Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Son of God in Church

Matthew 18:20  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.
This presence of Jesus Christ in the midst of the gathering of his church is not just omnipresence as we normally conceive of it.  It is a special presence by which he makes himself present "in the midst of the church" when we gather in his name.  He is a Person, and he is really there.  We have company.  Or, rather, we have come into His company.  This is not just the presence in our hearts that we always carry with us.  This is his special presence in our gathered worship.  He is "in the room with us," in the Temple of his Church.  It is like Isaiah in the Temple, but only seen by faith:

Isaiah 6:1  In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple.  Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one cried to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!"  And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.
Or, John on Patmos:

Revelation 1:12  Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands,  and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band.  His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire;  His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters;  He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength.  And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me, saying to me, "Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last.  I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death."
We are all familiar with how we behave in the court of civil authority, all sitting so quietly, hearing the bailiff say "All Rise" as the judge comes in, seeing the judge's robe, and his commanding presence, the deference and orderliness of the attorneys (and defendant) in their suits, the ritual and process of court business, the seriousness, the oaths, the testimony of the witnesses, ... and hearing the Verdict.

Knowing how we respect God's civil authority, how much more should we be filled with awe, gratitude and joy, in gathered worship in the gracious court of God's Presence, where we meet our Lord literally among us and hear him speak his Word through his servants, where we confess our sins to him and receive his forgiveness and teaching, where we glorify him as he showers his grace upon us, and where we present to him our offerings of gratitude as he feeds us with Himself at his table!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

More on Feast Days in the Reformed Tradition (v 2)

This is Version 2 of this blog post.  Version 2 rewrites the final exhortation which you might have read in the initial version of this post written previously.

One reads in the Second Helvetic Confession, concerning the "church calendar":


Of Holy Days,
Fasts and the Choice of Foods

THE TIME NECESSARY FOR WORSHIP. Although religion is not bound to time, yet it cannot be cultivated and exercised without a proper distribution and arrangement of time. Every Church, therefore, chooses for itself a certain time for public prayers, and for the preaching of the Gospel, and for the celebration of the sacraments; and no one is permitted to overthrow this appointment of the Church at his own pleasure. For unless some due time and leisure is given for the outward exercise of religion, without doubt men would be drawn away from it by their own affairs.

THE LORD'S DAY. Hence we see that in the ancient churches there were not only certain set hours in the week appointed for meetings, but that also the Lord's Day itself, ever since the apostles' time, was set aside for them and for a holy rest, a practice now rightly preserved by our Churches for the sake of worship and love.

SUPERSTITION. In this connection we do not yield to the Jewish observance and to superstitions. For we do not believe that one day is any holier than another, or think that rest in itself is acceptable to God. Moreover, we celebrate the Lord's Day and not the Sabbath as a free observance.*

THE FESTIVALS OF CHRIST AND THE SAINTS. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's nativity[1], circumcision[2], passion[3], resurrection[4], and of his ascension[5] into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples[6], we approve of it highly. but we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone.

Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all[7].

FASTING. Now, the more seriously the Church of Christ condemns surfeiting, drunkenness, and all kinds of lust and intemperance, so much the more strongly does it commend to us Christian fasting. For fasting is nothing else than the abstinence and moderation of the godly, and a discipline, care and chastisement of our flesh undertaken as a necessity for the time being, whereby we are humbled before God, and we deprive the flesh of its fuel so that it may the more willingly and easily obey the Spirit. Therefore, those who pay no attention to such things do not fast, but imagine that they fast if they stuff their stomachs once day, and at a certain or prescribed time abstain from certain foods, thinking that by having done this work they please God and do something good. Fasting is an aid to the prayers of the saints and for all virtues. But as is seen in the books of the prophets, the fast of the Jews who fasted from food but not from wickedness did not please God.

PUBLIC AND PRIVATE FASTING. Now there is a public and a private fasting. In olden times they celebrated public fasts in calamitous times and in the affliction of the Church. They abstained altogether from food till the evening, and spent all that time in holy prayers, the worship Of God, and repentance These differed little from mourning, and there is frequent mention of them in the Prophets and especially by Joel in Ch. 2. Such a fast should be kept at this day, when the Church is in distress. Private fasts are undertaken by each one of us, as he feels himself withdrawn from the Spirit. For in this manner he withdraws the flesh from its fuel.

CHARACTERISTICS OF FASTING. All fasts ought to proceed from a free and willing spirit, and from genuine humility, and not feigned to gain the applause or favor of men, much less that a man should wish to merit righteousness by them. But let every one fast to this end, that he may deprive the flesh of its fuel in order that he may the more zealously serve God.

LENT. The fast of Lent is attested by antiquity but not at all in the writings of the apostles. Therefore it ought not, and cannot, be imposed on the faithful. It is certain that formerly there were various forms and customs of fasting. Hence, Irenaeus, a most ancient writer, says: "Some think that a fast should be observed one day only, others two days, but others more, and some forty days. This diversity in keeping this fast did not first begin in our times, but long before us by those, as I suppose, who did not simply keep to what had been delivered to them from the beginning, but afterwards fell into another custom either through negligence or ignorance" (Fragm. 3, ed. Stieren, I. 824 f.). Moreover, Socrates, the historian, says: "Because no ancient text is found concerning this matter, I think the apostles left this to every man's own judgment, that every one might do what is good without fear or constraint" (Hist. ecclesiast. V.22, 40).

(The quotation of the Chapter from the Confession will stop here.)


There is enough here, I think, to pretty well undermine claims that the Regulative Principle of Worship denies the use of Christ-centered elements of the "church calendar" by a Christian assembly  -- at least on the grounds of the doctrine of this Confession.

One can have one's free opinions on the subject of special days, and the church cannot impose observance of any special day, fast-day, or feast-day against a man's conscience, but all these are left to the free use of individuals, and the churches.

To deny the evangelical character of an individual or church because Christ-centered elements of the "church calendar" are used therefore cannot be accomplished on the grounds of the Regulative Principle without having a "tighter" principle than is established in this Confession.  One is free to have a "tighter" principle, but one is not free, on the grounds of history, to deny the evangelical or the Reformed character of an individual or church, simply because Christ-centered elements of the historic "church calendar" are used.

All who feel bound in conscience to stay away from all church celebrations of this character should certainly be free to do so, but it is likely that they will also miss out on opportunities for edification in the knowledge of Christ.


I suspect that those who oppose the Christ-centered holidays are in churches which don't observe them.  Most believers' conceptions of these holidays may then be filled with the vision of the civil and secular manifestations which surround a holiday (such as Christmas).  Not being in liturgical churches, they may not realize that Holy Days are celebrated religiously with worship services, singing, praying, reading the Scripture, sermons, and the Lord's Supper in the church buildings and also in the homes of the Christians.  This means that a Holy Day is an evangelical opportunity for edification in the knowledge of Christ.


The use, or opposition to the use, of Christ-centered "holy days" in the church ought to be done only in good conscience and in truth, using the Scriptures, accurate doctrine and good knowledge of relevant history, without casting unfair aspersions on other brethren, thereby promoting division in the Church.

Furthermore, for anyone arguing on this issue to bear any kind of false witness historically, doctrinally or morally, either directly or by hint or slur, just isn't the way of truth.  All sides must argue in a spirit which desires as much unity with other believers as conscience permits and as the Scripture demands.  The Moral Law does not allow me to fight, willy-nilly, "just because I'm right and it makes me feel good," even if I am right.  This can be a real temptation.  I know.  I like a good fight, too.  Pardon me, but I'm trying to hold down the flesh in this regard, as I write this! 

