Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology

I am re-reading Vos’s Biblical Theology right now. I came across this great quotation, which ought to give certain modern-day theologians great pause:

The fact is that Biblical Theology just as much as as Systematic Theology makes the material undergo a transformation. The sole difference is in the principle on which the transformation is conducted. In the case of Biblical Theoloy this is historical, in the case of Systematic Theology it is of a logical nature. Each of these two is necessary, and there is no occasion for a sense of superiority in either (p. 14).

I was quite struck by the difference in attitude to ST shown by Vos as compared with many practitioners of BT today. I am quite certain that the change has to do with logic itself. That is, that logic is no longer seen as necessary for the proper understanding of theology. Contrary to the claims of some, the Enlightenment is not responsible for the logic of post-Reformation systematics. Rather, the Enlightenment is responsible for the repudiation of such systematic treatment. As soon as reason is ultimate, it quickly loses its ability to synthesize God’s truth, since it is not a sanctified reason. Therefore, Vos would be thrown out by the majority of BT practitioners today.

Calvinistic Bona Fides

As the chapter title suggests, DW is intending to establish Calvinistic good faith with his readers. DW recognizes that there are critics out there who are saying that the objectivity of the covenant (as propounded by Federal Vision authors) constitutes a threat to Reformed thought, especially as regards God’s sovereignty in salvation. The thesis of this chapter is found on p. 24 (emphasis his):

We do not begin understanding the objectivity of the covenant by inching away from black-coffee Calvinism; rather, we begin be asserting it in the strongest possible terms. God is the God of everything.

What follows is a discussion of the sovereignty of God as it intersects with man’s freedom. In general, I think he holds to the traditional Reformed position here. There are one or two omissions which he might have discussed, such as the definition of free will as either compatible (defined by the person’s nature) or absolute (the power of contrary choice, which directly conflicts with the sovereignty of God). However, we will here give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he holds to the compatible definition of free will.

DW affirms that God is in control of the world, including sin (pp. 24-25): “Nothing happens outside the decretive will of God.” However, DW’s position is not without difficulties. On p. 26, for instance, DW asserts that God foreordained a world full of free choices: “God ordains noncoercively” (emphasis his). He seeks to explain his point by adding, “Remember, the point being made here is not that divine sovereignty is merely consistent with secondary freedom but rather is that which establishes it” (p. 26, emphasis his). Now, I am willing to allow that DW may not be making an absolute statement here. Some clarification would be helpful. However, in the case of Paul’s conversion, are we going to say that God did not coerce Paul’s will, changing it utterly so that Paul would take an entirely different direction? Did not God ordain coercively in Paul’s case? At the very least, God ordained that Paul’s conversion would be violent. Surely, God does not always ordain in this coercive way. However, sometimes God does. The reason I make this point is that some conversions to Christianity are indeed violent. Otherwise, what is the point of affirming irresistable grace?

DW’s motivation for writing this chapter is fairly plain on pp. 30-31:

In no way am I backing away from high-octane Calvinism. There will be things written later in this book which may look as though this is happening, but the reader should be assured that it is not. The point of this section has been to establish foundational Calvinistic bona fides. Doctrinal prejudice may still refuse to see how the harmonization works, but the harmonization is still there. So the reason for covering this ground again is that some have assumed (readily and wrongly) that the objectivity of the covenant poses a threat to the Reformed faith. In reality, it is the historic Reformed faith. (emphases all original)

I have a couple of issues with these statements. Of course, more shrill critics would say that this is a cover-up for contradiction being allowed into the book, and that we are simply being asked to take DW’s word for it that the things that look contradictory are in fact not so. I am willing to say something less than this: I am not willing to take DW’s simple word for it without argumentation, although I am willing to listen carefully to the argumentation. But I do not view these words as a proof of the argument. That will await the rest of this review to determine whether or not he has proven his case. However, I do have a problem with his saying that the objectivity of the covenant is the historic Reformed faith. Witsius and a’Brakel believed that the covenant of grace was made only with the elect, hardly an objective definition. Would Wilson agree with Witsius and a’Brakel? I think not. So, at the very least, DW’s statement is an exaggeration. Does this claim for the objectivity of the covenant disenfranchise all those Reformed folk out there who do not believe in the objectivity of the covenant? Again, maybe DW is not being absolute in his claims here. Clarification would again be helpful.

The Seven-Year Itch

Exodus 9:8-12

The sixth plague concludes the second set of three plagues. As in plague 3, there is not interview with Pharaoh, no rising up early in the morning. Instead, God just tells Moses to do something, and it is done.

