Illness and Assurance

I am currently sitting at my parents’ dining room table, hacking away at a cough that has plagued me for about four weeks. I have had the flu now for a couple of days as well. In addition to this, just about everyone in my family is or has been sick, with my wife being the latest casualty, though most of the children seem now to be getting better. If my thoughts seem a bit delerious to you all today, you will know why. No one is in any danger, though prayers would of course be appreciated. The nature of such prayers should be determined by the following paragraphs.

I got to thinking about illness today, and was cogitating particularly on one of John Piper’s famous dictums: “Don’t waste your cancer.” It is, of course, quite difficult to think of illness as an asset in one’s Christian walk (James, did you HAVE to write that in chapter 1 about considering trials pure, unadulterated joy? There you have it: one of the passages that most strongly confronts my sinful idolatry of comfort). In my misery, I was concentrating on trying to be a good patient, and not being demanding of other people. Today I realized that this was far too low a goal (though it was not a bad one). How can I glorify God through having the flu? Now that is a better question. And it is surely the most important question.

However, there is a fringe benefit that comes along with focusing on God’s glory in the midst of trials: assurance. Surely the unbeliever would never consider seeking God’s glory through illness. If that is so, then it is a great comfort to me when God is working through me in such a way that I seek His glory. It means I am one of His children. Just a thought to brighten your day, especially if you have a sickness right now.

Need a Lift?

One of the most constant dangers that Christians face is the temptation to think that our sin is greater than God’s grace. It isn’t. Paul points this out rather extensively in Romans 5:15-17, where the entire theme is “how much more” is God’s grace than all sin in the world. Phillip Melanchthon’s commentary on the passage is worth quoting here for its pastoral sensitivity:

“The godly should diligently consider this superiority of grace in order that they may oppose it to the magnitutde of their sin and to their present weakness. No sin, no matter how great, ought to be considered greater than grace (p. 139 of the Kramer translation).”

Is Your Best Good Enough?

I have asked the EE (Evangelism Explosion) question to a number of people. For those who don’t know what this question is, it goes like this: “If you were to die tonight and appear before God in heaven, and He were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?” I dare say that if anyone were to poll most Americans on this question, the number one answer would be, “I’ve done my best.” This answer has a certain appeal about it. It implies that the person is really thinking about his eternal destiny. It also implies that the God who hears this answer is a loving and gracious God, willing to accept “partial credit” as if it were full credit. It implies that God is not someone who will be quick to consign anyone to Hell. In short, it appeals very much to our postmodern culture. However, it is woefully inadequate as an answer to God.

The first challenge to issue to this answer is this: how do you know whether your best is good enough? What standard will you use in order to make this judgment? How do you know that the standard you are using is the same standard that God is using? Will you use other people as your standard? God does not judge according to that standard. God uses His own character as the standard against which all must be measured. Will you use the idea of a “curve” in your understanding of God’s judgment? Nowhere in Scripture does it say that God grades on a curve.

The law requires perfection, not our best. The Scripture says “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all the things of the law, to do them” (Galatians 3:10). If this is true, then the law is our enemy if we seek to gain heaven by doing our best.

The fact is that God is a loving and gracious God, but this does not cancel out His justice. His grace and mercy are shown in providing us with a perfect righteousness in Jesus Christ. His righteousness is reckoned to be ours when we come to faith in Him. It is not about us doing our best. It is about Jesus Christ doing everything, which He has already accomplished. God does not accept partial credit. He only accepts full credit. But He provides that full credit in Jesus Christ.

The other, more serious problem, is this: good deeds do not cancel out sin. Therefore, what are you going to do with your sin and guilt? Not even a lifetime of good works will ever cancel out one sin, since all our good works are owed to God anyway. In the death of Jesus Christ, God has provided an answer for this as well. For at the cross, Jesus Christ takes the burden of our guilt on Himself, if we believe in Him. He takes away the guilt of sin before God, so that all our sins, past, present, and future, are eliminated.

It is only as we surrender our own righteousness, which is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), that we can receive by pure grace the righteousness of another. Only then can we know that we have an answer to give to God when we appear before Him, an answer we know is acceptable. Our answer is then, “Lord God, I know that I have never done enough in my lifetime to deserve entrance into heaven. I can never plead my own righteousness before God. But I can plead the righteousness of Christ, which is perfect. It is because I trust in Him that His righteousness is reckoned to me as if I had done it. It covers over all my sin, and all my imperfect righteousness. He is all my plea.”

Professor Mark Beach Responds to Nampa URC’s Criticism of the URC FV Report

Posted by Wes White

Comments on the Paper of the Consistory of the United Reformed

Church of Nampa, Idaho

“Interaction with the ‘Report of the Synodical Study Committee on the Federal

Vision and Justification’ ”

by J. Mark Beach



This paper is a response to a recent study produced by the Consistory of the United Reformed Church of Nampa, Idaho (3 June 2010) interacting with the “Report of the Synodical Study Committee on the Federal Vision and Justification.” Inasmuch as I am a minister in the United Reformed Churches, but not a delegate to Synod 2010, this reply, I suppose, is my only opportunity to offer some observations about the Study Committee Report and more particularly about the Nampa Consistory document, which invites the churches to consider the critique of the Study Committee Report “as they prepare to deliberate on these issues at Synod.”

