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.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Finish Well

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.     2 Peter 3:9
In some eras and theological regions of the church there have been seasons when excruciating emphasis has been laid on starting well in the Christian life.

Now, it is excruciatingly important to know the right teaching about Christ -- the right gospel -- that Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, gave himself for our sins, died and rose again, ascended, and reigns from heaven, forgiving repentant sinners and adopting them as his children, and giving them spiritual enablement to begin to follow him.

But, knowing our own hearts -- it's sometimes another thing.  Some have great assurance in Christ, but some have little.  Some backslide and wonder if they can be recovered.  Some wonder if they were ever saved.  Some have even gone through the motions of baptism many times.

But, when I read the Scripture I don't see an excruciating emphasis on the kind of introspection that wonders if I've started well -- or at all.  The emphasis in Scripture for the baptized is on disregarding what is behind, confessing sins, daily (or hourly) grasping hold of Christ in his grace, pressing forward only in reliance on him, and keeping this faith until the end.

See the quotation at the start of this post?  Peter addresses "you"!  He is not addressing outsiders.  Peter is speaking to the visible church -- the real, solid Church of Christ on earth -- filled with saints and hypocrites, and those who struggle to be spiritual -- and he is saying that the Lord is patient -- so patient that some could accuse him of slowness in fulfilling his promise of redemption.  But he is so patient, so that all of "you" can come to repentance.

The message is the same for all.  For however long you've been a Christian, or however long you've wondered whether you are one, begin again now to trust and follow Christ, in the midst of his church. 

Receive anew the gift of salvation -- every day -- and in so doing, you will finish well!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Mystery of Christ in You, The Hope of Glory

From Colossians 1:25-28 (The Epistle for July 18, 2010)

Paul writes:

... I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, ...
Now, the whole Word of God is a big subject, but Paul speaks of fully carrying out the preaching of the Word, not with the sense that he must exposit the whole of Scripture to them (though he does this in principle), but that he must finish the process of revealing and expositing the whole Word that had been begun in the Old Testament revelation (before Paul's time) but was only completed in the New Testament time, with its special emphasis on doctrine and experience previously hidden -- the "mysteries."

Picking up the quote, this is seen by the underlined words:

... that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, ...
Then, Paul continues with a more explicit indication of what this mystery is:

... which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
The teaching of the doctrine of "Christ in you," leads to the experience of it by faith.  It is real, not just an abstract idea.

Paul continues, indicating that "Christ in you," and "You in Christ," are complementary conceptions for the same reality.

And we proclaim Him [Christ], admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ.  
This passage indicates that the revelation of Christ among the Gentiles (not just Jews), bringing Jew and Gentile into a true and real union with Christ, is the surpassing spiritual reality that constitutes what the New Covenant actually is and does.  This intimate union, we in Christ and Christ in us, is the only salvation, and it is what those Old Testament saints waited for, and have finally received, along with us.

This union is our certain hope of glory.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Union with Christ, Baptism and the Lord's Table

It is very interesting to see how Paul's doctrinal exposition in the Epistle to the Romans presents the doctrine of union with Christ in a certain order.

In Chapter 5, we have the presentation of the similarity and distinction of the two racial heads Adam and Christ.  The two are made the heads of their two races, and not much is said about the mechanics of the union.  This is obvious in the case of Adam: physical generation, leading to offspring in his own image.  But, what is the means of union with Christ?  Well, Paul doesn't give details for us in Chapter 5.  We just see that we are represented by Christ, who conveys to us life, rather than the death conveyed to us by Adam.

This direct imputation from Adam to me, or from Christ to me is called "immediate imputation."  Paul teaches the "immediate imputation" of sin (and death through sin) from Adam as head to each member of his posterity, and also teaches the "immediate imputation" of the righteousness of Christ to each one who is in him.

In Chapter 6, Paul then speaks of our deliverance from the realm of law and judgment by describing our union with Christ through baptism.  This union is described as a union with him in his death -- a union which continues from that point on into his resurrection and glorification.  His death is the disconnection for us both from the old age of law and judgment, and is followed by his resurrection and ours into the realm of the New Creation, we being resurrected spiritually in our souls now, and ultimately also in our bodies.  This union with him is a union which is so close that we in Christ are plunged with him into his very death, and then included with him in his very resurrection in righteousness.

Therefore, Paul, in Chapters 5 and 6 of Romans definitely describes our union with Christ, first with him as head (Chapter 5), and then in him by a union sealed by baptism, which disconnects us from the dominion of the law (Chapter 6).

In Chapter 7 of the Epistle, Paul then begins to bring in the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the one whose power works in us to recreate us anew in a way that the letter of the law on the bare flesh could not do.  The experiential and practical effects of our union with Christ are mediated to us by the Spirit.  By him, we are made over into the image of Christ, so that Christ is in us, the hope of glory.  Just as the "bloodline" was the basis of our relationship with Adam, so that his sin is imputed to us his posterity, so it is the case that Christ's righteousness is imputed to his "bloodline," his "posterity," which is a creation of the Spirit.  By the Spirit, we grow within that union with him which is described in Ephesians 5 as being bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.  The Word of God received in faith, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper convey and seal this union to those of faith.  This union is no theological figment or abstract concept, but a reality.  

The "reality" of the "real presence" at the Lord's Table is the reality of this vital and realistic union with Christ -- a union which is fed and grows by the power of the Holy Spirit, through Baptism, Baptism remembered, and the Bread and Cup received in faith.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Infant Baptism

I think that the biggest and simplest reason for infant baptism is discovered by simply asking the question, "Is the family normatively part of the institution of the church, or not?  Yes, or no?"

I suspect that most folks (whether they baptize infants or not) really want the answer to this question to be, "Yes!"  No believing parent wants to say that his family lies outside the God-ordained spiritual scope of the work of the church.

There are a lot of proof-texts to support the answer "Yes," but the total argument isn't dependent on proof-texts, but rather on the total witness of Scripture.  Infant baptism is best supported by making it obvious.

Focusing on the details of the bark and leaves of all the trees in the forest of Scripture while looking for proof texts, misses the big picture of the forest as a whole. 

In Scripture the big picture is also doctrinal.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Neonomianism and the "New Perspective on Paul"

This post is a continuation of a previous post, containing a review of the book:

C. Fitzsimons Allison, The Rise of Moralism -- The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter, Regent College Publishing, 2003 (originally 1966).

This book details the rise of Neonomianism in Anglican Theology in the 17th century. The previous post may be found at the following link (ignore the absurd wording of the link, over which I appear to have no control):

My purpose in this succeeding post is to evaluate the potential connection between Neonomianism and the doctrine of justification seen in the "New Perspective on Paul," as propounded by N T Wright.

The "New Perspective on Paul" vis-a-vis Neonomianism

Allison's book is a good historical and doctrinal introduction to an era in the theological history of the Church of England, whose theology is still said by Allison to be dominant in that body today.  For this reason and others, I believe that this book provides a useful introduction which may help discern the roots of the doctrine of justification often seen in the "New Perspective on Paul," especially as it is propounded by N T Wright.

Allison's book was originally written before the ministry of N T Wright, even before many of the other academic originators of the New Perspective.  However, what this book details when describing the doctrine of Jeremy Taylor and the other most influential "revisionist" Anglican divines in the Church of England seems similar to the doctrine of justification that Wright teaches (insofar as I understand it).

The aberrant doctrine of the era reported on by Allison holds the following points:

1)  Faith is implicitly a work, not an instrument
     (even though we are moved to it by the Spirit);

2)  There is no imputation of the righteousness of Christ
     to sinners;

3)  Justification (not justification by works, or the second justification,
     but simply final justification, and so, eternal destiny)
     is fully contingent, in the Last Judgment, on our total
     personal history in faith and evangelical obedience.

This is usually called "neonomianism," and is most prominently in our circles associated with the name Richard Baxter.

Simply put, Christ's work "lowered the bar" in the covenant, so that it becomes possible (instead of impossible) for sinners (in the power of the Spirit) to keep the stipulations (works) of the covenant.  The distinction between faith and evangelical obedience is needless, and is done away.  We are simply justified by obedience to an "easier" covenant, the first "work" of which is to believe the gospel by which we are initially justified.  But, that justification is not final.  Your justification will revisited at the Last Judgment, where your life history of faith and works will be reviewed.

One distinction I am able to recognize between Wright's doctrine and Neonomianism is that the latter can tend toward pessimism in its preaching, but Wright appears to me to be optimistic about the Judgment.  Therefore, when Neonomianism preaches on the final judgment, it's typically to bring warning or even terror.  But, I can't tell that Wright takes this approach.

