Friday, December 30, 2011

Year End Poem...

Romans 6:14 - For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under law, but under grace. 

Inspired by John Owen's A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace:

On the cross Christ Jesus for sinners procured
Sin's pardon, release from guilt and shame.
Under grace not law, believer's liberty secured.
Sin's dominion broken, no longer to reign.

Yet rebellious remnant still seeks to control,
To assert Satan's power, to regain its sway.
Holy Law gives no aid, cannot make one whole.
"Do this and live" points only the way.

God's foolish Word answers:  Mercy declared!
Power unto salvation Holy Spirit conveys.
Jesus’ blood and body, food rightly shared,
Faith looks not within but to Christ who was raised.

Sweet exchange, man's sin for Christ's merit proclaimed.
No condemnation, comfort alone in Him found.
Faith-repentance liturgy each day, as
Sinners-Saints plod along solid ground.
-Jack Miller

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

John Owen on Sin, Law, and Gospel - II

Continuing from the last post on Owen's A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace - which ended with his question, "But how doth this [the gospel] give relief'" - to the believer - regarding the dethroning of sin and delivering him from its dominion to a life empowered unto godliness under the rule of grace?  What follows is a message that needs a hearing and indeed a following in the local church.   It is encouraging and strengthening, reinforcing the proclamation of the Gospel of the grace in Christ Jesus administered in both Word and Sacrament.  In that glorious gospel we receive through faith not only our justification, but also the transforming power of Christ crucified and risen through the Holy Spirit's ongoing work of sanctification in us unto salvation.

     "But how doth this [the gospel] give relief?  Why, it is the ordinance, the instrument of God, which he [the believer] will use unto this end - namely, the communication of such supplies of grace and spiritual strength as shall eternally defeat the dominion of sin."
     This is the one principle difference between the law and the gospel, and was ever so esteemed in the church of God, until all communication of efficacious grace began to be called in question:

Owen here is referring to the corruption of the means of grace in both the preaching of the Word and the right administration of the Sacraments in the medieval and then current Roman church.  The two Words of Scripture, law and gospel, had receded from the scene and were no longer employed by the Church in order to bring souls to Christ and build up and strengthen them in faith and godliness.  Owen goes on to explain the purposes and limitations of the law regarding sin and the centrality of the gospel administered in breaking the dominion of sin and as the power of God unto salvation for the work of sanctification in the believer.

     The law guides, directs, commands, all things that are against the interest and rule of sin.  It judgeth and condemneth both the things that promote it and the persons that do them; it frightens and terrifies the consciences of those who are under its dominion.  But if you shall say unto it, "What then shall we do? this tyrant, this enemy, is too hard for us.  What aid and assistance against it will you afford unto us? what power will you communicate unto its destruction?"  Here the law is utterly silent, or says that nothing of this nature is committed unto it of God: nay, the strength it hath it gives unto sin for the condemnation of the sinner:  "The strength of sin is the law."  But the gospel, or the grace of it, is the means and instrument of God for the communication of internal spiritual strength unto believers.  By it do they receive supplies of the Spirit or aids of grace for the subduing of sin and the destruction of its dominion....
     Hereon then depends, in the first place, the assurance of the apostles's assertion, that "sin shall not have dominion over us," because we are "under grace."  We are in such a state as wherein we have supplies in readiness to defeat all the attempts of sin for rule and dominion in us.
     But some may say hereon, they greatly fear they are not in this state...
     In answer hereunto the things ensuing are proposed: -
  1. Remember what hath been declared concerning the dominion of sin.  If it be not known what it is and wherein it doth consist...  A clear distinction between the rebellion of sin and the dominion of sin is a great advantage unto spiritual peace.
  2. Consider the end for which aids of grace are granted and communicated by the gospel.  Now, this is not that sin may at once be utterly destroyed and consumed in us, that it should have no being, motion, or power in us any more.  This work is reserved for glory, in the full redemption of body and soul, which we here do by groan after.  But it is given unto us for this end, that sin may be so crucified and mortified in us, - that is, so gradually weakened and destroyed, - as that it shall not ruin spiritual life in us... although our conflict with sin doth continue, although we are perplexed by it, yet we are under grace, and sin shall have no more dominion over us.  This is enough for us, that sin shall be gradually destroyed, and we shall have sufficiency of grace on all occasions to prevent its ruling prevalency.
  3. Live in the faith of this sacred truth, and ever keep alive in your souls expectation of supplies of grace suitable thereunto.  It is of the nature of true and saving faith, inseparable from it, to believe that the gospel is the way of God's administration of grace for the ruin of sin.  He that believes it not believes not the gospel itself, which is "the power of God unto salvation," Rom.1:16... This is the fundamental principle of the gospel state, that we live in expectation of continual communications of life, grace, and strength, from Jesus Christ, who is "our life," and from whose "fulness we receive, and grace for grace."... This faith, hope, and expectation, we are called unto by the gospel; and when they are not cherished, when they are not kept up unto a due exercise, all things will go backward in our spiritual condition.
  4. ... Does [sin] take advantage from our darkness and confusion, under troubles, distresses, or temptations?  On these and the like occasions it is required that we make especial fervent application unto the Lord Christ for such supplies of grace as may be sufficient and efficacious to control the power of sin in them all.  This, under the consideration of his office and authority unto this end, his grace and readiness form special inducements, we are directed unto, Heb. 4:14-16.
  5. ... we may be sure we shall not fail of divine assistance, according to the established rule of the administration of gospel of grace.
     ... the truth stands firm, that "sin shall not have dominion over us, for we are not under the law, but under grace;"... the law gives no liberty of any kind, it gendereth unto bondage, and so cannot free us from any dominion, - not that of sin, for this must be by liberty.  But this we have also by the gospel.  There is a twofold liberty: - 1. Of state and condition; 2. Of internal operation; and we have both by the gospel... 
     The first consists in our deliverance from the law and its curse, with all things which claim a right against us by virtue thereof; Satan, death, and hell... This liberty Christ proclaims in the gospel unto all that do believe, Isa.61:1.  Hereon they who hear and receive the joyful sound are discharged from all debts, bonds, accounts, rights, and titles, and are brought into a state of perfect freedom.  In this state sin can lay no claim to dominion over any one soul.  They are gone over into the kingdom of Christ, and out from the power of sin, Satan, and darkness.  Herein, indeed, lies the foundation of our assured freedom from the rule of sin.  It cannot make an incursion on the kingdom of Christ, so as to carry away any of its subjects into a state of sin and darkness again...
     2.  ... Again, there is an internal liberty, which is the freedom of the mind from the powerful inward chains of sin... Hereby is the power of sin in the soul destroyed.  And this also is given us in the gospel.  There is power administered in it to live unto God, and to walk in all his commandments; and this also gives evidence unto the truth of the apostle's assertion.
     Thirdly, The law doth not supply us with effectual motives and encouragements to endeavour the ruin of the dominion of sin in a way of duty; which must be done...  It works only by fear and dread, with threatenings and terrors... "Do this, and live," yet withal it discovers such an impossibility in our nature to comply with its commands...  Now, these things enervate, weaken, and discourage, the soul in its conflict against sin; they give it no life, activity, cheerfulness, or courage, in what is undertaken.
   ... But the law makes nothing perfect, nor are the motives it gives for the ruin of the interest of sin in us able to bear us out and carry us through that undertaking.    Fourthly; Christ is not in the law; he is not proposed in it, not communicated by it, - we are not made partakers of him thereby.  This is the work of grace, of the gospel.  In it is Christ revealed, by it he is proposed and exhibited unto us; thereby are we made partakers of him and all the benefits of his mediation.  And he it is alone who came to, and can, destroy this work of the devil.... This "the Son of God was manifested to destroy."  He alone ruins the kingdom of Satan, whose power is acted in the rule of sin.  Wherefore, hereunto our assurance of this comfortable truth is principally resolved.  And what Christ hath done, and doth, for this end, is a great part of the subject of gospel revelation.


