Saturday, January 31, 2015

Calvin: Salvation by Grace alone...

"On the other hand, if the whole of salvation is attributed to the grace of Christ, man has nothing left, has no virtue of his own by which he can assist himself to procure salvation. But though our opponents concede that man, in every good deed, is assisted by the Holy Spirit, they nevertheless claim for him a share in the operation. This they do, because they perceive not how deep the wound is which was inflicted on our nature by the fall of our first parents."
- The Necessity of Reforming the Church by John Calvin

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Calvin, Concerning the Obedience of Believers (3)

John Calvin, Institutes of Religion - 3.14.
11. We must strongly insist on these two things: That no believer ever performed one work which, if tested by the strict judgment of God, could escape condemnation; and, moreover, that were this granted to be (though it is not,) yet the act being vitiated and polluted by the sins of which it is certain that the author of it is guilty, it is deprived of its merit. This is the cardinal point of the present discussion. There is no controversy between us and the sounder Schoolmen as to the beginning of justification. They admit that the sinner, freely delivered from condemnation, obtains justification, and that by forgiveness of sins; but under the term justification they comprehend the renovation by which the Spirit forms us anew to the obedience of the Law; and in describing the righteousness of the regenerate man, maintain that being once reconciled to God by means of Christ, he is afterwards deemed righteous by his good works, and is accepted in consideration of them. The Lord, on the contrary, declares, that he imputed Abraham's faith for righteousness, (Romans 4:3) not at the time when he was still a worshipper of idols, but after he had been many years distinguished for holiness. Abraham had long served God with a pure heart, and performed that obedience of the Law which a mortal man is able to perform: yet his righteousness still consisted in faith. Hence we infer, according to the reasoning of Paul, that it was not of works. In like manners when the prophet says, "The just shall live by his faith," (Habakkuk 2:4) he is not speaking of the wicked and profane, whom the Lord justifies by converting them to the faith: his discourse is directed to believers, and life is promised to them by faith. Paul also removes every doubt, when in confirmation of this sentiment he quotes the words of David, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered," (Psalm 32:1.) It is certain that David is not speaking of the ungodly but of believers such as he himself was, because he was giving utterance to the feelings of his own mind. Therefore we must have this blessedness not once only, but must hold it fast during our whole lives. Moreover, the message of free reconciliation with God is not promulgated for one or two days, but is declared to be perpetual in the Church, (2 Corinthians 5:18, 19.) Hence believers have not even to the end of life any which all our iniquities are covered. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul says not that the beginning of salvation is of grace, but "by grace are ye saved," "not of works, lest any man should boast," (Ephesians 2:8, 9.)...
12. ... I answer, that the grace which they call accepting, is nothing else than the free goodness with which the Father embraces us in Christ when he clothes us with the innocence of Christ, and accepts it as ours, so that in consideration of it he regards us as holy, pure, and innocent. For the righteousness of Christ (as it alone is perfect, so it alone can stand the scrutiny of God) must be sisted for us, and as a surety represent us judicially. Provided with this righteousness, we constantly obtain the remission of sins through faith. Our imperfection and impurity, covered with this purity, are not imputed but are as it were buried, so as not to come under judgment until the hour arrive when the old man being destroyed, and plainly extinguished in us, the divine goodness shall receive us into beatific peace with the new Adam, there to await the day of the Lord, on which, being clothed with incorruptible bodies, we shall be translated to the glory of the heavenly kingdom.
13. If these things are so, it is certain that our works cannot in themselves make us agreeable and acceptable to God, and even cannot please God, except in so far as being covered with the righteousness of Christ we thereby please him and obtain forgiveness of sins. God has not promised life as the reward of certain works, but only declares, "which if a man do, he shall live in them," (Leviticus 18:5) denouncing the well-known curse against all who do not continue in all things that are written in the book of the Law to do them. In this way is completely refuted the fiction of a partial righteousness, the only righteousness acknowledged in heaven being the perfect observance of the Law.
[emphasis added]

Calvin, Concerning the Obedience of Believers (2)

John Calvin, Institutes of Religion - 3.14.
10. Even were it possible for us to perform works absolutely pure, yet one sin is sufficient to efface and extinguish all remembrance of former righteousness, as the prophet says, (Ezekiel 18:24.) With this James agrees, "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all," (James 2:10.) And since this mortal life is never entirely free from the taint of sin, whatever righteousness we could acquire would ever and anon be corrupted, overwhelmed, and destroyed, by subsequent sins, so that it could not stand the scrutiny of God, or be imputed to us for righteousness. In short, whenever we treat of the righteousness of works, we must look not to the legal work but to the command. Therefore, when righteousness is sought by the Law, it is in vain to produce one or two single works; we must show an uninterrupted obedience. God does not (as many foolishly imagine) impute that forgiveness of sins once for all, as righteousness; so that having obtained the pardon of our past life we may afterwards seek righteousness in the Law. This were only to mock and delude us by the entertainment of false hopes. For since perfection is altogether unattainable by us, so long as we are clothed with flesh, and the Law denounces death and judgment against all who have not yielded a perfect righteousness, there will always be ground to accuse and convict us unless the mercy of God interpose, and ever and anon absolve us by the constant remission of sins. Wherefore the statement which we set out is always true, If we are estimated by our own worthiness, in every thing that we think or devise, with all our studies and endeavors we deserve death and destruction.
[emphasis added]

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Calvin, Concerning the Obedience of Believers (1)

John Calvin, Institutes of Religion - Book 3:14.
"6. And, indeed, I would fain know, from those who pretend that man meets God with some righteousness of works, whether they imagine there is any kind of righteousness save that which is acceptable to Him... 
"9. Let us now see what kind of righteousness belongs to those persons whom we have placed in the fourth class. We admit that when God reconciles us to himself by the intervention of the righteousness of Christ, and bestowing upon us the free pardon of sins regards us as righteous, his goodness is at the same time conjoined with mercy, so that he dwells in us by means of his Holy Spirit, by whose agency the lusts of our flesh are every day more and more mortified while that we ourselves are sanctified; that is consecrated to the Lord for true purity of life, our hearts being trained to the obedience of the law. It thus becomes our leading desire to obey his will, and in all things advance his glory only. Still, however while we walk in the ways of the Lord, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, lest we should become unduly elated, and forget ourselves, we have still remains of imperfection which serve to keep us humble: "There is no man that sinneth not," saith Scripture, (1 Kings 8:46.) What righteousness then can men obtain by their works? First, I say, that the best thing which can be produced by them is always tainted and corrupted by the impurity of the flesh, and has, as it were, some mixture of dross in it. Let the holy servant of God, I say, select from the whole course of his life the action which he deems most excellent, and let him ponder it in all its parts; he will doubtless find in it something that savors of the rottenness of the flesh, since our alacrity in well-doing is never what it ought to be, but our course is always retarded by much weakness. Although we see that the stains by which the works of the righteous are blemished, are by no means unapparent, still, granting that they are the minutest possible, will they give no offense to the eye of God, before which even the stars are not clean? We thus see, that even saints cannot perform one work which, if judged on its own merits, is not deserving of condemnation."
[emphasis added] 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Believers and the Law as a Covenant of Works: Fisher and Boston

Unpacking the believer's relationship to the Law:
Evan. For the true and clear understanding of this point, you are to consider, that when Jesus Christ, the second Adam, had, in the behalf of his chosen, perfectly fulfilled the law as it is the covenant of works; 10 divine justice delivered that bond in to Christ, who utterly cancelled that hand-writing, (Col 2:14); so that none of his chosen were to have any more to do with it, nor it with them. And now, you, by your believing in Christ, having manifested that you are one, who was chosen in him "before the foundation of the world," (Eph 1:4), his fulfilling of that covenant, and cancelling that hand-writing, is imputed unto you; and so you are acquitted and absolved from all your transgressions against that covenant, either past, present or to come; 11 and so you are justified, as the apostle says, "freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ," (Rom 3:24).
[Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity]
Notes [1] Concerning the deliverance from the law, which, according to the Scripture, is the privilege of believers purchased unto them by Jesus Christ, there are two opinions equally contrary to the word of God, and to one another. The one of the Legalist, That believers are under the law, even as it is the covenant of works; the other of the Antinomian, That believers are not at all under the law, no, not as it is a rule of life. Betwixt these extremes, both of them destructive of true holiness and gospel-obedience, our author, with other orthodox divines, holds the middle path; asserting [and in the proper place proving] that believers are under the law, as a rule of life, but free from it as it is the covenant of works. To be delivered from the law as it is the covenant of works, is no more but to be delivered from the covenant of works. And the asserting, that believers are delivered from the law as it is the covenant of works, doth necessarily import, that they are under the law, in some other respects thereto contra- distinguished. And forasmuch as the author teaches, that believers are under the law, as it is the law of Christ, and a rule of life to them, it is reasonable to conclude that to be it. He must needs, under the term, "the covenant of works," understand and comprehend the law of the ten commandments; because no man, understanding what the covenant of works is, can speak of it, but he must, under that term, understand and comprehend the ten commandments, even as none can speak of a man, with knowledge of a sense of that word, but under that term must understand and comprehend an organic body, as well as a soul. But it is manifest, that the law of the ten commandments, without the form of the covenant of works upon it, is not the thing he understands by that term, "the covenant of works." Neither is the form of the covenant of works [which is no more the covenant itself, than the soul without the body is the man] essential to the ten commandments, so that they cannot be without it. If it be said, that the author, by the covenant of works, understands the moral law, as it is defined, [Larg. Cat. q. 92,] it is granted; but then it amounts to no more, but that, by the covenant of works, he understands the covenant of works; for by the moral law there, is understood the covenant of works, as has been already evinced.  
The doctrine of believers' freedom from the covenant of works, or from the law as that covenant, is of the greatest importance, and is expressly taught. [Larg. Cat. q. 97.] "they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law, as a covenant of works," (Rom 6:14, 7:4,6, Gal 4:4,5) West. confess. chap. 19, art. 6."True believers be not under the law as a covenant of works." To these I subjoin one testimony, from the Prac. Use of Saving Knowledge, tit. "For Strengthening the Man's Faith," etc. Romans 7, fig. 3, "Albeit the apostle himself [brought in here for example's cause] and all other true believers in Christ, be by nature under the law of sin and death, or under the covenant of works; [called the law of sin and death, because it bindeth sin and death upon us, till Christ set us free;] yet the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, or the covenant of grace, [so called because it doth enable and quicken a man to a spiritual life through Christ,] doth set the apostle, and all true believers, free from the covenant of works, or the law of sin and death." See more, ibid. fig. 4. As also tit. "For convincing a man of Judgment by the Law," par. 2, and last. And tit. "Evidences of true Faith." And tit. "For the First," etc. fig. 4.  
Now, delivering from a covenant being the dissolution of a relation which admits not of degrees, believers being delivered from the covenant of works, must be wholly and altogether set free from it. 
This appears also from the believers' being dead to it, and it dead to him, of which before at large.  
There is a twofold death competent to a believer with respect to the law, as it is the covenant of works; and so to the law as such, with respect to the believer. (1.) The believer is dead to it really, and in point of duty, while he carries himself as one who is dead to it. And this I take to be comprehended in that saying of the apostle, (Gal 2:19), "I through the law am dead to the law." In the best of the children of God here, there are such remains of the legal disposition and inclination of heart to the way of the covenant of works, that as they are never quite free of it in their best duties, so at sometimes their services smell so rank of it, as if they were alive to the law, and still dead to Christ. And sometimes the Lord for their correction, trial, and exercise of faith, suffers the ghost of the dead husband, the law, as a covenant of works, to come in upon their souls and make demands on them, command, threaten, and affright them, as if they were alive to it, and it to them. And it is one of the hardest pieces of practical religion, to be dead to the law in such cases. This death to it admits of degrees, is not alike in all believers, and is perfect in none till the death of the body. But of this kind of death to the law, the question proceeds not here. (2.) The believer is dead to it relatively, and in point of privilege; the relation betwixt him and it is dissolved, even as the relation between a husband and wife is dissolved by death; (Rom 7:4), "Wherefore, my brethren ye also are become dead to the law, by the body of Christ, that ye should be married to another." This can admit of no degrees, but it is perfect in all believers; so that they are wholly and altogether set free from it, in point of privilege, upon which the question here proceeds, and in this respect they can expect neither good nor hurt from it. 
[Thomas Boston notes on The Marrow of Modern Divinity]

Monday, January 26, 2015

Sabbath Observance...

There's a post titled Legalism or Law-loving at the Green Baggins blog. It's one of those conversations which can lend itself to people talking past each other. Disagree with the writer and you're liable to be labeled an antinomian. Agree whole heartedly and you're sure to be looked upon as embracing a legalistic direction.

