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Posts Tagged ‘John Calvin’


A while back our Session was asked to consider whether or not we should say “he descended into hell” when we used the Apostles’ Creed as our confession of faith. This is the result of my work on the subject.

The Apostles’ Creed has been used as a confession of faith in the Western Church for approximately 1,500 years. It is a brief statement of orthodox Christian doctrine. There is one phrase, however, that many people stumble over. Unlike the rest of the Creed, it is not clear and open to a variety of interpretations. Some of those interpretations are theologically acceptable, but may not fit the context. Other interpretations are not acceptable. This leads some to a crisis of conscience when it comes to reciting the Apostles’ Creed.

 

The History of the Creed

In the early church, many churches developed brief symbols or rules of faith to be used in baptismal services. Catechumens would be instructed in the meaning of the faith through the symbol and recite it prior to their baptism. These symbols were necessitated by some false doctrines that had arisen, particularly Gnosticism.

Tradition, according to Rufinius, held that the Apostles’ Creed was put together by the Apostles before they left Jerusalem. They were alleged to have composed one stanza each. There is no evidence for this tradition. We do see that Irenaeus and Tertullian were familiar with rules of faith that greatly resemble the Apostles’ Creed. There was probably some “cross-pollination” between congregations as people traveled throughout the Empire.

Interestingly, the canons of Nicea established the Nicene Creed as the only creed to be used. In the Eastern Church, local symbols were replaced by the Nicene Creed.[1] The Western Church maintained local symbols. These Western forms were shorter and more simple. Schaff notes that they had less variety. He asserts that they were all merged into the Roman Symbol which became the rule of faith for the Western, or Latin, Church.[2] Historian Roland Bainton argues that as the emperors got involved they had wanted to unify or standardize the rules of faith. The local symbols began to be standardized in a cultural give and take.[3]

The first version that includes the phrase “descended into hell” (descensus ad inferos) is found in Aquileia, according to Rufinius in his commentary on the Creed dated in 404. Schaff thinks the church had believed this long before it found its way into the Creed.[4] We are not sure how it ended up there. Some, like Francis Turretin, believe that the phrase was taken from the Athanasian Creed.[5] The problem is that it is highly unlikely that Athanasius, a key figure in the Council of Nicea, wrote the creed that bears his name. The Athanansian Creed has a more developed Christology than that of Nicea and is estimated to be a product of the 7th century.[6] Therefore, it is more likely that its presence in the Apostles’ Creed influenced its inclusion in the Athanasian Creed.

Between the writing of Rufinius’ commentary and the Athanasian Creed, this phrase had spread to be found in the “final” version of the Apostles’ Creed.

 

The History of Interpretation

Unlike most of the Apostles’ Creed, this phrase has suffered from a variety of interpretations. While the Eastern Church did not use the Creed, they were familiar with the phrase. Herman Witsius says that Eastern Churches understood it to mean Christ’s burial. Herman Witsius quotes Vossius in this regard.[7] This would be redundant at best.

The most common understanding of the phrase in the West is that it refers to Jesus’ descent to the dead (infernos) based upon a common (mis)interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18 which has Jesus going to limbo to free the OT saints and bring them to heaven. Limbo is like a holding cell, not necessarily a place of punishment like hell or purgatory. They, unlike the unrighteous, would simply be awaiting release by the Messiah.[8]

Later versions would change the Latin to descensus ad inferna, descent into hell. This fits with another (mis)interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18. This view holds that Jesus descended to the unrighteous dead in hell to declare His triumph to them. We are unsure of why this would take place.

Both of these views would have this descent take place on the three days in which Jesus was in the grave. This aspect is asserted in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, Article 5.[9] They are inconsistent with the best understanding of Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross- “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

MCC-31320 Portret van Johannes Calvijn (1509-1564)-uitsnede.jpgThese interpretations are also common among Lutheran and Anglican theologians. However the most common Protestant interpretation follows John Calvin and is expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism (#44). It serves as a summary statement for the sufferings of Christ in that He endured the curse and wrath of God on the Cross. Therefore, His descent is figurative or spiritual in nature. His death is not an ordinary death, but to bear our sin. Calvin expresses it this way:

 

“If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No- it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.”[10]

 

The Heidelberg Catechism expresses it in this way:

  1. Q. Why is there added: He descended into hell?
  2. In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which He endured throughout all His sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.

