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Archive for March, 2016


The next chapter in White’s new translation of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion concerns the law. At about 40 pages it is short in comparison to the chapter on free will. It is, however, no less significant.

In part the law helps us in terms of self-knowledge. It is necessary for our humility, to discover the illusions we have about our moral courage & strength. It will lead us, properly understood, “to abandon all trust in our own righteousness.”

He begins with the notion of the inner law, written upon each person’s heart. The corruption we receive from Adam, and our own transgressions flowing from it, tend to smudge said internal law as well as dull our conscience. Therefore, God found it appropriate to give the people of Israel (and by extension us) the written law. This has an important consequence: “we are not free to follow our heart’s desires wherever they may lead, but that we are wholly reliant on our God and must keep only to what pleases him.”

He briefly interacts with the Pelagian notion (sometimes expressed by our Arminian brothers) that God would not give a law we could not keep. They have a very man-centered view of the law. It is not a measure of our ability, but of God’s glory. It reflects His character, and what ours ultimately will be. Being his creatures by creation, and children by redemption, we have a duty to obey.

“The Lord, however, is not content to teach us only to revere his righteousness. He seeks to train our hearts to love it and to hate iniquity, and thus adds both promises and threats.”

We struggle to keep God’s law. We struggle with resting in His righteousness, but keep trying to establish one of our own doing. Our standards, not simply our strength. We try to confine the law to outward action, not seeing (or wanting to see) that it is about inward desire and spiritual righteousness. So, God not only condemns murder but also the unrighteous anger and hatred from which it flows even if we don’t carry through with the act. Jesus exposes the Pharisaical externalization of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not a second Moses, introducing a new law. He is explaining the law He gave through Moses.

In rightly understanding the law we need to consider both command and prohibition. This means we consider the “good and necessary consequence” of the law. He explains it this way:

“… we will first look at the content of each commandment, and then, on the basis of what it says, we will attempt to formulate a contrary argument alone these lines: if this thing pleases God, the opposite must displease him; if this thing displeases him, the opposite must please him…”

This approach finds its culmination in the Westminster Larger Catechism‘s section on the law. He notes “The Lord forbids that we should injure or hurt our neighbor, because he wants our neighbor’s life to be dear and precious to us.” In this way the sin we have grown accustom to is exposed so it can be rooted out in the power of the Spirit. Your flesh will always try to evade the truth.

Calvin then enters the aforementioned process and discusses the Ten Commandments from this perspective. There are some helpful discussions, like images, the sins of the fathers, multi-generational mercy, the shift from Saturday to Sunday regarding the day of rest, etc. On the last point, many misunderstand Calvin’s view of the Sabbath since it is fairly nuanced. I recommend Gaffin’s book on the subject.

“Their claim that Christians are under the law of grace does not mean that they should lead unruly lives, free as it were of restraint. Rather they are engrafted into Christ, by whose grace they are delivered from the curse of the law, and by whose Spirit they have the law written in their hearts.”

By this last thought we see that in the New Covenant, the law is (re)written upon our hearts. This is important because it was so smudged and distorted by our sinful nature.

Each sin deserves condemnation. In this Calvin attacks the Roman view of venial and mortal sins. The fact that each sin of the saint doesn’t “kill grace” is due to God’s mercy, not on account of the nature of the particular sin. Our justification means that we continue to have peace with God even though our sins may still be many (Romans 5).

Calvin sums up the law’s curses and promises in this way:

“My answer is that the law’s promises were not given in vain, but that they are conditional, and can only be fulfilled for those who have accomplished all righteousness- a righteousness not to be found among men. Once we understand that they can do nothing for us unless in God in his goodness freely receives us apart from our works, and once we by faith embraced his goodness which he offers us in the gospel, these same promises, conditional as they are, are not in vain.”

He is beginning to introduce us to the 3 functions or uses of the law. This is a most important concept. … (to be continued)

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If our wills are in bondage to our desires, which are corrupt, if there any hope for us?