Monday, December 19, 2011

John Owen on Sin, Law and Gospel...

What does a believer need to hear, believe, and do in order to navigate what is called his sanctification?  I find there is much out there that helps, yet even more that confuses.  In practice where does the power for change come from?  Is the Christian life a two track path:  one path that celebrates the free gift of forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ (our justification), the other path the believer's job to appropriate the grace and power of the Holy Spirit to battle and find victory over sin and live obediently (our sanctification)?  What is the biblical remedy and food that is offered to counter and weaken that remnant of sin that daily seeks to draw the believer off the path of godliness and throw him into despondency? 

 In John Owen's A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace one finds a most helpful exposition on the role of law and gospel as regards sanctification and more specifically the battle against sin.  The book presents a focused teaching built around the Romans 6:14 verse, "For sin shall not have dominion over you:  for ye are not under law but under grace" (ASV).  For the one who has believed the gospel and received forgiveness of sins by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, the holy law continues to be the righteous, moral standard to which he is still called.  It nonetheless, Owen explains, has certain weaknesses and limitations as far as its ability to be a remedy for sin's dominion in the unregenerate or providing any comfort or aid in mortifying sin's continued rebellion within the believer.  Below are some gleanings regarding the law from the treatise.

     The law falls under a double consideration, but in neither of them was designed to give power of strength against sin:-
  1. As it was given unto mankind in the state of innocency; and it did then absolutely and exactly declare the whole duty of man, whatever God in his wisdom and holiness did require of us.  It was God's ruling of man according to the principle of the righteousness wherein he was created.  But it gave no new aids against sin; nor was there any need that so it should do.  It was not the ordinance of God to administer new or more grace unto man, but to rule and govern him according to what he had received; and this it continueth to do forever.  It claims and continues a rule over all men, according to what they had and what they have; but it never had power to bar the entrance of sin, nor to cast it out when it is once enthroned.
  2. As it was renewed and enjoined unto the church of Israel on Mount Sinai, and with them unto all that would join themselves unto the Lord out of the nations of the world.  Yet neither was it then, nor as such, designed unto any such end as to destroy or dethrone sin by an administration of spiritual strength and grace.  It had some new ends given then unto it, which it had not in its original constitution, the principal whereof was to drive men to the promise, and Christ therein; and this it doth by all the acts and powers of it on the souls of men.  As it discovers sin, as it irritates and provokes it by its severity, as it judgeth and condemneth it, as it denounceth a curse on sinners, it drives unto this end; for this was added of grace in the renovation of it, this new end was given unto it.  In itself it hath nothing to do with sinners, but to judge, curse, and condemn them. //  There is, therefore, no help to be expected against the dominion of sin from the law.  It was never ordained of God unto that end; nor doth it contain, nor is it communicative of, the grace necessary unto that end, Rom. viii.3. //  Wherefore, those who are "under the law: are under the dominion of sin.  "The law is holy." but it cannot make them holy who have made themselves unholy; it is :just," but it cannot make them so, - it cannot justify them whom it doth condemn; it is "good," but can do them no good, as unto their deliverance from the power of sin.  God hath not appointed it unto that end.  Sin will never be dethroned by it, it will not give place unto the law, neither in its title nor its power.
Those under law...
     "will attend unto what the saith, under whose power they are, and endeavour a compliance therewith; many duties shall be performed, and many evils abstained from, in order to the quitting themselves of sin's dominion.  But, alas! the law cannot enable them hereunto, - it cannot give them life and strength to go through with what their convictions press them unto; therefore, after a while they begin to faint and wax weary in their progress, and at length give quite over."

Having explained the purpose and limitations of the law, Owen goes on to explain the presence of sin and the role of the gospel in the believer who is no longer under law but under grace.