This plague has loads of poetic justice. The soot comes from a kiln, one used to make bricks. Moses almost certainly took soot from a kiln that the Israelite slaves had used to make bricks for the Egyptians. As John Currid says, “The furnace, then, was a symbol of the oppression of the Hebrews, the sweat and tears they were shedding to make bricks for the Egyptians. Thus the very soot made by the enslaved people was now to inflict punishment on their oppressors” (p. 196).

In addition, throwing soot into the air was something that Egyptians priests used to do (Ryken, p. 273). They did it to signify blessing. God turned it into a curse. As Ryken says, “God was making Israel’s curse a blessing and was turning Egypt’s blessing into a curse” (p. 273).

There were several gods against which this plague was directed. Amon Re (a creator god) was a god who was supposed to heal diseases. Thoth was a god of healing arts. Imhotep was the god medicine. “But the most common deity for dealing with disease was Sekhmet, whose priests formed one of the oldest medical fraternities in antiquity” (Ryken, p. 272, quoting Currid).

Ah, the poor, foolish magicians! Not only were they impotent when it came to dealing with the plague; they could not even protect themselves!

Many scholars say that the boils were a form of anthrax. Whatever they were, they were impure. In fact, such illness was usually seen as demon-possession by the Egyptians of that time. That was a distressing to them as the physical pain.

And notice that although many passages in Exodus say that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, it is also true to say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. There is always mystery when it comes to the intersection of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But at the least, we can say that Pharaoh’s self-hardening was part of God’s plan in such a way that it can also be said that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

So, in our day, do we worship medicine? You bet we do. But as Ryken notes, Jesus Christ alone is Lord of the (B)body (p. 272).

WTS bookstore’s sale

Check it out. The bookstore has now different books for their sale of the week. There are some real golden opportunities here. Also check out the newest book on justification, this one from Westminster East’s faculty.

Healed to Serve

Matthew 8:14-15

It is said by some that many people love to serve God, but in an advisory capacity only.

This story is told in the Discipleship Journal of 1987 (39), p. 5.

Franklin Roosevelt’s closest adviser during much of his presidency was a man named Harry Hopkins. During World War II, when his influence with Roosevelt was at its peak, Hopkins held no official Cabinet position. Moreover, Hopkins’s closeness to Roosevelt caused many to regard him as a shadowy, sinister figure. As a result he was a major political liability to the President. A political foe once asked Roosevelt, “Why do you keep Hopkins so close to you? You surely realize that people distrust him and resent his influence.” Roosevelt replied, “Someday you may well be sitting here where I am now as President of the United States. And when you are, you’ll be looking at that door over there and knowing that practically everybody who walks through it wants something out of you. You’ll learn what a lonely job this is, and you’ll discover the need for somebody like Harry Hopkins, who asks for nothing except to serve you.” Winston Churchill rated Hopkins as one of the half-dozen most powerful men in the world in the early 1940s. And the sole source of Hopkins’s power was his willingness to serve.

This truth is true of both of our main characters in this healing miracle. It is true of Jesus. For the power of Jesus Christ comes from His willingness to serve others. It was that willingness that led Him to the cross to serve us poor, needy, sinners by dying on the cross for us. As a result of that service, God the Father exalted Him above every name that can be named. In this little story of healing, however, we see Jesus demonstrating this desire to serve by using His almighty power to heal a fever.

Now, as a side note, we should notice that Peter was married. This was his mother-in-law who was sick. Paul, in his epistles, confirms that Peter was married, as well. This is significant for us, because the Roman Catholic Church forbids its priests to marry. They claim that the apostles left their authority to their followers, and the followers did likewise, all the way down to the present pope. However, if Peter, who is supposed to be the first pope, was married, then why can the Roman Catholic priests not get married? This is an unbiblical tradition of theirs, and it has caused many problems. As you know, some Roman Catholic priests have been guilty of molesting children. I believe that stems from this unbiblical tradition. Yes, Paul was unmarried. However, Peter was married. Therefore, there ought not to be a command one way or the other for pastors, or for laypeople, for that matter. Marriage is an honorable institution, given to us at creation, not after the Fall. It is something that God created, and it was good.