This is the question we resume with from Calvin’s Institutes, the Essentials Edition. There is no hope in ourselves. Our hope has to be with God. The remedy is grace.

“Thus the Lord begins his work in us, inspiring in our hearts a love, desire and eagerness for what is good and righteous- or, more properly, inclining, training and directing our hearts to righteousness; he completes his work by giving us strength to persevere.”

This is not the same as a general removal of our depravity that leaves us in a state of neutrality that we find in some forms of Arminianism. This is the fulfillment of the promise of the new covenant (Ez. 36:26-27). This must precede faith, or we wouldn’t believe. The “human will must be wholly remade and renewed.” He aligns himself with Augustine that ‘grace precedes every good work.’ Grace is not a response to our will, but our will works in response to grace.

Calvin shifts back to Scripture, noting Jer. 32:39-40; Ez. 11:19; 1 Kings 8:58. These all address the stubbornness of our hearts, and the grace that overcomes that stubbornness. In other words, this is no ‘philosophical’ matter but one of life & death; salvation. This is not an Old Testament idea, but we see Paul also teaching this. We see this in Phil. 2:13 and 1 Cor. 12:6; 15:10. Jesus affirms this in passages like John 6:45.

“We must indeed teach that God’s kindness is open to all, without exception, who seek it. But because no one begins to seek it until he is inspired from heaven, nothing here should be allowed to diminish God’s grace in any way.”

He goes back to Augustine. “In yet another place he states that grace does not destroy the will, but changes it from bad to good, and that once it has been made good it receives help. By this he means only that God does not push man by outward force, unfeeling, as if he were a stone, but that he is impelled in such a way that he willingly obeys.” And again, “the human will does not obtain grace through its own freedom, but that it obtains freedom through God’s grace.”

Calvin shifts to the problem of continuing sin in the believer. Calvin, following Paul (Peter, John, James …), notes that our deliverance “is never so complete that no part of us remains under sin’s yoke”. Regeneration does not end conflict in our hearts, but initiates it (Rom. 7 & Gal. 5). There is a new principle moving us toward love and righteousness, and a retention of the natural inclination toward apathy and unrighteousness.

“This produces a conflict which sorely tries the believer throughout his life, because he is raised high by the Spirit but brought low by the flesh. In the Spirit he yearns fervently for immorality; in the flesh he turns aside into the path of death. In the Spirit he purposes to live uprightly; in the flesh he is goaded to do evil. In the Spirit he is led to God; in the flesh he is beaten back. In the Spirit he despises the world; in the flesh he longs for worldly pleasures.”

Our heart and will become a battle ground. The regenerate person mourns their sin, which pains him or her. They affirm and delight in God’s law as we see in Psalm 119.

Even in his day, there were people claiming a form of Christian perfectionism. Some of the Anabaptists advocated this position. They think that regeneration is complete, and we have no more fleshly appetites.

He returns to the idea of man as sinner in bondage to Satan. He mentions Augustine’s analogy (also utilized by Luther in Bondage of the Will)of the will as a horse subject to the rider’s control. Calvin finds it sufficient in theĀ  absence of a better analogy. “What is meant is that the will, being deceived by the devil’s tricks, must of necessity submit to his good pleasure, although it does so without compulsion.”

He then discusses the doctrine of concurrence with reference to the story of Job. In concurrence, more than one person wills the same action but for different reasons or goals. God, Satan and the Chaldeans all willed the theft of Job’s herds, but for very different reasons. We see this as well in the story of Joseph. God’s intention was very different from his brothers’ even though both willed Joseph’s servitude in Egypt.

“Accordingly, it is not improper to attribute the same deed to God, the devil and man. But the disparity in both intention and means ensures that God’s righteousness always appears blameless, while the wickedness of the devil and of man is revealed in all its shame.”