The Westminster Larger Catechism takes a different approach to the infamous phrase.

 

Q 50. Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?

  1. Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.

 

This is a similar enough interpretation to the earliest understanding of the phrase in question. It is not simply being buried, but that for three days Jesus continued in the state of death and was under the power of death for us and our salvation.

 

Options for Moving Forward

The best interpretation of the phrase in question is that put forward by John Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism. But this was not the original interpretation. If we confess this phrase with this interpretation in mind, we are not confessing it with much of the Church over time. Or as originally understood.

  1. We could remove the phrase from the Creed when we recite it. This would “restore” the Apostles’ Creed to its original versions.
  2. We could no longer say the Apostles’ Creed but default to other creeds like the Nicene Creed or the Rule of Irenaeus. This is the recommendation of William Cunningham.[11]
  3. Continue to recite the Apostles’ Creed as is and clarify it with a notation to affirm the interpretation of our confessional standards.
  4. Recognize that we are but one congregation and have no right to alter the Creed and send an overture to General Assembly to either amend the Creed for our congregations or provide necessary guidance via a study committee. While this process takes place, we could apply one of options 1-3.

 

We decided to merely footnote that portion of the Creed to express the interpretation found in the Westminster Larger Catechism. At some point we may choose to present an overture to our presbytery, but right now there are more pressing concerns for us as a congregation.

 

[1] Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, pp. 530.

[2] Schaff, History, pp. 530.

[3] Bainton, Roland. Christianity. Pp. 150.

[4] Schaff, History, pp 601.

[5] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 362.

[6] Witsius, Herman. Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed in Two Volumes, Vol. 2, pp. 140.

[7] Witsius, pp. 140-141.

[8] Cunningham, William. Historical Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 92.

[9] Turretin, Vol. 1, pp. 357.

[10] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, book II, XVI, 9.

[11] Cunningham, Vol. 1, pp. 93.

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With the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dordt, there have been a number of books about this important 17th century document of the Dutch Reformed Church (though there were a few members from other nations present).

Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400-Year-Old Confession Teaches Us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God Kevin DeYoung cover imageAt the recent RTS alumni and friends lunch at General Assembly, I was given a free copy of Kevin DeYoung’s book Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400 Year-old Confession Teaches Us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God. This was fortuitous since I had considered buying a copy but didn’t get around to it. I actually cut back on my book buying for the first part of this year. I didn’t just get free books at General Assembly, but did actually buy some.

Over the last two afternoons in upstate NY, I read the book. This means that it is not a very big book, and it was very interesting. At least to me.

Since I am a Presbyterian as opposed to Continental Reformed, I’m much more familiar with the Westminster Standards than the Canons of Dordt. I’ve referred to it at points but haven’t spent much time studying it. I thought this was a great opportunity to begin wading into this important document.

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Day 1 view

DeYoung’s book is an excellent place to start. He is succinct in his approach so it is quite accessible to lay people but interesting to pastors. DeYoung is generally not overly-wordy. I would rather be left wanting a bit more than finding a book tedious (I have to remember this as I edit my own manuscript). As I noted above, it does not require a huge time investment. Over the course of those afternoons I enjoyed two cigars, so it will take about 3 hours.

The book has 4 chapters and 4 appendices. The text of the articles of the Canons of Dordt are in the text of the 4 chapters. He lays out a few articles and then comments on them, majoring on the majors. The appendices include the Rejection of the Errors By Which the Dutch Churches Have for Some Time Been Disturbed, which summarizes the errors they believe the Remonstrance (Arminians) had fallen into; the Rejection of False Accusations; the Opinions of the Remonstrance given in response to the initial presentation of the Articles; and the Scripture Proofs of the Canons of Dordt (DeYoung uses the alternate spelling of Dort throughout the book, but I’m used to Dordt and will use it with apologies to Kevin). He makes these original sources readily available for ease of use and to provide a proper context. He states a few times that you can’t always understand what they are arguing against apart from the Rejections and the Opinions. We can sometimes misinterpret them. One example is the use of “common grace” which in this context refers to the “light of nature”.