As an official consistorial document, it is not clear to me why the Nampa URC paper was not processed through ecclesiastical channels, which seems to be the protocol for an official reply to a synodical Study Committee. Rather than post this document over the internet, it seems to me that it would have been a brotherly duty to correspond with the Study Committee directly so that this Committee could evaluate and weigh the validity of the concerns enunciated in the Nampa document, or at the very least submit this document to Classis as an overture, and if Classis refused to adopt the overture as its own, then send their report to Synod. As it stands, the procedure the Nampa Consistory has followed in this regard may be construed to show a low view of the church, an uncharitable approach to the Study Committee, and to be setting an unwise, even a kind of politicizing, precedent for ecclesiastical debate and discussion. (The Study Committee Report has been available to the churches since mid-summer 2009.) No doubt, some consistories and interested individuals will study this document while others are free to ignore it since it is not a document properly processed through the assemblies of the church. For this reason, given the public nature of the Nampa document, I feel compelled to offer some analytical comments on the Nampa study, though I wish the whole discussion had been left within official ecclesiastical boundaries.

Continue reading here.

Posted by Wes White

TE Keister’s Reply to TE Moon’s Defense of TE Lawrence – Part 3

Posted by Wes White

II. Exegetical Arguments

A. TE Moon argues (p. 2) that TE Lawrence’s view of the term is in accord with the NT understanding of the term “Christian.” However, the context of each of the three uses of the term in the NT does not support this claim, which depends on baptism being the marker or identifier of who is a Christian. The first instance of its use is Acts 11:26. Baptism is nowhere mentioned in the context, but believing and turning to the Lord certainly is (vs. 21). They were marked by their beliefs, primarily. At the very least, if baptism was supposed to be the marker of the Christian, it should have been present in this context, and yet it is absent. If a Christian is one who identifies with Christ, then in this passage the way one is identified with Christ is if a person believed and turned to the Lord. This is very similar to the common way of using “Christian” today to refer to someone who believes in Christ. The second occurrence of this word is even stronger against TE Moon’s assertion. The context is Paul’s defense before King Agrippa. Paul gives a detailed defense of what he believes. In short, he preached the Word to King Agrippa. King Agrippa responds eventually by saying, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28). King Agrippa was obviously thinking that Paul intended to persuade by his words, not by baptism. At the very least, in King Agrippa’s mind, to be a Christian was to believe what Paul said about the Christ. The means of becoming one, for King Agrippa, was persuasion by words. The last instance of the word occurs in 1 Peter 4:16. In my opinion, this verse does not point in any particular way, except that it is contrasted with “murderer, thief, evildoer, and meddler” (vs. 15). In this context, therefore, it is primarily what a Christian does that is marking him out for persecution, since he is not doing any of those wrong things. The passage is not really about how one becomes a Christian. The context is certainly delimited by the closing “Amen” of verse 11. Therefore, verse 12 starts a new subject. This is why the end of chapter 3 would not be pertinent to the discussion, as it is not in the immediate context. The conclusion of this study of the contexts of the three occurrences of “Christian” in the New Testament point rather strongly against TE Moon’s assertion that the “Christian” was deemed so by baptism. So, the issue is not whether “Christian” means “elect,” but rather whether “Christian” means “believer.” I would argue that it means the latter. And a true believer is one of the elect.

The next section will take quite some time to unpack, since TE Lawrence quotes a variety of Scriptures to prove his point, and TE Moon simply asserts that TE Lawrence’s statement is a paraphrase of Scripture. As a result, we must exegete every single one of these passages to prove that they do not advocate undifferentiated benefits given to the elect and the non-elect in baptism.

B. First up is Matthew 28:18-20, which is said by TE Lawrence to be a proof text for the assertion, “Baptism is the initiatory rite by which we are united to christ and thus granted new life.” It is difficult to see how union with Christ language is even present in the Great Commission. No doubt TE Lawrence interprets the participial clause “baptizing them” to be explanatory of “make disciples.” However, there are two participial clauses that modify “make disciples” in this context. Baptizing is one of those clauses, but in verse 20, we see that “teaching them to observe” is parallel with “baptizing them.” So, making disciples, or, literally, “discipling all the nations” has to do with two things, not just one. It has to do with baptizing and teaching. In any case, union with Christ is not present in the passage. Being a disciple is present. But being a disciple means being baptized and being taught. The baptism is not defined in relation to union with Christ in this passage. Neither is new life present in this passage. So, this passage cannot be used to buttress the claim that baptism gives new life and union with Christ.

C. The second passage quoted is Titus 3:5. The text itself is complicated and fraught with exegetical difficulties. Basically, the question can be boiled down to this: what does “laver, or washing of regeneration” mean? Several commentators argue that the primary meaning is a spiritual washing (see  Towner, 781; Marshall, 318; Mounce, 448; and Knight, 350). These commentators do not deny an allusion to baptism. However, the primary reference for them is to a spiritual cleansing of regeneration, which is invisible, a visible sign of which we receive in baptism. This is also the position of Calvin (pp. 332-334). Calvin carefully distinguishes between sign and thing signified even while connecting them together. What belongs to the sign stays with the sign (p. 333), and what belongs to the Spirit belongs to the Spirit. He states categorically that wicked men are neither washed nor renewed by baptism, even if the grace is offered to them. This is a far cry from what TE Lawrence is claiming. Also, it has been objected that discussing the distinction between sign and thing signified in relation to various passages is not exegetically helpful. Calvin, then, must be terribly unhelpful on page 334 of his commentary, when he claims that verse 6 refers not to the sign, but rather of the thing signified, in which the truth of the sign exists. Let me repeat, the distinction between sign and thing signified was not viewed by Calvin as relevant only to the concerns about Roman Catholics and Lutherans. He clearly saw the distinction as an exegetically helpful category for explaining the text. Calvin, then, is saying that the efficacy of baptism applies only to the elect (p. 333), and that wicked men get nothing good out of baptism. In fact, the efficacy of baptism towards the non-elect is said to be retained only in the hand of God who offers grace. That grace never reaches the non-elect. And, as we will see in Calvin’s comments on Romans 6, the efficacy is tied to Spirit-wrought faith.