The bottom line for Calvin is fidelity to Scripture, for the Scriptures reveal the sovereignty of God over events big and small. He brings up a number of passages to illustrate his point. Satan, much like Assyria and Babylon in the prophets, is His agent to unwittingly accomplish His purpose. They serve His righteous purposes, even as they pursue their unrighteous purposes. Calvin notes God’s sovereignty over the “mundane acts of life.” He held to a meticulous providence, as God brings about “whatever he knows is needful, but also to bend men’s wills toward that same end.”

Calvin then addresses a series of common objections. First, necessary sin is no longer sin. While they “necessarily” have to do it, since God ordained it, it is still voluntarily chosen by them. He does not force them to sin, but they want to commit that particular sin at that particular time. Second, reward and punishment no longer apply. God is so kind that he rewards the graces which he bestows on people. The voluntary nature of sin makes punishment just. Third, good and bad are no longer distinguishable. If this were so, it would be so for God who does good “by necessity” or in keeping with his immutable nature. Fourth, exhortation and reproof become superfluous. They are, rather, the means God uses to help shape our choices. He not only ordains what will happen, but how and why.

“God is active in us in two way: within, by his Spirit, and without, by his word. With his Spirit enlightening the mind and training the heart to love righteousness and innocence, he makes man a new creature by regeneration. Through his word he moves and encourages man to desire and to look for this renewal.”

Calvin then notes a variety of Scriptural evidences including, the law and its commands, the command to repent, God’s promises & reproofs, his punishments and more. In many ways Calvin rightfully goes back to Philippians 2:13- For God works in us to will and work according to His righteous purpose. We are to believe that we are dependent upon God, but also that being gracious and powerful he consistently works in us to accomplish his purposes, which are good. This is an important doctrine which humbles us, and grants us confidence.

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One of the things I appreciate about Sinclair Ferguson is how he combines astute theological thinking with pastoral wisdom. This characteristic is what makes his latest book, The Whole Christ so good, so timely and helpful.

It is also what makes reviewing this book so difficult. I started to review it, describing many of the great insights, distinctions, historical issues etc. that are in this book that the review was becoming a tome. It would be easy to have a short review that just doesn’t do the book justice, that doesn’t really give you a clear idea as to why you should read it. And you should!

The story of the book began decades ago when Ferguson delivered a number of messages on pastoral reflections of the Marrow Controversy at a conference. Over the years people have asked if he would put them in book form (I hadn’t seen him since I heard the lectures, so I just hoped and prayed). As he noted, and I have also discovered firsthand, it is much harder to adapt messages than to just write a book. The last person to ask him was Tim Keller. Ferguson’s retirement provided the opportunity. Having heard the lectures, I am thankful that it has come to pass. Having read the book, I am even gladder he did.

Ferguson brings us back to the Marrow Controversy that troubled the Church of Scotland in the 1700s. It was a controversy prompted, in part, by The Marrow of Modern Divinity by E.F. But it was really a disagreement about legalism, antinominanism and assurance in the Church of Scotland.

He necessarily interacts with the book, written years earlier but discovered by Thomas Boston, and how the controversy played out in the Church. He brings The Westminster Confession of Faith, various Puritans and John Calvin into the fray. Most importantly, Ferguson also writes about the human heart since these are not simply abstract theological ideas, but issues that plague us.

For instance, he resolves an alleged conflict between Calvin and the Westminster Divines on the subject of faith and assurance. Calvin wrote of assurance being essential to faith which is contrary to the Confession. But Ferguson shows that Calvin meant we must believe that Christ is able to save. This differs from assurance of salvation, meaning that Christ as saved a particular sinner. In other words, they were discussing two different kinds of assurance. This is a very helpful distinction, with pastoral implications. The first is an issue of one’s justification, the other is an issue of their subjective confidence before God. You have to identify the proper problem so you give them the proper instruction, otherwise you can do spiritual damage.

This book is rife with such pastoral implications whether for our preaching or our counseling. This is what makes the book so excellent, and a must-read. He gets to the heart of legalism and antinomianism, and presents us Christ and the gospel as the resolution for both (and the issue of assurance as well).

