Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘common grace’


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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


I’ve only read one book by Herman Bavinck. That book was The Doctrine of God, and I read it thanks to Doug Kelly while in seminary. I enjoyed the book and found it helpful, but until recently not much was available in English. I’ve got a copy of a biography on him, but I haven’t read it yet.

His influence, despite this handicap, is evidenced as I read the first few chapters of Bavinck on the Christian Life by John Bolt. I have been greatly influenced by people who have been greatly influenced by Bavinck. I saw much of my personal theology on display in those chapters, much of which is reflected in my approach to marriage in my forth-coming book.

For those who aren’t familiar with Bavinck, he was a Dutch theologian alive in the 19th and 20th centuries. He was a bit younger than his contemporary, the more well known Abraham Kuyper. The book begins with a brief biographical sketch.

Bolt begins the meat of the book with Foundations for Christian Living. The three chapters there cover Bavinck’s theological process so to speak. The first is about creation, Created in God’s Image. We can’t understand the Christian life if we don’t understand ourselves as created in God’s image. Redemption makes us whole humans, not into something altogether different. Bavinck takes a “trinitarian” approach to what it means to be in God’s image: creation, sin & redemption, and eschatology. Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 figure prominently in Bavinck’s thought: Adam as a type of Christ. They are the two covenant heads that govern humanity. As a result, Bavinck affirmed the “covenant of works” as vital to Christian theology. He saw this as “a divinely imposed relationship between God and humanity, a relationship under sanctions: obedience leads to blessing; disobedience results in death. (pp. 43)” And so “we are Christian in order to become truly human, not the other way around. (pp. 43)”

“This theological insight implies that in a Reformed understanding of Christian discipleship the creational, natural vocation of human beings is basic and primary.”

This this point, Bolt provides a critique of the more “radical” approaches to discipleship from Bavinck’s prospective. If he were alive today, Bolt (rightly I think) imagines Bavinck having something to say to people like Claiborne and Platt. He would affirm Christian discipleship in the ordinary callings. Some today sharply criticize the ordinary (creational!) and produce unnecessary and unproductive guilt. There is no hierarchy of callings so that one is better than another. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 7, serve God where you are whether rich or poor, slave or free, male or female. Your vocation- butcher, baker, candlestick maker or household engineer- is the context of your discipleship. It is not to be seen as a hindrance to it. The creation mandate is not opposed to the great commission (see pg. 44-45 in particular).

Bolt then brings us into common grace. He notes that the term is often misunderstood, and should not be used to excuse worldliness in Christians. It “is the confession that God continues to providentally watch over creation and fallen humanity and that this care is not restricted but extends beyond the elect. (pp. 48)” Bavinck, like Calvin, distinguishes between a grace common to all humanity, and special or saving grace. Common grace provides the stage for saving grace. His continuing to uphold the creation despite our sin & rebellion is gracious.

Bolt then moves to The Law and the Duty of Christian Obedience. The law is understood within the context of covenant. Our discipleship, occurring within the context of creation also occurs within the context of the law which guides us in a life which pleases God. Bavinck follows the Reformed confessions and catechisms in this expression of grateful obedience.

Bolt spends more time discussing the covenant of works (pp. 56-63) particularly since some prominent Reformed theologians are critical of the doctrine. He notes some of those criticisms, but brings us back to Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 again. We see that their roles as covenant heads are revealed matters. For Bavinck, religion is a revealed matter. Apart from revelation we don’t have true religion. Bolt notes the temptations of moralism and legalism. The law is intended to be kept within the context of covenant. The Ten Commandments are given in the context of redemption. They are to obey because they have been redeemed, not to gain salvation. The enjoyment of that salvation, and remaining in the land, hinged upon obedience (and repentance when they disobeyed) while looking forward to the greater Redeemer who would obey perfectly for us, and work in us by the Spirit to grow in obedience and restore the image of God. For Bavinck “covenant is the essence of true religion. (pp. 60)” It is intended to guide our discipleship as the words of a father are to guide the life of a son. We are to submit to the “living covenantal God with whom we are in fellowship. (pp. 61-2)” Our submission is not simply a matter of His Lordship, but also our love in response to His love toward us.

