GRACE – A Definition?

by Reed DePace

Recently preaching through Romans (yes, I’m old enough), I’ve had multiple opportunities to “define” grace for our congregation. As some of you will know, this is not as straightforward as it seems. I was wondering what y’all think. Here is the working definition I’ve used with our congregation:

Grace is God’s presence that brings God’s power so that God’s provision for redemption is made the believer’s possession.


by Reed DePace

An Update

My call to Lebanon Presbyterian Church has been confirmed by my transfer exam to Palmetto Presbytery, which went through without a hitch. I am now a member of Palmetto Presbytery, and can move on to the field. We are planning on moving in early October, though this is a bit tentative, due to circumstances. Thank you for all your prayers.

Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Nine

If any of you actually wanted to read the next chapter review of this book, it is here. (I hid it under a different name, and you might have missed it!) Enjoy.

Paige B.

Some Thoughts on William Evans’s Ref21 Piece

Sean Lucas has some good thoughts on his current situation in relationship to what Evans said. I thought it might be worthwhile to chime in as well. It has all the earmarks of a great conversation, irenic, yet to the point. I hope to continue in that manner.

The things I agree with Evans: 1. I agree that one of the main problems facing the church today is what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” I think there definitely is still legalism present in the church. However, the pressure of culture is far more radically licentious than legalistic. 2. This is one key reason why the law needs to be preached. If people can’t see their need of Jesus by being convicted by the law, then there is no reason to preach the Gospel. 3. I agree with his read of Romans 6, that sanctification flows from union with Christ. I would not, however, want to dismiss justification as constituting any ground of sanctification whatsoever. While our response to justification does not make up all of our motivation for sanctification, it does constitute part of it. The key here is to emphasize the inseparability of justification and sanctification. That justification constitutes part of the ground of sanctification is more due to the inseparability of the two than any kind of temporal priority (although there, too, it must still be acknowledged that justification comes before almost all of our sanctification, the only part of sanctification excepted here is definitive sanctification, which occurs simultaneously with justification). I still think there is a way to reconcile the concerns of WTS and WSC. WTS emphasizes union as being all-embracing (although some things from Horton also emphasize this), whereas WSC emphasizes the priority of justification. Can’t justification have a priority within union?

Questions I would have for Evans: 1. Maybe Tchividjian’s context is different from Evans’s. Could it be that in his congregation, legalism might be more of a threat? This might help explain why Tchividjian speaks the way he does. Different contexts make for very different problems. I would agree with Lucas here in saying that different regions might have different concerns. In the Midwest, the problem I have noticed is the “Midwestern nice.” They will say all kinds of nice things about Christians and Christianity, and they will typically be rather polite even if you go door to door. However, whether they actually need salvation is entirely another matter. They believe they are good enough. They are not very licentious as a general rule (though they are becoming more so). But neither do they believe they are perfect. They believe they are “good enough.” I wonder where that fits on the scale here between antinomianism and legalism? It is a form of antinomianism in this respect: Midwestern nice reduces the demands of the law to a keepable level (antinomianism does this on a theoretical level; legalism also reduces the demands of the law, but does so not in theory but in practice). However, they don’t believe that they can just do whatever they want. So they aren’t antinomian in that respect. 2. Is the Law-Gospel distinction only Lutheran? I believe not. See some of the original sources quoted here, here, and here. Of course, the Law-Gospel distinction only refers to the pedagogical use of the law. The Law is no enemy to the Gospel after the person becomes a believer, but rather becomes the Christian’s guide and friend. The pedagogical use of the law still operates after the believer becomes a Christian, too. However, this is not bringing condemnation, but rather God’s fatherly displeasure.c

Update: Rick Phillips has some very important thoughts here, and so does Jim Cassidy.

An Announcement

I have an announcement to make to my readers. Lebanon Presbyterian Church has issued a call to me to be their pastor, and I have accepted that call. I still have to undergo Palmetto Presbytery’s transfer examination. If no hitches present themselves during that time (which will be this week, Lord-willing), then we plan on moving to South Carolina at the end of September or the beginning of October.

Please pray for Hull Christian Reformed Church and Hope Reformed Church of Westfield. I made the announcement after the service this morning. It was definitely a shock to many people. There are so many dear people there that we are sorry to leave, and they will need a pastor. I pray that the next man will be a much better pastor for them than I have been.

Please pray for Lebanon Presbyterian Church as it enters into a new phase of ministry. Lebanon is the tenth oldest church in the PCA, being founded in 1775. I will (Lord-willing, and with Presbytery approval) be approximately the 31st pastor of that congregation.