Ferguson asserts that both legalism and antinomianism severe the law from the character of the law Giver. They do it in different way, but come from the same root. He brings us to Eve and the original temptation. Satan got her to doubt God’s goodness and love. She developed a legalistic spirit, which hardened her heart towards God, which resulted in her antinomianism, or rejection of God’s law to the original couple.

He unpacks how both legalism and antinomian manifest themselves. They also appear in how we think of assurance. They also affect how we preach, and how we hear the gospel, or shall I say mishear.

Much of what Ferguson does is bring us back to the gospel and the character of God. Law then finds its appropriate place, and assurance seen aright.

What started this mess that divided the Church of Scotland, and many Christians today. The controversy started over a Presbytery creed that rejected “preparationism”, a form of hyper-Calvinism that taught that the gospel only for those who showed signs of grace, who have repented (yeah, confusing). One thing that becomes evident is that theses Scots wrote questions in a very convoluted fashion. One man had his license to preach the gospel removed by not affirming the creed. The General Assembly reversed the decision and condemned the creed. One frustrated member of the Assembly sat next to Thomas Boston who recommended The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

Some have taken issue with the book. The controversy over the book is not the issue so much as the views of the Marrow Men. The controversy spiraled out of control, and wider.

The first issue was the free offer of the gospel, contra preparationism. The Marrow Men held to limited atonement. They also believed that the gospel was to be freely offered to all sinners. There are no qualifications that must be met before the offer of Christ, and pardon in Him, is made to sinners.

“The fallacy here? The subtle movement from seeing forsaking sin as a fruit of grace that is rooted in election, to making the forsaking of sin the necessary precursor for experiencing that grace. Repentance, which is the fruit of grace, thus becomes a qualification for grace.”

The Marrow Men rejected the notion of separating Christ from His benefits. We receive all of them in Christ, not in isolation from Him. They upheld a robust theology of union with Christ. “This, to use an Augustinian term, is totus Christus, the whole Christ, the person in whom incarnation has been accomplished and in whom atonement, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly reign are now realized.”

In the midst of this, Ferguson sneaks in an application regarding the New Perspectives on Paul. Yes, he says, the Pharisees believed in grace. It was a conditional grace, however. This was the error of preparationism. It is similar to a conversation I had with some Mormons. We obey, and grace covers what lacks. Ferguson brings us back to the nature of God as good, gracious, and loving. This is what the Enemy seeks to keep from us via a legalistic spirit.

From here he discusses the various forms of legalism which essentially sees God as “He-whose-favor-has-to-be-earned.” Just as in preparationism, where repentance is separated from Christ, in legalism the law is separated from God, from “his loving and generous person”, and “not as the wisdom of a heavenly Father.” The solution is not in rejecting the Law, but embracing God as our delight (see WSC #1). He brings John Colquhoun in to remind us of “what the heart hears”. We can mis-hear solid gospel teaching because of our legalistic hearts. “But it is also all too possible to have an evangelical head and a legalistic heart.” This is important to remember in pastoral counseling. But it means that some hear the offer of free grace as antinomianism.

From there Ferguson moves into the “order of grace”. He touched briefly on the ordo saludis before, but now spends more time there. Faith is the instrument of justification. Repentance does not occur before faith (preparationism), nor after faith, but “within the context of faith’s grasp of God’s grace in Christ.” Further, “while we cannot divide faith and repentance, we do distinguish them carefully”. He also moves to the implications of free grace, a life seeking joyful obedience. Grace produces obedience, and not the other way around. The Mosaic Covenant is to be seen this way, not as a republication of the covenant of works that undoes the Abrahamic covenant. Many preachers, sadly, focus on the law’s exposure of our sin to drive us to Christ with a stark law-gospel distinction. For those justified, it shapes our salvation. It provides direction …

Do you see what I mean?

How we think about law and gospel matters. The default of our hearts matters in terms of how we hear discussions of law and gospel. Where we look for our assurance matters. Why we want to obey matters.