This means that God does not coerce us, but counsels us thru “admonition, warning, invitation, petition. (pp. 63)” This also takes place in the context of community. Not simply alone, or as a couple, but the whole of humanity (or the new man in Christ) is the fully developed image of God (see pp. 65). We also find that the reality of progressive revelation implies the reality of progressive understanding.

One of the interesting applications that Bolt makes is politics. As imitators of God, “we are always to conduct ourselves in way that enhance our neighbor’s liberty and responsibility (pp. 67)”

“And it suggests that Christians evaluate public social policy in terms of the same principles. It also implies, finally, that when it comes to matters of social policy and political actions, Christians have an obligation to respect each other’s freedom on matters that either are adiaphora (things indifferent) or require application of agreed upon moral principle. The example of poverty and poverty relief come to mind. The Bible is quite clear about the responsibility of God’s children to help those who are poor and needy. Whether or not this commitment to the poor demands support for higher taxes or greater government welfare is quite another matter. It is a mistake for Christians to treat their policy preferences as self-evident applications of biblical principle. Christians need to respect the liberty of those who take their Christian responsibilities in directions that are different from their own.”

Bolt then quotes an interesting section from the 1891 Christian Social Congress on general principles. “Therefore, it is entirely in keeping with Holy Scripture to: … oppose the accumulation of capital and landed property. (pp.68)” Not exactly where I would go with applying Scripture, but in Israel there were limits to wealth accumulation.

Bolt then moves to the third foundation: Union with Christ. This is the longest and most complex chapter, as Bolt confesses. But our redemption is “in Christ” and this concept must be understood. It plays, obviously, a big role in Bavinck’s understanding of Christianity.

Here Bolt talks about Bavinck’s dualities, not the same a dualism. He doesn’t operate with a dialectic: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. But two realities, held in a kind of tension: “earthly calling and eternal destiny; general revelation and particular revelation; common grace and saving grace. (pp. 69)” They are not to be set against one another: we experience both. We are pulled by competing, legitimate longings. These tensions don’t disappear, and we shouldn’t try to eliminate them. But … often we do.

Bavinck’s understanding of union is more than redemptive. Christ is the mediator of creation, a common theme in Bavinck. He “bridges the ontological distance between humanity and God.” We not only have the moral obstacle of sin to deal with, but the metaphysical obstacle to fellowship or communion with God. In light of this he speaks of accommodation like Calvin does. All revelation is tied to the work of Christ, whether pre or post-incarnate.

“He has brought creation, redemption, and eschatology all into the doctrine of Christ without in any way blurring the distinction between nature and grace or sacrificing the gracious character and preeminence of Christ as our Redeemer.”

Bolt then discusses the two dangers of discussing union. The elevation of humanity to divinity or bringing God down to us and losing all sense of transcendence. Bavinck warned about shifting back and forth between deism and pantheism. The former is helpful as we think about moralistic, therapeutic deism. The other is helpful as we think about theosis, and avoid the dangers of divinization and neo-Platonism. (pp. 78-80).

Bolt, in light of all this, discusses what the Chalcedonian formula did and did not do. It marked out boundaries for our contemplation of the hypostatic union. It didn’t really define it. He brings this into the disagreement between the Reformers and Roman Church on justification. Rome emphasizes union through sacraments. The Reformers emphasized a covenantal union.

Bolt then gets into Dutch Reformed church history with Arminius and the two seceding groups connected with Kuyper and Bavinck that eventually united. Some in Kuyper’s group held to presumptive regeneration. Bavinck argued that ordinarily the Spirit used appointed means for regeneration, though the Spirit can regenerate someone directly. We should recognize that as extra-ordinary, not ordinary. Therefore, the presumption regeneration regarding our children, as immediate and extra-ordinary, should not be affirmed.