Not Your Grandfather’s Mosaic Covenant

Okay, I’ll fess up, this is a bait-and-switch: really this post is “Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Nine,” posted by Paige. But now that you’re reading, don’t stop. The content of this chapter should pique most of you enough to argue with it, so have at it!

Diehard Sailhamer fans and other intrepid researchers can find links to the reviews in this series (so far) in the first comment below.

Chapter 7: Exploring the Composition of Legal Material in the Pentateuch

When last we tuned in, Dr. Sailhamer was observing the presence of poetry at the “compositional seams” of the Pentateuch, which indicated to him the hand of an individual author tying together the text with the message of a coming eschatological king from the tribe of Judah. This bit was novel and potentially insightful, but not altogether startling.

Now Sailhamer turns to the puzzles posed by the presence of legal material in the Pentateuch. What is the purpose of the various collections of laws in the text? Why are there differences between details in these collections (e.g., between the earthen and brazen altars of Ex. 20:24-26 & Ex. 27:1-8)? Why is the narrative interrupted by large blocks of law (or, conversely, why are there islands of narrative in large lagoons of law?)?

Where critical scholarship sees “strata,” or the evidence of diverse sources gradually adding material over time, Sailhamer sees strategy: the intelligent design of one author who wishes to convey a particular message even through the very structure of the text. Now, Calvin also assumed a unity of purpose behind the various laws, identifying them all as belonging to the same covenant. But this is “not your grandfather’s Mosaic Covenant,” according to Sailhamer*: what’s happening through Exodus and Leviticus, he suggests, is actually a series of metamorphoses of the relationship between Israel and her God. That is to say, the legal material in the Pentateuch traces “a dynamic transition from a covenant like Abraham’s to one like Sinai” (381), each stage of this “transition” occurring after a scene of sinful disobedience on Israel’s part.

Here are (some of) the specifics that Sailhamer lays out in support of his reading (your questions and challenges may give me opportunity to add some more of his details in the comments below):

There are three instances where the disobedience of the people is followed in the text by an increase in specific laws, thus (Sailhamer posits) altering Israel’s relationship with God from being a covenant like Abraham’s – relatively simple, with no long lists of stipulations besides the Decalogue – to the full-blown Mosaic covenant, replete with details about priests, place, and purity. First (in order of most well-known) is the incident of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32), which is followed by further elaborations on the Priestly Code (Ex. 35-Lev.16). More obscure is a similar sacrifice to goat idols (Lev. 17:1-9), which is followed by the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26). And finally, though the event comes first chronologically, Sailhamer explores the possibility that the people’s fear and trembling at Mt. Sinai was the initial disobedience that changed their relationship with God and required the institution of the priesthood (including the “Covenant Code” of Ex.20:22-23:33 and the beginning of the Priestly Code in Ex. 25-30). (A tad more will be said about this one below.)

Sailhamer writes,

What begins to emerge from these observations of the narrative strategy is the notion that the biblical portrayal of the covenant at Sinai was not intended to be read in terms of a static unchangeable set of regulations. The author wants, instead, to show that Israel’s relationship with God, established in no uncertain terms at Sinai, almost immediately began to undergo important changes, due principally to Israel’s repeated failure to obey God. (363)

In short, as Paul puts it in Gal. 3:19, “law was added because of transgressions.” Sailhamer adds,

Israel’s initial relationship with God at Sinai, characterized by the patriarchal simplicity of the Covenant Code, was now to be characterized by a complex and restrictive code of laws belonging principally to the priests. (363)

While the Golden Calf incident is the most outstanding example of the people’s sin in this pattern of disobedience and increased stipulations, Sailhamer identifies the initial problem as occurring at Mt. Sinai, when the people begged Moses to meet with God on their behalf because they were terrified (Ex. 19). Here the usual English translation of Ex. 19:13, “they shall come up to the mountain,” obscures the original story as told in the Hebrew – at the sound of the trumpet, the people were to come up “in” the mountain, not merely to the foot of it; and because they refused, the initial offer of immediate relationship with their God was rescinded and replaced by the mediatorial role of Moses and the other priests.

Note that Sailhamer’s theories about the significance of the arrangement of legal material in the text fit with his thesis that the Pentateuch was never meant to be Israel’s rule book, but rather a book about the “new covenant” that was to come, based on faith rather than law.