     "Grace" is a word of various acceptations in the Scripture.  As we are here said to be under it, and as it is opposed unto the law, it is used or taken for the gospel, as it is the instrument of God for the communication of himself and his grace by Jesus Christ unto those that do believe, with that state of acceptation with himself which they are brought into thereby, Rom. v.1,2.  Wherefore, to be "under grace" is to have an interest in the gospel covenant and state, with a right unto all the privileges and benefits thereof, to be brought under the administration of grace by Jesus Christ, - to be a true believer.... 
    Is it that there shall be no sin in them any more?  Even this is true in some sense.  Sin as unto its condemning power hath no place in this state, Rom. viii.1.  All the sins of them that believe are expiated or done away, as to the guilt of them, in the blood of Christ, Heb.i.3; 1 John i.7.  This branch of the dominion of sin, which consists in its condemning power, is utterly cast out of the state.  But sin as unto its being and operation doth still continue in believers whilst they are in this world; they are all sensible of it...
      Wherefore, to be freed from the dominion of sin is not to be freed absolutely from all sin, so as that it should in no sense abide in us any more.  This is not to be under grace, but to be in glory...
     But the assurance here given is built on other considerations; whereof the first is, that the gospel is the means ordained and instrument used by God for the communication of spiritual strength unto them that believe, for the dethroning of sin.  It is the "power of God unto salvation," Rom.i.16, that whereby and wherein he puts forth the his power unto that end...  We are absolved, aquitted, freed from the rule of sin, as unto its pretended right and title, by the promise of the gospel; for thereby are we freed and discharged from the rule of the law, wherein all the title of sin unto dominion is founded, for "the strength of sin is in the law:"  but we are freed from it, as unto its internal power and exercise of its dominion, by the internal spiritual grace and strength in its due exercise.  Now, this is communicated by the gospel; it gives life and power, with such continual supplies of grace as are able to dethrone sin, and forever to prohibit its return...
     "This you have," saith the apostle, "Ye are not under law, but under grace; of the rule of the grace of God in Christ Jesus, administered in the gospel."  But how doth this give relief?

To be continued...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Object of Faith vs. the Act of Faith

I came across this quote (below) by Martin Luther a while back. Unfortunately I don't remember where I found it. Luther succinctly explains the difference between the object of our faith - Christ Jesus our Saviour - and the strength of that faith which holds as its object Christ alone. We are called to look away from ourselves and the vain focus on our faith - strong or weak, our many sins
and weaknesses, our efforts at moral self-improvement, our successes, our failures, our pride. We are to look solely to the One of peerless worth who, for our salvation, lived a perfect life, learning obedience through the things he suffered (Heb 2:10); who bore the penalty of our sins through his death upon the cross, fully satisfying the justice of God.  This One who was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven as both Lord and Saviour is now given to believers as their righteousness and sanctification... their full salvation... through simple faith in him.

Martin Luther wrote:
In this Christian brotherhood no man possesses more than another. St. Peter and St. Paul have no more than Mary Magdalene or you or I. To sum up: Taking them all together, they are brothers, and there is no difference between the persons. Mary, the Mother of the Lord, and John the Baptist, and the thief on the cross, they all possess the selfsame good which you and I possess, and all who are baptised and do the Father’s Will. And what have all the saints? They have comfort and help promised them through Christ in every kind of need, against sin, death, and the devil. And I have the same, and you, and all believers have.

But this also is true, that you and I do not believe it so firmly as John the Baptist and St. Paul; and yet it is the one and only treasure. It is the same as when two men hold a glass of wine, one with a trembling, the other with a steady hand. Or when two men hold a bag of money, one in a weak, the other in a strong hand. Whether the hand be strong, or weak, as God wills, it neither adds to the contents of the bag, nor takes away. In the same way there is no other difference here between the Apostles and me, than that they hold the treasure firmer. Nevertheless, I should and must know that I possess the same treasure as all holy Prophets, Apostles, and all saints have possessed.

Friday, October 21, 2011

See-Saw Reform: The Church of England's confused course...

The duck-billed platypus pictured here has been proposed by some as a sort of "patron" mascot of the Anglican Church, inasmuch as the odd looking creature is hard to define.  Bird, mammal, reptile?  Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox?  By in large I appreciate the intent of the analogy, that being that there is nothing incompatible between that which is truly small 'c' Catholic and truly Protestant.  Yet I wonder if this depiction might, unfortunately, be apt for another reason:  that it's a metaphor for unresolved tensions in Anglicanism that have their origins in the 16th century reformation of the English Church.  What I'm referring to is the battle for the doctrinal soul of the Church of England that began with Thomas Cranmer becoming the Archbishop in 1533 and the subsequent years of reform and compromise in both doctrine and practice.

By the time of his appointment, Cranmer had already had come to accept the essential doctrines of the reformation.  Over the next several years he would leave behind the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, as well as accepting only two sacraments (holy communion and baptism) as of the gospel and instituted by Christ.  The other five so-called sacraments (confession, marriage, confirmation, anointing of the sick, holy orders), though valid and godly in nature, were not biblically instituted as such nor had they two parts (outward material sign and inward grace) necessary for a sacrament.

Cranmer's reformed path was quite distinct from a large percentage of the bishops who served throughout England at that time.  Many of those men were still Roman Catholic in outlook, if not in doctrine and practice.  The years leading up to the death of King Henry VIII were marked by a kind of see-saw slow-motion reform... three steps forward, two steps back, so to speak.  This was clearly seen in the first attempt at a church confession, the Ten Articles, which was a compromise between the Roman Catholic party and those favoring  reform.  King Henry as monarch had become the Supreme Head of the Church when England threw off the Pope's authority.  As was his wont when deciding doctrinal questions, he selected the committee bishops by appointing equal representation from the Catholic conservatives and the evangelical reformers; the perfect formula for doctrine compromise based on a political consensus rather than Holy Scripture alone.