Regardless of the difference in tone, however, it is clear why Wright insists that Christians should not be worrying about their final destinies in this life:  By his doctrine you cannot know your destiny for sure until the Last Judgment.  The thing to do now is to get busy.  He does appear (in tone) to be saying that you can be assured of acceptance at the Judgment if you persevere in faith and works, that is, you will be accepted based on the covenantal validity of your faith and works (not simply based on what Christ did for you, applied to you through faith as an instrument).

As Wright himself insists (references are needed here, but are easily found in his relevant writings), he does not teach the Reformation imputational doctrine on justification, but opposes it.

The Rise of Moralism (v4)

As a student of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), I'm constantly on the watch for books on the subject of justification, and the relationship between faith and works.

For the benefit of others who are attracted to this subject, I recommend:

C. Fitzsimons Allison, The Rise of Moralism -- The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter, Regent College Publishing, 2003 (originally 1966).

In this interesting history Allison details the gradual evolution of teaching in the Church of England of the late 16th and 17th centuries, as certain influential bishops "moderated" the Reformational doctrine of total depravity and imputation, and removed the basis and sense of need for justification by faith alone -- and sometimes even denied this doctrine. 

The motivation behind this doctrinal evolution was to improve the morality of Christians, who, they felt, were hiding behind "justification by faith alone" in order to avoid true repentance.  The answer, as these bishops saw it, was to tilt their public doctrine in the direction of the demand for obedience, and to connect Christian assurance (and even justification) to obedience, at the expense of speaking freely about "free grace."

Allison argues strongly for the Reformational emphasis on justification by faith alone, since he sees that the Scripture and Christian experience support the need for spiritual freedom, doctrinally and pastorally.

Theologians who read this book will be interested in how Allison uses the scholastic (Aristotelian) descriptions of the various modes of causation, in order to describe the real difference between Trent and the Reformation.  This is something you may not have seen described exactly this way before.  I have not fully penetrated the depths of Allison's argument, but I'm reasonably certain that he is right.  The argument between the Reformation and Trent is an argument about how to order and label the causes of justification.  It is not an argument over the list of causes.  The list enumerated by the two sides is the same.  The doctrinal difference lies in how the causes imply and affect one another.

Allison's observation is that Reformation and Rome (Bellarmine) agree that the difference (on the doctrine of justification) lies only in the identification of the formal cause.  For the Reformation the formal cause of justification is the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to sinners through faith, which is trust in Christ clothed in the gospel, and apart from their works.  This, in turn, by their union with Christ, must and does eventuate in evangelical obedience.  For Rome, the formal cause of justification is the sinner's own faith and evangelical obedience, or actual covenantal righteousness, which is in him by grace.  Both sides thus grant the need for faith and evangelical obedience, or covenantal righteousness, but in different ways.

For the Reformation:

grace -> faith
faith  -> union with Christ
union with Christ -> justification now, evangelical obedience begins
This is also the order of the Reformation preaching of this doctrine.  Christian assurance of salvation can be given, subject only to perseverance in faith.

For Rome:

grace -> faith and evangelical obedience
faith and evangelical obedience, if present -> final justification
This is also the order of the Roman preaching of this doctrine.  Christian assurance of salvation cannot be given, because no one knows whether his faith and evangelical obedience have "kept covenant" until the final judgment.

This book is likely to be helpful for those who may be struggling with understanding the relationship between faith and works for any reason -- especially those with doctrinal questions whether the Reformation doctrine of justification is exactly right or not.

My comments

Properly describing the relationship between faith and works remains something hard for men.  This subject, which also involves the vital doctrine of Christian assurance, remains a perennial subject of investigation. Luther was certain that after his day, the doctrine of free justification would again be eclipsed.  He was right.  However, it has never been eclipsed throughout the whole church as badly as it seems to have been within the pre-Reformation medieval inheritance.

I think that the reason that Luther's dictum (that justification by faith alone is the mark of a standing or falling church) is accurate and true is that this doctrine is a sentinel which describes the spiritual health of the church.  Justification by faith alone is only understood by those who take their morality seriously, who truly mourn over their sins, and who, filled with gratitude, pant to receive this free salvation as a gift. 

The "New Perspective on Paul"

The material which originally appeared here concerning relevance to the "New Perspective on Paul" has been expanded and put into a new post, which may be found here: