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:

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:  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.