SAET Interviews In Politics And Theology #10: R. Scott Clark

With regard to political action:  American Christians (particularly evangelicals) must get over the microwave mentality. We need to think more in terms of camp fires and cook outs. It takes a long time to make a decent meal outdoors and it might all go wrong . . . . If we substituted the camp fire for the microwave we might also be useful by becoming more critical of reigning cultural paradigms. For example, many American Christians are suburbanites. They make take the existence of suburbs for granted but should we? . . . . Christianity is not middle-class American suburbia nor is it neo-Romanticism about “the city.”  Where is the evangelical, missional passion for rural America?


1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

RSC: I doubt that I’ve made any contribution to this question. My interest is partly historical, partly biblical-exegetical, theological, and pastoral. I have an academic interest in the history of Reformed theology and ethics and particularly in the way the classical Reformed theologians (and confessional churches) understood creation, natural law, and the intersection between those categories and Reformed soteriology and understanding of redemptive history. As a pastor I have seen the damage done to the visible church by confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world.

2.  Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers.  Do you agree or disagree?

RSC: If I understand the question correctly, yes, I agree. What Christ has commissioned the visible church, as an institution, to do is one thing; and what he has commissioned the Christian to do is rather broader. This distinction goes back at least to the early Reformation’s doctrines of vocation and its distinction between the two kingdoms. It also has roots in St Augustine’s distinction between the two cities. Christians have a dual citizenship. St Paul says that we have a heavenly citizenship (Phil 3:20) but we also have an earthly citizenship (Rom 13:1-7). If we understand that the Israelite theocracy was fulfilled by Christ then we also understand that God has made no special covenant with any nation. The visible church is the Israel of God (Gal 6:16). The responsibility of the visible church is to be the principle representative of the kingdom of God (the heavenly kingdom) on the earth (Matt 16; Matt 18). Historically considered, the church as an institution has had very difficult time fulfilling the responsibilities given to her by our Lord: administration of Word, sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline (Belgic Confession article 29).

Christians, however, as members of the common kingdom, under God’s sovereign rule, have civil responsibilities. They may form private associations (outside the visible church) to address social issues which are common to believers and non-believers. They may and should speak, as Christians, to social questions. Because we confess that, as Creator and Redeemer, Christ is Lord of all and because we seek to live out our faith daily in God’s good creation and active providence in the world, we cannot withdraw from it. The great error of “world flight” is that it denies the essential goodness of creation. The essential error of the theology of glory is that confuses heaven with earth. Confessional Protestants have a doctrine of vocation that calls the Christian to engage the God’s world to the benefit of his neighbor and the glory of God while always distinguishing this world from the world to come.

3.  Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

RSC: My politics have evolved considerably during my lifetime. I was raised a liberal (Humphrey) Democrat. I was catechized on the Sunday paper and local politics. When other children we in Sunday School I was putting up yard signs. In university I read political philosophy and the combination of Plato, Augustine, Calvin, and Hobbes led me to a sort of democratic socialism.  Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction was helpful in alerting me to the theological errors (and cardinal sins) inherent in socialism. Plato (or neo-Platonism) is wrong. The Spirit-matter dualism is an error. It is not Paul’s (Holy) Spirit-flesh (sin) dualism. Jesus is true God and true man. It was Calvin’s doctrine of creation and natural law and the epistemological (common sense) realism of the Reformed orthodox that began to push me and my Augustinian view of sin in a more libertarian direction. Along the way I have been influenced, in different ways, by the early fathers (e.g., Ad Diognetum), Augustine,  Eric Voeglin, Hannah Arrendt, C. S. Lewis, W. F. Buckley, and Dorothy Sayers among others. From Reformed orthodoxy I learned the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. In theological terms, civil life, whether in local communities or in international relations,  is a covenant of works (“do this and live”) and not a covenant of grace. The administration of the covenant of grace (“for God so loved the world”) belongs to the visible church not to the magistrate.

4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

RSC: In this world one either spends time or money (and sometimes both). Even when the latter is lacking there is a great deal that might be done on the local level and Christians are willing to get involved and spend the time. Political capital, like economic capital is accumulated over time. Local politics is about involvement and taking risks. American Christians (particularly evangelicals) must get over the microwave mentality. We need to think more in terms of camp fires and cook outs. It takes a long time to make a decent meal outdoors and it might all go wrong. It might not taste good but it’s necessary. If Christians involve themselves in the local school board or local council races or even on advisory committees these are inexpensive ways to become involved in local civil life.

If we substituted the camp fire for the microwave we might also be useful by becoming more critical of reigning cultural paradigms. For example, many American Christians are suburbanites. They make take the existence of suburbs for granted but should we? We are all creatures of a given time and place but being Christians gives us the opportunity to step outside our own time and place a bit and to see it more objectively, more critically. Christianity is not middle-class American suburbia nor is it neo-Romanticism about “the city.” God may be glorified in both places but he may also be glorified in rural settings. Where is the evangelical, missional passion for rural America? Re-engaging rural America will not happen quickly. It might take decades but there are opportunities all through the American Heartland for those who want to engage civil life on a micro-level with limited resources.

5.  How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

RSC: When I was in seminary I recall a fellow-student with theonomic inclinations dismissing Romans 13 as if it were insignificant. It seems to me that if one finds Romans 13 insufficient or insignificant for ones understanding of the Christian’s role in civil life then one is likely asking the wrong questions or beginning with the wrong assumptions. One should ask, “why do I find Romans 13 unsatisfactory?” Could it be that one is seeking outcomes or working with expectations that St Paul did not? Americans have invoked and abused Jesus’ teaching about   a “city shining on a hill” (Matt 5:14). The American colonies were not that city. Jesus is the light of the world and his Christians are the “light of the world” (Matt 5:14) by virtue of their union with him. It’s important to note, however, how Paul called us to be light in the world principally by living a “peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim 2:2). That American Christians bristle at God’s calling Romans 13,  for submission to established authorities, says a great deal about the continuing influence of the revolutionary spirit. Paul clearly teaches at all authorities, even Nero, are instituted by God. This is why Calvin was so careful to stipulate that popular revolution is immoral, that it is the vocation of the “lesser magistrates” to hold civil rulers in check. Paul understood what he was saying. Christians suffered under Nero and they would suffer more grievously in centuries to come. I think the treatise Ad Diognetum (c. 155 AD possibly by Polycarp) is most a instructive application of Romans 13. His argument was that the Christians were false accused of being seditious. He responded (5:.1-11):

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.

Would that the same could be said of us today.

6.  How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?  Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

RSC: I think these are two distinct, if related, questions. The Westminster Divines (chapter 19) answered the first (regarding the contemporary application of Deuteronomy) by reminding us that there are three aspects to the Mosaic law: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The Decalogue (Deut 5) is a typological, Israelite, summary of the moral, creational law. It is permanent and it like the other two aspects of the Mosaic law (613 Mitzvoth) have been fulfilled by Christ. The divines, however, were at pains to point out that the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law have been fulfilled. What remains is the moral law, given in creation, that binds all people in all times. The “general equity” of the Mosaic civil law continues to be of use to us but we should understand, as your question suggests, that the Israelite civil law was not absolutely unique and thus though there are general principles to be discerned it is because those principles are grounded in creational (natural) justice which existed prior to Israel and which continue to bind civil magistrates two millennia after Christ fulfilled them. The principal function of the Pentateuch (Torah) generally is to point us to Christ. Only secondarily and indirectly does it provide guidance to contemporary civil life and even then only in general terms.

Proverbs is important for the civil life of the Christian because it was intended to serve as an introduction to wisdom, as a collection of maxims that, properly understood and skillfully applied, will result in benefit to the one who obeys them. Ultimately, of course, wisdom points to Christ, the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18). Proximately, however, Christians as much as anyone need practical wisdom to live life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). Inasmuch as evangelical political engagement has lacked a lot of wisdom for the last several decades one might say that we are much more in need of Proverbs (and perhaps Ecclesiastes and Job!) than we are Deuteronomy.

7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

RSC: Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen have both properly pointed us to Daniel as a good model for Christian social and political engagement. We are not in Canaan. We are in exile. Daniel did not seek to overturn the established social or civil order. He served God faithfully within it, within the limits established by God’s Word. This is how it has always been. When the magistrate called Daniel to transgress God’s law, Daniel refused and accepted the consequences. The paradox of Christian political influence is that it will most likely come not through the acquisition of power but by the quiet (and perhaps therefore conspicuous) adherence to God’s Word that transcends all political and civil authority.

8.  If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics.  This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work.  But am I doing the right thing?  Should I be bolder?”  How would you respond?  Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

RSC: Of course a church planter must be wise. He must know his setting, his limitations, but he  must also know and be faithful to the whole counsel of God. I doubt that any pastor is called to preach on “political” topics, depending upon how one defines political. Preaching Romans 13 or 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Peter 2:13-17 is not “political.” If it is true, as the Reformed have thought, that we live in two kingdoms simultaneously, then the preacher is called to proclaim the advent of God’s Kingdom in Christ (Mark 1:15), to call everyone everywhere to repentance and faith but he is also called to preach and teach God’s Word as it applies to our life as citizens of the creational kingdom, which we share with those who do not confess Christ. Christians want to know how they should conduct themselves at work, with the non-Christian co-workers, neighbors, and family and God’s Word speaks to those things. If the word “politics” refers to partisan politics, to calls to elect this candidate or to vote this way or that, then no preacher, let alone a church planter, should be speaking to those things that way from the pulpit. A minister is not called to be an emissary from the civil kingdom. There are plenty of those. He is called to serve as an ambassador from the Kingdom of God to this world and he is to announce the in-breaking of that kingdom, in Christ, in Word and sacrament, into this world.

9.  What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology?  The best book?

RSC: Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith and David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms are two excellent places to begin to think through these issues. Ken Myers’ Mars Hill Audio is indispensable for continuing to grow in this area.

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Gay Christians?

Is it appropriate to speak of “Gay Christians.” Is it appropriate to speak of “Murderer Christians” or “Thief Christians” or “Idolater Christians”? When the adjective “gay” refers to homosexuals, the expression “Gay Christian” is an oxymoron. Remarkably, Millennials (18–34) may be almost entirely unaware of the older, original sense of “gay,” i.e., happy. Equally remarkable is the fact that it now seems widely accepted that the practice of homosexuality is quite compatible with a Christian profession. There is even a “Gay Christian Network” internet program. They must be right, after all famous evangelical celebrities have endorsed them. Is that not how truth and reality works? If one gets enough influential people to endorse one’s views and practices, then that makes it true, right?

This is the fallacy Argumentum ad baculum or the appeal to force. A million Frenchman can be wrong. Most of the Germans supported the Third Reich. Most of the Japanese supported the Emperor in World War II, including the attack on Pearl Harbor. All those folks were wrong. Mass movements are often wrong. Ideas and practices become accepted for a variety of reasons but their acceptance, even widespread acceptance doesn’t make them true or right.

Of course whether my comparison between homosexuality and theft or murder holds depends on whether homosexuality (i.e., homosexual activity) is, in fact, sin. There are essentially three approaches to this question:

  1. The Bible Doesn’t Speak About Homosexuality
  2. The Bible Approves of Homosexuality
  3. The Bible Regards Homosexuality As Sin

Whole volumes, of course, have been written on this question over the last 30 years or so and a single blog post cannot sort them all out but there is strong prima facie evidence that views #1 and #2 are wrong.

What Scripture Says About Homosexuality
Leviticus 20:13 (ESV) says,

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination

The Hebrew Bible can be blunt but it can also be restrained, polite and in this case, some have used its politeness, its restrained language against it. In this case, however, the Hebrew Bible is a little more explicit than the even more polite ESV translation. “A man that lies [with] a male [in] bed [as] a woman….” The intent seems pretty clear. The concern is not with two guys taking a nap. The verb “to lie down” is used euphemistically in Hebrew to refer to sexual relations and the inclusion of the adjective “male” and the noun “bed” make the intent clear. There was also a civil punishment attached to this prohibition: death. No one was going to be killed for sleeping but they could be put to death for same sex (homosexual) relations. An “enlightened” and “liberated” (late) modern person might not like what the text says but it was clear enough in its original context to serve as the basis for criminal prosecution (on the basis of 2 or 3 witnesses) and capital punishment.

One might object, “But that’s the Old Testament. We’re not under the Old Testament any longer.” Well, that’s true but it’s irrelevant to the question: does the Bible speak to homosexuality (i.e., homosexual activity)? Leviticus 20:13 is in the Bible and it speaks to homosexuality. Ergo #1 is false. Does the Bible approve of homosexuality? Leviticus 20:13 describes homosexuality as an “abomination” ergo, no, the Bible does not approve of it. No, Jonathan and David were not homosexual lovers. Not every natural, expression of masculine affection is a signal of homosexual attraction or relations. One could only read that narrative this way in our perverse, over-sexualized culture.

It is true that the Old Testament, strictly defined as the Mosaic Covenant, the 613 commandments of the national, temporary, typological revelation of God to national Israel, has been fulfilled by Christ. Nevertheless, the Christian church has always rejected the notion that there are two Gods in Scripture, a mean Old Testament God and a nice, loving New Testament God. That was the view held by the Gnostics in the 2nd century AD and later by the Manichaeans. It was rejected as heresy in both cases because the New Testament explicitly teaches the contrary. The Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 says,

Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one

The NT quotes or alludes the Shema. Our Lord Jesus quoted it in Mark 12:29. Paul alludes to it in Romans 3:30, in Galatians 3;20, and so does James in James 2:19. The New Testament uses the same language for God that the OT uses. The NT regularly quotes the OT regarding God’s disapproval of sin and even, e.g., Hebrews 12, intensifies its language about God’s hatred for sin and the coming judgment. No one preached about the coming judgment more than Jesus himself.

There are not two Gods in Scripture and though advent of Christ did fulfill all the types and shadows under Moses, all the sacrifices and civil laws and punishments, and though the national covenant with Israel has expired, nevertheless, Leviticus 20:13 does still communicate God’s moral disapproval of homosexuality.

Further, the New Testament continues to condemn homosexuality. In Romans 1:26–27 (ESV) Paul writes:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

As in Leviticus, Paul is clear but relatively polite or restrained in his language. That restraint, however, cannot be used to argue that the passage does not speak to or against homosexual acts. The context is established in v. 18 where Paul writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” So, he is elaborating on the theme of God’s moral disapproval of sin. He proceeds to give examples of egregiously sinful behavior. In v. 23 he gives idolatry as an example. In v. 24 he turns to sexual immorality, to “the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” which he connects again (v. 25) directly to idolatry. Violation of the first three commandments is connected to the violation of the seventh commandment. Thus, the context is idolatry and sexual immorality. Women exchanging “the use according to nature” (την φυσικην) for that which is “outside of nature” (παρα φυσιν) is a reference to sexual behavior. Paul wasn’t complaining about economic (business) behavior or ordinary domestic questions. In v. 27, he includes men in his complaint. Thus, both Lesbian acts and male homosexual acts are included and condemned. The frame of reference is sex and the boundary is nature, that which is of use or profit (χρησιν). Homosexual acts are biologically fruitless, they cannot produce children. According to Paul, the only product of homosexual activity is the “due penalty” for the activity.

He is even more pointed in 1Corinthians 6:9 and 1Tim 1:10, where he condemns the “αρσενοκοιται.” The standard definition (Bouer, Arnt, Gingrich, Danker) is “a male who practices homosexuality, pederast, sodomite.” This is the way the word was understood in early Christian, post-canonical usage though it occurs in the same sense in the Sibylline Oracles (6th cent BC) ii.73. See Moulton and Milligan s.v.

Of course, we want to avoid the etymological fallacy (deducing the meaning of a word by adding up its letters or component parts) because it does not always work and can produce misleading results but in this case it works because usage confirms what adding up the letters suggests. αρσην  = male and κοιτης = bed or euphemistically for sexual relations.

However uncomfortable it makes us late moderns, the text of 1Corinthians 6:9 is quite clear:

“Or do you not know that the unjust (αδικοι) will not inherit the kingdom of God? Neither will you who deceive (πλανασθε) nor the sexually immoral (πορνοι) nor idolaters (ειδωλολατραι), nor adulterers (μοιχοι), nor the effeminate (μαλακοι), nor homosexuals (αρσενοκοιται).”

I translate μαλακοι as “effeminate” because of the way it is used in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic Scriptures) for the “soft parts” and is used elsewhere in the sense of “effeminate, of a catamite, a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness, 1 Cor. 6:9” (BAGD, s.v.).

Paul was quite familiar with Corinth as a fairly depraved, cosmopolitan port city and he was well aware of the sorts of sexual immorality that were openly practiced there as elsewhere (e.g., Ephesus had pornographic graffiti that would make us blush). It seems clear that one thing, effeminate men who submit themselves to sexual abuse, perhaps homosexual prostitutes, led him to the last category, homosexuals.

Paul is announcing God’s judgment on several classes of sinful behaviors and warning those who commit them impenitently (without sorrow or struggle) that they must acknowledge their sin for what it is and turn to and put their trust in Jesus the Savior who obeyed and died for heterosexual and homosexual sinners and who offers free acceptance with God on the basis of faith (trust) in Jesus, the gracious Savior of helpless sinners.

So, there is ample biblical evidence that, taken in its original context, understood according to the intention of the human authors and in its broader canonical context (the Old and New Testaments together regarded as one, unfolding story of redemption and revelation) for the conclusion that the Bible regards homosexuality (i.e., the sexual acts) and even male effeminacy, i.e., the now widespread so-called “gender bending” that blurs the lines between males and females) as sin.

Creation Is Inherently Good
Above I sketched the biblical evidence for the claim that homosexuality is a sin. In this part address the argument that some make in defense of the notion that there are such things as “gay Christians” is the appeal to providence: “God made me this way, therefore it cannot be wrong.” First, the premise is false and second, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the (flawed) premise.

Since there are practicing homosexuals who profess Christian faith, let us get back to basic Christian doctrine. According to Genesis 1, God created all that is by the power of his Word. Everything he created was “good.” Indeed, between v.1 and v. 31 the text says six times that creation was “good” or “very good.” In the beginning, in creation, before the fall, there was no human sin. There was spiritual corruption, among the angels, prior to Adam’s fall but Adam was not sinful nor did he have sinful proclivities. There was no disharmony between Adam and Eve or between them and nature. It is essential to understand this reality as best we can because our tendency is to imagine that the fallen world we know now is the way things have always been. We should not, however, read our experience as fallen, sinful, rebellious creatures back into creation.

Thus, no, it is not true that “God made me this way.” All sin, including homosexuality, is a consequence of the fall but God did not make anything fallen. Our sinful dispositions, attitudes, and acts are the consequences of our fall in Adam. We sin because we’re sinners. On analogy with the other sins forbidden by God’s law, why can’t the idolater, the covetous, the thief, the heterosexual fornicator or adulterer or the murderer make the same argument? Of course he can’t! God has not violated his own law. God did not sin. He did not corrupt the world. We did.

“That may be,” one might argue “but isn’t God in control of all that happens? If so, why did he ordain that I should be born with these inclinations?” Again, as a consequence of the fall, every human is born with sinful inclinations. There are as many ways to transgress God’s law as there are imaginations and people. We are deeply corrupted by sin. Every faculty of our soul is corrupted by sin. We do not think as we ought. We do not will as we ought and we do not love as we ought. By nature, Scripture teachers, we are inclined to hate God and our neighbor.

The Mystery of Sin
If one asks if I can explain how God can be sovereign over all things and not morally liable for the evil that happens in the world, I reply by saying that is a great mystery to which no one has ever offered a completely satisfactory answer. Scripture does address it plainly in Job 38 and Romans 9. The short answer is that God says that we sinful humans do not have standing to charge him with injustice. We are not competent. Further, whatever our difficulties with the mysteries of providence, it is not as if God has not fully involved himself in our predicament. God the Son graciously became incarnate, faced every temptation we have faced (Heb 4)—indeed he knows temptation in a way we can never know in this life because he did not succumb to it! Are you willing to shake your fist at Jesus, who obeyed, died, and was raised for the justification of sinners? Only a fool says yes.

There are other reasons to think that it’s not true to think that homosexuality is normal. Most of the studies (here is a recent study) I have seen suggest homosexuality is usually connected to serious dysfunction in one’s nuclear family. Alcoholism, sexual abuse, neglect (physical and emotional) are factors. Though the statistical likelihood of homosexuality does not seem to be much greater than it has been for decades—by now surely everyone knows that the old Kinsey numbers were badly skewed by their sample population!—homosexuality surely plays a vastly more prominent role in our culture than it did just a few years ago. There is obviously a correlation between the breakdown of the nuclear family, the rise of divorce, the rise of substance abuse (drugs and alcohol) and the general collapse of the culture and the increased visibility of homosexuality in popular culture and in the educational establishment. There may be a small percentage of a given population born with a biological proclivity to homosexuality but that is probably true for other disorders and sins. Remember, it was not very long ago that homosexuality was listed in standard psychiatric diagnostic manuals as a treatable disorder. The evidence hasn’t changed but the political-cultural-social-economic influence of homosexuals has. We should be honest about the increased economic clout of homosexuals. They compose an economically attractive market. They tend to be more highly educated, with a higher disposable income (no kids to feed) and they spend. Mass media = advertising. All of it is advertising. The entertainment and news programs all serve advertisers and most advertisers only care about the quarterly earning reports. They do not care about the social consequences of their programming and advertising. Sometimes Marx is right.

Further, even were it true that “God made me this way” it does not follow that, therefore the moral law no longer applies. No one is permitted to leverage the clear, unequivocal teaching of Scripture with his private interpretation of providence or natural revelation. Scripture clearly teaches that homosexuality (as defined in part 1) is sin. It’s against nature. The claim that “God made me this way” does not grant one permission to violate the clear teaching of Scripture. Your interpretation of providence might be wrong. It is clear enough that it is wrong.

Every Christian has sins with which he must struggle. Jesus did not call the Christian life a daily crucifixion for no reason. Those tempted by homosexuality are no more exempt than heterosexual sinners from this call to discipleship. Thieves must daily repent of their desire to steal (instead of working). The covetous must daily repent of their desire to have what God has not given them. Idolaters must repent of their desire to make a god in their own image. Liars must repent of their desire to control outcomes by twisting the truth.

The culture always approves of one sin or another. Right now, homosexuality is fashionable. It is the current way to rebel against God but fashion isn’t necessarily truth or righteousness. Of course we should rather see homosexuals embrace the Christian faith than repudiate it but it must be the whole Christian faith and not an edited version conveniently amputated of its moral teaching.

Justified Through Our Faithfulness?

As I mentioned in an earlier post in Romans 2:13 Paul writes, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV).1 The chapter begins with matter of judgment. Since 1:18 Paul has been prosecuting the Gentiles on the basis of their natural knowledge of God, which we suppress. Because of the effects of sin all our faculties and desires are corrupted. Because we all know the moral law of God in our consciences we are without excuse before God. Chapter 2 begins with a reiteration of this law principle: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (ESV). Now he turns his attention to Jews, those who had received the old covenant, the Mosaic law, the national covenant (Romans 9:4–5; 3:1–3; ESV). The whole of chapter 2 is a prosecution of the Jews according to the standard that had been revealed to them, the Mosaic law. God had exercised forbearance with the Israelites but because of the hardness of their hearts (vv.4–5) they are storing up judgment instead. Judgment will be rendered according to “works” (v 6). Those who seek “for glory and honor” by patience will receive eternal life (v. 7). Those who do not “obey the truth” (v. 8) will be judged. Because God is impartial, both Jews and Greeks will be judged according to their works (v. 9–11). Those who sinned under the Mosaic law will be judged by that standard and those who sinned under the natural law by that standard (v.12). The rest of the chapter after v. 13 continues in the same vein. The Gentiles have the substance of the moral law written on their conscience (vv. 14–15). The Jews, who boast about having the Mosaic law, will be judged by the standard of the law given at Sinai (vv. 16–29). Thus, when Paul contrasts “hearers” and “doers” it is hearers and doers of the law. Both Jews and Gentiles are under substantially the same law: love God with all one’s faculties and one’s neighbor as himself (Matt 22:37–40) but, as Paul shows in chapter 3, no one does this. In chapter 5 he explains why this is, because, as the New England Puritans put it, “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.” The only reference to the gospel in this section is the broad use of the word, the promise that God will judge law breakers. There is no good news for sinners here.

The magisterial Protestant interpretation of Romans 1–3 was that these chapters were largely a presentation of the law, with the intent of demonstrating to Jews and Gentiles the impossibility of sinners of meeting the standard of righteousness. As quoted in the earlier post, Calvin’s interpretation reflects this reading:

They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children. It is therefore improper and beyond what is needful, to introduce here a long discussion on the subject, with the view of exposing so futile a sophistry: for the Apostle only urges here on the Jews what he had mentioned, the decision of the law, — That by the law they could not be justified, except they fulfilled the law, that if they transgressed it, a curse was instantly pronounced on them. Now we do not deny but that perfect righteousness is prescribed in the law: but as all are convicted of transgression, we say that another righteousness must be sought. Still more, we can prove from this passage that no one is justified by works; for if they alone are justified by the law who fulfill the law, it follows that no one is justified; for no one can be found who can boast of having fulfilled the law.

For Calvin, this passage is law, an expression of God’s righteous demand. Anyone who would present himself to God on the basis of the law must actually keep the law. The only thing that satisfies justice is actual, complete, perfect fulfillment of the law. The slightest disobedience to God’s holy law merits only one thing: condemnation. Calvin found no good news for sinners in this section of Romans.

In light of its overwhelming thematic and conceptual unity, in light of the Reformation reading of Romans 1:18–3:20, it is difficult to see how or why any confessional Protestant could or would read this section differently but in 1978 a professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (PA), Norman Shepherd, in the midst of what would become a seven-year long controversy over whether a Reformed Christian may teach justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness” proposed 34 theses for discussion and debate. Among them was this one:

20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 3:21; James 1:22-25).

This reading dispensed with the historic Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed) distinction between the two principles of law and gospel. Instead, this reading proposed that, in Romans 2:13, Paul was not prosecuting sinners on the basis of the law, that he was not pressing the righteous and holy demands of God upon them to teach them their sins and misery and to drive them to Christ. Rather, according to this re-reading, Paul was speaking of Christians who will so cooperate with grace as to be sufficiently righteous as to be accepted by God was a radical re-reading of this passage.

This radical re-reading of Romans 2:13 continues to reverberate in some Reformed circles to the present day.

The Problem With Progressive Justification
What has been neglected is a 1978 proposal that, at the judgment, “faithful disciples” will be justified before God through their faithfulness.  The current controversy over sanctification is, however, part of an argument that began long before 1978. It has its roots in the late 1520s when Johann Agricola (1494–1566) denounced the doctrine that God’s holy moral law governs the life of the Christian, i.e., what we know as the “third use of the law” (tertius usus legis). In the confessional Lutheran (e.g., in the Book of Concord) and Reformed understanding of justification, salvation, and the Christian life no Christian is “under the law” with respect to his acceptance with God (justification). That cannot be. Paul was repeatedly explicit about this:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:15–16; ESV).