So, Peter’s mother-in-law was suffering from a fever. We don’t know exactly what kind of fever it was. Malaria was common in those days, as were several other dangerous fevers. Literally, she was burning up. Notice the differences between this healing and the previous healings. Peter’s mother-in-law does not even ask Jesus to heal her, wheeas the centurion and the leper do ask. That tells us that healing can come unlooked for from God. We don’t necessarily have to ask God for healing. Oftentimes, when we are at the end of our rope, and simply do not know what to do next, God will touch our lives and heal us.

Notice, however, that Jesus never heals us so that we can go on in our godless lives, ignoring the fact that God has healed us. What does she do immediately after Jesus heals her? She gets up and serves her Lord. And isn’t that the proper reaction to being saved? If God saves us, then shouldn’t we, out of gratitude, serve Him? In that way, Jesus is not like Harry Hopkins. Jesus really does expect something from us if He serves us. He expects our loyalty, devotion, adoration, worship, and service. Peter’s mother-in-law is a wonderful example for us. Jesus healed her, and she uses that healing for the glory of God by serving her Lord.

Well, that’s very well for her, because she had Jesus right in front of her. But what about us? We don’t have Jesus Christ right in front of us, do we? No, we don’t. But imagine yourself in her position. The great King of the universe was right in your room, and had just healed you of a deadly disease. What would you feel? Could you possibly feel indifferent to the God-man standing right in front of you? And yet, just because we cannot see Him, we usually do not get very excited about what Jesus has done in our lives. I would challenge us to remember what Jesus has done. We should be ecstatic for joy. Use your imagination and transfer the joy you might feel if you were in the shoes of Peter’s mother-in-law to your own situation. Imagine how joyful you would be! Imagine how ready you would be to do anything for the one who has healed you! And yet, that is exactly what Jesus Christ has done for us spiritually. Every one of Christ’s miracles is a picture of how salvation happens for us. We were burning up in our sin and misery. And we faced the much worse burning of hell itself. And Jesus touched us with one touch of His mighty hand, and we are forever different.

One more application comes out of looking at this miracle as part of a series. Notice that Jesus heals the leper, who was as good as dead, and the worst outcast of all. Jesus also heals the servant of a centurion. A centurion was not as much of an outcast as the leper, but he still could not enter the real temple of the Lord. Inside the court of the Gentiles, however, is the women’s court. Women of the Jewish faith were allowed to be closer to God than the Gentiles were. However, even they were still not allowed into the Holy Place. Jesus, you see, can make people from every class of people clean. He heals the leper, raising him from death to life. He heals the centurion’s servant. He heals the woman, Peter’s mother-in-law. We move closer and closer to God as we go through these miracles. And the lesson is that Jesus can make anyone clean. Therefore, we should not give up on anyone. Instead, we should serve without any prospect of getting something back, just as Harry Hopkins did.

Brought Near By the Blood of Christ

Ephesians 2:11-13

First dentistry was painless;
Then bicycles were chainless
And carriages were horseless
And many laws, enforceless.

Next, cookery was fireless,
Telegraphs were wireless,
Cigars were nicotineless
And coffee, caffeinless.

Soon oranges were seedless,
The putting green was weedless,
The college boy hatless,
The proper diet, fatless,

Now motor roads are dustless,
The latest steel is rustless,
Our tennis courts are sodless,
Our new religions, godless.

This is a poem by Arthur Guiterman’s book Gaily the Troubadour.  The remarkable thing about this poem is that it written in 1936! We live without God in the world. By and large, that is how people act. As Charles Colson says, “Men and women may assert that God exists or that He does not, but it makes little difference either way. God is dead not because He doesn’t exist, but because we live, play, procreate, govern, and die as though He doesn’t. ” We are a godless culture. In our small society in North Dakota, we can see it in many ways: the way greed makes us blind to the coming heaven, and intent on securing heaven here and now; the way we trample on other people’s rights and think we have a right to do that; the way we hate one another. This is exactly what Paul is talking about.

Paul wants us to remember something. He starts out in verse 11 with the word “remember.” Obviously, he is writing from a Jewish perspective. He uses the word “you” to describe the Gentiles. Therefore, he is writing from a Jewish perspective. And this is important, because his point is not so much that “he’s Jewish and you’re not, and he’s much better.” The point is rather a contrast between the situation before the Gentiles had Christ and the situation after the Gentiles have Christ.