This is a book that can have a profound effect on how a pastor, elder or ministry leader goes about ministry. This is why I find this a book that should be in the hands of pastors, elders and ministry leaders. I want them to bring gospel wisdom to the people they serve: not legalism, not cheap grace. But to do so they have to embrace, and preach, the whole Christ.

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In Calvin’s Institutes, the Essentials Edition, we’ve seen how the knowledge of God gives us a truer knowledge of ourselves. While made in His image, we have fallen into sin and unrighteousness. Instead of glorifying Him, we seek to glorify ourselves (make a name for ourselves) which typically means taking advantage of others and bringing shame to ourselves.

Knowledge of ourselves should humble us. We are not what we were intended to be, but a rather tawdry sham instead. We over-estimate our abilities and good deeds, while we minimize our faults, weakness and wrong-doing.

“However, the person who carefully measures himself by God’s standard finds nothing to give him inner confidence, and the more closely he studies himself, the more dejected he becomes until, bereft of hope, he has nothing to help him lead a well-ordered life.”

We have fallen so far from our created glory as the imago dei. The great endowments of Adam and Eve testified to the “Creator’s extraordinary generosity.” They had done nothing to receive these great gifts from His hand. Their disobedience stripped them of much this glory. “The heavenly image he bore was therefore erased; being estranged from God by sin he was likewise deprived of his share in the blessings which can only be had in him.”

This brings us to total, or radical, depravity. From the womb we are prone to sin. We are not born innocent and then personally fall when we sin for the first time. Calvin argues against Pelagianism briefly. We are not “basically good” and only in need of a good example but better ourselves. Calvin affirms original sin, “a hereditary corruption and perversion of our nature which in the first place renders us guilty of God’s wrath, and in the second produces in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’.”

I wish Calvin added “covenantal” to the hereditary. Adam was not just our father, but our covenant head. In this sense, we are also held accountable for his disobedience.

From here, Calvin moves into his discussion of the freedom of the will. Definitions matter greatly in this discussion, and often they are not laid out appropriately. Calvin notes two dangers: indifference and excessive boldness. When we stress our depravity, people can lapse into indifference or fatalism. They see themselves as unrecoverable, even by the God of grace. When we stress the imago dei, people can have a view of themselves that is unreasonably high, a sense of entitlement.

“To avoid both of these pitfalls, we will follow a middle course. Man must learn that there is no good in him, and that misery and want are all around him. But he must also understand how he may aim at the goodness he lacks and at the freedom which is denied him.”

He then moves to some philosophic theories of the mind and will. “The role of the will is to choose and follow whatever our mind judges to be good, and conversely to reject and shun what it reproves.” So, the will works with the mind, not independently of the mind. “All we need to know, without entangling ourselves in superfluous issues, is that the mind is like the helmsman and captain of the soul, and that the will depends on its good pleasure…”

In fallen man, the mind is not fully functioning and flooded with divine light. Romans 1 shows us that the mind is darkened and futile because it has exchanged the truth for the lie. It is no longer able to distinguish between good and evil, the very thing Eve wanted when she disobeyed.

Calvin notes that the Church Fathers are uncertain guides in this matter. He saw them as capitulating to philosophy on this matter at times. Chrysostom, for instance, notes,”The wicked man can become good, if he chooses, and the good man may change into a wicked one.” Calvin sums up, “We see from these statement that the Fathers credited man with greater power than was proper…”

He interacts with the 3 A’s: Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. He finds Aquinas’ definition sound: “Free will is an elective power which, intermediate intellect and will, inclines, however more toward will.” So, how free is the will?

Calvin wants to generally avoid the term “free will”. The Schoolmen note that “man cannot be said to have free will because he is free to choose both good and evil, but because he does what he does voluntarily and not out of compulsion.” He argues that this term has been wrenched from this definition as a “justification for self-pride.” In other words, people use it not for the voluntariness of our our decisions, but to freely choose between good and evil.

Augustine is presented as a trustworthy guide. He affirmed the enslavement of the will. It is grace, and grace alone, that frees it from bondage to our appetites. Augustine moves us toward humility by seeing our natural powers as “impaired, demolished, scattered, destroyed.”