So! There are the bare bones of it. Initial thoughts? Further questions? Did I give you enough to wrestle with? Quiz me for more – it’s a dense chapter.

*Though the title of this post is my own tongue-in-cheekiness, not his!

Sign, Thing Signified, and Sacramental Relationship

One of the main difficulties in understanding the sacraments is understanding the relationship among these three elements of the sacraments. We’ll take baptism here for an example. The sign is the water, whether sprinkled, poured, or immersed (I believe that the amount of water used is ultimately immaterial). The thing signified is the cleansing blood of Christ. One important thing that is usually missed here is that the sacrament includes the thing signified. This gets at a huge problem in the church today. The church tends to refer to the sacrament as including only the sign. Therefore, when we use the term “baptism,” we usually mean just the sign, just the rite. However, this is not the only way to understand the sacrament. WLC 163 explicitly says that the “inward and spiritual grace thereby signified” is also part of the sacrament. This shouldn’t make us nervous in the least, because the real question is where the efficacy of baptism lies.

The power of baptism cannot lie in the sign. This is proven absolutely, 100% conclusively by Romans 4:11, which states explicitly that Abraham already had the thing signified long before he ever had the sign applied to him. Circumcision is described as a sign and seal. This refutes directly those who believe that the “seal” language implies conferral. For here in Romans 4:11 is a seal that most definitely could not confer something already possessed.

The thing signified obviously has saving power. The blood of Christ has an objectively saving power. But how does it get applied to us? The answer is in the sacramental union of sign and thing signified. Another way of describing this sacramental union is “Spirit-given faith.” This is how we avoid the problem that the Lutherans constantly have of ascribing saving power to baptism, and yet also saying “sola fide.” If it is Spirit-given faith that connects sign to thing signified, then that is faith alone that saves. Faith also connects the sign and the thing signified so that the whole sacrament is now present.

Note here that it is quite possible to possess the sign without the thing signified (as in the reprobate). It is also quite possible to possess the thing signified without the sign (as in Abraham before he was circumcised). The only way one can possess the whole sacrament is for the Holy Spirit to give us faith. I believe that it is only as we understand baptism this way that we can avoid the problem associated with too high a view of the sign (and the time-point of its administration), on the one hand; and a devaluing of the sacrament on the other, making the sacrament into a bare sign.

This fits in, I believe, with the Reformed emphasis of the sign as a confirmatory sign. When they use this language, they are talking about the sign by itself. But when they use language reacting against the Anabaptists (usually rejecting the position of a naked and bare sign), they are talking about the sign and the thing signified together. This is the normal way we use sacramental language, and we have to be careful to delineate whether we mean the sign considered just as a sign, or whether we are referring to the whole sacrament, including Spirit-given faith. I am convinced that massive amounts of miscommunication and confusion could be avoided if we are careful at just this point.

I have closed a thread…

Just so that people know: I have closed the thread on theonomy. I should have done this ages ago. People can’t seem to behave themselves when it comes to R2K and theonomy. I won’t say that there isn’t fault on both sides. There probably is. It is becoming far too wearying for the moderators to handle. No doubt these discussions need to happen, and they haven’t happened much in the past. But we won’t put any more theonomy/2K threads on this blog until people have settled down, and can behave themselves. This post does not have comments allowed, because then people would probably argue over who has more fault. I must say I’m pretty disgusted.

The Confession and Scripture

What is the relationship of the Confession of Faith to the Scripture? And by “the Confession of Faith” I am referring here to the Westminster Standards. The question could just as easily be asked of the Three Forms of Unity for our Continental brothers and sisters. This question has produced quite varied answers. On the one extreme, there is practically no relationship at all of the Confession to Scripture. Usually, these people are motivated by a desire to retain the unique authority of the Word of God. Nothing has the same level of authority as Scripture, and certainly not any words of men. This is a laudable motivation, and we must pay serious and careful attention to it. No position that we embrace can bring into question the unique authority of God’s Word.

On the other extreme are those who say that the words of men can have equal authority with the words of God. Certainly the Roman Catholics would be in this category. This is not a position that a Protestant can hold. The question for us is this: is there any middle ground between these two positions? I would argue that there is indeed a middle ground. We can go back to a couple of indicators in the Scriptures, in the Westminster Confession, and also some history to prove our point.