So what was the situation like before Christ? Well, the Jews and Gentiles were not getting along very well. Jews had a rather nasty term for the Gentiles. They used to call the Gentiles “the uncircumcised.” That was one way that the Jews were distinguished from most of the pagans surrounding them, although we must note that the Egyptians were circumcised as well. However, when Paul speaks, he makes sure to include the Jews in the same boat. Remember what the OT says about circumcision? It says that the important thing about circumcision is not the physical sign so much as the thing to which it pointed, which was the circumcised heart. So when Paul goes on and on about the fact that the Jews only had the circumcision made by hands, he is implying that the Jews did not have that heart circumcision. Paul did the same thing in Romans in the first three chapters, when he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jews just as much as Gentiles were under sin.

However, it is equally important to notice here the privileges that the Jews had. Paul also emphasizes those privileges. the Jews were the people of God. They expected a Messiah. They were ruled ultimately by God. They had the covenants of promise. They had hope. And they had God. These five things are just what the Gentiles did not have. The Gentiles did not have a Messiah; they were not ruled by God; they didn’t have the covenants of promise; they didn’t have any hope. And, as the poem has it which I just read to you, they didn’t have God. One can have many gods. But they didn’t have the one true God. This is what is so ironic about what Paul says here. The Gentiles accused the Jews of being “atheists,” because the Jews only had one God. However, the word “atheist” is the very word Paul uses here to describe the Gentiles, who had hundreds of gods! So Paul tells us that unless we have the one true God, we are really and truly without any god. Only the one true God has a Son. Only the one true God sent that Son into the world. Only the one true God commanded His Son to be a perfect sacrifice for our sins. Only the one true God can reconcile what is seeming irreconcilable.

And that is the burden of what Paul says in verse 13. The structure of this passage is the very same as in the first 7 verses. You will remember that the first three verses of the chapter tell us about how we were dead in sin and transgressions. Then, the next four verses tells us about what God did to save us. Verse 4 is the turning point in that great contrast, “But God.” Here in verse 13, we have a similar situation. Verses 11-12 tell us about how we were alienated from God because of our sin. We were cut off from the true Israel. We did not have the covenant promises for us and for our children. BUT NOW… things are different. We were once far away. A great illustration of this is in the temple. The temple had a court for Gentiles. It was nowhere near the Most Holy Place. We could never have entered. However, Christ has done what we could not. He has brought us into the Most Holy Place. That is the significance of the tearing of the veil at Christ’s death. Christ is our Great High Priest, who brings us into the very presence of God. He has done this by His great sacrifice of Himself on the cross. The new temple is the flesh of Jesus Christ, as John says. We can partake of the body of Christ when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. We are now near to God. God has reconciled us to Himself by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Is this your hope? Is this the covenant of which you are a part? Is this your Messiah? Is this your God? If this is not true of you, then you need to repent of your sin, turn to Jesus Christ, and entrust your life to Him. For in Him can be your only hope in life and in death. Is your religion godless?

Do you live as if God did not exist? There is a large difference between saying that God exists and living before the face of God, as the Latin has it, coram Deo. Do we live every minute of every day before the face of God? When we have secret sins, do we remember that nothing can be hidden from God? Do we take encouragement from the amazing sacrifice of our Lord?

The one great application that Paul is going to take from this great truth of reconciliation is that we should reconcile with one another. If we are reconciled vertically with God, then we should be reconciled horizontally with one another. As Paul says in verse 14: God has made the two one. We are one body in Christ. So let us not bicker amongst ourselves, and hold long grudges against people. Let us forgive one another because God has forgiven us. Then we will no longer be living as if God does not exist. But rather, we will taste and see that the Lord is good.

PCA Study Committee Report

The PCA Study Committee Report is available here.

The Faithful From East and West

Matthew 8:5-13

Hebrews tells us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. As Augustine would put it so well, “Faith is to believe what we do not see; the reward of faith is to see what we believe.” We can see a great example of that in the miracle recorded in our passage here. The centurion not only believed that Jesus could do this great healing miracle. He also believed that Jesus could do it while never setting foot in his own home. He had never seen Jesus do something like that. If he had seen any of the miracles that Jesus had already done, he couldn’t have seen what he was about to ask Jesus to do. That is faith. It is the belief in God, concerning that which we cannot see. It is belief in the authority of God over all the earth. And it is not just belief, but trust. We see all these things in this story.

First of all, we need to learn a bit about centurions. The Roman legion was about 6,000 troops. Those troops were divided into 60 groups of 100 soldiers each. Over each one of those groups of 100 soldiers, a centurion had charge. You can see the root centum, which means 100, is present there from Latin. The word “century” comes from the same root. These were the most important men in the Roman army, and that was not because they had the highest rank, but because they were the glue that held the army together. They ran the army. Interestingly, the Bible always mentions centurions with honor. There is not a single centurion mentioned in the entire Bible who ridicules the Christian faith. You can look it up in your concordance and find out for yourself. This centurion certainly has honor. He loves his servant. He wants to care for him, and is concerned about him, especially since the servant is suffering terribly.