D. The third passage quoted is Romans 6:3-4. Several key points are raised by TE Moon in this section (p. 4). First of all, TE Moon makes the claim that if the accusers are correct, then Paul should not have spoken the way he did about the instrumentality of baptism. Secondly, TE Moon argues that the distinction between sign and thing signified primarily relates to arguments that the Reformed have had with Catholic and Lutheran theology, and that such a distinction should not be used as a hermeneutical tool to understand Romans 6, at least not if it is used to say that Paul is not speaking of water baptism. If such a claim were made, says TE Moon, it would come near to violating what the Confession says about sacramental union, and the nature of how sacramental language can function. Lastly, he says that TE Lawrence was asked to divorce the sign from the thing signified. Let’s take these in order.

Firstly, how does Paul speak in Romans 6? One really cannot do better than John Calvin at this point. I, for one, do not believe that the rite of baptism is absent from Romans 6. Therefore, TE Moon’s rhetoric concerning the violation of every exegetical rule does not apply (although I think his comment is still off-base, as there are several well-respected scholars who do not hold that water baptism is in view at all, Lloyd-Jones being one of them. We would not want to accuse Lloyd-Jones of thereby violating every exegetical rule. Nor would such a position violate the Standards on the union of sign and thing signified, since one can legitimately speak of the sign or the thing signified without automatically including the other). Notice Calvin’s careful balance and qualifications:

For Paul, according to his usual manner, where he speaks of the faithful, connects the reality and the effect with the outward sign; for we know that whatever the Lord offers by the visible symbol is confirmed and ratified by their faith. In short, he teaches what is the real character of baptism when rightly received. So he testifies to the Galatians, that all who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. (Gal iii.27.) Thus indeed must we speak, as long as the institution of the Lord and the faith of the godly unite together; for we never have naked and empty symbols, except when our ingratitude and wickedness hinder the working of divine beneficence (emphasis added, p. 221 of his commentary on Romans, which is on Romans 6:4).

Notice here that baptism can be an empty and naked sign. It happens when ingratitude and wickedness prevent the thing signified from being present.

It is possible to err on two sides on this question of how Paul speaks. The first is to say that Paul refers only to water baptism in Romans 6. The other error to say that Paul refers only to what baptism signifies (though, as I said earlier, this hardly breaks every exegetical rule). For now, we need to explore the former error. If one says that Paul is only speaking of water baptism, then one might also be tempted to say that everything Paul describes happens at water baptism. But if Paul does not have only water baptism in view, but the entire sacrament (sign, thing signified, and Spiritual relation of the two), then nothing concerning the time point of when the thing signified comes to pass may be inferred from this passage. Paul is talking about the whole picture of baptism. He is not talking only about water baptism. This means that we cannot say when the thing signified comes to a person. Romans 6 presupposes Romans 4-5, as several authors have noted (see Shedd, pp. 150-152 of his Romans commentary, and Moo, p. 366, quoting Dunn, who seems to have this issue right, even if he is off on other things, although he seems to have backed off from his earlier position in his later commentary). If the thing signified came at the same time as the sign, then Romans 4-5 would make no sense in the flow of Paul’s argument, since the whole argument is that we have been freed from sin’s guilt by justification by faith alone. Abraham’s example in Romans 4 is conclusive on this point, since Paul pointedly reminds us in Romans 4:10 that justification happened before circumcision. The remainder of the passage hints that those who come to faith after circumcision are also the children of Abraham (v. 12). However, if all these benefits come to a person simply by virtue of the water rite (as TE Lawrence explicitly claims), then such a theology must narrowly tie faith down in the point of its inception to the moment of baptism. Otherwise, no sense at all could be made of Romans 4-5, which explicitly ties saving benefits to faith, and not to baptism.

E. The fourth passage adduced by TE Lawrence is Ephesians 4:4-6. TE Lawrence claims that this passage proves that baptism brings a person into the fellowship of the church. However, the items in a series, which strongly emphasize the oneness of the church, are not causally related to each other. They are simply items in a series: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.  How these things relate is not developed in Ephesians 4. Now, we do believe that baptism brings one into the visible church (as WCF 28.1 says). However, notice that the Westminster divines were very careful to summarize the Bible’s teaching on this as the “visible” church. They do not say that baptism gives the benefits it signs and seals, thus making a person a member of the invisible church. Of course, the minute such a distinction is made, the objection usually arises that this distinction bifurcates the church into two. It does not. There is a visible aspect and an invisible aspect to the church. There are distinct properties to each aspect. Both aspects put together constitute the church in the largest sense of the term.

F. Brief Excursus on the language of “sign and seal.”

1. A brief digression is necessary here in order to deal with the language of “sign” and “seal.” With regard to the language of “sign,” and analogy is helpful. Suppose a person is wandering around in his car, looking for Bismarck. He doesn’t really know where he is or where he is going. However, then he runs across a sign that says “Bismarck 22 miles.” He can then infer from this sign that if he continues on that road another 22 miles, he will be in Bismarck. The sign is no empty sign, for it points in the right direction. One would not expect to continue 22 miles in that direction, after having seen that sign, only to arrive in Minneapolis. However, it is easy to see that the sign is not Bismarck itself. One could extend the analogy to say that the spiritual relation between the two is the road connecting the sign with the city. One may choose not to go to Bismarck after all, in which case one does not get the thing signified. Seeing the sign does not give one access to the city. But when one comes to Bismarck, one is assured that he is there, because he remembers the sign that he saw. Similarly, if he had already been in Bismarck, and was leaving, but couldn’t quite remember what city it was he had just passed through, he could theoretically look at the sign backwards as he passed, and would be confirmed in his belief that it was Bismarck he had just been in. So the thing signified could come before, during, or after the sign. We must not tie down the thing signified to the time of the sign. Otherwise, we put God’s grace in a very small box indeed, and ascribe too much to the sign.