First point from Scripture: there is a pattern of sound teaching in the Bible. 2 Timothy 1:13 says this (in the HCSB): “Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” In the Greek it is ὑποτύπωσιν ἔχε ὑγιαινόντων λόγων ὧν παρ’ ἐμοῦ ἤκουσας ἐν πίστει καὶ ἀγάπῃ τῇ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ. The word ὑποτύπωσιν means “pattern,” or “prototype,” or “standard.” Then the text says “healthy words,” or “sound teaching.” The magisterial Reformers agreed that it was not just the very words of Scripture that have binding authority. It is also the meaning of the words that binds us. After all, would we not agree that the doctrine of the Trinity binds Christians? And yet nowhere is that term used in Scripture. But the meaning of the term is certainly present. Here is a deservedly central truth of the Christian faith, and it is not explicitly used in Scripture! Is this a problem? Not at all! For it is the meaning of the “pattern of sound teaching” to which we hold. I would argue then that this verse is the germ of systematic theology and of church creeds and confessions. Creeds and confessions are supposed to answer this question: what does the Bible mean?

The second verse I would like to point out is Jude 3, which says that we should contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Here we are interested in that phrase “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” The faith here is not the subjective appropriation of the truth, but rather the doctrine to which we must adhere.  Jude tells us that this doctrine does not keep on changing and developing (even though our understanding of it may improve or deteriorate). It is “once for all delivered.” Therefore it is legitimate for the church to delineate what this faith once for all delivered is, since it is for that faith that we must contend.

In the Westminster Confession, this idea is expressed by the phrase “good and necessary consequence” in WCF 1.6, which is used to describe the “whole counsel of God.” There are two constitutive ways of delineating the whole counsel of God: what is “expressly set down in Scripture,” and what can “by good and necessary consequence…be deduced from Scripture.” As a practical illustration of this principle, note that the Reformers always believed that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Always assumed in this equation is the idea that the preaching had to be accurate preaching. It had to be according to the “analogy of faith,” which is a phrase used to express the entire teaching of Scripture. The safeguards in the Confession are obvious: it has to be a “good” consequence, and it has to be a “necessary” consequence. In other words, we have to do our exegesis of Scripture. There is no substitute for this, and there is no shortcut. It is the work that every person coming to be ordained in the PCA, OPC, URC, RCUS, etc. needs to do BEFORE he is ordained. He needs to put the standards of the church on trial before he subscribes to them.

I would simply point out that if the preaching of the Word of God is the word of God (i.e., the whole counsel of God), with the caveats mentioned, then how much more are the Standards the Word of God (i.e., the whole counsel of God), with the caveats mentioned! In other words, the Standards seek to express the good and necessary consequence of Scripture. Does this fall foul of making the Standards into God’s own truth? No, it does not, for the following reasons: 1. The standards are mutable, whereas God’s Word is not (witness the 3 changes that have been made to the Westminster Standards since its adoption in America); 2. The standards only have a derived authority (which is therefore a dependent authority, dependent on its accuracy to Scripture), whereas Scripture has an underived (and therefore undependent) authority; 3. The standards are written only by men, whereas Scripture is written by God through men; 4. The standards can only voluntarily be submitted to (this is a self-binding, which is of course mutable if one’s opinions change), whereas Scripture binds the conscience of all involuntarily.  The usual adage is this: the Scriptures are the “norming norm,” whereas the Standards are the “normed norm.” But notice that the Standards ARE a norm. They are, in fact, standards.

All too often today, what we see is a false dichotomy being perpetrated: either the Standards have no authority, or they have God’s authority. Since they are obviously not the latter, then they must be the former. This drives a wedge between Scripture and the Standards, a wedge that the divines would have rejected most heartily. The divines believed that the Standards they were writing expressed the good and necessary consequence of the whole counsel of God. This what they believed the Scriptures to be saying. There is no wedge between Scripture and the Standards if the Standards express what Scripture is saying. Officers of the church take an oath stating exactly this point: that the Standards express what Scripture says. There is always an out. If one’s opinions change, they can go somewhere else without violating an oath. What is a violation of the oath, however, is to reinterpret the Standards, or to drive a wedge between Scripture and the Standards, or to put the Standards on trial after one’s oath.

Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Eight

(Posted by Paige)

To conserve length here, an updated Table of Contents for these reviews so far will be found in the first comment below.

Chapter Six: The Composition of the Pentateuch

This section offers an easier read than the previous two dense chapters. In Chapter 6, Sailhamer homes in on particular examples of compositional strategy in the Pentateuch, laying out the evidence he has collected to support his claim that a single author tied it all together with a certain theological agenda in mind. As a whole, he insists, the Pentateuch tells a single and complete historical story, made of parts woven together with a plan in mind, ultimately communicating a particular theological message about the importance of “faith.” Our task as students of the Book is to ask questions about its literary structure, thus tracing its themes and harvesting its meaning from the evidence of its composition.

A question of first importance is, How does the “primeval history” of Genesis 1-11 relate to the later portions of the Pentateuch? Connections between these earliest and subsequent sections of the text are not obvious, leading some critics to decide that Gen. 1-11 must certainly have been added later. Of course, any theory that suggests a prolonged and gradual development of the Pentateuch necessarily also dismisses the idea of a single author who strategically wove blocks of narrative together. But Sailhamer urges us to look closer: he has noticed that the very structure of the “primeval history” sets a pattern that is replicated throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. It is possible that this evidence of a deliberate and repeated compositional strategy is the key to recognizing the hand of a single author from Genesis through Deuteronomy.

Rather than reproducing all of Sailhamer’s lists and examples at this point, I will just summarize the sorts of patterns he has noticed in the microcosm of Gen. 1-11, which are then repeated in the macro-structure of the whole Pentateuch. (For your reference, though, Sailhamer lists the blocks of narrative and genealogies found in Gen. 1-11 on p.306; the locations of the primeval poetry on p.315f.; and the major blocks of Pentateuchal narrative and their corresponding poems on p.323f. For those who do not have the book, I have listed the locations of the poems in the second comment below.)

Sailhamer identifies the use of poetry at the “compositional seams” of the text as the primary compositional strategy of the author of the Pentateuch. That is, in both Gen. 1-11 and in the rest of the Pentateuch, large blocks of narrative are connected together by poems that draw the reader’s attention to larger theological themes. The poems act almost as tour guides, showing the central movement of the story and its most important ideas. Of the “primeval history” Sailhamer writes,

Genesis 1-11 follows an intentional compositional strategy that links together an otherwise loose collection of minor independent narratives. The strategy largely consists of attaching poems to small units of narrative. The poems play a significant role in thematizing the author’s understanding of the meaning of each individual narrative. (318)

Each poem is presented as the words of the central character of the narrative, providing thoughtful commentary and reflection that almost always draws the reader’s attention to a long-range historical view into the future. This eschatological perspective persistently searches out the identity of the promised “seed,” a question that is raised in Genesis 3:15 and then answered at strategic moments throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. Thus, “in the last days” (eschatological trajectory) a “new covenant” will be implemented with the reign of a “future king.” This forward-looking, faithful hope for one who will make things right is, Sailhamer believes, the foundational theme of the Pentateuch; later, it would become the guiding theme of the prophets.

As a specific example of Sailhamer’s approach to gleaning theological information from the compositional strategies of the text, consider his observations about Joseph and Judah. At numerous points in the Joseph narratives (Gen. 37-50), “Judah is singled out from the other brothers as the one through whom the rescue of the family of Jacob was accomplished” (327). In the poetic blessing pronounced by Jacob, Judah is connected with Joseph’s dreams through the verbal repetition of the idea of his brothers bowing down to him (Gen. 49:8b; cf. 37:7, 9f.). Although Joseph became Jacob’s “firstborn,” Judah is identified in his father’s blessing as the progenitor of the coming prince (Gen. 49:10; cf. 1 Chr. 5:1-2). Through parallelism and poetry, then, “the king who was to come from the house of Judah is foreshadowed by the life of Joseph” (328). As we learned from Chapter 5, this is one of the “searchlights” of the OT that would shine on Jesus’ life, identifying him as the Messiah.

These eschatological references are strongly underscored by the theme of “faith,” which Sailhamer observes to run throughout the Pentateuch. The explicit references to “faith” and “unbelief” prepare us for the later reflections of the prophets and New Testament writers concerning the importance of steadfast trust in the covenant-keeping God of the universe. In this regard, the compositional strategy that Sailhamer identifies is a narrative pattern of emergency, promise, faith, and certainty (cf. the discussion on p.345ff.). A focus on faith raises the further question of the purpose of the law passages in the Pentateuch, which is the subject of the next chapter.

The advantage of tracing theological data through the evidence of deliberate literary strategies is the text-immanent nature of the task. A focus on verbal patterns and literary genres keeps us looking at the text as we have it, rather than going “behind” or beyond it into extra-biblical sources or assumptions. Sailhamer’s observations about the use of poetry to bind narrative portions together suggest that there is an intelligent design back of the Pentateuch, a planful authorial strategy, rather than the amorphous, gradual development posited by critical scholars.