But what distinguishes this centurion from many other people in the entire Bible is his great faith. It amazes Jesus that this man has that much faith. Why is the centurion said to have this much faith? It is because the centurion understands authority, and believes that Jesus has it. Let’s look carefully.

The centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Notice that he says, “Lord.” That, right there, is a good indication that he is a pious man. But after Jesus tells him that He is willing to go and heal him, the man says something remarkable. First, notice his humility. According to the world’s way of reckoning, the centurion had a much higher place in society than Jesus did. Centurions were accorded more honor than carpenters were. So the centurion saw that Jesus was really higher in any order of things that counts. He sees Jesus’ authority, and recognizes it to be far greater than his own. He is not blinded by society’s hierarchy.

Secondly, the centurion knows and understands the concept of authority. Now this statement is a bit of a puzzle at first, until we understand him. At first, he seems to be saying that he is in much the same position as Jesus is. That would seem to us to be a proud statement. However, that is not what the centurion is doing. In effect, he says this, “If even I, who have people over me, can have authority and tell someone to do something and he does it, then how much more can you, who have no one over you in authority, tell anything to happen, and it will.” That is the point of the phrase “I am a man under authority.” He is not saying that Jesus is under authority. Rather, he is saying that if it is true with little old him, then how much more is it true with the ruler of the universe. In other words, he is saying that Jesus is Lord of the universe.

Thirdly, notice that his faith believes that the Word of God is powerful. He says, “Just say the word.” This is a vitally important detail just here. He believes that God’s Word is sharper than any two-edged sword which he himself might wield in battle. He knows that God’s Word can pierce even to the joining of marrow and bone, such that a person can be healed. He knows that the Word of God can change a person instantaneously.

The centurion’s faith is so strong that he even believes that Jesus can heal this person without going there to see or touch. That is amazing faith, isn’t it?

It is certainly amazing to Jesus. Now, we must be careful here. Nothing can amaze or surprise God. And Jesus is God. So we might think that Matthew is uttering blasphemy here by saying that this amazed Jesus. But the answer is relatively simple. This amazed Jesus as a man. We are talking about Jesus in His humanity here, not Jesus as He is divine. Jesus, as a man, also wept. Jesus, as a man, also grew in wisdom and knowledge. This is a bit mysterious to us, but this is the way that the Bible speaks.

The amazement that Jesus experiences here leads Him to talk a bit about the future kingdom. This statement is truly astonishing. The Jews believed, of course, that they were going to sit down to a great banquet in the coming age. They would sit down with their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, what Jesus is here saying is that that isn’t going to happen. Instead, what will happen is that Gentiles will come from East and West and sit down with the patriarchs. Now, Matthew has already given us two examples of this East and West. The wise men came from the East. And, this Roman centurion came from Rome, which is in the West. They will recline with the patriarchs at the table. One important note here is that people did not sit in chairs when they ate in those days. Instead, they lay on cushions spread around a very low table. So, to “recline” here is to lie down on these cushions around a low table, and prop your head up with one hand, and use the other to eat. But notice then what Jesus says. He says that the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the utter darkness. We are to imagine a great wedding feast happening at night. Inside the building, there is plenty of light. Outside, all is dark. Jesus could not have made a more stark contrast if He had wanted to do so. But the ones who will be thrown out into this darkness are the Jews! Now, we have to remember that Jesus and all His disciples were Jews. So this statement does not give us leave to hate the Jews. Indeed, if we wanted to translate it into modern terms, we could say, with commentator Douglas Hare, “Many will come from east and west, yes, from Africa and Asia, and sit in judgment on the nominal Christians of America and Europe, who too glibly call Jesus “Lord, Lord” and do not do what He says” (pp. 91-92). Who will judge the household of God? Will it not be those whom we have failed to evangelize? Will it not be those Christians out there who are being persecuted for their faith? I am not saying here that one must undergo death-threatening persecution to be a real Christian, although lesser forms of persecution will always be the lot of any true Christian. What I am saying is that America is full of very rich, fat, and lazy Christians.

After Jesus says these things, He tells the centurion that the servant is healed. Jesus’ Word does this miracle.