2. The language of “seal” is a bit trickier, since it sounds more efficacious. However, the language of seal functions very similarly, although we must use a different analogy. A letter from a king needed to have a confirmation that it was from the king. Therefore, there was wax that was used in connection with a signet ring to put a particular stamp upon the wax. This would guarantee to the reader that the message inside the letter was genuinely from the king. But the seal is not the letter itself. The letter could very well exist without the seal, although that would be unusual. Nor does a seal deliver the letter to anyone. What the seal says is that the letter is genuine to anyone who reads the letter. In the same way, baptism functions as a seal for our faith. It is faith that is the letter, faith that God gives us in order that we might be justified, sanctified, etc. When the letter is opened is not set at the time that the seal is placed on the letter. The letter might be opened later. One might already have the letter opened, and the king places his seal upon it afterward in order to confirm its genuineness. So the analogy works well whether faith comes before or after baptism. But someone who does not open the letter can see that the wax is genuine, but does not have the substance of the letter in his possession, and thus indeed does possess an empty sign, as Calvin noted above.

G. A fifth passage that TE Lawrence adduces is Galatians 3:26-27, which he argues proves that baptism brings one into fellowship with Christ and also brings adoption as sons of God. However, the text explicitly states that everyone who is a son of God is a son of God through faith (vs 26), not through baptism. The “for” in verse 27 does not explain something that is epexegetical to verse 26. Rather, verse 27 describes the sign, the reason they may have assurance that they are the sons of God. And the thing signified is here viewed as connected with the sign for those who have what verse 26 says. Again, Calvin is helpful and worth quoting at length, for his insight into the two ways Paul speaks (this is from his commentary on the passage):

But the argument, that, because they have been baptized, they have put on Christ, appears weak; for how far is baptism from being efficacious in all? Is it reasonable that the grace of the Holy Spirit should be so closely linked to an external symbol? Does not the uniform doctrine of Scripture, as well as experience, appear to confute this statement? I answer, it is customary with Paul to treat of the sacraments in two points of view. When he is dealing with hypocrites, in whom the mere symbol awakens pride, he then proclaims loudly the emptiness and worthlessness of the outward symbol, and denounces, in strong terms, their foolish confidence. In such cases he contemplates not the ordinance of God, but the corruption of wicked men. When, on the other hand, he addresses believers, who make a proper use of the symbols, he then views them in connexion with the truth- which they represent. In this case, he makes no boast of any false splendour as belonging to the sacraments, but calls our attention to the actual fact represented by the outward ceremony. Thus, agreeably to the Divine appointment, the truth comes to be associated with the symbols.

But perhaps some person will ask, Is it then possible that, through the fault of men, a sacrament shall cease to bear a figurative meaning? The reply is easy. Though wicked men may derive no advantage from the sacraments, they still retain undiminised their nature and force. The sacraments present, both to good and to bad men, the grace of God. No falsehood attaches to the promises which they exhibit of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Believers receive what is offered; and if wicked men, by rejecting it, render the offer unprofitable to themselves, their conduct cannot destroy the faithfulness of God, or the true meaning of the sacrament…(after quoting Romans 6:5, LK) In this way, the symbol and the Divine operation are kept distinct, and yet the meaning of the sacraments is manifest; so that they cannot be regarded as empty and trivial exhibitions (emphasis added, pp. 111-112 of Calvin’s Galatians commentary).

Calvin’s sermons are even more plain on this matter:

Baptism then maketh us not all Christians, and again we know, that to be made the child of God, is too great a benefit to be fathered upon a corruptible element (Sermons, p. 484).

And again:

But first of all let us mark here, that when Saint Paul speaketh of Baptism, he presupposeth that we receive the thing that is offered unto us in it. Many that are baptized do wipe away the grace of God: and notwithstanding that it be offered them, yet they make themselves unworthy of ir through their unbelief, lewdness, and rebellion. Thus ye see that the power of baptism is defeated in many men. But when there happeneth a mutual agreement and melody between God and us: then has baptism the effect whereof Saint Paul treateth and discourseth in this text (Sermons, p. 485).

Peter Barnes, in his excellent recent commentary on Galatians (p. 178), says much the same:

Surely, Paul is referring to water baptism. It is true that external baptism does not unite us to Christ. Paul is hardly saying that the rite of circumcision does not save or add to savlation, but the rite of baptism does! As John Stott puts it, “Faith secures the union; baptism signifies it outwardly and visibly.”

Plainly the views of Calvin and Barnes are not the views of TE Lawrence or of TE Moon. For TE’s Moon and Lawrence plainly say that even wicked men gain at least some advantage from the sacrament, even if it is a lesser version than what the elect receive (although such a two-tiered reception of the benefits of baptism is certainly nowhere taught in Scripture). Again, Calvin says that there is nothing signified present unless the sacrament be received in faith. Calvin says that wicked men gain no advantage from the sacrament whatsoever. Only believers get the thing signified, and they have to be believers (meaning that they must have true faith) to receive those benefits. Calvin says that baptism does not make us Christians, whereas TE Lawrence says that it does make us Christians. Calvin says, in effect, that a person is a Christian when sign and thing signified are both present. TE Lawrence says, in effect, that it comes in the water rite regardless of faith, or that faith itself comes in the water rite.

