the reward” which he has promised, not because we take the lead by any act of obedience, but because, in the same course of liberality in which he has begun to act toward us, he follows up his former gifts by those which are afterwards bestowed. In vain, therefore, and to no purpose, do the Papists labor to prove from this, that good works proceed from the power of freewill; because there is no absurdity in saying that God crowns in us his own gifts. Not less absurdly and foolishly do they endeavor, by means of this passage, to destroy the righteousness of faith; since the goodness of God — by which he graciously embraces a man, not imputing to him his sins — is not inconsistent with that rewarding of works which he will render by the same kindness with which he made the promise.”

And a further note from the commentary editor.

“The Papists themselves ought to observe carefully what was said by one of those whom they call their Doctors. ‘How would God render the crown as a righteous Judge, if he had not first given grace as a merciful Father? And how would there have been righteousness in us, had it not been preceded by the grace which justifies us? And how would that crown have been rendered as due, had not all that we have — been given when it was not due?’ These are the words of Augustin; and although the Papists do not choose to keep by the Holy Scripture, they ought at least not to be so base as to renounce that which they pretend to hold. But even this is not all. It is true that it is a doctrine which well deserves to be embraced, that God cannot be a righteous Judge to save us, unless he have been previously declared to be in the highest degree a merciful Father; that there will be no righteousness in us but that which he has placed there; and that he cannot reward us but by crowning his gifts. But it is also true, that, though God has given us grace to serve him, though we have laboriously done, according to our ability, all that was possible for us, though we have done so well that God accepts of it all; still there will be much to censure in all the best works that we have done, and the greatest virtue that can be perceived in us will be vicious.” — Fr. Ser.

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