So now we come to this important application: how do we view the Word of God? Does it have authority in our lives? We may not have a hard time when it comes to salvation, believing in the Bible. Many of us, hopefully all of us, believe it already. The point is this: do we also believe God’s Word when it comes to things that happen in our everyday lives? For instance, do we believe in the Fourth Commandment? Do we believe that it is okay to work on Sunday? Do we believe that it is okay to make someone else work for money on Sunday? Do we believe that we are the exception to the rule? What do we really believe about gossip? Oh, we usually call it “sharing.” “I just want to share with you what so-and-so did to me.” Here is a helpful rule: if what you are thinking about saying in any way damages that person’s reputation, then you should not say it. Now, if you want to tell about someone else’s good qualities, and good deeds, then “share” away. Go to it. Build up one another. Again, the question is this: is the Bible truly sharper than any two-edged sword? Does it really tell me how to live my day-to-day life? The answer is yes. That is the great good of reading it every day. The real problem with obeying it is our own sin. We have a real problem obeying the Word, because we sin. We think that the Bible was written such a long time ago (that’s what people mean when they say, “Oh, the Fourth Commandment is an OT thing. I don’t have to obey it now. We are not under law but under grace”). The law of God still applies. Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Now, we obey it still. It is a guide for the Christian life. We do not obey it for salvation. However, it is still vitally important that we obey the law out of gratitude. This means good deeds. That is the true result of faith as it plays out in the believer’s life. May we be at the table.

The Gift of God’s Grace

Ephesians 2:8-10

There are scarcely any other passages in Scripture which are more fundamental to our salvation than this one is. I know that some preachers will say that about every single text they preach. However, it is really true of this one. The reason that this passage is so very important is that it takes away all glory from man, and gives it to God. All the glory for salvation belongs to the Lord, and none of it belongs to us. This is so important for us to hear, because Adam’s sin was right in line with this. He wanted the glory of God to be for himself. And so, he tried to take God’s place. Adam was a glory thief. And so are we all. We want glory for ourselves. Why else do you think that we get so upset when someone else does well, and we do not? Why else are we upset when our own personal “rights” are violated, but we don’t get upset if someone else’s “rights” are violated? Why else is the doctrine of election such a hateful thing to the natural man? Why else do we want to take credit for the least little thing that we could conceivably contribute to our own salvation? The reason is this: we are glory thieves. We want God’s job. We want God’s status. We want to be God. It is the nature of our sinful state. So, what is the answer? The answer is salvation by grace. Ironically, God exalts the humble, and humbles the exalted. So, we must humble ourselves. We can go nowhere better in Scripture to humble ourselves than this very passage.

Paul has told us in the first part of the chapter that we were dead in sins and trespasses. But then, God made us alive. The very nature of resurrection is such that the person who is dead cannot resurrect himself. This is absolutely crucial to understanding this chapter. It is why Paul has that important parenthesis in verse 5 “by grace you have been saved.” So, what Paul is doing in our three verses here, is elaborating on that parenthesis in verse 5. He is expanding on it, and spelling out its implications for our lives.

What are those implications? Well, to illustrate them, we can go to the history of the Reformation and glean many helpful things. The Roman Catholic Church had a system called penance, in which, if you had committed a sin that needed pardon, you would go to the priest, seek forgiveness, and then the priest would give you something to do that would tell you that you were forgiven. You would say a certain number of rosaries, or, if it was a really bad sin, he would send you on a pilgrimage to Rome or Israel, or something like that. You were not really forgiven unless you did this penance. Of course, penance in this form often became very inconvenient for farmers, who could not go on long pilgrimages. So, the Roman Catholic Church was lenient in this respect, and made a substitute: if the person would pay a small fee (or a large fee in the worst cases), then the pilgrimage would be forgiven. The RCC would then give the person a slip signed by the pope stating that the person was forgiven. That slip of paper was called an indulgence. However, even this system was not quite right. After all, someone still had to go to the pope to get this piece of paper signed. So some took in their minds to go to the pope and get a whole bunch of these papers signed beforehand. Then that person would come back and give them to people, for a small fee, of course. There was one man in particular who loved to do this. His name was John Tetzel. He was selling these right around the time that Martin Luther had come to a correct understanding of forgiveness and the grace of God. So Martin Luther knew the absurdity of the church’s claims. He saw that some people were buying these indulgences, getting so many years out of purgatory, and then going off to do whatever sin they wanted, since it was already sanctioned by the pope. So Luther posted an invitation to debate. The form of this invitation was 95 short arguments, or theses, debating indulgences. These theses spread like wildfire in just a few weeks all over Germany, and the Reformation was born. What were some of Luther’s arguments? Well, indulgences were a form of salvation by works. Luther had rediscovered the truth of the Bible: salvation is not by works. Salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ. And even that faith is a gift from God. So, as Paul says, we cannot boast. We cannot say that we have done enough penance for God to owe us forgiveness. We cannot say that we can buy our way to forgiveness. To say that is to spit on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and call it of no account. Ironically, it also destroys the true place of works in the Christian life, which is as a result of being saved, not in order to be saved. We’ll speak more on that later on.