For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:10–14; ESV)


For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28; ESV)

Much of the medieval church had concluded and Council of Trent confirmed a doctrine of progressive justification through sanctification by medicinal grace (divine and semi-divine substances as distinct from divine favor or approval) and cooperation with grace.

At Trent, Session 6 (1547) Canon 11, Rome declared:

If any one says, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.

According to Rome, in the sacraments, the Christian is endued with a certain power with which he must cooperate. Justification is through grace and cooperation with grace. Canon 9 made clear the necessity of cooperation with grace unto justification:

If any one says, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

She continued by denouncing the pan-Protestant definition of faith in the act of justification as “confidence in the divine mercy.” No, according to Rome, faith justifies because it works and through working. Faith does what it does not because of its object but because of what it is, because it is formed by love (fides formata caritate). According to Rome, Christ has done his part, on the cross and in baptism, of making salvation possible but we must do our part. This remains the Roman doctrine of justification in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church (§1987ff). To a man the magisterial, confessional Protestants rejected this scheme as no different from “the works of the law” denounced by the Apostle Paul. The Protestant churches confessed the same.

The theological unity on this point, however, did not prevent all difficulties. In the 1550s the Lutheran theologian George Major (1502–74) proposed that good works are “necessary for retaining salvation.” There is nothing new about the NPP/FV doctrine of “in by grace, stay in through works.” The Reformed categorically rejected that doctrine in favor of teaching that sinners are justified (declared righteous) out of God’s favor alone (sola gratia), received through faith alone (sola fide) resting in, receiving, trusting in  Christ, his finished work for us, and in his promises alone. New life and true faith necessarily results in sanctity, which, in turn, produces good works as fruit and evidence of true faith and justification. When faced with the potential modifying this doctrine  the Synod of Dort replied in effect: We get in by grace and we stay in by grace.

Nevertheless, some Reformed Protestants have sometimes given in to the temptation to reintroduce a version of the “works of the law,” i.e., grace and cooperation with grace, into Reformed theology. Sometimes it comes in the front door, as in the case of Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness.” Sometimes, however, justification by grace and cooperation with grace has been reintroduced through the backdoor, as it were, by distinguishing explicitly or implicitly between an initial justification and a final justification. In this scheme sinners are said to be justified initially, in this life, by grace alone (sola gratia), sola fide (through faith alone) but finally justified, in the same legal sense as in the first instance, also partly on the basis of inherent righteousness and sanctity produced through union with Christ. Proponents of this approach limit the function of faith to forensic, legal justification in this life. Once we are justified talk of faith recedes and “existential union with Christ” becomes more prominent. Justification and sanctification are said to be logically twin benefits issuing from existential (formerly known as mystical) union with Christ initiated by God at regeneration. In this view there is and can be no logical order between justification and sanctification. At least one proponent (though we can hardly think he is alone in his sentiments) has argued that Reformed Christians must “move on” from “ordo salutis thinking.” Another critic of the traditional (and arguably confessional) Reformed view has labelled as “semi-Pelagian” the notion that, in the application of redemption, in regeneration (defined as awakening from spiritual death to spiritual life) the Holy Spirit creates or endows the elect with new life and with that new life the gift of faith, and through faith creates a mystical union with Christ and his believer. This would seem to the doctrine and intent of the Westminster Shorter Catechism when it says,

Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?

A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling. [emphasis added]

The catechism’s “thereby” would seem to signal that Spirit-wrought faith and not regeneration per se is the “instrument” of our existential, mystical union with Christ in the application of redemption. In other words, according to the catechism, existential or mystical union (as distinct from that union that may said to exist in the decree, from all eternity, and that federal union that may be said to have existed in Christ’s acting for us in his obedient life and death) is unavoidably part of a logical order. It is the regenerated who believe and it is believers who are united to Christ (and that faith is the gift of God) and is believers united to Christ who are justified.

Two Stage Justification And Double Justification
Sometimes proponents of a “two-stage” doctrine of justification have appealed to the language of “double justification” and implied that the Reformed, under that rubric, taught a two-stage doctrine of justification. The evidence does not support this suggestion. When the Lutherans and the Reformed wrote of a “double justification” (duplex iustitia) they were not establishing either two grounds of standing before God (imputed righteousness and inherent righteousness)—that was the Romanist view advocated at Regensburg (1541)—nor were they imply that there are two stages to justification, initial and final. Rather, they were distinguishing between justification as a legal, forensic act, whereby God declares those who are intrinsically unjust to be legally just on the basis of Christ’s condign merit imputed to them and the process of progressive sanctification whereby the consequences of that justification are worked out gradually, graciously in the lives of believers as they are conformed to Christ in mortification (putting to death the old man) and vivification (the making alive of the new man). This doctrine was effectively that taught by Calvin as the “twofold grace of God” (duplex gratia Dei) and by Olevianus and others as the “double benefit” (duplex beneficium) of the covenant of grace: justification and sanctification. According to Calvin, Olevianus and others, the same Spirit who raised us to life, who gave us the grace of faith, who, through that faith united us to Christ, is also at work in us sanctifying us. This is why they had no need of a “two-stage” doctrine of justification and, instead, distinguished between justification and vindication. We are justified in this life and shall be vindicated in the next. This is how Luther and the rest of the magisterial Protestants related Paul and James. Paul was speaking of a forensic, legal justification and James, in chapter 2, was speaking of evidence of faith or vindication of the claim to be a believer.

Ordo Salutis And A Two Stage Sequence
In the course of the original (or first stage of the) Shepherd controversy (1974–81) many informal documents were created. There was a faculty report and responses to the faculty report and addenda to those documents. There were also public letters to supporters of the seminary and responses to those letters and then finally a report by the board of trustees. Not all of the documents are dated so it’s not completely certain when they were drafted or circulated. I believe the document below to be from 1978 but cannot be completely certain. This document, written in defense of Shepherd, shows the beginnings of what would become a more fully developed approach to Romans 2:13 in which it was interpreted not as an expression of the pedagogical use the law (sometimes denominated the first use, sometimes denominated the second) but as an indication that there are two stages of justification, initial and final, and that Romans 2:13 contains a promise of final acceptance with God on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity.

I quote extensively from the document (pages 5–7). The only omissions are internal outline numbering and internal references to other parts of the document on the grounds that to retain these would be confusing to the reader. Nothing of substance in this section of the paper has been omitted. The document was signed but I omit the name in order to focus on the substance of the issue.

The author writes:

The Roman Catholic notion of faith formed by love and other serious misunderstandings of this verse [Gal 5:6] must be recognized and avoided….Faith justifies only as it rests in Christ and his finished righteousness, not as it looks too its working in love. Love and good works do not have a function or instrumentality for justification separate from, parallel to, or beyond that of faith. The sole instrument of justification is faith, from which working through love flows [sic] as the necessary and integral fruit or manifestation. Where the relationship between faith and its working (good works) is not expressed in this or some other equivalent way, the unique function (instrumentality) of faith for justification and so too, then, Christ’s finished righteousness as the exclusive ground of justification threatened to be obscured or denied.

This seems to be a fairly robust affirmation of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone through faith alone. The subordinate clause, “from which working through love flows” is not entirely clear grammatically but the intent seems to be to say that those who are justified by grace alone, through faith alone will produce the fruit of sanctification.

There is, however, an interesting qualification that should not be missed. “Love and good works do not have a function or instrumentality for justification separate from or parallel to or beyond that of faith.” Though the statement denies the Roman doctrine of “faith formed by love” it seems as if the definition of faith offered here is not far from it. Certainly we should agree with the author that sanctification and consequent good works do flow as fruit of justification and union with Christ but what is the result of saying that sanctification and good works are a constituent of faith in the act of justification? There is a certain degree of ambiguity. Since this was an informal document perhaps we shouldn’t press it too hard and yet this language does suggest that we will want to pay attention to what follows.

Next, the author appeals to the example of Abraham:

The experience of Abraham implies that as long as the believers earthly life continues, perseverance In the state of justification (from which he can never fall, WCF, 11:5) is essential to his being justified (cf. J. Edwards, works (1974), 1:640–642).

The citation of Edwards is fascinating. As anyone who has studied Edwards’ doctrine of justification it is fraught with difficulties to say the least. A recent volume sought to exonerate his doctrine of justification but, so far as I was able to tell, it never made reference to the article that highlighted the great difficulty in the first place: Thomas A. Schafer, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification By Faith,” Church History 20 (1951): 55–67. It may not be possible to say exactly what Edwards’ doctrine of justification was or that he had a single, coherent doctrine of justification. For more on this see the relevant section in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

More significantly, the author appeals to Abraham’s perseverance (which was mixed at best) not as fruit and evidence of his faith (despite the manifold evidences to the contrary—he was a serial liar and doubter. Abraham was a perfectionist’s nightmare) as “essential to his being justified.” Now the picture is clearer. The Canons of Dort (1619) want us to think and say that perseverance is a fruit of our election not condition (to which the Remonstrants added the qualification “foreseen”; CD First Head of Doctrine, rejection of errors, para. 5). Nowhere does the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 60) include perseverance as essential to justification. The justified will persevere but they do so by God’s grace as an outworking or a consequence of election and justification. Obedience is essential to perseverance and if perseverance is essential to justification have we not made obedience essential to justification?

This formulation would seem to contradict the express teaching of WCF 11.1 that believers are justified

not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God [emphasis added]

Perseverance is wrought in us but it is an “evangelical obedience” that attends justification, that gives evidence of justification but is no part of the ground, instrument, or even essence of justification.

The document continues:

Paul and James. The much-debated question of the relationship between James 2:14ff. and the relevant passages in Paul can be addressed briefly in the light of the preceding discussion, particularly in view of their common appeal to Genesis 15:6 and the experience of Abraham. The two are not in conflict. Paul looks at Abraham’s faith as it rests in the promise (the promised seed, righteousness) and so receives the forgiveness of sin. James looks at the same faith as it is active and working (2:22); out of trust in the same promise he offered up his only son (seed), Isaac (vs. 21). That James calls this “justification by works” is because he sees Abraham’s deed only as the manifestation and fruitage of his faith, the faith that continues to rest in the promised seed. The justification of which James speaks is not in place of nor a repetition of justification in Paul’s sense (the once-for-all imputation of Christ’s righteousness and forgiveness of sins). Rather, the former, with a view to the persevering of faith working through love, is the reconfirmation or revalidation of the latter. The one, no less than the other, is forensic and declarative, and both have God as their subject. It is not necessary to insist on a demonstrative, as distinct from or excluding a declarative, sense in James.

We should agree with this account right up to the penultimate sentence. “The one, no less than the other, is forensic and declarative, and both have God as their subject.” The author continues by denying that the justification to which James refers is “declarative” as distinct from Paul’s “forensic” (legal). If by these two sentences the author means to blur the distinction between a forensic (legal, declarative act) and justification in the sense of vindication, i.e., the recognition of what is the case, then we should dissent dissent strongly. James refers to our works as evidence of our claim to faith. This is vindication. Paul refers to God’s declaration that sinners are declared to be righteous on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received through faith alone. These are two distinct things that should not be muddled.

Justification and Sanctification. Justification and sanctification are different, yet they are inseparable (WLC, 77).

They differ in that they address distinctly different exigencies. Justification deals with the guilt and condemnation of sin and is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the pardoning of sin; sanctification deals with the corrupting power of sin and the production of righteousness and the subduing of sin within the believer by the power of Christ’s Spirit.

They are inseparable in that they both inhere and derive from the believer’s vital union with Christ (WLC, 69).

We should agree with the first paragraph and question and qualify the second. There is a double benefit of the covenant of grace, a double benefit of our vital union with Christ. Amen. There is, however, a logical order to the benefits. Without being too graphic consider the birth of twins. Ordinarily, apart from a C-section, twins do not emerge from the womb simultaneously. They emerge in order. Now, that is a chronological sequence. With the double benefit we do not have a temporal, chronological sequence but a logical sequence. It is the justified who are progressively sanctified. I contend that the denial of the logical order has contributed to the original controversy and continues to reverberate in the current confusion.

While it is equally important to distinguish justification and sanctification from each other as it is not to separate them, they are properly distinguished only as their inseparability in Christ is appreciated (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30). Although sanctification in its progressive aspect obviously follows justification in time, the distinction between them is not well expressed by saying, out of concern to safeguard the purity of justification, that it is the basis of sanctification, or by speaking of the priority of justification to sanctification. Much better is the model proposed by Calvin (institutes, 3:11:6): Christ, the sole source of righteousness, is the sun from which proceeds, without confusion or separation, or relative priority both light (justification) and heat (sanctification).

Here we should agree with the author as to what the issue is even as we disagree with his prescription and his analysis of Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ. Since this controversy there has been considerable historical work by Cornelis Venema, Todd Billings, and Richard Muller, to name but three who’ve reached quite different conclusions about Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ and the duplex gratia. My own research into Caspar Olevianus’ doctrine of the duplex beneficium reached similar conclusions regarding his teaching that parallels those of Billings, Venema, and Muller regarding Calvin. More recently, John Fesko has argued the historical case for the logical priority of justification to sanctification.

The temporal sequence is not in question. We should, however, affirm the logical priority of justification to progressive sanctification. ” We have prima facie evidence in Romans 8:30 for thinking this way:

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:30; ESV).

It is the elect who are effectually called. It is those who are called who are justified. It is the justified who shall be glorified and glorification is the consummation of progressive sanctification in this life. In Paul’s brief order of salvation here sanctification is represented by and subsumed under glorification.

As the argument unfolds the connection to a two-stage doctrine of justification becomes clearer:

Justification and final judgment.

A pervasive strand of New Testament teaching is that at the end of this age, at Christ’s return all men, including believers, will appear before God (Christ) for judgment (e.g., Matt. 16:27; 25:31–46; John 5:27–29; Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:6, 16; 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27; 2 Pet. 3:7; 1 John 4:17).

While some of these passages neighbor for to the differing rewards granted to believers relative to each other, others unmistakably describe, not merely relative degrees a blessing for believers, but a judgment involving all men and in which the issue for all including believers, is the ultimate outcome of either internal life or eternal destruction (E. G. , Matt. 25,: 31ff.; John 5:29; Rom. 2:5–8).

While, in the case of believers, the final judgment is not called “justification” (although see Matt. 12:36, 37 and probably, too, Rom. 2:13; cf. Also the future “hope of righteousness,” Gal. 5:5), the essential features involved—a judicial transaction issuing in an irreversible verdict with eternal consequences—are precisely those at stake in Paul’s doctrine of justification. The positive outcome of the final judgment is in fact, if not in name, a justification.

What was implied and suggested above is now more explicit: a two-stage justification. In this case, however, we have observed that the distinction between them is not sharp. We have seen affirmations of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and significant qualifications of the definition of faith and justification which, if allowed to stand unchecked, would be fatal to the biblical and Reformed doctrine of justification.

The final justification envisioned in the section quoted above is distinct from the initial justification but continuous with it. Where the traditional doctrine has sinners justified once for all in this life and that justification vindicated at the judgment, this re-casting clear has them justified a second a second time.

Believers Are Already Justified
Above we began looking at a document, from 1978, which proposed a two-stage doctrine of justification. It recognized that there is some risk, some difficulty, in speaking of a present justification and a future justification. Nevertheless, the document contends that biblical text requires us to speak this way.

The question of the relationship, for believers, of justification already received to the final judgment, although difficult, is unavoidable; cannot be pushed aside, out of the proper concern to protect the once-for-all, definitive character of justification, by saying that the final judgment has “nothing to do” with justification. The unavoidability of this question in the case of Paul, especially, is playing. Paul’s gospel is eschatological through and through. Justification is the verdict of the final judgment already pronounced on the believer, in view of the eschatological significance of Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. age. Ridderbos, Paul, pp. 161–166). For Paul, justification by faith is a piece of “realized eschatology,” demanding to be related in it’s organic ties to the still future eschatological aspects of his gospel.

The document contends that we cannot say that the final judgment has “nothing to do” with justification. Since it uses quotation marks we are left to assume that someone, in the course of the discussion, used this language but it rightly responds that the two are related, that justification sola gratia, sola fide, is an eschatological (final) declaration realized in time and space. The question before us is whether a doctrine of a two-stage justification preserves or jeopardizes the definitive, once-for-all character of justification.

The final judgment, with its dual outcome of eternal life or death, is a judgment according to works [Emphasis original] (Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10) [emphasis original].

In 2009 Rick Phillips gave five reasons why we should not say that we are justified “according to works.”

      • Scripture teaches that justification through faith alone is not provisional in character but utterly definitive in securing God’s righteous verdict.
      • The idea of a future justification of believers suggests that Christians must stand before the Lord with respect to their sinful deeds.
      • According to the vision of final judgment in Revelation 20:11-15, it is only those outside of Christ who will be judged according to their works.
      • Believers will not stand for judgment on the basis of their own works. He explains:

Their key passage is Romans 2:6-13, where Paul speaks of “the doers of the law” being justified (2:13). Reformed theology has classically regarded this passage as describing how religious people hope to be justified apart from Christ. In chapter 1, Paul wrote of the condemnation of pagan idolaters, but in chapter 2 he addresses the religious Jew. Paul warns them against the idea that the law – the Torah – saves them, because one is saved not merely by possessing the law but by keeping it. If you are trying to be justified by the law, Paul says, then you have to do it, not merely possess it. John Calvin explains of Romans 2:13: “The sense of this verse, therefore, is that if righteousness is sought by the law, the law must be fulfilled, for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works.” This is why Paul proceeds to make the point that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), and “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The point of Romans 2:6-13 is to show those who seek to be justified by their works that they will have to keep the law perfectly, which Paul then shows they cannot hope to do. Given its clear context, Calvin comments on Romans 2:13, “Those who misinterpret this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works deserve universal contempt.”

The doctrine of judgment “according to works” does not seem to be used extensively by the Reformed Churches in their confessions. It does not occur in the Belgic Confession (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), or the Westminster Standards (1648). The Scots Confession (1560) chapter 25 does use it:

Yea, the Eternal, our God, shall stretch out his hand on the dust, and the dead shall arise incorruptible, and in the very substance of the selfsame flesh which every man now bears, to receive according to their works, glory or punishment. Such as now delight in vanity, cruelty, filthiness, superstition, or idolatry, shall be condemned to the fire unquenchable, in which those who now serve the devil in all abominations shall be tormented forever, both in body and in spirit. But such as continue in well doing to the end, boldly confessing the Lord Jesus, shall receive glory, honor, and immortality, we constantly believe, to reign forever in life everlasting with Christ Jesus, to whose glorified body all his chosen shall be made like, when he shall appear again in judgment and shall render up the Kingdom to God his Father, who then shall be and ever shall remain, all in all things, God blessed forever. To whom, with the Son and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, now and ever. Amen.

It is not clear that this section of the Scots Confession is teaching the same thing proposed in the (1978) document since the confession does not distinguish between two stages of justification nor does it equate the judgment according to works to justification.

The document continues:

In the case of believers, the final judgment (justification) does not involve a different principle than justification by faith, as if the sinner is first justified by his faith in the righteousness of Christ and then, at the final judgment on the basis of his works. Such a construction would bring Paul into contradiction with himself and destroy the assurance ministered by his doctrine of justification by faith. Rather, from beginning to end (final judgment) the ground of acceptance with God and his justifying judgment is the finished righteousness of Christ.

This passage is interesting because it addresses one of the concerns animating this series on Romans 2:13. It’s interesting that the document recognizes the possibility that the reader might reach this conclusion. Has the document pushed a boulder down the hill—in other words, is there a good, logical reason to prevent the reader from drawing the conclusion the document hopes to avoid?

In the case of believers, the final judgment according to works is the culmination of the justification by works of which James speaks. “Works” in this instance is an abbreviation for “faith working by love”; works are the criterion or fruit (manifestation) of the faith which all along, from beginning to end (final judgment), rest in Christ and his imputed righteousness. In a word, for the believer the final judgment according to work is the consummation of justification by faith.

Since the document speaks of the judgment as the “culmination” of justification it is difficult to see how justification, in this life, really is once-for-all and final. Does this way of thinking and speaking really accord with Paul’s language: “having therefore been justified by faith, we have peace with God”? (Rom 5:1) Scripture does not say “Since justification has been inaugurated will be consummated in the judgment according to works, we have peace with God.” To read Paul this way would turn his intent on its head. His intent is for the believer to know, with a “certain knowledge and hearty trust” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 21) that he is now presently, irrevocably accepted by God for Christ’s sake alone and this not “of works” or “according to works” but “of faith.” This is why Paul says, in Romans 8:1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Again, Scripture does not say that, though there is now no condemnation but there remains a future and final adjudication. The catechism picks up on this teaching:

Q. 58. What comfort takest thou from the article of “life everlasting”?

A. That since I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, after this life, I shall inherit perfect salvation, which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man” to conceive, and that to praise God therein for ever.

Q. 59. But what does it profit thee now that thou believest all this?

A. That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life.

Q. 60. How are thou righteous before God?

A. Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

When the catechism thinks about the future, even the judgment, it does not envision a second justification nor a second stage of justification. Question 52 assumes that we are already justified.

Q. 52. What comfort is it to thee that “Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead”?

A. That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven: who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall translate me with all his chosen ones to himself, into heavenly joys and glory.

For believers the judgment is not a new adjudication, a second justification but a blessing and a vindication of the justification received by grace alone, through faith alone.

The document takes a step in this direction:

In so far as the final judgment may be viewed, in the case of believers, as a justification, the difference between it and the justification that takes place when the sinner is united to Christ may be expressed at the lead of 2 Corinthians 5:7, by the distinction between justification by faith and justification by sight (cf. WSC, 38: “openly acknowledged and acquitted”), or perhaps between justification by faith and justification in the (resurrected) body (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10).

Yet the document ignores the fact that the divines who framed the standards used different language and categories precisely to distinguish between justification and vindication—”openly acknowledged and acquitted.” What has already been declared, namely the justification of sinners, is recognized. We should not accept the document’s facile equation of an ostensible future justification with the vindication of believers.

The document wants to include our future, final justification “according to works” in the gospel.

The inclusion of the final judgment according to works for believers as an integral element of the Gospel, among other things, serves as a reminder that justification by faith is not only something that has happened in the past experience of the believer but is a present, ongoing concern (cf. The title of Calvin’s Institutes, 3:14). Most assuredly, the removal of condemnation, the invitation of Christ righteousness, the forgiveness of sins, all of which take place at the moment the sinner is first united to Christ by faith, are once-for-all and your reversible, and initiate the state of justification from which believers can never fall (W CF, 11:5). Any presentation of the Gospel or formulation of the doctrine of justification that obscures or denies this is simply unfaithful to Scripture. But at the same time it must also be kept clear that this irrevocable justification is received by faith with a view to it’s persevering to the end…. As true faith, wrought and sustained by the sovereign power of God, it is bound to persevere; but it must in fact persevere, of faith which, as it continues to rest in Christ and receive everything from him, works by love.

Justification is not merely initiated. No, it is declared. Justification has been accomplished and applied. We should not accept that way of speaking about justification.

If we simply allow the judgment to be what it is: acknowledgment of what God has already declared and what he has wrought in them as fruit and evidence, we have resolved the matter

To connect justification and perseverance in this way is not to introduce a note of fear or uncertainty into the gospel or confound the entire graciousness of justification with an element of legalism. Rather it is to make intelligible to the congregation its existence between justification and final judgment, as the people who serve the living and true God as they wait for his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead for their justification, Jesus, who delivers them from the coming wrath (1 Thess. 1:9,10; Rom. 4:25).

The document does not want to introduce fear and uncertainty but has it succeeded? The document seems dissatisfied with the historic Reformed approach of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude (the three parts of the Heidelberg Catechism) and the gospel mystery of sanctification graciously, gradually wrought within justified believers united to Christ. It begs leave to connect our perseverance to a putative future justification. This is a new thing. The medieval and later the Tridentine Roman communion sought to induce believers to greater sanctity through a two-stage doctrine of justification: an initial justification in baptism and a final justification through sanctification (by grace and cooperation with grace).

The document wants to avoid this outcome but there are too many similarities between the medieval and Roman schemes to the scheme proposed here to ignore.

Belgic Confession art. 24 makes clear that we believe that believers will be sanctified, they will produce fruit, they will do good works in light of Christ’s work for them and in union with him as he works in them.

In the ordinary course of things believers will do good works, as they should, as they must, as befits those who have received such free favor from God, in Christ. This is the “way of salvation,” i.e., the ordinary process by which the Spirit works salvation (definitive justification and progressive sanctification). These good works are evidence and fruit of the Spirit’s work. The ground of our one justification is the righteousness of Christ imputed. The only instrument of our justification and salvation is faith alone. We do not advance our understanding of Scripture or our confession of faith by re-defining justification or by tying it to sanctification and works.

1. The NA28 says: “οὐ γὰρ οἱ ἀκροαταὶ νόμου δίκαιοι παρὰ [τῷ] θεῷ, ἀλλʼ οἱ ποιηταὶ νόμου δικαιωθήσονται.” The Vulgate reads: “non enim auditores legis iusti sunt apud Deum sed factores legis iustificabuntur.” Theodore Beza’s Latin New Testament has “(non enim qui audiunt legem justi sunt apud Deum; sed qui legem praestant justificabantur.” Arguably the Vulgate is a more straightforward translation. What make’s Beza’s interesting is the insertion of the prepositional phrase apud Deum (with God), the insertion of parentheses (in my 1834 edition) which extend to v. 15, and the use of the somewhat more ambiguous praestant in place of factores. Praestant has a number of senses among them “to fulfill.” It seems as if Beza wanted to make clearer the sense that the law is something that must be performed completely or perfectly and not merely attempted. One of the two notes on this verse in the Geneva Bible (1599 edition) says: “Shall be pronounced just before God’s judgment seat: which is true indeed, if any such could be found that had fulfilled the law: but seeing Abraham was not justified by the Law, but by faith, it followeth that no man can be justified by works.”

Brothers, We Are Not Perfectionists

In the doctrine of sanctification there are several errors to be avoided. First, let’s define our terms and understand what the basic biblical (and confessional Reformed) doctrine of sanctification is. The verb “to sanctify” is Latin. It is the word from which our English word “saint” is derived and it means “to set apart” and “to make holy.” What is holiness? In short it is Spirit-wrought conformity to the moral will of God, Spirit-wrought conformity to Christ, the dying of the old man, and the making alive of the new (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A88). It is:

Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more (HC Q/A 89.


Heartfelt joy in God through Christ, causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works (HC Q/A 90).

Perhaps the three great errors the church has committed regarding the doctrine of sanctification are:

  1. Justification through sanctification—This is one of Rome’s greatest errors (and that of all moralists). In order to get sinners to obey moralism makes our acceptance with God contingent upon our obedience. It matters not whether we begin with grace (as Rome does) so long as we end with works. This is exactly Paul’s point in Galatians 3:3 and Romans 11:6. Grace plus anything nullifies grace and denies Christ’s finished work.
  2. Sanctification as a second blessing—This is the error of “Easy Believism, which is the result of the Second Great Awakening revivalist system whereby one walks the aisle, prays the prayer, and signs the card. These acts are treated roughly the way Rome treats baptism, as if it works ex opere operato(by the working it is worked). In this system people are told that it is a good thing if they grow in grace by not strictly necessary. In their effort to protect free justification against the errors of the moralists This view fails to understand the organic relation between free justification and the sanctification which follows it as fruit and evidence.
  3. Perfectionism—This is the error that says that, in this life, we can, if we will, attain to sinless perfection. This view probably existed prior to Pelagius (fl. c. 380–420) but he certainly articulated it on the premise that, in Adam’s fall, we did not sin. Adam was merely a bad example and Christ a good one. In his commentary on Romans he wrote that Paul could not possibly mean what he seems to say in 5:12–21. According to Pelagius, each of us, even after the fall is, as it were, Adam. Because we are not inherently sinful, we can achieve sinless perfection in this life. By the 9th century, even though the Western church formally rejected Pelagius (the Eastern Church did not) it had become mostly semi-Pelagian insofar as it downplayed the effects of the fall and emphasized human ability even after the fall to cooperate with grace. Throughout the history of the church, before the Reformation, there were adherents to the notion to notion that, in this life, prior to death, with sufficient effort in cooperation with grace, Christians may achieve sinless perfection. In the modern period the Wesleyans are the group most closely associated with the doctrine of sinless perfection. B. B. Warfield wrote the great Reformed response to perfectionism (2 vols. Oxford, 1931)

Biblical Realism About Sanctification
For some time I’ve been concerned that we might be losing track of the biblical realism about the degree to which sanctity is achieved in this life. One place I see the influence of this shift away from realism, if you will, is in the way Romans 7 is treated. When, in his commentary on Romans, Pelagius came to 7:14–25, he knew a priori that Paul could not be describing himself or a Christian. This, of course, is opposite the Augustinian and later the orthodox Reformed view of Romans 7. I have heard Reformed folk say, “No Christian could say”:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (ESV).

It has been said to me that Paul must be speaking in another persona or speaking as if he were not a believer. The immediate difficulty is that there is no obvious sign that Paul has stopped answering the question that he asked at the outset of chapter 7, about relation between the Christian and the law. The metaphor he uses is that of marriage. As long as one’s spouse is still alive one is bound. When the spouse dies one is free. In our case, by virtue of our union with Christ through faith, we have died with Christ and thus we are no longer under the for justification.

There is nothing wrong with the law (7:7). The law did its good and holy work by revealing my sin (vv. 7—12) It was not the law that brought death but rather it was the toxic combination of my sinful nature with God’s holy law.

From this foundation Paul then turns to the contrast between the law as it is in itself, “spiritual” and to himself, as he is in himself, “sold under sin.” The conflict is between what he is in Christ and ongoing sin, between the principle of new life which is at work in him but which is not fully realized and cannot be fully realized in this life.

When one says “no Christian could say, ‘sold as a slave’” I reply, “No unbeliever could possibly say “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being….” This is the testimony of the believer, one in whom there is, by God’s free, sovereign grace, a principle of new life.

There’s just no clear, obvious, prima facie change of person (first suggested by Pelagius) or subject or any indication that Paul is speaking about an unbeliever. He speaks consistently in the first person.

Hence Calvin says (on vv. 15ff):

He now comes to a more particular case, that of a man already regenerated; in whom both the things which he had in view appear more clearly; and these were, —the great discord there is between the Law of God and the natural man, — and how the law does not of itself produce death. For since the carnal man rushes into sin with the whole propensity of his mind, he seems to sin with such a free choice, as though it were in his power to govern himself; so that a most pernicious opinion has prevailed almost among all men — that man, by his own natural strength, without the aid of Divine grace, can choose what he pleases. But though the will of a faithful man is led to good by the Spirit of God, yet in him the corruption of nature appears conspicuously; for it obstinately resists and leads to what is contrary. Hence the case of a regenerated man is the most suitable; for by this you may know how much is the contrariety between our nature and the righteousness of the law. From this case, also, a proof as to the other clause may more fitly be sought, than from the mere consideration of human nature; for the law, as it produces only death in a man wholly carnal, is in him more easily impeached, for it is doubtful whence the evil proceeds. In a regenerate man it brings forth salutary fruits; and hence it appears, that it is the flesh only that prevents it from giving life: so far it is from producing death of itself. That the whole, then, of this reasoning may be more fully and more distinctly understood, we must observe, that this conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God: for man, left to his own nature, is wholly borne along by his lusts without any resistance; for though the ungodly are tormented by the stings of conscience, and cannot take such delight in their vices, but that they have some taste of bitterness; yet you cannot hence conclude, either that evil is hated, or that good is loved by them; only the Lord permits them to be thus tormented, in order to show to them in a measure his judgment; but not to imbue them either with the love of righteousness or with the hatred of sin.

From a larger perspective, given Paul’s doctrine of law in chapters 1–2, his doctrine of justification in chapters 3–5, his doctrine of sanctification in chapter 6 and his renewed proclamation of justification and sovereign grace in chapters 8–11, it’s hard to see what else he might have written except an account of the struggle of in the believer between the remaining sin and the new life in Christ. Only in light of this struggle can one really appreciate the declaration of 8:1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

and the renewed doctrine of sanctification that flows from the triumph announced. The Spirit is at work in us, but we read of the triumph in chapter 8 chastened by the realty of the struggle in chapter 7. This is why Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), one of Calvin’s students and a pastor and teacher in Heidelberg and one of the contributors to/editors of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), taught that the new life is “inchoate.”

Calvin’s account of Romans 7:15–25 taken with Olevianus’ description of the Christian life may both be described as “realistic” as distinct from the somewhat triumphalist, Wesley-influenced or Higher Life-influenced approaches to the new life that dominated among Evangelicals since the 18th century.

There is no question that there is a new principle of life in the believer. Paul says in Romans 6:3–4,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Baptism, of course, does not accomplish this union. Here Paul uses baptism as way of describing our identity with Christ and a picture of the union that we have with by grace, through faith. The same teaching appears in Ephesians 2:4–6:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus….

We were dead but by grace alone we’ve been made alive, by virtue, of which, ironically, we’ve died to sin are being sanctified progressively into the image of Christ (2Cor 3;18). We are, according to Paul, a “new creation” (2Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15) in Christ.

These categories of “death” with Christ and “new life” indicate a decisive, divinely wrought, break with life before Christ. They signal an inauguration, a beginning, of new things. They do not, however, signal the completion of all things. The consummation is not yet. The principle (beginning) of the end has been introduced and is at work in us, by grace alone, through faith alone, in union with Christ. We are becoming what we shall be but we have not yet become what we shall be (1John 3:2).

Romans 6
There are a few central passages that we must consider when we think about our state in Christ and the progress (or lack thereof) in the Christian life. The first of these is Romans 6:9–19:

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (ESV).

Paul says two things essentially.

  1. In Christ, by virtue of our union with Christ by faith, we have died decisively to sin and have been made alive with Christ;
  2. Experientially, we continue to struggle with sin.

We have to affirm both things simultaneously. This is why Paul says that we must reckon ourselves, think of ourselves, as dead to sin. Why? Because we are not yet experientially dead to sin. This is why he writes, “Do not present your members to sin” because, we are still struggling and too often inclined to do just that.

Perhaps the most difficult part of this passage is the clause in v. 14,

“Sin will have no dominion over you.”

One reason it is difficult is because it is often taken as a promise that, if we do our part, we might achieve sinless perfection. This, however, is not what Paul intends to say or imply.

The reason I know this is because of what Paul says in the very next clause:

For you are not under law but under grace

This clause is best understood to be speaking not in experiential language or speaking directly about our experience but rather about what is objectively true about us because of Christ’s coming and saving work for us.

We are not seeking to be accepted with God on the basis of the law because Christ has already done that for us. We have been graciously accepted by God for the sake of Christ’s righteousness for us and credited to us.

For this reason, the power of sin has been broken decisively. Sin will not ultimately win because the power of sin is the law and we’re no longer under the law for righteousness with God. Were we under the law, then sin would have dominion because the power of sin is the law but, in Christ, all that has changed.

The objective truth and reality of God’s actions for us in Christ do have experiential, subjective consequences for us but Romans 6:14 is no promise that we will not ever sin again nor does Paul intend to say, as many have taken it, “if you simply apply yourself you can achieve victory of this particular sin and the reason you have not achieved victory is because you have not applied yourself.”

That’s a rather large and unsubstantiated assumption that people have read into Romans 6:14. It’s an assumption that comes from perfectionism or perhaps from the higher life movement but it does not come from Paul, who is far more realistic about the effects of the fall and the continuing struggle with sin in this life.

Realism is not despair, which is sin. In v. 17 Paul does issue a glorious doxology:

“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become… slaves of righteousness

When Paul says “slaves to sin” and “slaves to righteousness” he certainly does not mean to say, “you no longer sin” or “you can no longer sin.” He’s not speaking of our experience but of our status. The only way to be a slave to sin is to be under the law for righteousness but we aren’t under the law in that way so we are now slaves to righteousness.

Outside of Christ we could not ever be “obedient from the heart” but now, in Christ, we are, at least sometimes, obedient from the heart. This does not mean that we do not experience the grave sort of struggles, grief, and doubt that sin brings as Paul describes in chapter 7. Our experience does sometimes make us think that we are “sold as a slave under sin.”

Now, however, in Christ, there is a decisive break in the old reality. The new reality, introduced in Christ, is that we no longer belong to the law for righteousness and we no longer belong fundamentally to sin. We have been justified and the Spirit who raised us from death to life is at work in us but that work is gradual and often imperceptible.

Over-Realized Eschatology
So, how should we think of our experience of sin, grace, and sanctification? I have the impression that some folk think that we can make a list of sins and sort of tick them off one by one as “overcome” and they seem to think that we need only to apply ourselves to eradicate the remaining sins—as if sin is like a stain in the carpet—if we scrub harder it will come out.

Behind this, I suspect, lies an over-realized eschatology. All forms of perfectionism rely on the notion that more of heaven has been introduced into history than has actually occurred but the idea that there can be a sort of heaven on earth before Christ’s return has been deeply influential in American Christianity.

As I argued in “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America” (in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91) Reformation Christianity has been on alien soil in North America for a long time. Therefore the air we breathe is full of alien, toxic influences of which we should be aware and which we need to filter from our lungs as it were.

Perfectionism is one such influence. It’s harmful because it’s not true and because it doesn’t lead to the thing desired, greater godliness and sanctity. Perfectionism misleads by creating a false impression. If we think we have arrived we will not face our sins for what they are. If we do not face them, we cannot repent of them and die to them. Further, perfectionism cheats by lowering God’s moral standard. No redeemed person can honestly say that they have loved God with all their faculties and their neighbor as themselves perfectly. Any claim to have achieved “perfection” re-defines the standard and that, by definition, cannot lead to greater godliness because sanctity has an objective standard: God’s immutable, perfect holiness and his unchanging moral law.

Because of the influence of perfectionism in American Christianity many (most?) American evangelicals are more comfortable with Wesley than with Luther and yet, for my money, Luther was much closer to true godliness than Wesley, if only because he didn’t cheat, if only because he was ruthlessly honest about our sinfulness, our sin, and our need for grace. The publican was closer to grace and sanctity than the pharisee, right?

We are being changed but it’s much less like a laundry list or carpet cleaning and more like the ebb and flow of a tidal pool. At low tide the water has left and we never saw it leave and didn’t know exactly how it was happening. If we filmed it and played back the film we could see the process and result but standing in the pool we weren’t aware and, in this life, we don’t really get to watch the film. We have the testimony of Scripture that it’s true, that it’s happening but I suspect that the moment we attempt to document it, that very act or the next one will be sin.

Our Inchoate Obedience
Everyone who knows the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) knows the first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” and perhaps question 21, “What is true faith?” and maybe even question 60, “How are you righteous before God?” Few, however, have probably paid much attention to questions 114 and 115 but they bear directly on how we should think about the nature of the progress of the Christian life.

In question 113, the issue is the implications inherent in the tenth commandment:

That not even in the least inclination or thought against any commandment of God ever enter our heart, but that with our whole heart we continually hate all sin and take pleasure in all righteousness.

In short, the Reformed Churches interpret the tenth commandment to be a summary of the entire moral law and they interpret the moral law to require moral perfection in our faculties. It mentions two, the intellect and the affections but no one could imagine that the will is excluded as if the law demands perfection in two faculties but not the third.

This interpretation raises another question: Can believers keep these commandments perfectly?

No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God (HC, Q/A, 114.

The language of the catechism reflects the widespread Reformed doctrine that our obedience in this life is only “inchoate.” The theologians who used the expression obedientia inchoata and “inchoate sanctity” (sanctitas inchoata) to describe the degree to which we achieve sanctity in this life is like a who’s who of Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries (e.g., Peter Martyr Vermigli, Ursinus, Olevianus, Pareus, Alsted, Gomarus, Rivet,and Marck). Zacharias Ursinus, on questions 89 and 90, describes the “new obedience,” which the Spirit works in us, as “inchoate” or beginning or a sketch or a draft.
That’s a good way to think about the Christian life short of glory, a rough draft. The outlines of the consummate state are being drawn but there are many erasures, as it were. This is not a counsel of hopelessness. We’ve been renewed in order that we might be sanctified.

Let’s be clear. As Louis Berkhof wrote, the source of our new life is the gospel:

God has the right to demand of us holiness of life, but because we cannot work out this holiness for ourselves, He freely works it within us through the Holy Spirit on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us in justification. The very fact that it is based on justification, in which the free grace of God stands out with the greatest prominence, excludes the idea that we can ever merit anything in sanctification (chapter X, section G.2)

The law, however, never stops being the law. So, even as it serves as the standard of the Christian life it continues to prosecute the sin and sinfulness that remains:

115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

As we know from the second question of the Heidelberg Catechism

How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

From where do we know the greatness of our sin and misery?

From the Law of God.

Again, even in Christ, even though we come, by the grace of God alone, to love the law the law never becomes anything other than the law. Thus, as Berkhof reminds,

According to Scripture there is a constant warfare between the flesh and the Spirit in the lives of God’s children, and even the best of them are still striving for perfection. Paul gives a very striking description of this struggle in Rom. 7: 7-26, a passage which certainly refers to him in his regenerate state. In Gal. 5: 16-24 he speaks of that very same struggle as a struggle that characterizes all the children of God. And in Phil. 3: 10-14 he speaks of himself, practically at the end of his career, as one who has not yet reached perfection, but is pressing on toward the goal. (ibid, ch. X, sect H.2.(c).2)

The struggle drives us to grace (free acceptance by God) in Christ, it drives us back to the gospel, the announcement of free acceptance for Christ’s sake, to the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and to the gift of prayer.

Consider the last part of q. 115:

… that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

The Good News Of Gracious Sanctification
Questions 114 and 115 aren’t as well known as some others in the catechism but, as we muddle through this life, we should be encouraged that we aren’t the first to think about these issues and we’re not the first try, fail, confess, and try again by God’s grace.

The good news is that, even though you and I are not perfect, perfection did happen after the fall, once. Jesus, God the Son incarnate, was perfect for us. The Spirit is at work, gradually, faithfully, renewing us in the image of Christ and we will attain the goal of perfection “after this life.”

Should I Buy It? A Book Review

Frequently I receive the question in my inbox: “Should I buy this book?” What I would like to say is, “Yes, buy every book but don’t buy every book you buy.” I think it is a good idea to own and read books liberally. Sometimes I have the impression that the unstated premise of the question is something like this: “I suspect that I won’t agree with the book, so tell me if that is so and I’ll know not to buy it.” I do not share that view. I regularly purchase books with which I do not agree. This gets us to the second sense of “buy.” I think readers should read widely but they shouldn’t believe everything they read. So we should read liberally but we should read critically, i.e., thoughtfully and always asking ourselves: “Is that true?” “What is the writer assuming?” With these notions in mind I thought it would be helpful to consider the latest systematic theology to be published, John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013).

There are presently two competing approaches to Reformed theology. One approach seeks to appreciate and appropriate the Reformed tradition and the confession of the churches and from that starting point and with those resources read the Scriptures and engage the state of the art. The other approach, however, seems to regard the tradition with a wary eye and seeks to revise Reformed theology in sometimes radical ways. The volume before us, though it has traditional elements, falls into the second category. This approach, which is more “biblicist” than confessionalist (on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession), has produced some significant divergences from historic Reformed theology.

The first divergence is methodological. To put it briefly, Frame has adopted what is essentially a dialectical approach to theology.1 I understand that this might surprise some readers. After all, when we think of dialectical theology we might think of Karl Barth and his view of revelation. Nevertheless, there is more than one way of arriving at a dialectical method. By dialectical I mean an approach to theology that affirms and denies something at the same time. Frame does this through a method he describes as triperspectivalism. This method is sometimes taken, naively I think, as a sort of common-sense approach to theology that seeks to take into account three perspectives: the norm to be applied, the situation in which the norm is applied, and the person doing the applying. Were that all that triperspectivalism entailed there wouldn’t be much reason for concern. That account, however, is only part of the story. There is more.

The second divergence, closely related to the first, is theological. Frame has come to defend views that are flatly contrary to the Reformed confession on a number of topics from the definition of theology through to Christian ethics.

  • In his earlier volume on the doctrine of God, he defended the proposition that God is three persons and one person, a view at which, in the present volume. he seems only to hint.2 Last I knew, few reviewers noted this significant departure from catholic (i.e., universal Christian) dogma and the Reformed confession.
  • Under the doctrine of salvation (soteriology), Where the orthodox Reformed writers all rejected categorically and heartily the very doctrines now described as the “Federal Vision” theology, where Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) dismissed Norman Shepherd for teaching justification through faith and works (or “faithfulness”), where the Reformed churches, including his own denomination (PCA) have rejected the Federal Vision theology, in contrast, Frame has defended the right of the self-described Federal Visionists to teach their doctrines. In the present volume he offers a (remarkably revisionist) defense of the principal godfather of the FV theology, Norman Shepherd.3
  • Under the heading of ecclesiology he published a book that presupposed the elimination of the marks of a true church.
  • He has, as I documented in RRC, proposed significant revisions of the Reformed understanding of the second commandment.

For the purposes of this review, let’s consider one result of Frame’s method. His method is not only dialectical, it is a latitudinarian, i.e., the goal is that we should tolerate doctrines that the Reformed churches have condemned. The results of his method also appear in his doctrine of God.

On p. 428 there is a heading, in bold typeface, that reads: “God Is Simple.” He says, “[t]heologians also speak of God’s oneness in another sense: his simplicity. He then turns immediately to a discussion of Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of simplicity that continues through the top of p. 431. To Thomas, whose doctrine of divine simplicity he characterizes as “Plotinian” (the neo-Platonic view; p. 430) and “natural theology ” (p. 433) and to what he characterizes as “scholastic metaphysics” (p. 431), he contrasts the teaching of Scripture. According to Frame, if we follow Scripture we will get “a doctrine of God’s necessary existence rather than a doctrine of simplicity as such” (p. 431).

He argues that God is both simple and complex. About the divine attributes he writes: “Note that these arguments do not rule out all complexity within the divine nature” (p.430) and “But does this pattern justify talk of divine simplicity? If the attributes are perspectives on a single reality, that reality will be simple by comparison, though also complex, as I must keep insisting” (p. 432).

According to Frame, simplicity so defined does not rule out “all multiplicity.” For Frame, the doctrine of divine simplicity is really just a way of talking about God’s necessary existence and his “fully personal” relationship to us as Lord (p. 433). Everything comes back to divine sovereignty and tri-perspectivalism.

So, we began with an apparently clear, boldfaced affirmation of divine simplicity but as we continue we find that, via a dialectical method, God is also complex. How is he complex? It is not clear. At points in the discussion it seems as if he is suggesting that the Trinity itself implies complexity in God. At other points it seems as if the existence of attributes might be the reason. I’m not sure but he does say that God is complex.

Why is this an issue? Well, in Belgic Confession, Art. 1, the Reformed churches confess: “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is only one simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that he is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good” (emphasis added).

Westminster Confession 2.1 says,

1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty (emphasis added).

By setting up a contrast between Thomas and Scripture, Frame creates the impression that he is merely relieving us of an unnecessary problem, a leftover from “natural theology,” as he puts it. The doctrine of divine simplicity, however, is not a remnant of Thomas’ neo-Platonism. It is the interpretation of Holy Scripture and the confession of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The churches have not confessed a conviction about every theological question or debate but where they have confessed we are bound to it and we do not confess that God is simple and complex. We confess one thing: that he is simple, that he is without parts and we do so, as Luther said, without horns (we don’t say this and not this or Sic et Non). Neither the Trintarian persons nor the attributes make God complex. That is why we say that God transcends our ability to comprehend him.

Frame says, “God’s essence is not some dark, unrevealed entity behind God’s revealed character. Rather, God’s revelation tells us his essence. It tells us what he really and truly is” (p.431).

This passage gets us closer to the heart of the problem, his apparent revision of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God.4 As a matter of truth, God’s essence is a dark, unrevealed entity. God, as he is in himself (in se) is hidden from us. This is basic Protestant theology. Understood on its own terms, the theology of Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed orthodox will not allow us to say that God’s essence is hidden and it isn’t. When Luther taught that God is hidden (Deus absconditus) he was saying that God is a consuming fire (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29). Our Lord himself said: “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

1 Timothy 6:16 says “no one has ever seen or can see” God. 1 John 4:12 says that “no one has ever seen God.”  Were it possible to come into contact with God as he is, unmediated, unaccommadated, we would be destroyed. God, as he is in himself, is utterly transcendent, holy, just, etc in a way that, as he is in himself, we are not capable to apprehend, let alone comprehend. This is why the Reformed orthodox repeatedly taught the that “finite is not capable of the infinite” (finitum non capax infiniti). Calvin picked up Luther’s distinction between God hidden and God revealed as did the Reformed orthodox after him.

We know that God’s hidden essence is but we don’t know what God’s essence is. We’re not capable of knowing or understanding that essence. We know what God has revealed of himself to us. God has given us pictures, illustrations, analogies, but he has not revealed himself as he is in himself.  This is the Reformed doctrine of divine accommodation. Dialectically, formally, Frame affirms Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation (p.704) but that doctrine was premised on the very notion of divine hiddenness that Frame denies. Traditionally, Reformed theology has distinguished between what God knows (theologia archetypa) and what creatures know (theologia ectypa). Again, Frame formally affirms this distinction (p. 699–701) but he denies what the Reformed intended to teach by it.

Finally, consider how Frame proceeded on the doctrine of divine simplicity. He set up Thomas Aquinas as a foil and then proceeded to Scripture. What was missing in his account of divine simplicity? Any meaningful dialogue with the broader Christian and Reformed traditions. Certainly readers are not alerted that Frame is not entirely comfortable with the doctrine of the Reformed churches on this point.

Contrast his handling of divine simplicity with that in Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Under the heading: The Unity of God (p. 61) Berkhof distinguishes between the unity of singularity (unitas singularitatis) and the unity of simplicity (unitas simplicatatis; p.62). The first distinction refers to the numerical simplicity of God: He is one. The most fundamental OT confession is: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one” (Deut 6:4).

The unity of simplicity refers to the truth that God is not composite. He has no parts. The persons of the Trinity “are not so many of which the divine essence is composed, that God’s essence and perfections are not distinct, and that the attributes are not superadded to his essence.”

There he was following Turretin almost verbatim. He noted that it was the Arminians and Socinians who rejected the doctrine of divine simplicity (p.62). More recently, the classical Reformed doctrine of simplicity has been a bulwark against the heresy of Open Theism, the doctrine that future contingents are unknowable to God. Berkhof observed that it has been common in the modern period to deny divine simplicity as the product of metaphysical speculation and that Dabney argued—strangely—that God is no more simple than finite spirits.

In The Christian Faith (2011), pp. 228–30, Mike Horton’s account of divine simplicity is simultaneously more catholic, engaging with a broad variety of writers across the Christian tradition, more concise, and more orthodox. He gives not a hint that there is complexity in God, who is, according to Horton, “everything that all the attributes reveal” (p. 228). He appeals to the essence/energies (working) distinction in Basil. God is simple but his works are various. He is never self-conflicted (p.229). “None of his attributes can be suspended, withdrawn, diminished, or altered, since his attributes are identical with his existence” (p.230).

Horton’s language about the divine essence, as distinct from his revelation to us creatures, also resonates with the Reformed tradition:

One of the advantages of the “way of negation” (as in immutability) is that is halts before God’s majesty, content to affirm God’s infinite perfection without probing into the mysteries of God’s hidden being. We do not know how God is immutable or how realist the comparison is between his analogies and his essence. Yet God teaches us enough to be able to know that he is infinitely other than we are and at the same time inseparably one with us—the object of our awe was as well as our assurance (p. 242).

The Reformed want to affirm both the mystery of God’s hiddenness and the utterly reliability of his self-revelation. The Reformed theological method has never been dialectical. Read the classical Reformed writers. They don’t affirm divine simplicity and then deny it. There is no perspective from which God may be said to be complex. He is either simple or he is not. The God whom we worship is not simple and complex. He just is.

So, should you buy this volume? It depends on how you intend to use it. If you are looking for a reliable, careful, modern summary of the historic Reformed faith, then this does not appear to be such a volume. Fortunately, that volume already exists. If you’re looking for a speculative, dialectical, and idiosyncratic account of the Christian faith, then this volume will fill the bill quite nicely.

In this review I have used the word buy in two senses. At this point I am most interested in the second sense of subscribe or to agree. Should the reader accept the ideas that the author and those commending the book are selling? Publishers have included “blurbs” (which my dictionary defines as a “short description of a book, movie, or other product written for promotional purposes and appearing on the cover of a book….”) in their products for a long time. In recent years, however, I have noticed the tendency to blitz the reader with a enormous volume of blurbs. Such is the case with this volume. As I noted in an earlier post, at least a few of the blurbs are a little surprising. The endorsement of this volume by leading proponents of the so-called and self-described Federal Vision theology should give orthodox Reformed and evangelical readers pause. Would you trust a systematic theology endorsed by Jacob Arminius, Simon Episcopius, Richard Baxter, and Laelio Sozzini?5 The larger question is why would orthodox Reformed and evangelical folk endorse a volume that seeks to rehabilitate a modern-day Richard Baxter?

Shepherd in effect reinvented the neonomianism of Richard Baxter in the 17th century, and from the same motive—recoil from the practical antinomianism that surrounded him, and desire so to state the gospel as to make perfectly obvious that persevering holiness is enjoined all who hope to be welcomed by Christ the Lord on the day of judgment. Like Baxter, he never understood why he was constantly being accused of reintroducing legalism into Reformed soteriology when his purpose of promoting holiness among Reformed people was so demonstrably right.

—J. I. Packer, Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology
Regent College (1992)

I have my disagreements with Packer but he knows a latter-day Baxter when he sees one. He did his DPhil. thesis on Baxter in the 1950s at Oxford.6 Packer was not alone in his assessment. Dozens of orthodox Reformed theologians and pastors condemned Shepherd’s doctrine of justification as contrary to the Scriptures, the Reformation, and the Reformed confessions. Among them were: R. C. Sproul, D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, , W. Robert Godfrey, O. Palmer Robertson, Roger Nicole, Robert Reymond, George Knight III, W Stanford Reid, Morton Smith, William Hendrickson, Philip E. Hughes.7

Lloyd-Jones wrote about Shepherd’s doctrine of justification:

Another big defect is his misunderstanding of and misuse of the Westminster Confession and the Catechisms. They were concerned as James was to warn against mere intellectual assent or what the Puritans called temporary professors. They rightly emphasized works as regards church membership and admission to the Lord’s Supper, etc., but Shepherd constantly applies this to justification. He does not realize that the purpose of works is: 1) to test profession, 2) to glorify God and to please Him and show our gratitude to Him, 3) to help in the matter of assurance, 4) to prepare us for heaven (1 John 3:3).

His teaching is contrary to that of the evangelicals of the last 400 years and he seems to rejoice in this!

It seems to have been forgotten that, by the time Shepherd was dismissed from WTS/PA, even though only a minority of the faculty then opposed his doctrine of justification, virtually the rest of the Reformed world had rejected it. At the time of his dismissal, Shepherd was facing renewed charges against his doctrine in the Philadelphia presbytery of the OPC but his request for dismissal to the Christian Reformed Church was taken up before the charges could be laid against him. He mostly disappeared from broader public view until after his retirement when he began speaking at conferences, where he continue to advocate the same views that merited (pun intended) his dismissal. When that book, The Call of Grace was published, it was roundly criticized. In his review Cornel Venema wrote:

Fourth, these features of Shepherd’s reformulation of the doctrine of the covenant raise questions regarding his understanding of the doctrine of justification. Though Shepherd studiously avoids any explicit formulation of the doctrine of justification in this study, the trajectory of his position clearly points in the direction of a revision of the historic Reformation position. Just as Adam was obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant that God graciously established with him, so believers are obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant of grace in order to inherit eternal life. Just as Christ was obliged to live in covenantal loyalty and faithfulness to God, Shepherd maintains, “so his followers must be faithful in order to inherit the blessing” (p. 19). As we have noted, Shepherd is even willing to speak of Christ’s obedient faith being “credited to him as righteousness” in a manner parallel to the way Abraham’s (and every believer’s) obedient faith is credited to him for righteousness.

But this kind of parallel between Christ’s faith and ours would mean that the believer’s inheritance in the covenant of grace finally depends upon his following Christ’s example. Salvation and blessing are the (non-meritorious, though earned?) reward of the covenant for those who keep the covenant’s conditions and stipulations. Missing from Shepherd’s discussion at this juncture are several key features of the historic Reformed view of salvation. Shepherd does not make it clear, for example, that the believer can only obtain eternal life upon the basis of the perfect obedience, satisfaction and righteousness of Christ alone received by faith alone (compare the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 23 & 24). Nor does he make it clear (indeed, on page 62 he seems to deny it) that the believer’s imperfect obedience, which Christ by his Spirit graciously works in him, adds nothing to the work of Christ in respect to his standing before God and right to eternal life. Rather, Shepherd argues that the traditional Reformed view, which insists that the (sinfully imperfect) good works of believers provide no basis for their acceptance before God, fails to do justice to the genuine obedience of believers (p. 62). By this argument he fails to appreciate the classic Reformed conviction that Christ’s work as Mediator of the covenant of grace constitutes the only ground for the believer’s justification (and sanctification!) before God.

There have been numerous assessments of his doctrine of justification that reach the similar conclusions. According to David VanDrunen,

the evidence points to the conclusion that Shepherd indeed prefers an understanding of faith that makes good works not merely the fruit of faith, but an element of faith itself.

In Shepherd’s definition, “faith has been turned from the extraspective trust in the obedience of another into an act in which the believer himself offers obedience.” When “Shepherd says that we are saved by a living and obedient faith he means a different kind of faith from that of the Reformed tradition.” 8

We should not be surprised that Frame is seeking to rehabilitate his mentor. He has indicated his intellectual debt to and support for Shepherd for many years. In this volume he is only re-stating what he published 10 years ago and what he wrote to the faculty during the original controversy, in which he was among those who defended Shepherd. What should surprise us, however, is that so many orthodox Reformed folk would commend a volume that defends the teaching of Norman Shepherd on the doctrine of justification. Remember, we’re not talking about the logical order of the decrees, the nature of the creation days, the nature of the Mosaic covenant, or even the imputation of active obedience (which Shepherd rejects). There have been orthodox Reformed folk on both sides of those questions, even at our most important ecclesiastical assemblies (e.g., the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly). No, we are talking about justification sola gratiasola fide, the article of the standing or falling of the church.

Consider this: Frame presents Shepherd’s doctrine of justification as though it is patently orthodox to anyone with a modicum of sense and ability to read English. Yet the evidence in the documents from the original controversy, from Shepherd’s own published writings, and from the assessment of at least three different synodical or General Assembly committees is that Shepherd’s doctrine of justification is incompatible with Scriptures as confessed by the Reformed churches.

I am utterly convinced that the critics are correct: Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification is contrary to Scripture and a corruption of the gospel.  Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that Frame is correct, that all this time (39 years!) Shepherd has been articulating nothing but an orthodox Reformed doctrine of justification. What does this say about all of those who have read, considered, and rejected his theology? What does this say about Shepherd’s competence? What does it say about someone who supports his teaching?  If a minister and professor of theology has not been able make totally clear his views on the article of the standing or falling of the church for 39 years, is that person a reliable guide to the Christian faith? Yes, we’re only discussing a few pages in a very large volume but riddle me this Batman: how large are cancer cells?

Perhaps the fact that Frame has found a way to justify (pun intended) Shepherd’s doctrine of justification says something about his theological method? In Frame’s hands, there is a perspective from which anything (except Reformed confessionalism) can be appreciated and synthesized with Reformed theology and if anything (except Reformed confessionalism) can be synthesized with Reformed theology, then nothing (except Reformed confessionalism) is excluded. Do you really want to live in that house? Is that what we want for the future of Reformed theology, piety, and practice? As Allen Iverson says, “we’re talking about practice; not a game, not a game, not a game. We’re talking about practice.”


  1. Kevin DeYoung recently registered some discomfort (though he did not describe it as dialectical) with Frame’s method in his brief review.
  2. Van Til first taught this in his syllabus in Systematic Theology. This view has also been defended by Lane Tipton in “The Function Of Perichoresis And The Divine Incomprehensibility ” in WTJ 64 (2002). None of the catholic creeds countenance this way of speaking. The catholic way of speaking is to say that God is personal or tri-personal. He is one in three persons. This is the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed. None of the classic Reformed theologians or Reformed churches, in their confessions and catechisms, even hint at the possibility of saying that God is one person. Claims to contrary not withstanding, neither Charles Hodge (1797–1878) nor B. B. Warfield (1851–1921) taught that God is one person. They taught that God is personal but that adjective cannot be equated with the expression “one person.”
  3. Here is an archive of primary source documents. I have read most of the more important documents and can say without hesitation that Frame’s characterization of Shepherd’s teaching (pp. 974–75) is without warrant in the primary documents. Read for yourself the board’s grounds for dismissing Shepherd, who along with three other leading Federal Visionists, have offered ringing endorsements of this volume.
  4. He says that, e.g., Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til did not disagree as much as has been thought. In contrast, I have argued that debate was about a basic Reformed distinction that Clark and others rejected. On this see RRC and the chapter on this debate in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine. This is the nature of a dialectical theological method. There is always a perspective from which to reconcile opposites. Disagreement (except with confessionalist Reformed theology) is always only apparent.
  5. In reverse order: Lelio Sozzini (1525–1562) was an early proponent of the theological method known as biblicism. Sozzini’s writing raised questions about his orthodoxy. He was a rationalist (as biblicists almost invariably are) who seemed to doubt and to challenge the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity on the ground that the theological language used by the catholic (universal) church wasn’t in the Bible. As a consequence of his method and his ambiguity Calvin distrusted him but Bullinger accepted him as orthodox. He was associated with the Italian anti-Trinitarian movement that later produced outright and unequivocal denials of the deity of Christ, the atonement, and the Trinity among other things, led by his nephew, Faustus Socinus (1539–1604). Baxter was a notorious moralist (who taught justification through obedience), to whom John Owen replied at length in volume 5 of his works. Episcopius was Arminius’ successor and the leader of the Remonstrants at Dort and after. Arminius founded a movement to subvert the Protestant, evangelical Reformed doctrines of grace, to whom the Synod of Dort answered in 1618–19.
  6. Published as The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter.
  7. For a clear, accurate account of the 1974–81 controversy at WTS/PA see A. Donald MacLeod, W. Stanford Reid: An Evangelical Calvinist in the Academy, ch. 15. For an excellent longitudinal survey of Shepherd’s theology from 1963–2006, see the chapter by Guy Prentiss Waters on Shepherd in Robert L. Penny, ed. The Hope Fulfilled: Essays in Honor of O. Palmer Robertson (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
  8. Here are other critiques of Shepherd’s doctrine of salvation:

Does God Change?

In Reformed theology, the doctrine of God is at the headwaters. What we say about God touches every locus of theology. It shapes our theology, piety, and practice. When we say that humans are created in the image of God, we cannot understand that until we know something about God. When we speak of sin and redemption, we can only understand that in light of what we say about God’s justice and mercy. When we speak of Christ as true God and true man, we do so in light of our doctrine of God.

Theology is not purely theoretical. There are always practical consequences to our theology. For example, when I first began studying Reformed orthodoxy 20 years ago one of the things that struck me right away was the way that Reformed writers would teach the doctrine of God and then move to worship. That is how I began to see the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), i.e., our principle of worship that says that we worship God only in the way he has commanded (either explicitly or by good and necessary inference). One essential component of our understanding of the second commandment is our understanding of who and what God is to us. The God who regulates and authorizes our worship is he who is holy, righteous, infinite, eternal, spiritual, simple, immense, and immutable. We approach him in worship with reverence and awe because he alone is God. The church’s authority is not original. It is derivative. This is why we confess sola Scriptura. We begin with God’s Word as the unique, sole norm of the Christian faith and the Christian life. This is why we say Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory), because he is sovereign and we but creatures. He is infinite and we are finite.

One aspect of the biblical and historic Christian doctrine of God that has come under criticism from various quarters is the teaching that God is immutable, i.e., that God does not change. In modern theology (as distinct from confessional Reformed theology that is done in the modern period) it is considered axiomatic that everything changes and that, in some way, God is also in process. It is widely thought by modernist theologians that God is, in some way, becoming, that he is in some way contingent upon us. Some evangelicals have attempted mediating positions between these views and the traditional or “classical” doctrine of God. Recently, some influential Reformed writers from within the confessional (NAPARC) world have also sought to modify the classical view.
In view of these developments, I offer a brief two-part survey of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the immutability of God.

Biblical Proofs
Systematic theology works both from the explicit teaching of Scripture and from good and necessary inferences.

James 1:17 (ESV):

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

In its original context, this declaration comes after James has reminded his hearers (and now us, his readers) that God is not like us. We ought to persevere but we do not. We are fickle, we change but God does not. We are double minded but God is not. According to 1:11, flowers fade but God does not. We are tempted, we sin but God is not and does not (v. 14). We must not be deceived (v 16). All good gifts come from our utterly faithful and immutable God. He is reliable because he does not change. In his sovereign providence, he controls all things but is not controlled by them. He is the Creator (v. 18) not the creature.
Hebrews 13:8 (ESV): “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

The pastor writing to Jewish Christians who were tempted to turn back to the Old Covenant and to turn away from Christ reminds them that though they are tempted to be faithless to him who died, who was raised, he is not so. He does not change. He is the “I AM” and he who said to Moses (Exod 3) “I am that I am.” He is worthy of their trust because he is immutable.
Hebrews 6:17–18 (ESV):

So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things (δυο πραγματων αμεταθετων), in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.

Christians may rest safely in God’s promises because he is faithful not only in his intentions but in his nature. By nature he unchangeable. God swore by himself. He is immutable. Therefore his oath/promise is immutable and therefore reliable.

God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19)

This is substantially the same teaching we see in James chapter 1 and in the other passages but expressed rhetorically, i.e., in rhetorical questions. The expected answer is, no, God is not a man. Therefore, in contrast to humans, who do change and lie, God, who is not human, who does not have “parts or passions” (i.e., he is simple and he doesn’t suffer change) is not mutable and therefore he does not lie.

The first proof text to which Thomas Aquinas appealed in his Summa Theologiae (1a 9.1) under this heading, “immutability,” is Malachi 3:6 “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”

We will return to this passage later but suffice it to say for now that the most basic premise of the passage is that humans change but God does not. That is why is threats and promises are reliable.

From passages such as these Louis Berkhof concluded that the doctrine of immutability is

…a necessary concomitant of his aseity. It is that perfection of God by which he is devoid of all change, not only in his Being, but also in his perfections, and in his purposes and promises.

The biblical God is neither identified with history nor subject to it. This is not to say that he is cold or remote from our needs, he is after all our heavenly Father from whom we ask and receive our daily bread and forgiveness of sins. That is why we confess in Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 26:

26. What do you believe when you say: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”?

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth with all that in them is, who likewise upholds and governs the same by His eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ, His Son, my God and my Father, in whom I so trust, as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this vale of tears, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.

The God whom we trust is eternal. He is our Father for the sake of Christ alone, his eternally begotten Son, in whom, by his grace alone, through faith alone, we who believe are adopted sons. That same God upholds and governs. If he is mutable, even in the slightest—there is no such thing as a little mutability. If God changes at all, even in the slightest, he changes completely. It’s binary matter—then he is of no help. We trust him because he is reliable and he is reliable because he does not change. The God who is immutable, is sovereign. He determines all things and his sovereign providence is such that we may even speak of him sending “evil” upon us. He is so powerful and powerfully involved that he actively turns that evil to our good, to our benefit and we can trust that he does so because he is sovereignly immutable.

History Of The Doctrine
The early Fathers articulated Christian theology, i.e., their understanding of the teaching of Scripture in a context that was dominated by paganism. The gods of the pagans are nothing if not mutable. Read the classical myths. Against the pagans they asserted the immutability of God. Over against the dualism of Manichaeans (i.e., the notion that there are two great competing principles, good and evil), the fathers asserted the utter uniqueness, simplicity, and immutability of God. Against the Gnostics they asserted that God does not become more or less than he is. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was, is, and shall be what he is. Augustine reflects on God’s immutability repeatedly in his Confessions (c. 397–98). One of the prima facie problems with the thesis that Christianity was unduly affected with “Greek thought” (whatever that is) in its doctrine of divine immutability—which is the basis for the charge that the historic Christian doctrine makes God “static”—is that it fails to account for the antithesis between Christianity and the surrounding paganism of the period. The irony of teaching that God is mutable is that it tends to make God, were it possible, into one of the Greco-Roman pagan deities.

The Catholic (Universal) Creeds
In the Nicene-Constantinopolian Creed (325; 381 AD) we confess that God is “almighty” (παντοκράτορα). He is Creator of all things. He is uncreated. It never entered the minds of the Nicene fathers (et seq) that when they said, “almighty” they meant “almighty but mutable). They intended us to think exactly the opposite. When the Definition of Chalcedon (451) declares that our Lord Jesus Christ is “perfect” (τέλειον) in Godhead and perfect in manhood” and “the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence” it assumes that we understand what it means to say, deity and humanity. Jesus is one person with two natures. His deity is immutable and his humanity mutable. Jesus was beaten. He did suffer but we cannot say that God suffered (Dei passionism) but we can say that the one person of Jesus suffered. What we say about either of the natures of Christ we can say about the person but not the reverse.

This is another illustration of how the doctrine of God reverberates throughout the rest of our theology. In this case, Christology. Any revision of one’s doctrine of God entails a revision of Christology, anthropology, and soteriology. A new doctrine of God means a new religion.

The Athanasian Creed (7th century) means to teach us the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology but it necessarily begins with and assumes certain predicates or attributes of God. We say “but of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit there is one divinity: equal in glory and co-eternal in majesty” (Sed Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti una est divinitas: æqualis gloria, coæterna majestas). The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are uncreated (increatus). The Trinitarian persons have no beginning, no point (as it were) at which they were not. They just are, as they are, and what they are to each and to us. When we confess “co-equal in majesty” and “co-eternal” the clear implication is that majesty and eternal glory is immutable. We say that God is “immense,” i.e., as Louis Berkhof has it, “that perfection of the Divine Being by which he transcends all spatial limitations, and yet is present in every point of space with his whole being.” God cannot be immense and mutable. He is immutable immense and thus incomprehensible, which is the traditional translation of the Latin text of the Athanasian (Immensus Pater: immensus filius: immensus [et] Spiritus Sanctus). Finally, for our purposes here, we note that the Athanasian says that God is “omnipotent” (Similiter omnipotens Pater: omnipotens Filius: omnipotens [et] Spiritus Sanctus). If he is mutable, if he is more or less or something other than what he is, then he is not omnipotent. In the catholic creeds any theory of divine mutability runs into a serious obstacle.

Reformed Orthodoxy
Richard Muller writes,

The conception of divine immutability is certainly a mark of continuity between the Reformers and the Protestant orthodox—indeed, it is a mark of continuity in the thought of the church from the time of the fathers through the seventeenth century. For Augustine, immutability was a necessary corollary of the divine self-existence declared in Exodus 3:14: “That which is called ‘IS’ and not only is called such, but also is so, is unchangeable: it remains forever, it cannot be changed, it is in no part corruptible.” This intimate relationship between the divine self-existence and the assumption of immutability, moreover, remained at the heart of the doctrine in both the era of the Reformation and the era of orthodoxy (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 3.271).

As his survey of the sources suggests, as anyone who has read them knows, the Reformed orthodox affirmed divine immutability clearly and unequivocally. E.g., regarding Petrus van Mastricht, Muller writes,

In Mastricht’s order, the first three of these attributes, spirituality, simplicity, and immutability, together with the divine aseity, belong to a “primary class” of divine attributes and answer the basic question, Quid sit Deus? Spirituality is treated first on the understanding that the other terms follow from the biblical truth that “God is Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24)—the text that provides Mastricht with his exegetical foundation for the discussion. Indeed, simplicity follows among the consectaria of spirituality, stated as a second theorem of the locus with no new exegetical point of departure. (Immutability follows, in clear logical relation, but with a new exegetical foundation, namely, James 1:17). (ibid., 3.272).

My thesis is that Open Theism or any other theory that posits change in God constitutes nothing less than a radical revision of the Biblical doctrine of God and a rejection of catholic doctrine held by most Fathers, Medieval theologians, Reformers and the Orthodox theologians of the 17th century.

Insofar as the evangelical theology turned in the 18th century away from the objective to the subjective, to our experience, It is not entirely surprising that contemporary (neo) evangelicals would lose interest in an immutable God. Cornelius van Til (1895–1987) warned us 70 years ago that the evangelicals would default. We Reformed, Van Til said, begin with the triune God, with divine revelation and the objective work of Christ for sinners. The evangelicals, he warned, begin with religious experience.

It is surprising, however, that Reformed theologians would play with such fire. Immutability is not a purely Reformed concern. It was The Lutheran orthodox theologian Johann Gerhard (1582–1637), whom you will not confuse for a Reformed theologian, who said,

…Deity is incapable of suffering, or of change, and interchange; therefore suffering cannot be ascribed to it. Deity pertains to the entire Trinity;…but if, therefore, Deity in itself were said to have suffered, the entire Trinity would have suffered, and the error of the Sabellians and Patripassians would be reproduced in the Church.

Further, both the Lutherans and the Reformed affirm the doctrine of immutability, which is of the essence of the doctrine of impassability, in nearly identical terms. The Solid Declaration (of the Formula of Concord) speaks repeatedly of the “eternal, immutable righteousness of God” and an “eternal, immutable order” and God’s “immutable will.”

In fact all of our great theologians, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, have taught the doctrines of impassability (i.e., God does not suffer) and immutability (i.e., God does not change).

The Scriptures and our theology teaches that there is no potential in God (God is actus purus). He is fully realized. He is not in therapy, he is not finding himself. The God of the Bible and the Christian faith knows everything (omniscience), is in charge of everything (omnipotent), eternal and triune.

Mutability, Immutability, And Hermeneutics
The historic Christian doctrine of God is in stark contrast to the view proposed by proponents so-called Open Theism (e.g., Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd). They claim to have constructed a doctrine of God which is more biblical than the historic Christian doctrine.

Upon examination, however, it seems rather that they have adopted a Socinian, biblicist hermeneutic (a way of interpreting Scripture) that has more to do with Socinus than Athanasius and they’ve constructed a doctrine of God that leads to a therapeutic, incompetent, Marcionite god. According to the proponents of Open Theism, God actually repents, halters and changes. The future is genuinely open to God. He is contingent upon us. In this approach, omniscience is redefined to mean that God knows only what can be known. The future (e.g., the free choices of humans), they argue, cannot be known, therefore God cannot know it. He cannot control the future, for that would jeopardize the autonomy and dignity of human persons.

The hermeneutical question is this: If the clearer passages interpret the less clear, which are the clearer and which are the less clear? Traditionally we’ve used didactic passages to interpret narratives. Open Theism reverses this order. They use narratives to norm didactic discourse. Thus, in this view, when the narrative in Genesis 6:6 says that God “repented” that he had made man, they understand that God actually thought one thing, and then, in a successive moment, thought better of it and changed his mind.

In the case of immutability there are two sets of passages. Those who deny the classical Christian doctrine of immutability argue that we must take literally the passages that suggest that God changes and take figuratively those passages that appear to teach immutability.

It is my contention that the ‘change’ passages make the most sense when interpreted against the background of the ‘changeless’ passages since revealed ‘changes’ in God are predicated on his ‘changelessness’ (e.g., Mal 3:6,7)

Immutabilty Passages
Most recognize that there are passages that unequivocally teach that God is immutable.

God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? (Numbers 23:19)

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath (Hebrews 6:17).

Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and forever (Hebrews 13:8 ; See also Mal 3.6,7)

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows (James 1:17 ).

Mutability Passages
There are also those passages which seem to suggest that God does change, that he experiences sorrow, joy etc. Genesis 6:6 is a good test.

And Yahweh repented (וַיִּנָּחֶם) that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart (revised from the ESV).

Those who are opposed to the traditional understanding of Scripture say that God literally, actually thought one thing (i.e., the creation of humanity was a good thing) and then, at another moment, he thought something else (i.e., the creation of humanity was not a good thing).

Nacham (to repent; נחם) in Scripture
The verb Nacham has a range of meanings. According to Holladay in the Niph. it signals the range “to regret” (e.g., Gen 6:6.–7; 1 Sam 15:29) but in the Piel and Hithpiel it means “to comfort/console,” (e.g., Gen 5:29; 2 Sam 12:24). Gen 6:6—7 “Yahweh repented (נחם – Niph waw conseq 3s ) that he had made man on the earth…”

Exodus 32:14. “Then Yahweh repented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”
1 Samuel 15:11 Then the word of Yahweh came to Samuel: 11 “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.”…. (See also 1 Sam 15:35)

2 Samuel 24:15–16. So Yahweh sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died.  When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, Yahweh was grieved because of the calamity and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of Yahweh was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (see also 1 Chron 21:15).

Psalm 110:4 Yahweh has sworn and will not repent….

Jeremiah 26:13 “Now reform your ways and your actions and obey Yahweh your God. Then Yahweh will relent (Nacham) and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you.” (see also 26:19)

Ezekiel 5:13 “Then my anger will cease and my wrath against them will subside, and I will be avenged (Nacham).”

Ezek 24:14 “`I am Yahweh. I have spoken. The time has come for me to act. I will not hold back; I will not have pity, nor will I relent (Nacham). You will be judged according to your conduct and your actions, declares Adonai Yahweh.’ ”

Joel 2.13-14 “Return to Yahweh your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity…Who knows? He may turn and have pity (Nacham) and leave behind a blessing–

Amos 7:3,6 “So Yahweh repented/relented.”

Jonah 4:2 “He prayed to Yahweh, “O Yahweh, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. ”

These passages do not intend for us to think that God actually thought one thing and then, in response to human choices, thought something else any more than we are intended to think that God is actually pacific one moment and then, upon seeing Israel commit sin, flies into a rage only to be pacified again by Moses.

Yes, Scripture does use this sort of imagery of God. That is not in dispute. What is at issue is how we should understand such language. The historic Christian way of understanding such imagery is to use the didactic passages to help us understand the narrative passages. The didactic passages give us the baseline, as it were. The narrative passages should be read in light of the didactic. As we read the narrative passages we are expected to remember certain basic truths. God created ex nihilo. He is not actually contingent (either by nature or by choice) upon his image bearers, whom he formed from the dust and into whose nostrils he blew the breath of life.

God does enter into a vital, genuine, dynamic covenant relationship with his people but that covenant does not change his attributes. He knows everything (for us past, present, future) in a single, eternal, act. He is not surprised by our uncoerced choices. They are all part of his eternal, providential decree. He reveals himself as passionate and repenting (turning away in disgust) of us and the like as a way to communicate his eternal, constant, utterly righteous indignation at our sin. We are not to imagine that God was actually surprised. If so, when did he lose his omniscience? When did he become subject to animated dust stamped with his image?

Final Thoughts
Consider the the prima facie difficulty of positing change in God. When did he change? Was it when he said to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Rom 9:17; ESV). According to Paul, Pharaoh was not an autonomous actor upon whom God waited. He was an instrument for God’s glory. Indeed, if we compare this verse with Exodus 9, it seems that the Apostle actually intensifies the problem of evil. In Exodus 9 Scripture says that Yahweh demonstrated to Pharaoh his power. Paul makes Pharaoh not the recipient of the demonstration but an instrument of the demonstration. This is not the way someone writes who thinks that God is contingent upon autonomous, free human actors.

In case Paul’s view isn’t abundantly clear, he continues:

So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—(Romans 9:18–23; ESV)

Who can resist his will indeed? The God described in Exodus 9 and Romans 9 is hardly the incompetent demigod of the Open Theists or of any view that posits change in God. In Paul’s view God is the sovereign, immutable, impassible actor throwing pots on wheels, discarding and keeping as seems right to him. Our recourse is but to adore him. This is not a demigod who is surprised by the free choices of his creatures or who, in himself, feels one thing one moment and feels another thing in the next.

In order to make their case more plausible, the advocates of Open Theism have caricatured the traditional view by giving the impression that it teaches that God is “static,” “immobile,” “impersonal.” We should reply that, when they posit a god who changes, the Open Theists et al are really proposing a Manichaean dualism, in which our wills are one principle and God’s is another. Otherwise they are proposing a  polytheism. Neither alternative is Christian and both are the very sorts of worldviews that Moses intended to combat in Genesis 1–2. The God of Genesis speaks creation into being. He is not contingent upon it nor is he changed by it.

The best way to read these passages is by analogical realism, i.e., with the understanding that there is a genuine analogy between the way God reveals himself and what is true of God as he is in himself (in se), even though we cannot say exactly how the revelation corresponds to reality in God. If we knew exactly how the sign relates to the ultimate reality in God, we wouldn’t be mere humans would we? Our job, if you will, is to understand the intent of the figure, to understand the analogy but not to read the figure woodenly and thus construct another god. This is the historic Christian hermeneutic. Consider the language just two verses away from Genesis 6:6, v. 8. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of Yahweh” (ESV).

Does Yahweh have actual, literal, physical eyes? No. That’s a figure for God’s awareness of the created world. It’s an anthropomorphism. One of the earliest Christian heresies was the doctrine that God is bodily. One of the grossest Mormon errors (which Clark Pinnock favored in Most Moved Mover) is the doctrine that God is bodily. Scripture teaches the exact opposite. God is not bodily. He is a Spirit and worshipped in the Son, and in the Spirit (John 4:24). Scripture attributes feet, a nose, and other anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms (human feelings) to God. All these are figures to help us understand our heavenly Father and the God of the covenants. These are homely, simple images. They were never meant to be taken literally, as if the God of the Bible is just like the pagan deities or the Greco-Roman pantheon.

God does not change. The corollary for this is that God does not suffer. This is what we mean when we confess that he is impassible. This doesn’t mean that God does not feel. The adjective “impassible” is the privative of the verb “to suffer” (patior, pati, passus sum). From it we get the noun passion. Our English word denotes a rise in feelings but in theological usage we mean to say that God does not suffer a change in feelings. We don’t mean to say that God has no feelings. Charles Hodge said about God:

[H]e is not a stagnant ocean, but an ever living, ever thinking, ever acting, and ever suiting his action to the exigencies of his creatures, and to the accomplishment of his infinitely wise designs. Whether we can harmonize these facts or not, is a matter of minor importance. We’re constantly called upon to believe the things that are, without being able to tell how they are, or even how they can be. Theologians, in their attempt to state, in philosophical language, the doctrine of the Bible on the unchangeableness of God, are apt to confound immutability with immobility. In denying that God can change, they seem to deny that he can act.

God is what he was, is, and shall be. He just is. He is never more or less than he is. If there is a real analogical relation between the way God reveals himself and what he is in himself, then we may say that God feels but we cannot say how he feels nor may we posit that his feelings change. He is what he is and he will never be anything other than what he is and he is what we need him to be for creation, providence, salvation, and glorification.

There is no such thing as a little bit of mutability in God. If he is a little mutable, then he’s mutable, full stop. The God of the Bible, who covenanted with Abraham to be a God to him and to his seed, who fulfilled that promise in the incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus doesn’t change in his nature, his purposes, or his will. He is immutably good, holy, righteous etc. Whatever he feels is consonant with those attributes.

To posit mutability is to destroy the Biblical doctrine of providence and prayer. God of the Bible speaks reality into existence. He sustains continuously, actively governing and concurring in all actions. If the Open Theists (or other advocates of divine mutability) were right,the world would spin into oblivion and prayer would become a futile exercise. To posit change by suffering in God is to make him into a demigod.

In his fundamental 1983 critique of Open Theism Richard Muller used Malachi 3:6–7 as a test case. Here we have both kinds of passages, so to speak, under one roof: proposition that God does not change and narrative suggesting he does. If the mutability theory cannot account for these passages, then it fails as a hermeneutic.

I Yahweh do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says Yahweh Sabbaoth….

    Yahweh does not change.

  • Israel has ‘changed’ (turned away from his decrees)
  • If Israel repents (changes)
  • God will “change”—i.e., in his relations to them.
  • God has not changed
  • Therefore Israel can rely upon God’s faithfulness to his promise

Israel’s change and God’s own (figurative) change is premised logically upon his actual immutability. If God is actually mutable, if he is actually contingent upon his creatures, then Israel has not basis for trusting his promise that he will respond favorably to Israel’s change.

Thanks to Rich Barcellos for his editorial help with this series. I’m grateful.

The Cruelty Of Nominalism

Are Symbols Arbitrary?
Recently there has been considerable controversy generated in a university classroom where the prof required students to create a sign with the word “Jesus” on it and then to step on the same. One student, a Mormon, refused and was disciplined for his refusal. The governor of Florida became involved but apparently the teacher has not been sanctioned in any way.

Now it emerges that, in the instructor’s guide apparently used by college professors (really? When did university professors and graduate students begin using instructor’s guides? But I digress), the author asserts

This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.

This claim begins to explain, ahem, what is afoot. Why on earth would a university professor ask his class to do something so provocative and moreover why is it that, apparently, only one person objected to the exercise? The prof was catechising his pupils in the dominant religion of our late modern age and most of the students were either afraid of the academic consequences of disobedience or already agreed with the premise: nominalism, i.e., the relation between a sign (signum) and the thing signified (res signata) is actually arbitrary. The corollary to this now widely accepted premise says that anyone who asserts a stable relation between sign and thing signified is only covering up a will to power.

You know about this debate and you’ll recognize it when we consider it in more familiar terms. First the secular then, in the next post, the sacred. When you hand a dollar bill (if anyone still does that any more) to a clerk, she accepts that bill as a symbol of 100 pennies. Considered on its own, not as a symbol, the materials that make the dollar are not worth 100 pennies, especially if those are older pennies with copper (they are now made of zinc). Why, then, does the clerk accept the dollar as if it were worth 100 pennies? Because the government says it is worth 100 pennies. From the 1930s through the early 1970s there was some relation between the dollar and an actual valuable commodity, gold but that relationship ended and now the dollar is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.” What that is worth is the subject of another post and perhaps another blog altogether.

Thus, in our current economy, when we hand a dollar bill to a clerk and he accepts it, we are practical nominalists. In that instance both clerk and customer assume the relation between the sign (the dollar bill) and the thing signified (100 pennies) is the result of a convention or agreement. We agree that the dollar is worth 100 pennies even though the dollar bill, considered as a commodity, is not actually worth 100 pennies.  Theoretically, the dollar bill could be worth 50 pennies or 1000 pennies. The relation between them is arbitrary.

In the pre-modern era, we exchanged commodities. If one wanted something of value, one had to exchange something of equal or greater value but trading chickens across a counter became burdensome. Thus, we “rationalized” the economy, we substituted signs for the thing signified. Typically, however, we understood that there was a stable relation between the sign (a coin) and the thing signified or the coin might actually be made of valuable commodities (e.g., gold or silver). Put in medieval theological and philosophical terms, prior to the 1930s we tended to be realists when it came to money. We understood a close relation between the coin and what the coin represents. Since the early 1970s, however, we have become nominalists. We have agreed to a more fluid or even arbitrary relation between coin and commodity.

I’m not an economist nor do I play on television nor am I a “gold bug” exactly. I understand that there were certain deficiencies with the gold standard but there were also certain advantages. The main point here is to come to a clearer understanding of what nominalism and what its consequences are. My thesis is that many of us living in the late modern world, particularly those who are 30 and under, are nominalists and we do not realize it. Those who are over thirty are more likely to assume a more stable relation between signs and things signified, i.e., they tend to more realist in the the way they relate signs and thing signified. They tend to be less suspicious of assertions that “this is true.” To those 30 and under, the assertion that one proposition is true and the other false is more likely to ring hollow and raise suspicion that the person making the claim is really hiding an ulterior agenda. They are suspicious about truth claims because they already assume that the relation between signs (e.g., words) and things signified (e.g., truth) is fluid or non-existent.

Consider how the argument is being mediated to you: a computer. What is a computer? It is a glorified adding machine fiddling with zeroes and ones. Why zeroes and ones? Some decided to do it that way. It’s arbitrary. It could be ones and twos. Why is the keyboard the way it is? It’s arbitrary. There were other keyboards. Why are stop lights red, yellow, and green? It’s arbitrary. Things could be other than they are. Growing up in a fluid world, which Zygmunt Baumann has described as “liquid modernity” has created a generation of skeptics and doubters.

Scott Jaschik, who wrote on this controversy today, points out that the instructor’s guide does not say to “stomp on Jesus” but misses the point. He begs the question (assumes what has to be proved) and accepts the reigning nominalism, that there is no relation between the sign and the thing signified or that the relation is purely arbitrary. Juan Williams at Fox News does the same from an even more emotive, subjectivist perspective. The objection, that students were required to step on a sign and not on the thing signified, misunderstands the outcry (which is probably coming mostly from those over 30 and probably mostly over 40). Everyone can see that a sign is not the thing signified but we cannot simply assume, as Jaschik does (and as Jim Neuliep, the author of the instructor’s guide does), that the relation is purely arbitrary or that there is no relation at all. Note that Juliep has been leading this exercise for 30 years. That is significant because it is in that same time span that the radical decoupling of signs from the things signified has penetrated the broader, popular culture, including evangelical and Reformed communions.

An Example From the Sacred
It is widely held in our time that the relation between signs and the things signified is arbitrary. Traditionally, such a view has been known as nominalism. In the first installment we considered a secular example (money) to illustrate the problem of the decoupling of signs and things signified.

To give a sacred example, when a believer comes to the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine, what is he receiving? If your first thought was “the body and blood of Christ” you’re headed in the right direction. On reflection, however, other questions follow? How do believers eat the body and blood of Christ? What is the relation between the sign (signum), bread and wine, and the thing signified (res signata), i.e., Christ’s body? There are four major options:

  • The signs signify (testify to) the body of Christ in which he was conceived, obeyed, died, and was raised but they only signify. Thus the relation is purely intellectual or memorial.
  • The signs signify (as defined) the body of Christ (as defined) and through them the Spirit feeds us on the body of Christ.
  • The signs signify the body of Christ, which is locally present in, with, and under the signs.
  • The signs become the body.

The first was Zwingli’s view. Yes, I’m familiar with W. P. Stephens’ argument but am not persuaded. Even in his most mature writings Zwingli never moved beyond a memorialist view. This is the view held by most post-Second Great Awakening American evangelicals and by many Reformed/Presbyterian laity.

The second was the view articulated by some of the second-century Fathers, Ratramnus and others in the 9th century, by most of the Reformed in the classical period (including Calvin) and is confessed by the Reformed churches.

The third is the confessional Lutheran view.

The fourth is the Romanist view, first articulated by Radbertus (in controversy with Ratramnus) in the 9th century and formally adopted at the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 and ratified at the Council of Trent in 1562. Contra the frequent claims by Romanists it was not taught by Irenaeus in the second century.

These views of the Lord’s Supper (holy communion, the eucharist) illustrate four different relations between signs and things signified. You can see immediately that how one relates signs to things signified has great spiritual, theological, and practical significance. In the life of the church many are unwilling to administer communion frequently because they think of the supper as a memorial or as a funeral. It involves an intense grieving process and the idea of enduring such a wrenching thing every week is too much to bear.

Those who think of the supper principally as a sacramental meal in which we are fed by the body of Christ mysteriously, by work of the Holy Spirit, are more likely to favor more frequent communion. The weight of the sacrament is upon being met and fed by Christ and upon the visible sealing the promises of the gospel. When we consider Christ’s death we must consider our sins, and that is sad, but the gospel is good news and the supper is fundamentally gospel.

The Lutheran view has much in common with the Reformed but by locating the thing signified within the the sign it threatens the very existence of the sign itself. As Ratramnus argued in the 9th century, our faith does not make Christ present but faith is essential to receiving Christ. No one receives Christ without faith. That would be magic. Since faith, trusting Christ’s promises is the sole instrument by which we receive Christ and his benefits (<em>sola fide</em>), those who locate Christ within the elements or who—even worse—claim that the signs become the thing signified destroy faith and thus, in their attempt to ensure Christ’s presence have actually, ironically, as it were chased him away.

Thus, we find ourselves between two poles, that which makes the sign essentially arbitrary and that which conflates the sign with the thing signified. A picture of a horse is not a horse. If one places that picture on the ground and saddle it, one will not go far. One has saddled a picture, not a horse. If, however, the only relation between the picture and the horse is in our intellect or in our memory of the horse, then the relation between the sign and the thing signified is fluid and unstable.

This is last option is the one I want to consider with you for a moment. Now, not everything is a sacrament. There are only two sacraments and a sacramental relation is different than the ordinary relation between signs and things signified. A picture of a horse is a sign but not a sacramental sign. There are no divine promises of salvation attached to the picture of the horse. Nevertheless, the relation between the picture and the horse is important.

The Hermeneutic of Love
One of the great and evil things that has beset the late modern world is the destruction of the hitherto stable relations between the sign (e.g., a word, a picture) and the thing signified. I’m grateful to my old friend Warren Embree for alerting me to this problem in the mid-1980s in discussions and later in Warren C. Embree, “Ethics and Interpretation,” PhD Diss. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1991). Much of that work was a reflection on Augustine’s account of the relation between signs and seals but it was also an argument for what he called a “hermeneutic of love” in contrast to the then wildly popular, late modern, deconstructionist “hermeneutic of suspicion.” In the second half of the 20th century it became quite popular to argue that there are no stable relations between signs and things signified, that the relation is arbitrary. It was suggested that those who argue for a stable relation between signs and things signified were really just asserting power over others, by seeking to control them through controlling the meaning of words. In short, part of the argument was whether the relations between signs and things signified is a matter of truth or a matter of power. Behind that argument lies an even more fundamental argument: whether God is, whether he has created nature and whether as a part of his creation he has willed a stable relation between signs and things signified.

The relation between signs and things signified was a matter of considerable debate through the middle ages. Peter Abelard (1079–1142) , for most of his career, taught a strong form of nominalism. This provoked a reaction from his critics (e.g., Bernard of Clairveaux, 1090–1153) and brought condemnation of his theology (for modalism in the doctrine of the Trinity).

There was another school of thought in the middle ages, realism, that identified the names with things named via their essences. For the realists (via antiqua) the intellect abstracts the universals from particulars (e.g., sense experience) of this thing and that. Those essences were said to belong to the divine being. This down and dirty summary is bound to upset historians of philosophy but the upshot is that the realists managed to put both God and the creation in a box of sorts. They set up a world in which things couldn’t be other than they are and the realist knew how they could be, how they had to be.

This realism provoked a reaction from nominalists such as William of Ockham (c. 1280–1350), who taught that the relations between names and things named is a mere convention. Where the realists said universals are real, Ockham and the nominalists (via moderna) argued that it is particulars that real and universals are illusory. This is why Ockham proposed his “razor,” to eliminate what he saw as unnecessary assumptions about the nature of being.

Contrary to the way the story is sometimes told, the Reformation was not product of nominalism. It is true that Ockham and others did make it possible to reconsider some long held assumptions but the Reformation itself was not a species of nominalism but neither was it a species of realism. How then did they relate signs to the things signified? On the basis of the divine nature and will. In Calvin, e.g., God’s Word is reliable because it is true to the divine nature. God wills what he does because he is what he is, i.e., his will is consonant with his nature. Thus, signs are the product of the divine will and the divine will is related to the divine nature. As a consequence, the relations between signs and things signified is stable because the divine will and nature are stable.

In the modern period, i.e., the early stages of neo-paganism, for those who accepted the renewed, Enlightenment assertion of the ancient, pagan maxim that “man is the measure of all things” (Protragoras d. 411 BC) the God of the Christian faith became, at best, a hypothesis, a limiting notion. Really the mysterious, dynamic, powerful God of Scripture and of the historic Christian confession became a remote deity incapable of knowing or being known. Still, the relations between signs and things signified was generally considered stable but now not so much because of what God had ordained or even because of the nature of God but because of the prevailing rationalism of modernity.

The late modern reaction to the rationalism (and empiricism) of the earlier phases of modernity has been a skepticism not only about the relations between signs and seals about even about our ability to perceive reality. As I began to suggest in part 1, the idea that symbols are “arbitrary” and have chiefly emotive value is rooted in such skepticism.

Why is such nominalism cruel? It is because it makes signs essentially meaningless. Without meaningful signs  discourse is reduced to the will to power (rather than a search for truth). It begins with the assumption that truth is lost to us. It’s cynical. It destroys communication and communion between persons.

I was raised in a time that largely assumed a naive sort of realism and, as in the middle ages, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Today’s young people are being indoctrinated in skepticism about truth and signs. The very idea of nature or fixity, an essential assumption to behind a stable relation between signs and things signified, has come to be viewed with suspicion.

It’s easy, however, to see why stable relations between signs and things signified is so important. Here you are reading text about signs. If there’s not at least relative stability, if I, the writer, and you, the reader, cannot count of a relatively stable relation between signs and things signified then who knows what these characters mean and why  you are staring at them?

Ironically, to the degree we accept nominalism we really are at mercy of the reader and the interpreter (“reader response” anyone?). As Stanley Fish said, there is no “text.” Absent the totalitarianism of the reader, what then? We must fly blindly to authority. In our search for liberty from fixity and authority we know find ourselves at the mercy of some superior authority: from libertinism to totalitarianism.

Some Christians are fleeing to Rome to overcome late modern skepticism. Of course, this move only postpones or relocates the problem. Rome claims magisterial authority to say what Scripture teaches but who knows exactly what Rome really says that Scripture teaches? Those documents (papal decrees, conciliar decrees etc) must be interpreted and they are arguably more difficult to interpret since they manifestly contradict each other. Then, of course, there is the gnostic appeal to a secret, unwritten apostolic authority. It’s hard to see how a secret tradition that, for all we know, exists in the imagination of a few cardinals does anything but add to the crisis.

Nominalism destroys perspicuity but that perspicuity (the essential clarity) of the biblical text was basic to the Reformation. For the Reformed confession the text of Scripture is inherently superior to the reader. As we understand it, the text forms us, it interprets us, it norms us. Late modern subjectivists would have us become the text, the norm but we are not “canon” (rule) but the ruled but that only works if the text is essentially, sufficiently clear and we can only talk about clarity (perspicuity) if there are stable relations between signs and things signified, if the world we perceive with our senses is sufficiently, reliably what we perceive it to be.

Of course that’s the way the world is because God, though utterly free, is not arbitrary. He might have willed differently than he did but we can trust what he has said because he reveals himself in ways that are consonant with himself. Nominalism is cruel but God is not cruel, he is love (1 John 4:8). The greatest sign of God’s love is his Son, the Word (John 1:1). About him we can be neither nominalists or skeptics. In him the relation between sign (“Word”) and signified is stable. It must be stable—the eternal Word incarnate, true and eternal God and true man. The Apostle John saw and touched the Word: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands….”


The Necessity And Limits Of The Imitation Of Christ

There is no question among orthodox Christians, i.e., those who believe and obey God’s Word, who believe the catholic creeds, who have a substantial connection to the ancient church, whether Christians ought to seek to imitate Christ. The questions are how do we imitate him and to what end? This has been a topic of some discussion on the HB. I wrote an 8-part series distinguishing between Jesus the Savior and Christians as his saved. Yesterday I tweeted (yes, I know, it’s a funny verb) some comments about the difference between Jesus’ “faith” and ours, that Jesus’ faith is “not the pattern” for ours. That comment received some pushback, as they say. Some of the respondents made a fair point. “Pattern” was too ambiguous. The truth is that there are continuities and discontinuities between Jesus’ “faith” and ours. Thus, as you might have noticed, I put the word faith in quotation marks to signal some discontinuity between Jesus’ “faith” and ours, not to suggest that Jesus did not have faith but to signal that his faith was qualitatively different from ours because he is qualitatively different from us.

There are analogies between our faith and Christ’s but I stand by my original point that we should be very cautious about talking about Jesus’ faith and ours as if they are the same thing. They are not the same thing because Jesus was not a sinner who needed to be saved from the wrath of God and we are not the Savior. Yes, Jesus may be said to have exercised faith. He trusted his heavenly Father but the trust he exercised was not that trust that we, by grace alone (salvation and faith are a gift) exercise. Jesus’ trust in his heavenly Father cannot be said to have been a gift. He was not born in need of regeneration, i.e., he was not born dead in sins and trespasses. He was not in need of being raised spiritually from death to life. As we’ve seen in the recent posts (and here) on the Heidelberg Catechism, God the Son was born innocent, righteous, and holy not for himself but for us (pro nobis). All his righteousness (HC 60) is credited to believers so that it is as if they themselves had done all that he did. In Christ, sola gratiasola fide, it is as we had never sinned or had any sin. Jesus trusted that his Father would keep the covenant (pactum salutis) they made before all worlds (John 17), that his Father would vindicate him, i.e., that he would recognize his Son’s inherent and perfect righteousness.

When we talk about our faith, we’re talking about the faith of fallen, sinful, mere humans. We are not inherently, intrinsically righteous before God. We are righteous only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed. That is why Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness” is applied repeatedly in the NT to believers, to Christians, and not to the Christ. Yes, when we believe, we are certainly trusting that our Father will keep his promises to us but those promises are made to us in Christ and we are praying in Jesus’ name. When Jesus prayed, he didn’t need a Mediator. Jesus is the Christ and we are his Christians. These are two distinct classes.

There are two dangers in talking about the imitation of Christ: 1) moralism; 2) moralism. Let me explain. In the exchange  it was claimed that “Christian” (Χριστιανός) means “little Christ.” That’s not not quite correct. It means “a follower of Christ.” The word occurs only 3 times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16) and it never means “little Christ.” That some think this way, however, illustrates the first danger, that of confusing the Christ and the Christian. That tends toward self-salvation, which is an impossibility. It is either born of a denial of the fall and its consequences (Pelagianism) or from downplaying the effects of the fall (semi-Pelagianism, Romanism, Arminianism). In the case of Pelagius, he set up two great examples for all humans to follow: Adam and Christ. He denied that “in Adam’s fall sinned we all.” He said that we’re all born Adam and that we may, if we will, do what Adam failed to do: obey God of our own will unto glory. The Apostle Paul, however, took a very different view (see Romans chapters 1–5; Eph 2:1–4). According to Paul, when Adam sinned, we all sinned in him and when he died spiritually, so did we. By nature, after the fall, we are incapable of doing anything toward salvation. We are utterly helpless. To blur the line between Jesus and his people, then creates the impression that if we only pulled a little harder on our bootstraps, we can imitate Jesus unto acceptance with God and glory. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The second danger is closely related to the first, that of turning Jesus into the first Christian. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) did this by attempting to redefine Christianity as the recovery of Jesus’ religious experience. Some of liberals who followed him, as Machen noted, blurred the line between Christ and the Christian by making Jesus into the first Christian do-gooder. That he was not. He did good but not toward an earthly utopia, not merely as a prophet, but as the Savior of sinners and by way of inaugurating the kingdom of God. The kingdom, however, in the interregnum, is largely invisible and especially to those who seek a kingdom of power and glory before the consummation. Jesus disappointed Judas and he continues to disappoint those who continue to cry for Bar-Abbas.

Both of these dangers are quite present today. On the one hand, there is a reaction to antinomianism both real and perceived that tends to blur the line between Christ and Christian by talking incautiously about Jesus’ faith and ours, without explaining clearly the qualitative difference, as if Jesus had faith in just the same sense as we. That is a great mistake. We also face pressure to blur the line from those who, in various ways, want to see Christianity expressed more visibly in the world in concrete ways. A century later, we’re having the same discussions about the Social Gospel that we had in the early 20th century. It’s frequently said now that our Christianity may just as well be seen as heard. In two words: uh, no.

We need to make some distinctions:

There is Imitation of Christ: Faith hath two eyes; one lookes to Christs merits that we may be saved; the other to his righteousness that we may be sanctified. In Imitation there be two things, Action and Affection. Action, for it is not enough to commend and admire the patterne, but we must follow it. Affection, for it is not enough to forgive because we cannot revenge. This is no sufficient imitation of Christs love; for he can, if he please, bruise sinners to pieces, and q break them.1

Thomas Adams made a great point. We look first to Christ’s merits for us and then only should we talk about imitation but talk about it we must.

Above we began to look at a very necessary distinction in the way we talk about the imitation of Christ. It is undeniably true that Christians seek to imitate Christ but, as Adams wrote, we look to Christ with two eyes, as it were. First we look to him as Savior. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of falling into the Socinian error, as Samuel Rutherford noted in 1655.

The Socinian faith which looks to an exemplary Martyr whom God of no justice, but in vain, and for no cause delivered to death but of mere free pleasure whereas there might be, and is forgiveness without shedding of blood: contrair to Heb. 9. 22. Rom. 3. 24, 25 &c. even good works done in imitation of Christ.2

There are other ways to abuse the truth that Christians imitate Christ. The early English Presbyterian Thomas Cartwright warned about one of them:

RHEM. 7. [17. Tha character or the name.] As belike for the perverse imitation of Christ, whose image (specially as on the Rhood or crucifixe) he seeth honored and exalted in every Church, he will have his image adored (for that is Antichrist, in emulation of like honour, adversary to Christ) so for that he seeth all true Christian men to beare the badge of his Cross in their forehead, he likewise will force all his to have an other marke, to abolish the signe of Christ. 3

The abuse here is to violate God’s law and justify by calling it “imitation.” These “imitations” are, of course, improper. We may not do as we will and call it the “imitation of Christ.” He alone determines how he is to worshipped and adored. The sorts of things of which Cartwright complained grew out of the medieval attempt to replicate the life of Christ, which quest failed to honor the distinction between the Savior and the saved, between the Christ and his Christians.

Jesus is more than an example but he is, in certain, important ways, an example to us to imitate. Here we come to the other eye, of which Adams wrote. William Perkins points us in the right direction as we seek to understand how it is that we imitate Christ. We do so not as “little christs”, not in order to be accepted by God, but because he is the Christ and because we have been accepted. As such, by his free favor alone, through faith alone, by the Spirit we are united to him. We imitate him thus:

First, as Christ Jesus when he was dead rose againe from death to life by his own power, so we by his grace, in imitation of Christ, must endeavour our selves to rise up from all our sins both originall and actual unto newnes of life. This is worthily set downe by the Apostle, saying, We are buried by baptisme into his death, that as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glorie of the Father, so we also should walke in new nesse of life: and therefore we must endeavour our selves to show the same power to be in us every day, by rising up from our owne personall sins to a reformed life. This ought to be remembred of us, because howsoever many heare and know this point, yet very few do practise the same.4

We seek to die to sin and live to Christ. This is the basic structure of the Christian life. Perkins made clear the distinction between Christ and the Christian. He rose again “by his own power.” We endeavor to “rise up” metaphorically from our sins. We are identified with Christ in baptism, to the end that we might walk in the new life, in Christ. We imitate the Savior by seeking to live as saved people.

Herman Witsius is also helpful here.

LXXXIX. But yet, as it is very desirable to have likewise an example of perfect holiness upon earth; so God has not suffered us to be without one; for he sent his own Son from heaven, who hath left us the brightest pattern of every virtue, without exception, “that we should follow his steps,” 1 Pet. 2:21. It was a part of Christ’s prophetical office, to teach not only by words, but by the example of his life, that both in his words and actions, he might say, “learn of me,” Matt. 11:29. The imitation of him is often recommended by the apostles, 1 Cor. 11:1. 1 Thess. 1:6. 1 John 2:6.

We are not accepted by God because of virtues formed in us by grace and cooperation with grace. That was the medieval theology and piety that the Reformers and Reformed Churches rightly rejected but we did not reject the notion that God does form virtues in us. Christ did set an example for us. As Witsius noted, that’s the clear teaching of Scripture.

Still there are distinctions to be made in the way that talk about imitating Christ.

XC. It has been very well observed by a learned person, that we are to distinguish between imitation, whereby we are said to be μιμηται, imitators of Christ, 1 Cor. 11:1; and between following, by which we are commanded to follow Christ; between “follow me,” Matt. 16:24, and “follow after me,” Matt. 10:38. For the former denotes a conformity to an example: the latter, the attendance of servants going after their masters; which words are generally confounded by writers in their own language, though they ought by no means to be so.5

The death we are die is real but figurative. When Christ called us to take up his cross, he was not calling us (as they do in the Philippines each Spring) literally to be nailed to a cross. That’s why we don’t take pilgrimages to Jerusalem to re-trace the steps of Christ. That borders on superstition. We are to walk in his footsteps as he obeyed his Father and as he loved his neighbor. The death we are to die daily is to sin.

The norm for our Christian life is not, as noted above, what we imagine we should do in order to imitate Christ. Rather, we are to think of ourselves as his servants who attend to his Word. We obey him according to his command and we imitate him in the way that he instructed. As we seek to imitate him it is ever with the consciousness that it is he who has saved us and not we ourselves—not even in cooperation with grace. Our imitation is in recognition of the categorical distinction between Christ and Christian, Savior and saved.


1. Thomas Adams, A Commentary Or, Exposition Upon The Divine Second Epistle General Written By…St. Peter (1633), 14.

2. Samuel Rutherford, The Covenant of Life Opened, 285.

3. Thomas Cartwright, A Confutation Of The Rhemists Translation, Glosses And Annotations On The New Testament, 734.

4. William Perkins, An Exposition Of The Apostles’ Creed, 243–44.

5. Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 2 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 44–45.

On The Necessity And Efficacy Of Good Works In Salvation

There is no question among orthodox, i.e., confessional, Reformed folk whether good works are necessary as a consequence, evidence, and a fruit of justification and sanctification by grace alone, through faith alone. There is no question whether God’s moral law, whether summarized in the decalogue, in the gospels, or in the epistles is the norm for the Christian life. Anyone who denies this third use of the law is an antinomian and that error is condemned by both the confessional Reformed and Lutheran churches. There is no question whether there is a distinction between justification, that gracious declaration by God that sinners, united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone are reckoned righteous on the basis of Christ’s perfect, whole obedience and righteousness imputed, and sanctification, the ongoing work of the Spirit in believers gradually and graciously conforming them to the image of Christ. On the relations between justification and salvation there is general agreement in the Reformed tradition that they are inseparable but distinct, salvation being a broader category that includes both justification and sanctification. Nevertheless, the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably and so the reader must pay attention to the way the term salvation is being used in any particular context. Finally, generally sanctification and good works are related but distinct. Sanctification describes the process of our conformity to Christ, the dying (mortification) of the old man and the making alive (vivification) of the new by the Spirit in us and good works are a consequence of that gracious work in us.

Recently two related claims have been made about the role of works in salvation. One writer claims “a proper understanding of the necessity of works demands the recognition that works are, in a sense that must be carefully defined and circumscribed, efficacious unto salvation.”

The Confessions
This is, to say the least, an arresting expression. Should we accept it? Let’s try to find a baseline. Do the Reformed Churches speak this way? The expression “unto salvation” does occur in the Westminster Confession (1648). In 1.6 it distinguishes between the general knowledge of God, which all image bearers have and that which is “sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” In 3.6, on God’s eternal decree, we confess:

6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

When we speak of God’s effectual call (as distinct from the general, outward call), we say that the elect are called “unto faith” by the Spirit, who uses the ordinary means of grace. Here we see the (logical) order of salvation. It is the elect who are effectually called, it is they were are justified, it is the justified who are adopted, sanctified, and kept by God’s sovereign power “through faith, unto salvation.” It describes the application of redemption by the Spirit as being “saved.” Here we see how salvation is a broader concept that includes justification along with other benefits conferred freely upon the elect in time and space. The instrument of salvation here is faith. That’s the meaning of the word “through.” We receive Christ and all his benefits through faith alone. This is one reason I’ve been trying to make the case that faith alone is the instrument of justification and salvation (emphasis added).

The expression “unto salvation” also occurs in the Larger and Shorter catechisms (1648). The Larger Catechism reiterates the doctrine of WCF 1 regarding the knowledge of God “unto salvation.” Q/A 79 teaches that believers are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (emphasis added). Q/A elaborates upon this teaching. The Spirit graciously enables believers to persevere and believers are those who “truly believe in Christ” and who “endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him.” The Larger Catechism here distinguishes between “is” and “because” or “through.” Believers do obey. That is the case but that obedience is never said to be the ground or instrument of their salvation. Q/A 155 specifically addresses this issue:

Q. 155. How is the word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; or building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.

The Holy Spirit, as he always has, operates powerfully through the Word. Through the Word he creates new life, confers faith, unites them to Christ, sanctifies, “through faith unto salvation” (emphasis added). Again, the divines did not speak of works as the ground or instrument of salvation. Faith is the instrument of salvation. This is the explicit and repeated doctrine of the Westminster Divines and of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches.

The Westminster Standards would have us think and say that we are justified and saved through faith alone. There is prima facie evidence in Scripture for speaking this way. When the Israelites were against it, when the Egyptian armies were descending upon them at the Red Sea, how did God save them from death and destruction? How were their good works “efficacious unto salvation” at the Red Sea? To ask the question is to answer it. Of course the Israelites were completely helpless and the same sovereign Lord who became incarnate, who obeyed for us, by whose righteousness we are saved is he who stretched out his powerful right hand, parted the waters, and led them through on dry ground. It is he who destroyed Pharaoh and his armies in the Red Sea. This episode is so paradigmatic for the biblical way of considering salvation that when our Lord pronounces the gospel prologue to the Ten Commandments, he says, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2; revised from the ESV). The Lord saved Israel from destruction despite their sin and rebellion.

According to Jeremiah 31 and the NT Scriptures, the new covenant is new relative to Moses, not Abraham. In the new covenant, however, salvation remains the process of deliverance from the destruction to come, pictured by the Red Sea and the judgments upon Egypt. God is saving those whom he has freely justified for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone. Those whom he is saving will do good works, not according to their own subjective imaginations but as measured by God’s holy, objective standard: his moral law (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 114). Those good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in them. They are enabled by the Holy Spirit. They are evidence that, indeed, the one who professes faith really is a believer. The ground of the believer’s confidence, however, is the righteousness and sacrifice of the Lamb of God imputed to him. The instrument through which God is saving him is faith. As important and necessary as good works are, they are not confessed by the Reformed churches to be “efficacious unto salvation.” After all, just as God graciously delivered us from Egypt, how much more has he graciously delivered us from sin and death? Paul’s question is rhetorical: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously (χαρίσεται) give us all things”? (Romans 8:32 ESV) Salvation is given to us sinners freely, graciously. It was earned for us by Christ. Yes, we must respond appropriately. Scripture and our confessions and theologians are clear about this but we must resist the temptation to re-institute the old medieval and Romanist carrot and stick. No, our faith, our confession, our understanding of Scripture says that it is guilt, grace, and gratitude.

The Theologians: Turretin
In the first part we looked briefly at some biblical texts and the Reformed confessions to consider whether we should think and speak of the “efficacy of works” in salvation. This post considers the claim that the Reformed tradition widely taught that works are “necessary unto salvation.” Francis Turretin (1623–87) was a Genevan Reformed theologian of Italian descent. His family immigrated to Geneva in the 16th century and Turretin became one of the leading defenders of Reformed orthodoxy in the mid-to late 17th century. His Institutes of Elenctic Theology published in the 1670s and 80s is an important witness to the way the orthodox Reformed looked at a variety of issues. It should be remembered that his Institutes were not a systematic theology but rather a response to controversial issues confronting the Reformed in the period, so his treatment of issues is largely determined by his purpose.

Turretin addresses the nature of sanctification and good works in the seventeenth topic, in 5 questions. Like Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (1274) and Ursinus’ Summa Doctrinae(1585 et seq), Turretin used a catechetical (question and answer) method of instruction. The first question concerns the definition of sanctification. His initial response is instructive:

As Christ was made to us of God righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30)—not dividedly, but conjointly; not confusedly, but distinctly—so the benefit of sanctification immediately follows justification as inseparably connected with it, but yet really distinct from it [emphasis added].

NB: Turretin kept justification and sanctification together but distinguished them logically and ordered them logically. It is the justified who are progressively sanctified. This was hie starting point in discussing sanctification. Contrary to the way the relations between justification and sanctification have been described in some quarters since the mid-70s, Turretin reflects the typical Reformed way of relating them: they are united, logically distinct, and logically ordered. It is the last part that seems to have stumped so many in recent years. Turretin was Reformed. He was committed to “ordo salutisthinking.” As this revisionist account of the ordo salutis (the [logical] order of salvation) has been as if it were the Reformed view, it is become more difficult for its adherents to read and understand the history of Reformed theology. Understood on their own terms, in view of their own concerns, the classic 16th and 17th century writers cannot be interpreted to have taught the view that seeks to deny any logical order between the twin benefits of justification and sanctification. More on this question in the next post.

From this starting point, which he inherited from Calvin, Olevianus, Perkins, and virtually the entire Reformed tradition before him, he moved on to defining sanctification as a “real and internal renovation of man by which God delivers the man planted in Christ by faith and justified (by the ministry of the word and the efficacy of the Spirit) more and more from his native depravity and transforms him into his own image” (emphasis added; 17.1.2). His first account of sanctification is that it follows from justification. His second is to say that it is what we call progressive sanctification (not definitive) and that it is the result of union with Christ and that union is, as he wrote, “by faith.” In other words, in contrast to the revisionist doctrine of union with Christ offered to us in the last 40 years and advocated by a society of young advocates today, Turretin agreed with, e.g., Calvin and Olevianus that there is a duplex gratia (twofold grace) or duplex beneficium (double benefit) but that fact doesn’t obliterate order nor does it replace faith as the instrument of union with regeneration. His language here is virtually identical to that used by Calvin and Olevianus a century prior. As we interpret Turretin teaching regarding sanctification and good works, then, we must do so in the proper context.

In the next section (3) he elaborated on the progressive nature of sanctification as the gradual, gracious renewal of human nature from the corruption resulting from sin and the extent of sanctification. Note that he did not take the language “to those who are sanctified” to refer to a definitive act but to a progressive, inherent reality. He even described it as the “infusion and practice of holiness.” He could do so because he has already established that justification is a definitive, forensic act by God, a declaration of the imputation of Christ’s (alien to us, proper to him) righteousness, received through faith alone, in Christ alone by faith (resting and receiving) alone. He describes sanctification in traditional (patristic, medieval, Protestant) realistic rather than forensic terms boldly on the basis of this clear distinction. In case anyone missed the order he repeats:

This [progressive sanctification] follows justification and is begun here in this life by regeneration and promoted by the exercise of holiness and of good works, until it shall be consummated in the other by glory. In this sense it is now taken passively, inasmuch as it is wrought by God in us; then actively, inasmuch as it ought to be done by God, God performing this work in us and by us.

The discussion that follows elaborated on these basic themes and distinctions. Justification is forensic (a legal declaration). Sanctification is realistic (it is actually transforming us), the progressive renewal of human nature, in a state of grace, in union with Christ, into the image of Christ. Against Rome and anyone else who would conflate justification and sanctification he devoted 5 sections or articles to distinguishing justification from sanctification. In 17.1.11.He addressed specifically the “chain of salvation:”

Although Paul does to make express mention of sanctification in the chain of salvation [Rom 8:28–30], it does not follow that it is included in the word justification, as if it were identical with it. Fit is far more fitly included wither under calling (which is the beginning of sanctification) or, what we think is truer, under glorification (which is its consummation and complement—as sanctification is the beginning of glory (Rom. 3;2; 2 Cor. 3:18).

Just as stoutly as he distinguished and ordered them, he also kept justification and sanctification united (17.1.15). “They should never be torn asunder.” He speaks of them as “two benefits” (duo ista beneficia) idem and in 17.1.16). Again, this language has roots in Luther’s 1518/19 sermons on “Duplex Iustitia” (Twofold Righteousness), Triplex Iustitia (Threefold Righteousness), Calvin’s use of duplex gratia (twofold grace) and Olevianus’ duplex beneficium (twofold benefit).

For Turretin, as for Calvin and the earlier Reformed writers, faith is instrumental not only in justification but also sanctification:

For the very faith by which we are justified demands this. For as it is the instrument of justification b receiving the righteousness of Christ, so it is the root and principle of sanctification, while it purges the heart and works through love (Gal. 5;6).

We are justified in order that we might be gradually, graciously, passively, and actively sanctified.

In question two he rejected the doctrine of perfectionism, i.e., the teaching that Christians can “live without sin” in this life. He attributes correctly this doctrine to the Pelagians and connects it to “the Romanists and Socinians.” For Turretin as a Protestant Augustinian, the resolution of this problem lies in a proper understanding of God’s holiness, of the nature of his requirements, and the nature of human depravity after the fall.

In the third question (17.3.2) he addresses the question of the necessity of good works, which “pertain to sanctification.” In 17.3.2 he distinguishes between the orthodox view and the antinomians, who deny the necessity of good works in salvation and the moralists (Rome, Socinians) who make them meritorious and “a causality” of salvation. He clearly taught the necessity of “bona opera” (good works) “ad salutem,” which may be translated “toward salvation.” What sort of necessity was it and what did he mean by the prepositional phrase ad salutem? “Are they required as the means and the way (medium et via) for possessing salvation? This we hold” (17.3.3).

The next section is most interesting because it illumines why he felt compelled to speak this way. He mentioned the “interimistic formula” which was a reference to a series of political and religious Interims, during the Schmalkaldic Wars, in the mid-late 1540s which promulgated the language that “good works are necessary to salvation.” Melanchthon had used that language in the 1530s, in his Loci Communes (Common Places), which made it possible for it to be used during the Interims but by the 1550s George Major had elaborated on it to say that good works were necessary “to retain salvation.”1The Interims were political creatures that used deliberately ambiguous language that was capable of being interpreted in multiple senses simultaneously. As Turretin observed, for this reason some Reformed theologians rejected it.

Turretin wanted to retain it, however, and to interpret it carefully in so doing. For Turretin, good works are necessary but they “contribute nothing to the acquiring (acquirendam) of salvation.” At the same time he affirmed that they are necessary “to obtaining” (obtinendam) salvation. So, he distinguished between acquiring and obtaining. Why? Because he wanted a strong response to the Romanist charge that the doctrine of justification sola gratiasola fide leads to licentiousness.

The third question in locus (topic) 17 concerns the necessity of good works. What is the nature of the necessity of good works? As a good teacher, Turretin typically tells us what he going to tell us, i.e., he summarizes briefly what he is about to say and then explains in more detail. In his summaries he stressed the “absolute necessity” of good works (17.3.6) on three grounds: the command, i.e., God’s moral will revealed in Scripture, the nature of the thing itself, and the condition of the believer (17.3.5). Christians are “debtors”—here we hear echoes of Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 2 “third, how we ought to be thankful for such redemption.” When he considers the state or condition of the believer he turns to the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae; 17.3.6). There are two parts to the covenant of grace: God’s free promise of redemption and the consequent conditions, obligations, or stipulation of obedience (obedientiae stipulatione) on our part (17.3.7).  For more on how Reformed folk speak about conditions in the covenant of grace, without turning it into a covenant of works, listen to Heidelcast episodes 46 and 47. He reminded the reader that the covenant of grace is God’s promise to be our God. His moral will (vult) is that we should, in turn, take up the consequent obligation as his people. These obligations are part of the way God administers the covenant of grace, and as we participate in the that administration, we become participants (particeps) in the benefits (beneficia) and the goods (bonorum) of the covenant of grace. At the same time, he conditions this talk of obligation by noting that it is God himself who executes (exequatur) these things in the believer. In other words, even as he used very strong language about the moral necessity of sanctification in and good works by the believer, in response to grace, he was careful not to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

The first part of the covenant of grace is God’s gracious promise, which he reminded the reader, “flows” (fluit) from each of the three persons of the holy Trinity (S. S. Triadis personis; 17.3.8). We may think of the Father as he who adopts us, the Son as our Redeemer, and the Spirit as the comforter and sanctifier. From this threefold grace follows a “threefold necessity (necessitas triplex) of worship and obedience” in order that we might live (i.e., conduct ourselves) as “worthily (digne) as sons of God, members of Christ, and as temples of the Holy Spirit” (17.3.8). It is in the nature of grace that its recipients, having been regenerated and united to Christ, should (necessarily) be gradually and graciously conformed to his image, that we should die to sin (mortification) and be made alive to Christ (vivification).

Turretin turned to the “Word of God or the gospel, which is proposed for believing (credendum) and the rule of faith and life” as proof of the necessity of good works (17.3.9). Christian doctrine, he argued, is not mere theory (merè theoretica). It is also practical. That was his definition of theology: partly theoretical, partly practical, i.e., doctrine and its out working or consequences. “Theoretical” in this usage did not refer to a hypothetical possibility but to the basis for action. One must know what one is doing before he does it. This, he wrote, is why it is called the “mystery of piety.” Doctrine is affective and transformative. He briefly summarized a series of passages (which he typically did, which I omit for brevity but please do not imagine that he was not working carefully with Scripture). In Christ, the God’s law has become “the Law of the Spirit and Life” (Rom 8:2), which liberates us from the “law of sin and death” (a Lege peccati et mortis). Christians are not justified by, through, or out of the law or obedience to the law but in Christ we are not without but we are under the law as debtors (tamen ex leges, sed subleges Christo). True religion is not “mere profession of the truth” (meram veritatis professionem). Here he cited Romans 2:28, 29; James 1:27.

Citing Romans 6:18 he argued that redemption from the curse of the law and the tyranny of the Devil (17.3.10) does not mean liberation from the moral law as the rule of the Christian life. No, God’s grace strengthens our obligation to it, not as the ground or instrument of salvation but as the natural course of the Christian life. “Grace” he wrote, “requires the same” (Idem exigit Gratia). We desire all the more to obey now that we are no longer under law (for justification) but under grace.

We have received all of Christ’s benefits (e.g., eternal election, present justification, future glory) “to promote the work of sanctification” (17.3.11). Good works are the “effects” (effecta) of eternal election, “the fruit and seal (fructa et sigilla) of present grace” and the “seed” (semina) of future glory. Here he quoted Bernard’s famous treatise On Grace and Free Choice, in which Bernard distinguished between effect and cause. Sanctification is the effect “but not the cause of reigning.” Again he cites and summarizes a series of biblical passages. As earlier, Turretin wrote of the “highest and indispensable consequent necessity of good works toward glory and so much that without them to one cannot obtain it” (17.3.12).1

Good works are the consequence of justification, they are constitutive of sanctification, and they are antecedent and the ordained path to glorification (17.3.14). In other words, good works necessarily occur before glory. They are the divinely ordained experience of eternal life begun in this life. They are, he wrote, “the medium to the end.” As soon as he used the expression “medium” (means) he cautioned that this language may not be used to “confuse the Law and the Gospel” (non confundimus ideo Legem & Evangelium) or to suggest that justification is not gracious or through faith alone (per solum fidem). Good works are not required for “living on the basis of the law, but that we might live through the gospel” (17.3.15). Life is not given to us “on account of good works but as the effects which testify that life has been given to us.”2 Believers do not good works out of compulsion but rather we do them “spontaneously and voluntarily” (sponte sponte etἐκουσίως; 17.3.16). The necessity is one of “means and debt.”

The question is what he intended to communicate by the noun “medium.” The answer is found in his usage and context. He used the term in the context of an unequivocal, explicit distinction between works and grace, law and gospel. He distinguished between an antecedent necessity and a consequent necessity. He described faith as the instrument of justification and salvation. Medium was his way of signaling the integral relation between sanctification and good works. Justification necessarily produces sanctification and that results in good works to the glory of God and the edification of our neighbor (17.3.13). Good works are a means in the sense that without them we neither glorify God nor edify our neighbor.

For Turretin, the necessity is a natural, logical, moral consequence of the covenant of grace. It is a strong necessity. He is even willing to say that it is necessary for obtaining (as distinct from acquiring) salvation but he did not describe or use evangelical obedience or good works as the ground or instrument of our salvation. Sanctification and the resulting evangelical obedience simply are the way things are. The logical distinct here was between is (to be) and because (ground) or through (instrument). Good trees produce good fruit. That fruit does not make the tree good but it is the case that good trees produce good fruit and no fruitless tree may be considered a good or fruit bearing tree.

The Theologians: Witsius
Now we turn our attention to Herman Witsius (1636–1708). Born in West Friesland, Herman’s father was a (ruling) elder and his maternal grandfather was a Reformed minister. He studied theology Arabic and Syrian at Utrecht and theology under Gijbertus Voetius (1589–76), Johannes Hoornbeek (1617–66), and Samuel Maresius (1599–1673). He was a full-time minister from about 1656 until 1675. During part of his ministry he served with Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635–1711) before he was called to Franecker to teach theology. He was justly well regarded not only in the Netherlands but also in the British Isles. In 1695 he was appointed by the Dutch Parliament to represent the Dutch Republic at the coronation of James II and to serve as chaplain to the Dutch Embassy in London. His covenant theology mediated between the Voetians and the Cocceians. Here is an entire site devoted to Witsius.3

Witsius is an outstanding guide to this difficult topic in part because he waded through many of the same questions that we are facing in our time. In 1696 Witsius wrote a treatise to try to mediate the dispute between the nomists and the antinomians in Britain: Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain. It was translated by Thomas Bell and published in Glasgow in 1807. I’m using the wonderful Logos version, which is indexed by chapters and subsections and allows me to search the text. There is also a version on Google Books.

Witsius surveys a wide range of issues, e.g., in order to illustrate and press home Christ’s role as federal representative, sin bearer and substitute some had used unhappy expressions concerning Christ’s relations to sin. Witsius, in typical fashion, patiently explained why Christian folk ought not speak that way about Christ while, at the same time affirming the Protestant doctrine of the joyous exchange (e.g., pp. 33–45): our sin for Christ’s righteousness. Witsius was a gospel man.

His sketch of the doctrine of union with Christ is clear and concise:

Doubtless they are united to him,

1. In the eternal decree of God, which, however, includes nothing, except that their actual union shall take place; as was already demonstrated.

II. By an union of eternal consent, wherein Christ was constituted by the Father the head of all those who were to be saved, and that he should represent their persons; hence it was, that Christ obeying the commandment of the Father, and suffering for them, they are reckoned in the judgment of God to have obeyed and suffered in him. All these things, however, do not hinder, but that considered in themselves, before their regeneration, they are far from God and Christ, according to that their present state.

III. By a true and a real union, (but which is only passive on their part,) they are united to Christ when his Spirit first takes possession of them, and infuses into them a principle of new life: the beginning of which life can be from nothing else but from union with the Spirit of Christ; who is to the soul, but in a far more excellent manner, in respect of spiritual life, what the soul is to the body in respect of animal and human life. As therefore the union of soul and body is in order of nature prior to the life of man; so also the union of the Spirit of Christ and the soul is prior to the life of a Christian. Further, since faith is an act flowing from the principle of spiritual life, it is plain, that in a sound sense, it may be said, an elect person is truly and really united to Christ before actual faith.

IV. But the mutual union, (which, on the part of an elect person, is likewise active and operative), whereby the soul draws near to Christ, joins itself to him, applies, and in a becoming and proper manner closes with him without any distraction, is made by faith only. And this is followed in order by the other benefits of the covenant of grace, justification, peace, adoption, sealing, perseverance, &c. Which if they be arranged in that manner and order, I know not whether any controversy concerning this affair can remain among the brethren.4

Here we see Witsius affirming different aspects of union, decretal, federal, in regeneration, and finally and distinctly what he called “mutual union” which is “by faith only.” The reader should notice that, in contrast to some of the idiosyncratic modern accounts of union, Witsius did not juxtapose union with Christ to the order of salvation (i.e., the ordo salutis, the logical order of the application of redemption to the elect by the Spirit). The benefits of the covenant of grace are received simultaneous, through faith, but there is a logical order. He also taught explicitly justification sola gratiasola fide on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone.

He also affirmed clearly the covenant of works before the fall as distinct from the covenant of grace after the fall. He affirmed the Mosaic covenant as both an administration of the covenant of grace and and a pedagogical “repetition” of the covenant of works:

The same doctrine Moses repeated in his ministry. For he also inculcated the same precepts upon which the covenant of works had been built: he both repeated the same solemn saying, He who doeth these things shall live in them, Lev. 18:5 and also added another, Cursed be he who shall not perform the words of this law in doing them, Deut. 27:26. That this is the curse of the law, as it stands opposed to the covenant of grace, Paul teacheth, Gal. 3:10. which, however, is not so to be understood, as if God had intended, by the ministry of Moses, to make a new covenant of works with Israel, with a view to obtain righteousness and salvation by such a covenant. But that repetition of the covenant of works was designed to convince the Israelites of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to teach them the necessity of a satisfaction, and to compel them to cleave to Christ: and thus it was subservient to the covenant of grace, Rom. 10:4 5

In chapter 8, he touches on the question animating this series. What are the relations between salvation (deliverance from sin and judgment) and works?

…for though Paul taught, that works contribute nothing to justification, or to procure a man’s title to salvation; yet he always taught, that they were not only useful, but also necessary to salvation, and that it is impossible, that sanctification should be separated from justification. James treads in the same path, and teaches that it is necessary that he who is justified by faith, should also be justified by works: that is, perform these works which are the evidences and effects of righteousness, and by which it is demonstrated not only before men, but also before God, that he is righteous: according to that of John, “He who doeth righteousness is righteous,” 1 John 3:7. Indeed there is a double justification: one of a man sinful in himself, whereby he is absolved from sin, and declared to have a title to eternal life, on account of Christ’s righteousness apprehended by faith, which Paul inculcated: another of a man, righteous already, sanctified by the Spirit of Christ, and who is declared to be such, by his words and actions. James teaches, that this is so necessary, and so connected with the former, that he is deceived who boasts of that and is destitute of this.6

As we saw in Turretin, for Witsius, works “contribute nothing to justification” nor do they “procure…title” to salvation. This is equivalent to Turretin’s rejection of the doctrine that good works “acquire” salvation. What role do they play in salvation? In what sense are they necessary? It is interesting that Witsius’ first response to the question is to write of “evidences and effects of righteousness.” He wrote of a “double justification.” Notice, however, that he distinguished between two senses of justification. In the first sense it refers to the once-for-all judicial declaration that a sinner is righteous before God on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (which he discussed at length earlier) and in the second sense it refers to the vindicationof the sinner’s claim to faith. Sanctification and good works are necessary as evidence of the claim to faith.

Believers, united to Christ by the Spirit, have the principle of new life in them. That principle manifests itself in

Now it cannot receive him for justification, except at the same time, it receive him for sanctification: nor receive him as a Priest, to expiate sin, unless it also receive him as a King, to whom it may submit, in order to obedience. Hence it follows, that that act of faith, whereby we receive Christ for righteousness, cannot be exercised, without either a previous, or at least a concomitant repentance, and a purpose of a new life.7

Believers repent. Reformed folk have differed in their rhetoric but there is agreement in substance among the Reformed that it is not possible for one to be a believer and to be impenitent, to be without “a purpose of a new life.” We are justified through faith alone but true faith is always accompanied by repentance and its fruits.

One of the aspects of the antinomian-neonomian controversy, in seventeenth-century Britain, which has resurfaced in our time is the question whether God sees the sins of believers. Witsius answered yes and no:

He sees also the sins of believers, as the sins of believers, inasmuch as they are committed by them: for whatever is true, God sees that it is true. But at the same time, he does not see the sins of believers as the sins of believers, inasmuch as they are no more theirs, but Christ’s, to whom they were imputed, and who hath now satisfied for them.16

In his sovereign providence God sees all. With respect to our justification, however, we must say that God does not see our sins. As We are no longer under condemnation. This does not mean that believers will not face God’s Fatherly displeasure or chastisement. On this see the series on the warning passages in Scripture.

Remember that the Westminster Divines were much agitated by the problem of antinomianism. Mid-century England had been torn by civil war, which always brings with it an existentialist (live now for tomorrow you may die) sort of war-time ethos. Add to that the theological and ethical instability produced by the rise of both neonomian and antinomianism reactions to the Reformation and it’s easy to see why they were so concerned. In chapter 15 of the Animadversions Witsius surveys and summarizes the main arguments of the antinomians. In chapter 16, which we’re considering in this post, he responds. He begins by saying that he shares the major concern of the antinomians, that the “that men may be called off from all presumption upon their own righteousness, and trained up to the exercise of generous piety, which flows from the pure fountain of Divine love.” At the same time he rejected their tendency or the consequence of some of their arguments “to take from good works all that fruit and utility, so frequently assigned them in scripture. Free justification is so to be consulted, that nothing be derogated from the benefit of sanctification.”17

Like Turretin (see parts 2 and 3), Witsius distinguished between “a right to life” and the “possession of life.” We have a right to eternal life only on the basis of “obedience of Christ” imputed and received through faith alone. When we’re thinking and speaking about justification and righteousness before God, “the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” Nevertheless, those good works, “which the Spirit of Christ worketh in us, and by us, contribute something” to the possession of eternal life.18 Again, the question is how? In what way?

He appealed to John 6:27:

Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you (ESV).19

and to Philippians 2:12b:

work out your own salvation with fear and trembling

and 1Corinthians 15:58:

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

In no case, he argued, was Scripture speaking of justification. He knew this a priori because justification is not by works or even through works. These passages clearly teach the moral necessity of good works, ergo they must be about sanctification.20

He rejected the argument that since Christ is the way of life that “the practice of Christian piety therefore not the way to life.”21 He appealed to the frequent biblical teaching concerning “the way of righteousness” and “the good way,” the “way of peace,” and “the way of life and salvation .” He appealed to Proverbs 6:23: “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (ESV). He asked rhetorical whether the “narrow way” to which Christ referred (Matt 7:14) is nothing but “the strict practice of Christian religion? which is called the way of salvation, Acts. 16:17.”22

One of the more interesting arguments he confronted is that which said that it is inconsistent with the Christian faith to do something “in order that” one might live. His first response was an appeal to analogy. We live because we eat and we eat to live. These are not inconsistent. In the same way we ought to “act in a holy manner…because we are quickened by the Spirit of God” and at the same time “we must also act in the same manner, that life may be preserved in us, may increase, and at last terminate in an uninterrupted and eternal life.” As a proof of this principle he quoted Deuteronomy 30:19, 20 and concluded “Truly these speeches are not legal, but evangelical.”15

He spent a couple of paragraphs defending the proposition that it is godly and right for a Christian to have a certain self interest, namely salvation. He moved on to explain that, contra the antinomians, sanctification is an evidence of justification. The problem he was confronting was (and remains) the very real problem of the inconsistency and incompleteness of our sanctification. How can one ever find any evidence of justification in our sanctification? Ought not one look only to the promises of God in Christ?

Witsius responded by turning to the witness of the Holy Spirit to the believer that he does indeed belong to Christ.16 This is not an extra-canonical or extraordinary revelation. Rather, he argued,

For the Spirit of God so beareth witness, that he witnesseth together with our spirit, in exciting it to bear a true testimony, and in confirming its testimony, and convincing the conscience of its truth. My conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, Rom. 9:1. and thus indeed, even the witnessing of the Divine Spirit is not altogether separated from the observation of the signs of grace. And it often happens, that the Spirit of God so embraces his elect with these allurements of his most beneficent love, that while they enjoy those spiritual and ineffable delights, which earthly souls neither receive nor taste, they are no less persuaded of their election and justification, than if they saw their names engraven on the very hands of God.9

He wanted the believer to find this sense of God’s presence and assurance in the use of what we call “the means of grace” (i.e., the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer).

The formation of virtue, by the Spirit, in the believer also contributes to his assurance. We endeavor to “make our calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). As we strive toward this, we develop what he called “a consciousness of Christian virtues” which contributes to “an assurance of their election and [effectual, inward] vocation….” Like Turretin he too quoted Bernard’s On Grace and Free Will, which, mutatis mutandis illustrates the deep connection between Reformed spirituality and aspects of medieval theology and piety. That is, having been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on the ground of Christ’s righteousness imputed alone, we are now free to borrow language about progressive sanctification from the earlier tradition.10

The Christian has a duty not to be presumptuous—not to say to himself, “I prayed the prayer, I walked the aisle. I’m good.” What is in question is whether the one who professes faith actually believes. Thus, Witsius reminded the reader of Paul’s command (2Cor 13:5) to “test himself to see whether he be in the faith and whether Jesus Christ be in him.” In Scripture, “the heirs of present grace and future glory are described by their qualities and virtues” and “by the exercise of these.” It is entirely natural (i.e., logical, not “unspiritual”) to look for the consequences and effects of justification, i.e., sanctification11

He was insistent that we should not set the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit against the external evidence, if you will, of justification and true faith in sanctification and good works.12 It is true that no Christian achieves perfection in this life and that our sanctification or our inherent righteous “can, by no means have place before him in order to justification.”13

But when, through the righteousness of Christ apprehended by faith, the believer’s person is made acceptable to God, then his virtues, which he obtained by sanctifying grace, and the exercise of virtues flowing from the same grace, are likewise acceptable to God: and what blemishes of ours cleave to them, these are covered with the most perfect righteousness and holiness of Christ.14

Finally, in this chapter, Witisus, following Charnock, argued that God delights in the holiness that is produced in believers, just as he delights in his own holiness. “Hence it follows,” he reasoned, “”that they who diligently apply themselves to the exercise of Christian holiness, are as acceptable to him, as they are odious who obey their lusts.”15 It is not that we are acceptable to God for righteousness (justification) but that, in Christ, not only our persons are accepted but also even our imperfect sanctity.

As we saw in Turretin, Witsius made a distinction between the way we obtain the legal right to appear before God as righteous—That is by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed alone—and the way we take possession of life itself. We, the justified, live the Christian life united to Christ and in communion with him. The Spirit who united us to Christ is at work in us gradually conforming us to his image. Thus, it is the case that we that we realize the outworking of justification, by grace alone, through faith alone, in sanctification and good works. He distinguished between the cause or a ground, the instrument, and the outworking or the consequences. As he described sanctification and good works as possession, he was describe an effect or consequence of justification. Once more: it is the distinction between because, through, and is.

It is the case that believers will be sanctified. When he wrote that good works “contribute something” to the possession of life was he thinking in instrumental terms? No. He was responding to those who denied the value of good works. They denied the utility and profit of good works. Thus,, Witsius set out the opposite view. Sanctification and good works are useful, they are profitable. Even though he used strong language he never made the the instrument of salvation even as he made them part of the process of salvation. For Witsius, as for Turretin, It is the case that believers will do good works. He was quite impatient with those who profess faith but have no evidence of faith in sanctification and good works. He was impatient with the impenitent and with those who scorn obedience.


1. “…summam esse et indispensabilem bonorum operum ad gloriam assequendam necessitatem, et tantam ut sine illis obtineri nequeat Heb. 12. 14. Apo. 21. 27.”

2. “Quia bona opera requiruntur non ad vivendum ex Lege, sed quia vivimus per Evangelium, non ut causae propter quas nobis datur vita, sed ut effecta quae testantur vitam esse nobis datam.”

3. Some of this biographical material is drawn from a biography of Witsius written by my friend Joel Beeke. The page is no longer online, however.

4. Herman Witsius, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, trans. Thomas Bell (Glasgow: W. Lang, 1807), 67–69.

5. Witsius, Animadversions, 87.

6. Witsius, Animadversions, 97–99.

7. Witsius, Animadversions, 120.

8. Witsius, Animadversions, 123.

9. Witsius, Animadversions, 161.

10. Witsius, Animadversions, 161–62.

11. The English text I’m following does not, of course, quote the ESV but I’m using it here in the interests of clarity.

12. Witsius, Animadversions, 162.

13. Ibid.

14. Witsius, Animadversions, 163.

15. Witsius, Animadversions, 163–164.

16. Witsius, Animadversions, 168-69.

17. Witsius, Animadversions, 169–170.

18. Witsius, Animadversions, 170–171.

19. Witsius, Animadversions, 171–72.

20. Witsius, Animadversions, 174–75.

21. Witsius, Animadversions, 175.

22. Witsius, Animadversions, 176.

23. Witsius, Animadversions, 178.

El Israel De Dios

por R. Scott Clark, 2001.

Hay mucho más concerniente a los “tiempos del fin” o últimas cosas (Escatología) de lo que nosotros decimos que realmente sucede en los últimos días. Nuestra escatología depende estrechamente de nuestra visión de lo que Dios está haciendo en la historia.

En el centro del debate está la cuestión del “Israel de Dios” (Gálatas 6:16). Por supuesto, esta no es una cuestión nueva. Durante el ministerio terrenal del Señor y después de su resurrección y antes de su ascensión, los discípulos le preguntaron repetidas veces, “Señor, ¿restaurarás el reino a Israel en este tiempo?” (Hechos 1:6).

En efecto, había una extendida creencia rabínica y popular de que el Mesías debía de ser un personaje político-militar poderoso de fuerza y destreza Davídica — “David hirió a sus diez miles” (1 Samuel 18:7). Juan 6:14-15 dice,

Aquellos hombres entonces, viendo la señal que Jesús había hecho, dijeron: “Éste verdaderamente es el profeta que había de venir al mundo.” Pero entendiendo Jesús que iban a venir para apoderarse de él y hacerle rey, volvió a retirarse al monte él solo.”

No se trataba, como algunos lo entienden, de que no fuera el tiempo, sino más bien de que un reino terrenal era contrario a sus propósitos. De nuevo, al final de su vida, durante su entrada triunfal, no vino a establecer un reino terrenal sino a cumplir las profecías, “No temas, Oh Hija de Sión; mira, he aquí tu rey viene, sentado sobre un pollino hijo de asna” (Juan 12:15; Isaías 40:9; Zacarías 9:9).

Jesús les había enseñado a los discípulos y a otros que él no había venido a establecer un reino terrenal como ellos esperaban, sino que había venido a traer salvación del pecado. Al final, cuando “los hombres de Israel” no pudieron tolerar más su rechazo a someterse a la escatología de ellos, su plan para la historia, le crucificaron. Las Escrituras dicen,

De esta manera también los principales sacerdotes, escarneciéndole con los escribas y los fariseos y los ancianos, decían: “A otros salvó, a sí mismo no se puede salvar; si es el Rey de Israel, descienda ahora de la cruz, y creeremos en él.” (Mateo 27:41-42).

Es también triste el hecho de que muchos cristianos estén de acuerdo con los principales sacerdotes y los maestros de la ley. El Dispensacionalismo ha sostenido por mucho tiempo que los fariseos tenían el método correcto de interpretar la Biblia, sólo que llegaron a conclusiones equivocadas.

El Dispensacionalismo-Premilenialismo cree que Dios le hizo la promesa a Abraham (Génesis capítulos 15 y 17) de que le daría un pueblo terrenal y nacional de manera que, según el Dispensacionalismo, siempre ha sido la intención de Dios tener tal pueblo, y si los Judíos rechazaron la primera oferta (¡o Jesús rechazó sus términos!) habrá de haber un reino, Judío, Palestino, en el milenio.

De acuerdo con el Dispensacionalismo, Dios estaba tan comprometido con la creación de ese pueblo terrenal y nacional que esta fue la principal razón de la encarnación, nacimiento y ministerio de Cristo. Si ellos hubieran aceptado su oferta de un reino terrenal, Jesús no hubiera muerto. En este esquema, la muerte salvadora de Jesús en la cruz es un feliz sub-producto del plan de Dios para un Israel nacional.

Es también un artículo de fe entre muchos Premilenialistas el que la creación de un estado Israelí moderno, en Palestina en 1948, sea una confirmación providencial de su reclamo de que los Judíos son el pueblo terrenal y nacional de Dios, y más aún, que Dios continua obrando en la historia en dos trayectorias diferentes, con un pueblo Judío terrenal y con un pueblo Cristiano espiritual.

Esta manera de proceder, de todas formas, está cargada de dificultades. En primer lugar, esta forma de leer los sucesos contemporáneos es muy incierta. ¿Quién de entre nosotros sabe de forma certera el sentido exacto de la providencia? Si un ser querido tiene cáncer, ¿deberíamos especular sobre qué pecado lo causó? Nuestro Señor nos advirtió contra el intentar interpretar la providencia (Juan 9). Si no podemos ni tan sólo intuir el significado de providencias relativamente pequeñas, ¿cómo vamos a interpretar el sentido de providencias mayores? ¿Quién dice que deberíamos centrarnos en un estado israelí? ¿No debiéramos más bien centrarnos en la difícil situación que viven los cristianos palestinos, quienes han sufrido mucho en manos de Judíos y Musulmanes, y en especial desde la formación del Israel moderno?

Aunque resulte emocionante pensar que Dios pueda estar haciendo algo espectacular en nuestros días, da temor pensar que nuestra codicia de emociones no es mejor que el clamor de aquellos israelitas que dijeron, “danos a Barrabás”. Bien pudiera ser que la locura de los últimos tiempos que estamos presenciando, primero a finales de los 70, y de nuevo durante la guerra del Golfo y de nuevo en estos últimos años, sea realmente una búsqueda de certeza. Así como las últimas generaciones apartaron sus ojos de la predicación del evangelio y la administración de los sacramentos, en favor de los avivamientos, nuestra generación parece inclinarse por encontrar confirmación para su fe en el ser testigos presenciales del final de la historia. El hecho es que los cristianos a menudo han pensado la misma cosa, y han estado equivocados.

Recuerda que después del Monte de la Transfiguración (Mateo 17:1) donde Moisés y Elías aparecieron ante su Señor, los discípulos salpicaron a Jesús con preguntas sobre un reino Mesiánico terrenal, sobre si Elías aún había de venir. Jesús les respondió diciendo,

“A la verdad, Elías viene primero, y restaurará todas las cosas. Mas os digo que Elías ya vino, y no le conocieron, sino que hicieron con él todo lo que quisieron; así también el Hijo del Hombre padecerá de ellos. Entonces los discípulos comprendieron que les había hablado de Juan el Bautista.” (Mateo 17:11-13).

Jesús siempre tiene la intención de predicar la llegada del Reino (“…el reino de Dios se ha acercado; arrepentíos, y creed en el evangelio. Marcos 1:15), morir por los pecadores, y gobernar su reino desde donde ahora está, a la derecha del Padre (Hechos 2:36).

Más tarde, en Mateo 19:27-30, después de haber oído las enseñanzas de Jesús sobre la verdadera naturaleza del Reino, Pedro preguntó de nuevo la pregunta del Reino, “He aquí, nosotros lo hemos dejado todo, y te hemos seguido; ¿qué, pues, tendremos?”, a lo cual Jesús respondió,

“De cierto os digo que en la regeneración, cuando el Hijo del Hombre se siente en el trono de su gloria, vosotros que me habéis seguido también os sentaréis sobre doce tronos, para juzgar a las doce tribus de Israel. Y cualquiera que haya dejado casas, o hermanos, o hermanas, o padre, o madre, o mujer, o hijos, o tierras, por mi nombre, recibirá cien veces más, y heredará la vida eterna. Pero muchos primeros serán postreros, y postreros, primeros.”

Nuestros hermanos Premilenialistas interpretan esto como promesa de un reino Judío terrenal, pero Jesús entendió el Reino de una forma bastante diferente. Las parábolas que vienen a continuación precisamente enseñan que Dios no está estableciendo un reino Judío terrenal, sino más bien que “el último será primero, y el primero será último” y que

“el Hijo del Hombre será entregado a los principales sacerdotes y a los escribas, y le condenarán a muerte; y le entregarán a los gentiles para que le escarnezcan, le azoten, y le crucifiquen; mas al tercer día resucitará.” (Mateo 20:18).

Jesús fue incluso aún más claro con la madre de Santiago y Juan, que andaba buscando trabajo para sus hijos: “Ordena que en tu reino se sienten estos dos hijos míos, el uno a tu derecha, y el otro a tu izquierda.” (Mateo 20:21). Él la reprendió diciéndole que no sólo no iba a establecer un reino terrenal, sino que además iba a sufrir y morir y que ellos iban a sufrir y morir por causa de él, porque “el Hijo del Hombre no vino para ser servido, sino para servir, y para dar su vida en rescate por muchos.” (Mateo 20:28).

Por lo tanto, no podemos estar de acuerdo con el argumento del Dispensacionalista Clarence Larkin, cuando interpreta las palabras de Jesús,

“No os toca a vosotros saber los tiempos o las sazones, que el Padre puso en su sola potestad; pero recibiréis poder, cuando haya venido sobre vosotros el Espíritu Santo, y me seréis testigos en Jerusalén, en toda Judea, en Samaria, y hasta lo último de la tierra.” (Hechos 1:7-8).

no como una reprensión hacia los discípulos por haber estado buscando un reino terrenal, sino tan sólo como una advertencia a seguir esperando el reino en la tierra.

Mas bien, Jesús no vino para formar en la tierra un reino Judío ahora o más tarde, sino que su intención fue tan sólo redimir a todo su pueblo por medio de su muerte en la cruz, y gobernar a las naciones con vara de hierro en su ascensión hasta su regreso en juicio.

Mi argumento es que el propósito principal de Dios en la historia ha sido siempre el de glorificarse a sí mismo por medio de la redención de un pueblo formado por gentes de todos los tiempos, lugares y de todas las razas, cuya gracia Él ha administrado desde la caída, en la historia en una iglesia visible e institucional, representados por Adán, Noé, Abraham, Moisés, David y ahora Cristo.

Por lo tanto la premisa de que la intención de Dios ha sido la de establecer una nación Judía permanente o milenial es justo al contrario. Nuestros hermanos Dispensacionalistas confunden lo que es temporal con lo que es permanente, y lo permanente con lo temporal.

La Palabra de Dios nos enseña que Jesús es el verdadero Israel de Dios, que su encarnación, obediencia, muerte y resurrección no fue un sub-producto del rechazo de Israel a la oferta de un reino terrenal, sino el cumplimiento del que fue el plan de Dios desde toda la eternidad. Esto es lo que Jesús les dijo a los discípulos en el camino a Emaús. Uno de ellos dijo, “nosotros esperábamos que él era el que había de redimir a Israel.” En respuesta nuestro Señor les dijo,

“¡Oh insensatos, y tardos de corazón para creer todo lo que los profetas han dicho! ¿No era necesario que el Cristo padeciera estas cosas, y que entrara en su gloria? Y comenzando desde Moisés, y siguiendo por todos los profetas, les declaraba en todas las Escrituras lo que de él decían.” (Lucas 24:25-27).

El apóstol Pablo resumió esta misma enseñanza cuando les dijo a los corintios que no importa cuántas promesas Dios os haya hecho, “todas son Sí en Cristo” (2 Corintios 1:20).

Definición de Pacto
No podemos comprender lo que Dios está haciendo en la historia si no entendemos uno de los conceptos más importantes de las Escrituras: pacto. Esta es una palabra muy frecuente en la Biblia (294 veces). El pacto describe la forma en que Dios se relaciona con sus criaturas. Es un juramento que compromete a ambas partes y en el cual hay condiciones, bendiciones por la obediencia y maldiciones por la desobediencia así como señales y sellos del juramento.

Ley y Evangelio: Pacto de Obras y Gracia
Dios hizo el primer pacto en la historia humana, un pacto de obras, con el primer hombre en el paraíso. La bendición prometida a cambio de mantener el pacto fue que Adán y toda la humanidad entrarían en la gloria (“come… y vive para siempre,” Gen 3:22); la maldición por romper el pacto era la muerte (“de cierto morirás,” Gen 2:17). La condición del pacto es que Adán se abstuviera de comer del árbol del conocimiento del bien y del mal (Gen 2:17). Las señales del pacto fueron el árbol del conocimiento del bien y del mal y el árbol de la vida (Gen 2:9).

Como ya sabes Adán falló en la prueba, y como Pablo dice “el pecado entró en el mundo por un hombre, y por el pecado la muerte, así la muerte pasó a todos los hombres, por cuanto todos pecaron.” (Romanos 5:12). Todos nosotros hemos nacido bajo este pacto de obras.

El segundo pacto de la historia fue también hecho por nuestro Dios con nuestro padre Adán. Este pacto, sin embargo, no fue un pacto de Ley; más bien fue un pacto de Evangelio. Este es un juramento que compromete a ambas partes y en el cual hay condiciones, bendiciones por la obediencia y maldiciones por la desobediencia así como señales y sellos del juramento.

En el pacto de gracia, Dios prometió bajo juramento la venida de un Salvador (“la simiente de la mujer”) quien heriría en la cabeza a la simiente de la serpiente cuando la serpiente hiriera su talón (Gen 3:14-16).

La bendición de este pacto es la vida eterna (el árbol de la vida) y la maldición por romper el pacto continúa siendo la muerte. El Evangelio de este pacto es que hay un Salvador que guardará los términos del pacto de obras y que los pecadores se beneficiarán de ello.

Hay tres cosas que han de ser dichas sobre las condiciones relativas al pacto de gracia:

1. En cuanto a la causa de nuestra justificación, el pacto de la gracia es incondicional. Dios no acepta pecadores por otra razón que no sea la justicia de Cristo imputada sobre ellos por gracia.

2. En cuanto al instrumento de nuestra justificación, la fe salvadora, regalo de Dios (Efesios 2:8-10), es la única condición del pacto. La fe es pasiva (la recibimos de Dios) y orientada hacia Cristo. Esto es lo que los Reformadores Protestantes querían decir con sola fide.

3. En cuanto a la administración del pacto de la gracia, podemos decir que las condiciones del pacto son aquellos medios por los cuales Dios habitualmente hace pasar a los pecadores de muerte a vida, o sea, la predicación del Santo Evangelio, y aquellos medios de gracia por los cuales Él confirma sus promesas y fortalece nuestra fe: los santos sacramentos. La obediencia cristiana no es ni base ni instrumento de nuestra justificación ante Dios, sino el fruto y la demostración de la obra de Cristo por y en nosotros.

En la historia de la salvación, este mismo pacto del Evangelio que Dios hizo con Adán fue renovado con Abraham, pero la promesa se volvió a establecer, “Yo seré vuestro Dios, y el de vuestros hijos.” La señal del pacto en Génesis 15 fue el cortar los animales y como condición permaneció la fe. Por esta razón las Escrituras dicen, “Y Abraham creyó a Jehová, y le fue contado por justicia.” (Gen 15:6).

En Génesis 17:10-14 la circuncisión viene a ser la señal de iniciación al pacto de la gracia. El pacto y la señal están tan íntimamente relacionados que el Señor llama a la señal de la circuncisión “mi pacto”.

El pacto de obras no desapareció sin más de la historia de la salvación. Más bien vemos que el pacto de obras se repite a lo largo de las Escrituras, cada vez que la Ley es leída y Dios reclama a los pecadores una justicia perfecta, p.e. “Maldito todo aquel que no permaneciere en todas las cosas escritas en el libro de la ley, para hacerlas.” (Gal 3:10). Cuando Jesús dijo al joven rico, “haz esto, y vivirás” (Lucas 10:28) él estaba repitiendo el pacto de obras.

De igual manera el pacto de la gracia es repetido a lo largo de la historia de la redención, siempre que Dios dice, “Yo seré vuestro Dios, y vosotros seréis my pueblo” Él está repitiendo la promesa hecha a Adán. Dios repitió esta promesa del evangelio a Noé, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Moisés, finalmente la cumplió en Cristo y luego nos la repite a nosotros a través de los Apóstoles, como vemos en Hechos 2:39.

Estos dos pactos unifican toda la Escritura. Todos los seres humanos están muertos en sus delitos y pecados y todos aquellos que son salvos están en el pacto de la gracia.

El Antiguo Pacto (Mosaico)
Muchos creyentes en la Biblia asumen que cada suceso que tuvo lugar en la historia de la salvación antes de la encarnación y muerte de Cristo pertenece al Antiguo Testamento, y muchos de ellos asumen que desde la encarnación, las Escrituras del Antiguo Pacto ya no se aplican ni hablan a los Cristianos. De hecho, algunos Dispensacionalistas incluso consideran que algunos libros del Nuevo Testamento no se aplican a los Cristianos de hoy, porque fueron escritos para aquellos que son Judíos de etnia. Hace apenas unos años, oí decir a un pastor Dispensacionalista en Navidades que “el problema de los Evangelios es que el Evangelio no se encuentra en los Evangelios.”

Las Escrituras mismas, de todos modos, refutan tales ideas. El apóstol Pablo en 2 Corintios 3:12-18 define el “Antiguo Pacto” como Moisés lo hizo, en un sentido general en los libros de Moisés y particularmente en las leyes Mosaicas (vv. 14-15). En Hebreos 7:22, Jesús es la garantía de un pacto mejor que el que fue dado a los Israelitas. Más adelante, en 8:6-13 al contrastar el Nuevo Pacto con el Antiguo, restringe el Pacto Antiguo a la época Mosaica de la historia de la salvación. Hace de nuevo la misma distinción en 9:15-20. Luego, estrictamente hablando, el Viejo Pacto describe el pacto que Dios hizo con Israel en Sinaí. Por lo tanto, no todo lo que ocurrió en la historia de la salvación, antes de la encarnación, pertenece al Pacto Antiguo. Esto es importante, porque el Viejo Pacto es descrito en el Nuevo Testamento como “inferior” (Hebreos 8:7), “obsoleto”, “viejo” (8:13) y que su gloria está “desapareciendo”.

En este sentido, otro factor importante a tener en cuenta sobre el Pacto Antiguo es que fue temporal y típico de forma intencionada. Colosenses 2:17 describe las leyes ceremoniales mosaicas (Viejo Pacto) como “sombras” de las cosas que habían de venir. Hebreos 8:5 describe el Templo terreno como “tipo y sombra” del templo celestial. La ley Mosaica en sí misma, fue tan sólo una “sombra” del cumplimiento que vino con Cristo.

El Nuevo Pacto
Con la muerte de Cristo, su resurrección y ascensión la promesa que Dios hizo a Adán y repitió a Abraham permanece, pero las circunstancias han cambiado. Nosotros, quienes vivimos a este lado de la cruz, vemos las cosas de diferente manera porque vivimos en los días del cumplimiento. En términos bíblicos, vivimos en los “últimos días” (2 Pedro 3:3; Santiago 5:3; Hebreos 1:2; Hechos 2:17).

Todo el propósito del Antiguo Pacto fue el de dirigir la atención hacia arriba, hacia realidades celestiales (Ex 25:9; Hechos 7:44; Heb 8:5) y hacia adelante en la historia hacia el sacrificio de Jesús en la cruz. Las viejas señales, la Pascua y la circuncisión, así como los demás sacrificios sangrientos y ceremonias han sido substituidos. Aunque aún vivimos en una relación de pacto con Dios, y las imágenes sangrientas de Cristo han sido reemplazadas por señales no sangrientas (recuerdos) y sellos.

Así como Dios hizo un pacto con Abraham, Él prometió que más tarde vendría un Nuevo Pacto (Jer 31:31). Dios hizo este Nuevo Pacto en la sangre del Señor Jesucristo (Lucas 22:20). El Señor Jesús de forma específica y consciente estableció “el Nuevo Pacto”. El apóstol Pablo dijo de sí que él era “un siervo del Nuevo Pacto” (2 Cor 3:6). ¿Cómo puede ser si no hay sino un solo Pacto de la Gracia? El Nuevo Pacto es nuevo si lo comparamos con Moisés, pero no si lo comparamos con Abraham.

Este es el tema de Gálatas 3:1-29; 4:21-31, y 2 Corintios 3:7-18 donde Pablo dice que la gloria del Viejo Pacto estaba desapareciendo, pero que la gloria del Nuevo Pacto es permanente. El mensaje de los capítulos 3 al 10 de Hebreos es que el Viejo Pacto (bajo Moisés) fue preparatorio del Nuevo Pacto. El tema fundamental de Hebreos 11 es que Abraham tuvo una fe del Nuevo Pacto, esto es, anticipó una ciudad celestial y la redención que tenemos en Cristo (Hebreos 11:10).

Israel Definido
A Jacob Yo He Amado

Hubo pues un Israel antes del Pacto Antiguo. Israel fue el nombre dado a Jacob. Esta es la primera vez que la palabra “Israel” aparece en las Escrituras, como conclusión a la historia de la lucha de Jacob (Gen 32:21-30).

Después de haber pasado la noche luchando con un hombre anónimo, y “cuando el hombre vio que no podía con él” (v.25), Jacob le pidió una bendición. A cambio, el luchador le puso a Jacob el nuevo nombre de Israel, el cual él definió como “luchas con Dios y con los hombres.”

Así pues, en la historia de la salvación, todos aquellos que provienen del patriarca Jacob son, en un amplio sentido, “Israel”. Tan sólo dos capítulos después el término “Israel” es usado para describir el lugar y nombre de los hijos de Abraham, Isaac y Jacob (34:7). En Padam Aram, Dios de nuevo le bendice y le llama a Jacob “Israel” (35:9-10) y repite la promesa hecha a Abraham de ser Dios para Abraham y para sus hijos.

Todo esto parece apoyar la idea de que Israel significa “aquellos que físicamente descienden de Jacob.” A excepción de que Jacob no es el principio de la historia. Antes de que hubiera un Israel ya hubo un Abraham y su milagroso hijo, Isaac (Rom 9), y antes de Abraham, dice Jesús, “YO SOY” (Juan 8:58). Fue a Abraham a quien Dios prometió “Yo seré tu Dios, y tú serás mi pueblo.” En efecto, Jesús les enseñó a los Judíos en Juan 8 que fue él quien hizo la promesa a Abraham (Juan 8:56). Recuerda también que el primer cumplimiento de esa promesa no vino por “voluntad de varón”, sino por el poder soberano de Dios al permitirle a Sara concebir en su anciana edad. Todos estos son factores importantes a recordar cuando nos acerquemos a la respuesta de Pablo a la pregunta ¿Quién es el Israel de Dios?

Israel, Mi Hijo

En el Éxodo de Egipto Dios constituyó a los hijos de Jacob colectivamente como su “hijo”.

“Jehová ha dicho así: Israel es mi hijo, mi primogénito. Ya te he dicho que dejes ir a mi hijo, para que me sirva, mas no has querido dejarlo ir; he aquí yo voy a matar a tu hijo, tu primogénito.” (Ex 4:23).

Esta no es una declaración casual, sino una descripción deliberada del pueblo nacional. Los hijos de Jacob no son el Hijo de Dios por naturaleza, sino por adopción. Moisés niega que hubiera ninguna cualidad inherente en Israel que hiciera a los hijos de Jacob merecedores de ser llamados el pueblo de Dios.

“No por ser vosotros más que todos los pueblos os ha querido Jehová y os ha escogido, pues vosotros erais el más insignificante de todos los pueblos; si no por cuanto Jehová os amó, y quiso guardar el juramento que juró a vuestros padres, os ha sacado Jehová con mano poderosa, y os ha rescatado de servidumbre, de la mano de Faraón rey de Egipto.” (Dt 7:7-8)

De acuerdo con este pasaje hay dos razones por las cuales Dios escogió a Israel, Su amor inmerecido y la promesa hecha a Abraham.

Israel Extraviado
Israel, sin embargo, no era hijo natural de Dios. Esto se vio claramente en el desierto, en Canaán y finalmente en la expulsión cuando Dios cambió el nombre de su “hijo” Israel por “Lo-ammi, no mi pueblo” (Oseas 1:9-10).

Dios desheredó a su “hijo” adoptado, temporal y nacional, Israel, como pueblo nacional precisamente, porque jamás fue la intención de Dios tener un pueblo terrenal permanente. Tras el cautiverio, ellos ya habían cumplido ampliamente su papel en la historia de la salvación. Como señal de este hecho, el Espíritu-Gloria partió del templo. Esto sucedió porque su principal función fue la de servir como modelo y sombra del hijo natural de Dios, Jesús el Mesías (Hebreos 10:1-4).

Jesús, el Israel de Dios
La tesis de este ensayo es que Jesús es el verdadero Israel de Dios y que todo aquel que esté unido a él, sólo por gracia, sólo por medio de la fe, viene a ser por virtud de esa unión el verdadero Israel de Dios. Esto significa que es erróneo buscar, esperar, anhelar o desear una reconstitución de un Israel nacional en el futuro. La Iglesia del Nuevo Pacto no es algo que Dios instituyó hasta que Él pudiera volver a crear un pueblo nacional en Palestina, sino que más bien Dios sólo tuvo un pueblo nacional temporalmente (desde Moisés hasta Cristo) como preludio y avance de la creación del Nuevo Pacto en el cual las distinciones étnicas que hubo bajo Moisés fueron completadas y abolidas (Efesios 2:11-22; Colosenses 2:8-3:11).

Mateo 2:15
En el texto Hebreo la expresión “fuera de Egipto” ocurre más de 140 veces. Esta es una evidencia más de la existencia de un Israel nacional. Cuando Dios dio la Ley dijo, “Yo soy Yahvéh tu Dios quien te sacó de la tierra de Egipto.” Eran un pueblo redimido que pertenecía a su Salvador.

Esto es aún más significativo cuando Mateo 2:15 cita Oseas 11:1. La Escritura dice,

Y él, despertando, tomó de noche al niño y a su madre, y se fue a Egipto, y estuvo allá hasta la muerte de Herodes; para que se cumpliese lo que dijo el Señor por medio del profeta, cuando dijo: “De Egipto llamé a mi Hijo.”

Herodes estaba a punto de descargar su rabia sangrienta contra los primogénitos de los Judíos. La interpretación inspirada que Mateo hace de las Escrituras Hebreas debe regular nuestra interpretación de las Escrituras, y según la interpretación de Mateo nuestro Señor Jesús es el verdadero Israel de Dios, no el pueblo temporal y nacional de Israel. En efecto, no es nada exagerado decir que la única razón por la cual Dios orquestó el primer Éxodo fue para poder orquestar el segundo Éxodo y que así pudiéramos conocer que Jesús es el verdadero Hijo de Dios y que todos los cristianos son el Israel de Dios sin considerar su etnia.

Dado que Jesús es el verdadero Israel de Dios, por eso en su infancia y de hecho en toda su vida, recapituló la historia del Israel nacional. Todo aquello que el Israel nacional rebelde no haría, Jesús lo hizo: Él amó a Dios con todo su corazón, su alma, su mente y sus fuerzas y a su prójimo como a sí mismo (Mateo 22:37-40).

Gálatas 3:16
De forma similar, el apóstol Pablo argumenta muy claramente que las promesas hechas a Abraham tienen su cumplimiento en Cristo. Gálatas 3:16 dice,

“Ahora bien, a Abraham fueron hechas las promesas, y a su simiente. No dice: Y a las simientes, como si hablase de muchos, sino como de uno: Y a tu simiente, la cual es Cristo.”

Pablo explica lo que quiere decir. Las promesas hechas a Abraham fueron promesas del evangelio del Nuevo Testamento. Fueron dadas antes de Moisés y fueron cumplidas en Cristo. Jesús es el verdadero hijo de Abraham, él es “la simiente” prometida a Abraham.

El propósito de la Ley dada a Moisés fue el enseñar al Israel nacional y a nosotros la seriedad de nuestro pecado y nuestra miseria (Gálatas 3:22). La Ley administrada a través de Moisés no cambió fundamentalmente la promesa del evangelio dada a Abraham (3:17-20). El Nuevo Pacto no es si no el cumplimiento y la renovación del Pacto con Abraham, y el Pacto con Abraham no fue más que el cumplimiento y la renovación del pacto de Gracia hecho con Adán después de la caída.

Jesús, el Salvador de Israel

Hechos 13:23
Parte de la confusión que conlleva el tema del plan de Dios en la historia, y por lo tanto parte de la razón por la cual los cristianos están tan confundidos sobre el plan de Dios para el futuro de su pueblo, viene porque muchos no comprenden qué vino a hacer Jesús por el Israel nacional. Jesús no vino a establecer un reino Judío terrenal y nacional, sino que vino a ser su Salvador y el Salvador de todo el Pueblo de Dios, fueran judíos o gentiles.

Nuestro Señor, antes de su encarnación, se identificó a sí mismo con Israel a través del profeta Isaías (43:3) como “el Santo de Israel”, su “Salvador.” Este es el mismo asunto que el apóstol Pedro trató en su gran sermón de Pentecostés, que David no es el Rey, ya que está muerto. Jesús, puesto que vive, es el Rey y fue sobre Jesús que David profetizó (Hechos 2:19-34).

Más tarde, en otro sermón, Pedro dijo que Dios había ahora “exaltado” a Jesús “a su propia mano derecha como Príncipe y Salvador, para que pudiera darle a Israel arrepentimiento y perdón de pecados.”

Los Hijos de Abraham

Con todo este trasfondo, ahora estamos en situación de responder a las preguntas, “¿Quiénes son los hijos de Abraham?” y “¿Quién es el Israel de Dios?” Jesús dijo,

“Cuando hayáis levantado al Hijo del Hombre, entonces conoceréis que yo soy, y que nada hago por mí mismo, sino que según me enseñó el Padre, así hablo. Porque el que me envió, conmigo está; no me ha dejado solo el Padre, porque yo hago siempre lo que le agrada.” (Juan 8:28-29).

Él continuó diciendo que “Si vosotros permaneciereis en mi palabra, seréis verdaderamente mis discípulos; y conoceréis la verdad, y la verdad os hará libres.” (vv.31-32) a lo que ellos responden señalando que ellos son descendencia física de Abraham (v.33).

A esto Jesús responde, “Si fueseis hijos de Abraham, las obras de Abraham haríais” (v.39). Esta es pues la definición que el Señor hace de un hijo de Abraham, un Judío, o Israel: Quien hace las cosas que Abraham hizo. ¿Y qué hizo Abraham? Según Jesús, “Abraham vuestro padre se gozó de que había de ver mi día; y lo vio, y se gozó” (v.56). Según Jesús el Mesías, un Judío, un verdadero Israelita es aquel que tiene fe salvadora en el Señor Jesús ya sea antes o después de su encarnación. Esta es solo otra forma de decir que Jesús es “el camino, la verdad y la vida” y que “nadie viene al Padre” sino por él (Juan 14:6). Este versículo también se aplica a Abraham, Isaac y Jacob así como a cualquiera.

Luego, no debiera sorprendernos encontrar básicamente la misma enseñanza en la teología del Apóstol Pablo. En Romanos 4, Pablo dice que uno es justificado de la misma manera que Abraham fue justificado, solo por gracia, y solo a través de la fe en Jesús (Romanos 4:3-8).

¿Y qué de los Gentiles? Pablo pregunta, “¿Cuándo fue Abraham justificado? ¿Bajo qué circunstancias? ¿Antes o después de ser circuncidado? ¡No fue después, sino antes!” (Romanos 4:11).

“…para que fuese padre de todos los creyentes no circuncidados, a fin de que también a ellos la fe les sea contada por justicia; y padre de la circuncisión, para los que no solamente son de la circuncisión, sino que también siguen las pisadas de la fe que tuvo nuestro padre Abraham antes de ser circuncidado.” (Romanos 4:11-12).

Por lo tanto estas dos preguntas están íntimamente relacionadas. La Justicia ante Dios “viene por fe” (Romanos 4:16), no por guardar la Ley, ni por ser física o étnicamente Judío,

“para que sea por gracia, a fin de que la promesa sea firme para toda su descendencia; no solamente para la que es de la ley, sino también para la que es de la fe de Abraham, el cual es padre de todos nosotros” (Romanos 4:16)

Esto es así porque, como dijo en Romanos capítulo 2,

“es judío el que lo es en lo interior, y la circuncisión es la del corazón, en espíritu, no en letra; la alabanza del cual no viene de los hombres, sino de Dios” (Romanos 2:29).

Cristo no vino para reinstalar y fijar la Teocracia Mosaica o a establecer un reino terrenal Judío milenial, sino a salvar pecadores Judíos y Gentiles y a hacerles, solo por gracia, solo a través de la fe, y solo en Cristo, hijos de Abraham.

La Pared Intermedia Derribada (Efesios 2:11-22)

El movimiento de la historia de la redención se da en este orden. El pueblo de Dios fue un pueblo internacional desde Adán hasta Moisés. Bajo Moisés el pueblo de Dios fue temporalmente una nación. Dios instituyó unas leyes especiales, civiles y ceremoniales, para separar a su pueblo nacional de los paganos gentiles. En Efesios 2:14 el Apóstol Pablo describe estas leyes civiles y ceremoniales como la “pared intermedia” entre Judíos y Gentiles. Por causa de esa pared intermedia los Gentiles, considerados como pueblo, estaban “sin Cristo, alejados de la ciudadanía de Israel y ajenos a los pactos de la promesa, sin esperanza y sin Dios en el mundo” (2:12).

Ahora, sin embargo, por causa de la muerte de Cristo, Pablo les asegura a los cristianos gentiles que “vosotros que en otro tiempo estabais lejos, habéis sido hechos cercanos por la sangre de Cristo” (V.13). ¿Cómo? A través de su muerte, Cristo ha destruido la pared intermedia, ha rasgado el velo del templo, ha destruido y restaurado el templo en tres días mediante su resurrección (Juan 2:19),

“aboliendo en su carne las enemistades, la ley de los mandamientos expresados en ordenanzas, para crear en sí mismo de los dos un solo y nuevo hombre, haciendo la paz, y mediante la cruz reconciliar con Dios a ambos en un solo cuerpo, matando en ella las enemistades” (Efesios 2:15-16).

Ahora, por virtud de nuestra unión con Cristo, tanto los cristianos Judíos como los Gentiles son “conciudadanos de los santos, y miembros de la familia de Dios” (Efesios 2:19); “Porque nosotros somos la circuncisión, los que en espíritu servimos a Dios y nos gloriamos en Cristo Jesús, no teniendo confianza en la carne” (Filipenses 3:3). ¿Por qué? Porque “…nuestra ciudadanía está en los cielos” (Filipenses 3:20). ¿Cómo es pues que el Premilenialismo, teniendo dos pueblos de Dios paralelos, no reconstruye esa pared intermedia de separación que Jesús destruyó con su muerte?

No Todo Israel es Israel (Romanos 9)
Uno de los lugares más claros en las Escrituras en cuanto a este tema es Romanos 9. El contexto de este pasaje es la misma pregunta que estamos tratando ahora, ¿qué sucede con Israel? ¿Quién es el Israel de Dios? ¿Ha abandonado Dios su promesa con Abraham? La respuesta de Pablo es que un Judío es quien lo es interiormente, quien ama al Salvador de Abraham. Puesto que Cristo fue circuncidado (Colosenses 2:11-12) por nosotros en la cruz, la circuncisión es moral y espiritualmente indiferente.

“No que la palabra de Dios haya fallado” (Romanos 9:6). La razón por la cual solo algunos Judíos hayan creído en Jesús como el Mesías es por que “no todo Israel es Israel. No por el hecho de ser descendientes de Abraham son todos sus hijos.” Más bien los hijos de Abraham son contados “a través de Isaac” (9:7). Esto quiere decir que “no son los hijos naturales los que son de Dios, sino los hijos de la promesa” (v.8). ¿Cómo nació Isaac? Por el soberano poder de Dios. ¿Cómo nacen los Cristianos? Por el soberano poder de Dios. Cada cristiano es un “Isaac” en cierto sentido. ¿Por qué es así? Por que

“-pues no habían aún nacido, ni habían hecho aún ni bien ni mal, para que el propósito de Dios conforme a la elección permaneciese, no por las obras sino por el que llama-, se le dijo: El mayor servirá al menor. Como está escrito: A Jacob amé, mas a Esaú aborrecí.” (Malaquías 1:2; Romanos 9:11-13).

¿Cómo puede ser esto? Esto es porque Dios “Tendré misericordia del que yo tenga misericordia, y me compadeceré del que yo me compadezca” (Rom 9:15).

“Así que no depende del que quiere, ni del que corre, sino de Dios que tiene misericordia. Porque la Escritura dice a Faraón: Para esto mismo te he levantado, para mostrar en ti mi poder, y para que mi nombre sea anunciado por toda la tierra. De manera que de quien quiere, tiene misericordia, y al que quiere endurecer, endurece”. (Rom 9:16-18).

¿Es Dios injusto? De acuerdo con el apóstol Pablo, como criaturas, no tenemos “derechos” delante de Dios. Dios es el alfarero, nosotros el barro, pero los Cristianos son barro redimido, objetos de misericordia, preparados de antemano para la gloria. Debemos evaluar nuestra condición teniendo como telón de fondo la paciencia de Dios con esos objetos de ira preparados para destrucción (Romanos 9:22-23). Estas vasijas preparadas para la gloria son tomadas tanto de entre los Judíos como de entre los Gentiles (Romanos 9:24). Esto es lo que él prometió en Oseas. Él ha hecho de aquellos que fueran una vez “Lo-ammi”, “no mi pueblo”, o sea los Gentiles, que ahora fuesen “hijos del Dios vivo” (Oseas 2:23; 1:10; Romanos 9:25-26).

La razón por la cual los Gentiles, que estaban sin la Ley, hayan “obtenido justicia”, y que Israel que sí la adquirió por Ley no la tenga, es porque la justificación no es por las obras, sino por gracia (Romanos 9:32). Ellos se tropezaron con Jesús, la piedra de tropiezo. Él no encajó con sus planes nacionalistas, y digo yo, que tampoco encaja él con los planes nacionalistas/Sionistas del Premilenialismo.

No es que Pablo no quiera que los Judíos no sean salvos, sino que les dice esto porque quiere que los Judíos también se salven. La única manera de que un descendiente físico de Abraham, Isaac y Jacob sea un verdadero Israelita es unirse al verdadero Israel de Dios, a Jesús, por medio de la fe. “Porque no hay diferencia entre judío y griego, pues el mismo que es Señor de todos, es rico para con todos los que le invocan; porque todo aquel que invocare el nombre del Señor, será salvo” (Romanos 10:12-13). “No todos los Israelitas han aceptado el Evangelio.”

¿Ha rechazado Dios a su pueblo? No, los escogidos son su pueblo, y todos los escogidos serán salvos. Hay también Judíos creyentes. Pablo se pone a él mismo como ejemplo (Romanos 11:1). Él es parte del remanente escogido que no ha doblado su rodilla ante Baal. “Así también aun en este tiempo ha quedado un remanente escogido por gracia. Y si por gracia, ya no es por obras; de otra manera la gracia ya no es gracia” (Romanos 11:5-6). Lo que Israel buscó ansiadamente no lo obtuvo, pero los escogidos sí. Los demás fueron endurecidos.

La elección de Dios de unos y la reprobación de otros son dos hechos de la historia de la redención que Pablo saca a la luz con la pregunta “¿Quién es el Israel de Dios?”. Y de nuevo enseña: La salvación es solo por gracia, solo por medio de la fe, y solo en Cristo; y “Lo que buscaba Israel, no lo ha alcanzado; pero los escogidos sí lo han alcanzado, y los demás fueron endurecidos…” (Rom 11:7).

¿Ha acabado Dios de salvar Judíos? De ninguna manera. La salvación ha venido a los Gentiles para “provocar a Israel a celos” (Rom 11:11). Los Gentiles, por el favor inmerecido de Dios, han sido injertados al Israel de Dios. Y “ha acontecido a Israel endurecimiento en parte, hasta que haya entrado la plenitud de los gentiles; y luego todo Israel será salvo” (Romanos 11:25-26).

Los Cristianos son el Israel de Dios en Cristo: Gálatas 6:16
Dado este trasfondo, no debiera sorprendernos nada el hecho de que los apóstoles llamaran a ambos, Judíos y Gentiles, “el Israel de Dios.” Este es el lenguaje de Pablo refiriéndose a la congregación mezclada de Galacia.

1 Pedro 2:9-10
El apóstol Pedro usa el mismo tipo de lenguaje para describir las congregaciones de mayoría gentil en Asia Menor, a quienes escribe diciendo, “vosotros que en otro tiempo no erais pueblo, pero que ahora sois pueblo de Dios; que en otro tiempo no habíais alcanzado misericordia, pero ahora habéis alcanzado misericordia.”

Hebreos 8:8-10
Según el escritor a los Hebreos, aquellos que invocaren el nombre de Cristo son “la Casa de Israel.” Cualquiera que haya creído en Cristo es un heredero de las promesas del Nuevo Pacto.

¿Ama a los Judíos el Dios de Abraham, Isaac y Jacob? Sí. ¿Tiene un plan para los Judíos? Sí, el mismo plan que prometió a Adán, la simiente de la mujer, el mismo plan que prometió a Abraham, “la Simiente.” Esa simiente es una: Cristo. Él es el Santo de Israel, él es el Israel de Dios. Él hizo lo que Adán no. Él hizo lo que un Israel terco no quisiera ni pudiera haber hecho. Él sirvió al Señor con todo su corazón, alma, mente y fuerzas.

Muchos de los Judíos, de todas formas, no estaban buscando un Salvador. Buscaban un rey. Jesús es Rey, pero ganó su trono mediante su obediencia y muerte, y eso no es lo que ellos querían. Ellos querían gloria, poder y un reino teocrático, político, y físico en esta tierra. Jesús ha establecido su reino, a través de la predicación del Evangelio y la administración de los sacramentos. Este reino puede que no sea tan emocionante como gobernar desde Jerusalén durante una era dorada en la tierra, pueda que no venda tantos libros ni llene tantas butacas en los cines, pero el mundo nunca ha encontrado al Jesús de las Escrituras muy interesante. Por eso él es piedra de tropiezo para los Judíos Sionistas y locura para los Griegos. Para los Cristianos, sin embargo, él es el Cristo, “poder de Dios, y sabiduría de Dios” (1 Corintios 1:24).

Escatología últimas cosas final de los tiempos Israel Jerusalén dejados atrás rapto últimos días últimas cosas historia de la salvación pacto Judíos Gentiles Mesías anticristo escatología últimas cosas final de los tiempos pacto historia de la salvación historia de la salvación

Traducción al español: David Barceló, abril 2002.

URCNA Synod Escondido 2001 On Creation

Synod affirms that Scripture teaches, as summarized by the Creeds and the Three Forms of Unity:

  • The authority and perspicuity of Scripture (Belgic Confession V; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VII).
  • Necessity and sufficiency of Scripture (Belgic Confession VII; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VII).
  • God the Father almighty created the heavens and the earth and all things visible and invisible (Apostle’s and Nicene Creed).
  • The Father created the heavens and the earth out of nothing (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day IX).
  • God gave every creature its shape and being (Belgic Confession XII).
  • The creation and fall of man. “God made man of the dust of the earth; man gave ear to the devil.” (Belgic Confession XIV).
  • The historicity of Adam (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VII.20; Canons of Dort III, IV.1).
  • Man was created good, in a garden, and tempted by the devil, committed reckless disobedience (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day III and IV).
  • God’s words to the serpent in Paradise are noted as the first revelation of the Gospel (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day VI).
  • Adam plunged himself and his offspring by his first transgression into perdition (Belgic Confession XVI).
  • Adam’s fall into sin and our connection to it (Canons of Dort I.1).
  • God came seeking man when he, trembling, fled from Him (Belgic Confession XVII).
  • God created all things good in six days defined as evenings and mornings (Genesis 1 & 2 and Exodus 20:11). This means that we reject any evolutionary teaching, including theistic evolution, concerning the origin of the earth and of all creatures (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day IX).
  • Synod affirms our commitment as churches to discipline those who teach anything that stands in conflict with the Bible, as summarized in the Creeds and the Three Forms of Unity.

Zwingli On Covenant And Baptism (1524)

From Zwingli’s 1524 Exposition Of the Articles

  1. Baptism is being enrolled by an “oath of allegiance” (sacramentum) into the church visible,
    an initiation into the people of God.
  2. If there is one people of God, with one faith, in one Savior, then it follows that the signs and seals of that salvation, Savior and faith, have not changed radically.
  3. Thus, he appealed to Colossians 2.11-2, where Paul linked circumcision and baptism, as evidence that Christian parents ought also to administer the sign of the covenant to their children.
  4. He agreed with Luther that the Sacraments strengthen faith, but he was clear to say that they do not give it. This is the work of the Spirit through the Word.
  5. Against the Anabaptists (i.e., Schwenkfelders) he argued that they added to Scripture by denying paedobaptism. NT is silent, therefore the command to administer the sign of the covenant continues to apply today.
  6. By forbidding it, they were adding to Scripture and doing exactly what Jesus said not to do: forbidding the children to come to him!
  7. If we deny that children should be baptized, then we must deny that women should come to the table, because there is no positive evidence that they were communicated in NT.
  8. If John’s baptism is substantially the same as Christ’s, then there is no categorical necessity of being discipled before baptism since John’s disciples had not even heard of Christ before they were baptized. John’s baptism was prospective and Christ’s retrospective.
  9. Certainly children were baptized in the OT. All Israel, children and adults were baptized with Moses in the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10).
  10. Children of believers are born with original sin, but not original guilt and are therefore eligible for baptism.
  11. How can the children of NT believers be worse off than the children of the Jews who received the sign of the covenant, since this is a better covenant?
  12. The sign of initiation, in both covenants, always entailed a pledge to renew it with one’s children, hence the sign.