In terms of our union itself, Bavinck joined together “the covenantal, legal and forensic dimensions of justification with the believer’s mystical union in Christ” (pp. 91). Bavinck also takes us to the “covenant of redemption” between the Trinity. Our union with Christ is built on the work of all three members: the Father electing, the Son providing redemption, and the Spirit applying it in union with Christ. Our union is not something considered apart from Christ’s objective work of redemption. The latter is the basis of the former. We receive the benefits of redemption in our union, particularly justification and sanctification. With regard to the latter, Bavinck notes it is both the passive gift of God, and our active responsibility. While not mentioned, this is helpful to keep in mind in the recent sanctification debates within the Reformed community.

Bolt did a great job laying the theological foundation by which we must understand Bavinck’s view of the Christian life. Without grasping creation, law and union with Christ, there is really no proper understanding of the Christian life.

Read Full Post »


In the 5th section of The Doctrine of the Christian Life, John Frame touches on the question of culture. This is an important question regarding the Christian life. No one lives it in a vacuum. We each live it in a particular culture, and that raises issues and questions. It is a big part of the circumstances making up the situational component of triperspectival ethics.

“So culture is not only what we grow, but also what we make, both with our hands and with our minds.”

He begins the section with a chapter on the question, what is culture? In terms of Scripture, this is a word not found there, but one that must be derived from good and necessary consequence. He starts with some basic facts about the origin of the word, and some definitions posited by others, like the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism. He then distinguishes between creation (what God has made) and culture (what we make with creation). This, of course, leads us back to the Creation Mandate. Adam and Eve (and their children) were to fill the earth, subdue the earth and rule the earth. They were to utilize it, not preserve it (or exploit it). As a result, culture for Frame is what we make of God’s creation.

“God creates the world, but he does not depend on the world at all. The world depends entirely on him. But in human life, there is a mutual dependence between ourselves and the world. The world depends on us to fill and rule it, but we depend on the world for our very existence.”

As made in God’s image, the various cultures we create and maintain reflect something of the goodness of God. But as sinners marred by the Fall, our cultures also reflect that descent and distortion of God’s glory. No one culture, this side of Eden, is either all good or all bad but a rather tar babyish mix of the two.

Into this, Frame develops a view of Common Grace. This is another word not found in Scripture, but a concept taught in Scripture. It is gracious because it is undeserved. It is common because it does not lead to salvation. It does maintain the stage for salvation, like what we see in the Noahic Covenant.

By common grace we mean that God restrains sin. He actively keeps people from being as bad as they could be. An example Frame provides is the Tower of Babel, scattering the nations so they won’t accomplish their evil intent. Satan is on a short leash, as we see in Job; and even shorter as we see in Revelation 20.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


There are times when an author or screenwriter says more than they intend to say. I wonder if Flight is one of those times. I don’t know the screenwriter (John Gatins) and his worldview. But it closely approximates a biblical worldview, and there are a number of characters who are Christians.

Flight is not an enjoyable movie to watch, unless you enjoy watching a man destroy his life. Flight is mostly about the destructive power of sin, though there is a strong theme of common grace and, at the end, a taste of redemption. As a result, it is not as depressing and nihilistic as Leaving Las Vegas. While it depicts lots of sin, it is not trying to justify or glorify it. It shows the hell of it.

The first few minutes of the movie are tough to watch if you have a sensitive conscience. Our introduction to the main character, Captain “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is in a hotel room after a night of excess that included sex, booze and drugs. While his partner for the night wanders around the room naked (eventually, and mercifully, she gets dressed) he argues on the phone with his ex-wife and then prepares for work by snorting some coke. What we see is not a “nice” guy.

But Whip is an excellent pilot. When the flight from Orlando to Atlanta goes terribly wrong he is able to pull the plane out of an uncontrolled dive (in a very harrowing scene), and land it in a large field. He awakens in a hospital to discover that 4 passengers and 2 crew (including the woman with whom he was partying) have died. We later learn that in the simulator, no one could land the plan safely. This incredibly flawed man does something heroic.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


It isn’t every day that you read a book that received its title from the liner notes of a classic jazz album. John Coltrane used it to explain A Love Supreme. Tim Keller borrows the phrase, and idea, to talk about work in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.