Paul says that even our faith is a gift from God. Some scholars do not think that the word “this” can possibly refer to “faith.” But there are many instances of this kind of grammar in Greek. What Paul is saying is that we are saved without works. None of works has the least effect on our salvation. Furthermore, we cannot even take credit for our faith. So many Christians will something like this, “God did His part; now it is up to me to have faith.” What Paul says here is that even our faith is a gift from God. We cannot even take credit for our faith. Even that has to come from somewhere else. In other words, our salvation comes to us from outside of us. God works in our hearts, yes. But the impetus comes from outside of us. We are passive. We contribute nothing to being saved. After all, dead people cannot contribute. We cannot just “try a little harder” in order to receive salvation. This whole chapter tells against that. There is no way that can work.

But the question will then become this: if we are passive in our salvation, then doesn’t that mean that we shouldn’t have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling? What about works? Doesn’t the Bible tell us how important works are? Yes, the Bible tells us that we cannot say that we are saved, and yet sit back and do nothing. That would be a misunderstanding of what salvation means. Look closely at verse 10: Paul tells us that we are God’s workmanship. There, we are passive. However, look further at what Paul says: we were made by God for good works. In fact, works are so important that Paul tells us that God prepared them in advance for us to do. We must get the order correct. Salvation comes first. That is by grace through faith alone. No works are involved there. However, God does not leave us in our passive state. He immediately makes our wills active, so that we will do these good works. We can only do them because we are created in Christ Jesus. It is only as we are in Christ that we can do them. In other words, God does not justify us without at the same time sanctifying us. Let me unpack that a bit. Justification is what happens when we are made right with God. God declares us not guilty, because of Jesus Christ. His righteousness becomes ours, and our sins are laid on Him. Our works play no part in justification. However, justification does occur all by itself. It is not the only thing that happens when a believer comes to Jesus. What also happens is a renewal of the person. A new nature is given them. They are created in Christ Jesus. They are given a new heart. This is called sanctification. And sanctification is the process of becoming more holy. It is also by God’s grace that we can do this. But we do these things. That is what Paul is getting at in Philippians 2: work out your salvation in fear and trembling, because it is God who works in you both to will and to do. Therefore, works do play a part in our sanctification. They are the direct result of God’s grace working in us.

So, how do you view your works? Do you think that they ought to “count for something?” As Paul says in Romans, “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” God owes us precisely nothing. We can look at recent events. Take the Virginia Tech shootings, for example. We think of it as a tragedy, and it is. Nothing I am about to say should take away from the fact that it is a tragedy. But tragedies exist in the world today because of sin. So, take those people who were killed. Do they deserve death? What do we deserve? Do we deserve life? Is it our right to have life? No, everything we have is a gift from God. It is not necessarily because of those people’s particular sins that this tragedy happened to them. Jesus Himself tells us that we cannot make that assumption. However, we need to ask ourselves: what do we deserve? We were dead in sins. We all deserve eternal death. And God, out of His sheer grace, has given us eternal life, through the work of Jesus Christ. Let us not forget the fountain of these benefits. They come from the work of Jesus Christ. If you want to say that works play a part in our salvation, then point to the work of Jesus Christ. As the hymn has it, “Our work faileth, Christ’s availeth; he is all our righteousness.” Or, as another hymn has it, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to They cross I cling.” A proper view of God’s grace should not discourage us from good deeds, but rather encourage us. When we don’t have to earn salvation by them, but we can do them out of gratitude, then works will be put in their proper place, because God’s grace is in its proper place.

Judas Was a Christian?

This is an exploration of chapter 1 of “Reformed” Is Not Enough.

I am glad to see that lines 6-7 on pg. 13 constitute a typo. Wilson has made it plain that there should have been quotation marks around the word “Reformed” there as well as in the title of the book.

Wilson restates his thesis on p. 13:

One of the great reformational needs in the Church today is the need for us to understand the objectivity of the covenant, and so that is the thrust of this book.

