Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Gospel Threatenings...

Some reflections...

A reader asked me if my recent posts on sanctification were a response to a particular blogger's essay
posted in response to what Tullian Tchividjian had recently written. The blogger uses a quote from John Owen's commentary on Hebrews. Answer - no, my recent essays aren't a response to those particular links. I hadn't read either until today. 

Starting about 3-4 years ago I began posting on sanctification looking closely at the notion of whether our efforts or works were ingredients of that which sanctifies us, i.e. a necessary contribution to intrinsic righteous. Part us, part God so to speak. In my own struggles with sin this had seemed a sure road to failure and despair. And, this synergistic approach to sanctification didn't jive with what I was reading from Calvin, Owen, many current reformed theologians, the Reformed standards, and Scripture. 

A few of my most recent posts, though, have indeed been offered with a view to the charge of antinomianism being leveled at some Reformed who teach a classical distinction between law and gospel. As is the case, terms are often not well defined when we argue from a set conviction in order to prove someone wrong. In his commentary on Hebrews Owen, as did most reformed theologians of the orthodox period, uses the term gospel in both a broad sense - all the teachings of Christ and the apostles including law passages - and in a narrow or proper sense - promise fulfilled in Christ - "It is finished." He also uses law in a broad sense (the old Mosaic covenant or entire Old Testament) as well as in a narrow sense (the law's demand for perfect obedience, its threatenings, and also as the rule or guide for godly living). 

The law and its threatenngs as taught in Scripture are to accompany the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for the salvation of sinners. Why? As Owen writes in Hebrews commentary, "Because they become the gospel." That is, the law and its threatenings are suitable or proper to accompany the good news.  The orthodox Reformed theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries called this preaching law and gospel. Together they make up the message of the gospel in its broad sense. In that sense the gospel contains law and threatenings. But that doesn't mean that the gospel, the power of God unto salvation, is part demand of law for works of sanctification and part good news of forgiveness in Christ for justification. No, sinners are completely saved only by grace through faith in Christ alone and it is not of ourselves in whole or in part - it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). 

Unless one defines how Owen is using the term gospel when quoting him the term can become confusing and even misleading, especially when accusations are being lodged. Given how Owen uses law and gospel it seems pretty clear that in the larger context of Hebrews he employs both the broad sense of the gospel and the narrow. The point Owen seems to be making regarding the threatenings of the "gospel" (broad) is that we believers should not neglect so great a salvation, not that our law-works are used to fight sin - so don't neglect doing them! Rather, the law humbles us, increases both repentance for our sin and our dependence upon Christ and all he has secured for us in his finished work. In his commentary, Owen reinforces what is taught in 
WCF 19.6. Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God's approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man's doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace.
In the blog post being questioned, Tullian presents the law in a broad gospel sense and culminates the essay with the proclamation of the gospel in its narrow-promise-fulfilled sense (no law), for the salvation of those that believe in Christ.


  1. I blame the use of "conditionality" into Reformed thinking on several factors, one being a practice of infant water baptism which promises "objectively but conditionally" salvation to those who receive it, Another factor, I think, is the confusion of all covenants into one covenant, so that the conditions of previous covenants are carried over. But I think the single biggest factor in letting "conditionality" into the Reformed tent is the failure to talk about election controlling the new covenant, and about Christ having only died for the elect.

    Faith in the gospel is not a knowledge that a person has been justified all along, or assurance that a person has been justified from the time of the cross or before a person was born. Faith in the gospel, which includes understanding of the gospel, is the immediate result of being born again, which is the immediate result of being imputed by God with the merits of Christ’s death.

    In the false gospel which tells all sinners that Christ died for them, faith is misunderstood as being the condition of being justified. Even in cases where the fine print tells you that this making-the- difference faith is a result of predestination and regeneration, the credit for salvation does not go to Christ. The credit may go to the Holy Spirit or to predestination, but it cannot go to Christ, if Christ died for all sinners but only some sinners are saved.

    We need to put a stop to the "evangelical" double talk which tells all sinners that Christ died for them, but then explains (not to everybody but only to some who have already professed Christ) later that Christ died for some people to get them something different and more for them than He did for everybody else.

    This kind of double talk implicitly says that Christ propitiated the wrath of God for all sinners but that Christ also died extra for the elect to give them the faith to meet the condition to get the benefit of Christ’s propitiation.

    Reformed people can try to put confessional boundaries around that, and say that the object of faith is important. They can even say that open theists are not evangelicals, and maybe not even justified. But they are still agreeing, sermon after sermon, every time that they do NOT say “ died for the elect alone”, that it is faith alone is the condition which makes the difference.

    In the fine confessional print, the glory may go to God for predestinating the Spirit to enable us to meet the condition. But it is no longer Christ’s death which saves, if Christ died for all sinners, and some of these sinners are lost. And though we may talk of Scripture alone, we end up with a canon within a canon, where what the Scripture says about the elect in Christ and being elect in His death for their sins becomes segregated out from the gospel and thus unspoken and even denied.

    Instead of saying that Christ died only for the elect and not for the non-elect, they leave out the e word and say that Christ died for believers, which then means that faith alone is the decisive condition and not Christ. If they want to keep the “thoroughly reformed” happy, they might say sometimes that Christ died for his covenant people, but then later they will make it clear that the covenant is "objectively conditional" , so that everything comes back not to Christ but to our faith.

  2. Scott Hafemann’s The God of Promise and the Life of Faith (Crossway, 2001)

    In footnote 6 on p244, Hafemann writes: “ The position I am advocating is based on a reassessment of the traditional Lutheran, Calvinistic and dispensational view of the relationship between the Law and the Gospel. The traditional view saw a conflict between the two, with the law viewed narrowly as God’s demand for sinless obedience as the ground of our salvation, while the gospel called for faith In God’s grace in Christ, who kept the Law perfectly in our place.”

    Hafemann does not understand correctly the antithesis he is opposing. Yes, the law is the divine demand for perfection (and also for satisfaction for sins). But he is wrong to focus on a demand for perfection being replaced by a demand for faith. The proper difference would not be faith but the righteousness obtained and imputed by God.

    Hafemann is inattentive to three facts about the divine alien righteousness. First, Christ died under the curse of God’s law only for the elect alone. Second, faith has as its object not just any Jesus or any “grace”, but the Jesus who satisfied the law for all who will be justified (and not for the non-elect). Third, this faith is not only a sovereign gift but a righteous gift, given on behalf of Christ and His law-work (Philippians 1:29; John 17, II Peter 1:1).

    These three facts are denied by Lutherans and are not being taught by Calvnistic
    neonomian moralists. When Hafemann makes the difference to be between a demand for faith and a demand for perfect obedience, the only thing left to discuss Is the nature of faith. And this is where Hafemann goes: does faith include works or not? If faith works and faith is an instrument, and since faith is a result of regeneration, why can’t works of faith be an instrument?

  3. Romans 3:31.teaches that the law is not nullified but honored by Christ. The only way that the law's requirements will ever be fully satisfied in the elect (Romans 8:4) is by the imputation of what Christ earned. “Not under law” means not under the curse and not under further demands “for righteousness”.

    But to the "obedience boys", Christ’s taking away the sanctions of the law for the elect means eliminating the practical importance of what God demands from all human beings and results in antinomianism.

    Hafeman's footnote 6 on page 244: “In this view, the law itself taught a legalism that Adam and Israel failed to keep but that God continues to demand in order to drive us to the gospel.” Hafemann does not define "legalism" . Does it mean a demand for perfection? If God demands perfection, is God therefore a “legalist”?

    The only alternative to a demand for perfection is either no law at all or a “new” demand which calls only for imperfect righteousness so that “grace” makes up the difference.
    Hafemann is following in the wake of Barthians who reject the “contract God” who demands perfection and operates by justice. These Barthians put “grace” and not justice into the pre-fall situation of Adam.

    God has told us that the law is not the gospel and that it never was the gospel. Romans 11:5—“So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is not on the basis of works; otherwise grace would not be grace.”

    It is Hafemann who is the legalist, because he identifies law and gospel, and then reduces the demand to including what the Spirit does in the elect. But what God does in us (by grace) must be excluded from the righteousness. What God does in us (by grace) is necessary for a different reason than the satisfaction of God ‘s law. Legalism is lookng to what’s happening in you to still get the law satisfied. In the process of “getting busy for God”, legalists always stop looking completely to what CHRIST GOT DONE ALREADY.

  4. I agree with the confession that the justification happens in time, but not that it’s the Holy Spirit who applies it. Righteousness is something different from imputation, and justification is something different from (that results from) God’s imputation of righteousness.

    In his introduction to the second edition of Gaffin’s By Faith Not by Sight, Mark Jones suggests that anybody who has a different order of salvation than Gaffin has is antinomian.

    Mark Jones– “The position that faith followed imputation was not typical of Reformed thought in his day but rather was associated with antinomianism.”.

    Mark Jones—”Any view that posits faith as a consequence of imputation (John Cotton) is not the typical Reformed position.”

    Mark Jones—”The Lutheran view that justification precedes sanctification..ends up attributing to justification a renovative transformative element.”

    Mark McCulley– that’s the same accusation which Tipton made.
    Mark Jones is dogmatic that “union” precedes imputation, and that “faith” precedes “union”. Does that not end up attributing to “union” a renovative transformative element? Does that not end up attributing to “faith” a renovative transformative element? Either Jones is equating “union” with the effectual call, or Jones is saying that faith is before “union”.

  5. Bavinck:“…When the covenant of grace is separated from election, it ceases to be a covenant of grace and becomes again a covenant of works. Election implies that God grants man freely and out of grace the salvation which man can never again achieve in his own strength. But if this salvation is not the sheer gift of grace but in some way depends upon the conduct of men, then the covenant of grace is converted into a covenant of works. Man must then satisfy some condition in order to inherit eternal life.

    “So far from election and the covenant of grace forming a contrast of opposites, the election is the basis and guarantee, the heart and core, of the covenant of grace. And it is so indispensably important to cling to this close relationship because the least weakening of it not merely robs one of the true insight into the achieving and application of salvation, but also robs the believers of their only and sure comfort in the practice of their spiritual life.”

    1. Mark, I like this Bavinck quote. It really underlines that salvation is by God's grace alone. Thanks for posting it.