If free observance of Christ-centered days in the Church Calendar is the right of the church, as I allege, then I have to discipline myself not to wound your conscience by insisting that you ought to do something which is actually against your conscience, just as it is not your right to deny my use of my liberty to have extra days to worship Christ, as long as I don't do it in such a way as to cause you to sin.  All the rules of policy about things like this are spelled out by the Apostle Paul.

We ought all to fight like Christians, according to the Moral Law and the rules of Scripture, and fight for "hills worth dying on," by spending our time defending big stuff -- like the Gospel, instead of fighting one another while the Spirit grieves.

May the Lord Jesus deliver us from this!


* This is not the same doctrine as the Westminster "Puritan" Doctrine of the Sabbath, which sees the Lord's Day and Sabbath as synonymous, nor is the nature of the "rest" the same, either.

[1] This is the so-called "Christmas Day."
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_the_Circumcision_of_Christ
[3] This is the so-called "Good Friday."
[4] This is the so-called "Easter," or "Resurrection Day."
[5] This is the so-called "Ascension Day."
[6] This is Pentecost.
[7] This is to be done any time, but the so-called "All Saints Day" can be used for this, too.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fast Day, Feast Day

In certain corners of the conservative Christian public space this time of year (the Christmas Season) there emerge feisty discussions of the meaning, validity and Christian "legality" of observing Christmas.

My contribution is as follows:


1)  According to the Regulative Principle of Worship, the Church may declare "thanksgiving days" in recognition and remembrance of major events of divine providence.

2)  Reasoning from the lesser to the greater, it is therefore within the church's liberty to declare "thanksgiving days" in remembrance of greater things, such as major events in the life of Christ.

3)  But, this liberty of the church to remember major events in the life of Christ has been decried by a false application of the Regulative Principle of Worship, which stems from anti-Roman Catholic sentiment.

4)  As a result of the church denying herself the use of her liberty to declare "thanksgiving days" in remembrance of major events in the life of Christ, the emphasis and development of these major gospel events is lowered within the life of the church, and

5)  The "church calendar" has been secularized to contain only civil holidays and days of remembrance.


I read somewhere that the tradition of "public days" called for by Church and State was carried to this country from European origins, and that in this country the tradition was carried forward, probably initially mostly by New England Puritans.  They would call for days of fasting as well as days of thanksgiving, in response to events of providence, such as wars, plagues, famines, victories, deliverance from enemies, etc.

Therefore, as they saw it, the Regulative Principle of Worship, in harmony with Scriptural (Old Testament) examples of days of feasting and fasting, in no way prohibited the declaration of fasting- and feasting-days in modern times when it seemed appropriate in the providence of God.

But, the non-Anglican Reformed and Baptist believers took considerable exception to the traditional "church calendar," including any recognition of the days devoted to remembrance of major events in the life of Christ.  There are several reasons for this that I can think of quickly:

1)  The "church calendar" was cluttered with all sorts of saints days and other inappropriate material, distracting attention from Christ.

2)  There were probably legal requirements requiring participation in church holidays, rather than permitting free participation in good conscience.

3)  But, perhaps most important of all, the "church calender" was "Catholic," and therefore to be avoided.

As I see it, anti-Romanism is the reigning thesis in this argument opposing Christmas, not the Regulative Principle of Worship.  Anti-Romanism distorts the pure application of the Regulative Principle.

Anecdotally, it is alleged that some Puritans would prostrate themselves (lie on their faces) on the floor in private prayer, but would not kneel.  Kneeling was "idolatrous" because Catholics did it.

I can't verify the accuracy of that anecdote, but the alleged reason for avoiding kneeling illuminates the well-known attitude of many of the advanced Puritans and Baptists of the 17th and 18th centuries to Romanism in general:  It was considered to be entirely a cult of the anti-Christ, and therefore, all religious behaviors in public and private had to avoid doing anything that looked "Catholic."  Besides kneeling, this includes use of "holy days" from the traditional "church calendar," even "holy days" in remembrance of Christ.


It seems to me that the fast-days and thanksgiving-days of the early American and Puritan experience have now evolved to become a new, secularized "church calendar."  New Year's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving Day, etc., etc. have become the new "feast days," and are often mentioned or possibly observed in some churches.  But the church has denied herself the right to declare "thanksgiving-days" in honor of Christ!

Nowadays, in churches which profess to adhere to the Regulative Principle, all you might have for an extraordinary meeting during this season could be a meeting on Thanksgiving Day or New Year's Eve.

What a loss!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Glorious Man, Our Savior

I have reproduced the first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews below.  As you read it, notice how the author mixes references to the divine and human natures of the Son of God as the author recites his argument for the superiority of the Son to the angels.  I have marked some minor alterations in the first verse or so, to help bring out the contrast being made between the prophets and the Son.  Suggested or certain references to the manhood of the Son are underlined.

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us "by Son," whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who, being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
For to which of the angels did He ever say: "You are My Son, Today I have begotten You"? And again: "I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son"?  But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says: "Let all the angels of God worship Him."  And of the angels He says: "Who makes His angels spirits And His ministers a flame of fire." 
But to the Son He says: "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your Kingdom.  You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of gladness more than Your companions."  And: "You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands.  They will perish, but You remain; And they will all grow old like a garment; Like a cloak You will fold them up, And they will be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not fail." 
But to which of the angels has He ever said: "Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool"?  Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?   (Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 1, alt.)
The fully and completely divine and the fully and completely human attributes and natures of the Person of the Son are interleaved and mixed in this record  of his career in such a manner that the natures are not distinguished in order that each nature might receive its own appropriate glorification.  Rather, all the glory of the God-man is holistically applied to his whole being -- including the manhood!

Therefore, as the Westminster Larger Catechism states:

WLC 39  Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be man? A. It was requisite that the Mediator should be man, that he might advance our nature, perform obedience to the law, suffer and make intercession for us in our nature, have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; that we might receive the adoption of sons, and have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace.
WLC 53  How was Christ exalted in his ascension? A. Christ was exalted in his ascension, in that having after his resurrection often appeared unto and conversed with his apostles, speaking to them of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God, and giving them commission to preach the gospel to all nations, forty days after his resurrection, he, in our nature, and as our head, triumphing over enemies, visibly went up into the highest heavens, there to receive gifts for men, to raise up our affections thither, and to prepare a place for us, where himself is, and shall continue till his second coming at the end of the world.
WLC 55  How doth Christ make intercession ? A. Christ maketh intercession, by his appearing in our nature continually before the Father in heaven, in the merit of his obedience and sacrifice on earth, declaring his will to have it applied to all believers; answering all accusations against them, and procuring for them quiet of conscience, notwithstanding daily failings, access with boldness to the throne of grace, and acceptance of their persons and services.
What Adam lost, Jesus Christ has more than regained.  Our Head, our Husband, our Savior, our Prophet, our Priest, and our King is in every case the selfsame single God Incarnate, Man Divine, the God-Man, a man of our flesh, full of knowledge, wise and sympathetic, compassionate, forgiving all manner of iniquity and sin, a High Priest ever on our case to save us, the answerer of all our prayers, the giver of all good, the Helper of the weak, the Savior and deliverer of sinners, filling us with the triumph of his power and glory, for His Name's sake.

Will he not help you?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Gospel, Gospel! And there is no Gospel

Life under the Gospel is just not at all easy.

Talk of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is easy, but enjoying the peaceful and nonthreatening environment of gospel talk is not the same as exercising faith in the Christ of the Gospel.

Believing in the Christ of the Gospel delivers from all condemnation only those who are, and who continue to be, abased by their sins before God.  But, sadly, we're more ashamed if men see our sins, than we are if God sees them.

This feeling of abasement and shame before God, so seldom felt (and a product of his grace), is also a strange feeling because it is simply so wonderful.  It moves a person powerfully toward humility.  It is inevitably sanctifying.

The justification of the shamed and their sanctification cannot be parted.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sin as Discipline

Jesus said that the Pharisees put on their show of legal righteousness simply to impress other men.  Elsewhere he blamed men for seeking the glory that comes from men, instead of the glory that comes from the only God.

All this serves to focus our attention on our motivations for avoiding outward sin as Christians.  Haven't you noticed that we feel more repulsed by our sins if other Christians see them?  We're ashamed to look like fools -- in the eyes of men.  We seek the glory of men.

The pungent consciousness of being seen to be a sinner by other men, and the resulting personal feeling of disgrace, ought to serve us notice that our focus is in the wrong place.  The real disgrace of sin is that it is done before God.

Therefore, whenever we feel the disgrace of having been seen to be sinners by men, we ought to transfer this sense of disgrace we have in the eyes of men, to a sense of disgrace we ought to recognize that we have in the eyes of God.

In this manner, our consciousness of sins before men can be a form of discipline to remind us of our spiritual isolation from our Father, so that we may begin to be meek again before him, and be delivered from the personal pride and vain-glory that comes from a life lived in the sight of men instead of the sight of God.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Atheism and Creation

A good understanding of the doctrine of Romans 1 and Acts 17 explains why the atheistic cry is so hot these days.  The stronger the evidence for creation, that is, for God, the stronger the atheistic backlash.  This is because the natural tendency of man is to reject the knowledge of the Creator.  The more that knowledge is forced upon him by scientific discoveries, the more he reacts against that knowledge of God which is conveyed to him by those discoveries.  Rather than seeing the hand of God in the infinite complexity of the universe (or DNA, or trees), he rebels and sees nothing, even to his own moral and logical destruction.  The illogicality of all this has been explained a million times.  But, this is not a logical problem.  The more the universe screams "God," the more the atheist screams "No."  It's just a given.

I heard a story that a famous atheist stepped into a famous church somewhere, and pontificated amusingly on his famous atheism by saying that he didn't just disbelieve in God; rather, he hated him!

So, now we have the "atheist argument for the existence of God" to add to our list of proofs!!  LOL*

Boyd Murrah, BA (Physics), Rice University, 1965.

* For those who are not up to speed on this acronym, it means "Lots Of Laughs"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Mysteries of Blog Ministry

Running a blog like this has its mysteries.

The first mystery is, Who reads it?  There is virtually no comment response to this blog, except from the occasional friend.  It's like writing into a vacuum.  However, in that vacuum there definitely are readers.  I can run the analytics on the blogsite and see the readership statistics, and, by deduction, can determine that the blog is being followed repeatedly by individuals unknown to me.  I do know that one is in India.

I'll bet pulpit ministry is like this, too.  The mystery of who you are really and truly helping could be quite different from the visible response, positive or negative.  One could even doubt the effectiveness of one's ministry.  Keep in mind that there are those silent followers who need you.  Teachers and preachers only water.  It is God who gives the increase -- somewhere where we least expect it.  I would ignore the visible clamor (positive or negative) and think in faith about those silent hearers somewhere in the local church, or in the wide world, whom the Lord thinks need to hear what we say!

This is the real ministry, though it may be hidden from us. 

Perhaps we only see "flashes" of it from time to time.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Look and Feel of Sanctification

We may describe all the world as filled with two kinds of people -- short ones and tall ones.  That gray area between the two is problematic, of course, but the distinction between short and tall is still valid.  Similarly, one is either on the road or off -- and there's a gray area that doesn't invalidate the basic distinction.  So, we may classify schemes of sanctification.  There are two kinds (and a gray area in between).  Those two kinds are:

1)  Progress in sanctification means you gradually achieve a measure of triumph over sin, such that you see less and less of it in your life.

2)  Progress in sanctification means you see more and more sin in your life.

I will assert strongly in this post that #2 is the proper position.  Let me explain.

The commonest observation in spiritual things is that the spirituality immature and unwise do not see the full depth of their own sin.  They typically don't even see the sins in themselves that are obvious to others.  Sin may appear to others to run wild in them, but sin may appear to themselves to be quiet.  The immature see little in themselves, and they perpetrate much that they're not aware of.

The mature, on the other hand, see much evil in themselves, but outwardly, at least, mostly perpetrate less -- at least in the judgment of other people.  The consequence of maturity is that humility develops.  This is not just a virtue accumulated by nice good boys, but is a result of knowing the depth of sin in themselves (that others do not see).  As a consequence, the mature are less apt than most to think highly of themselves -- for very good reasons.  They also understand the magnitude of grace more than the immature, and they rest in it.

One can understand the danger faced by those who take the opposite view of sanctification.  They think they are doing better and better spirituality because sin gradually disappears from view in the inner man.  Too much of this will result in a fall.

Therefore, it's wise to pay attention to the doctrine of sanctification you read.  If it promotes the idea of triumph rather than repentance, confession and absolution, then that doctrine may lead you astray.

Woe to you on the day you have nothing to confess.
"If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us."

Confess big ones.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.  NKJ Matthew 5:16
The saints shed forth a glory (described under the metaphor of light) during their activities before the eyes of men, which makes the works of God in them visible to men, and brings glory to the Father in heaven.  This enlightening glory is not just the words or works of the disciples, but is a supernatural glory shed forth from them as a spiritual light which enlightens the eyes of the onlooking men and gives them some vision of the truth.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  John 1:14

The point of this passage is that for Christ to manifest himself, he spiritually manifests his own uncreated glory. To receive Christ is to perceive his glory.  The exhibition of Christ is the exhibition of his glory.  This may happen through our words and actions done in his Name, but the "glory" which is exhibited transcends all in a supernatural manner.  To preach the Gospel is to supernaturally exhibit the glory of Christ by the power of the Spirit.

This, the first of his signs [turning water into wine], Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. John 2:11
It's not possible that the "glory" that was manifested is just the miracle of the transformation of the water.  Things like this have been done before by the prophets.  The "glory" is a supernatural manifestation of Christ's essential being and character, which was spiritually perceived by the elect.

"And the glory which You gave Me I have given them [the believers], that they may be one just as We are one:  John 17:22

Just as Christ manifested the glory of the Father, so we manifest the same glory, just as he did.  All our words and works before the world manifest this intra-Trinitarian glory.  This is the basis of our effectiveness.  It is not the knowledge.  It is not the good works.  In the midst of and through our knowledge, preaching, gifts and good works is the even greater manifestation of the invisible supernatural glory that has been given us by Jesus Christ.

May Christ open our minds, hearts, hands, and whole lives to be filled with his glory, and to manifest it in the church and in the world, to save and transform others into the same divine image to which we are being conformed by inheriting and gazing at this same glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Voluntarism and Irresistible Grace

To my readers: Pardon me for this somewhat technical post.  For context, see a previous post at URL:  http://christocentry.blogspot.com/2010/10/justification-and-sanctification.html

Define "voluntarism" as the doctrine that our wills are the controlling factor in the progress of our sanctification.  Voluntarism does not necessarily deny free and sovereign grace, because God can freely and sovereignly ordain the movements of our will and spirit, while those movements appear to us to be initiated and carried forward by our own volition (with God's help in power).  In other words, free and sovereign grace can theoretically coexist in the same theological system with a strong doctrine of the human will, voluntarism.  Things can be all of sovereign grace (in the hidden background), while they simultaneously appear to us to be ultimately dependent on our positive volition, though that volition is helped forward in execution by the power and grace of God.

Giving other names to this conception, we could say that "calvinism" can contain within it a bubble in which our consciousness lives and moves, and in that bubble, all our progress can appear to be regulated on "arminian" principles.  This is the nature of the strongest accusation that can be made against the nature of the spiritual piety characteristic of much Puritanism.

But, I assert that if it walks and talks like "arminianism," then that is what it is.  For it not to be "arminianism," in our subjective experience, we have to deny the voluntarism in some degree.  That is, it must not be the case that our sanctification is subjectively totally regulated by our own volition.  Put simply, we are made better by Christ through the Spirit even when we do not want to be.  Though we are reconstructed as new men by Christ, and we ought to begin to act like it and to fight the spiritual warfare, it is an absolute fact, and must be an experiential fact, that our sanctification is not in our own hands, but is in Christ's hands.  To make ourselves implicitly the "lords" of our own progress is the path of despair, not victory, and is even a kind of blasphemy.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mystical Experience as Fear

It's interesting to see in the mystical literature so much emphasis on good feelings, but little or nothing said about bad feelings.  The problem is that the experience of those who have had real contact with God so often has been an experience of bad feelings -- or death.

Isaiah saw Christ in the ancient Temple -- and condemned himself.

Peter, James and John saw Christ transfigured -- and were cowed and disoriented.

John on Patmos saw Christ's face as bright as the sun -- and fell as though dead.

Paul and Daniel saw and heard things -- about which they were not permitted to speak or write.

Paul's vision of the Third Heaven -- resulted in unremitting demonic attack

Remember Job the righteous, who, after suffering the implicit threat of being unmade, had to confess God's incomprehensibility.

Peter, in what he thought was a sympathetic moment to his Lord, could hear his Lord call him "Satan."

The Angel of the Lord could answer Joshua's question, "Whose side are you on?" with the answer, "Neither!"

In our own experiences outside the canon of Scripture:

Have you thought -- God's predestination to eternal happiness might not have included you!

When you spiritually heard the call of Christ, were you struck with sudden unmeasured love for Christ -- and equally unmeasured panic lest you lose his fellowship forever?

Each of these negative experiences was closed in joy -- in the end.  But, the immeasurable joy of the end is elevated forever by the experience of primal fear that has gone before. 

Yes, the sweet experiences (actually power-experiences) of Christ in our thoughts, prayers and speech are wonderful.  But, the power is rooted with antecedents in the fear of God that deserve remembrance.

This is the true testimony and function of The Law and The Gospel in the Church.


One does not normally think of Luther as a mystic, but his published evidence shows that he is.  Think of Luther, in his long odyssey hating the God who predestined him to sin and condemned him for it, having his eyes suddenly opened to Paradise, seeing the gift of salvation through the blood and death of his Lord Jesus Christ!  It is the brutality of this wrench of mind and soul which opened the door on the Reformation! 

Without experience of this brutal contrast the essential nature of the doctrine of justification by faith alone cannot be appreciated or spiritually savored.  It becomes a bland thing, contrary to all good sense and even contrary to the Bible so it seems to many, and this doctrine eventually falls into the background and is forgotten again -- until the Spirit moves, and the cry of despairing souls is again satisfied by the free grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Justification and Sanctification (revised 11.02.2010)

We believe in justification by faith only, and therefore distinguish the judicial process of being declared righteous in the Court of God (justification) from that process by which we begin to be made righteous (sanctification).  This is different from the medieval and pre-Reformational conception that justification is sanctification.  In that medieval concept, justification and sanctification could never be separated, but the assurance of final justification was not possible, because sanctification appears to be so variable and imperfect.

Now, the danger for those making a distinction between justification and sanctification is that the two ideas may "wander off from one another," so that justification and sanctification are achieved by radically different methods, with radically different philosophies of life lying behind them.  To put it crassly, one can begin to think that justification is achieved by faith only in the Gospel -- not by doing anything at all --  but that sanctification is achieved by an arduous process of self-improvement under the Law.  I express this crassly because one will hardly ever see it put so blatantly.  I say it in this extreme fashion, in order to show what I mean by saying that justification -- resting in Christ -- can be made to differ so much from sanctification -- a life of labor, that theological and practical confusion is brought into the Christian life.  How can you rest and labor at the same time?  These things must be reconciled.

Advocating a reconciliation is not a new idea.  The history of theology since the Reformation is littered with attempts to do this, but no consensus has been achieved.  As a starting point, however, it's clear that we need to keep justification and sanctification in union with one another, but distinguished.  As a familiar example, we speak of the union of the two natures of Christ in one Person, the divine Second Person who has taken on the attributes of manhood.  As such, the two natures are tightly unified under a single Person, but at the same time the natures (not the Person) are distinguished, so that Christ remains a single Person, yet fully God and fully Man.  So, in our doctrine of justification and sanctification, we need to keep these two elements tightly unified under the heading of salvation by grace, even though we continue to distinguish the judicial acceptation of our persons from the infusion of grace into our persons.

------------------- EXAMPLE ---------------------

Why is it that in the medieval scheme the variability and poverty of our faith and works implies that we cannot have assurance in this life concerning our justification or final perseverance unto acceptance by God, whereas in some Reformed (actually, Puritan) versions of the doctrine of assurance our mortification of sin and our good works are precisely supposed to be the major evidence to us that our position in Christ is secure, and that we have been truly justified (by faith only)?

Put another way, how could it ever be that those who believe sin indwells believers ineradicably in this life (Protestants) could ever receive assurance of justification from the quality of their combined faith and works, when those who believe in perfectibility in this life (Romanists) cannot have any assurance on the same basis?  How can those who see themselves as "worse" believers than Romanists have any assurance based on performance, when even Romanists confess that they cannot?

I'm reading the great Puritan theologian John Owen's treatise On the Mortification of Sin in Believers.1  The treatise is full of many valuable bits of teaching concerning sin and repentance.  However, these bits are gerrymandered together with other material to enforce a virtually unendurable demand for perfection in repentance and holy walking.  It is "spiritually" Arminian,* triumphalistic and perfectionistic.  As a result I cannot tell that anyone who takes really, really seriously what Owen describes as the truly sanctified life could ever consider himself to be anything but a "second class" Christian at best, if indeed he considered himself to be a Christian at all.  Owen's perfectionism is often fit only to produce despair in poor saints.

Then, shall it be well with men, when they have an equal respect to all God's commandments.  God will justify us from our sins, but he will not justify the least sin in us (p. 125).

I can't fathom what Owen thinks of himself.  He never speaks in the first person about his own depravity.

On the other hand, I see John Calvin speaking quite otherwise in the Institutes 2:

Therefore, God does not, as many stupidly believe, once for all reckon to us as righteousness that forgiveness of sins concerning which we have spoken, in order that, having obtained pardon for our past life, we may afterward seek righteousness in the law;  this would be only to lead us into false hope, to laugh at us, and mock us.  For since no perfection can come to us so long as we are clothed in this flesh, and the law moreover announces death and judgment to all who do not maintain perfect righteousness in the works, it will always have grounds for accusing and condemning us unless, on the contrary, God's mercy counters it, and by continual forgiveness of sins repeatedly acquits us (Vol 1, p 777).

Calvin also somewhere says that when a believer compares the righteousness he thinks he has to the ungodliness he knows he has, that he cannot gain any assurance from his works that he knows the Lord at all.  He must only rely on acceptance with God by faith alone, and can only gain his assurance from that knowledge of his acceptance which he has apart from his works.  Seeing God work in our lives, and having assurance from that, says Calvin, is something that we might see in retrospect, and will know it to be something we ourselves are not the cause of.  But, this assurance of God's intervention in our lives to produce righteousness is not the primary evidence of our justification and assurance today.

The spiritual "smell" and teaching of Owen and Calvin could not be further apart.

Here is a quote from the mystical (contemplative, medieval, Romanist) standpoint that is relevant to this:   
My comments in [square brackets] and my underlines

At this point I would return to the reason for the close correspondences between these traditions [he means the Contemplative and the Puritan].  Insofar as I can see, they are due to something deliberate in the Reformed (especially the Puritan) tradition's efforts to reform the church more fully; namely, a return to the medieval contemplative mainstream to recover insight concerning sanctification.  The Puritans differed from the medieval contemplatives chiefly in the ambitiousness of their plans.  Where contemplatives tried to make saints of those in monasteries, the Puritans tried to make saints of everybody.  Here the Puritans forgot one of their basic tenets -- the fallenness of humanity -- which precludes such optimism.  The contemplatives were more realistic.  Only those who really want to and are willing to surrender themselves fully can become saints.  Coercion will never produce the kind of holy obedience God requires.3
It is interesting, in view of the supposed allegiance of the Puritans to a thoroughgoing doctrine of human depravity, that the contemplative in this quotation can accuse the Puritans (so ironically) of not taking the depth of human depravity among the believers very seriously.4

Any believer seriously troubled by sin must have had his very faith called into question by Owen's doctrine, or any like it.  Owen regards most so-called Christians with a jaundiced and disrespectful eye.  Since any mature believer sees his ingrained depravity even more deeply than an immature believer, it is hard to understand how even a mature believer could feel right.  This doctrine of sanctification would likely (and probably has historically) created churches full of sorrowing and doubting believers -- not what is seen in the New Testament.

Owen's doctrine of sanctification strangely overshadows the doctrine of justification, assurance and free unmerited grace found in the Gospel.  It is as if justification and sanctification have separate trajectories, and operate on separate principles:  That is, the work of the Holy Spirit which produces regeneration, repentance, faith and real union with Christ, fully by grace through faith alone, will not sanctify a believer according to substantially these same principles.  It truly must be the case that the work of the Spirit in the Gospel is the foundation of sanctification!  But, to Owen this is not subjectively the case in a believer's life.  The believer must operate by substantially different spiritual principles for justification than he does for sanctification.  This indicates theological and spiritual poverty in Owen's doctrine of justification and its consequences.  He thinks that justification "fixes" your legal problem with God, but does not begin to produce sanctification on the same gracious principles.  Justification and sanctification thus have wandered off on separate courses.  The objective and felt grace of the gospel, producing the love of God (and thereby the hatred of sin), has vanished away as the engine of the spiritual life.

1 This public domain text may be found in Kapic and Taylor, ed., Overcoming Sin and Temptation, Crossway Books, 2006, pp. 41-139.

2 McNeil, ed., Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.

3 Donald Alexander, ed., Christian Spirituality -- Five Views of Sanctification, article by: E. Glenn Hinson, A Contemplative Response to the Reformed View, p. 93.

4 I suggest that Owen's doctrine of the anthropology of believers includes a redefinition of sin to be only those heart or external actions to which the will does not assent.  This would reinterpret his writing on mortification in order to put it into more practical terms.  But, this more "practical" doctrine is just the doctrine of the hated "Papists."  Concupiscence is not sin, etc.  Virtual perfectionism is possible.  This, in turn, could point in the direction of some flavor of Arminianism, or more likely, the Neonomianism of Richard Baxter or the doctrine of Bp. Jeremy Taylor.

* The reason for using the term "armininian" is explained in the post at the following URL: 
http://christocentry.blogspot.com/2010/11/voluntarism-and-irresistible-grace.html.  There is a well-known Arminianism concerning the doctrine of predestination.  But, here I refer to parallels in the doctrine of faith, and of volitional sanctification.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Radiance of His Glory

It seems to me that the meaning of the word "glory" needs a good deal of contemplation.  We should never skip over this word casually when we read it in the Scripture  
(quotes from the ESV):

John 17:1-5  When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 

I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.  And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

Jesus speaks of his earthly ministry as glorifying God the Father on earth.  This was Christ's work that he was sent to do, and he accomplished it.  In this phrase, Christ encapsulates a way of looking at his work which we need to ponder.

Notice that he does not simply describe his work as ethical teaching, though an ethic is certainly taught.  Nor does he merely inculcate right religious doctrine, though right doctrine is vital.  Neither is he merely a miracle worker, proving the benevolence of God.  Nor is he merely an example.  He does not just fill the mind with teaching, or the emotions with love, or the will to action only.  What he does is show forth the glory of GodIt is the sight of the glory which saves us from our sins.

John 1:14   And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

At Cana, after turning water to wine:

John 2:11   This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

The glorious thing was not the supply of better wine, but the spiritual vision of Christ's personal glory that radiated through the incident.

Regarding the sickness of Lazarus, who died, and who was raised by Jesus:

John 11:4  But when Jesus heard it he said, "This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it."


John 11:39-40   Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days."  Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?"

Lazarus' coming out of the tomb was not the glory of God.  The fact that there was a miracle was not the glory.  The glory to be seen spiritually is the glory of the person and nature of Christ himself, which is radiated through his saving action.  The nonbelievers at the funeral never saw the glory, because after seeing the miracle they went to the Jewish leadership, who promoted Jesus' destruction.  But, the believers saw the glory.  Those who were being saved saw it.  The saving knowledge of Christ came by the manifestation and vision of his glory.

John 12:36-41   While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light." When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them.  Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?"  Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them."  Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.

Radically, we find that Christ has shared his glory with us!

John 17:22-23   The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

Therefore, our ministry to one another is a manifestation of this same glory, and when this glory is seen and understood by the world, it testifies (savingly) to the world that Christ has come and saved his people.

To act like a Christian in spiritual love to one another, and then to the world, radiates Christ's glory.  To preach the gospel is to radiate the glory of Christ.

This is why the preaching of the gospel is not merely the teaching of right doctrine, nor just the exhortation to right affections, nor only the call to right actions.  All of these follow from something else:

2 Corinthians 3:7-11   Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?  For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.  Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it.  For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory

2 Corinthians 4:3-6   And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.  For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 1:1-3   Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, ...

Lord Jesus, deliver us from our spiritual dimness!  Show us your glory, so that we may truly glorify you!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Christian Community in the City

Christian "community," (sometimes called fellowship), is that social and active fellowship enjoyed by the believers, whereby we edify one another in our life in Christ.  This post investigates the nature and vitality of Christian community in the city.

Now, the greatest impediment to Christian Community, in city life, is the lack of time.  The ceaseless round of weekly activities uses up all the time.  There is no Christian quietness or time for spiritual fellowship.  Quietness is boring -- or frightening.  It is certainly not a virtue in our busy world.  If you are quiet, you may lose an opportunity to get ahead!

Most times, I'm sure, our weekly activities are all considered to be necessary or excellent benefits to ourselves and to our children which we cannot afford to pass by.  Particularly is this the case when it comes to giving our children that initial boost in life which we believe that they need for future success.  Business requirements, too, including "church" business, can dominate our schedules.  Whatever the cause, a vital casualty of this lifestyle is Christian community.  When, in the city, there are so many available activities, even so much "good" that can be engaged in, even so much Christian good, the virtues of a quiet life are lost and remain undeveloped in our souls.  Christian community, if it exists at all, can only be "scheduled" like everything else.  But, can those necessary heart-to-heart talks always be "scheduled"?  No.  They will just never happen.

The church has always thought this busy-ness to be dangerous and wrong.

So, how does time for Christian community, or even time for personal contemplation, come about?  Something has to be sacrificed!  And, if your life and your family's life is not filled with time-wasting activities, then something good will have to be sacrificed.  And, in order for something good to be sacrificed, Christian virtues of a quiet life must rise in our consciousness, beyond the good of the good things we must sacrifice!

Here are some random thoughts:

You train your children in all sorts of intellectual programs and physical sports for their future good.  Yet, how much of this is competitive training which teaches them to be motivated by the desire to be "first"?  Is this realistic -- or Christian?  Think of your own life experience.  How will this motivation to be "first" serve them throughout their lives?  How much of the intellectual activity or physical sport which they engage in are to train them in accordance with their actual gifts?  Is any part of their lives given over to "play"?  "Boredom" is a vital stimulant to creativity.  Can you arrange your educational program to train them ultimately in those things that they are best at, and in which, by living as quietly as their calling permits, they will contribute to society and church in a productive manner?

People in business, educators and church-workers, male or female, can ask the same questions about their own professional activities.  How much of this is necessary, and how much of what I do is to feed my personal ambitions?

The bottom line is this:  Is it spiritually clean to be busy all the time?  Have we made "idols" of good things?  Can life be quieter?  Can there be more time for God and our fellow believers?

The answer to this must be "Yes!".  But, then, we Christians must live differently than the world -- even differently than the rest of the "Christian" world that is as busy as the world!

There needs to be a taste of Paradise in our Christian social lives, just as there is in worship.

Friday, October 15, 2010


The Bible is not a resource for the church or for the Christian life.  It does not exist so that the world or the church may draw upon the elements of knowledge, understanding and wisdom that are found in it.  It is not a resource for liturgy, or for personal sanctification.  It is not a resource for academic study, or the accumulation of doctrinal knowledge, or any or such like use.  The Bible is not a passive resource under our hands, and if we make it so, we rebel against it!

Consider Paul's exhortation to Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.  (2 Tim 3:14-17)

By understanding the text in red above, it is clear that the word of the Apostle Paul (preaching the New Covenant) is on the same level of authority as the Sacred Scripture (by which Paul means what we call the "Old Testament").

Furthermore, just as Paul was not primarily a resource which allowed himself to be passively used, but on the other hand was an active instructor, so it is with the Scripture.  The Scripture is not a passive "resource" which we use, but is an active power, through the Spirit, that has within it the ability to make us wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

In fact, as seen in the words in blue, above, the very words of Scripture are breathed by God.  This is reminiscent of the divine in-breathing into Adam at his creation.  New life comes to us by the Spirit as we hear the creative Word spoken by God.  The Church of Christ lives by the actual, active speech of the Word of Christ, bringing spiritual life to our souls.

How serious it is, then, that we listen to this Word in every way that it speaks to us.  How serious it is to study the Bible, not as a "resource," but to be taken hold of by it, and by it to be recreated into new men and women of God!  We should marvel at this divine speech, pine to hear it, and seek to understand it.

A church which is not characterized by this hunger is a church which merely uses the Bible as a resource, implicitly under men's control, to justify their own projects, and to bring a nostalgic smell of Christianity into her life!  Cut off from her food, this church will eventually die.  Her spiritual soul will fade away into a haze, her work mechanically operated by those who trample her courts, until finally the Lord himself takes away her candlestick!

May it not be this way.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Luther, and Justification by Faith Alone

Revised 10/13/2010

Luther's spiritual state, and his spiritual evolution and ultimate conversion to new views of justification, are commonly separated from the doctrine itself in our understanding.  This is because we approach the Scripture seeking the Scripturally objective sense of it, concerning this doctrine.  It matters not what we or (or Luther) think, or what our spiritual state is.  What matters is what the Scripture teaches.

But there needs to be a wrinkle here.  Yes, it is true that the Scripture teaches "justification by faith alone."  But, we need to consider how to use and apply this doctrine.  We are helped toward this goal if we really do closely consider the relationship between Luther's spiritual turmoil and his "re-discovery" of this apostolic doctrine.

Luther originally accepted and labored under a doctrine of repentance which was usually stated like this:  "To those who do what is in them, God will not deny grace."  The question for Luther was whether or not he actually, honestly did "what was in him," that is, whether he ever did what he was really capable of doing for God.  In the end, he thought not.  All his works, he saw, were contaminated by sin.  The result was that the "system" of repentance and Christian assurance broke down and failed.  Now, if Luther isn't just out of his mind (an untenable position), then this means that Luther finally cared about the experiential truthfulness of this plan of salvation, and he found that the plan was a failure.

One might ask why other serious Christians did not discover this.  It's a mystery.  Perhaps they just did not put as much faith in that plan of repentance, or perhaps they did not worry about the sin which remained in their works.  If they were serious Christians, they must have thought, just as Johann Staupitz, Luther's confessor said to Luther, that one must at some point just stop being angry at God and confessing sins all day, and trust in the God who grants grace.  (This, of course, is implicitly to trust in justification by faith, while denying the doctrine).  Luther, however, tested the medieval church doctrine to the bitter end and found it wanting.  Because he strove for The Truth in this respect, he came to see The Truth on this point in the Scripture.  Consequently, there was a Reformation, which was provoked in largest measure by this doctrine of free justification.

This is all highly instructive.  We have to conclude then that justification by faith alone is only understood from the heart and relied upon by believers who truly see, mourn and hate their own ineradicable depravity.  Only those who have despaired in their striving for sanctification can know the glory of free grace.  Believers who have not reached the end of themselves cannot have heartfelt faith in Christ's free justification.  For them, "Justification by Faith Alone" may be a battle cry of their religious party, but spiritually, it is just words.  Such believers are open to false gospels.  They are open to the use of legal methods for sanctification -- if they are interested in sanctification.  Some may think in their hearts, "I'm justified, so I don't need to repent," thus implicitly denying their professed religion.  Therefore, we must conclude that misbehavior by Christians, truly converted or not, is not a denial of the truthfulness or usefulness of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  When repentance comes alive, and sensitivity to sin constantly increases, and personal depravity becomes an ineradicable object of mourning and hatred in our souls, then salvation as a free gift (justification by faith alone) opens the doors of paradise to believers such as these.  The joy and love imparted by this experience is truly sanctifying.  It is spiritual deliverance.  It is a power-relationship to the Spirit and to grace, instead of a power-relationship to law.  It is the only truly sanctifying doctrine, and therefore is ultimately the doctrine of a standing or falling church.  The whole Christian life is the continual re-discovery of free grace, as we struggle against our remaining depravity and sin.

How should we ever think, then, that "Justification by Faith Alone" is simply an easily accepted initial doctrine of the faith, and that once this "believing" is done and we are justified, then, as a separate activity, we take up the serious business of "working on our sanctification."  It is only in the midst of the struggle of sanctification that the inbreaking of the divine peace continually delivers us!  In the end, in the day of final deliverance, the free justification and unmerited reward of God will be all there is, in glory, forever and ever.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


If you take close look at events on and after the day of Pentecost, you'll notice:

1)  The little gathering in the Upper Room before the Spirit came was about as big as a typical church of any denomination today -- about 100 people, 120 to be more exact.

2)  The church after the day of Pentecost contained 3000 men.  Assuming their households are not included, we have to add those, if they are residents or have their families with them.  This reckons to, say, 15,000 souls.  There was another conversion later (Acts 4:4), where the head count of men in the church increased to 5000, or perhaps another 5000 were added.  If the latter, and if this count does not include households, we're now talking about 40,000 souls.  All this assumes a household count of 5, including the head.  This is probably small.  Even if they church grew to only 5000 men, then assuming 5 per household, this multiples to 25,000 souls.

One concludes from this calculation that the initial task of the apostles and elders was to take up emergency measures to handle church growth.  We know later (Acts 6) that they set up 7 men to act as "deacons."

So, we conclude that 11 apostles and 7 deacons could take care of 25,000 - 40,000 church members, including dealing with the funds which were brought in due to the sale of property (Acts 4:32ff), and the logistics of distribution to widows, etc. (Acts 6)??

No.  We do not conclude this.

There's no way 18 guys could take care of this.  We have to conclude that a barely functioning infrastructure (there were complaints) was set up to help the leadership do this job.  We have to conclude that those 7 deacons were leaders and managers of the relief effort.  We likewise have to conclude that the apostles had help in their particularly pastoral duties.  After all, it's clear that at the time of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), that there were a lot of elders and leading brethren under them!

Therefore, the mere statistics of this episode show that elders and deacons are the leaders and managers of a much larger pastoral and ministerial effort to care for church members spiritually and physically.

As a consequence, when we see the blessing of church growth among ourselves, it is mandatory that we, by the wisdom of the Spirit, also imitate the early church by creating the necessary pastoral and diaconal infrastructure using reliable church members in order to carry forward the work of the church.

Any other approach will lead to organizational failure and leadership burnout.

I started out the day opposed to megachurch.  Hmmm.

If a church happened to gain 30 members every two months and stopped losing folks out the back door, they'd need to be ready.

PS:  Information about the total population of Jerusalem at feast time (such as Pentecost) varies from 600,000 (Titus, in AD 70) to 3,000,000 (Josephus).  Another source states, 120,000 - 200,000 (presumably not just at feast time) in the time of Herod the Great.  Edersheim says people camped out during feast time.  Some claim that Jerusalem was 70,000 - 80,000, but this is probably not at feast time, when huge crowds of pilgrims would come to the city.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

More on Sanctification

One might ask a fundamental Protestant question about justification and sanctification:  How do the two concepts of "rest" and "war" comport with one another?  "Rest," of course, refers to the "rest" of faith on the justifying work of Christ's cross.  "War" refers to the active fight between flesh and spirit inside ourselves as believers.

Those who emphasize "rest," spanning the spectrum from orthodox Lutheranism through "deeper-life/higher-life/let-go-and-let-God" spirituality expect to prosecute the war within by spiritual rest.  Will they not always be suspected of harboring antinomianism?  Likewise, the fighting side will always be suspected by the others of having a commitment to legalism.  War periodically breaks out between various proponents of these two camps. 

The most significant engagement is that between orthodox Lutheranism and the orthodox Reformed.  The Reformed always doubt the ability of the Lutheran way to really come to grips with sin and sanctification.  The Lutherans are certain that the Reformed only have a half-way commitment to grace.  This war has not yet been brought to an end through a common understanding, and therefore, the Lutheran/Reformed schism remains unhealed.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sanctification (revised)

The original badly written article has been revised to improve the sentence structure.

If sanctification were a process of becoming better and better by striving against sin by the Spirit (which, of course, we must do), and if we measured our progress by comparing ourselves against the standard of the Law, how would this comport with the doctrine of justification by faith alone?  Likely this way:  We would have to separate the process of justification from that of sanctification, because justification and sanctification were carried out by different methods.  Justification would be carried out through faith only in the gospel apart from Law, and sanctification would be carried out by laboring at holiness (which, of course, we must do) while using the Law as our guide.  This results in a common doctrinal dualism found in the churches.  The consequence among the insensitive Christians is perhaps legalism, as they practice a socially acceptable Christianity.  The consequence among the sensitive Christians is despair, through their (correct) perception of their constant sinning.

This kind of distinction between justification and sanctification does not do justice to the fundamental principle of grace inherent in the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  It reduces the relevance of this doctrine to the process of sanctification, and to the whole Christian life.  This is wrong.  We need a doctrinal formulation which makes justification and sanctification work together in a holistic doctrine of the Christian life that actually works.

Now, if justification by faith alone be the key doctrine for sanctification, it is obvious that real sanctification comes about by moving away from striving for personal self-improvement (before the Law) and toward Spiritual reliance on free grace in Christ.  Sanctification is measured less by accomplishment, as we perceive it, and more by repentance, humility, the sense of forgiveness, and the empowering vision of free grace in Christ, producing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience ... .

This does not mean that we need not strive against sin when it threatens.  Because we are still in flesh, we have to fight and hopefully defeat sins at least some of the time.  But, real victory comes by deliverance from the power of sin by the grace of God.  It is not a product of human effort.  We may not see holiness coming over us as we persevere in repentance, and in humility, and in our joy and peace in Christ -- but others do.  The most self-forgetful, who are least fond of measuring their spiritual accomplishments, and who meekly boast in the merits of Christ will be the sanctified.

And vice versa.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Life Achievement (v4)

A saint near death writes in his will, commenting on his efforts to glorify God:

But alas! The desire which I have had, and the zeal, if so it must be called, has been so cold and so sluggish that I feel myself a debtor in everything and everywhere, and that, were it not for his infinite goodness, all the affection I have had would be but as smoke, nay, that even the favors which he has accorded me would be render me so much more guilty; so that my only recourse is this, that being the Father of mercies he will show himself the Father of so miserable a sinner.

One may marvel at the professed humility of such a saint, John Calvin, but unwittingly continue to regard these comments by Calvin as a wonderful sounding example of pious language on the part of a great Christian man.  But, this falsifies what the man is teaching in his final witness!  Because his example of real humility is not taken seriously, our own desires for greatness are not exposed as sin, and our own path to greatness is not revealed.

In fact, if Calvin's own self-image near death were ours now, then we would be more like him.  At the end of our lives, we should hope, like Calvin, to have finally achieved the true vision of our own humility and weakness -- and therefore to have finally rested in total reliance on the Grace of God.

What a goal!  A self-vision like this is a judgment on the idols of personal glory.  It is a real hope, that having learned obedience through suffering in the cause of Christ, we may in the end recline on our death beds, in the arms of Christ, and be carried by his grace to glory -- the glory reserved for those who rest on his finished work, and not their own.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Christ's "Descent into Hell" in the Creed

The phrase "He descended into hell" in the Creed has a long history, and so does the interpretation of it.

History of the Creed

The so-called "Apostle's Creed" is an evolutionary product of the need for a Baptismal confession of faith.  This began in the eastern part of the Roman Empire and slowly progressed toward the west.  Each region or church might have some variation of this, but it was used to certify the authenticity of the public confession that a person made who was to be baptised.

History of the Phrase "He descended into Hell"

According to reputable sources, the phrase "He descended into hell" appears in the Creed about the year 400.  As this baptismal creed became standardized in form in the west, the phrase in question became a fixed part of it about 750.

What the Phrase Means

First, note that the word "hell" does not refer to a place of torment.  It refers to the "abode of the dead," or "sheol" in Hebrew.  When Jesus Christ is said to have "descended into hell," he did not descend to endure punishment.

The Reformed tradition mostly interprets the "descent" as a reference to Christ's suffering the pains of our punishment on the cross, or refers to the descent as a summary of the "died and was buried," indicating the fullness of the state of death that was his.

Note that Acts 2:22-32 refers to Christ being raised from the realm of the dead.  This implies that when he died, he entered the realm of the dead -- sheol.

A list of standard Scripture references is: Job 38:17, Psalm 68:18-22; Matthew 12:38-41; Acts 2:22-32; Romans 10:7; Ephesians 4:7-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6.  From:  http://www.creeds.net/ancient/descendit.htm

Though we've mentioned some data to substantiate the credal statement from the Scripture, the discussion of this subject often proceeds to speculate on Christ's supposed deliverance of the Old Testament deceased believers from the good side of sheol.  Regardless of the outcome of any discussion on this aspect of the subject, it is not referred to in the creed.

Useful links for a fuller discussion (even the Pope's is good):


Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Hegemony of the New Testament

Its hard to believe that so many aberrations of historic Reformed theology have developed in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Most of these aberrations can be cured by the application of two principles from the Scripture and from historic Reformed Theology.  These principles are:

1)  The New Testament reveals the hermeneutic for all of Scripture.

Then He said to them, "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me."  And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.  Then He said to them, "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  And you are witnesses of these things.  Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high."     Luke 24:44-49

2)  The world-view of the New Testament is age-long.

"Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake.  And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.  Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.  And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.  But he who endures to the end shall be saved.  And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. Matthew 24:9-14

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.  For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.  Colossians 3:1-4 

When these two principles are applied, all sorts of doctrinal distortions fade away.

Most of the aberrations that face Reformed theology rely on a judaizing hermeneutic which forces a foreign understanding upon the New Testament, originating from a false interpretation of the Old.  This, in turn, requires an implicit or explicit denial that the New Testament world-view is age-long.

The implications of these two principles are revolutionary for those caught in a false hermeneutic.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


The word 'guilt' is used several ways.  It may be used to refer to what's real before God, that is, to being actually guilty of a sin, whether there are guilt feelings about that sin or not.  'Guilt' may also be used to refer to feelings commonly associated with being in an objective state of 'guilt,' whether that objective state is accurately assessed or not.  In other words, there can be a disjunction between actual guilt and feelings of guilt.  Persons who are guilty may not feel guilty, and persons who feel guilty may not be guilty.

Feelings of guilt, even among repentant Christians, are not uncommon.  These feelings usually come about because of real or perceived offenses (sins) that they have committed.  But, when the guilt feelings persist too long after reconciliation has been attempted, then we must look for a cause.

Now, if it weren't for the judgment of God upon us that we are "Not Guilty!" in Christ, and if it weren't for Christ's continuing ministry of reconciliation which he performs on our behalf, we would be guilty -- always!  The fact that guilt feelings may continue after forgiveness then has to be explained -- or at least the Scriptural antidote given, since this is an abnormal condition.

First, we have to note that the world, the (that is, our) flesh, and the devil are always on our case, often to tempt to sin, and always to make us feel guilty!  This is one of the prime Satanic works.  He, and his minions, and the world he controls, along with the self-righteousness of our own flesh all conspire together against the free grace of the gospel.  In order to be delivered we must understand the following teaching, seen many places in God's Word, but especially here:

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.     (1 Cor 15:56-57)

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace(Rom 6:14)

Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God. For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter(Rom 7:4-6)
None of this means that the Law of God is evil.  It means that the Law of God provokes the non-believers to rebel.  And, if believers do not realize that they are not under the Law's curse and bondage, then believers will continue to operate under a load of guilt.  This sense of bondage actually can lead to more sin, even in believers!  Therefore, it is necessary that as repentant believers, we be delivered in all our feelings from past guilt.

When the rooster crowed, Peter was busy denying his Lord.  But, he went on to be the head spokesman and leader of the apostolic band.  Peter implicitly denied the gospel in Galatia by not sharing a table with the non-kosher Gentiles in the church, for which he was rebuked in public by Paul.  Paul, of course, had been a kind of executioner of the church, before his conversion.  King David -- well, we know what he did.  None of these spectacular spiritual recoveries or conversions is any sanction for the practice of sin, but they are sanction for receiving effectual forgiveness in fact and in spirit, in reality and in the feelings, as we move forward in the Christian life.

Our sins -- well, they're canceled before God and the church, because the condemning Law written against us is canceled.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross(Col 2:13-14)

Calvin remarks (Inst. XIX.2):

Christian freedom, in my opinion, consists of three parts.
The first: that the consciences of believers, in seeking assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law righteousness. For since, as we have elsewhere shown, the law leaves no one righteous, either it excludes us from all hope of justification, or we ought to be freed from it, and in such a way, indeed, that no account is taken of works. For he who thinks that in order to obtain righteousness he ought to bring some trifle of works is incapable of determining their measure and limit but makes himself debtor to the whole law. Removing, then, mention of law, and laying aside all consideration of works, we should, when justification is being discussed, embrace God’s mercy alone, turn our attention from ourselves, and look only to Christ. For there the question is not how we may become righteous but how, being unrighteous and unworthy, we may be reckoned righteous. If consciences wish to attain any certainty in this matter, they ought to give no place to the law.
Nor can any man rightly infer from this that the law is superfluous for believers, since it does not stop teaching and exhorting and urging them to good, even though before God’s judgment seat it has no place in their consciences. For, inasmuch as these two things are very different, we must rightly and conscientiously distinguish them. The whole life of Christians ought to be a sort of practice of godliness, for we have been called to sanctification. Here it is the function of the law, by warning men of their duty, to arouse them to a zeal of holiness and innocence. But where consciences are worried how to render God favorable, what they will reply, and with what assurance they will stand should they be called to his judgment, there we are not to reckon what the law requires, but Christ alone, who surpasses all perfection of the law, must be set forth as righteousness.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Predestination and Evangelism (rev. 7 Oct 2010)

You'll have to pardon me for making this post a little technical, but I think the big words are useful in this post.  I'll try to define them, for my purposes, as I write.

One of the theological struggles of the Reformed theology is to properly maintain the visibility and relationship of both particularism and universalism.  In the context of the doctrine of salvation, we may speak of "election," or predestination to salvation, which is God's choice of those sinners upon whom he will have mercy.  This is a kind of particularism.  Yet many Scripture passages show God making a universal offer of salvation to all the sinners who hear the gospel preached.  This is a kind of universalism -- not meaning that all get saved willy nilly, but meaning that all are in principle offered the free grace of the Gospel. 

The problem here is to ask how the particularism of election and the universalism of the gospel offer are to be reconciled with one another.  What is the balance?  How to we keep one aspect of the truth from being emphasized in some manner which is wrongly at the expense of the other?

It's pretty simple to envision the consequences of imbalance toward predestination.  When the divine predestination dominates, then the question that will be asked implicitly is whether the people I propose to witness to are elect.  I think this is "subliminal."  The consequence will likely be the downplaying of evangelistic efforts.  God is in charge.  Let him bring them.  If they show an interest, we'll try to take them in.  Why spend your effort on so many who are likely non-elect? 

Now it sounds like I'm mocking, but I'm serious.  I think I'm describing a position that is implicitly held in the heart, though never expressed verbally, nor consciously acknowledged.  What else can happen if you think God really doesn't express love to all who hear the gospel offer, or that his gospel call to everyone who hears is not a bona fide offer?  You really cannot say to anyone that "God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life," if you wonder if it's true! You don't dare say to someone what you're actually thinking: "Christ's death may or may not be for you, but if you believe that it is for you, then you will be saved by it!"

This way of thinking is all wrong.

No matter how true predestination is -- and it is very true -- it is still the case that a bona fide offer of the gospel is made by God to all sinners who hear the gospel preached.  If God is going around having the gospel preached all over the place and making bona fide offers of salvation to all who hear, who could ever think that love for sinners, and recognition of their real need for the gospel, should somehow be stifled by the doctrine of predestination?  

To think so is contrary to every decent Reformed doctrinal statement ever written on the subject.  The Westminster Confession says, referring to Adam's breaking of the Law of God:

WCF 7:3  Man, by his fall, having made himself uncapable of life by that covenant [of creation], the Lord was pleased to make a second,(1) commonly called the Covenant of Grace, whereby He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved;(2) and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.(3)

(1) Gal. 3:21; Rom. 8:3; Rom. 3:20,21; Gen. 3:15; Isa. 42:6.
(2) Mark 16:15,16; John 3:16; Rom. 10:6,9; Gal. 3:11.
(3) Ezek. 36:26,27; John 6:44,45.

You will notice that the offer of salvation is made by God (through his preachers).  The genuineness of the offer cannot be denied by saying that it's the preachers' offer, and they don't know who the elect are, and therefore they have to preach to everyone.  That's not the Confession's point, and that's not God's point!

No matter how predestination and gospel preaching may seem to conflict in our rationality, we have to accept the Scripture presentation of both sides of this issue.

Both are simply true.