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Day 2

His introduction is called In Praise of Precision. He refers to the common notion that all opinions are equal. Due to changes in culture including the internet, we can think we know more than those who have studied a subject for years or decades. We often prefer passion over precision. Theological debate should not simply generate heat, but also light (all thanks to Jonathan Edwards). The shedding of theological light requires precision. I have been frustrated in recent debates in our denomination over the lack of precision. I should have asked more people for clarification when I thought precision was lacking.

Often we refer to the acronym TULIP as shorthand for Reformed Theology. While we embrace TULIP, Reformed Theology is more expansive than these views on salvation. The Canons of Dordt are therefore more precise than an often misunderstood acronym.

He very briefly outlines the history of the debate in the universities, churches and nation. It was more than a theological argument, but not less than one. Other forces were at work as well. The liberation of the Netherlands from Spain is in the background. Some saw the Remonstrance as favorable toward a friendly relationship with Spain (many of the merchants concerned about trade). The political class, clergy and lower classes tended to be critical of the Remonstrance as a result. This doesn’t mean there weren’t real and important theological issues at play, but just some non-theological reasons people may have had to embrace or reject theological positions. We are not always logical or driven by truth.

Arminius was a “Calvinist” and studied under Theodore Beza who was asked to refute the divergent theology of Dirk Volkertszoon Coornhert. He ended up embracing his theology and was so popular in articulating them that these views were named after him instead (Arminianism is easier to say than Coornhertism).

After he became a professor at the University of Leiden, his colleague Gomarus opposed his views. While both espoused a doctrine of predestination, they differed greatly in what they meant by it. After Arminius’ death, a number of his followers met in Gouda and produced a document called the Remonstrance, outlining their protest against the official doctrine of the Reformed Church. This was in 1610, and they expressed these in the Five Arminian Articles. The distinctions were often vague, but would become more clear as time went on.

After some political controversy, a national synod was called by Prince Maurice. Some might think the government should not be involved but this was a state church and they had a vested interest in the debate being resolved. As noted above, not all the members were Dutch. 26 were from Britain, Switzerland and Germany. The synod met in 1618 and 1619. This means that the controversy was nearly 20 years old- far longer than many of the tempests in teapots that I’ve seen in the last 30 years of ministry.

The Arminians were given an opportunity to respond to “first drafts”. The canons were adopted on April 22, 1619. They responded to the 5 points of Arminianism, with 5 points of their own (subsequently expressed in TULIP by English speaking people).

The first chapter concerns the first main point of doctrine, God’s Purpose and Good Pleasure in Predestination. The heart of the controversy revolves around the question of whether God chose the elect so they would believe or because they believed (foreseen faith). The Reformed held to the former, and the Arminians the latter. The Reformed began with the reality of original sin. Our fallen condition required God’s election of some to salvation, the sending of the Son to live, die and be raised for sinners, and the sending of messengers with the gospel message.

Contrary to many accusations I have heard, the Canons are clear that we are chosen in Christ, our redemption is through Christ and we trust in Christ. This is a Christ-centered document for a Christ-centered theology.

They also upheld a single decree of election, while the Arminians held to two. For Arminians, the first is unconditional, that God wills the salvation of all sinners. The second is conditional, that only those who believe receive that salvation. We see the beginnings of neo-nomianism in Arminianism. Not only did they have a different view of predestination, but a different view of justification. They held that faith is righteousness rather than the righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who believe.

DeYoung also quickly discusses the issue of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. The Canons assume an infralapsarian position, that God elects to save sinners from destruction. It is not election apart from our sinful condition. People aren’t condemned because they are “reprobate” but because they are sinners who have sinned and refused to believe in Christ (another sin).

In many places DeYoung notes the pastoral concerns raised in the Canons. They sought to help struggling Christians. This is not intended to be dry theology, but also to meet pastoral needs. This is a good example for denominational study committees. This was one of my complaints about the Nashville Statement. As one of my preaching professors would say, “Where’s the gospel?”. Part of this is the articles regarding how to properly teach and respond to these doctrines. Another aspect was the salvation of the infants of believers. The Arminian opinions connect that to the age of reason, such that children are innocent. The Canons connect it to the gracious covenant and promises of God. This is because people are fallen, even infants.

The second chapter moves to the 2nd point of doctrine, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. This is the doctrine of limited or particular or definite atonement. Commonly this is conceived of as the extent of the atonement. It is that, and the nature of the atonement. DeYoung notes that the emphasis in the Canons of Dordt is “about how God’s justice can be satisfied.” Scripture connects the cross with both God’s love and justice. If we are sinners, and we are, justice must be satisfied.

His atonement is of infinite value. It could sufficiently atone for the sins of the whole world. But Dordt argues that this was not God’s eternal intention. They did not believe a universal atonement  was necessary for universal gospel proclamation. To understand Dordt’s position, he backs up to explain the Arminian position. The Arminian view is rooted in God’s “will of intent” to save all, and neo-nomianism. They hold that Jesus made people saveable. The Reformed view is that Jesus actually saved people. God’s will, not man’s, is what makes the atonement efficient or efficacious.

DeYoung then moves in to a (too) brief discussion of the meaning of “world”. It can mean “the world as the sum total of all created things”, “the dwelling place of man, earth” and “fallen creation in subjection to the evil one.” Jesus died for all kinds of people, not every single person.

“Most often, world refer to badness instead of bigness, and when it refers to bigness, world means everyone without distinction, not everyone without exception.”

These distinctions were taken seriously. Gomarus challenged another delegate to a duel for expressing a divergent view. That would make presbytery meetings a little too interesting.

Also entering his discussion was Davenport’s “hypothetical  or conditional universalism”, an attempt to find an acceptable middle ground between Lutheranism and Anglicanism. The particular atonement of Dordt is meant to magnify Christ as the Savior of sinners.

DeYoung addresses the 3rd and 4th points of doctrine in his 3rd chapter, Human Corruption, Divine Conversion. The reality of our corruption necessitates divine conversion. They reject any Pelagian notions of imitation. We inherit corruption from our first parents. We have “an inherited guilt and an inherited depravity.”  We need more than a little help and assistance. We need God to convert us.

Dordt distinguishes between the general earnest call of the gospel, and a saving effectual call. The preaching of the gospel is not restricted, but it is not effective apart from the sovereign, irresistible, call by the Spirit. This despite the frequent drumbeat of human responsibility by Dordt. We are to blame for rejecting the gospel. The Spirit does more than persuade us. Regeneration precedes and produces faith rather than following faith. Arminian loses sight of this because they lose sight of the distinction between union and communion. They lean on the passages speaking of communion to “prove” faith precedes regeneration as a result.

The last point of doctrine is found in the 4th chapter which covers the perseverance of the saints. It affirms that the saints struggle with sin in this life. They can fall into serious sin, being “carried away by the flesh, the world and Satan.” We are in need of God’s help to stand firm in the faith.

“The doctrine of perseverance does not negate repentance; it leads to repentance.”

DeYoung and Dordt goes into the doctrine of assurance. We can truly be saved but not be assured of our salvation because while we are positionally holy (having Christ’s righteousness) we are not personally holy yet. A holy life helps assurance. Some of the means for salvation and assurance are Word and sacraments.

“We need a God who does the unconditional electing, a God who does the effectual dying, a God who does the supernatural resurrecting, a God who does the unilateral gifting, and a God who does the unbreakable preserving.”

DeYoung has produced a great little and helpful book. It is worth the investment of time to understand the controversy and how the Reformed Church responded to it. It is well-worth reading.

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A Christian's Pocket Guide to How We Got the Bible (Pocket Guides)Another free book I got at the RTS Alumni and Friends lunch was How We Got the Bible: Old and New Testament Canon and Text by Greg Lanier. It is part of the Christian’s Pocket Guide series by Christian Focus books.

As the title indicates this is a brief introductory study into understanding why the books in the Bible are in the Bible and whether we have an accurate text. Modern scholarship and the media have been busy to undermine our confidence in the Scriptures, and Islam has also been at work to distort people’s view of the Scriptures.

Lanier briefly summarizes the need for this information. He addresses these questions in 6 chapters, though the last is just a few pages as he offers concluding thoughts. He wanted to provide a brief, non-academic book so lay people can have answers they need when challenges to the canon or the texts arise, and they do.

Canon has to do with which books belong, and don’t belong in the Bible. Textual criticism has to do with understanding which texts are the best, or most accurately reflect the original manuscripts.

He begins with understanding the Bible as a Divine Deposit. There have been books that have been discovered that some argue should be in the Bible. Novelists like Dan Brown have had popular stories that argue that the Church has conspired to keep these books out of the Bible. How can we know that these “lost books of the Bible” aren’t really part of the Bible?

Muslims often argue that the Church has changed the Bible since the rise of Islam since they think Muhammad is one of God’s prophets. They want their understanding of the Bible to supplant historic Christianity’s understanding of the Bible.

He defines Scripture as:

“the inspired deposit of writings received as divinely authoritative for the covenant community.”

This is an important definition. We believe they are writings that have been inspired or breathed by God. They were received by the covenant community. This is a distinctively Protestant view. We do not think the Church formed the canon, but rather received it. Scripture is also a covenant document intended for God’s people to know who He is, who we are with respect to Him, what He does for us and also what He requires of us. The first chapter unpacks these ideas in a succinct and clear fashion. It provides the foundation for the next 4 chapters in which he addresses the canon and then text of the Old and then New Testaments or covenants.

The question of the Old Testament canon identifies differences not only regarding “lost books” but differences between Protestants, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox with regard to the Apocrypha. Protestants recognize the Jewish canon, those books recognized by Jews as divinely inspired covenant documents. He explains the three-fold shape of the Old Testament: Law, Prophets and Writings. Law, or Torah, came first and relates the giving of the Old Covenant. The Prophets apply the covenant to the people in later times, and hold out the promise of the new covenant. These cite the Law as divinely inspired. Many of the prophets will also affirm the message of earlier prophets as divinely inspired, as well as often claiming such inspiration for themselves in prophetic formula. The writings contain sections also found in the Law and Prophets.

In terms of the Apocrypha there is little evidence that those books, or additional chapters were understood by Jewish communities as divinely inspired. In the early church there was little agreement about them. This means a few people may have included some of them but most did not. Augustine, for instance, affirmed all found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Eastern Orthodox Church followed his lead. Jerome used them as helpful but did not admit them as authoritative. This view held in the Roman Church until the Council of Trent which declared they were part of Scripture.

The Protestant churches have followed Jerome in finding them (possibly) helpful but not authoritative for faith and life. Some, like Calvin, thought they could be helpful. Most Protestant Bibles don’t contain them, and they are not generally read by most Protestants.

Moving to the text themselves, Lanier discusses the kinds of manuscripts we have and how they compare with one another. Another factor is the translations of the Old Testament we have, which themselves are over 2,000 years old. Those would be Greek, Samaritan, Aramaic, Latin and others. As a result we have many manuscripts and fragments to compare and find the best to form the texts that serve as the basis for our modern translations. The God who inspired the Old Testament texts also preserved them sufficiently for us.

Lanier then moves on to the canon of the New Testament. Contrary to Dan Brown’s fictional assertions, there was no council to form the canon. The canon is those books that were used and recognized by the early church. In this he discusses the centrality of the gospel, or new covenant, eyewitnesses, oral and written records. Unlike the books we find in our Bibles, these “lost books” were not received and recognized by the early church. Those who affirmed them we recognized as heretics. There are some books that the early church did use, like the Didache, which they found helpful but never recognized as inspired and authoritative. We see this from how the church fathers write about them.

from NT Bad Arguments

We then move into the question of whether we have the right words. He brings up former Christian and current skeptic Bart Ehrman. He can’t thoroughly refute Ehrman’s arguments, but generally refutes them. He mentions the Muslim doctrine of tahrif al-nass which states that “Jews and Christians have intentionally corrupted the text. As a result the NT doesn’t mention Muhammad (let’s ignore that it was written 500+ years before Muhammad). The text that Muhammad affirmed in 600 is older than many of the manuscripts we have today. Their doctrine is an illogical red herring.

He begins with discussing where our English Bible comes from. This refers to the formation of the Greek texts used in the vast majority of translations. We return to the large number of manuscripts available to us that have been found in archeological digs and copies by scribes. The relative number of differences is small, and largely insignificant. He discusses scribal errors and corrections, as well as how the better copyists provided marginal notes which help us as well. We also have ancient Latin, Syriac and Coptic translations.

He does all of this efficiently. He doesn’t ignore issues or sweep them under the rug. He instead shows how we’ve worked to find the oldest and best manuscripts to get closest to the autographs using a variety of sources. Integrity is revealed in our footnotes where the most significant issues in our translations are there for all to see. Lanier handles the task well and understandably. You won’t be an expert after reading this, but you’ll have a good idea of how to address many of the most significant objections raised.