The focus in the early comments of the post has been on the Sabbath commandment, an area of doctrine where it's not uncommon for ministers and elders who subscribe to the Westminster standards to express scruples. Turning to John Calvin, I find his thoughts on Sabbath observance to be both thought provoking and helpful inasmuch as he can hardly be described as antinomian. His teaching on the Sabbath highlights a concern regarding the place of the law in the Christian life and the finished work of Jesus Christ. That concern is whether the Old Covenant and New Covenant are basically to be understood as in a contrast or a continuum. In other words, are they essentially an antithesis, one of covenant law-demand and the other of Christ-alone-fulfillment? Or is the New Covenant the more powerful means, vis-a-vis the Old Covenant, wherein believers themselves can now fulfill the covenantal moral law? I would suggest that the latter view is problemmatic in that it has too high of a view of our sanctification and thus impinges upon the federal headship of Jesus as the 2nd Adam who alone fulfills the obedience-probation for the elect. Holding to the former view emphasizes the grace of "It is finished" by Jesus's obedience and death, yet doesn't minimize or undermine the obligation upon believers for obedience to the moral law. But it does, it seems to me, lay the right perspective for an humble obedience that is pleasing to God solely on the basis of Christ's blood and righteousness (WLC 97, 149; WCF 16).

Excerpts from John Calvin's Institutes regarding the Sabbath:
Strange and monstrous are the longings of our pride. There is nothing which the Lord enjoins more strictly than the religious observance of his Sabbath, in other words resting from our works; but in nothing do we show greater reluctance than to renounce our own works, and give due place to the works of God. 
Thus in Exodus: "Verily my Sabbaths shall ye keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that does sanctify you. Ye shall keep my Sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever does any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever does any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever," (Exodus 31:13-17.) 
Ezekiel is still more full, but the sum of what he says amounts to this: that the Sabbath is a sign by which Israel might know that God is their sanctifier. If our sanctification consists in the mortification of our own will, the analogy between the external sign and the thing signified is most appropriate. We must rest entirely, in order that God may work in us; we must resign our own will, yield up our heart, and abandon all the lusts of the flesh. In short, we must desist from all the acts of our own mind, that God working in us, we may rest in him, as the Apostle also teaches, (Hebrews 3:13; 4:3, 9.) 
It may seem, therefore, that by the seventh day the Lord delineated to his people the future perfection of his Sabbath on the last day, that by continual meditation on the Sabbath, they might throughout their whole lives aspire to this perfection.

... he foresaw it would be sufficient, or in order that his own example might operate as a stronger stimulus; or, at least to remind men that the Sabbath was appointed for no other purpose than to render them conformable to their Creator. It is of little consequence which of these be adopted, provided we lose not sight of the principal thing delineated, viz., the mystery of perpetual resting from our works.

Still there can be no doubt, that, on the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the ceremonial part of the commandment was abolished. He is the truth, at whose presence all the emblems vanish; the body, at the sight of which the shadows disappear. He, I say, is the true completion of the Sabbath: "We are buried with him by baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life," (Romans 6:4.) Hence, as the Apostle elsewhere says, "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holiday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ," (Colossians 2:16, 17;) meaning by body the whole essence of the truth, as is well explained in that passage. This is not contented with one day, but requires the whole course of our lives, until being completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God. Christians, therefore, should have nothing to do with a superstitious observance of days.

The Sabbath being abrogated, there is still room among us, first, to assemble on stated days for the hearing of the Word, the breaking of the mystical bread, and public prayer; and, secondly, to give our servants and laborers relaxation from labor. It cannot be doubted that the Lord provided for both in the commandment of the Sabbath.

They complain that Christian people are trained in Judaism, because some observance of days is retained. My reply is, That those days are observed by us without Judaism, because in this matter we differ widely from the Jews. We do not celebrate it with most minute formality, as a ceremony by which we imagine that a spiritual mystery is typified, but we adopt it as a necessary remedy for preserving order in the Church.

Paul informs us that Christians are not to be judged in respect of its observance, because it is a shadow of something to come, (Colossians 2:16;) and, accordingly, he expresses a fear lest his labor among the Galatians should prove in vain, because they still observed days (Galatians 4:10, 11.) And he tells the Romans that it is superstitious to make one day differ from another (Romans 14:5.) But who, except those restless men, does not see what the observance is to which the Apostle refers?