This was to be the pattern throughout the latter part of Henry's reign.  It reflected his own theological ambivalence and ever-changing political concerns.  This course set the stage for three developments that stayed with the English Church for the next 100-plus years of back and forth reform.  One, it unofficially institutionalized a doctrinal see-saw battle between the Evangelicals and those of the more Catholic/medieval persuasion.  Two, it validated a kind of rear-guard action by the Catholic conservative bishops (often in sync with the King or Queen)  to preserve or reinstate certain medieval doctrines and practices and resist a fuller reformation of the English Church.  Three, the involvement of the Monarch as both head of State and Church guaranteed that political calculations as well as personal religious preferences would intrude themselves in matters of Church doctrine, practice, and further reform.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Evangelical Good Old Fashioned Experiential Goo...

Back in the 1920's, J. Gresham Machen diagnosed not only the intellectual and theological drift of his day but of that which would continue to develop over the next 90 years. He wrote,
The depreciation of the intellect, with the exaltation in the place of it of the feelings or of the will, is, we think, a basic fact in modern life, which is rapidly leading to a condition in which men neither know anything nor care anything about the doctrinal content of the Christian religion, and in which there is in general a lamentable intellectual decline. (What is Faith?, p.28)
The drift away from theology, i.e. the events of the redemptive-historical drama in the Bible and their meaning (doctrine), created a vacuum that has been gradually filled with other things. And one of the main results has been the rise of both the relational and the experiential as pillars of many expressions of American Christianity.

The Aquarius age of the sixties ushered in the full-blown relational era. All you need is love, the Beatles sang. I remember as a young Christian in the early 1970's hearing the oft prescribed formula for gospel acceptance by the world... they will know you're my disciples by your love for one another. It was no coincidence that Body-life became all the rage. In fact, a popular book came out at that time with that very title by Ray Stedman, who summed up his model for the church this way,
The church is a living organism. In the physical body, the hand moves when the brain says to. So too the members of Jesus’ spiritual body takes direction from Him as our Head. Jesus gives each member gifts and talents, making himself alive within his church. He equips his people to love one another, and to serve in unity his kingdom. This is Body Life.
Jesus gives each member gifts and talents, making himself alive within his church... The relational-conduit led to experiential reality. In one church that I was a part of for a number of years in the seventies, sharing one's "experience of Christ" in the worship meeting was the very cutting edge of body life. What was needed was not "dead doctrine," but life supplied from the members of the body of Christ (grace and heavenly blessing given via the horizontal-relational). And of course this accelerated the already established trend of democratizing truth by elevating the greatest common denominator among believers, a person's subjective experience. Everyone had one! Everyone could share it. Truth filtered through my lens, my experience to the church.

To paraphrase the words of Traffic's hit song from that same time period, a new old fashioned experiential goo was replacing the Word-based proclamation of Christ, i.e his death and resurrection for unworthy sinners in both Word and Sacrament (doctrine from above). To be built up in Christ now had more to do with being touched by someone's testimony of their experience, accompanied by their own unique interpretation of the Spirit's work in their life. And of course, it was incumbent upon those listening to be appropriately and relationally supportive with "amens" and "praise the Lords." Interestingly, that's not all too different from what one finds in any number of different support groups. The means of grace in Word and Sacrament by which sinner/saint is comforted and strengthened in faith was gradually replaced with shared testimonies of subjective experiences and mystical worship moments to attain a corporate sense of "God's Spirit."

Now certainly there's nothing wrong at all with a corporate sense of God's Spirit. But one needs to look critically at what was happening. Scriptural doctrine fell off the radar screen of that church as an ancient and unnecessary means of direction. No matter how true, doctrine was simply "dead-head knowledge," an impediment to the Spirit's working.  Faith no longer was fed by hearing, understanding, and receiving the gospel truths. What the church needed was Life which came through the direct operation of the Spirit found in one's personal/mystical experience of God.

Faith, no longer pointed to nor rooted in the redemptive-historical objectivity of the gospel, was redirected toward the ever-elusive subjective. So, once again Machen's words from the twenties presciently described what came about,
But if theology be thus abandoned, or if rather (to ease the transition) it be made merely the symbolic expression of religious experience, what is to be put into its place?... Mysticism unquestionably is the natural result of the anti-intellectual tendency which now prevails; for mysticism is the consistent exaltation of experience at the expense of thought. (p.35)
The identifying mark of much of today's evangelical church is the subjective/experiential elevated above the objective/declarative of the Word. And it is this modern means of grace which is deemed spiritually authentic. Speak of doctrine or objective biblical truth and eyes begin roll in boredom. Share your experience of a God-moment and heaven has come to earth.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Calvin: The Lord's Supper - the visible gospel...