“For the human mind, because of its ignorance, cannot follow a sure path in its search for truth, but blunders into various errors. Just as a blind man stumbles about in the darkness until he quite loses his way; so the mind, pursuing the truth, shows how ill-suited and ill-equipped it is to seek and find it…”

Calvin then differentiates between stuff of earth and stuff of heaven. The bondage of the will, the depravity of the mind does not mean we are stupid intellectually, but stupid morally. We are able to structure societies reasonably well (though the current state of American politics may indicate otherwise), and most citizens are reasonably law-abiding. People are able to master mechanical and liberal arts. We do have a capacity for rational perception. This would be an example of common grace. God gives us the ability to improve our earthly state. This is undeserved, and therefore gracious.

Calvin notes that these natural endowments are gifts of the Spirit, “who distributes them as he pleases, for the common good of humankind.” Our corrupt minds are not as corrupt as they possibly could be. Although the Spirit only dwells in Christians, He is infinite and “does not fail to fill, move and quicken by the power of that same Spirit all creatures, according to the nature with which he endowed each of them at creation.”

Heavenly things (knowing God, his will and living accordingly) are a different story. We are spiritually blind apart from grace. Part of people’s blindness is their inability or unwillingness to accept this. People fall for all kinds of superstitions and foolishness (including deviations from Christianity). This blindness is taught in Jeremiah 24, John, Ephesians, 1 Cor. 2 and Colossians as well as Romans 1.

Calvin affirms the reality of natural law, arguing that its purpose is to make us without excuse. He points us to Romans 2 for this purpose. He defines natural law as: “an operation of conscience by which it is able to tell good from bad, with sufficient clarity that man cannot plead ignorance as an excuse, being rebuked by his own testimony.” For instance, as a teenager I had the capacity to recognize certain things as wrong. But I did them anyway.

Our moral reasoning and judgments are often (always?) clouded by our self-interest and passions/desires. We can talk ourselves into almost anything. We fail to grasp how evil our appetites often are.

After about 30 pages (and there are 40 more) he gets to Paul, who is obviously more authoritative than the schoolmen. It is also very different. We see the inner conflict of Christians in Romans 7 and Galatians 5. We have the Spirit by regeneration, how much worse the condition of those outside of Christ. Believers do strive after good, but don’t do it as often as desired due to this inner struggle. It is the Spirit that leads us toward righteousness. Apart from the Spirit, apart from Christ, people do not seek good (Rom. 3). They do not experience such inner conflict (though there is often the outer conflict of consequences- fear of man).

“Now we are all sinners by nature, so it follows that we are under sin’s yoke. Furthermore, if everyone is held fast by slavery to sin, the will, which is the chief agency of sin, must be tightly restrained and shackled by sin’s bonds.”

As we see in Romans 8, the unregenerate mind is hostile to God and His law. This indicates the bondage of the will to sin. It is in bondage to its inclinations. What people want to do is wrong, but that is what they do.

Thankfully, God, in His grace, limits our capacity for evil. He restrains our sin. While our corruption is changed, and ultimately cured, in the elect, it is merely curbed in the non-elect and non-converted. People are not as bad as they could be. But people sin because they want to, not because God makes them sin. They live within the bondage to sin, so there is an element of necessity. But it is also a joyful necessity. The sinner has not been “stripped of his will but of the soundness of will.” Calvin also brings us back to the character of God, to understand freedom and necessity.

“So if nothing stops God’s will from being free when he does good, even though he does good of necessity, and if the devil always sins voluntarily, even though evil is all he can do, who will argue that man does not sin voluntarily simply because he is subject to the necessity of sinning?”

Here is how Calvin sums it up: “This, then, is the distinction we must observe: man, corrupted by his fall, sins willingly, not despite himself or by compulsion. He sins, I say again, through inclination and not because he is forcibly constrained; he sins because he is prompted by his own appetites, not by external force.”

I’ll resume Calvin’s discussion of this matter in the near future.

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