H. A sixth passage is Leviticus 8-9. It is difficult to know how TE Lawrence applies this to baptism and the benefits surrounding baptism. He says that it proves that a baptized person is brought into the fellowship of the church. I will be content on this passage simply to say that more work would need to be done on TE Lawrence’s part to prove his case. The consecration of Aaron and his sons might have relevance to one of the possible modes of baptism (sprinkling), but it is difficult to see how it relates to the efficacy of baptism, especially when circumcision would seem a much more direct place to go in the Old Testament for the theology of baptism.

I. A seventh passage is 1 Corinthians 12:13. Again, this passage is referenced by TE Lawrence to prove that baptism brings a person into the fellowship of the body, the church. The statement is vague in and of itself. It is true that baptism is a sign of joining the visible church, as has been said before. However, this passage is not talking about water baptism. Charles Hodge notes that water baptism and Spirit baptism are clearly distinguished in Matthew 3:11, John 1:33, Acts 1:5. He says further:

It is not denied that the one is sacramentally connected with the other; or that the baptism of the Spirit often attends the baptism of water; but they are not inseparably connected. The one may be without the other. And in the present passage there does not seem to be even an allusion to water baptism, and more than in Acts 1:5. Paul does not say that we are made one body by baptism, but by the baptism of the Holy Ghost; that is, by spiritual regeneration. Any communication of the Holy Spirit is called a baptism, because the Spirit is said to be poured out (p. 254 of his commentary).

Notice especially those important words about any outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We must not make the word-concept fallacy: that just because a word is present, that therefore a particular concept must be present. Just because the word “baptism” is present does not mean that water baptism is present. Peter  Naylor, in his recent commentary on the epistle, also does not believe that water baptism is referred to here. His argument is that if water baptism was meant, Paul would left out the qualifying phrase “in the Spirit” (p. 327). There is, however, a very recent commentary with whom the views of Moon and Lawrence agree. He writes this:

This verse is one of the fundamental Pauline texts that teach the incorporation of baptized believers into Christ.

The author is Joseph Fitzmyer, a Roman Catholic theologian (see p. 478 of his commentary).

J. The eighth passage referenced is 1 Corinthians 6:11, which does not have the word “baptized” in it. Now this does not mean that baptism is automatically excluded (otherwise we would be committing the word-concept fallacy described above). However, the verb “washed” is not usually connected with baptism in the New Testament (see Fee, p. 246). The phrase “in the name of Jesus Christ” refers to all three verbs (wash, sanctify, and justify, all in the aorist tense), not just to washing. Furthermore, the preposition “en” is not Paul’s usual preposition to use when saying “baptize into the name of.” That verb is usually “eis.” It is more likely that Paul has in mind an inward washing from the guilt and power of the sins mentioned in the previous verses. Certainly, this verse does NOT say that baptism cleanses us from our sins, as TE Lawrence claims it says. The commentaries of Naylor (p. 144), Barrett (p. 141, who acknowledges an indirect reference to baptism, but says that it is “the inward meaning rather than the outward circumstances of the rite that is important to Paul”), Hodge (p. 100), and Thiselton (pp. 453-455 for a very nuanced version of what Barrett also said) also bear this out. Calvin says that the term “washing” is metaphorical, Christ’s blood being likened to water. But Calvin nowhere mentions baptism in connection with this text.

To be continued…

Posted by Wes White

Great Post On Assurance

Wes’s post on assurance is well worth reading very carefully, especially by FV proponents. I thought this paragraph especially helpful:

Now, here is the question I have for these men. Isn’t asking if someone is walking by faith by grace the same as asking, “Am I elect?” Aren’t the regenerate elect the only ones who walk by faith?

The mistake that many FV proponents make is in saying that because we can’t read anyone else’s heart, that therefore we can’t read our own hearts. I wouldn’t deny that it can be difficult to read our own hearts. The heart is deceitful. However, that does not mean that the heart is unreadable by its owner. So that means that yes, I can know that I am elect.

Genesis 15:6 in Paul and James

As one my commenters noticed, I forgot to come back to the issue of Genesis 15:6 as it has been used in Paul and in James. So, let’s deal with that here. First, a brief look at Genesis 15:6.

וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיהוָה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה׃

“And he believed in YHWH, and He credited it for him righteousness.”

In the original context, Abram believed God’s promises, specifically concerning those of the (S)seed. Abram wondered about a few things (particularly concerning his heir, which at the time appeared to be Eliezer of Damascus). But finally the Lord told him that it would be an heir from his own body that would initialize the multiplication of the seed into a number too great to count, as great as the number of the stars. Therefore, we cannot separate the faith of Abram from the promise of the (S)seed. Abram not only believed the Lord’s Word, but he also believed in the promised Seed, Jesus Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham. Of course, there was a near fulfillment in the person of Isaac, and the multiplication of Israel. However, this is not the climactic fulfillment that Jesus Christ was. This will do for a basic understanding of the passage in its original context.

We need to raise the problem of Paul and James in its acutest sense so that we can get a feel for the issues involved. Paul and James seem to contradict each other right at this point. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 in order to prove that justification is by faith and not by works of any kind (the relevant passage here is Romans 4:1-8).  James quotes Genesis 15:6 in order to say that “a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” As many people have noted (somewhat gleefully, I might add), the phrase “by faith alone” technically appears only in here in James 2, and that to be denied! What are we to make of this?

The road that Shepherd takes us on is the Arminian interpretation of imputation with regard to Genesis 15:6, which is that it is faith itself that is reckoned to take the place of righteousness (see Way of Righteousness, p. 30). This is  what Shepherd says: “What is credited or imputed to Abraham? The answer is his faith. The faith he had was reckoned to his account as righteousness. Faith and the obedience flowing from faith are of a piece with one another and together they constitute the righteousness of Abraham” (emphasis original). Notice here that it is not Christ’s righteousness that is here imputed, according to Shepherd, but rather the believer’s own faith plus the obedience that comes from faith. This misunderstands the nature of faith. Faith is not a thing in itself. It has no substance that could stand in for righteousness. Instead, we could call the expression a metonymy of the adjunct. Faith is an instrument that lays hold of Christ. Faith is an adjunct, or it lays hold of, Christ’s righteousness. The only reason faith can be said to be imputed is that faith lays hold of what is technically imputed: Christ’s righteousness. So faith’s instrumental character is here put to the fore when it is said to be counted for (or towards) righteousness.

Now, let it be known here that Shepherd and I agree on one point at least: justifying faith always results in obedience. We can both say that. Where we disagree is on the place of that righteousness within the structure of justification. He argues most definitely that the obedience of faith lies within the structure of justification. I argue most vociferously that it lies outside the structure of justification. How is that shown from James?

The justification by works of which James speaks is Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac in Genesis 22, NOT Abram’s belief as recorded in Genesis 15:6. The way James quotes Genesis 15:6 is as fulfillment of promise. The fulfillment language (καὶ ἐπληρώθη γραφὴ) indicates that Genesis 22 is what we would expect from Genesis 15:6. Faith results in obedience. This is NOT saying that obedience (even Spirit-filled obedience) is part of the structure of salvific justification. When one combines this analysis with what I said previously, arguing that “justify” in James refers NOT to salvific justification, but to demonstration of true faith, then all becomes clear. When James in verse 24 says that a man is not justified by faith alone, he is saying that a man is not justified demonstrably (shown to be unhypocritical, shown to have a true faith, shown to be a true child of the King) by faith alone. His works prove that he is genuine.

The only way to get around this is to argue that Paul does not deny all works when it comes to salvific justification. This cannot be done. It would make no sense whatsoever for Paul to say that unbelieving works cannot be counted as part of justification. That is rather obvious, isn’t it? In Romans 3, Paul has been concerned to prove that all alike are under sin. Every mouth must be stopped, and the whole world must become guilty (3:19). Therefore, the law here is concerned about morality, obedience to God. It is in that context that “deeds of the law” first makes its appearance in the passage about justification (3:20). Deeds of the law here cannot possibly refer exclusively or even primarily to those works that separate Jew from Gentile. Rather it has to refer to works that might give someone a ground upon which to boast before God.

Then, in verses 27-31, Paul proves his point by saying that since the law was the primary possession of the Jews, if justification were by these deeds of the law, then Gentiles would not be able to be justified ever. N.T. Wright makes a huge deal about verse 29 and the little word “or” that starts this verse. However, the verse does not say what he thinks it says. The sweep of the passage has to do with obedience to the whole law, and how all have fallen short. But the law as a whole has been specially revealed to the Jews. So, it is not just part of law-keeping that is excluded from Paul’s structure of justification. Rather, all law-keeping is excluded. There can be no ground of boasting. See Simon Gathercole’s outstanding treatment of this theme in Romans 1-5. Boasting would still be possible if any works of any kind (obedient or non-obedient) could form part of the structure of justification. They form the necessary result of justification and sanctification, and therefore cannot be separated from saving faith. But they are distinct from saving faith.

One of the main problems here is that all too often “living” has been equated with “obedient.” Those who disagree with me will undoubtedly point to James again and say “well, living is equated with obedient there.” No one is saying that we are justified (even in a Pauline sense!) by a dead faith. But the living aspect of faith with regard to justification is not obedience but the fact that it truly grasps hold of Christ. The living aspect of faith with regard to sanctification is that it will really result in good works. The second aspect of the aliveness of faith is the necessary result of the first aspect of the aliveness of faith. They are inseparable, yet distinct. The first aspect of the aliveness of faith is the sole province of the realm of justification. The second aspect is solely within sanctification. These things must be kept distinct, or all sorts of problems will result.

On Ministering to the Dying and Bereaved

Most of what I have learned about this topic I learned from other people, but I have tested it against Scripture, and have also put it to the test in ministry (16 funerals in almost 4 years), and I find it extremely helpful.

To the Bereaved:

1. While it is true to say that the dead Christian is in a better place, that is not the most helpful thing to say. I mean, it’s great for the dead person that he’s in another better place, but what about the people left behind mourning? In a very real sense, it is a physical bereavement. The bereaved miss the physical presence of the one who has died. They miss the touch, the personality, the talking, the eye contact. This is where it hurts most. Therefore, talking about the resurrection should have a focus not only on the new body that the dead believer will have, but also on the reunion with the bereaved that will occur. This reunion can also be a great gateway into the Gospel message: “How do you know you will see this person again? Only if you trust in Jesus and then have the hope of the same resurrection to eternal life.”

2. Going along with the first point: do not underestimate the power of touch in ministry at this point. Great care must be taken such that touching will always be appropriate. However, I have yet to have anyone misinterpret a hug at such a time. It is a great ease of the sharpness of physical bereavement to have physical contact.

3. Resurrection texts I find are the most appopriate for funerals, even at the funeral of an unbeliever. No other texts in the Bible show us so clearly that death is not the end. No other texts show us so clearly that death is a homegoing and that it is temporary. No other texts offer such hope in the midst of grief. Going right along with this is preaching that death is UNnatural, not natural. Death is an intruder into the created order. We lose sight of this sometimes, especially when we say that death are taxes are inevitable. Make a strong connection between death and sin, as the former is the full flower of the latter. Funerals are the best opportunities to share the Gospel. Nowhere else will people have the results of sin staring them right in the face. Nowhere else can we so legitimately face people with their own mortality and uttermost need of Jesus.

4. Do not advise people to seek to avoid grief. The only way to deal with grief is to go through it, pain and all, recognizing (and 1 Thessalonians 4 is essential here) that the grief of a believer mourning the death of a believer is of a fundamentally different sort than the grief of a non-believer. It is a grief laced with hope. That tempers grief, though it does not eliminate it. Encourage people to take their grief in all honesty to God. The Psalms are important here. We cannot escape grief. The problem with trying to avoid it is that we will bury it, and it will fester, quite possibly into bitterness. It is much better to deal with it immediately and thoroughly, for healing and a measure of peace will come much more quickly that way.

To the Dying:

5. People who are dying want to know about the afterlife. Tell them about where the soul goes, and where the body stays until the Resurrection. It is surprising how many people think that souls sleep after death.

6. People who are dying and know that they are going to heaven will want to know if they can still know things and recognize people. Point to Hebrews 12 in this regard and the passage in Revelation of the souls crying out to God “How long?”

7. People who are dying and do not know where they are going obviously need the Gospel, especially a Gospel of grace. Such people are usually worried about whether their lives have been good enough for God. This is an especially dangerous time for them. They need the full grace of justification by faith alone at this time more than anything else. Machen’s deathbed quotation about the active righteousness of Christ imputed is appropriate also.

8. Ask the dying person about their regrets. Tell them that their past misdeeds and lack of positive deeds can be forgiven in Christ.

Good Works in Assurance and Perseverance

Posted by Bob Mattes

In comments late in this discussion, Federal Visionists are seen to confuse the doctrines of assurance and perseverance. Specifically, in discussing the doctrine of the perseverance (or preferably, preservation) of the saints, they introduced 2 Peter 1:10 as evidence that human works play a part in our preservation.

At issue is the difference between these two constructs eloquently delineated by Anne Ivy:

IOW, it’s not “those who persevere to the end will be saved”, but rather “those who are saved will persevere to the end.”

Big, big difference.

How right she is. The first phrase “those who persevere to the end will be saved” implies that we somehow contribute to our perseverance. Yet a Federal Visionist replied:

You are claiming that your calling and election are already sure, so there is a real conflict of doctrine here between you and Dort, not to mention the Lord. This is one of the things the FV is drawing your attention to – that you have to make your calling and election sure, not presume that that is the case already.

2Pet. 1:10: Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble

I assume that there’s some level of “covenantal faithfulness”, a continuing Federal Vision theme, embedded in that comment. Let’s put this verse in context. 2 Peter 2:8-11 says:

8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (ESV)

What are these verses about? Two things primarily: sanctification and assurance. Verses 8 and 9 clearly sum up the reasons for our display of the fruit of the Spirit listed in the preceding verses–that they are evidence of our sanctification. So Calvin says in his comments on verse 9:

This he also confirms by adding this reason, because such have forgotten that through the benefit of Christ they had been cleansed from sin, and yet this is the beginning of our Christianity. It then follows, that those who do not strive for a pure and holy life, do not understand even the first rudiments of faith.

But Peter takes this for granted, that they who were still rolling in the filth of the flesh had forgotten their own purgation. For the blood of Christ has not become a washing bath to us, that it may be fouled by our filth. He, therefore, calls them old sins, by which he means, that our life ought to be otherwise formed, because we have been cleansed from our sins; not that any one can be pure from every sin while he lives in this world, or that the cleansing we obtain through Christ consists of pardon only, but that we ought to differ from the unbelieving, as God has separated us for himself. Though, then, we daily sin, and God daily forgives us, and the blood of Christ cleanses us from our sins, yet sin ought not to rule in us, but the sanctification of the Spirit ought to prevail in us; for so Paul teaches us in1 Corinthians 6:11, “And such were some of you; but ye are washed,” etc. [my bold]

Thus Calvin confirms that the fruit of the Spirit are simply the evidence of our faith and ongoing sanctification in cooperation with the Spirit. It is in that light in which verse 10 appears. The Westminster Annotations comment on verse 10 says:

brethren] By regeneration and adoption, and union with Christ by faith, we are made the children of God, and brethren spiritually, Phil 4:1….Here it is used in the fourth sense for fellow Christians.

Thus the Divines and other Reformers saw 2 Peter as being written to those elected from before the foundation of the world, members of the invisible church, as Peter clearly says at the beginning of the letter:

To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:

That is an important distinction to keep in mind relative for this letter as we move on to the annotators further comments on 2 Peter 1:10:

to make your calling and election sure] To get good grounds to assure you that ye were elected before the world, and are called out of the world. For it is sure enough in itself, by God’s decree and immutability, 2 Tim 2.19. Mal. 3.6. John 6.40. and 13.1. Rom. 11.29.
for if you do these things] Continuance then is well doing, is the way to get and keep assurance of salvation.
ye shall never fall] Jude verse 4. Our life is likened to a race, 1 Cor.9.24. we must take heed lest we fall, and come short of the prize set before us. The children of God may fall into some sins by weakness; but never so as to lose the goal. verse 11. [my bold]

Clearly the Reformers saw these verses as models both for sanctification and assurance. None of the Federal Vision’s “morbid introspection” is necessary for assurance. Also embedded in the annotators last sentence is the glorious truth that assurance unto perseverance is solely by the grace of God. Our good works performed in cooperation with the Holy Spirit are evidence, not the cause, of our assurance of election and unto perseverance.

Driving yet another nail into the Federal Vision coffin, Calvin says about verse 10:

Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence. He draws this conclusion, that it is one proof that we have been really elected, and not in vain called by the Lord, if a good conscience and integrity of life correspond with our profession of faith. And he infers, that there ought to be more labor and diligence, because he had said before, that faith ought not to be barren.

Some copies have, “by good works;” but these words make no change in the sense, for they are to be understood though not expressed.

He mentions calling first, though the last in order. The reason is, because election is of greater weight or importance; and it is a right arrangement of a sentence to subjoin what preponderates. The meaning then is, labor that you may have it really proved that you have not been called nor elected in vain. At the same time he speaks here of calling as the effect and evidence of election. If any one prefers to regard the two words as meaning the same thing, I do not object; for the Scripture sometimes merges the difference which exists between two terms. I have, however, stated what seems to me more probable. [my bold]

And what about Federal Vision’s “covenantal faithfulness”?

Now a question arises, Whether the stability of our calling and election depends on good works, for if it be so, it follows that it depends on us. But the whole Scripture teaches us, first, that God’s election is founded on his eternal purpose; and secondly, that calling begins and is completed through his gratuitous goodness. The Sophists, in order to transfer what is peculiar to God’s grace to ourselves, usually pervert this evidence. But their evasions may be easily refuted. For if any one thinks that calling is rendered sure by men, there is nothing absurd in that; we may however, go still farther, that every one confirms his calling by leading a holy and pious life. But it is very foolish to infer from this what the Sophists contend for; for this is a proof not taken from the cause, but on the contrary from the sign or the effect. Moreover, this does not prevent election from being gratuitous, nor does it shew that it is in our own hand or power to confirm election. For the matter stands thus, — God effectually calls whom he has preordained to life in his secret counsel before the foundation of the world; and he also carries on the perpetual course of calling through grace alone. But as he has chosen us, and calls us for this end, that we may be pure and spotless in his presence; purity of life is not improperly called the evidence and proof of election, by which the faithful may not only testify to others that they are the children of God, but also confirm themselves in this confidence, in such a manner, however, that they fix their solid foundation on something else.

Calvin could hardly be clearer that the perseverance of the saints relies on God’s grace alone. Again, our good works merely serve as evidence of our lively faith and hence provide us with confidence in and assurance of our election unto eternal life.

What about 2 Peter 1:11? According to the Westminster Annotations:

an entrance] A large passage into the Kingdom of glory in the life to come.
abundantly] John 10.10. If ye be full of good works, ye shall have abundant reward, 1 Cor. 9.9. and 15.58. 2 John verse 8.

Consistent with the rest of Scripture, we see here that our good works decide our reward, not our “final justification”, the latter being another Federal Vision theme.

Note, also, that the reprobate in the visible church are no where in view in this passage. The reprobate in the visible church have no assurance of salvation whatsoever, at any time or in any way. We’ve argued elsewhere on this site that baptism can only contribute to the assurance for the elect, the reprobate have no assurance from their baptism. Quite the contrary, it will be an instrument in their condemnation for trampling on the blood of Christ (Hebrews 6:4; 10:29).

I think that to offer the reprobate pew sitters any assurance, as Federal Visionists do with their mythical “objective covenant”, represents a massive pastoral failure on their part. As Scripture and the Westminster Standards clearly state, assurance of election can only ever belong to those elected to eternal life from before the foundation of the world. All others should be on their knees trembling, not feeling comfortable in pews and at pot lucks.

So, 2 Peter 1:10 clearly supports the orthodox Reformed statement that “those who are saved will persevere to the end” and not the other way around; not “in some sense” but absolutely. Our good works provide us with assurance of our election, but are excluded as a player in either our justification on the one end or our perseverance on the other. And that because our perseverance depends solely on God’s infinite grace and faithfulness, not by our “covenantal faithfulness” or anything else that we do or do not do. Anything else is not Good News.

Posted by Bob Mattes

“Wer Singt Mit Mir”

Posted by Dr. Jeff Hutchinson

Church historian Mark Noll writes in his recent article for Christianity Today, “Praise the Lord” (found at

An old German proverb runs: “Wer spricht mit mir ist mein Mitmensch; wer singt mit mir ist mein Bruder” (the one who speaks with me is my fellow human; the one who sings with me is my brother)….Believers who together sang the same hymns in the same way came to experience very strong ties with each other and even stronger rooting in Christianity….(But) as much as hymn singing has always been one of the most effective builders of Christian community, it has also always been one of the strongest dividers of Christian communities.

The one who sings with me is my brother.  Now, this is just a German proverb (not to be confused with the divinely inspired sort), but it does speak to a deep truth.  The one who is troubled by the hymns that sing of the gospel is, well, troubled.

One of Bob’s recent posts here at Green Bagginses reminded me of these unfortunate words from the Anglican scholar N. T. Wright, part of his lecture at the August 2003 Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference.  Wright says that Paul “looks ahead to the coming day of judgment and sees God’s favourable verdict not on the basis of the merits and death of Christ, not because like Lord Hailsham he simply casts himself on the mercy of the judge, but on the basis of his apostolic work.  ‘What is our hope and joy and crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus Christ as his royal appearing?  Is it not you?  For you are our glory and our joy.’ (1 Thess. 3.19f [sic]; cp. Phil. 2.15f)  I suspect that if you or I were to say such a thing, we could expect a quick rebuke of ‘nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.’ “

Well, I’m not sure that if N. T. Wright were to “say such a thing” in conversation with me that I would bring a “quick rebuke,” but I might see if he’d let me encourage him in the gospel.  Then maybe he would want to sing “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling” with me, in praise and thanksgiving to the Triune God.  My great-grandfather (the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the 1920′s) would be thrilled to see such brotherly unity across the Anglican-Presbyterian divide.

Posted by Jeff Hutchinson

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