I recently finished reading the biography Calvin by Bruce Gordon. Gordon gives a very accessible, balanced portrait of the man, his life and theology and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about this 16th century reformer.  I want to draw from Gordon's chapter on "Healing Christ's Body" to highlight a theme I've touched on before (herehere, and here), the feeding of God's people in the preaching of the gospel and the Lord's Supper:
  • ... when asked in the Genevan catechism why God had instituted the signs of bread and wine, the response was 'the Lord consulted our weakness, teaching us in a more familiar manner that he is not only food to our souls, but drink also, so that we are not to seek any part of spiritual life anywhere else than in him alone'... Gospel and sacrament, for Calvin, are the same but different, and cannot exist without one another.  Humans, sensuous creatures that they are, require external forms as aid to faith, and this is what God has provided.  Eating the bread and drinking the wine are not simply an act, but together with the Word of God spoken from the pulpit they form the means by which the Christian receives Christ. (p.165)
From A Short Treatise on the Lord's Supper, Calvin wrote:
  • Here, then, is the singular consolation which we derive from the Supper.  It directs and leads us to the cross of Jesus Christ and to his resurrection, to certify that whatever iniquity there may be in us, the Lord nevertheless recognises and accepts us as righteous - whatever materials of death may be in us, he nevertheless gives us life - whatever misery may be in us, he nevertheless fills us with all felicity.  Or to explain the matter more simply - as in ourselves we are devoid of all good, and have not one particle of what might help to procure salvation, the Supper is an attestation that, having been made partakers of the death and passion of Jesus Christ, we have every thing that is useful and salutary to us.
Gordon continues,
  • Through the instruments of bread and wine God gives Christ to the people - to receive the symbols (bread and wine) is to receive what they signify (Christ).  The dynamic in Calvin's teaching is between knowledge and faith.  Through preaching, catechising and schooling the people are taught the nature of God and salvation through Christ.  They are instructed in the Christian life.  This is the knowledge revealed in scripture and it is the duty of ministers to teach and of laity to learn.  But Calvin did not mean mere head learning, as we might call it - facts about religion.  In learning of God and Christ a person begins to hunger for that salvation.  That is the work of faith, which opens eyes to the reality of sin and the goodness of God.  Yet because humans, even the faithful, are weak and sinful, they need to be continually fed.  This is the role of preaching and the Lord's Supper [emphasis mine]. (p.166)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Works of Sanctification - Reward found not in their merit...

Whatever value is indeed received in the works of sanctification by those who trust in Christ, it is accrued to them not by the spirituality or devoutness of their own righteous deeds, but rather on the basis of God's gratuitous grace.  And I might add that the grace of God in both our justification and sanctification in Christ is received solely by faith alone.

"Our third and last exception relates to the recompense of works,­ we maintaining that it depends not on their own value or merit, but rather on the mere benignity of God. Our opponents, indeed, admit that there is no proportion between the merit of the work and its reward; but they do not attend to what is of primary moment in the matter: that is, that the good works of believers are never so pure as that they can please without pardon. They consider not, I say, that they are always sprinkled with some spots or blemishes, because they never proceed from that pure and perfect love of God which is demanded by the law. Our doctrine, therefore, is that the good works of believers are always devoid of a spotless purity which can stand the inspection of God; nay, that when they are tried by the strict rule of justice, they are, to a certain extent, impure. But, when once God has graciously adopted believers, he not only accepts and loves their persons, but their works also, and condescends to honor them with a reward.

"In one word, as we said of man, so we may say of works: they are justified not by their own desert, but by the merits of Christ alone; the faults by which they would otherwise displease being covered by the sacrifice of Christ. This consideration is of very great practical importance, both in retaining men in the fear of God, that they may not arrogate to their works that which proceeds from his fatherly kindness; and also in inspiring them with the best consolation, and so preventing them from giving way to despondency, when they reflect on the imperfection or impurity of their works, by reminding them that God, of his paternal indulgence, is pleased to pardon it."

-The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543), John Calvin.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Faith, what is it?

Faith is ultimately “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Calvin, Institutes, 1:551 [3.2.7]).

Faith is a living, bold trust in God's grace, so certain of God's favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. 

An excerpt from Martin Luther -"An Introduction to St. Paul's Letter to the Romans,"

"Faith is indeed intellectual; it involves an apprehension of certain things as facts; and vain is the modern effort to divorce faith from knowledge. But although faith is intellectual, it is not only intellectual. You cannot have faith without having knowledge; but you will not have faith if you have only knowledge. Faith is the acceptance of a gift at the hands of Christ. We cannot accept the gift without knowing certain things about the gift and about the giver. But we might know all those things and still not accept the gift. We might know what the gift is and still not accept it. Knowledge is thus absolutely necessary to faith, but it is not all that is necessary. Christ comes offering us that right relation to God which He wrought for us on the cross. Shall we accept the gift or shall we hold it in disdain? The acceptance of the gift is called faith, It is a very wonderful thing; it involves a change of the whole nature of man; it involves a new hatred of sin and a new hunger and thirst after righteousness. Such a wonderful change is not the work of man; faith itself is given us by the Spirit of God. Christians never make themselves Christians; but they are made Christians by God."
— J. Gresham Machen

"The true reason why faith is given such an exclusive place by the New Testament, so far as the attainment of salvation is concerned, over against love and over against everything else in that faith means receiving something, not doing something or even being something. To say, therefore, that our faith saves us means that we do not save ourselves even in slightest measure, but that God saves us."
— J. Gresham Machen (What Is Faith?)

"This is why Paul upholds the teaching of the gospel in such a forceful way ... Seeing such an example and such a picture of man’s great weakness and fickleness, Paul states that the truth of the gospel must supersede anything that we may devise … he is showing us that we ought to know the substance of the doctrine which is brought to us in the name of God, so that our faith can be fully grounded upon it. Then we will not be tossed about with every wind, nor will we wander about aimlessly, changing our opinions a hundred times a day; we will persist in this doctrine until the end. This, in brief, is what we must remember."
— John Calvin (Sermons on Galatians)

Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Our Testimony on Justification - The Faculty of Westminster Seminary California:
Faith and faith alone is the instrument that looks away from self to Jesus and receives the imputation of his [Christ's] perfect righteousness.  (p. 438, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry)

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Gospel bottom line - not by any works...