If I could summarize the book oh so briefly I’d say: If you like his other books, you’ll like this book. If you don’t, you probably won’t. If you haven’t read any of Keller’s books, what are you waiting for?

Tim Keller is pretty consistent in his writing approach. This book is another testament to that consistency is approach. That means that he seeks to bring together various threads of Christian tradition to show us the richness of our biblical heritage, he makes it accessible to ordinary people (including non-Christians), and keeps the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center in a winsome way.

He begins with God’s Plan for Work, pulling together the various emphases of different parts of the church. He wants us to recognize there is no one view of work, but that Scripture has a broader, deeper understanding of work. Various groups emphasize one or two aspects of that broader, deeper understanding. So, he is not trying to play them against one another, but they are different perspectives or aspects on the one whole. He brings in the Lutheran concept of vocation, and therefore the dignity of work. He brings in the ideas of work as cultivation, we produce something beneficial to others as well as ourselves. Work is also intended to be loving service to others. Holding all of these together is our creation in God’s image such that we are designed to work just as God works in creation and providence.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


Our personal history can help us, or hinder us.  I don’t recall my childhood being one filled with affirmation and praise.  I seem quite capable of affirming the kids, but struggle at times when I need to affirm adults.  I’m not sure why that is.  Perhaps because they don’t often learn new things, and much of my affirming the kids comes as they gain new skills.

Many kids today are growing up in an era of “fake affirmation”.  They are affirmed so much for so many things they probably wonder if they can do any wrong.  Maybe I had a graduation ceremony for elementary.  I can’t remember.  But today every little milestone is celebrated so that those that actually have meaning have their meaning minimized.

So there are two errors that can take place: the neglect and over-use of affirmation.  One aspect of over-use is the man-centered aspect of affirmation.  It is into this context that Sam Crabtree has written his long-needed book Practicing Affirmation.  He believes that Christians should practice commending others to the glory of God.   In other words, we commend them for character, attitudes and actions that reflect the character, attitudes and actions of God.  As a result, we are praising God as we commend them.  This keeps us from what he calls idolatrous commendation, and failing to commend (just as sinful as the other extreme).

This is a fairly short book that seeks to facilitate the practice of affirmation.  It is not just defending the practice, though he does do that.  And there are some questions or arguments he spends more time on.  For instance, he spends much time refuting the argument that non-Christians should not be commended.  He rightly asserts that such a conclusion neglects two very important biblical truths.  First, as James 3 notes, people still bear God’s image.  Though unregenerate, non-Christians still bear some testimony to the God whose image they reflect.  Second, due to common grace even non-Christians can grow in relative character and act in ways that are commendable.

(more…)

Read Full Post »


I’m working my way through the 3 main sections of Baptism: Three Views.  In my previous post, I worked through the essay by Dr. Bruce Ware on Believers’ Baptism (aka credobaptism) and the responses by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson and Dr. Anthony Lane.  This time through I’ll be working through the essay by Ferguson on infant baptism (paedobaptism) and the responses.

Previously I talked about the power (for good or ill) of presuppositions.  If Ferguson’s presentation in Systematic Theology II (Ecclessiology and Sacraments) was anything near as compelling as this essay, my presuppositions were working for ill that day in 1993.

Presuppositions become far clearer in the responses of Ware and Lane.  But I found Ferguson’s essay an incredible example of how great theologizing is to be done.  Instead of expecting explicit statements as if we are all 6 years old, Ferguson thinks through biblical data to see connections and “good and necessary consequences.”  Not all things are clear (as we might like) in Scripture, but they are addressed in just this way.

Ferguson starts with a caution based on 1 Corinthians 1:17 in which Paul “prioritized gospel preaching over baptismal administration without thereby minimizing the important role of the latter.”  A different approach from Ware who warned of disobedience in the matter of baptism (though that is true).

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »