Semi-Pelagianism And Faith As The Instrument Of Existential-Mystical Union With Christ

William Perkins (1558-1602), in his 1595 Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, on the question of effectual call, wrote:

Againe, if the Vocation of every man be effectual, then faith must be common to all men either by nature, or by grace, or both: now to say the first, namely, that the power of believing is common to all by nature, is the heresie of the Pelagians, and to say it is common to all by grace, is false. All men have not faith, saith Paul. 2. Thess. 3. 2. nay many to whom the Gospel is preached, doe not so much as understand it and give assent unto it; Satan blinding their minds that the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ should not shine unto them, 2. Cor. 4. 4. And to say that faith is partly by nature and partly by grace, is the condemned heresie of the semi Pelagian: for we cannot so much as thinke a good thought of our selves, 2. Cor. 3. 5.

This understanding of the teaching of Pelagius, who denied that “in Adam’s fall sinned we all, i.e., he denied that either Adam or Christ were federal representatives, who denied the doctrine of original sin, who made sin a matter of imitation so that we become sinners when we sin, is the common property of the majority of the Western, Augustinian tradition.

Further, Perkins spoke for the entire Reformation when he distinguished between full-blown Pelagianism and “semi-Pelagianism” which admits the federal relationship and original sin but which tends to downplay the effects of sin. As Perkins observed, semi-Pelagianianism also affirmed the necessity of grace but just as it watered down the effects of sin so it weakened the necessity of and the power of grace. Like Pelagius, for the semi-Pelagians, which included some of Augustine’s opponents in the early 5th century and much of the medieval church, faith is “partly by nature and partly by grace.” The semi-Pelagian view is that grace helps but it is not decisive. The free exercise of the human will, or in some cases, the human intellect or affections is decisive and essential for faith, justification, and salvation. According to semi-Pelagianism, from a Pauline and Protestant point of view justification is no longer by grace alone, through faith (trusting) alone, but now through grace and works (our cooperation with grace).

There is, thus, a good lot of Pelagius in semi-Pelagianism. This is why the Synod of Dort condemned the Arminian (Remonstrant) doctrines of having brought “again out of hell the error of Pelagius.” (Rejection of Errors, 2.3). If one reads Pelagius’ commentary on Romans one sees that the Synod had a point. Pelagius and semi-Pelagius weren’t that far apart.

With that background in mind one can imagine how surprised I was to hear the claim that  it is semi-Pelagian to teach that faith is the instrument of mystical or existential union with Christ is “semi-Pelagian.”

Above we saw that, according to William Perkins, semi-Pelagianism asserts that the will (or other faculties) are able to operate in salvation partly on the basis of nature, i.e., they are not entirely dependent upon grace. In contrast, the Reformed argue that all humans are, by virtue of our union with the first Adam in his disobedience and sin (his violation of the covenant of works; see Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 7), dead in sins (Eph 2). In the providence of God our corrupted faculties are able to function toward civil good or civil righteousness but not for spiritual good or righteousness before God. This is the doctrine of total or extensive depravity (corruption). As the colonial Puritans put it: “In Adam’s fall sinned we all.” As Pauline and Augustinians we understand that sin brings death. Hence, Paul teaches that we “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1).

The Reformed ordo salutis (the logical order of the application of redemption) has typically taught that God the Spirit works through the preaching of the gospel to give new life to the elect, and having done, gives them faith in Christ and through that faith resting and receiving Christ, regenerated believers are justified and united to Christ.

Nevertheless, despite this apparently simple and straightforward account of the faith, there seems to be genuine confusion about

  • whether there is or should be an ordo salutis;
  • what the Reformed ordo salutis is;
  • where, in the Reformed ordo salutis, the doctrine of union with Christ should appear.

Definitions
There is also apparently some confusion about what is meant by “union with Christ.” This is understandable because the doctrine has three or four aspects and, in contemporary discussion, all participants have not always been as cautious as necessary to make sure we are talking about the same aspect at the same time in the same way.

Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) represented the mainstream of the Reformed tradition when he spoke of the “federal union” that all the elect have with Christ (Systematic Theology, 448). This aspect of union is relative to the eternal, pre-temporal (before time) “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis) between the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). According to Ps 110, John 17 and other passages, the Father gave to his Son a people and the Son volunteered to be their Mediator, their federal representative, and their Savior; i.e., to earn their salvation. This is one of the three or four aspects of our union with Christ. For more on this see the chapter on the “Covenant Before the Covenants” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

Berkhof wrote of a second aspect of our union with Christ, which he called the “union of life” (ibid). This union refers to the natural, organic relation that all humans have with the first Adam, who was the federal representative of all humanity (Rom 5). The corollary to our natural union with Adam, in whom we would have entered in glorious life had he (and we in him) obeyed the commandment of life (“you shall not eat”). In the covenant of redemption God constituted a union between the Son, who would be the Last Adam (1Cor 15) and his people. Implicitly, the Holy Spirit was a party to this covenant as that person who would apply redemption to the people given to the Son. The Second Adam (Rom 5), Jesus, fulfilled that covenant of works for all those whom he represented, for whom he died and for whose justification he was raised.

We might also speak of a third aspect of our union with Christ, which we might call decretal union, i.e., the union that exists between Christ and his people by virtue of God’s decree to elect, in Christ, some out of the mass of fallen humanity to redemption. Paul spoke to this aspect of our union with Christ when he wrote that we were chosen “in Christ” before the foundations of the world (Eph 1). This aspect is, of course, a corollary to the federal union and the union of life mentioned above.

The last aspect is mystical union (or sometimes referred to as “existential union”) and it refers to the subjective application of redemption purposed from eternity in the decree, covenanted among the Trinitarian person in the pactum salutis, accomplished by Christ in his active and suffering obedience, and applied to the elect by the Holy Spirit. Mystical union is, as Berkhof put it, that “intimate, vital, and spiritual” connection “between Christ and his people, in virtue of which He is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation” (Systematic Theology, 449).

Ordo Salutis
The debate that has arisen in the last few decades has raised questions about whether we should speak of an ordo salutis. Some contemporary writers have called for us to make a “decisive break with the ordo salutis thinking.” Such a proposal, however, is quite radical in comparison to the Reformed tradition. The existence and necessity of a logical order of the application of redemption seems clear in Romans 8:29–30:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

When we speak of a “logical order” all that is meant is this: God’s decree of predestination is logically prior to vocation or effectual calling. Thus, those whom God the Spirit effectually calls, are the elect. Those who believe and through faith alone are justified are those whom God has elected in Christ and effectually called. The sanctified and glorified are those whom God elected in Christ, effectually called by the Spirit, and justified through faith alone.

That’s the ordo salutis or the logical order of the application of redemption. This is why all the Reformed theologians since the beginning of the Reformation have taught this basic order of the application of redemption. Indeed, the entire Reformation conflict between Rome and the Protestants may be said to have been over the logical order of the application of redemption. The medieval Western church taught and the Roman communion teaches that justification is God’s recognition of our sanctification through the infusion of medicinal grace, through “charity poured into the heart” and cooperation with grace, the combination of which is said to create inherent justice.

The Reformation, however, taught and teaches that God justifies sinners by his unmerited favor (grace) on the basis of Christ’s perfect (condign) righteousness accomplished for us and imputed to us and received through Spirit-wrought faith alone. The Reformation was built upon the logical order of the application of redemption taught by Paul in Romans.

Covenant Theology
Thus far everything seems fairly clear. The historic Reformed view is opposed to semi-Pelagianism and on the Reformation doctrine of election (shared by all the magisterial Reformers) and justification sola gratia, sola fide. It is built on the Pauline order of the application of redemption and a particular understanding of the history of redemption and covenant theology taught by the Reformed theologians and reflected to varying degrees in the Reformed confessions.

Whence the difficulty and confusion? Part of the explanation lies in the discomfort that some began to have with traditional covenant theology. The traditional Reformed view of mystical union, as represented by Berkhof, is built upon the traditional covenant theology (covenant of redemption, covenant of works, and covenant of grace). That scheme was subject to criticism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Lutherans, Socinians, and the Remonstrants (Arminians).  In the twentieth century, that scheme also came under sustained assault by Barthians and by the modern “biblical theology” movement which, unlike the older and more orthodox biblical theologians (e.g., Caspar Olevianus, Johannes Cocceius, Geerhardus Vos, B. B. Warfield, and John Murray) thought of dogmatic or systematic theology as an enemy of a true account of the faith. They sought to overcome traditional distinctions and spoke disparagingly of “scholastic” or “systematic” theology as derived from ideas foreign to Scripture and imposed upon Scripture. There was even a proposal by a notable Reformed writer, in the early 1970s, to replace the categories and vocabulary of systematic theology which those of “biblical theology.”

Others, under the influence of the “biblical theology” movement (dominated in the 20th century by Barthians), came to reject the covenant of redemption (before time) and the covenant of works before the fall. In this scheme the covenant of grace swallowed up everything. According to G. C. Berkouwer (1903–96), this is what happened in the theology of Karl Barth (d. 1968). The decree of election, which seems to have included everyone) obliterated the distinction between law and gospel, and between the covenants of works and grace. Berkouwer himself came to reject the covenant of redemption as a speculative assault on the doctrine of the Trinity. That criticism has been echoed in contemporary, otherwise confessional, Reformed circles. Thus, two parts of the foundation of the historic and confessional Reformed understanding of union with Christ were weakened and the way was opened for new proposals based on either a rejection of the ordo salutis or a re-ordering it.

Where Does Faith Fit?

That faith which secures eternal life; which unites us to Christ as living members of his body; which makes us the sons of God; which interests us in all the benefits of redemption; which works by love, and is fruitful in good works; is founded , not on the external or the moral evidence of the truth, but on the testimony of the Spirit with an by the truth to the renewed soul (Systematic Theology, 3.68).

…The first effect of faith, according to the Scriptures is union with Christ. We are in him by faith. There is indeed a union between Christ and his people, founded on the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son in the counsels of eternity. We are, therefore, said to be in Him before the foundation of the world.

…But it was also, as we learn from the Scriptures, included in the stipulations of that covenant, that his people, so far as adults are concerned, should not receive the saving benefits of that covenant until they were united to Him by a voluntary act of faith. They are ‘by nature the children of wrath, even as others.’ (Eph. ii.3) They remain in this state of condemnation until they believe. Their union is consummated by faith. To be in Christ, as to believe in Christ are, therefore , in the Scriptures, convertible forms of expression. They mean the same thing, and therefore, the same effects are attributed to faith as are attributed to union with Christ” (Ibid, 3.104)

So says Charles Hodge (1797–1878), who taught at Old Princeton for about fifty years, on the relation between faith and union. We should note that he distinguished between different aspects of our union with Christ. In the quotation above, he named explicitly “federal union” and distinguished implicitly between what we might call “decretal union” and federal union. He also connected his doctrine of mystical union to the doctrine of the covenant of redemption (see the previous post).

His main focus, and the aspect of union in view in this series, however, was mystical (or existential) union. According to Hodge, faith, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, unites us to Christ, i.e., the mystical aspect of union is an effect of faith but its relation to faith is so close that the one may be said to be the other.

We should also observe that he described faith as a voluntary act, i.e., as an act of the will. To be sure, Hodge incorporated other faculties of the soul in the act of faith, but he did describe it as voluntary. Was his doctrine of mystical union semi-Pelagian? It would have been had he taught that we believe before we are regenerated (given new life) or if he had written that regeneration (so defined) is the result of faith but he did not. In the section of his Systematic Theology preceding faith he taught that faith is a consequence of regeneration.

In Hodge’s ordo salutis (the logical order of the Spirit’s application of redemption to the elect) mystical (or existential) union is not said to exist until faith. Faith is not a result of mystical union. Rather, mystical union is, as Hodge said, “the first effect of faith.”

“The proximate effect of this union, and consequently the second effect of faith is justification.” In Hodge’s ordo it is those who are mystically united to Christ by faith who are justified. “Faith,” he wrote, “is the condition on which God promises in the covenant of redemption, to impute unto men the righteousness of Christ. As soon, therefore, as they believe, they cannot be condemned. They are clothed with a righteousness that answers all the demands of justice” (Ibid, 3.105).

I would be happier had Hodge reversed these order of justification and union since, Hodge’s order has it that it is those who are as yet unjustified who are considered to be in mystical union with Christ but the point of this series to gain some clarity about the instrumentality of faith in Reformed theology relative to union. It should be clear that, in Reformed theology, regeneration precedes faith and faith precedes mystical union.

What Is The Nature Of Our Mystical Union?
William Perkins on Mystical Union:

The benefits which we receive by this Mystical union are manifold. For it is the ground of the conveyance of all grace. The first is, that by means hereof every Christian as he is a Christian or a man regenerate, hath his beginning and being in Christ, howsoever as he is a man he hath his being and subsisting in himself, as Paul saith, 1. Cor. 1. 30. Ye are of God in Christ. And, Eph. 5. 30. Ye are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.(An exposition of the symbole or creed of the apostles, according to the tenour of the scripture, and the consent of orthodox Fathers of the Church, 1595; Works 300.)

His first job under this heading is to sort out the nature of our mystical union, i.e., the nature of the connection between the believer and Christ and its importance. We cannot benefit from Christ’s work until we are mystically united to him. This was Calvin’s point in Institutes 3.1. “Regenerate” here apparently refers to the Spirit’s work of raising to life the spiritually dead.

How (will some say) can this be? After this manner: The comparison is taken from our first parents. Eve was made of a rib taken out of Adams side, he being cast into a slumber: this being done, Adam awaked and said, This now is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. Gen. 2. 23. Christ was nailed on the cross, and his most precious blood was shed, and out of it arise and spring all true Christians: that is, out of the merit of Christ’s death and passion, whereby they become new creatures.

Our mystical union with Christ is intimate. It is interesting in this section, however, that Perkins did not say, as we might have expected him to say, that the Spirit is the source of union. Of course it’s true that the Spirit raises the spiritually dead and grants them new life. Here, however, he turns to the work of Christ for us before turning to his work in us. We are new creatures because of Christ’s death.

Secondly, every one that believes in Christ by reason of this union hath an unspeakable prerogative: for hereby he is first united to Christ, and by reason thereof is also joined to the whole Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the holy Ghost, and shall have eternal fellowship with them.

Were this text being published now there would be comma after “Christ” in order to make his logic clear. We should understand Perkins to be saying, “everyone who believes in Christ, by virtue of this union, has a great benefit: union with Christ, and thus with the whole Trinity.”

In other words, when Perkins thought of the source of our spiritual life, he connected it closely to the objective work of Christ for us. When he thought of coming into possession of union with Christ, he thought of Spirit-wrought faith. We have the intimate union (and communion) with Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone.

Thirdly, sundry men, specially Papists, deride the doctrine of justification by imputed righteousness: thinking it is absurd, that a man should be just by that righteousness which is inherent in the person of Christ: as if we would say, that one man may live by the soul of another: or be learned by the learning of another. But here we may see, that it hath sufficient foundation.

The importance of the forensic, objective aspect of salvation and justification appears again. Notice how that, as soon as Perkins thinks of the application, he turns back to that which is applied. Notice too that he’s concerned that the reader understand that this is a Protestant doctrine. The ground of our acceptance with God is not our union with Christ— Bernard of Clairveaux had a strong doctrine of union with Christ but he did not have a Protestant doctrine of justification on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s (condign) merit.

Implicitly here too is his answer to the frequent criticism that the Protestants teach justification on the basis of a “legal fiction.” Perkins was saying, in effect, “Nonsense!” The ground of our justification is not fiction. It’s the only actual, real, condign merit that has ever been achieved: that of Jesus. By faith we are united to that Jesus and thus benefit by what he accomplished for us.

For there is a most near and straight union between Christ and all that believe in him: and in this union Christ with all his benefits according to the tenor of the covenant of grace, is made ours really: and therefore we may stand just before God by his righteousness; it being indeed his, because it is in him as in a subject; yet so, as it is also ours; because it is given unto us of God.

The medieval and Tridentine Roman church taught (falsely) that we are accepted by God on the basis of the Spirit’s work in us and our cooperation with that grace. The ground of our acceptance with God was said to be “inherent righteousness” (iustitia inhaerens) or sometimes “charity poured forth into our hearts.” This is what some Romanist apologists are now calling the “Agape” model, as if exchanging the Latin “caritas” (charity) for the Greek Agape makes a substantial difference.

In contrast to the Romish doctrine, Perkins wanted to be clear that, relative to acceptance with God, Christ’s righteousness is truly extra nos (outside us) but he himself does not remain so. Again, one hears Calvin saying: If Christ remains outside of us, he is of no benefit to us. By virtue of Sprit-wrought union with Christ, we become bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

On the other hand, in some contemporary accounts of mystical union it almost seems as if mystical union is everything and faith has become a mere technicality to be affirmed formally and then locked away. Having fulfilled its function faith goes away and mystical union now is said to do what for Perkins and most other Reformed writers faith was thought to do. In Perkins, however, we do not find that mystical union swallows up or replaces the forensic doctrine. Rather, Spirit-wrought faith and mystical (Spirit-wrought) union complement each other and faith plays an essential role in justification, in union, and in the Christian life that flows from our mystical union with Christ.

What Does The Church Say?
William Perkins taught that believers are given new life by the Spirit and by the same Spirit given faith and through that faith united to Christ. It is particularly useful to be aware of Perkins as we come to the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

It is good for us to close this essay by considering the Westminster Shorter Catechism since as important as our theologians are, we do not confess their work. We confess God’s Word as summarized by the churches in the confessions and catechisms. The Shorter Catechism has a clear survey of the nature of union with Christ. It should clarify remaining questions.

Since the mid-1970s there has been a number of Reformed theologians who have sought to revise the Reformed doctrines of justification and union with Christ. Some have proposed the doctrine that sinners are accepted with God through faith and works. Yes, it has been put that baldly. “What?” You might object, “Didn’t we settle that in the Reformation?” Yes, for those of us who still believe what the Reformation believed, yes it is settled. Formally, the doctrine of the Reformed churches, as summarized by the confessions and catechisms, has not changed but under the surface, as a matter of history, that revision was accepted and defended by more than a few as the genuine “Reformed” doctrine (as distinct from the ostensibly, allegedly defective Lutheran doctrine). When objections were raised the view was reformulated to teach acceptance with God through “faithfulness.” Nothing was changed, however. The revised doctrine taught (and teaches) that we are justified through trust and obedience or cooperation with grace.

As part of this revision, it was proposed that we are brought into a conditional union with Christ by baptism and that we remain in union with Christ by cooperation with grace, i.e., by works. In this way, our perseverance and our assurance of salvation was placed in jeopardy in the name of achieving a truly and distinctly “Reformed” doctrine of justification (and union with Christ).

As we’ve seen, some have proposed a revision of the doctrine of union that disregards the idea of an ordo salutis arguing that a proper doctrine of union with Christ renders the idea a logical order of salvation invalid. All of Christ’s benefits, it is claimed, flow from existential, mystical union.

Thus, it behooves us to notice the logical and pedagogical order of salvation relative to mystical union with Christ in the catechism. In the questions leading up to this section the catechism has been summarizing the accomplishment of redemption by Christ. Questions 24–28 account for Christ’s triplex munus (threefold office): prophet, priest, and king.

Question 29 asks,

How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?

We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.

As we saw in Perkins, in the Shorter Catechism, redemption is accomplished outside of us (extra nos), for us (pro nobis, by Christ alone (solo Christo) and applied to us the Holy Spirit.

Those who benefit from Christ’s work do so by “effectual application” worked by the Spirit. How does this work? The adjective “effectual” signals that we’re thinking about that which the Spirit does, as distinct from what is offered generally to all in the preaching of the Gospel.

Question 30 answers

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).

So far there is no question about who applies Christ and his benefits to us: the Holy Spirit. The next question is how the Spirit applies Christ’s benefits to us. The answer is “by working faith in us.” In the context of the current discussions and confusion about the doctrine of union with Christ we must appreciate the simplicity and clarity of the Shorter Catechism. Once more: The Holy Spirit applies the redemption that Christ purchased, earned for us “by working faith in us.”

According to some accounts of mystical or existential union with Christ, we might have expected to see the catechism say, “through [mystical] union with Christ” but that is not what the catechism says. Union with Christ is not the instrument through which we apprehend Christ and his benefits, faith is.

There is a second aspect to this answer. There is a subordinate clause beginning with the word “thereby.” The clause says: “thereby uniting us to Christ.” To what does the “thereby” refer? Faith. How does the Spirit apply redemption? By faith. What else does faith do? It unites us to Christ. Not only is faith the instrument of justification it is also the instrument of union with Christ.

Remember, according to Perkins, there are multiple aspects of union with Christ. There isn’t any genuine disagreement over the decretal union or the federal (representative) union with Christ. The aspect over which there has been confusion has been mystical or existential union with Christ.

This is how the following questions characterize and describe the work of the Spirit in effectual calling:

Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

The Spirit convicts, renews, enlightens, and renews the heretofore spiritually dead, unregenerate will. The Spirit is said to “persuade and enable” the renewed faculties to “embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” That embrace is faith. Those who’ve been given new life, who’ve been given faith, who by grace have embraced Christ through faith alone, receive “justification, adoption and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.”

Finally, it should be noted again that we have been considering the logical, not temporal order of salvation. This discussion has to do with how we should think and speak (and teach) about the work of the Spirit and the instrumental role of faith in justification and sanctification. We should think and speak of the Spirit working through the “due use of the ordinary means,” i.e., through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ’s actively obedient suffering, death, and victorious resurrection. We should think and speak of the Spirit creating new life in the elect, giving faith to those renewed, and through that faith conferring union with Christ, justification, adoption, etc.

Contrary to the way some are speaking today, faith is not simply the instrument of justification, it is also the instrument of union and if we are going to characterize the Christian life as a life lived in union and communion with Christ, then we must also characterize it as a life lived by faith. It is not that faith has only one function and that it fulfills its one function in justification and then is locked away in a box for safe keeping. If faith is the instrument of union and union is of the essence of the Christ life then faith is of the essence of sanctification just as it is of the essence of justification.

Historically, some Reformed folk have been tempted to place predestination in the foreground of Reformed theology. Our best theologians and certainly our confessional documents tend to treat predestination as a source of explanation for why things are the way they are but it remains in the background. For example, Theodore Beza (like Calvin) and the Reformed orthodox typically discouraged believers from asking, “Am I elect?” That’s the wrong question because we cannot know, in the abstract, if we are elect. It would require knowledge of God’s decree and such knowledge is hidden from us (Deut 29:29). The question we should ask is: “Do I believe?” The logic is thus: Only the elect believe, I believe, therefore I’m elect. That’s the Reformed faith.

Our theologians and ecclesiastical documents tend to treat mystical union in a similar way. Rather than asking, “Do I have mystical union with Christ?”—again, how, in the abstract would we know?—we should ask, “Do I believe?” The Reformed faith teaches: Believers have union with Christ. I believe. Therefore I have union with Christ. If we start with mystical union or if we focus on it we tend to lose Christ, who is the object of faith and the source of our life. After all, the point of mystical union is to connect us to Christ not to call attention to itself.

Through Good Works?

Introduction
In Reformed theology the noun salvation is typically used in two ways. Sometimes it is used as a synonym for justification. When used this way it does not include sanctification since, according to the Reformed confession, justification is a declarative act of God whereby he credits (imputes) to sinners the perfect, active and suffering righteousness of Christ so that it is as if those sinners to whom Christ’s righteousness has been so imputed are considered to have themselves accomplished personally all the Christ did for them as their substitute. Further, we say that this benefit is received through faith alone (sola fide) defined as trusting, resting in, and receiving Christ and his righteousness. We confess that both the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and faith as the receiving instrument are nothing but God’s free gifts. Hence we attribute all of this to God’s favor (grace) alone. The slogan for this is sola gratia, by grace alone.

We also say, however, that God’s grace is twofold (duplex), the justification is the first benefit (beneficium) and sanctification is the second. It is not a “second blessing” in the way neo-Pentecostalists speak of tongues etc as a “second blessing,” as if there are two classes of Christians, those with and those without. Rather, we say that progressive sanctification flows from or grows out of and is grounded in our justification. It too is also a gift of God, his work in his by his Spirit, through his divinely ordained means, whereby he puts to death in us the sin and makes alive in us Christ or whereby he is gradually and graciously conforming us to Christ.

The noun salvation is also used to describe that whole complex of benefits, justification and sanctification. In this sense we are thinking both of deliverance from the wrath to come and from the effects of the fall in this life. In our confessional documents and in our theologians both of these benefits (justification and sanctification) are said to be by grace alone. Often times, though not perhaps universally, in our theologians (as distinct from our ecclesiastical confessions) salvation is said to be through faith alone. That is, the sole instrument of justification and salvation is faith alone. In our confessions certainly and in our better writers, good works are said to be a necessary concomitant or an accompanying fruit and evidence of justification and salvation.

Diversity of Expression Within Confessional Boundaries
Since I have already addressed this at length let us focus specifically on the use and function of the English instrumental phrase “through good works” and its Latin equivalent, “per bona opera.” There is no question whether Reformed writers have used this language. The question is what was meant by it. As we grapple with the diversity of expression within Reformed theology we should also remember that there are confessional boundaries. In other words, the temptation in our age is to appeal to “the many” or the particular over against “the one” or that which unifies. Cornelius Van Til was correct. We should also seek to keep the one and the many together. There is value in recognizing differences but we should not mistake formal or rhetorical differences for substantial differences. Further, there was a unified Reformed theology. We know that because it came to expression authoritative ecclesiastically sanctioned documents, the Reformed confessions. Those documents, under the sole, unique authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura) form the boundaries of what properly constitutes the Reformed confession, i.e., our theology, piety, and practice. Not every opinion or every expression of every Reformed writer is definitive for Reformed theology.

Heidelberg Catechism 86 is a classic expression of the Reformed confession concerning the moral necessity of good works:

86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ.

Since I have already written a four-part explanation of this question and answer suffice it to say here that the catechism gives 4 reasons for doing good works:

  1. Gratitude
  2. God’s Glory
  3. Assurance of Faith
  4. Christian Witness

The catechism never remotely suggests that good works are either the ground of our salvation—the very idea of which it repudiates consistently—nor does it suggest or imply that good works are any part of the instrument of our salvation. Notice that the term in the question is not justification but “redeemed.” This is the broader of idea of deliverance from wrath (justification) and the effects of sin (sanctification). Though we confess justification and salvation sola fide, through the sole instrument of faith, we do not confess sola fides, i.e., a faith that is alone. A living tree produces good fruit.

The Question: Do Good Works Return As Instruments Under The Heading Of Salvation?
Nevertheless, it is being suggested by some that, through we should say that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, when it comes to salvation we should say that we are saved through faith and good works. I have previously addressed this question in a number of posts. You can find them under the heading of salvation. Please take a look at those resources.

Yesterday someone argued that, in Institutes 3.14.21 that Calvin did use the expression “per bona opera” which is translated through or by good works. This raises the question: did the Reformed teach that good works are co-instrumental in salvation in the fullest sense? Did they teach that it is partly through faith and partly through good works that we are delivered from the wrath to come and from the effects of sin? On its face it seems improbable that evangelical Protestants, who had just emerged from the medieval doctrine of justification through progressive sanctification (by grace and cooperation with grace) should turn around and posit that we are delivered from the wrath of God, even in part, by or through our cooperation with grace or good works. So, is it the case that they intended to teach that believers are delivered from the effects of sin in this life through good works or that we come into possession of eternal life through good works as a co-instrument with faith?

Tyndale
An electronic search of several hundred English-language texts from the 16th and 17th centuries produces limited results. The phrase “through good works” is often used relative to an appeal to a late textual variant, noted by Theodore Beza, in 2 Peter 1:10 in which the phrase “through good works” (διὰ καλῶν ἐργῶν) was added. Thomas Adams (1583–1653) commented on it in his 1633 commentary on 2 Peter. Other writers did the same. The argument is that good works are a secondary way through which we confirm the reality of our election. The first question here is always “What has God promised?” The second, ” do I believe?” and only after that do we turn to good works as evidence of the fruit of our salvation but, as we saw in Heidelberg 86, we certainly do so.

John Hooper (c. 1495–1555), a solid evangelical who was martyred for the gospel, refuted the Roman calumny that the Protestant doctrine of justification (and salvation) leads to moral laxity by arguing:

I believe also that, as the Lord hath created all things heavenly and earthly for the service of man, and to the end that by his creatures he might come to the knowledge of the Creator; even so also hath he formed and made man for himself, that of him and by him he might be known, loved, feared, served, and honoured, which is the greatest good thing that is or can be in man; and that in him might shine the image of divine virtues and perfections through good works, the which God hath ordained, because we should walk in them unto his honour and praise, and to the confusion of the adversary….(A brief and clear confession of the Christian faith…according to the order of the Creed of the apostles (1550; repr. Cambridge 1852), n.p.).

The function of good works is to glorify God, to manifest his grace toward us. This is one of the four reasons adopted by the Reformed Churches in the Heidelberg.

The great, foundational English Reformer William Tyndale (c.1494–1536), in his Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1528) addressed this problem directly. What are we Protestants to make of those passages which talk about good works?

After the same manner shalt thou interpret the scriptures which make mention of works: that God thereby will that we show forth that goodness which we have received by faith, and let it break forth and come to the profit of other, that the false faith may be known, and weeded out by the roots. For God giveth no man his grace that he should let it lie still and do no good withal: but that he should increase it & multiply it with lending it to other & with openly declaring of it with the outward works, provoke & draw other to God. As Christ saith in Matthew the fifth chapter let your light so shine in the sight of men that they may see your good works, & glorify your father which is in heaven (p. x).

Tyndale classes such passages under fruit and evidence. By our good works we “show forth” that which we have received through faith and love our brothers and sisters in Christ. His first instinct is to think of good works as necessary as fruit and evidence.

He also connects them to our assurance:

Moreover therewith the goodness, favor, & gifts of God which are in thee, not only shall be known unto other, but also unto thine own self, and ye shall be sure that thy faith is right, and that the true spirit of God is in thee, and that thou art called and chosen of God unto eternal life, and loosed from the bonds of Satan whose captive thou wast, as Peter exhorteth in the first of his second epistle, through good works to make our calling & election (wherewith we are called & chosen of God) sure. For how dare a man presume to think that his faith is right, and that Gods favor is on him, & that Gods spirit is in him (when he feeleth not the working of the spirit, neither himself desposed to any Godly thing. Thou canst never know or be sure of thy faith, but by the works, if works follow not yea and that of love, without looking after any reward, thou mayest be sure that thy faith is but a dream and not right, and even the same that James called in his epistle. ii. Chapter deed faith and not justifying (ibid, p. xi).

Notice that he too appealed to the textual variant in 2 Peter 1:10 so that the instrumental function of good works here is not in order that we might be saved or in order that we might enter into heaven but that in order that through them we might glorify God, edify others, and give evidence of our faith.

Above, we considered a couple of ways some Reformed writers used the expression “through good works.” In this installment we want to consider Institutes 3.14.21 where Calvin, in speaking of the relations between the good works of believers (bona fidelium opera) and salvation (salutis) used the expression “per bona opera” (through good works). That expression is translated “through good works” or “by good works.” It seems that Calvin ascribed to good works a co-instrumental role, along with faith, in our salvation. Indeed, Calvin says “Scriptures shows (Scriptura…ostendit) that good works are “causes” (causas

Context
In order to understand properly what Calvin wrote we need to put these passages in context. Chapter 21 is about the relations between justification and sanctification, which he called the “progress” of justification. In other words, for Calvin, the definitive act of God in declaring sinners righteous, on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which is received through faith alone, results in the gradual sanctification of the Christian.

The question that he pursued through the section is the cause of virtue (e.g., 3.14.2). Rome made virtue the product of our free cooperation with grace toward progressive sanctification or progressive justification. For Rome, justification is ordinarily never final or certain in this life. Therefore, for Rome, any claim to assurance is necessarily regarded as presumption. Calvin, on the other hand, was an evangelical (in the 16th-century sense of the word), a Protestant. He accepted Luther’s basic insights as fundamental to the doctrine of justification. For Calvin, virtue is the product of the Spirit’s work in us as a consequence of definitive justification.

In 3.14.3–4 he argued that virtue (sanctification) is the product of true faith, through which we are united to Christ. “we have attained the hope of salvation by his grace alone, not by works” (3.14.5; Battles edition). He explicitly rejected the notion “that in entering into possession of redemption we are aided by our own works” (3.14.6, ibid). At the outset (3.14.1) he observed that there are four classes of persons relative to justification. Those:

  1. endowed with no knowledge of God and immersed in idolatry;
  2. initiated into the sacraments, yet by impurity of life denying God in their actions while they confess him with their lips, they belong to Christ only in name;
  3. they are hypocrites who conceal with empty pretenses their wickedness of heart;
  4. regenerated by God’s Spirit, they make true holiness their concern.

The 2nd and 3rd groups, he wrote (3.14.7) are hypocrites and/or only nominal Christians, i.e., they have not been given new life by God. Because they lack new life they also lack faith and we “attain these benefits only by faith….”

Only those who belong to the 4th class are righteousness before God because only they have true faith and only they have the Spirit who is also working progressive sanctification in them. Even in a state of grace, even though we being sanctified by the Spirit our good works will always, in this life, remain corrupt (3.14.8). Those who think that they can contribute to their salvation by their works, even if they appeal to the work of the Spirit, underestimate the severity of the law (3.14.10). Anyone who wants to present himself to God on the basis of good works, even Spirit-wrought good works, has placed himself back under the law and he must then fulfill all of it perfectly, which no sinner can do (ibid). Calvin was insistent that it is only through faith in Christ that we can appear before God (3.14.11), as Abraham did. “Paul does not say to the Ephesians that we have the beginning of salvation from grace but that we have been saved through grace, “not by works, lest any man should boast” (ibid).

The Fourfold Causal Scheme Applied To Salvation
Calvin continued by despatching the medieval doctrine of “supererogatory” works and the so-called “treasury of merit” (3.14.12–15). Rather, he argued, that we must “banish from our minds” any confidence in good works and we must never ascribe to our good works any glory (3.14.16). If we use the fourfold cause scheme of “the philosophers” (Aristotle et al) then works are not “fit for the establishing (constituenda) of our salvation” (3.14.17).

  1. “The efficient cause” of obtaining eternal life is God’s mercy and his “freely-given” love toward us.
  2. The “material cause” is Christ and his righteousness earned for us.
  3. The “instrumental cause” is faith. His proof text was John 3:16, which does not say “works” but “believes.”
  4. The “final cause” (or purpose) is his own glory.

He restated this scheme by appealing to other passages. Again he argued that the “instrumental cause” is faith and his proof text was Romans 3:25 “through faith in his blood” and Romans 3:26 “the justifier of him who has faith in Christ.” “Since we see that every particle of our salvation stands thus outside of us, why is it that we still trust or glory in works?” (ibid).

What then do good works do in our salvation? In the first instance they remind us of God’s mercy and grace toward us in Christ (3.14.18). In the second case they are “fruits” of his efficacious call (3.14.19). We “take the fruits of regeneration (ex regenerationis fructibus) as proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit….” (ibid). Our good works, to the degree they are good, are not ours. They are the Spirit’s. Thus, we do not present them to God as anything but evidence of his grace toward us, which is what the Old Testament believers did when they appealed to their works.

Through Good Works
This brings us to the 3.14.21, the section in which Calvin used the expression “through good works” (per bona opera). Having considered the broader context, this language takes on a different character than it might should we consider that phrase in the abstract. Again Calvin recited the four causes he had already discussed in order that our faith should not be shaken we must know:

that the efficient cause of our salvation consists in God the Father’s love; the material cause in God the Son’s obedience; the instrumental cause in the Spirit’s illumination, that is, faith; the final cause, in the glory of God’s great generosity (ibid, Battles edition).

These foundational truths, however, Calvin argued do not “prevent the Lord from embracing works as inferior causes (causas inferiores).” How do these “inferior causes” function? Those whom God has elected unconditionally he leads (inducit)into possession of it, in his ordinary providence, “through good works” (per bona opera). When we interpret this expression there are certain conclusions that we must reject. First, it is not possible that “through good works” means “good works are the co-instrumental cause of our salvation.” We know this conclusion is impossible because Calvin was at pains to make very clear that the only “instrumental cause” of our “salvation” (that is the term of discussion here since it is apparently broader than justification) is faith. In other words, Calvin taught salvation (justification and sanctification) sola fide. He assiduously excluded good works of every kind, even Spirit-wrought good works, from the other causes as well.

We will understand him better if we understand what an “inferior cause” is. Essentially it is a “co-incidence,” i.e., it is something which occurs along with something else. Consider Noah and his household. They were in the ark and they went through the water. We could say that they were saved “through the water.” By this we do not intend to say that the water saved them nor do we mean that the water had saving power but that they were in the water and it was in the midst of the water and from the water that the Lord saved them. He used the ark to save them. Christ is the ark.

The water is co-incident with the ark. The water constituted the circumstances in which Noah and his family were saved. Good works are the circumstances in which believers come into possession of eternal life. They are not instrumental in the possession of them. Faith alone is that instrument. Christ’s righteousness imputed alone is the ground. Behind it all is God’s mercy and grace. good works are not a “cause” in the same sense that God’s mercy and grace, faith, and his glory are causes.

This is how Calvin explained the role of good works in salvation. In the ordinary providence of God it is the case that those who are saved, by grace alone, through faith alone, produce the fruit of good works. Salvation comes after that. “What goes before in the order of dispensation he calls the cause of what comes after” (ibid). Nevertheless, he hastened to add that Scripture does not speak this way because it wants to ascribe the possession of eternal life to good works. Rather, it is part of the order of things. In short, it Calvin was trying to say that good works are fruit and indicators, they exist in those who are saved. They are the ordinary, expected, accompaniment of new life and true faith. This is why we must not “take refuge” in good works. Our only refuge is God’s mercy to us sinners in Christ. Death is owing to our sin but eternal “life rests solely upon God’s mercy” (ibid).

Conclusion: Co-incidental Is Not Co-Instrumental
In Institutes 3.14.21 Calvin used a mode of expression that would be taken up and repeated by a number of writers in the Reformed tradition. They distinguished between having “title” to eternal life through faith alone and “taking possession” of it with respect to works. The tendency, in some quarters, has been to take the second half of the distinction as making good works co-instrumental in salvation. As I have already argued with respect to Turretin and Witsius, that interpretation is not correct.

In using this language, however, Calvin assumed a degree of understanding of the traditional Christian appropriation of the Aristotelian causal scheme. He also intended this language to be understood in light of the 20 sections he had already written to explain the ground, instrument, and purpose (or causes) of our salvation (justification and sanctification). He was arguing with Rome, who taught that we are justified through progressive sanctification, that our justification is initiated in baptism, continued by our cooperation with grace and good works, and finally consummated upon perfection (ordinarily) after this life. He was disputing their allegation that the Protestants (e.g., Luther and Calvin) had removed any genuine incentive to good works. Good works are no more a second blessing than fruit is a second blessing to a tree. He was also acutely aware of the “Libertines” in Geneva, who had resisted the evangelical doctrine of the moral and logical necessity of good works as a consequence of salvation. The same arguments refute both errors. If good works are the fruit and evidence of salvation then they are necessary to those who profess faith in Christ.

Antinomianism remains a danger today but in our response to it, as we work through yet another controversy over justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come (or salvation as encompassing all three aspects), let us not lose sight of our precious evangelical heritage: salvation sola gratia, sola fide in which the Spirit produces in his people the fruits and evidence of his salvation to his glory alone and to the encouragement of believers.

 

The Consensus Of The Divines, Legalism, And The Covenant Of Works

Introduction
Recently it has been argued that the Westminster Standards (i.e., the Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, and the Larger Catechism), were consensus documents and as such represent a general agreement on certain points but as a consensus document the doctrine of the confession is not intended to be binding at every point. Thus, regarding the doctrine of the covenant of works, it is argued that there were several theologians in the period who did not teach it and thus today, even those who affirm the Westminster Standards are not obligated to believe the covenant of works. It is further argued that there is a fundamental problem in the doctrine of the covenant of works, namely that it is legalistic. As the argument goes, if we combine these two considerations, one can be faithful to the Westminster Standards and deny the covenant of works.

Defining Terms
Let us being with the second part of the argument, that the doctrine of the covenant of works is “legalistic.” The adjective “legalistic” is a little slippery. E.g., Christians confess that the abiding validity of God’s moral law. It is the Antinomians, i.e., to those who reject the abiding validity of the moral law, who hold that it expired with the death of Christ. That the moral law was in force before Sinai, during the Old (Mosaic) Covenant, and remains in effect in the New Covenant is the ecumenical Christian doctrine.

There are good reasons to reject the antinomian position. First, the moral law was not first published at Sinai. The moral law is not purely Mosaic. It is grounded in creation. God gave a law to Adam: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16–17; ESV). Implied in that commandment is the entire moral law. It required him to love God above all and his neighbor as himself. It prohibited idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, and covetousness. Further, the Sabbath was already instituted in creation (Gen 2:3; Ex 20:8). It was a part of the creational pattern into which he was created.

God’s moral law is a reflection of his nature and it is reflected and embedded in creation. This is what Paul teaches in Romans chapters 1 and 2. Because it is grounded in creation and revealed in nature, the substance of the moral law is known universally and all humans shall be judged by it. Further, that it was republished at Sinai does not make the moral law purely Mosaic. It temporarily took on some Mosaic, typological features (e.g., the land promise), which were fulfilled and that expired with the death of Christ. The civil and ceremonial Israelite laws were added to it but they, with all the types and shadows, expired with the death of Christ. The moral law does not expire. It cannot expire. We know that the moral law continues in force in the New Covenant. Our Lord summarized the moral law for us in Matthew 22:37–40 and the Apostles re-stated it repeatedly. The moral law per se is not Mosaic but grounded in the nature of God. It can no more change than God can change. There will never be a time when it is appropriate to have another God before the Triune God revealed in Scripture. There will never be a time when it is appropriate to commit adultery or to covet. The premise that the moral law is inherently Mosaic and thus fulfilled and expired in Christ is false. Therefore the conclusion that the moral law is no longer valid is also false.

The claim that the covenant of works is legalistic is, in part, a problem of definition. By legalistic we usually mean three things: that our standing before God might be determined by our law keeping or an undue emphasis upon the law in sanctification or the imposition of man-made laws in the Christian life. None of these is true in the doctrine of the covenant of works. The covenant of works holds that God made Adam’s entrance (and ours) into eternal life conditional upon perfect and perpetual obedience to his holy law. It further holds that God made Adam so that he could obey it, if he would, and the he freely, mysteriously, and tragically chose not to obey. In so doing he, as the federal head of all humanity plunged himself and us into sin and death.

The doctrine of the covenant of works is not legalistic because it was instituted before the fall, when Adam had the ability to obey. Before the fall Adam heart, mind, and will were not corrupted by sin. We must distinguish clearly, with a bright line, between life before the fall (ante lapsum) and after the fall (post lapsum). Historically, it was the Pelagians who refused the make this distinction. They taught that Adam was merely a bad example and Jesus was merely a good example. Pelagius and his followers made Jesus into the first Christian. Thus, they had no compunctions about saying that just as Adam might have obeyed so too we now, even after the fall, have the power to obey. This is the great danger of those who (like Norman Shepherd) talk about Adam’s faith and works, Jesus’ faith and works, and our faith and works as if Adam, Jesus, and we are all saved by faith and works. That is a form of Pelagianism. According to the Synod of Dort, the Remonstrants (Arminians) resuscitated the errors of the Pelagians. This is the irony of describing the doctrine of the covenant of works as Pelagian. It is the absolute antithesis of Pelagianism. The criticism rests on a gross misunderstanding of both Pelagianism and the doctrine of the covenant of works. Pelagius more or less ignored the fall thus blurring the line between the pre- and postlapsarian state. The covenant of works unto glory was only said to be effective before the fall.

To say that sinners are able to obey the law unto sufficiently to enter into eternal blessedness is legalism but the doctrine of the covenant of works has never taught such a thing. It is legalistic to say that Christians are under a covenant of works now for their standing with God but the covenant of works has never taught that either. It is legalistic to impose man-made laws upon Christians but doctrine of the covenant of works does not do that. By any reasonable, objective definition of the covenant of works cannot be called legalistic.

We must also get a right definition of grace. In Scripture grace is God’s favor to sinners. It is not conditioned by anything in them or done by them. Adam was not a sinner until he sinned. He was not under a covenant of grace before the fall.

Some (e.g., Barth and others) set up a system a priori whereby, because of the distance between God and man, the only way God is able to relate to humans is by grace. This is not how Scripture speaks. It is not true that we creatures can only relate to God by grace. The list of things God cannot do is relatively short. He must be and he cannot contradict himself. There is nothing contrary to the divine nature to establish a covenant of works with a righteous man able to meet the terms of the covenant. God is free to establish a covenant whereby we relate to him on the basis of works or obedience to the law. What is there about the revelation of the law in the garden that suggests that Adam was under grace and not under law? If no one has ever been under law, why does Paul say in Romans 2:12, 3:19; 6:14–15 that we are not under law but under grace? Was Jesus in a covenant of grace? Neither the orthodox Reformed theologians have not taught such a thing nor do the Reformed churches confess it. Rather, Paul says Jesus was born “under the law” to redeem those “under the law” (Gal 4:4). Jesus earned our place with God by his perfect, righteous obedience. It is an error even to hint that Jesus’ obedience was accepted by grace because it implies that it was not inherently, worthy, that it was condignly meritorious. Paul says, “so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). Christ became obedient even unto death on a cross (Phil 2:8). He learned obedience (Heb 5:8). The churches confess that Christ merited eternal life.

It is argued by some that we creatures can only and ever relate to God on the basis of grace. It is not clear, however, on what biblical basis one would defend such a position. This seems to be something that its adherents know a priori rather than something they have deduced from Scripture. As we will see in the next installment of this series, that is not the view taken by the Westminster Divines. Indeed, they not only did not characterize the relation between Adam and God before the fall as gracious but they even refrained from characterizing God’s act of establishing the covenant of works as gracious. Instead, they used the expression “voluntary condescension” (WCF 7.1). In other words, the Westminster Divines chose to emphasize God’s freedom in entering into the covenant of works, his condescension (stooping down) to make the covenant of works but they did not call it a gracious covenant or a covenant of grace.

Common Mistakes
There are other (sometimes) unstated reasons why some persist in characterizing the covenant of works as legalistic. First, they do not distinguish sufficiently, clearly or consistently between the Adam’s state before the fall and after. It is one thing to say that Adam was under the law for his standing before God before the fall, when he was perfectly righteous and able to obey the law. It is another to say that he was under the covenant of works for his standing before God, as if he could actually, potentially keep it, after the fall. Yes, the law continued to demand perfect, perpetual righteousness but Scripture repeatedly denies that we sinners can keep it satisfactorily. The only human who kept it perfectly after the fall is Jesus, the God-Man, who came as the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:12–21) and who sustained the probationary test of the covenant of works during his whole life as the substitute of all the elect. We who believe are not under a covenant of works but a covenant of grace. We do not seek to present ourselves on the basis of our obedience or even on the basis of our Spirit-wrought sanctity but only on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness for us. Remember, Jesus was born without sin and never sinned. He was not born a sinner. Our sins were imputed (credited) to him (and in that sense he is said to have “become sin” [2 Cor 5:21] but never sinned (Heb 4:15). He was born under the law (Gal 4:4) not for himself, not to qualify himself, but for us—to be our Substitute and Mediator.

Second, it seems that some are troubled by the very notion that anyone (even Jesus?), under any circumstances (even before the fall) should present himself to God on the basis of obedience to or performance of the law. The early orthodox Scottish Reformed theologian Robert Rollock was not troubled by the notion that Adam was to present himself to God on the basis of his works. He went so far as to say that the covenant of works with Adam, before the fall, was not founded on grace but upon nature, because God made Adam so that he could keep it. Rollock spoke thus because he wanted to distinguish very clearly between works and grace.

The Westminster Divines spoke of voluntary condescension instead of grace  for good reason. They knew that Paul regularly contrasts grace and works as two distinct principles. Romans 11:6 is very clear: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” The principle controlling the covenant under which Adam was placed, before the fall, was not grace (divine favor conditioned upon the obedience of another) but works, i.e., his perfect, personal obedience. It was this principle that was expressed repeatedly to the Israelite: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the law” (Deut 27:26). “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yahweh” (Lev 18:5). These are the passages quoted by the Apostle Paul to prove to the Galatian Judaizers, who were legalists in every sense of the word, that they could not possibly meet the standard they had set for others.

God is gracious to sinners. We might even say that God was gracious to enter into a covenant with righteous Adam (even though the Westminster Divines wisely decided not to speak this way) but we dare not allow the principle of grace to wipe out the principle of law nor ought we to mix the two, so as to make the covenant of works gracious or the covenant of grace legal or we shall find ourselves quite at variance with the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture and in a mess. A legal covenant of grace is an oxymoron as is a gracious covenant of works and neither is good news for sinners. Both tend toward the Pelagianizing error of confusing the pre- and postlapsarian conditions.

The charge of legalism against the covenant of works is one of those allegations that seems persuasive at first because we all know that legalism is bad and that grace is good. It is almost instinctive to react to the charge by asserting the graciousness of the covenant of works. That is a trap, however, into which we ought not step. We need not do so long as we remember that grace and works are two different principles and that Adam was in a covenant of works for us before the fall and that Jesus, as the Last Adam, fulfilled the covenant of works after the fall as our substitute so that we sinners redeemed sola gratia, sola fide might be in a covenant of grace.

Five Reasons To Read The Standards Correctly
It has been argued that the orthodox Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works is legalistic. It has also been argued that since the Reformed confessions, e.g., the Westminster Standards, were intended to be consensus documents therefore those who subscribe them are to respect their teaching in general but are not bound by particular assertions.

Such an approach to the confessions is untenable for five reasons. First, such an approach does not work when applied to analogous documents, e.g., a mortgage. During the purchase of a house, the buyer signs a great number of documents. Each page of the large mortgage agreements is signed or initialed by the buyer. Each time the buyer signs a document he is, in essence, promising to repay the loan and signalling that he understands the consequences if he does not. Imagine trying to say to the loan officer, “Well, I agree with page 21 but I do not agree with page 37. When the buyer signs the loan papers he is agreeing to the entire thing. If the buyer cannot abide an article in the agreement, he must negotiate that at the time of purchase. A signature is not a general agreement with reservations as to particulars.

Reformed Christians also sign binding documents in the church. In the modern American Presbyterian system typically only those who hold special offices (e.g., Minister or Teaching Elder, ruling elder, and perhaps the deacons) are said to be bound to the teaching of the confessional standards. In Reformed churches with European Reformed roots, the entire congregation is said to be bound to the confessional standards. Traditionally, at some point in the ordination process, a minister may actually sign his name to a piece of paper indicating his agreement with the confessional standards. This is why we use the word subscribe, because one’s name is written below the confessional standards.

Second, Signatories to the Reformed confessions indicate thereby that they agree with what the documents say. If a candidate for ministry (or perhaps a lay member) has a reservation about a word, a phrase, or a clause in a confessional document, he makes that reservation known to the body at the time of his examination and his reservation is adjudicated.

Third, Even if one is only agreeing to the “system of doctrine” contained in the confessional documents, that system is composed of particulars. Some of those particulars may not be essential. E.g., in Recovering the Reformed Confession (2008). I argued that the original Reformed understanding of church-state relations was not essential to the Reformed faith, that revising that understanding did not change the essence of Reformed confession. In contrast, were we to change the doctrine of Scripture, God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, or sacraments, that would be a substantial change. Ultimately it is up to one’s ecclesiastical body to judge whether a reservation about a word, phrase, clause or article in a confessional document is essential to the document. It can be proved that the doctrine of the covenant of works is essential to the Westminster Standards.

Fourth, for what it’s worth, the Reformed confessions were not drafted to be selectively subscribed. They were originally subscribed quia, i.e., because they are biblical. Since the 18th century, however, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have frequently adopted a more selective approach to subscription. This selective approach may be relatively conservative or it may be relatively liberal but selective it is. This approach is known as the quatenus (or insofar as) approach. In this form of adherence, the subscriber is said to hold the confessional documents “insofar as” the are biblical. The assumption is that there is some daylight between what the confessions say and what Scripture teaches. It is sometimes assumed that it is up to the individual to draw that line. The notion that one adheres to the Westminster Standards generally but rejects the doctrine of the covenant of works in particular is a consequence of this approach.

Fifth, the revisionist approach being advocated relative to the covenant of works reflects the view that the Reformed confessions are mini-systematic theologies. This is not correct. The Reformed and Presbyterian confessional standards are ecclesiastical documents. A systematic theology, however worthy, is not an ecclesiastical document. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches do not publish systematic theologies. They publish binding ecclesiastical interpretations of God’s Word on those issues deemed by the churches to be essential to the faith and life of the churches. In other words, the confessional standards do not address every possible issue. Where they do speak, however, they are to be regarded as authoritative, ecclesiastical, public interpretations of God’s Word. One may dissent from any number of things in a theologian’s systematic theology. The same is not true of the Reformed confessional standards. Of course they are normed by God’s Word (sola scriptura). Should a minister or member conclude that a word, clause, phrase, or article of the standards are contrary to Scripture, he should bring that case to the churches for their judgment. After that he must decide whether he can live with the judgment of the churches. There is a place for this even under the quia approach to subscription. The form of subscription adopted by the Synod of Dort (1619) provided that a minister whose views changed after ordination should approach his classis (presbytery) and make his views known so that the church might decide whether that change is material to the confession.

It is true that he Reformed confessional standards are consensus documents and for that reason, when we subscribe them, we profess adherence to all that they teach, unless we have brought our reservations before the church to be judged. In other words, it is quite backwards to conclude that because the standards are consensus documents therefore we are not bound the particulars of their teaching. It is precisely because they are consensus documents that we are bound to their particulars. The churches do not speak to everything. Where they do speak it is to be regarded as the considered view of the churches and the public, binding, agreed, authoritative understanding of God’s Word on that issue.

The Westminster Standards Confess The Covenant Of Works
Few doctrines in the Westminster Standards are taught as clearly and repeatedly as the doctrine of the covenant of works. For clarity the relevant phrase is highlighted in italics. In Westminster Confession 7.2, Presbyterians confess: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” This very language reappears in WCF 19.1 “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.” Again, in WCF 19.6 “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works…” and “…although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works…”. The same doctrine, in slightly different language, appears in Westminster Shorter Catechism 12:

What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created?

A. When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

The phrase covenant of life was the committee’s way of articulating the intended outcome of the covenant of works. It is not a different doctrine. The doctrine occurs again in number 16:

Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?

A. The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.

The divines used it again in Larger Catechism number 20:

What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created?

A. The providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created, was the placing him in paradise, appointing him to dress it, giving him liberty to eat of the fruit of the earth; putting the creatures under his dominion, and ordaining marriage for his help; affording him communion with himself; instituting the Sabbath; entering into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, of which the tree of life was a pledge; and forbidding to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

and 22:

Did all mankind fall in that first transgression?
A. The covenant being made with Adam as a public person, not for himself only, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in that first transgression

and 30:

Doth God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?

A. God doth not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the covenant of works; but of his mere love and mercy delivereth his elect out of it, and bringeth them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the covenant of grace

and 97:

What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?

A. Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience

The Westminster Divines taught the doctrine of the covenant of works (or the covenant of life) no fewer than 10 times. Sometimes it is necessarily implied but usually it is expressed explicitly. It is difficult to imagine what else they might have done to try to communicate to us that they believed the covenant of works and that they intended for us to believe it. How many times was it necessary for them to say it? Contrast the relative indifference in some quarters to the covenant of works with the passion some evidence for the doctrine of creation “in the space of six days,” which the divines used twice.

It is nigh unto impossible to imagine how the doctrine of the covenant of works is not essential to the Westminster Standards. It functions to account for the way God related to us before the fall, to explain at least one major function of the law after the fall, and to explain the difference between works and grace. In short, it is essential to our understanding of the history of creation, redemption, and the application of redemption (ordo salutis). Subscribing the Westminster Standards while seeking to omit the covenant of works is like saying that one likes beef, but one likes neither steak nor hamburger.

Further, the doctrine of a prelapsarian covenant covenant of works was widely taught and held well before the Westminster Assembly. That God entered into a probationary covenant of works with Adam before the fall was taught by second century fathers. That Adam was in a covenant of works before the fall was taught by Augustine. It was taught by Ursinus in 1561 and it became almost universally taught by Reformed theologians in the late 16 century and through the 17th century. It became so essential to the Reformed understanding of the creation, redemption, and the application of redemption to the elect that Wilhemus a Brakel (1635–1711) said that those who denied it failed to understand the covenant of grace. He said that in part because it was the Remonstrants (Arminians) among others who rejected the doctrine of the covenant of works and their denial, as Witsius noted, was part of their corruption of the gospel whereby they made the covenant with Adam gracious and the covenant of grace legal, as if that were possible. Pace to those who continue to believe and assert that the covenant of works was a British peculiarity, it was also taught by the Dutch, the Germans, the French, the Swiss, the English, the Scots, and the Irish. It may be implied in the 1561 Belgic Confession’s phrase “commandment of life” (art. 14) but it was confessed unequivocally by the Westminster Divines in the 1640s. For more on the history of Reformed covenant theology see the essay “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Orthodoxy,” in Herman Selderhuis, ed., Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2013).  Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, repr. 2008). See also the bibliography here.

Conclusion
In Reformed and Presbyterian theology and in the Presbyterian confessional standards, the doctrine of the covenant of works is not a second blessing reserved for a few illuminati. It is not a mere antiquity that we have outgrown nor is it some option on a menu of doctrines. When ministers, teaching elders, and ruling elders subscribe the confessional standards in Presbyterian Churches surely they are endorsing a doctrine confessed 10 times. If they are persuaded by arguments against that doctrine they ought to bring those arguments to their ecclesiastical assemblies for review.

Further Research

Here are libraries of posts and original source quotations on the Covenant of Grace, the Covenant of WorksCovenant Theology, and Recovering the Reformed Confession. For a more detailed discussion of the role of confessions in the life of the church see Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).

The Synod Of Dort On Election, Conditions Of Salvation, And Fruit

The Reformed churches have endured discussions and disagreements about salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come) before. Beginning in the late 16th century a Reformed minister in Amsterdam began offering significant revisions of the Reformed understanding of Scripture. Early on critics accused him of corrupting the faith but he was allied by marriage with some powerful families and therefore was protected. When a teaching position opened up at the most prestigious university in the land he was nominated to fill the post. Despite misgivings by faculty members and others he was appointed and almost immediately there was controversy. He was accused of replacing orthodox textbooks with unorthodox ones. He was accused of denying the Reformation doctrine of salvation. He denied the charges and always, throughout the controversy, played the victim—a rhetorical stance which has become standard for his followers since. Over the years it became clear that this revisionist was not merely trimming the edges of Reformed theology but advocating a revolution. His movement not only placed the churches in jeopardy but threatened to become a cause of civil war. Within a year after his death, his followers published a five-point summary of what he had been teaching, four points of which conceded what had been charged against him. The fifth point, on perseverance, was deliberately obscure and finally, in 1618, 9 years after his death, an international synod met to address the crisis and to stem the spread of the movement he had unleashed. Of course we are talking about Jacobus Arminius (d. 1609) and the Remonstrant movement he created, Arminianism.

One of the theological motives of the Remonstrants, which is not always fully appreciated, was that they had concluded that the Reformation doctrine of salvation (e.g., definitive justification and consequent progressive sanctification) would never produce the sort of godliness and good works they thought ought to mark the life of the Christian. Thus, they created a system whereby good works are not merely the fruit and evidence of salvation but an antecedent condition thereof. That is, where the orthodox Reformed had faith as the “sole instrument” or antecedent condition of justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come (salvation), the Remonstrants had faith and works.

In the Remonstrant theology even election was said to be conditional. The Remonstrants taught that God had determined to save those who “shall believe on this his son Jesus, and shall persevere.” Salvation, they taught, was conditioned upon foreseen faith (fides praevisa) and upon our cooperation with grace. They used the word grace, as moralists usually do, but the clear effect of their revision was to take the Reformed churches back to the medieval system of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace or salvation by grace and works. Indeed, their doctrine of the election was worse than some taught by the medievals since Gottschalk (d. c. 867), Thomas (d. 1274), and e.g., Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) had taught unconditional election before the Reformation. The Remonstrants turned the gracious Reformation doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide on its head. Note carefully how vociferously and with what terms the Synod rejected the Remonstrant theology:

We reject the errors of those who teach hat Christ by His satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for any one, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that He merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as He might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions. For these adjudge too contemptuously the death of Christ, in no way acknowledge that most important fruit or benefit thereby gained, and bring again out of hell the Pelagian error (Rejection of Errors 2.3).

The Reformed churches of the Netherlands, France (in absentia), Great Britain, the Palatinate, Geneva, Bremen, Zürich, and elsewhere with one voice rejected these revisions in the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618–19). These canons (or rulings) of the Synod are helpful in the current discussions about sanctification, conditions in the covenant of grace, good works, and salvation. The Canons are organized under 5 “heads of doctrine,” corresponding to the Five Points of the Remonstrance.

Conditions
The term “conditio” occurs about 10 times in the Canons. It occurs first in Canons 1.9 and that use tells us a good bit about the concerns of the orthodox about the Remonstrant theology.

This election was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: “He chose us [not because we were, but]…that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love” (Eph 1:4).

One of the most fundamental things that the Reformed needed to re-assert was the total inability of fallen man and the radical, free favor (grace) of God, in Christ, toward helpless sinners. The Remonstrant revision had it that we are not as sinful as Augustine and the Reformation had said. They posited some ability to cooperate with grace. Indeed, arguably, they collapsed grace into nature. By nature, even after the fall, we had sufficient ability to do our part. In this scheme, grace becomes a helper but not the marvelous, sovereign free favor earned for us by Christ and given unconditionally to sinners. According to the Synod, there are no conditions that we must meet in order to warrant God’s favor in salvation. Rather, by contrast, the Reformed taught that election is the “fons (the source) of all salvation (fons omnis salutaris). Notice that the divines singled out not only “foreseen faith” but also “the obedience of faith, sanctity, or other good quality and disposition.” The Remonstrant position had the effect of moving the ground of our salvation from Christ’s righteousness for us (pro nobis) back to qualities intrinsic to us. According to the Remonstrants we are saved partly on the basis of things done by us and wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace. Such a system raises the question: how much must one do, in cooperation with grace, in order to be saved? That such a question necessarily arises tells us that we are no longer living in the house of the Reformation and that we are not talking about “grace alone” and “faith alone” but grace plus works. The Remonstrants turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works (E.g., Rejection of Errors 2.2).

We know that the orthodox Reformed concern was the reception of eternal life because the Canons themselves say so. That is why the Reformed churches re-asserted that “faith, sanctity, and the remaining saving goods, and then eternal life itself flows from (profluunt) and is the effect of ” God’s sovereign, unconditional election. We are not elect because we are sanctified or obedient or because of foreseen faith but but we are being graciously, gradually sanctified by God because of God’s unconditional electing grace in Christ.

This was the doctrine of art. 10 also. The “cause” of our election is only (solum) God’s good pleasure (Dei beneplacitum). Salvation is not the outcome of our sanctification and good works. Rather, our sanctification and the consequent good works are the result of our salvation. The Remonstrants had set up “possible human qualities and actions” as a “condition of salvation” (salutis conditionem). The Reformed taught that God unconditionally, freely elected out of the “common multitude of sinners” (communi peccatorum multitudine) some to salvation. Their proofs? Romans 9:11–13 and Acts 13:48. Jacob believed and was saved because he was unconditionally elect. The Reformed make salvation a benefit freely given to sinners in the covenant of grace.

Fruits
According to Canons 1.12, God’s free, sovereign decree of election comes to expression in history “in due time” in various ways. In other words, our experience varies. Even though our salvation is as sure as God’s free grace and election our subjective experience of assurance varies. It is interesting then to note how the divines spoke of the “infallible fruits of election” (fructus electionis infallibiles). According to the divines (and contrary to the popular caricature of Reformed theology and piety) we are never to ask “Am I elect?” Rather, the divines would have us ask, “Do I believe? Is there some evidence of true faith?” God’s grace produces observable effects. We are not to rest in but we are to observe the effects of election: true faith in Christ (vera in Christum fides), a filial fear of God—not a servile fear. Believers are in a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. We respect (timor) our holy God but we do not fear him as if we are under judgment. Christ has endured that judgment for us. Because we have been saved and are being saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone we have a genuine sorrow (dolor) for sin, a hungering and thirsting for our own actual righteousness. Our sanctification and good works are the fruits of God’s gracious election and salvation, which he bestows unconditionally upon his people.

The divines were aware of the Remonstrant doctrine that there are different kinds of election: “general and indefinite” (general et indefinitam) and “singular and definite” (singularem et definitam). We have faced the exact same threat in our time in the self-described “Federal Vision” theology, which posits two kinds of election, eternal and conditional. The Reformed approach to assurance is to start with the objective, Christ’s work for us, which is credited to us and received by us through faith alone (sola fide). We observe the fruits of God’s grace and give thanks to him for them. We rest in Christ and his promises (gospel) but we recognize that he is working in us, however slowly that almost imperceptibly that work may sometimes seem to us. We do not have to choose between the objective and the subjective. We embrace them both. Neither do we need to become de facto sacerdotalists by turning baptism into magic so that our only answer to doubt is “I am baptized” (and ergo necessarily saved ex opere operato). No, baptism itself is not salvation but a sacrament of our salvation, i.e., a sign and seal of what is true of those who believe. Baptism is not the “sole instrument” (Belgic Confession art. 22) of our salvation. Faith is is the alone instrument of our salvation (sola fide).

The divines also, however, rejected as an error the notion that there is an election unto faith (electio ad fidem) or unto justifying faith (ad fidem justificantem) but which nevertheless leaves one “without a preemptory election to salvation (absque electione peremptoria ad salutem; rejection of errors 1.2). The Remonstrants were trying to set up a system where our salvation is in stages. We are justified now but not yet saved, which is the second stage. Here was their opportunity to make room for our good works and cooperation with grace co-instruments of our salvation. According to the Reformed churches, however, under such a construction, “the doctrine of election is corrupted” and the “golden chain of our salvation is dissolved” (auream hanc salutis catenam dissolvens). To that end they re-asserted the ordo salutis (order of salvation) by quoting Romans 8:30. “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (ESV). This fact should give us pause when we encounter those contemporary writers who wish to “move beyond” what they dismiss as “ordo salutis thinking.” There is an order to the application of redemption. It is the elect who are given new life, who come to faith, who through faith are justified, united to Christ, adopted,  saved, and glorified. Our salvation is not contingent upon our performance, even if that performance is qualified as “cooperation with grace.” Any such construction necessarily turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

One consequence of abandoning the biblical and Reformed order of the application of redemption is our current confusion over the nature of salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come), conditions in the covenant of grace, and the role of good works. This confusion is not new. There was confusion in the 1590s and in the early 17th century leading up to the Synod of Dort. The Remonstrants were not satisfied with the Reformation doctrines. They wanted our cooperation with grace and our good works to be more than the fruit and evidence of our justification and our sanctification, more than those necessary accompaniments to true faith and sanctification. In response the the Synod made not only our sanctification and good works but our new life and our faith to be fruit and evidence of our unconditional election. In so doing, they effectively re-contextualized the whole debate. Where the Remonstrants, who denied the pre-lapsarisan covenant of works, had put believers in a covenant of works for salvation, the Reformed churches re-asserted that believers are in a covenant of grace for salvation. As a result of the Synod’s reassertion of the Reformation against the Remonstrants, the question concerning good works was no longer, “How much must I do to warrant salvation?” but “How should I respond in gratitude for God’s unconditional favor to me in Christ?”

The Fifth Article Of The Remonstrance
Now we want to consider the fifth article of the 1610 Remonstrance, on perseverance. It was vague and confusing and must be read carefully, word by word, phrase by phrase, and clause by clause. It began with promising language, by speaking of those who are “incorporated into Christ by a true faith,” who have “thereby become partakers….” This sort of language was very familiar to the Reformed and created a false impression that the Remonstrants were more sympathetic to the Reformed cause than they really were. As I always say: keep reading. According to the Remonstrants, we are partakers of Christ’s “life-giving Spirit….” This is a subtle move since the truth is that it is the Spirit who has sovereignly and unconditionally made us alive (regenerated us), given us true faith, and who, through the sole instrument of faith, united us to Christ. We are already partakers of Christ’s life-giving Spirit.

The second sentence of 5 could expresses the underlying Perfectionism of the Remonstrants. B. B. Warfield saw this connection and identified two sources for the Perfectionism he encountered in the 19th century: Mysticism and the Remonstrants. According to the Remonstrants, those so united to the Spirit have “full power” to “win the victory.” This language may be interpreted more or less favorably but it is not exactly that of Heidelberg Catechism 56, which speaks of “the sinful nature with which I have to struggle all my life long…” nor of Heidelberg 60, which testifies that even as a Christian, in union with Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit nevertheless “that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil….” One document is full of the spirit of Paul, Augustine, and Martin Luther and the other is not.

The Remonstrants always find a way to put the believer “on the hook” for his final salvation. Grace is never really free. It is never really amazing. As with Rome, grace is reduced to a helper. The Remonstrants wrote of “the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit” and that Jesus Christ “assists” us poor sinners “if only” we are “ready for the conflict and desire his help, and are not inactive….” Here the true nature of the Remonstrant doctrine of perseverance emerges: God helps those who help themselves by cooperating with his “assisting grace.” This is quite another picture of salvation. Here God has not parted the Red Sea and led us through, by the hand, as it were (Jer 31:32; Ex 14:16). Rather, according to the Remonstrants, God has covenanted to co-act with those who do what lies within them (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam). The Remonstrants turned Reformed theology into the Pelagian covenant theology of the Franciscan theologian Gabriel Biel (c. 1420–95). Those who meet these antecedent conditions—the Remonstrants turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works—cannot be plucked out of Christ’s hands. If we only read the first few lines and then let our eyes slip down to quotation of John 10:28 we might get entirely the wrong impression. Once, however, we read the words in between the picture becomes much clearer. The Remonstrants re-contextualized John 10:28 and the evangelical (in the original, sixteenth-century sense of the word), Protestant, Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.

Then comes the last part of the article, in which the Remonstrants feigned modesty and uncertainty about whether it was possible for one, who had been regenerated, “through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace….” Whether that might be true, the offered, “must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scriptures before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.” In light of history we may say with confidence that the Remonstrants made up their minds quickly.

Synod Reasserts The Reformation Doctrine
Of course, the Synod was having none of it. They categorically rejected this doctrine as Pelagianizing, to whom or to which heresy they referred no fewer than 8 times. Remember, what is at stake here is the salvation of the elect. What is the nature of salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come)? Is it by “assisting grace” and sufficient cooperation with the same or by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide)? In the Rejection of Errors under the Fifth Head of Doctrine (on perseverance) Synod explicitly labelled the Remonstrant doctrine “Pelagianism:”

We reject the error of those who teach: That God does indeed provide the believer with sufficient powers to persevere ( sufficientibus ad perseverandum viribus), and is ever ready to preserve these in him if he will perform his office (si officium faciat); but that, though all things which are necessary to persevere in faith and which God will use to preserve faith are furnished to us, even then it ever depends on the pleasure of the will (pendere semper a voluntatis arbitrio) whether it will persevere or not. For this idea contains manifest Pelagianism (manifestum Pelagianismum), and while it would make men free, it make them robbers of God’s honor, contrary to the consensus (consensum) of evangelical doctrine (evangelicæ doctrinæ), which takes from man all cause of boasting, and ascribes all the praise for this favor to the grace of God alone (soli divinæ gratiæ); and contrary to the apostle, who declares that it is God who “will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8).

This paragraph alone makes clear that, for the Reformed Churches of Great Britain, France (in absentia), Geneva, Zürich, the Palatinate, Bremen, and the Netherlands the Reformation was at stake. Under the guise of promoting greater sanctity, the Remonstrants were attempting to lead the Reformed Churches back to medieval moralism: salvation by grace and cooperation with grace. That scheme they could only say that our cooperation with grace was tantamount to the doctrine of salvation by works condemned by the Apostle Paul: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6; ESV).

Where the Remonstrants posited salvation by assisting grace and sufficient cooperation with grace by those who are willing , the Reformed taught that it is by God’s grace alone that we persevere. We are justified by grace alone. We are sanctified by grace alone. We are saved by grace alone. One ground of their insistence upon grace was their stout Pauline, Augustinian, and Protestant assessment of the human condition. The Remonstrants downplayed the effects of the fall. The Reformed understood Scripture to teach that, by nature, we are desperately wicked (Jer 17:9), dead in sins and trespasses (Rom 1–3; Eph 2:1–4). The Remonstrants had collapsed grace into nature. As far as they were concerned, God had endowed us with all we need, if only we will exercise our free will to “do what lies within us,” as the Franciscans had put it. Just as the entire confessional Reformation rejected the Franciscan covenant as Pelagian, so also the Reformed rejected the Remonstrant doctrine of perseverance as its latest manifestation.

Whereas the Remonstrants implied the possibility of perfect sanctification in this life (Perfectionism), the Synod rejected it. Though we are “though not altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh, so long as they continue in this world” (5.1). As long as we are in this life all our good works shall be spotted with sin. This is a cause of humiliation that causes us to turn Christ and by his grace to put to death the old man and to be made alive in the new. We press forward toward heaven, where perfection rests (5.2). The Synod rejected the over-realized eschatology of the Remonstrants.

Left to “what lies within” us, to cooperation with assisting grace, we would be lost. Instead, the churches declared, “God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end” (5.3). Where the Remonstrants said “we can,” the Reformed said, “But God.” The Remonstrants gave us law but the Reformed preached the gospel of free grace in Christ to helpless sinners.

Because of our struggle with sin in this life. Sometimes we are not always “so influenced and actuated” by the Spirit as ought to be. That is why we sometimes “sinfully deviate from the guidance of divine grace.” That is why we do not always experience the presence of God (5.11) and the strong sense of assurance that is ours by right. Sin and the struggle against sin are both real. That is why we confess that it is the “power of God who confirms and preserves true believers in a state of grace…” (5.4). It is by the “righteous permission of God” that we, like David, Peter, and other believers “actually fall into these evils…” (5.4). Such sins are truly offensive. They grieve the Spirit. They interrupt the exercise of faith. They wound the conscience and we may even, for a time, lose the sense of God’s presence (Ps 51:11). In such cases we have not fallen from grace. We have not lost our salvation but we have given ourselves great cause to lament our fallen state, our actual sins, and to repent of them and to seek, by grace alone, to mortify them. Whatever our experience may tell us, the Gospel tells us (5.10) that God never abandons his people. He never permits “them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.” (5.5,6). Even in sanctification (mortification and vivification), the Christian life is still a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. Assurance is restored to believers as their property under the gospel (5.9).

In order to produce sanctity among believers, the Remonstrants sought implicitly to put Christians back under the law, under a covenant of works, for salvation. In contrast, as the Reformed churches understood that it is by grace we are saved, through faith (Eph 2:8–10) unto good works appointed by God for us. God’s grace produces in us a desire to be conformed to Christ (5.13). It is not by the law that we are sanctified, though those who are being sanctified seek earnestly to bring their lives into conformity to God’s holy law. Rather, Synod said:

And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so he preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of his Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the Sacraments (5.14).

The ground of the Christian life, of perseverance is the gospel of God’s free (to us) favor earned for us by Christ and received through faith alone. By his grace he strengthens us. By hearing his Word, by meditating on the gospel, we are drawn back to Christ. By meditating on the law—the threatenings of what happens to those who do not believe—we are driven back to Christ’s righteousness for us but we are not placed under a covenant of works. It is impossible for believers, those for whom Christ died, to be placed back under works for salvation.

Conclusion
As the churches said (5.15), this doctrine will not be received favorably by all. The Socinians rejected it for the same reason as the Remonstrants. Both were essentially rationalists—thus explaining why so many Remonstrants became Socinians after Dort—and wanted to remove the gospel mystery of sanctification and perseverance. To those who know the greatness of their sin and misery and how utterly dependent they are on Christ for salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come) the doctrine of perseverance by grace alone, through faith alone is a great consolation. It is explains our experience. It is a roadmap. It teaches us what to expect and how to understand our experience. Sinners sin but believers repent and seek to be conformed to Christ. We shall not reach perfection in this life but Christ was perfect for us. We shall be perfected after this life or at Christ’s return, whichever happens first. In the ordinary providence of God we shall endure periods of doubt and struggle but God has promised not to abandon us, whatever our experience may suggest. Christ has met the conditions of the covenant of works for us. We, who believe, are in a covenant of grace: All that he did is credited to us and God has graciously worked in us true faith, the sole instrument of our salvation. The Spirit has united us to Christ and is even now sanctifying us in Christ’s image and he shall glorify us.

Muddying The Distinction Between Justification And Salvation

Biblicism is the attemp to read the bible by itself and by one’s self, i.e., in isolation from the church. Sola scriptura means that Scripture alone is the sole, final authority for faith and life but it does not mean to declare either that believers read the bible in isolation from all other books nor does it mean to say that believers read the Scriptures in isolation from the church. Further, sola scriptura does not mean imply nor does it suggest that we should read Scripture as if no one has eve read it before. Such biblicism has a been a great temptation particularly in the modern period and perhaps especially by American evangelicals, where individualism in politics and economics (as advantageous as it is in those spheres) is carried over into ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) and into hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts) and theology. A second temptation that we face is to attempt to create a narrative about the history of Reformed theology by consulting various writers in the tradition, perhaps one’s favorites, and then using one’s reading of the tradition to determine what “the Reformed” view on a topic is. Here is yet another place where the Reformed confessions help. One the one hand, by learning the confessions and by reading Holy Scripture with our confessions to hand we avoid the danger of biblicism, which has almost always been accompanied by faith destroying rationalism On the other hand, the confessions signify for us that the consensus of the Reformed was (and is). Confessions, whether drafted by an individual and adopted by the churches, as in the case of the Belgic Confession, or drafted and adopted by the churches, as in the case of the Canons of Dort, tell us the consensus interpretation of the Scriptures. Thus, if an ostensibly Reformed writer proposes to establish what he perceives to be “the Reformed” view based upon his personal interpretation of Scripture (per biblicism) or derived from his favorite author at the expense of what is confessed by the churches, then we have a right to be skeptical. To be sure, the confessions may be revised and they may be revised on the basis of the interpretation of Scripture and in consultation with the tradition but that is an ecclesiastical process, whereby one overtures ecclesiastical assemblies (e.g., a consistory or session) and engages the whole church.

In the discussions over justification and salvation initially provoked by the Shepherditetheology, which morphed into the self-described, so-called, Federal Vision Theology, that have turned in recent years to discussions about sanctification it has been suggested that though we are justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) when it comes to the broader category of salvation we should think and speak differently. I have already addressed the history of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) on this topic in a series of five detailed posts. I’ve given some consideration to  Ephesians 2:8–10 on the relation of faith to the gift. Here I want to concentrate on the way the Reformed churches speak about justification and salvation.

Let us grant that it is appropriate to distinguish justification and salvation. The former is a narrower category and the latter is broader. Justification has no reference to sanctification. As Calvin said, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.” Under the head of salvation, however, it is appropriate to discuss sanctification. That distinction having been made, some might be tempted to suggest that though we are justified sola gratia, sola fide, we are saved through faith and works or through faithfulness. Were such a suggestion to be made it would be contrary both to the mainstream of Reformed theology and to Scripture as it is confessed by the Reformed churches.

Though, under the heading of salvation, we may discuss sanctification it is not as if sanctification is any less gracious than justification. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is explicit:

Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Note that whereas justification is said by the churches to be “the act of God’s free grace” (WSC 33) whereby God declares us to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith alone, sanctification is the “work of God’s free grace” in renewing us into Christ’s image. Justification is a declarative, definitive (once for all) act and sanctification is a gracious work or process. That is why we have usually spoken of justification as punctiliar and sanctification as progressive, i.e., ongoing.  Rome (like all moralists) confuses justification and sanctification. She says that justification is sanctification and therefore progressive. According to Rome, we are presently being justified by grace and cooperation by grace but we are not yet justified. Scripture says the opposite:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1).

We who believe are presently and perfectly justified. There is no future justification. We are justified now and we shall be vindicated later.

Even when we come to discussing salvation, however, we confess that it too is through faith alone. E.g., the Westminster Shorter Catechism does not say that salvation is through faith and works (faithfulness). No it says that salvation is through faith:

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Notice that faith is a saving grace. It receives and rests upon Christ not only for justification but also for salvation and that is offered through the gospel. Here we see that the churches speak about salvation just the way they speaks about justification.

This way of speaking occurs repeatedly.

Q. 89. 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 convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

Clearly here salvation includes sanctification (e.g., converting, holiness) but even then notice the instrument of salvation: “through faith” and the outcome: “unto salvation.”

Q. 91. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A. The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.

The Spirit also operates through the sacraments. We reject the Romanist doctrine that the sacraments work ex opere. No, it is God the Spirit who works and he works through the sacraments but the blessings signified and sealed by the sacraments are received only by faith. In each case faith is the instrument of salvation.

In the history of the church, the biblicists have typically become Socinians and they rejected essential doctrines of the Christian faith including the doctrine of justification and salvation by free grace. Traditionalists have corrupted the doctrines of justification and salvation out of fear that gospel of free justification and  salvation would not produce the sort of godliness that they want to see in Christians. Ultimately, the Socinians, the Romanists, and the moralists (e.g., Baxter) agreed: the gospel of free justification with God and free salvation must be rejected because it’s insufficient to produce the desired outcome. They agree with Paul’s opponents who asked, in response to the doctrine of free grace, “should we sin that grace may abound”? They too worried that Paul’s gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone would not produce the right outcome. They did not understand or accept that sanctification is a gospel mystery, that sanctification flows from the gospel.

Above we saw the Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks about the relations between justification, salvation, and faith. I’ve been thinking about this partly in light of the suggestion that seems to be about that where we should say that we are justified sola gratia, sola fide we should say that salvation is through faith and works or faithfulness. We saw that the WSC does not speak this way. Each spring I teach a course on the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort). Last Friday we worked through Belgic Confession articles 22 and 23 in which the Reformed Churches confess that the Holy Spirit “kindles true faith in our hearts” and thereby we gain “true knowledge of this great mystery” and that true faith “embraces Jesus Christ with all his merits.”1 True faith seeks nothing beside Christ since, if he is the Savior, then by faith we have all that we need—Christ is sufficient— or he is but half a Savior, i.e., no Savior at all. If Jesus is a mere enabler, if he merely makes it possible to do our part as the Medieval church, Rome, and all moralists teach, then we are doomed because we are so corrupted by sin that we are not capable of doing our part. We are not capable of doing “what lies within us” as the Franciscan theologian Gabriel Biel (1420–95) had taught. Luther studied Biel’s commentary on the Sentences and was taught that version of covenant theology but as he lectured through the Psalter, under the influence of Augustine’s lectures on the Psalms, he realized that Paul was right to say that by nature, in Adam (Rom 5:12–21) we are “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1–4). Therefore we are not, as the medievals imagined, able either to “do what lies within us” nor as our self-described Federal Visionists and New Perspective advocates imagine, “our part of the covenant.” Yes, every covenant does have two parts but, with respect to salvation, we’re talking about a covenant of grace not a covenant of works. This is one of several reasons why it is so important to distinguish those two covenants. The covenant of works said to righteous, holy Adam, “do this and live.” He had the ability to do and live forever. The covenant of grace says to those Adam’s children, heirs of corruption: “trust only in the Last Adam for salvation.” Our part of the covenant of grace is not to obey in order to be justified and saved but to obey because we have been justified and because God has sovereignly brought us out of Egypt, as it were, through the Red Sea (of Christ’s suffering and death) on dry ground. We have been baptized into, i.e., identified with Christ, not he into us. He is the Savior and we are the saved. For these reasons and more, in Heidelberg Catechism 29 we confess that Jesus is the Savior. There’s no mention in the catechism of our cooperating unto salvation. We say “salvation is not to be sought or found in any other.” We would be among others in whom people have been tempted to seek salvation. Question and answer 30 make this explicit:

Do those also believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?

No, although they make their boast of Him, yet in deeds they deny the only Savior Jesus, for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.

People do “make their boast of him.” They do talk about being Christians, about believing in Jesus but they stop short of placing their full confidence in his perfect, whole obedience for his people. They want to make some contribution to their salvation. As we say, however, if Jesus is merely a facilitator, then he is no Savior. The similarities with the language of Belgic Confession art. 22 are clear. True faith

seeks nothing more besides him. For it must needs follow, either that all things which are requisite to our salvation are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him.

Please observe what faith obtains. It is not merely or only justification. Faith embraces Christ and in him finds “everything necessary for salvation. Through faith in Christ we have a complete salvation. Both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism agree entirely with the Westminster Shorter Catechism and all three of these confessional documents interweave salvation and justification. The tidy distinction to which some might be tempted is not present here.

To make Jesus a mere facilitator, rather than a complete Savior, is, we confess, “too gross a blasphemy.” It makes him “half a Savior.” Then, immediately, the confession turns to justification through faith alone. Note this. In order to prove our doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone we appeal to Paul’s doctrine of justification through faith alone.

 Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all his merits, and so many holy works, which he hath done for us and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with him in all his benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.

There are no justified sinners that are not also saved. Salvation is a broader category but it too is sola gratia, sola fide. This becomes clearer in Belgic Confession art. 23, the opening words of which say:

We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied; as David and Paul teach ns, declaring this to be the blessedness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works.

As in article 22, just as soon as the confession touches on salvation it moves to justification through faith alone. The definition of salvation and justification as the “remission of sins” (remissio peccatorum) is in antithesis to the Roman definition of justification as sanctification to which we were said to contribute our condign and congruent merits and acts of propitiation (turning away God’s wrath). In other words, justification and salvation is something God has done for us and which the Holy Spirit applies to us. It is not something that God inaugurates and which we consummate or to which we even contribute. This is why we say, with Paul, “we are just justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ” (Rom 3:24).  To say “freely” is to say that it is not conditioned upon our obedience or even upon the degree of our sanctification. Having been delivered from the Romanist treadmill of salvation through sanctification and that by grace and cooperation with grace, let us not return to it.

This truth, we say is our “foundation” and it gives all glory to God (soli Deo gloria). If salvation and justification are not wholly God’s then there is some glory for us, because we “did our part.”  No, true Protestants, because they are in a covenant of grace and not a covenant of works, are free to acknowledge “ourselves to be such as we really are.” We should not fall into the trap of the moralist, who wants to put us back under the covenant of works. He makes his boast of grace and the covenant of grace but he does not like to distinguish between the covenants of works and grace and so corrupts both of them. As a consequence the believer is never really solidly on a gracious foundation. It’s also a mixed and unstable foundation of grace and works.

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace (Rom 11:6)

These are two different principles. Works says “do in order to be accepted and saved” and grace says, “Christ as done. You are free to do out of gratitude, in the grace, communion of Christ.” Trusting in one’s self, even in one’s cooperation with grace is presumption. Because faith apprehends Christ it is sufficient to cover all our sins. Our works, even our cooperation is nothing, we confess, but a fig leaf and that will lead not to salvation but to being “consumed.” Hence justification and salvation are by grace alone, through faith alone for “it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works” (Belgic Confession, art. 24).

NOTES

1. Both the French and Latin texts of Belgic Confession art. 22 say “true faith.” Schaff translates “une vraie foi” (veram fidem) as “upright faith.” This is quite incorrect and misleading as it begins to take us back down the path to the Roman definition of faith as “formed by charity” (fides formata caritate). See Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 409.

Justified Through Our Faithfulness?

Introduction
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).

and

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)

and

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.

NOTES
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

Introduction
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.

and

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.”

On The Necessity And Efficacy Of Good Works In Salvation

noteIntroduction
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.

NOTES

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.

Warfield on Justification

by  B. B. Warfield
Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology Princeton Theological Seminary, 1887-1921

[NB: This essay was originally published in The Christian Irishman, Dublin, (May 1911), 71. It was reprinted in John E. Meeter, ed., Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, 2 vol. (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), 1.283-284.]

Sometimes we are told that Justification by Faith is “out of date.” That would be a pity, if it were true. What it would mean would be that the way of salvation was closed and “no thoroughfare” nailed up over the barriers. There is no justification for sinful men except by faith. The works of a sinful man will, of course, be as sinful as he is, and nothing but condemnation can be built on them. Where can he get works upon which he can found his hope of justification, except from Another? His hope of Justification, remember– that is, of being pronounced righteous by God. Can God pronounce him righteous except on the ground of works that are righteous? Where can a sinful man get works that are righteous? Surely, not from himself; for, is he not a sinner, and all his works as sinful as he is? He must go out of himself, then, to find works which he can offer to God as righteous. And where will he find such works except in Christ? Or how will he make them his own except by faith in Christ

Justification by Faith, we see, is not to be set in contradiction to justification by Works. It is set in contradiction only to justification by our Own Works. It is justification by Christ’s Works. The whole question, accordingly, is whether we can hope to be received into God’s favor on the ground of what we do ourselves, or only on the ground of what Christ does for us. If we expect to be received on the ground of what we do ourselves–that is what is called Justification by Works. If on the ground of what Christ has done for us — that is what is meant by Justification by Faith. Justification by Faith means, that it to say, that we look to Christ and to him alone for salvation, and come to God pleading Christ’s death and righteousness as the ground of our hope to be received into his favor. If Justification by Faith is out of date, that means, then, that salvation by Christ is out of date. There is nothing, in that case, left to us but that each man must just do the best he can to save himself.

Justification by Faith does not mean, then, that salvation by believing things instead of by doing right. It means pleading the merits of Christ before the throne of grace instead of our own merits. It may be doing right to believe things, and doing right is certainly right. The trouble with pleading our own merits before God is not that merits of our own would not be acceptable to God. The trouble is that we haven’t any merits of our own to plead before God. Adam, before his fall, had merits of his own, and because he had merits of his own he was, in his own person acceptable to God. He didn’t need Another to stand between him and God, whose merits he could plead. And, therefore, there was not talk of his being Justified by Faith. But we are not like Adam before the fall; we are sinners and have no merits of our own. If we are to be justified at all, it must be on the ground of the merits of Another, whose merits can be made ours by faith. And this is the reason why God sent his Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life. If we do not believe in him, obviously we must perish. But if we believe in him we shall not perish but have everlasting life. That is Justification by Faith. Justification by believing in Christ. If Justification by Faith is out of date, then salvation by Christ is out of date. And as there is none other name under heaven, given among men, wherein we must be saved, if salvation through Christ is out of date then is salvation itself out of date. Surely, in a world of sinful men, needing salvation, this would be a great pity.

 

How Did We Come to Faith? Election and Predestination

[This essay was first written c. 1988. It has been revised several times since]

Introduction: Jesus’ Hard Words

Why should we study what the Bible says about how we came to faith in Jesus? Isn’t it enough to simply believe and let it go? After all, do not such discussions only cause hurt feelings and doctrinal arguments among believers? These are good questions. Here are two answers. First, Jesus himself calls us to pay attention to His hard words,

Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life (John 6:61-63).

Second, we should think about these things because they concern God’s glory. He is rightly jealous for His glory. He says, “I will not give my glory to another.”1 Neither should we give God’s glory to another. The question of who saves whom is central to God’s glory.

Its true that discussing God’s eternal decisions can cause trouble. This is also true of any one of a number of biblical doctrines. The solution can hardly be to refuse to think about or discuss Bible doctrines. Scripture itself gives guidelines for Christian discussion. If we treat one another with love, humility and patience, not thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought, then we ought to be able to grow together gracefully.2

In any doctrinal discussion, the most important question is, “What does God’s Word say?”3 It is God’s Word which should determine what we believe. God’s Word alone is His Spirit-inspired, infallible, inerrant, authoritative, self-revelation for faith and life. God’s Word written must determine our faith and confession, even if what it says is difficult to accept

Sin Means Death and Total Inability

Understanding what the Bible says about sin is essential to understanding what the Bible says about salvation. What is sin? 1 John 3:4 says, “Every one who does sin, does lawlessness because sin is lawlessness.”4 James says that if we break one law, we have broken them all.5 Sin is the violation of God’s holy requirements. God’s Word is an expression of God’s holiness. Sin is an offense against God. Paul says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin.”6

God’s Word is equally clear that every human being is born “in sin.”7

There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away….They have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one…All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.8

Contrary to the generally accepted modern view of man, Paul says that by nature we are not seekers after righteousness or God. We are by nature at war with God. The results of sin are accurately described as “total inability.” In Romans 8:7 Paul puts it this way,

The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.

Outside of Christ, before we have been redeemed, our natural (fallen) state is such that we are unable to obey God, it is impossible. Reminding God’s people of the radical nature of God’s saving grace John emphasizes the divine initiative in salvation:

Not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent His Son an atoning sacrifice for our sins.9

In Genesis 2:17 we read that God commanded our first parents, Adam and Eve, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The command to avoid one tree in the Garden was God’s standard of holiness for Adam and Eve. God’s Word says that Adam and Eve were created “in the image of God.”10 The text gives every indication that they had the power and ability to obey God. They freely chose not to obey God.11 The narrative of Genesis chapter 3 certainly seems to confirm Augustine’s conclusion that before the fall we were able not to sin. After the fall, we were not able not to sin.

It is important to note that the penalty attached to the law was death. “For when you eat of it you will surely die.”12 Paul says, “The wages of sin are death.”13 Death, in God’s Word, stands as the absolute opposite of life. Let me illustrate. In High School I had a Physiology teacher who took the class to see cadavers at a university medical school. We were allowed to put our gloved hands into the corpses, to learn how the human body works. Had those bodies any life in them I assure you, I would not have had my hands in their chest cavities! But the cadavers were dead. Dead people do not revive themselves. Dead people do not call the ambulance. Without God’s power, dead people simply stay the way they are, dead.

In Adam’s Fall Sinned We All

In Romans 5:12-21 Paul explains how we died. He says that Adam stood before God, in the Garden, as the representative of the entire human race. When Adam sinned, we all sinned. His sin was imputed— put on; credited — to us. Adam’s sin offended God and brought physical and spiritual death and corruption to the entire human race.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned…For if the many died by the trespass of the one man…The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation…For if, by the trespass of one man, death reigned through that one man…Consequently, just as the result of one man’s trespass was condemnation for all men…For just as through the disobedience of the one man, the many were made sinners.

The original sin of Adam has radical effects for our daily lives also. We sin because we are sinners by nature. We do not become sinners after we sin for the first time in our individual existence. We are not each born as Adam, without sin. We are born sinful and we act accordingly. Paul explains the relationship between our sin and our sinfulness this way.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air….14

The old puritan rhyme is correct, “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.” The result of our sin is that we are spiritually dead.15 Because we are spiritually dead we have no natural desire to know God or to be saved.16 We are prone by the way we are from birth to hate God and our neighbor. Outside of Christ, we would be lost and without any hope. God’s Word says that we are lost and dead, not merely confused or sick. Because we are in such a sad state God alone can save, by grace, through faith. God’s Word gives no indication that we are, by nature, in any position to cooperate with God. God is not “waiting” helplessly for us to come to Him. There is nothing in us that makes us worthy before God. All human beings stand before God as hell deserving sinners.

Grace and Faith

The good news is that there is hope in Jesus! Romans 5:8 says that “While we yet were sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus died to pay the penalty for the sin of all his people. Our sin was credited to Christ, and His righteousness was credited to those who believe.17 Whoever believes in Him has everlasting life.18

Ephesians 2.8,9 says,

For you were saved by grace through faith–and this faith does not come from yourselves, but it is the gift of God–not from works, so that no one will be able to boast.

What is the nature of God’s grace? First of all it is saving, “you were saved by grace.” It is saving in that it delivers the believer from the state of being under God’s condemnation to a state of being under God’s favor. The Biblical words for grace, Chen (O.T.) and Charis (NT) and are not ever used in Scripture to indicate that grace merely enables a person to cooperate with God.19 Grace is never merely enabling, it is always saving.

By its very nature, grace is a gift, it is the unearned favor of God. In Romans 6:23 Paul contrasts works righteousness with the righteousness which comes by grace. “The wages of sin are death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” A gift is the exact opposite of wages. A gift is not required, it is given merely out of one’s good pleasure.20 Grace is not earned, as Paul says, because then “grace would no longer be grace”21

Even the faith of which Paul speaks in Ephesians 2:8 is a gracious gift. It is true that it is we who must do the believing. No one can do our believing for us. The Gospel says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.”22 Faith is the means through which people received the grace of God. Faith appropriates God’s grace, faith trusts that Christ has acted on my behalf. Faith says,

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal 2:20).

Yet, in the translation of Ephesians 2:8,9 given above, it is clear that the clause, “it is the gift of God”, refers to faith. God has ordained that it is through faith the saving grace of God is received. With this biblical teaching in view, the old hymn takes on new meaning:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!

The question is: how do sons and daughters of Adam, dead in trespasses and sins, come to believe in Jesus? This is the question which I will seek to answer in the rest of this essay.

Freely Chosen By God

God’s Word teaches that our election is not conditioned upon any merit in us. There is no teaching anywhere in God’s Word that we are somehow able to recommend ourselves to God. Deuteronomy 4.32-40 illustrates this choosing of a people by God. In his speech to Israel, Moses compares the choosing of Israel in vv.32-34 to the primeval creation.

Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created man on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it before ever been heard of?

Moses supposes that his audience is familiar with the creation narrative, which says,

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.23

The Letter to the Hebrews says,

By faith we understand that the earth was created at God’s command, so that what was seen was not made out of what was visible.24

God spoke and all things came into being. Before God spoke, no earth existed. The same is true of God’s people. In his speech, Moses says that God spoke Israel into existence as a people.25 For this same reason, it is God who sovereignly calls, elects and saves a people to be His possession,26 because he is, as Paul puts it, the Creator of a “new creation in Christ.”27 The creation did not help God. God made the creation by His Word, without any help from us. Moses goes on to say that, in fact, the fact that Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob elects a people for Himself, makes Him unique among all the god’s.

Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?28

Three chapters later, Moses denies that there was any quality inherent in Israel which made the sons of Jacob worthy of being called the people of God.

The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other people, for you were the fewest of all people. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh, King of Egypt.29

According to this passage, there are two reasons for God’s choosing of Israel, His undeserved love and His Covenant promise to Abraham.30

God’s Sovereign Decisions in Exodus

Several passages in Exodus make the whole matter of God’s sovereignty, predestination and election very explicit. In Exodus 4:11, in answer to Moses’ excuse about not speaking well, the Lord asks the rhetorical question, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” God’s absolute justice and power are fundamental themes of the Exodus narrative.

Throughout the Book of Exodus the Lord declares unequivocally that,

…I will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let the people go…But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.31

Exodus 7:22 says “…and Pharaoh’s heart became hard”. That Pharaoh is said to “harden his heart” shows that we are not robots.32 God uses means. People also retain a sin corrupted will. Exodus 8:15 indicates that Pharaoh looked at the situation and then he “hardened his heart”. That was a willful act on Pharaoh’s part. The ultimate cause of Pharaoh’s hard heart, however, must be understood in light of earlier and later passages which say clearly that God himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

This can be a difficult teaching to accept. Many years ago while enrolled in a Bible Literature course at a large state university the class came upon these passages in our studies. After reading them, one of the students blurted out, “this must be a mistranslation! This can’t be so!” Actually the grammar of each of the verses is unambiguous and is rendered correctly above from the NIV. What caused problems for my fellow student was a common (but unbiblical) assumption that it is unfair for God to hold humans responsible for anything over which they do not have absolute control.33

Adam Again?

This premise insists that God treat each of us as though we were Adam and not the children of Adam. However we cannot have it both ways! If we each wish to be Adam, then we must do away with Jesus, since he purposefully came to earth to succeed where Adam failed. If we were in a position to be Adam then Jesus was wasting His time, or providing insurance at best. This does not accord with Jesus self-description as “the way and the truth and the life.”34

Scripture explicitly rejects the notion that moral responsibility is contingent upon human autonomy. In Exodus 9:15,16 the Lord says to Pharaoh.

I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the face of the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show (in) you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.

According to Scripture, Pharaoh existed primarily to bring glory to God. The grammar of v.16 is exceedingly clear and the language equally blunt. God raised Pharaoh up so as to use him to demonstrate His power to harden and to redeem. It is against the backdrop of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, against the backdrop of the plagues on Egypt, that the greatness of God’s grace in redeeming Jacob’s sons is to be seen. The marvel is not God’s cruelty in hardening Pharaoh, but in redeeming Israel’s sons!

The Apostle Paul and The Fairness Doctrine

What makes these verses even more important is the way Paul interprets them in Romans chapter 9. In God’s treatment of Pharaoh, Paul sees the prime example of God’s predestinating, sovereign, electing, grace.

So then salvation is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up that I may show my power in you, and that my name may be declared in all the earth. Therefore he has mercy upon whom he wills and whom he wills, he hardens.35

Through the example of Pharaoh, Paul also answers what I call the “fairness question” which asks, “Is it fair that God wills that some should be saved and that some should not?” Paul’s reply, “What shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!”36 God is fair. It was not God who sinned in the garden. In Adam, we were not created with any defect. We were created in the image of God. God made Adam and Eve so that they could live obediently, but they chose not to. That is not God’s fault. The marvel is not that some are not saved, but that anyone at all is saved.

If, however, salvation is all of God, then how can he condemn those who do not believe? Paul’s answer,

But indeed O’ man who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have the power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?37

Free Will

That Adam had a free will, the ability to sin or not, is widely accepted. The idea however, that human beings have a free will has a long history in Western theology and continues to strongly influence many Bible interpreters and theologians. Many evangelicals simply assume that the doctrine of free will is a biblical one. It will be helpful, therefore, to understand the background of this idea in the Western intellectual tradition.

Reacting to Augustine’s strong doctrine of human depravity (inability) and divine sovereignty, the British monk Pelagius (c.400) and his followers challenged the doctrine that all humans are federally (legally) united to Adam and thus fell with him. By breaking the legal/moral link between Adam and us, the Pelagians almost eliminated the effect of sin upon us.

Though the Councils of Carthage (411) and Orange (529) sided with Augustine, afterwards the majority of the medieval church moved in a steadily semi-Pelagian direction, attempting to synthesize Pelagius with Augustine. The synthesis said that sinners are able to cooperate with grace toward justification. In the high middle ages the semi-Pelagian banner was carried by Gabriel Biel (c.1420-95) and the greatest humanist of all, Desiderius Erasmus (c.1469-1536), against whom Martin Luther reacted during the Reformation.38 In the late 16th century, Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) renewed the semi-Pelagian struggle against the Pauline doctrine of the will. Later, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) defined free will to mean something like “the power of contrary choice.” Kant said that a choice is truly moral choice only if the one making the decision has the power to will the contrary.

Though the doctrine that (fallen) human beings retain a free will is widely held, it is not is certainly not Pauline. He argues from God’s electing wisdom that God has the right to choose Jacob and reject Esau.39 We are not in any position, being sinners and finite humans, to question His mysterious, eternal, decisions. God’s Word nowhere provides any defense whatsoever for the position that man has the ability to will the contrary to God’s will. Rather, God’s Word, as we have already seen, provides extended passages defending God’s righteousness in His sovereign eternal gracious decrees. I doubt that is possible to find a single passage in God’s Word which clearly teaches that created, sinful, human beings have a free will relative to God’s. If Pelagius, Erasmus and Kant are correct, then one must say that Pharaoh is not morally culpable for his hardness because he did not have the power to will the contrary to God’s decree. One would be forced to conclude that God is a evil tyrant who uses people as puppets.

A word of clarification about the meaning of the term “free will” is in order. One may use the term free will. If, with Jonathan Edwards, we define a free will as that will which acts according to its nature, then the will, in this restricted sense may be said to be free. Sin warps our will so that, by nature, we do not will to do what is pleasing to God. Because of our relationship to Adam, we freely will to sin.40 The fallen will may said to be free in an existential, or experiential sense. No one visibly compels any human being to do anything they do not will to do. After all, we experience ourselves choosing daily or moment by moment. One always has a choice, even if one of the choices is unpleasant.41

Nevertheless, ultimately, the human will must be said to be limited by God’s decisions. Any other position is suicidal to the Christian faith. If one assumes that believers or unbelievers have the power of absolute contrary choice relative to God’s decrees, then all of the biblical language describing God’s eternal decrees becomes meaningless and mythological.

Second, if we have the power of contrary choice relative to God, then we must find some foundation in the Word of God to show that God has voluntarily limited Himself in some way so as to give us this almost divine prerogative. In the light of passages studied (and the ones forthcoming) this will be extremely hard to do.

Third, if we have the power of contrary choice, what does the Bible mean when it says that we are dead? Is this language also mythological? Why does the Bible consistently use death as the analogy for our spiritual state outside of Christ if God really means to say that we are only sick or ill? Why doesn’t God’s Word ever once describe us as “sick” or “ill” or only in a weakened condition?

It is sometimes asked: what if someone wanted to be saved but couldn’t be saved because they weren’t predestined? This might be an interesting question except that there have never been any such people. According to Scripture, everyone who wants to be saved will be saved because anyone who desires salvation, does so because God has effectively called them to faith by the work of His Holy Spirit.42 The premise of the question is flawed. It assumes that sinners, if given the chance, will believe in Jesus on their own. This isn’t true. We saw above that we are all dead in sin. Apart from the prevenient work of God’s Spirit dead men don’t love Jesus. The Scriptures make it clear that no one even wanted to be saved, until God gave them a desire to be saved. Everyone who believes in Jesus does so because God predestined us, called us by the Holy Spirit, gave us a new life, mind and heart (i.e., we were born again) and caused us to believe in Jesus.

The Golden Chain

Romans 8:28-30 says,

And we know that all things work together for the good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose, because, those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover those whom he predestined, these he also called, those whom he called these he also justified, those whom he justified, these he also glorified.

Because of the way they link one part of salvation with another, these verses have been called “the golden chain.” These verses speak of God’s eternal, pre-creational, decisions. We’re all familiar with vs.28. Notice, however, that those for whom all things work out, are those whom God has “called”. He explains that the group of everyone called is the same group as those whom God foreknew. Everyone he “foreknew” belongs to the same group of those who have been “predestined”. This is the same group as those who are “justified” (i.e., declared to be righteous before God). The same group about whom all these other things are said, is the same group whom God will glorify. In each verse it is God who is the subject of the verse, the person doing the action, and those whom he is saving are the objects of God’s gracious acts.

Salvation is from God from beginning to end. By definition, grace excludes human effort. Grace rescues a drowning man unable to save himself. Grace is raises the dead to life by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Bible calls Christians the “elect”. The noun “elect” (that is, “the chosen ones”) occurs 25 times in the New Testament.43 Using the word “elect” or “chosen” only makes sense in the context of God’s sovereign predestinating grace. Believers are elect because we have been chosen by God, not because they have helped God to be a Savior. In Ephesians 1:1-15 Paul explains how, when and why God decided to save us. How is “in Christ.” In vv.3,4,10 Paul says that we (believers) were chosen “in Christ”,

before the foundation of the world, in order that we might be holy and blameless before Him, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of His will.44

According to God’s Word, those who believe were chosen by God before the world was created so that he would glorified (Ephesians 1:6). How? “Having predestined us…”. God in His grace chose us, even though were worthy of destruction. We believe because God predestined us to believe. Why? Because it is “according to the good pleasure of His will.”

God’s Sovereign Choice According to Peter

The Letters by the Apostle Peter make it equally clear, in his own style, that he believes God predestined God’s people to faith. In 1 Peter 1:1-3 he calls his readers (us!), …the elect aliens…according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by His blood…”. These verses define, for Peter, what it means to be “elect”. Some have tried to show that these verses prove that election only means that God could see in advance who was going to believe. This understanding ignores the context of the word “foreknowledge” as well as all of the other Biblical passages which clearly teach the contrary. Look at the grammar of these verses. Peter calls his readers, “elect strangers”. In verse two we are elect “in the sanctification of the Spirit” i.e., by the work of God’s Spirit we were set apart. We were elect “to the sprinkling of blood”. Again, these phrases indicate that salvation is God’s work in us and for us. We do not sprinkle ourselves. Sprinkling is something done to us by God!

This clarifies Peter’s use of the word “foreknowledge.”45 That God foreknew whom he had chosen is clear Biblical teaching. Paul teaches the exact same thing in Romans 8.29 where the verb “to foreknow” is used as part of God’s “foreordaining” described in vs.28.46 Foreknowledge implies in Scripture, not just a bare knowing ahead of time, but rather an intimate relationship. Repeatedly Scripture uses in the Old Covenant the verb Yada “to know” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.47 The same verb lies behind Peter’s choice of the Greek noun Prognosis in this passage. To clinch the argument we need only to look at Peter’s use of the verb “to foreknow” in his Pentecost Sermon. In Acts 2:23 Peter explains the crucifixion by saying,

This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you with the help of wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross (NIV).

The noun “foreknowledge” elaborates or explains the phrase translated as “set purpose”.48 These terms are used interchangeably. We could well speak of God’s decided purpose. Whatever foreknowledge means, it must include God’s will which has settled the future as well as his advance knowledge about the future. Never are events described with the verb “to foreknow” as though God had only advance knowledge but not control over them. Instead His foreknowledge is always described in conjunction with His working of His decrees.

At the same time, despite God’s “foreknowledge” and his “predetermined will”, Peter refuses to release his hearers from their moral obligation. He reminds them that it was they, not God, who nailed Jesus to the cross. It is they who are culpable before God.

Peter also liberally uses the language of predestination to describe God’s people. In chapter 2.9,10 Peter describes his readers as,

a chosen people, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (NIV).

His gentile readers are called “chosen” or “elect”.49 Prior to our calling we were “in darkness” a poetic way describing spiritual death. The image reminds us of creation and the Exodus out of Egypt. Notice too that in verse ten, the elect are those who “have received mercy”. Mercy is received, not earned or deserved, but bestowed by God by grace through faith. As in Acts 2:23 it is evident here too that, for Peter, God’s electing grace does not nullify the human obligation of a response of gratitude. According to verse nine, the elect were chosen by God for the purpose of telling other people about “the praises of Him who called you out of darkness….”

God’s Sovereign Choice and the New Life in John’s Writings

John’s gospel opens with a very strong and clear statement of God’s total control over the process of salvation. This flows out his discourse on the pre-existence of the Son of God: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And the Son’s role in creation: “All things came into being through Him, without Him nothing came into being which has come into being.”50

As in Deuteronomy the creation motif appears alongside a description of salvation. This is not accidental. If we say that the Son of God sovereignly created all that exists, then it is very difficult to evade the conclusion John draws in 1:12-3 regarding Jesus’ total control over salvation. “But as many as received Him, to them he gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name….”

Some have read this verse to imply that we must first move our will to accept Jesus as our Savior, before God can make us children of God. This reading might be plausible, if one ignored all of the other passages which we have studied, and if this verse was taken out of its context. The next verse, however, explains who receives Jesus. “Those who were born, not by blood, nor by the will of man, but by God.”51

As in Romans 10:10 where we are called to believe and confess, and in Acts 16:31 to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ”, John 1:12 does not answer the question of how we come to faith in Jesus. Verse thirteen does: by God’s will. John starkly contrasts the will of man with the decision of God. It will not do to try to wedge a little human effort in between the “receiving” of vs.12 and the being “born” of vs.13. First, as we will trace out shortly, John’s gospel teaches that we come to faith according to the decree of God prior to creation. There is no way to get behind God’s will.

The creation narrative of Genesis 1:2 is the background for Jesus’ discourse on the Spirit’s moving.52 This is a relatively frequent image in the Old Covenant Scriptures. The Spirit is said to reside over the Tabernacle.53 In this Spiritual sense, Israel as God’s people is a re-creation.54

In John 5:21 Jesus ties together the creation theme with His resurrection teaching. He illustrates God’s sovereignty in salvation by explaining His power over the resurrection. For as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also the Son gives life to whom he wills. Jesus, like Paul, begins from the premise that men are dead in sins and trespasses and must be raised to life through the supernatural, gracious, powerful, work of God’s Spirit. Dead men do not raise themselves. Ask Lazarus. Resurrection is a powerful and clear analogy to God’s saving work in the life of the sinner.

Salvation and the Spirit

Scripture says that we come to faith as a result of the work of the Spirit.55 We have seen that we are spiritually dead in Adam. It is when we are grafted onto Christ that we are made alive. This union with Christ is God’s gracious act through the means of faith.56 Do we obtain new life because we believe or do we believe because we have been given new life? The biblical answer is the latter. The faith which unites us to Christ is the fruit of the new life. Jeremiah 13:23 asks, “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Jesus agrees in Matthew 7:16-20, “A bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” In Adam, we are bad, dead, trees. Likewise, Jesus told His disciples regarding salvation, “with man it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible”.57 Paul says that though we are wasting away outwardly, inwardly we are “being renewed.”58 This renewal is something done to us, not by us.59 John’s gospel also reflects this idea that man’s basic disposition, because of the fall, is to sin. People do not come to Christ for fear of being exposed as hell-bent sinners.60

Second, John clearly teaches throughout his gospel that “faith” or “believing” is a result of the previous (prevenient) work of God’s Spirit. For John, we are not born because we believe, but we believe because we have been born. The reasons for this are many. In John’s gospel, the state before re-birth is like death and blindness.61 It is Jesus who gives sight to the blind. The blind do not give themselves sight, anymore than the dead raise themselves or the water turns itself into wine.62 Jesus’ explanation of the process of being “born again” in John 3:1-11 makes it clear that we do not give birth to ourselves, but we are delivered into new life by the sovereign, immediate, work of God Himself, through the means of faith. Sealing this understanding of the new birth is that fact that Jesus uses Genesis creation narrative as the background for His explanation of new life in John 3:1-21.

I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again…I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit (vv.3, 5, 6).

The pre-requisite for seeing and entering the kingdom is the new birth. The question is, how does one obtain that new birth? Are we born because God has seen that we believed? Not according to Jesus. Verse 6, “Spirit gives birth to spirit” seems pretty clear. Nicodemus will not be able to give birth to Himself, but rather, he must be born by the Spirit. Jesus continues,

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going, so it is with everyone born of the Spirit (v.8).

Clearly, Jesus is presuming and teaching the sovereign work of the Spirit in bringing unborn (i.e., lost, blind, dead) to new life. This is the foregoing or prevenient work of the Spirit. One does not give birth to himself, rather he is begotten. The original language of John 3 emphasizes the sovereignty of the Spirit in giving new life. In the original Jesus says, “You must be born Anothen.”63 Everywhere else this word is used in the gospel of John it means “from above”. Later in this chapter Jesus refers to the one who “comes Anothen” (“from above”) and contrasts him with those of the earth. In 19:11, Jesus tells Pilate that he could not crucify Jesus unless it was “given to you from above.” In neither context does “again” make sense. Thus it is likely that the actual primary meaning of Anothen in 3:3 and 3.7 is “born from above.” If this is so, then it could not possibly mean “born again” in the sense that we are spiritually renewed when we chose to believe. If the new birth is “from above” then it is from without and something which is done to us.

Notice too, that Jesus says that no one can “see” or “enter” the Kingdom unless he is born. There are compelling reasons for understanding the words “see” and “enter” to be referring to belief. Hard after his explanation of the Work of the Spirit, Jesus equates this “entering” with “belief” in 3:12. In vss.15,16,18 everyone who “believes” has eternal life. According to Jesus, people do not come to faith, because (by nature) “they love darkness rather than light” (v.19). The entire gospel of John is an evangelistic call to faith in Jesus. John testifies that he wrote his gospel “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.”64 Consistently, in John’s gospel, entry into the kingdom is something which happens to one.

Jesus also draws imagery from Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning the dry bones.65 In Ezekiel, the Lord asks a rhetorical question, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” The answer, of course, is no. The entire point of the narrative is that God will sovereignly resurrect His people, through the moving of the Spirit over the dry bones. God says,

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new Spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.66

These texts describe a change in man which is beyond his capacity. These are radical, Divinely worked, changes. It is God who sprinkles, God who gives the new heart, who gives the Spirit and move us. These promises are made to those dead. These promises are not conditioned upon our merit–as if dead men could bring themselves to life.67 For Jesus, these narratives illustrate not only of the regenerating (new life giving) work of the Spirit in the lives of individuals, but also his birth and resurrection. It is through the over-dwelling of the Holy Spirit that he was conceived and born of virgin Mary.68 It was also through the agency of the Holy Spirit that the Son was raised again.69

If God’s Spirit is said to have been one of the agencies of the Son’s resurrection, it is not too much to expect that sinful creatures also are totally dependent upon the Spirit for new life! It is through the work of the Spirit that humans are enabled to hear the Word with believing ears. Paul teaches this explicitly in 1 Corinthians 2:14,

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things of the Spirit because they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

Salvation as a Gift

In Philippians Paul speaks about the new life this way,

It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for Him.70

The terms of this passage are those of a royal grant, a gift. Faith was granted and along with it, the privilege of suffering. In 2 Timothy 2:25, Paul instructs the young pastor to be patient with those who oppose him, waiting for God to “grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”

The Book of Acts consistently speaks about the new life as though it were something God accomplishes in us. In Acts 16:14 Luke records the conversion of Lydia thus, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” Note that Lydia did not open her own heart, but it was the Lord who performed the Spiritual cardiac surgery. In Acts 5:31 Peter is reported to have described repentance and forgiveness of sins both as gifts from God. In Acts 11:18 Peter again speaks of God granting repentance leading to life.

In his own commentary on his gospel, the Apostle John repeatedly describes new life as coming “from God.”71 As we have seen above, John uses creation as an analogy (as does Paul) to explain the origins of the new life. For John, in the prologue to his gospel, “in Him (the Word) was life….”72 Life is original and inherent in the Son of God. Life is something which is imparted to creatures by the creative Son of God. So too in the Epistle. The Son is the Word of Life.73 Eternal life is with the Father.74

Because spiritual life is original with God and ours only derivatively (it is given to us by God because we are fallen and dead) John describes Christians as those born “from God.”75 In 1 John 3:9 it is those who are “born from God” or “born by God” who do not ‘sin’. Further only those whose birth has God as its source cannot sin.76

There is a causal relationship between the spiritual birth and the abstinence from sin. The birth provided by God is demonstrated by not sinning.77 Only those who have God as their Father, who have been given the new birth by Him, love the brothers in Christ.78 Everyone who belongs to the class of called believers belongs to the class of those who are born of God.79 Those born from God are overcomers.80 Note the causal relationship in every “born” passage. Faith and love are fruits of birth!

The Protestant View of Grace

Another reason why we must reject any interpretation of John 1:12,13 which makes faith the cause of the new birth (as opposed to the sovereign work of God), is that such a view makes faith virtually a meritorious work and the ground or basis of our justification before God.

The crux of the reformation was the question of the Bible’s teaching on salvation. Luther’s theology was revolutionized by Romans 1:17, “The righteous will live by faith.” Luther came to understand that it was not baptism, the decree of the Church, or a habitual disposition which recommended us to God, but God’s grace alone. For Luther, this grace was a sovereign, predestined gift.81

As we have already seen above, faith, for Paul, is the gift of God.82 It is the means of receiving the righteousness of Christ.83 Faith is designed by God to apprehend some righteous object. Christ is the object of saving faith. We believe in Jesus. We trust in His obedience. It is Christ’s obedience and righteousness which is the righteousness which can stand before God.

To be sure, as we saw in our survey of John’s use of the word, faith plays an absolutely crucial role in our salvation. The key is to put faith in the correct place so that we do not ask of it more nor demand of it less than God does God’s Word puts our sin problem and its solution in legal and economic terms, e.g., justification, condemnation, judgment, credit, righteousness etc. Scripture nowhere teaches that faith is the legal ground of justification. God’s Word unequivocally teaches that it is the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer which is the legal basis of our justification before God.84 Scripture nowhere teaches that we are justified because we generated faith on our own. Time and again God’s Word teaches that faith is the God ordained instrument of receiving the grace of God.85

If we make faith a meritorious work then we have reverted the Galatian error of saying, “grace plus”.86 In the Galatian case it was grace plus circumcision. If we are renewed and saved because we chose to believe, then how are we different from those Galatians who said that we justified because we believe and are circumcised? Faith is absolutely necessary, but it is not a work. It is the product of divine grace.

Does Jesus Have a People?

In John 6:37-39 Jesus gives us some insight into His eternal relationship with His Father.

Everyone whom the Father gives to me will come to me, and the one coming to me, I will not cast out…this is the will of the One who sent me, that I shall lose none of everyone whom he has given me, but (instead), I will raise him up on the last day.

The Father has given a people to Jesus to save and resurrect. These people are a gift from the Father to the Son. A gift does not give itself! The Son has come (v.38) to do the Father’s will. The Father’s will is that none should be lost. Verse 65 clarifies the whole matter of the order of salvation and the relationship between God’s eternal decisions, made before creation existed and our faith.87 Jesus’ teaching here is occasioned by the apostasy of some of His followers. God’s Word says,

…For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray Him…This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.88

The Lord is repeating what he has already said in vs.44,

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”. The decision is God’s. He does the drawing. People don’t come to faith in Christ unless they are drawn. Jesus stated this proposition in terms of possibility and impossibility. It is impossible in the nature of the case, that dead and blind sinners should come to Jesus. Only those raised and given new life believe.

People are the objects of the Father’s drawing work. The people drawn are those whom God has chosen before the foundations of the world. Those whom God has drawn to Christ come to faith. They believe in Jesus. According to vs.65, it is only when we are drawn by God, led by the hand as it were, that we come to faith. It is the work of the Spirit of God to lead blinded sinners to sight and faith, as Jesus made the blind man to see.89

This closely knit chain of God’s grace is absolutely necessary to our salvation. Jesus came to accomplish the Father’s will, to seek and save the lost, to save those whom the Father has drawn. Should Jesus fail to accomplish the Father’s will, we are all lost! Every believer affirms that Jesus did not fail. Jesus said, “It is finished!”90

In John 10:14-16 Jesus describes the Good Shepherd’s knowledge of the sheep (saved people) by using an analogy with His Father’s knowledge of Him. Jesus says that he “knows” His sheep in the same way, with the same intimacy and eternality, that the co-eternal, co-existent, consubstantial Father knows the eternally begotten Son. This is not mere advance knowledge! Continuing with the Shepherd-Sheep metaphor, Jesus says,

I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them tome, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.91

According to Jesus, eternal life is neither earned nor deserved. It is a gift from the shepherd to the sheep, just as the sheep are a gift from the Father to the Son. Our salvation is as safe as the Father’s hand is secure.

In His High Priestly prayer, in John 17:2, Jesus again says that he has been granted all authority so that he can give eternal life.92 He does not say that he has been granted all authority with a view to waiting around to see who is smart enough to believe. Instead it is the Father who has given him believers, and to these same believers Jesus will give eternal life.93

The Apostle John in his epistles returns to the theme of election as he addresses either an individual woman or a congregation as the “elect lady” and refers to her “elect sister.”94 These references must be understood in the context of the theology expressed already in the gospel. Also in the Revelation Christ gives this promise to believers,

They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings–and with Him will be His called, chosen and faithful followers.95

Divine Sovereignty: Means & Instruments

It would be a mistake to conclude, because it is God who sovereignly decides to save and to bring us to faith and salvation, that God does not use means and instruments to achieve His purposes. Quite the opposite is true. The first example is the very incarnation of the Son of God Himself. Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God is more than a means, but he is the “Way.”96 Taking on human flesh to achieve salvation for sinners shows an extreme willingness to use means! God also uses faith as a means, as we have already seen. The Spirit of God is the means or the agent of regeneration, life giving, so that dead people come to eternal life through faith.

In Romans 8:28 Paul speaks of those “called according to His purpose” and again in vs.30 of those whom God “predestined he also called; those he called, he also justified.” These verses are usually interpreted to speak of the “internal” call by God, through the Holy Spirit, of the believer to faith. I believe this is correct. This call is sometimes called the “effectual” or “effective” call. It is the effectual Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 1:9, “God, who has called you into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful”. Everywhere in the New Covenant, where God is said to do the calling, it is this effectual call which is in view. Two possible exceptions will be discussed below.

In the case of the Exodus, God chose to use the stuttering Moses. He might have skipped the painful process of the ten plagues. In His unrivaled wisdom, however, God chose to execute His decisions through the means of the Red Sea episode, and through the plagues.

In Revelation 17:14 is the “called” who are the elect.97 This must be an internal, effectual call, or else everyone who has ever heard the external call is included in the term elect. Such an interpretation makes nonsense of the Revelation’s teaching about hell. Hebrews 9:15, says “those who have been called…receive the promise of an eternal inheritance.” In Romans 1:6, believers are the “called of Jesus Christ…” The called are those who understand the wisdom of God.98 For Peter, our internal calling is synonymous with our election, and something we need to “make sure.”99

The Preaching of the Good News

Nevertheless, Scripture speaks a great deal about another, verbal, external, call. It is the gospel call. In the Old Covenant the prophets frequently made such calls for repentance and faith to Israel. For example, God complained about Israel’s rejection of his “call”. Then there was the promise that “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved”.100

It is this sort of call of which Jesus speaks when he says, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”101 The same idea is found in Acts 17:30 where Scripture says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now God commands men everywhere to repent.” Jesus issues such a call to faith in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” and in John 3:16, “…whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

This is also the way to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:13, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” This refers to his external, vocal, verbal, call to repentance and faith. At the same time, it should be noted that those disciples whom he calls in this passage actually do come! The verbal, external gospel call is the instrument used by God to bring men to saving faith.

Paul summarizes the Good News in 1 Corinthians 15.1-5:

By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the Word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve.

It is because God is sovereign that believers can joyously anticipate success in preaching this Gospel. Paul does not–and neither should we–preach out of mere duty! The Lord Jesus told Paul,

Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent, for I am with you and no one is going to attack you and harm you because I have many people in this city.102

The Good News is the exacting instrument of the Spirit to bring hearers to life. James 1:18 says, “he chose to give us birth through the Word of Truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created.” He ties together the motifs of God’s sovereignty in redemption and creation, as we have already seen done in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and in John’s gospel. The language in the original refers to the act of giving birth, ceasing to be pregnant.103 The instrument of this Spiritual mid-wifery is the gospel, the “Word of Truth.”

Paul routinely ascribes such power to his gospel message. In Ephesians 1.13 he explains to his readers how and when they came to faith. “And you were included in Christ when you heard the Word of Truth, the gospel of your salvation”. So also in Colossians 1:5-6 the News is, “the Word of Truth, the gospel” which is “producing fruit and growing.” In 2 Corinthians 6:7 Paul parallels the “Word of Truth” with “the power of God.”104 The exemplar passage is of course Romans 1:16 where the gospel “is the power of God for salvation of everyone who believes….”. Paul says that he became a father to the Corinthian church “through the gospel.”105 For Paul there is no dichotomy between God’s eternal decision to save and the use of the instrument of the gospel.

Because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel…106

In Romans 10:13-15 Paul explains in detail the relationship between the gospel and faith.

…Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent. As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet are the feet of those who bring good news!’

As in Joel 2:32 and Acts 2 sinners must call upon the name of the Lord. But they cannot call until they have heard. There is a chronological priority and dependency. Lost sinners are dependent upon the message of the resurrection. It is through the instrument of the gospel that God saves sinners. Peter agrees: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God.”107

The Well Meant Offer of the Gospel

Some have concluded that if God has predestined those whom he will save through grace, then preaching is useless. Ignoring, for the moment, our just completed conclusive survey of passages which proves that God uses means, let us explore God’s revealed intentions. The assumption behind this complaint is that God does not deal with us in good faith, that if the Bible really does teach predestination, then God talks out of both sides of His mouth. This complaint and its assumption ignores what God’s Word has to say on the subject. When God offers salvation to all who believe, the offer is sincere. When the gospel is verbally preached to unbelievers (whether within the visible Covenant Community or in a purely missionary setting) God sincerely offers eternal life to whomever will come. This is the paradox, that in some sense, God desires what he has not decreed to happen, i.e., the salvation of all men.

An instructive Old Covenant example comes in Deuteronomy 5:29. Here, Moses repeats the Sinai commandments for those who were not there. Toward the end of his sermon, Moses relates the words of the Lord.

“O’ that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever.

What is significant about this verse for our discussion is that the Hebrew text uses a verb form (optative) which expresses emotion and which implies a desire which will not be fulfilled. Here God desires what he has not decreed and what will not actually come to pass. In Ezekiel 18:21-23 God says,

But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the offenses he has committed will be remembered against him. Because of the righteous things he has done, he will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn away from their ways and live?

And a moment later God says again,

For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!108

And again,

Say to them, ‘As surely as I live’, declares the Sovereign Lord, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O’ house of Israel?109

God is not revealed to us as though he is emotionless. We know from God’s Word that he does not change.110 Yet God reveals himself to us as a God who sincerely desires to see everyone come to faith.

The New Covenant picks up this thread of God’s self-disclosure and takes it even further, applying it not only to national Israel, but to all men! In Matthew 5:44-48 Jesus teaches us about love for our enemies by appealing to the example of His Father.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Therefore be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The implication of this passage is unmistakable. Jesus wants believers to love unbelievers as the Father Himself loves them. This is what he means here by the word “perfect.”111

Jesus says in Matthew 22:37, “O’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who killed the prophets, how often would I have gathered you as a hen….” The Lord, who knew before the foundations of the world those for whom he was to die yet speaks of an unfilled desire.112

The entirety of Jesus’ public preaching and ministry is one sustained sincerely intended offer of salvation. The Gospel of Mark begins with a call to repentance and faith.113 Matthew 11:28 summarizes Jesus’ message, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”.

2 Peter 3.9,15 says,

The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some people understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance…bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation….

The context of the passage is about the second (and final) advent of the Lord Jesus. Some people are beginning to mock the second coming as a cruel joke played on believers. Peter’s response is to point out the Lord’s intentions.

Of interest to us right now is the reason for God’s patience. Jesus’ return is delayed, so to speak, for the sake of lost sinners. It is conceivable that Peter refers to the elect not yet come to faith. Still there is a universal tone to the passage. This is Peter’s application of Jesus’ principle taught in Matthew 5.43-48. Even though the World scorns God’s people, God is patient and gracious.

Perhaps nowhere else in God’s Word is this sincere offer of salvation put as wonderfully and beautifully as in the Revelation.

The Spirit and the Bride say come, and let him who hears say come, and let him come, and whosoever will may come and drink…”114

Many well meaning, but misguided, Bible interpreters have inferred from the set of passages just reviewed that God is theoretically sovereign but practically impotent to bring about the salvation of those whom Scripture calls “elect”. This conclusion however, is not warranted by the texts we have surveyed. Rather it stems from a philosophical presupposition which says, “If God sincerely desires the salvation of everyone, it must be hypothetically possible for everyone to be saved, or else God would be guilty of cruelty and unfairness”.

Conclusion

The immediate answer to this “problem” lies in our discussion of Romans chapter 9 above, to which I refer you. But the real answer is mystery. A mystery is something known to God but inexplicable by man. That God is One in three persons is true and must be affirmed by all Christians, at peril of the soul, even though no one can give an thorough explanation of how this is possible. Christ is both true man and true God. All Christians must affirm this too, at peril of the soul.

How we can be legally and morally responsible for Adam’s sin is a mystery, but one which must be affirmed. That God is actually sovereign actively in history and yet we are morally responsible for our own actions, is another mystery. These are true paradoxes where two sides of a matter must be affirmed in order to be faithful to God’s Word.

The paradox of the free offer of the Gospel is another. For our purposes here it is helpful to note that Scripture does not have a problem with this or the other paradoxes mentioned. As we have seen, Scripture very clearly teaches that God is just. God’s Word also teaches that he has decreed and predestined and sovereignly elected whomever comes to faith in the Lord Jesus.

All of this being true has not kept God from speaking about the lost in very powerful, sincerely meant ways. God intends to stir the believer’s heart to compassion for the lost, not to cause him to make cold (ungodly) calculations about whether a given (presently) unsaved person is elect or not. Our joy is to tell that person that Jesus was raised from the dead and because of the resurrection, there is new life in Christ!

Thus, evangelism is not a burdensome, dreary task dutifully carried out by grim harvesters of souls. The Good News really is good! Heaven rejoices over the repentance of a lost sinner, so should we.115 The Father rejoices when the prodigal comes home. The parable of the lost son means nothing if not that the Father Himself rejoices when the lost come to faith.116

Let us be found faithful in giving God His right as the sovereign Lord in His eternal decisions and gracious salvation. Let our hearts be filled with praise and gratitude for His mighty work and outstretched arm in delivering us from the bondage of sin! Let us respond to His grace with heartfelt thanksgiving. Let our so overflow that we cannot help but make known the riches of His grace to a world lost and dead in sin!

Endnotes

1 Isaiah 42.8.

2 See 1 Corinthians 13.4-7; Philippians 2.1-4.

3 I assume the Protestant doctrine of perspicuity, that is, on essential matters the Scriptures are clear. I assume that biblical soteriology, or the biblical doctrine of salvation, is an essential scriptural teaching. This is not to say that all the passages under consideration are equally clear or that there is uniformity among Christian Bible scholars in their interpretation. Certainly this is not so. This paper is not, however, explicitly about hermeneutics or the science of interpretation, but actually engaged in the work of interpreting texts by relating them to one another.

4 My translation.

5 James 2.10

6 Romans 3.21.

7 Psalm 51.5.

8 Romans 3.10-2,23.

91 John 4.10.

10 Genesis 1.26-7.

11 Genesis 3 [all].

12 Genesis 1.26-7.

13 Romans 6.23.

14 Ephesians 2.1-2.

15 Romans 6.23; Ephesians 2.5-6.

16 Genesis 8.21; Isaiah 53.6; Jeremiah 17.9.

17 1 John 4.10; 2 Corinthians 5.21; Romans 5.12-21.

18 John 3.16; John 20.31.

19 Chen is used for grace 43 times in the O.T. Charis occurs approximately 141 times in N.T.

20 Romans 3.23; Ephesians 1.4.

21 Romans 11.6.

22 Acts 16.31.

23 Genesis 1.1-3

24 Hebrews 11.2.

25 Deuteronomy 4.33-6.

26 1 Peter 2.9-10.

27 2 Corinthians 5.17.

28 Deuteronomy 4.34.

29 Deuteronomy 7.6-7.

30 See Genesis 13.14-7; 15.1-21; 17.1-22.

31 Exodus 4.21, 7.3

32 Exodus 8.15,19.

33 This is a very powerful belief which many readers have brought to the reading of Scripture which is quite simply unsupported by text itself. It so controls one’s perceptions that it becomes almost impossible not to see it in Scripture. Yet, read on its own terms, Scripture never assumes that human moral responsibility is contingent upon freedom relative to God.

34 John 14.6

35 Romans 9.15-8

36 Romans 9.14.

37 Romans 9.20-1.

38 See Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Cambridge, 1957).

39 Romans 9.13-4.

40 Jonathan Edwards, “A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Prevailing Notions of the Freedom of the Will,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards 2 vol. (Edinburgh, 1976), 1.12, 21-3, 51-3.

41 Edwards, notes that even an allegedly free will is limited by the fact that it cannot choose to stop choosing, lest it cease to be a will at all (ibid., 1.12).

42 John 1.12,13; John 17.3; 20.31.

43 Compare Matthew 20.16; 24.22-31; Mark 13.20-7; Romans 8.33; Colossians 3.12; 1 Timothy 5.21; Titus 1.1; 1 Peter 1.1; 2.4-9.

44 Ephesians 1.4,5; compare 2 Thessalonians 2.13; 2 Timothy 1.9; Titus 1.2.

45 Prognosis.

46 Proginosekein.

47 See Genesis 4.1, 25.

48 Horismene boule.

49 Eklekton.

50 John 1.1-3.

51 John 1.13.

52 “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”.

53 Exodus 40.34; Deuteronomy 32.10,11; Isaiah 31.5; 1 Peter 4.14.

54 Paul picks up this theme in 2 Corinthians 5.17 when he declares, “You are a new creation in Christ!”

55 See John ch. 3 [all].

56 Ephesians 2.8-9.

57 Matthew 19.16-30.

58 2 Corinthians 4.16.

59The verb used there is the passive voice of Anakanein. Compare Colossians 3.10; Romans 2.12; and Ephesians 4.23.

60John 3.19,20.

61John 12.37-41; John 9.

62John 11.33-44; 2.1-11; Matthew 19.29-34.

63 Anothen.

64 John 20.31.

65 Ezekiel 37.1-14.

66 Ezekiel 36.25-27. See Jeremiah 31.31-34.

67 See 1 Corinthians 2.14,15; Galatians 5.22; Romans 6.17-22.

68 Luke 1.35.

69 Romans 8.11; 1 Corinthians 15.45.

70 Philippians 1.29.

71 1 John.

72 John 1.4.

73 1 John 1.1.

74 1 John 1.2.

75 1 John 2.29.

76 As John narrowly conceives of sin in this Epistle.

77 1 John 5.18.

78 1 John 4.7.

79 1 John 5.1.

80 1 John 5.4.

81 Luther regarded his 1525 response to Erasmus, De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the
Will
), as his most important. That the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, required the doctrine of predestination, was a commonplace in the Reformation.

82 Romans 6.23.

83 Ephesians 2.8-9.

84 Romans 5.12-21; 2 Corinthians 5.21; Hebrews 11.

85 Romans 3.21-4.25.

86 Galatians 1.6-10; ch.3.

87 Ephesians 1.5,11; Romans 8.29; Revelation 13.8.

88 John 6.65.

89 John 9 [all].

90 John 19.30.

91 John 10.27-30.

92 Matthew 28.18-20.

93 John 17.6, 9.

94 2 John vv.1, 13.

95 Revelation 17.14.

96 John 14.6.

97 Kletoi and Eklektoi.

981 Corinthians 1.24.

99 2 Peter 1.10.

100 See Isaiah 65.12; 55.1ff; Joel 2.32.

101 Matthew 22.14.

102 Acts 18,9-10.

103 Apokuein.

104 2 Timothy 2.15.

105 1 Corinthians 4.15.

106 2 Thessalonians 2.13-4.

107 1 Peter 1.23.

108 Ezekiel 18.32.

109 Ezekiel 33.11.

110 Hebrews 31.8.

111 See Luke 6.35-6.

112 Ephesians 1.1-15; Galatians 2.20.

113 Mark 1.15.

114 Revelation 22.17.

115 Luke 15.7,10.

116 Luke 15.30-1.

The Logical Order of the Decrees

 
Arminian
 
Amyrauldian
 
Infralapsarian
 
Supralapsarian
Divine Purpose:
To manifest God’s love To manifest God’s glory
Logical Order of the Decree(s)
1. To create man2. To provide for possibility of salvation and the sufficient means of its application in view of the foreseen fall

3. All believers should be saved and all unbelievers reprobated.

4.God elects to save and reprobate some on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief

1. To create2. To permit the fall

3. To provide for a universal salvation in Christ’s mediation

4. Foreseeing human inability, he elected to give faith to some faith and repentance.

1. To create man;2. To permit the fall of man viewed as created;

3. To elect from fallen man and to pass others by;

4. To provide salvation for the elect.

1. Chose creatable and falliblehumans to be elect and reprobate;2. decreed to create elect and reprobate humans;

3. Decreed the fall;

4. Chose to provide salvation for the elect.

Historical Theology
Arminian Remonstrants Amyraut et co WCF; CD, Calvin; Genevan Consensus (1549); Formula Consensus Hevelticus (1675, Heidegger, Turretin), 1905 Conclusions of Utrecht permits both, favors Infra; Hodges, Murray, Strimple Often attributed to Beza and Gomarus. Attributed also to G. Voetius, Twisse, G. Vos, H. Hoeksema, G. Kersten

* Adapted from C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2.316-21; F. Klooster, s.v., “Supralapsarianism,” in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology; A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, 231-4.

The Free Offer of the Gospel

By John Murray with a new foreword by R. Scott Clark

The foreword is ©2002 R. Scott Clark

Foreword

This essay was written by John Murray (1898–1975), professor of Systematic Theology in Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and Ned B. Stonehouse (1902–62), the distinguished professor of New Testament in Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia as a committee report to the Fifteenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Minutes, 1948, Appendix, pp. 01–63). The present version of the study was taken from the edition published as a pamphlet in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. It was republished in The Collected Writings of John Murray, 4 vol. ed. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976–82), 4:113–132.

The preface to the pamphlet version said that the essay is ” re-printed here with slight corrections in the interests of the gospel and Reformed theology.” If this essay was needed fifty years ago, it is much more necessary now. The historic Reformed doctrine of the free offer of the Gospel is predicated upon a particular view of theology, God and the Scriptures which is under assault by rationalists on the Reformed right, if you will, and the progressive, neo-evangelical, post-conservative on the left.

On the Reformed right (the so-called hyper-Calvinists), there is a strain of rationalism which one finds expressed by thinkers such as Herman Hoeksema, Gordon Clark and John Gerstner, which rejects the doctrine of the Free Offer of the Gospel as implicitly Arminian. They are rationalists inasmuch as they reject this doctrine fundamentally because they find it unreasonable. Reformed theology has been accused for its entire history of beginning with an a priori doctrine of divine sovereignty from which it is said to have deduced its doctrines of double predestination and the federalism. This charge has been shown by modern historical theology (e.g., the massive research of Richard Muller summarized in C. R. Trueman and R. S. Clark, ed., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment [Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999]) to be patently false when applied to the mainstream of historic, confessional Reformed theology. There have been exceptions, and on this question, G. Clark, Hoeksema and Gerstner lived up to the caricature of Reformed theology.

On the left, Progressive, post-conservative neo-evangelical, self-described Open-theists such as Clark Pinnock and Gregory Boyd have not only rejected classic Arminianism, whether that of Arminius himself or that of the Wesleyan varieties, but also the catholic doctrines of foreknowledge and omnipotence. Like the hyper-Calvinists they too are guilty of a form of rationalism. Claiming to reject the catholic doctrine of God as too “Greek” (i.e., too Platonist?) they claim to have constructed a doctrine of God which is more biblical than the historic Christian doctrine. Their claim is false. Upon examination it becomes abundantly clear that they too want a doctrine of God which will make sense to the Postmodern (postfoundationalist) mind and so they have turned Scripture on its head. According to them, God actually repents, halters and changes. Omniscience is redefined to mean that God knows only what can be known. The future, they argue, cannot be known, therefore God does not know it. He cannot control the future, for that would jeopardize the autonomy and dignity of persons, therefore, they surmise, God must be the most excellent chess player, reacting brilliantly to our every initiative. This is nothing if not rationalism.

One hopes that if the confessional Reformed world will again take up heartily the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel, we might provide an exegetically solid and theologically sound response to the heresy of Open Theism and the rationalism of the hyper-Calvinists.

One reason why this most important essay has been lost to the Reformed and evangelical world is because we have forgotten or corrupted three great assumptions on which it was premised: the nature of Christian theology, the catholic (i.e., creedal) and Reformed (i.e., confessional) doctrine of God and the Reformed doctrine of accommodation.

Murray and the 1948 General Assembly of the OPC understood the historic Reformed distinction between theology as God knows it, theology as he reveals it to us and theology as we do it. In our time these distinctions have been lost and replaced with subjectivism of various kinds. Classic Reformed theology (e.g., the seventeenth-century Reformed academic theologians) called theology as God does it, archetypal or theologia archetypa. Theology exists, first of all, in the mind of God. The triune God has a self-understanding and understanding and interpretation of the world is the basis for his revelation to his creatures.

Given the necessary chasm between God and the creature, as taught by Calvin and defended so ably and so long by Cornelius van Til, God must accommodate himself to his creatures. This accommodated revelation of God’s mind and will is ectyptal theology (theologia ectypa). It is based upon God’s self-understanding, but not identical with it. Ectypal theology, as the adjective suggests, is a reflection of the archetypal theology. It is true, but it is accommodated to human creature.

It would appear that neither the Hyper-Calvinists nor the Open-Theists have understood or accounted for this distinction. All revelation is necessarily an accommodation. It is not as if, sometimes we have direct, unmediated access to God and at other times we do not. ” Not that any man has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father” (John 6:46). Unaccommodated revelation would necessarily be fatal to its objects, since no human may see the unmediated face of God and live (Exodus 33:20). What we are doing now, getting to grips with God’s self-disclosure primarily in Scripture, was described in classic Reformed theology as pilgrim theology (theologia viatorum), a sub-species of ectypal theology. In order to do pilgrim theology properly, one must account for the accommodated nature of divine revelation (ectypal theology).

Sometimes this accommodation is intensified by the use of anthropomorphism (the application of human behavior to God) or anthropopathism (the application of human emotion to God). Thus, in Scripture, God is sometimes said to have eyes (Zech 2:8) or to travel (Gen 20:3) or to repent (Gen 6:6–7). This sort of language has always been interpreted by the catholic Church to be metaphoric or symbolic not because of pagan a priori notions of God, but because of clear Biblical propositions about God which have been used to interpret the narratives in which God reveals himself anthropomorphically. For example, Scripture teaches clearly that God does not change (Mal 3:6) or repent (Numbers 23:19). Therefore, on the analogy of Scripture and by the analogy of the faith, such clear propositions must interpret what are obviously more difficult passages which seem to ascribe human qualities to God. To do otherwise is to reduce the God of Scripture to an incompetent and worse to an idol.

The Reformed doctrine of the free offer of the Gospel is based squarely on the interpretation of Scripture expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, when it says, “I believe in God the Father AlmightyÂ….” The God of the Bible is the sovereign Creator of all and Redeemer of all his elect. He is not “cooperator” with an autonomous creation, but its sovereign, free, independent maker. He spoke and by the power of his Word, all that is, has occurred (John 1:3). This is also the doctrine of the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed where God is “uncreate”, “incomprehensible”, “eternal” and “almighty.”

Murray understands rightly that this sovereign God is also free to reveal himself as desiring certain things which he also reveals that he has not willed decretively. Here Murray invoked an ancient distinction in Christian theology, between God’s will considered decretively and preceptively. That is, it is not that God has two wills, but that, given the archetypal/ectypal distinction, there is a distinction to be made in our understanding of his will.

Before God’s will is revealed in Scripture or actuated in the history of salvation or providence, no human knows what God has decreed from all eternity. Therefore it is cupidity to try to guess what God’s secret will before it is realized in history. Nevertheless, God reveals that he has decreed whatsoever comes to pass, and he even sometimes reveals exactly what he has decreed before it happens (e.g., Deut 28 and 30). These declarations of what will transpire do not mean that God is unable to also make moral demands upon his creature, even though the future is predestined (e.g., Deut 30:19), even when the moral demands seem to contradict what we know from Scripture to be his decree. It is because of this tension between God as he is in himself (in se) and as he is toward us (erga nos) that theology distinguishes between God’s decretive and preceptive or moral will.

This distinction between God revealed (Deus revelatus) and God hidden (Deus absconditus) has a long history in Christian theology. It was one of the foundational doctrines of the Reformation. Luther’s entire argument with Erasmus in his Bondage of the Will (1525) was premised upon this distinction. Calvin likewise relied on it throughout the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559).

There is more that could be said about the immediate background of this essay, but this preface threatens to overtake the essay itself. For more see R. Scott Clark, “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology,” in David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Words: A Festschrift for Robert B. Strimple (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004).

This preface is only an attempt to explain some of the theological categories which Murray used but did not explain in his report. With all this, however, it should not be forgotten that the purpose of a right understanding of the free offer of the Gospel is that we might actually go out, stand in our pulpits and offer Christ the only Savior to needy sinners, trusting in sovereign grace to do its work. It is the preached Gospel that God the Holy Spirit has willed to use to bring his elect to faith (Romans 10:14; Heidelberg Catechism Q. 65).

May our Triune God use this essay to rekindle in our hearts compassion for the lost, and a desire to see all of those for whom Jesus died come to saving faith, by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.

Escondido, California
11 July 2000, rev. 2002, 2004, 2008.

***
THE FREE OFFER OF THE GOSPEL
By
John Murray
Introduction

It would appear that the real point in dispute in connection with the free offer of the gospel is whether it can properly be said that God desires the salvation of all men. The Committee elected by the Twelfth General Assembly in its report to the Thirteenth General Assembly said “God not only delights in the penitent but is also moved by the riches of his goodness and mercy to desire the repentance and salvation of the impenitent and reprobate” (Minutes, p. 67). It should have been apparent that the aforesaid Committee, in predicating such “desire” of God, was not dealing with the decretive will of God; it was dealing with the free offer of the gospel to all without distinction and that surely respects, not the decretive or secret will of God, but the revealed will. There is no ground for the supposition that the expression was intended to refer to God’s decretive will.

It must be admitted that if the expression were intended to apply to the decretive will of God then there would be, at least, implicit contradiction. For to say that God desires the salvation of the reprobate and also that God wills the damnation of the reprobate and apply the former to the same thing as the latter, namely, the decretive will, would be contradiction; it would amount to averring of the same thing, viewed from the same aspect, God wills and God does not will. The question then is: what is implicit in, or lies back of; the full and free offer of the gospel to all without distinction? The word “desire” has come to be used in the debate, not because it is necessarily the most accurate or felicitous word but because it serves to set forth quite sharply a certain implication of the full and free offer of the gospel to all. This implication is that in the free offer there is expressed not simply the bare preceptive will of God but the disposition of lovingkindness on the part of God pointing to the salvation to be gained through compliance with the overtures of gospel grace. In other words, the gospel is not simply an offer or invitation but also implies that God delights that those to whom the offer comes would enjoy what is offered in all its fullness. And the word “desire” has been used in order to express the thought epitomized in Ezekiel 33:11, which is to the effect that God has pleasure that the wicked turn from his evil way and live. It might as well have been said, “It pleases God that the wicked repent and be saved.”

Again, the expression “God desires,” in the formula that crystallizes the crux of the question, is intended to notify not at all the “seeming” attitude of God but a real attitude, a real disposition of lovingkindness inherent in the free offer to all, in other words, a pleasure or delight in God, contemplating the blessed result to be achieved by compliance with the overture proffered and the invitation given.

Still further, it is necessary to point out that such “desire” on the part of God for the salvation of all must never be conceived of as desire to such an end apart from the means to that end. It is not desire of their salvation irrespective of repentance and faith. Such would be inconceivable. For it would mean, as Calvin says, “to renounce the difference between good and evil.” If it is proper to say that God desires the salvation of the reprobate, then he desires such by their repentance. And so it amounts to the same thing to say “God desires their salvation” as to say “He desires their repentance.” This is the same as saying that he desires them to comply with the indispensable conditions of salvation. It would be impossible to say the one without implying the other.

Scriptural Basis

The Committee would now respectfully submit some exegetical material bearing upon this question and with a view to the resolution of it.

Matthew 5:44–48. This passage does not indeed deal with the overtures of grace in the gospel. But it does tell us something regarding God’s benevolence that has bearing upon all manifestations of divine grace. The particular aspect of God’s grace reflected upon here is the common gifts of providence, the making of the sun to rise upon evil and good and the sending of rain upon just and unjust. There can be no question but all without distinction reprobate as well as elect, are the beneficiaries of this favour, and it is that fact that is distinctly stated in verse 45.

The significant feature of this text is that this bestowal of favour by God on all alike is adduced as the reason why the disciples are to love their enemies and do them good. There is, of course, a question as to the proper text of verse 44. If we follow the Aleph-B text and omit the clauses, “bless them who curse you, do good to them who hate you” as well as the verb “despitefully use,” the sense is not affected. And besides, these clauses, though they may not belong to the genuine text of Matthew, appear in Luke 6:27,28 in practically the same form. Hence the teaching of our Lord undoubtedly was that the disciples were to love their enemies, do good to those who hated them, bless those who cursed them, and pray for those who despitefully used them and persecuted them. And the reason provided is that God himself bestows his favours upon his enemies. The particular reason mentioned why the disciples are to be guided and animated by the divine example is that they, the disciples, are sons of the Father. The obligation and urge to the love of their enemies and the bestowal of good upon them are here grounded in the filial relation that they sustain to God. Since they are sons of God they must be like their heavenly Father. There can be no doubt but that the main point is the necessity of imitating the divine example and this necessity is peculiarly enforced by the consideration of the filial relation they sustain to God as their heavenly Father.

It is just here, however, that it becomes necessary to note the implications of the similarity established and enforced as the reason for such attitude and conduct with reference to their enemies. The disciples are to love their enemies in order that they may be the sons of their Father; they must imitate their Father. Clearly implied is the thought that God, the Father, loves his enemies and that it is because he loves his enemies that he makes his sun rise upon them and sends them rain. This is just saying that the kindness bestowed in sunshine and rain is the expression of divine love, that back of the bestowal there is an attitude on the part of God, called love, which constrains him to bestow these tokens of his lovingkindness. This informs us that the gifts bestowed by God are not simply gifts which have the effect of good and blessing to those who are the recipients but that they are also a manifestation or expression of lovingkindness and goodness in the heart or will of God with reference to those who are the recipients. The enjoyment on the part of the recipients has its ground as well as its source in this lovingkindness of which the gifts enjoyed are the expression. In other words, these are gifts and are enjoyed because there is in a true and high sense benevolence in the heart of God.

These conclusions are reinforced by verse 48. There can be no question regarding the immediate relevance of verse 48 to the exhortation of verses 44–47, even though it may have a more comprehensive reference. And verse 48 means that what has been adduced by way of divine example in the preceding verses is set forth as epitomizing the divine perfection and as providing the great exemplar by which the believer’s attitude and conduct are to be governed and the goal to which thought and life are to be oriented. The love and beneficence of God to the evil and unjust epitomize the norm of human perfection. It is obvious that this love and beneficence on the part of God are regarded by our Lord himself as not something incidental in God but as that which constitutes an element in the sum of divine perfection. This is made very specific in the parallel passage in Luke 6 :35,36 where we read, “And ye shall be sons of the Most High, because he is kind towards the unthankful and evil. Ye shall be merciful, as your Father is merciful.” This word translated “merciful” is redolent of the pity and compassion in the heart of God that overflow in the bestowments of kindness.

The sum of this study of these passages in Matthew and Luke is simply this, that presupposed in God’s gifts bestowed upon the ungodly there is in God a disposition of love, kindness, mercifulness, and that the actual gifts and the blessing accruing therefrom for the ungodly must not be abstracted from the lovingkindness of which they are the expression. And, of course, we must not think of this lovingkindness as conditioned upon a penitent attitude in the recipients. The lovingkindness rather is exercised towards them in their ungodly state and is expressed in the favours they enjoy. What bearing this may have upon the grace of God manifested in the free offer of the gospel to all without distinction remains to be seen. But we are hereby given a disclosure of goodness in the heart of God and of the relation there is between gifts bestowed and the lovingkindness from which they flow. And there is indicated to us something respecting God’s love or benevolence that we might not or could not entertain if we concentrated our thought simply on the divine decree of reprobation. Furthermore we must remember that there are many gifts enjoyed by the ungodly who are within the pale of the gospel administration which are not enjoyed by those outside, and we shall have to conclude that in respect of these specific favours, enjoyed by such ungodly persons in distinction from others, the same principle of divine benevolence and lovingkindness must obtain, a lovingkindness, too, which must correspond to the character of the specific gifts enjoyed.

Acts 14:17. This text does not express as much as those considered already. But it does witness to the same truth that God gave testimony to his own perfection when he did good to those whom he left to walk in their own ways. God did them good, he sent them rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness. We must infer on the basis of what we found already, that behind this doing of good and bestowal of blessing, as well as behind the gladness of heart which followed, there was the divine goodness and lovingkindness.

Deuteronomy 5:29 (26 in Hebrew); 32:29; Psalm 81:13ff. (81:14ff. in Hebrew); I6aiah 48:18. The purpose of adducing these texts is to note the optative force of that which is expressed. There can be no reasonable question as to the optative force of Deuteronomy 5 :29(26). It is introduced by the idiom mi yitten which literally means “who will give?” but is really a strong optative expression meaning “Oh that there were!” Consequently the text reads, “Oh that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!” It is the Lord who is speaking and we shall have to conclude that here we have the expression of earnest desire or wish or will that the people of Israel were of a heart to fear him and keep all his commandments always. It is apparent from the book of Deuteronomy itself (cf. 31:24–29) and from the whole history of Israel that they did not have a heart to fear God and to keep all his commandments always. Since they did not fulfil that which was optatively expressed in 5:29 (26), we must conclude that God had not decreed that they should have such a heart. If God had decreed it, it would have been so. Here therefore we have an instance of desire on the part of God for the fulfilment of that which he had not decreed. in other words, a will on the part of God to that which he had not decretively willed.

In Deuteronomy 32:29 the construction is somewhat different. In our English versions it is translated, “Oh that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end.” This rendering is distinctly optative and has the same effect as Deuteronomy 5:29 (26), considered above. It must be admitted that this is a perfectly legitimate rendering and interpretation. The conjunction lu with which the verse begins has undoubtedly this optative force. It has such force unquestionably in Genesis 17:18; Numb. 14:2, 20:3; 22:29; Joshua 7:7; Isaiah 63:19, and possibly, if not probably, in Genesis 23:13, 30:34. When lu has this optative force it means “Oh that” or “if only” and expresses strong desire. In view of what we found in Deut. 5:26 there is no reason why the optative force of lu should not be adopted here. We may not however, insist that lu must have optative force here because lu is also used with conditional force, as in Judges 8:19; 13:23; II Samuel 18:12 and elsewhere. If lu is understood conditionally, Deut. 32:29 would be rendered as follows: “If they were wise they would understand this, they would consider their fatter end.” This however, is not the most natural rendering. The optative interpretation is smoother and more meaningful in the context. If this more natural construction is followed it shows the same thing as we found in Deut. 5:26 that earnest desire is expressed for what is contrary to fact (cf.. verse 28)

In Psalm 81:14 it may readily be detected that the conditional force of the conjunction lu cannot reasonably be adopted. The thought is rather distinctly optative, “Oh that my people were hearkening unto me, that Israel would walk in my ways.”

Isaiah 48:18 could readily be rendered conditionally thus: “If thou hadst hearkened to my commandments, thy peace had been as a river and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea.” It can also be rendered optatively as in our English versions.

It should be noted that even when the conjunction lu is given very distinct conditional force, the optative idea is sometimes rather noticeably in the background. This would very likely be the case in Isaiah 48:18 even if the optative rendering gives way to the conditional. The desirableness of that which is expressed in the condition and its corresponding consequence cannot be suppressed. This can be expressed in our English idiom very well when we render, “If only thou hadst hearkened to my commandments, then had thy peace been as a river” etc. Both the conditional and optative appear here, and there is much to be said in favour of the conclusion that whether we render Isa. 48:18 optatively or conditionally the optative notion still persists, in the former case, of course, directly and in the latter case indirectly.

Should we make full allowance for doubt as to the exact force of the construction in the case of Deut. 32:29 and Isa. 48:18, there can be no room for question but that the Lord represents himself in some of these passages as earnestly desiring the fulfilment of something which he had not in the exercise of his sovereign will actually decreed to come to pass. This bears very directly upon the point at issue.

Matthew 23 :37; Luke 13:34. In this passage there should be no dispute that the will of Christ in the direction of a certain benign result is set in contrast with the will of those who are contemplated as the subjects of such blessing. These two stand in opposition to each other—I have willed (or wished), ye have not willed (or wished).

Not only so. The will of Christ to a certain end is opposed to that which actually occurred. Jesus says he often wished the occurrence of something which did not come to pass and therefore willed (or wished) the occurrence of that which God had not secretly or decretively willed.

That which Jesus willed is stated to be the gathering together of the children of Jerusalem, as a hen gathers together her chickens under her wings. This surely means the gathering together of the people of Jerusalem under his saving and protecting grace. So we have the most emphatic declaration on the part of Christ of his having yearned for the conversion and salvation of the people of Jerusalem

It might be said that Jesus is here giving expression simply to his human desire and that this would not indicate, therefore, the desire or will of God. In other words, it might be said that we are not justified in transferring this expression of his human desire to the divine desire or will, either in respect of Jesus’ own divine consciousness or the divine consciousness of the other persons of the Godhead.

Christ was indeed truly human and his human mind and will operated within the limitations inseparable from human nature. His human nature was not omniscient and could not in the nature of the case be cognisant of the whole decretive will of God. In his human nature he wrought within limits that could not apply to the specifically divine knowledge, desire and will. Hence it might be argued that on this occasion he gave expression to the yearnings of his truly human will and therefore to a will that could not be aware of the whole secret purpose of God. Furthermore, it might be said that Jesus was speaking of what he willed in the past before he was aware, in his human consciousness, of the judgment that was to befall Jerusalem, stated in verses 38, 39. A great deal more might be said along this line that would lend plausibility to such an interpretation.