They did not desist from manual labor on the ground of its interfering with sacred study and meditation, but as a kind of religious observance; because they dreamed that by their cessation from labor, they were cultivating the mysteries which had of old been committed to them. It was, I say, against this preposterous observance of days that the Apostle inveighs, and not against that legitimate selection which is subservient to the peace of Christian society. For in the churches established by him, this was the use for which the Sabbath was retained.

superstition is dreaded, there was more danger in keeping the Jewish Sabbath than the Lord's day as Christians now do. It being expedient to overthrow superstition, the Jewish holy day was abolished; and as a thing necessary to retain decency, orders and peace, in the Church, another day was appointed for that purpose.

It was not, however, without a reason that the early Christians substituted what we call the Lord's day for the Sabbath. The resurrection of our Lord being the end and accomplishment of that true rest which the ancient Sabbath typified, this day, by which types were abolished serves to warn Christians against adhering to a shadowy ceremony.

The whole may be thus summed up: As the truth was delivered typically to the Jews, so it is imparted to us without figure; first, that during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit; secondly that every individual, as he has opportunity, may diligently exercise himself in private, in pious meditation on the works of God, and, at the same time, that all may observe the legitimate order appointed by the Church, for the hearing of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and public prayer: And, thirdly, that we may avoid oppressing those who are subject to us.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Thoughts on Sanctification...

As to sanctification... Can't it be said that believers are sanctified by grace through faith in Christ alone? It is through faith in Christ that we receive the forgiveness of sins by his shed blood and are declared righteous by virtue of his death and resurrection.  As the apostle Paul wrote, "justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood... We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law" (Rom. 3:24-25,28)... by faith apart from works of the law.  

By grace through faith in Jesus Christ we receive a new heart and are made children of God.  And by faith we receive Christ's finished work for us. We were buried "with him through baptism unto deaththat like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life" and having "become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection" (Rom. 6:4-5).  By faith we receive the benefits of Jesus's victory over sin and death, "knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away, that so we should no longer be in bondage to sin; for he that hath died is justified from sin" (Rom. 6: 6-7).  

And we have been set apart from sin and death unto God through faith in Jesus's work alone, "knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death no more hath dominion over him. the death that he died, he died unto sin once: but the life that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Even so reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God in Christ Jesus." (Rom. 6:9-11). Our past sinful life and its cursed destiny has been wonderfully preempted by Jesus' substitution for us on the cross, in that he bore the penalty of death for the guilt and shame of our sin. And in exchange we, by faith in him, have been set free from the dominion and authority of sin. That cursed link between our sin and death has been broken by Jesus' death in our place. So Paul writes that we are to accept as certain that we are "dead unto sin [its penalty and reign], but alive unto God in Christ Jesus." (Rom. 6:11). This benefit we also receive through faith.

Good news upon good news received by the weary sinner simply through faith in the Lamb who was slain.  And there is more.  Paul then authoritatively declares that "sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14).  Sin's death penalty has been paid. It no longer hangs over blood-washed sinners.  Again Paul writes, "The sting of death is sin; and the power of sin is the law" (1 Cor. 15:56). Trusting in Christ alone we have been delivered from the curse and condemnation of the law through which sin had dominion. No longer under the judgment of the law believers are under the gift of grace. The wages of our sin have been paid by Jesus. Whereas we owed a debt payable only by death, we now have the free gift of God, eternal life in Christ Jesus; "for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory." (Eph. 2:8-9).

The question I would then pose is the same one that Paul asked the Galatians.  "Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?... He therefore that supplieth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?" Gal. 3:2,5). This is generally understood to be pertaining to justification and it is. But it seems to me that Paul is making a larger point. That when we bring a works-merit-basis into our Christina life we move away from the ground of grace not only in our justification but of salvation itself. So, I think the principle of faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone holds in sanctification as firmly as it does in justification. But what about doing good works? Aren't they a means of sanctification? Actually, I think it's the other way around. Our sanctification is by grace, and so is the means of dying to sin and doing good works.
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. [Westminster Shorter Catechism]
(Scripture references are from the American Standard Version)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