It always bears reminding ourselves that we ought always to ask the question, “What is the thesis, the main point?” Otherwise, we will always be subject to misinterpretation by taking something out of context. Wilson notes in this regard that “it is important for us to grasp all the issues that will be raised, and this means waiting patiently for some assembly of them later” (p. 13, emphasis original). I will assume that this “assembly” of the issues constitutes something in the way of building the blocks of the argument together to support his main thesis.

The first question he asks is this: “What is a ‘Christian’ when we use the word in the New Testament sense?” He starts answering this question by examining the three uses of the word in the NT: Acts 11:26, 26:24-29, and 1 Peter 4:14-17. Wilson notes several things about these usages. First, the term is used “to distinguish one thing from another…to distinguish the Christians from the Jews” (p. 14). This has primary reference to Acts 11:26. With regard to the second passage, Wilson notes that “Paul is inviting them to genuine faith, saving belief, and not simply to membership in a new religious club” (p. 15). I agree completely with this. But then, Wilson goes on to say, “But even here there is no distinction made between a false profession of Christ and a true profession of Christ. A true profession is assumed, but the contrast is between pagan unbelief and Christian belief. Spurious Christianity as opposed to the real thing is not under discussion” (pp. 15-16). I have a small question about this. If Paul is inviting them to genuine belief, then is not the contrast between pagan unbelief (which is false by definition) and true Christian belief? I’m not quite sure what insight Wilson is intending to glean from this statement of affairs. I’m sure that he will clarify. I would have appreciated here some discussion about the translation differences (which are rather large!) between the AV and the ESV (and other modern translations). Regarding the third application of the use (tied to the Peter passage), Wilson notes the parallel between “for the name of Christ” (vs. 14) and “as a Christian” (vs. 16): “To be a Christian is to bear the name of Christ” (p. 16). He says that “In all three places, the word is used by pagans” (pg. 16). The conclusion he draws from this last fact is as follows: “And this means we have no distinctively Christian handling of the word Christian” (p. 17, italics original).

The point he is making in the above discussion is that the phrase “becoming a Christian,” while not objectionable necessarily (after all, “the question of individual regeneration” is a crucial one (p. 17)), does not reflect the explicit Biblical use of the term. There are three categories of people (p. 18): the pagan, the covenant-breaking covenant member, and the true covenant member. Noting one of the classic proof-texts for the visible/invisible church distinction (Romans 2:28-29), he draws this conclusion: “the mere possession of the external sign was not sufficient to guarantee a genuine spiritual reality” (p. 18). In other words, Wilson here rejects ex opere operato. The outward sign is by no means useless. But the mere possession of the outward sign without the thing signified means that the person “(is) guilty of a very great sin” (p. 19). And this is one of Wilson’s themes: the non-elect covenant member is a covenant member, but is a covenant breaker. Wilson often uses the analogy of the cheating husband: if a husband is cheating, he is still a husband (barring divorce), though an oath-breaking one.

In the final analysis, then, Wilson affirms two senses of the word “Christian.” The first is “anyone who has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by an authorized representative of the Christian church” (p. 19). He makes a very important point here: “Does this mean that anyone so baptized is a Christian in the other sense-one who is born of the Spirit of God? Not at all” (p. 19). He clarifies later, “they are not all the Christian church who are of the Christian church. There are those who are covenantally of the Church, but who are not individually regenerate” (p. 20, emphasis original). Just in case we weren’t clear on this, he says, “In other words, Christians in the first sense alone are condemned to hell” (p. 20). And then, he also says, “This means that if someone has been a Christian his whole life (in the first sense obviously, LK), but then comes into the new life that Christ presented to Nicodemus, we can say that he has become a Christian inwardly” (p. 20).

He concludes the chapter by saying that there are two errors to avoid. The first is individualistic pietism (which ignores the first definition of “Christian”). In this regard, he says that “Membership in the Christian faith is objective- it can be photographed and fingerprinted” (p. 21). The second error ignores the second definition of “Christian” (the more inward definition). He calls this error “straight hypocrisy” (p. 21). I might only add one thing here. If I were the one writing the chapter, I probably would have put something in here about membership viewed from the point of view of this second error. Mere profession does not mean that the person has union and communion with God. That is a special privilege that only the elect enjoy (LC 65).

So, overall, I have very few quibbles with this chapter. The first quibble is really only a question about the Acts 26 passage (and the translations there!). The other is the way of phrasing that last paragraph, adding something about the distinction of benefits.

« Older entries