We are not able to regard such an interpretation of our Lord’s statement as tenable. It is true our Lord was human. It is true he spoke as human. And it is true he spoke these words or gave utterance to this lament through the medium of his human nature. The will he spoke of on this occasion was certainly one that engaged the total exercise of his human desire and will. But there is much more that needs to be considered if we are properly to assess the significance of this incident and of Jesus’ utterance. Jesus is speaking here in his capacity as the Messiah and Saviour. He is speaking therefore as the God-man. He is speaking of the will on his part as the Messiah and Saviour to embrace the people of Jerusalem in the arms of his saving grace and covenant love. The majesty that belongs to his person in this unique capacity shines through the whole episode and it is quite improper to abstract the divine aspect of his person from the capacity in which he gives utterance to this will and from the prerogative in virtue of which he could give expression to the utterance. What needs to be appreciated is that the embrace of which Jesus here speaks is that which he exercises in that unique office and prerogative that belong to him as the God-man Messiah and Saviour. In view of the transcendent, divine function which he says he wished to perform, it would be illegitimate for us to say that here we have simply an example of his human desire or will. It is surely, therefore, a revelation to us of the divine will as well as of the human. Our Lord in the exercise of his most specific and unique function as the God-man gives expression to a yearning will on his part that responsiveness on the part of the people of Jerusalem would have provided the necessary condition for the bestowal of his saving and protecting love, a responsiveness, nevertheless, which it was not the decretive will of God to create in their hearts.

In this connection we must not fail to keep in mind the principle borne out by Jesus’ own repeated declarations, especially as recorded in the Gospel of John, namely, the perfect harmony and coalescence of will on the part of the Father and of the Son (cf. John 12:49,50; 14:10, 24; 17:8). To aver that Jesus in the expressed will of Matt. 23:37 is not disclosing the divine will but simply his own human will would tend towards very grave prejudice to this principle. And, viewing the matter from the standpoint of revelation, how would it affect our conception of Jesus as the supreme revelation of the Father if in this case we were not to regard his words as a transcript of the Father’s will as well as of his own? We can readily see the difficulties that face us if we do not grant the truly revelatory significance of our LordÂ’s statement.

In this lament over Jerusalem, furthermore, there is surely disclosed to us something of the will of our Lord as the Son of God and divine Son of man that lies back of, and is expressed in, such an invitation as Matthew 11:28. Here we have declared, if we may use the thought of Matthew 23:37, his will to embrace the labouring and heavy laden in the arms of his saving and loving protection. And it is an invitation to all such to take advantage of that will of his. The fulness and freeness of the invitation need not now be argued. Its character as such is patent. It is important, however, to note that the basis and background of this invitation are supplied by the uniqueness of the relation that he sustains to the Father as the Son, the transcendent commission that is given to him as the Son, and the sovereignty, coordinate with that of the Father, which he exercises because of that unique relationship and in that unique capacity. We should not fail to perceive the interrelations of these two passages (Matt. 23:37; 11:28) and to recognize that the former is redolent of his divine prerogative and revelatory of his divine will. Verses 38 and 39 confirm the high prerogative in terms of which he is speaking, for there he pronounces the divine judgment. And in this connection we cannot forget John 5:26,27, “For as the Father hath life in himself, even so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself. And he hath given to him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man.”

Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11. It does not appear to us in the least justifiable to limit the reference of these passages to any one class of wicked persons. Suffice it now to mention one or two considerations in support of this conclusion. In Ezekiel 33:4–9 the wicked who actually die in their iniquity are contemplated. It is without warrant to exclude such wicked persons from the scope of the wicked spoken of in verse 11. While it is true that a new paragraph may be regarded as introduced at verse 10, yet the new thought of verse 10 is simply the despairing argument or objection on the part of the house of Israel and does not have the effect of qualifying the denotation or connotation of the wicked mentioned in verse 11, a denotation and a connotation determined by the preceding verses. Again, the emphatic negative of the first part of verse 11 —-“I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked”—admits of no limitation or qualification; it applies to the wicked who actually die in their iniquity. Why then should there be the least disposition to limit those spoken of in the text to any class of wicked persons?

In Ezekiel 18:23 the construction is not without significance. This verse is introduced by the interrogative and then we have the emphatic construction of duplication well known in Hebrew. It might be rendered, “Taking pleasure in, do I take pleasure in ?” The question implies, of course, an emphatic negative. It should also be noted that the verb in this case takes a direct object, namely, “the death of the wicked” (moth rasha without any article). In this case we do not have the preposition be as in Ezekiel 33:11.1 It should be noted that the verb chaphez with such a construction can very properly be rendered by our English word, “desire,” as frequently elsewhere in the Old Testament. Consequently this verse may well be rendered, “Do I at all desire the death of the wicked?” The force of this is obiously the emphatic negative, “I do not by any means desire the death of the wicked,” or to be very literal, “I do not by any means desire the death of a wicked person.

The interrogative construction is continued in the latter part of the verse. Here, however, it is negative in form, implying an affirmative answer to the question just as in the former part the affirmative form implied a negative answer. It reads, “Is it not rather in his turning from his way (the Massoretes read “his ways”) and live?” The clear import is an emphatic asseveration to the effect that the Lord Jehovah delights rather in the turning of the wicked from his evil way that he may live. The adversative form of the sentence may well be rendered thus: “Do I at all desire the death of the wicked, saith the Lord Jehovah, and not rather that he turn from his way and live.

The sum of the matter may be stated in the following propositions. It is absolutely and universally true that God does not delight in or desire the death of a wicked person. It is likewise absolutely and universally true that he delights in the repentance and life of that wicked person. It would surely be quite unwarranted to apply the latter proposition less universally or more restrictively than the former. The adversative construction and the emphatic form by which the protestation is introduced are surely not compatible with any other conclusion. And if we carry over the perfectly proper rendering of the first clause, the thought can be expressed thus, “God does not desire the death of the wicked but rather their repentance and life.”

In Ezekiel 33:11 the construction is somewhat different. The statement is introduced by the oath, “As I live saith the Lord Jehovah.” Then we have the construction with the Hebrew im, which has the force of an emphatic negative and must be rendered, “I have no delight (or pleasure) Â… in the death of the wicked” (bemoth harasha; in this case the article is used). It should be noted that the preposition be is used in this case, as also in the second part of 18:23 as observed below.2 This is a very frequent construction in Hebrew with reference to delight in persons or things. Interesting examples are II Sam. 24:3; Esther 6:6,7,9,11; Ps. 147:10; Prov. 18:2, Isa. 65:12; Mal 2:17. On certain occasions the Hebrew word could well be translated “desire” in English and the word that follows the preposition taken as the direct object (e.g. II Sam. 24:3).

It has been argued that the preposition be in Ezekiel 33:11b has the force of “when” so that the verse would run, “As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but when the wicked turns from his way and lives.” And so it has been claimed that all that is said in this verse is that Gor3 is pleased when the wicked turns and cannot be made to support the proposition that God is pleased that the wicked should repent whether they repent or not. On this view it would be maintained that this verse says nothing more than that God is pleased when a wicked man repents but says nothing respecting the pleasure of God in reference to the repentance of those who do not actually repent.

In dealing with this question a few things need be said. (1) A study of the instances where this construction of the verb chaphez with the preposition be occurs would not suggest this interpretation of the force of the preposition be. The usage rather indicates that the preposition points to that upon which pleasure is placed, that to which desire gravitates, that in which delight is taken. That object of pleasure, desire, delight may he conceived of as existing, or as something not actually existent, or as something desirable, that is to say, desired to be. When the object is contemplated as desirable but not actually realized, the thought of chaphez does not at all appear to be simply that delight or pleasure will be derived from the object when it is realized or possessed. That thought is, of course, implied. But there is much more. There is the delight or pleasure or desire that it should come to be, even if the actual occurrence should never take place. Consequently it appears that the notion that Ezekiel 33:1lb simply says that God is pleased when a wicked man repents robs the concept expressed by chaphez be of some of its most characteristic and necessary meaning. It is not in any way denied that this kind of delight is embraced in the expression. But to limit the concept to this notion is without warrant and is not borne out by the usage.

(2) The adversative construction of the verse would not by any means suggest the interpretation that verse 11b says simply that God is pleased when a man repents. In the same clause it is denied that God has pleasure in the death of the wicked. In accordance with 18:23 this means that it is true absolutely and universally that God does not delight in the death of the wicked. This does not mean simply that God does not delight in the death of the wicked when he dies. The denial is much more embracive. In like manner, it would be unnatural for us to suppose that the affirmation of that in which God does take delight is simply the turning of the wicked from his way when it occurs. This is just saying that it is natural to give to the preposition be in the second clause the same force as it has in the first. Rendered literally then the two clauses would read, “I do not have pleasure in the death of the wicked but rather in his turning from his way and that he live.” Paraphrased the thought would be, “It is not pleasing to me that the wicked die but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” And the same kind of absoluteness and universality denied in the one case must be regarded as affirmed in the other.

(3) Confirmation of this interpretation may be derived from the concluding clauses of verse 11, “‘turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways, and why will ye die, oh house of Israel.” The thought of the last clause is that there is no reason why they should die. ‘There is no reason because of the grace so emphatically declared in the earlier part of the verse and, by implication, so fully and freely proffered. There will not be any dispute regarding the universality of the exhortation and command in the clause, “turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways.” This is a command that applies to all men without any discrimination or exception. It expresses therefore the will of God to repentance. He wills that all should repent. Nothing less than that is expressed in the universal command. To state the matter more fully, he wills that all should repent and live or be saved. When this is related to the last clause, “why will ye die?” it means that the reason why no one need die, why there is no reason why any should die, is, that God does not will that any should die. He wills rather that they repent and live. This declaration of the will of God to the repentance and life of all, so clearly implied in the two concluding clauses, rests, however, upon the declarations of the two preceding clauses, the clauses with which we are now more particularly concerned. We should conclude, therefore, that the will to universal repentance and life, so unmistakably expressed in the concluding clauses, is also declared or, at least, implied in the words, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” This is just saying that the import of the hortatory and interrogative clauses at the end require or presuppose a will of God to repentance and life, a will to which the bare notion that God is pleased when men repent is not by any means equal. The only adequate way of expressing the will implied in the exhortation is the will that all should repent and it is surely that truth that is declared in the oath supported statement, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked turn from his way and live.

It is not to be forgotten that when it is said that God absolutely and universally takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, we are not here speaking of God’s decretive will. In terms of his decretive will it must be said that God absolutely decrees the eternal death of some wicked and, in that sense, is absolutely pleased so to decree. But in the text it is the will of God’s benevolence (voluntas euarestiss) that is stated, not the will of God’s decree (voluntas eudokiss.) It is, in our judgment, quite unjustifiable to think that in this passage there is any reflection upon the decretive will of God in the word chaphez. And neither is there evidence to show that in the word chaphez there is here any comparative notion to the effect that God takes greater pleasure in saving men than he does in damning them.

It is indeed true that in a few passages in the Old Testament the word chaphez is used with reference to the decretive will of God (cI. Ps. 115:3, 135:6, the substantive chephez, also, in Isa. 44:28; 46:10; 48:14). But in this passage everything points to the conclusion that the good pleasure or delight of God spoken of is viewed entirely from the aspect of benevolent lovingkindness. And it is in terms of that aspect of the divine will that the words “absolutely” and “universally” have been used above.

lsaiah 45:22. There can be no question but the salvation mentioned in this text is salvation in the highest sense. It cannot be weakened to mean temporary or temporal security. The salvation must be of the same character as that referred to in verse 17 and implied in the title appropriated by God himself in verse 21. The text is also an invitation and command to all to turn to God and to be saved. The universalism of this command should be apparent from the expression, “all the ends of the earth.” This is a characteristic Old Testament phrase to designate all nations and peoples. The universal scope is, however, confirmed by the context. There are several intimations of this. In the preceding context the Lord asserts his

Creatorhood (vss. 12,18). This appeal to his Creatorhood has the effect of bringing to the forefront a relationship which he sustains to all men alike. Likewise the Lord protests that he is the only God, that there is none else besides him (vss. 14,18,21). The emphasis on this becomes more specific in the repeated assertion that he alone is the Saviour (vss. 15,20,21). Furthermore, that all men are contemplated is borne out by verse 23, that unto him every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. Finally, this note is implied in the scorn that is poured out upon the heathen in verse 20—”They have not knowledge that carry the wood of their graven image, and pray unto a god that cannot save.” All these considerations bear directly upon the universal reference of the appeal in verse 22. It is because God alone is God and because he alone can save that the exhortation is extended to all, “turn ye to me and be ye saved.” We could not place any kind of limitation upon the exhortation without interfering with the universality of the prerogatives claimed by God himself in the context. It is necessary to stress this because it might be thought that the universalism of the command in verse 22 is not distributive universalism but simply ethnical universalism, all nations without distinction but not all people without exception. The considerations of the context would show that there is no exception to the command any more than there is to the sole Creatorhood sole Godhood and sole Saviourhood of the God who extends the appeal.

This text expresses then the will of God in the matter of the call, invitation, appeal, and command of the gospel, namely, the will that all should turn to him and be saved. What God wills in this sense he certainly is pleased to will. If it is his pleasure to will that all repent and be saved, it is surely his pleasure that all repent and be saved. Obviously, however, it is not his decretive will that all repent and be saved. While, on the one hand, he has not decretively willed that all be saved, yet he declares unequivocally that it is his will and, impliedly, his pleasure that all turn and be saved. We are again faced with the mystery and adorable richness of the divine will. It might seem to us that the one rules out the other. But it is not so. There is a multiformity to the divine will that is consonant with the fulness and richness of his divine character, and it is no wonder that we are constrained to how in humble yet exultant amazement before his ineffable greatness and unsearchable judgments. To deny the reality of the divine pleasure directed to the repentance and salvation of all is to fail to accept the witness borne by such a text as this to the manifoldness of fiod’s will and the riches of his grace.

II Peter 3:9. In view of what we have found already there is no reason in the analogy of Scripture why we should not regard this passage as teaching that God in the exercise of his benevolent longsuffering and lovingkindness wills that none should perish but that all should come to repentance. An a priori assumption that this text cannot teach that God wills the repentance and salvation of all is a gravely unsound assumption, for it is not an assumption derived from the analogy of Scripture. In approaching this text there should be no such prejudice. What this text does actually teach will have to be determined, however, by grammatico-historical exegesis of the text and context.

The choice of the verb “is longsuffering” (makrothumei) will be considered first. In Luke 18:7, the only other instance in the New Testament where it refers to the action of God, it probably relates to the elect. But in that case it is employed in the somewhat distinctive sense of “delay” in avenging them. The “longsuffering” (makrothumia) of God, is spoken of several times, and its usage is illuminating. Romans 9:22 presents a clear instance where it has in view an attitude of God towards the reprobate; he “endured with much longsuffering vessels of wrath.” In Romans 2:4, it is associated with the goodness and forbearance of God, and subsumed under his goodness, as that which is despised by the impenitent who treasures up for himself wrath in the day of wrath, who does not know that the goodness of God “leadeth him to repentance” (eis metanoian se agei). The choice of the verb agein is to be noted. Since the impenitent are in view, it cannot refer to efficacious grace. Nevertheless, it is a strong verb as its use in Romans 8:14 shows: “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (cf. Gal. 5:18). It must be understood as a constraining influence flowing from the goodness of God which is calculated to bring men to repentance. The construction in Romans 2:4 is remarkably similar to that in II Peter 3:9.

On the background of these passages, the usage by Peter may be considered to advantage. In the last days, Peter says, mockers will mock because the parousia has not come. The day of judgment will nevertheless come. The apparent delay in its coming some count slackness. What is counted as slackness by some should, however, really be recognized as longsuffering (II Peter 3 :3–9). The longsuffering should not be counted as slackness, but as salvation (v. 15). The longsuffering is, then, a positive favor of God towards sinners which is directed to their salvation.

Up to this point, accordingly, the thought is similar to that of Romans 2:4. Men may despise God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering towards them, not knowing that that goodness has in view their turning from their sins to God. Men may count the longsuffering as slackness on God’s part, when actually they ought to account it as designed to extend salvation to them.

But this tentative judgment on the basis of the use of makrothumia must be related to the rest of verse 9. This aspect of the question is considerably complicated by the divergence in the textual tradition at this point. The situation is reflected in part in the divergence between AV and ARV: “to us-ward” and “to you-ward.” But there is a further complication due to the fact that there is significant testimony for the preposition dia, resulting in the possibilities: “on your account” or “on our account.’ The reading dia has come to be preferred by Mayor, Moffatt, Greijdanus, RSVmg. The difference between “you” and “us” or “your” and “our” is not especially significant, since in either case the readers of the Epistle would be primarily in view. The actual line-up of authorities does not, however, leave solid external support for the combination “on our account,” though Mayor supports it. The reading “to us-ward” is clearly the weakest reading, judged by external evidence; and it is not commended particularly by other considerations. Hence the choice falls between “to you-ward” and “on your account.” While perhaps it is not possible to decide finally between these two readings, we may judge that the reading “on your account” has a very strong claim. The external evidence for it appears to be at least as strong as for the other competing reading, and transcriptionally it may be preferred as being somewhat more unusual and difficult.

The question now arises as to the specific reference of “you,” whether with the preposition dia or eis. Does the use of this pronoun indicate that reprobate men are out of consideration here? So it has been argued. However, if the reprobate are out of consideration here, the “true believers” would have to be identified with the elect, and the longsuffering of God would have to be understood as the special, saving grace of God manifested to the elect alone. We do not believe that the restriction of the reference to the elect is well-established. The Epistle does not make this restriction. Moreover, since on this view, the believers addressed here are characterized as “living lax Christian lives,” are viewed as requiring repentance, and even as about to “perish” unless they repent, it cannot be argued plausibly that the apostle would not have allowed for the presence of some reprobate among the members of his audience. Even if the “you” is restricted to professing Christians. one cannot exclude the possibility that reprobate men were also in view.

The “you” of this passage can hardly be restricted to the elect. Can it even be restricted to “believers”? Can it be restricted to believers who urgently stand in need of repentance? The determination of this question is bound up with the evaluation of the subordinate clauses. It may be acknowledged that the decision made with regard to “you” will bear upon the meaning of the language that follows. But the reverse is also true. The language of the clauses may be such as to reflect decisively upon the persons referred to in connection with the manifestations of longsuffering. Does not, as a matter of fact, the language “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” set before us a basic antithesis between the death or destruction that awaits impenitent sinners and, by implication, the life eternal which men may enter upon through repentance? God does not wish that any men should perish. His wish is rather that all should enter upon life eternal by coming to repentance. The language in this part of the verse is so absolute that it is highly unnatural to envisage Peter as meaning merely that God does not wish that any believers should perish, but that he rather wishes that all believers who live laxly should repent of their sins. If they are believers, they have already come to repentance, entered upon life, and escaped destruction, even though the struggle against sin and turning from it must continue. The language of the clauses, then, most naturally refers to mankind as a whole as men are faced with the issues of death or life before the day of judgment comes. It does not view men either as elect or reprobate, and so allows that both elect and reprobate make up the totality in view.

The most satisfactory view of II Peter 3:9 is:

1) Peter teaches that the delay of the coming of judgment should be acknowledged as a manifestation of the longsuffering or patience of God with sinners.

2) Peter says that God is longsuffering on your account. It is not because of any slackness in God himself, but because of the consideration of the well-being of men. The pronoun “you” cannot be restricted to the elect. It would certainly include the members of the Christian community as possible benefactors of the longsuffering of God, but in view of considerations adduced above may not fairly be restricted to believers.

3) If the reading “to you-ward” is adopted, the thrust of the passage is not essentially altered. The delay is not due to slackness in God, but is to be regarded as an expression of longsuffering towards men, including very specifically those addressed in the Epistle.

4) The reason or ground for the longsuffering of God until the day of judgment is given in what is said concerning his “willing.” He is longsuffering in that, or because, he does not wish that any men should perish, but rather because he wills or wishes that all should come to repentance. Repentance is the condition of life, without repentance men must perish. But the will of God that men be saved expressed here is not conditional. It is not: I will your salvation if you repent, but: I will that you repent and thus be saved. The two clauses then go far beyond defining the longsuffering of God, for they intimate what is back of his longsuffering. This favour is grounded in God himself; it is an expression of his will with regard to sinners, his will being nothing short of their salvation.

The argument that the longsuffering of God that delays judgment could not concern the reprobate, “for they will never repent” is to be met exactly as Calvin met similar arguments. Following his exegesis of II Peter 3:9, Calvin says: “But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own I ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches out his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them unto himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.”

Conclusions

(1) We have found that the grace of God bestowed in his ordinary providence expresses the love of God, and that this love of God is the source of the gifts bestowed upon and enjoyed by the ungodly as well as the godly. We should expect that herein is disclosed to us a principle that applies to all manifestations of divine grace, namely, that the grace bestowed expresses the lovingkindness in the heart of God and that the gifts bestowed are in their respective variety tokens of a correspondent richness or manifoldness in the divine lovingkindness of which they are the expression.

(2) We have found that God himself expresses an ardent desire for the fulfilment of certain things which he has not decreed in his inscrutable counsel to come to pass. This means that there is a will to the realization of what he has not decretively willed, a pleasure towards that which he has not been pleased to decree. This is indeed mysterious, and why he has not brought to pass, in the exercise of his omnipotent power and grace, what is his ardent pleasure lies hid in the sovereign counsel of his will. We should not entertain, however, any prejudice against the notion that God desires or has pleasure in the accomplishment of what he does not decretively will.

(3) Our Lord himself in the exercise of his messianic prerogative provides us with an example of the foregoing as it applies to the matter of salvation. He says expressly that he willed the bestowal of his saving and protecting grace upon those whom neither the Father nor he decreed thus to save and protect.

(4) We found that God reveals himself as not taking pleasure in or desiring the death of those who die but rather as taking pleasure in or desiring the repentance and life of the wicked. This will of God to repentance and salvation is universalized and reveals to us, therefore, that there is in God a benevolent lovingkindness towards the repentance and salvation of even those whom he has not decreed to save. This pleasure, will, desire is expressed in the universal call to repentance.

(5) We must conclude, therefore, that our provisional inference on the basis of Matt. 5 :44–48 is borne out by the other passages. The full and free offer of the gospel is a grace bestowed upon all. Such grace is necessarily a manifestation of love or lovingkindness in the heart of God. And this lovingkindness is revealed to be of a character or kind that is correspondent with the grace bestowed. The grace offered is nothing less than salvation in its richness and fullness. The love or lovingkindness that lies back of that offer is not anything less; it is the will to that salvation. In other words, it is Christ in all the glory of his person and in all the perfection of his finished work whom God offers in the gospel. The loving and benevolent will that is the source of that offer and that grounds its veracity and reality is the will to the possession of Christ and the enjoyment of the salvation that resides in him.

Endnotes

1 Kittel says that 20 manuscripts read bemoth as in verse 32. If this reading is correct then, of course, what is said respecting the omission of the preposition be does not hold.

2 The only instances we have been able to find in the Old Testament of chaphez be, followed by the infinitive construct, are Ezekiel 18:23b and 33:11b. chaphez without the preposition be is fol1owed by the infinitive construct in other cases cf. Isa. 53:10.