False "Gospels" - Fesko on Machen

My question is: How many different ways... how many paths... how many spiritual exercises and legal obediences have been added to Christ's finished work throughout the ages that falsely point Christians in the supposed "sure" way of securing their salvation? In a word, one... that of works. John Fesko elaborates by unpacking J. Gresham Machen's thought on the matter:
 "Machen was aware of the different ways by which ancient and modern humanity proposed to extricate themselves from the pit of sin and death. Machen rejected mysticism as an approach to God and redemption because mystics believe that communion with God is based in “ineffable experience,” whereas the Bible teaches that a premium is placed upon understanding and knowing the truth...
"Certainly, then, a person must believe in God, but should he also not contribute to his salvation in some way? Machen identified this combination of faith and works as a false gospel. In his lecture notes on Galatians, Machen writes, “The enemy against which Paul is fighting in the Epistle can be reconstructed fairly well from the Epistle itself. Paul was fighting against the doctrine that a man can earn a part, at least, of his salvation by his own obedience to God’s law; he was fighting against the doctrine that a man is justified not by faith alone, but by faith and works.” Machen knew that Paul’s opponents, the Judaizers, though an ancient foe of the gospel, had descendants in his own day: So the error of the Judaizers is a very modern error indeed, as well as a very ancient error. It is found in the modern Church wherever men seek salvation by “surrender” instead of by faith, or by their own character instead of by the imputed righteousness of Christ, or by “making Christ master in the life” instead of by trusting in His redeeming blood. In particular, it is found wherever men say that “the real essentials” of Christianity are love, justice, mercy and other virtues, as contrasted with the great doctrines of God’s Word. These are all just different ways of exalting the merit of man over against the Cross of Christ; they are all of them attacks upon the very heart and core of the Christian religion. Machen rejected all other approaches to salvation —mysticism, pantheism, moralism, and legalism— and recognized that there was only one way to be saved—by faith alone, in the person and work of Christ alone, by God’s grace alone." 
-- John V. Fesko, Machen and The Gospel

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Prayer: Calvin's Law/Gospel Distinction...

In the following excerpt from the Institutes of Religion it's noteworthy to see how central the Law/ Gospel distinction is to John Calvin's understanding of prayer. It may not be readily obvious to some and that is probably due to the notion held by many that Calvin didn't hold to what is often wrongly described as a "Lutheran" and not Reformed doctrine. In addition, Calvin does not always label his applicable comments as Law/Gospel. And one of the most likely reasons is the fact that it was so accepted and understood among Reformers as an uncontroversial though essential understanding of sinful man's redemption as presented in Scripture. Law/Gospel as God's two Words in Scripture was embraced by the Reformers from Luther and Tyndale through Calvin and Beza and so continued among  Reformed theologians throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
... notwithstanding of our being thus abased and truly humbled, we should be animated to pray with the sure hope of succeeding. There is, indeed, an appearance of contradiction between the two things, between a sense of the just vengeance of God and firm confidence in his favor, and yet they are perfectly accordant, if it is the mere goodness of God that raises up those who are overwhelmed by their own sins. For, as we have formerly shown (chap. 3: sec. 17. 2) that repentance and faith go hand in hand, being united by an indissoluble tie, the one causing terror, the other joy, so in prayer they must both be present. This concurrence David expresses in a few words: "But as for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy, and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple," (Psalm 5:7.) Under the goodness of God he comprehends faith, at the same time not excluding fear; for not only does his majesty compel our reverence, but our own unworthiness also divests us of all pride and confidence, and keeps us in fear. [emphasis added] John Calvin, Institutes of Religion Book 3.20.11
Looking at chapter 17.2 in Book 3 to which Calvin refers the reader we find:
For this reason, the promises offered in the law would all be null and ineffectual, did not God in his goodness send the gospel to our aid, since the condition on which they depend, and under which only they are to be performed--viz. the fulfillment of the law, will never be accomplished [i.e. by us]. Still, however the aid which the Lord gives consists not in leaving part of justification to be obtained by works, and in supplying part out of his indulgence, but in giving us Christ as in himself alone the fulfillment of righteousness. For the Apostle, after premising that he and the other Jews, aware that "a man is not justified by the works of the law," had "believed in Jesus Christ," adds as the reason, not that they might be assisted to make up the sum of righteousness by faith in Christ, but that they "might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law," (Gal. 2:16). If believers withdraw from the law to faith, that in the latter they may find the justification which they see is not in the former, they certainly disclaim justification by the law. Therefore, whose will, let him amplify the rewards which are said to await the observer of the law, provided he at the same time understand, that owing to our depravity, we derive no benefit from them until we have obtained another righteousness by faith. Thus David after making mention of the reward which the Lord has prepared for his servants (Ps. 25 almost throughout), immediately descends to an acknowledgment of sins, by which the reward is made void. In Psalm 19, also, he loudly extols the benefits of the law; but immediately exclaims, "Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults," (Ps. 19:12). This passage perfectly accords with the former, when, after saying, "the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies," he adds, "For thy name's sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity: for it is great," (Ps. 25:10, 11). Thus, too, we ought to acknowledge that the favor of God is offered to us in the law, provided by our works we can deserve it; but that it never actually reaches us through any such desert. [emphasis and bracketed comment added]
Indeed. The favor of God offered in the Law is secured for sinners only by Christ's perfect obedience for them. And so it is that the grace of God in Christ as offered in the Gospel and received through faith alone is that which brings sinners into the favor of God offered in the Law (Romans 10:5-11). Believers are saved by works yet not those of their own... but by the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the perfect and acceptable works of his obedience and his sacrificial death on the cross for them.