In his book "What Is Faith" J. Gresham Machen wrote:
  • The man who has felt the burden of his sin roll away at the sight of the Cross, who has said of the Lord Jesus, "He loved me and gave Himself for me," who has sung with Toplady: "Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling"-- that man knows in his heart of hearts that the Apostle is right, that to trust Christ only for part is not to trust Him at all, that our own righteousness is insufficient even to bridge the smallest gap which might be left open between us and God, that there is no hope unless we can safely say to the Lord Jesus, without shadow of reservation, without shadow of self-trust: "Thou must save, and Thou alone." (p. 194)
The affirmation of the gospel's bottom line, the simple truth that cuts against the grain of the pride of our own works, can be found in Romans 4:
  • 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin."
Faith offers nothing to God. If it did, it would be a work and thus anything received would be that which was owed to it. Rather, faith simply trusts in Christ, receiving that which man needs but cannot supply, i.e. perfect works of righteousness that meet the standard of God's holy law. In not counting our many sins against us, God declares us righteous by faith apart from any works done by us. The securing of our salvation is (thankfully) out of our hands. We need salvation, not renovation. We look not to our works as a means of entrance into salvation nor as a surety to retain that salvation. It is all of grace, and our only glorying and boast is in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior, who bore the penalty of our sins upon the cross. And yet, there are good works in our lives. But these works are not evidences of any inherent righteousness within us now. Rather our good deeds, though imperfect, are acceptable offerings to God through faith and flow forth as a grateful response to grace bestowed, the fruit of trust in Christ alone.

More from J. Gresham Machen in "What Is Faith" -
  • "That is the centre of the Christian religion--the absolutely undeserved and sovereign grace of God, saving sinful men by the gift of Christ upon the cross. Condemnation is earned by men; salvation is given by God" ( p.194).
  • "If our salvation depended upon what we have done, then, according to Paul, we should still be bondslaves; we should still be endeavouring feverishly to keep God's law so well that at the end we might possibly win His favour. It would be a hopeless endeavour because of the deadly guilt of sin; we should be like debtors endeavouring to pay, but in the very effort getting deeper and deeper into debt. But as it is, in accordance with the gospel, God has granted us His favour as an absolutely free gift; He has brought us into right relation to Himself not on the basis of any merit of ours, but altogether on the basis of the merit of Christ. Great is the guilt of our sins; but Christ took it all upon Himself when He died for us on Calvary. We do not need, then, to make ourselves good before we become God's children; but we can come to God just as we are, all laden with our sins, and be quite certain that the guilt of sin will be removed and the we shall be received. When God looks upon us, to receive us or to cast us off, it is not we that He regards but our great Advocate, Christ Jesus the Lord. // Such is the glorious certainty of the gospel. The salvation of the Christian is certain because it depends altogether upon God; if it depended in lightest measure upon us, the certainty of it would be gone. Hence appears the vital importance of the great Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone; that doctrine is at the very centre of Christianity" (p. 200).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Of Justification and Sanctification: The Reformed Confessions

What sanctification is and how it operates in our lives as believers in Christ has been an ongoing topic of inquiry of mine for some time.  Being that the human heart at times can so easily deceive itself and revert to a subtle and deceptive form of works righteousness, upsetting our comfort and assurance,  I thought it would be helpful to put together the relevant articles and chapters on Justification and Sanctification from the following:

The Belgic Confession
The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion
The Heidelberg Catechism
The Westminster Confession of Faith
The Westminster Shorter Catechism
The Westminster Larger Catechism 

I've highlighted certain portions that I struck me as especially important as regards our justification or righteousness by faith in Christ, the process of sanctification and what it contains.

BC-Article XIII: Of Justification
We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ's sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied: as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle saith, that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in him. This is sufficient to cover our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approaching to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror and dread, without following the example of our first father, Adam, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig-leaves. And verily if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed. And therefore every one must pray with David: O Lord, enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.

39 Articles-XI. Of the Justification of Man.
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

WCF_Chapter XI: Of Justification
I. Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
II. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.
III. Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real and full satisfaction to His Father's justice in their behalf. Yet, in as much as He was given by the Father for them; and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for any thing in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice, and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.
IV. God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit does, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.
V. God does continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God's fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of His countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.
VI. The justification of believers under the Old Testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the New Testament.

WSC-Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

WLC-Question 70: What is justification?
Answer: Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

WLC-Question 71: How is justification an act of God's free grace?
Answer: Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God's justice in the behalf of them that are justified; yet inasmuch as God accepts the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.

WLC-Question 72: What is justifying faith?
Answer: Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.

WLC-Question 73: How does faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
Answer: Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and his righteousness.

HC-Question 61. Why sayest thou, that thou art righteous by faith only?
Answer: Not that I am acceptable to God, on account of the worthiness of my faith; but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, is my righteousness before God; and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.

BC-Article XIV: Of man's Sanctification and Good Works
We believe that this true faith being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God, and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true, that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man: for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith, which is called in Scripture, a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works, which God has commanded in his Word. Which works, as they proceed from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by his grace: howbeit they are of no account towards our justification. For it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works, any more than the fruit of a tree can be good, before the tree itself is good. Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them, (for what can they merit?) nay, we are beholden to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he that worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Let us therefore attend to what is written: when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do. In the meantime, we do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them. Thus then we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior.

39 Articles-XII. Of Good Works.
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God's judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

WCF-Chapter XIII: Of Sanctification
I. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
II. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.
III. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part does overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

WSC-Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

WLC-Question 75: What is sanctification?
Answer: Sanctification is a work of God's grace, whereby they whom God has, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life.

WLC-Question 77: Wherein do justification and sanctification differ?
Answer: Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputes the righteousness of Christ;in sanctification his Spirit infuses grace, and enables to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one does equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.

HC-Question 62. But why cannot our good works be the whole, or part of our righteousness before God?
Answer: Because, that the righteousness, which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.

WLC-Question 78: Whence arises the imperfection of sanctification in believers?
Answer: The imperfection of sanctification in believers arises from the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them, and the perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit; whereby they are often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins, are hindered in all their spiritual services, and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.

HC-Question 63. What! do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?
Answer: This reward is not of merit, but of grace.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sanctification makes us righteous?

In summing up the differences between justification and sanctification, Kevin DeYoung in an online essay at The Gospel Coalition writes:  "One reckons us righteous; the other makes us righteous. One allows for no increase or degrees; the other expects progress and growth. One is a declaration of God about us, the other a work of God in us."  

I'm having difficulty with the description of sanctification as that which "makes us righteous."  I think, at best, it is a confusing phrase.  When Kevin writes that sanctification "expects progress and growth", I take it he is referring back to the phrase makes us righteous.  So, is sanctification a process of being made more and more righteous?  One hang-up with that construction is that it implies one can be partially righteous.  Kind of like the oxymoron of a woman being "almost pregnant."  She either is or she isn't.  I don't see how there can be such a thing as partial righteousness.  If a work is righteous then it is without any imperfection or impurity.  And in this life that will never be the case as taught in the Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q. 78. Whence ariseth the imperfection of sanctification in believers?
A. The imperfection of sanctification in believers ariseth from the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them, and the perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit; whereby they are often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins, are hindered in all their spiritual services, and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.

Now what I am not saying is that in response to the gospel believers do not exhibit good works in their lives or grow in those godly characteristics that are called "the fruit of the Spirit."  Clearly where true faith exists there will be evidence (good works) of a new heart and right-will born of the Spirit, works that are nonetheless imperfect (not righteous in and of themselves).  A new direction unto righteousness will be there, evidence of our faith in Christ.  This, of course, is the point of Martin Luther's quote, "We are saved by faith alone but not by faith that is alone."

But I don't think one should say that the good works of a believer are evidence of a growing or progressing righteousness within the believer which seems to be a logical inference from the above definition of sanctification.  Rather, aren't good works evidence of a true and lively faith, as taught in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the WCF and the WLC:

XII. Of Good Works.
ALBEIT that good works, which are the fruits of faith and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins and endure the severity of God's judgement, yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

WCF 16.2 states, "These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith...." The WLC speaks in a similar way, of "the good works that are the fruits" of the "faith [that] justifies a sinner in the sight of God...."

I take the above to be simply saying that good works are to a lively faith what fruit is to a tree.  And it is faith that apprehends the righteousness of Christ, "But the righteous shall live by faith."  John Calvin wrote, "In short, I affirm, that not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified; and that the justification of works depends on the justification of the person, as the effect on the cause" (Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote).  So I don't think we can say that good works are evidence of a progressing righteousness within us.  Instead, they are evidence of  having found complete salvation by faith alone in Christ alone.  It is all His accomplishment.  But hasn't God foreordained believers to be conformed to the image of His Son?.  Yes, His work.  And aren't we exhorted "to walk worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work"?... indeed, but isn't that fruit in every good work still imperfect?

Sanctification is a "work of God in us."  Yet, by defining this work as that which makes us righteous, I find my eyes deceptively drawn away from Christ's provision of pardon and perfect obedience on my behalf to a mixed-motive heart inside of me.  Inevitably, I'm searching within for evidence of that which supposedly should be produced by sanctification.  For what I long for is true righteousness in me.  But it is not to be found there, unless of course, I entertain a weak view of sin and righteousness, which is just another way of saying it isn't there.  And where has faith gone?  It has been assigned a bystander role as I vainly work to progress along a righteousness-making path.  To the HC:

Heidelberg Catechism:
Question 62. But why cannot our good works be the whole, or part of our righteousness before God?
Answer: Because, that the righteousness, which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.
Question 63. What! do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?
Answer: This reward is not of merit, but of grace.

The acceptance of our imperfect works as righteous is not of their deservings but of God's grace.  The already but not yet formulation is applicable here.  We are already accounted righteous for Christ's sake, but in this life not yet righteous... whether partially or in whole.  "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God(1 Cor. 5:21).

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. 
(1 John 3:2-3)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Our faith is built upon Thy promise free...

In this morning's worship we opened with the hymn I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art.  I so enjoyed singing this song of praise and worship that I decided to google it in order to find out who wrote it.  Although not dispositive, there is evidence that it was written by John Calvin.  Yes, I know the RPW psalmody-only-chorus will object and point out that Calvin was a Psalms-only-man and that the hymn could very well have been penned by Jean Garnier.  For purposes of this post it is really not an issue.  But here is a blip that weighs in for Calvin:

The hymn first appeared in the 1545 Strasbourg Psalter, the very same year Calvin produced the new liturgy for his old congregation. Is it not possible that he wrote the hymn for them too? According to Philip Schaff, it was also discovered in ‘an old Genevese prayer-book.’ (Christ in Song, Anson Randolph, New York, 1869, 678). While external evidence might not be conclusive (see Bushell, op.cit., [Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion, Crown and Covenant Publications, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1980."] p.199, n. 56), strong internal evidence of style and piety comparing the hymn with Calvin’s recorded prayers arguably strengthens Schaff’s case for Calvin’s authorship of the hymn.  
The Westminster Directory of Public Worship (1645) article by Alan Clifford, 1989 
The lyrics:
I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art,
My only trust and Saviour of my heart,
Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake;
I pray thee from our hearts all cares to take.

Thou art the King of mercy and of grace,
Reigning omnipotent in every place:
So come, O King, and our whole being sway;
Shine on us with the light of thy pure day.

Thou art the life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;
O comfort us in death's approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by thy pow'r.

Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
No harshness hast thou and no bitterness:
Make us to taste the sweet grace found in thee
And ever stay in thy sweet unity.

Our hope is in no other save in thee;
Our faith is built upon thy promise free;
O grant to us such stronger hope and sure
That we can boldly conquer and endure.

In particular I loved the last stanza and, in light several of my recent posts (here, here, and here) on faith, I want to expand on "Our faith is built upon thy promise free."  His promise free, the gospel, is the food that feeds and builds our faith.

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness... 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all...
(Romans 4) ESV

In the ears of the hearer, the proclamation of the good news of God's free and gratuitous salvation in Christ Jesus is that which initiates, nourishes, and builds faith.  That growing faith in Christ alone, apart from any works of our own, is at the center of what strengthens our sure hope and is inseparable from our sanctification... our conquering and endurance.  This faith is not some empty effort exerted by the hearer, but a work and gift of the Spirit who, through the preaching of the Word, presents Christ crucified as food to his people... the sure and only refuge in their sojourn.  The presentation of God's free promise of righteousness through faith to all that believe is food for the soul on every Lord's day.  And it is reinforced as the Lord's people partake of Christ's body and blood in the Supper.  In the words of the Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer:

THE Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.
THE Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ's Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful. 

Personally, I'm partial to the idea that this hymn was composed by Calvin.  But regardless of who was the author, the truths contained therein are both solid and eternal.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

John Stott, R.I.P. - By Michael Potemra - The Corner - National Review Online

John Stott, R.I.P. - By Michael Potemra - The Corner - National Review Online

The first book I read after being brought to faith in college (1972) was John Stott's "Basic Christianity. He was a man of the gospel of Christ in the Anglican Church which over the last fifty years has had few such men of God.

Almighty God, we do thank you for this Thy servant and shepherd of Thy people.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Faith, Law, Gospel...

As you surely know, often throughout a church service, and specifically in the sermon, one hears the word faith. The faith of the gospel, faith in God, faith in Jesus, our faith... This word is central to what a Christian is, yet oddly enough not always clearly understood nor explained. What does faith mean? How is it found? How is it nourished? Faith in his grace? Faith in Jesus... his example? Faith in the power of the Holy Spirit? These questions are more important than might otherwise seem apparent. The references to faith most often seem to come in the appeals and exhortations to godly living, finding the blessing of God, and other admonitions to obedience. One may, not surprisingly, come to think, "I need to have more faith so that I'll be more obedient to God." Thus faith becomes a means of climbing the ladder of obedience to God's law.

Coming to faith in Christ and growing in that faith is a work of God's Spirit. It, initially and always, is linked to God's law - his holy commands, our utter sinfulness as exposed by that law and its terrible judgment, and the unmerited, gratuitous remedy secured by Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. Apart from the intersection of God's law and God's good news in Christ there is no Biblical faith.

A little book, not well known except in some Reformed circles, is "What Is Faith" by J. Gresham Machen. Some selected excerpts:

In the Bible, then, it is not merely God as Creator who is the object of faith, but also, and primarily, God as Redeemer from sin. We fear God because of our guilt; but we trust Him because of His grace. We trust Him because He has brought us by the Cross of Christ, despite all our sin, into His holy presence. Faith in God depends altogether upon His redeeming work. (p 87)
... it is impossible to have faith in a person without having knowledge of that person; faith is always based upon knowledge. (p 88)
We are committing to Him the most precious thing that we possess--our own immortal souls... It is a stupendous act of trust. And it can be justified only by an appeal to facts. (p 93)

From Chapter IV: Faith Born of Need -
... if we are to trust Jesus, we must come to Him personally and individually with some need of the soul which He alone can relieve.
That need of the soul from which Jesus alone can save is sin. But when I say "sin," I do not mean merely the sins of the world or the sins of other people, but I mean your sin--your sin and mine...
The true conviction of sin appears as the prerequisite of faith in a verse in the Epistle of Galatians, which describes in briefest compass the true Christian way of approach to Christ. "Wherefore," says Paul, "the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ." No doubt Paul is referring specifically to the law of Moses as the schoolmaster to bring the Jews to Christ; but we are fully justified in giving the verse a far wider application....
The law of Moses, according to Paul, was a schoolmaster to bring the Jews to Christ because it produced the consciousness of sin. But if so, it is natural to suppose that any revelation of the law of God which, like the law of Moses, produces the consciousness of sin may similarly serve as a schoolmaster unto Christ... However the law is manifested, then, whether in the Old Testament, or (still more clearly) in the teaching and example of Jesus, in in the voice of conscience, it may be a schoolmaster to bring men to Christ if it produces the consciousness of sin...
Certainly if there be no absolute law of God, where can be o consciousness of sin; and if there be no consciousness of sin, there can be no faith in the Saviour Jesus Christ. It is no wonder that many persons regard Jesus merely as the initiator of a "Christ life" into which they are perfectly able, without more ado, to enter; it is no wonder that they regard their lives as differing only in degree from His. They will never catch a real glimpse of the majesty of His Person and they will never understand His redeeming work, until they come again into contact with the majesty of the law. Then and then only will they recognize their sin and need, and so some to that renunciation of all confidence in themselves which is the basis of faith...
No man can call Jesus friend who does not also call Him Lord; and no man can call Him Lord who could not say first: "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord." At the root of all true companionship with Jesus, therefore, is the consciousness of sin and with it the reliance upon His mercy; to have fellowship with Him it is necessary to learn the terrible lesson of God's law...
... putting into practice "the principles of Christ" by one's own efforts--these are merely new ways of earning salvation by one's own obedience to God's commands. And they are undertaken because of a lax view of what those commands are. So it always is: a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace.

Is the lesson of the law that we should obey (which of course we should)? No, rather the law exposes our utter inability to meet its demands as well as our enmity with God in that we are inherently inclined toward disobedience. The lesson of the law (thankfully) is to convince us that we are indeed miserable offenders, to bring us, again and again, to an end of trust in ourselves and cause us to flee to the grace of God in the gospel of Christ. It is faith that receives the gift of forgiveness of sin and justification offered in Christ and it is faith that holds it. As the old hymn states, "all other ground is sinking sand."  I like to think of this as something like the liturgy of the Christian life: law, guilt, repentance, faith in Christ alone, grateful renewed direction in godly living. And it is in this liturgy of life that faith grows as it increasingly apprehends its object, Christ crucified.  All glory and thanks thus be to God, by the merits and mediation of Christ Jesus our Lord.