Back to prayer. Calvin is making the point that we are miserable sinners and yet beloved of God. And as we come to the heavenly throne of grace in prayer we should not ignore nor dissemble concerning our sinfulness, our lack of faith, and coldness of heart. We feel the weight of those stains on our words even as we direct them heavenward. Calvin is expressing a wonderful thing here. There is no dissonance in the fact that my sins are all too present as I approach the Holy of Holies. In his presence, God's holy Law does what it is meant to do - it shines light on sin. So it is in our want of personal righteousness that God meets us with his mercy and favor in Christ as we pray. As the Spirit of God highlights our infirmities at one moment, at the next he directs our hearts to his mercy touching us with the provision of Christ's healing perfection. It's in this way that we approach our heavenly Father with the assurance of full acceptance, not hiding or minimizing our sins but owning them and taking refuge beneath the blood of our Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Giving That Which We Have Received...

Sage advice on relationship: 
"Every good relationship is made up of two good forgivers.” - Ruth Bell Graham

"Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, And whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom, the Lord will not reckon sin." Romans 4:7-8
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." 1 John 1:9
"and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you." Ephesians 4:32

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Prayer - "Founded On Free Mercy"

In fine, supplication for pardon, with humble and ingenuous confession of guilt, forms both the preparation and commencement of right prayer. For the holiest of men cannot hope to obtain any thing from God until he has been freely reconciled to him. God cannot be propitious to any but those whom he pardons. Hence it is not strange that this is the key by which believers open the door of prayer, as we learn from several passages in The Psalms. David, when presenting a request on a different subject, says, "Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to thy mercy remember me, for thy goodness sake, O Lord," (Psalm 25:7.) Again, "Look upon my affliction and my pain, and forgive my sins," (Psalm 25:18.) Here also we see that it is not sufficient to call ourselves to account for the sins of each passing day; we must also call to mind those which might seem to have been long before buried in oblivion.
... prayers will never reach God unless they are founded on free mercy. To this we may refer the words of John, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness," (1 John 1:9.) Hence, under the law it was necessary to consecrate prayers by the expiation of blood, both that they might be accepted, and that the people might be warned that they were unworthy of the high privilege until, being purged from their defilements, they founded their confidence in prayer entirely on the mercy of God.
John Calvin, Institutes of Religion: Book 3.20.9 

Interestingly, it is not union with Christ, either elective or spiritual, that Calvin highlights as the ground upon which our prayers are received by God. The reason, it seems, is that union with Christ as a doctrine fails to address the central need of the saved-yet-still-sinner as he comes to God in prayer. That need is for assurance and confidence in order to approach the living God. "... how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" (Hebrews 9:14) Our prayers are heard of God because of the pardon of sins found only in the meritorious blood of Christ which apprehended by faith gives believers a firm ground of confidence upon which to pray. "Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need." (Hebrews 4:16)

Monday, January 5, 2015

Taking Stock... Prayer

Taking stock of one's self is rarely a pleasant experience, at least if done with a modicum of honesty which is probably why I seldom do it. But recently I asked myself - "Self, what things are lacking in your life?" Fear not, the list is too long so I'm not about to unload a morose account of failings that would be both embarrassing to me and boring to you. Yet one thing quickly came to mind that I want to mention and that is a desire to have a more consistent and heart-felt prayer life.

Now when heading down the prayer-life path there are certain forks-in-the-road best not taken. What I don't have in mind when speaking of a prayer-life is that meditative approach to God which seeks to attain to or find a deep mystical experience. No, I've already taken that Higher Life-Madame Guyon-Brother Lawrence trek years ago. It's one that leads only to a dead end of self-effort and self-absorption. Nor am I necessarily thinking of prayer simply in terms of bringing to God petitions and names of those with needs, i.e. the prayer list variety of prayer. I'm not saying that isn't important as it does have its place. And last, I want to avoid any "if only... then..." approach to prayer. In other words, it's crucial to not fall into the kind of thinking that says "if only I had a better prayer life then such and such blessings or spiritual growth or [fill-in the blank] would result." That's taking the commands and gifts of God and turning them into a works-formula in order earn something that can't be earned. We are creatures solely dependent on the goodness and favor of God, not equal players with him as if he responds and blesses according to our bargaining and implicit deal-making.

Where I'm coming from, I guess, is a kind of conviction or being convicted of a lackadaisical attitude regarding something that I know ought to be otherwise. We are commanded and entreated in Scripture to pray. And as is always the case, that which we are commanded by God to do is also that which embodies our good. So it is in a desire for a heart/attitude change regarding prayer that I decided to begin rereading that helpful portion of John Calvin's Institutes in which he addresses this topic. Here are the first two sections of chapter 20 on prayer from Book 3:
1. FROM the previous part of the work we clearly see how completely destitute man is of all good, how devoid of every means of procuring his own salvation. Hence, if he would obtain succour in his necessity, he must go beyond himself, and procure it in some other quarter. It has farther been shown that the Lord kindly and spontaneously manifests himself in Christ, in whom he offers all happiness for our misery, all abundance for our want, opening up the treasures of heaven to us, so that we may turn with full faith to his beloved Son, depend upon him with full expectation, rest in him, and cleave to him with full hope. This, indeed, is that secret and hidden philosophy which cannot be learned by syllogisms: a philosophy thoroughly understood by those whose eyes God has so opened as to see light in his light (Ps. 36:9). But after we have learned by faith to know that whatever is necessary for us or defective in us is supplied in God and in our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom it hath pleased the Father that all fulness should dwell, that we may thence draw as from an inexhaustible fountain, it remains for us to seek and in prayer implore of him what we have learned to be in him. To know God as the sovereign disposer of all good, inviting us to present our requests, and yet not to approach or ask of him, were so far from availing us, that it were just as if one told of a treasure were to allow it to remain buried in the ground. Hence the Apostle, to show that a faith unaccompanied with prayer to God cannot be genuine, states this to be the order: As faith springs from the Gospel, so by faith our hearts are framed to call upon the name of God (Rom. 10:14). And this is the very thing which he had expressed some time before--viz. that the Spirit of adoption, which seals the testimony of the Gospel on our hearts, gives us courage to make our requests known unto God, calls forth groanings which cannot be uttered, and enables us to cry, Abba, Father (Rom. 8:26). This last point, as we have hitherto only touched upon it slightly in passing, must now be treated more fully.
2. To prayer, then, are we indebted for penetrating to those riches which are treasured up for us with our heavenly Father. For there is a kind of intercourse between God and men, by which, having entered the upper sanctuary, they appear before Him and appeal to his promises, that when necessity requires they may learn by experiences that what they believed merely on the authority of his word was not in vain. Accordingly, we see that nothing is set before us as an object of expectation from the Lord which we are not enjoined to ask of Him in prayer, so true it is that prayer digs up those treasures which the Gospel of our Lord discovers to the eye of faith. The necessity and utility of this exercise of prayer no words can sufficiently express. Assuredly it is not without cause our heavenly Father declares that our only safety is in calling upon his name, since by it we invoke the presence of his providence to watch over our interests, of his power to sustain us when weak and almost fainting, of his goodness to receive us into favour, though miserably loaded with sin; in fine, call upon him to manifest himself to us in all his perfections. Hence, admirable peace and tranquillity are given to our consciences; for the straits by which we were pressed being laid before the Lord, we rest fully satisfied with the assurance that none of our evils are unknown to him, and that he is both able and willing to make the best provision for us.