I will close with his closing thoughts.

  1. We should be clear on what Scripture is in the first place.
  2. We should have confidence that we do have the ‘right’ OT/NT books.
  3. We should have confidence that we have the ‘right’ words of the OT/NT.

“How did we get the Bible? The answer to this question driving this book is clear. ‘Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,’ and the written deposit has been transmitted in the covenant community with high integrity, by the providence of God, ever since. Through these Scriptures, we are all, now, witnesses of these things: Christ suffered and died and on the third day rose again, so that repentance and the forgiveness of sins may be proclaimed to all the nations.”

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A Christian's Pocket Guide to Growing in Holiness: Understanding SanctificationThis year at GA I went to the RTS Alumni and Friends luncheon. They gave those who attended a gift box that included some books by professors at the various campuses. One book was by J.V. Fesko, Growing in Holiness: Understanding Sanctification, which is part of the Christian’s Pocket Guide series by Christian Focus.

This is the first installment of the series I’ve read, and I’m encouraged to read more. This is a succinct volume on the subject of sanctification that should appeal to those in our congregations who aren’t big readers. It is a mere 3 chapters and 64 small pages. I read it in 3 sittings of less than an hour each.

Fesko does a good job in laying out the material. The 3 chapters are Sanctification Defined, Sanctification Applied and Sanctification Undermined. At the beginning of each chapter he charts the course for the chapter. He interacts with Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The one thing lacking is the use of illustrations from everyday life. This results in a more abstract book than some may be comfortable reading.

But what he does is provide a theologically rich summary of the Reformed understanding of sanctification.

Fesko begins with, and often returns to, union with Christ. This is the distinctive view of Reformed Theology. This is rooted in Paul’s theology, not just Calvin. He does explain the “double grace” of justification and sanctification that we receive in union with Christ. We actually receive all spiritual blessings in union with Christ, but these two in particular complement each other and were the focus on the dispute of the Reformation.

Fesko defines each and distinguishes them from one another. But we can’t one without the other. Logically, justification comes first and is the foundation for our sanctification (wherein He make those He has declared positionally righteous personally righteous as well).

Image result for justification and sanctification

(chart source)

Union with Christ is the ultimate basis of sanctification as Christ works in us by the Spirit to make us like He is. This means that like justification, sanctification is by grace alone through faith alone. In Christ we have a new identity that we begin to live out.

In living out that new identity, Fesko discusses the two parts of sanctification: mortification and vivification. Big terms he defines. We put to death that which is associated with Adam our old covenant head because it is corrupt. Sanctification is more than putting sin to death, it is also giving life to virtues or godly character. Both putting the old man to death and bringing then new man to life done in the power of the Spirit. It is a work of God’s free grace, not man’s ceaseless effort.

In Sanctification Applied he goes more fully into the “nuts and bolts” of how this happens. He lays out the means of grace, and therefore the centrality of the body of Christ. Prominence is given to God’s Word: read, preached and in the sacraments. In other words, the church offers us the Word spoken and sacramental. He discusses how we are to pray for God to work so we will understand, believe and obey the Word as revealed in the worship of the church.

In temptation we flee to Jesus in prayer, recalling the Word in its promises and warnings pertaining to our particular need. We are active, not passive, in sanctification. But it is always God who works first: for us and then in us.

In Sanctification Undermined, Fesko identifies the predominant false views of sanctification. He does this briefly, indicating how each of them leads us in the wrong direction. He begins with self-renewal which is rooted in Pelagianism but popularized by Charles Finney as one of his many errors. Sins are habits and we can just stop through the power of our will. It is rooted in self, not grace through faith and our union with Christ. Sanctification without Christ is no sanctification at all.

He then highlights imitation of Christ, particularly the mystical form of Thomas a Kempis. This looks in, not out to Christ. Meditation seems to be separated from the Word of God. (I’m not sure he’s entirely fair to a Kempis, but it has been a number of years since I’ve read him.)

He then outlines Roman Catholicism which has a very different understanding of grace and how that grace is received in the sacraments. Grace is mystical and magical, received through the simple receiving of the sacraments rather than the Reformed understanding of received by faith in the promises of the sacraments.

He then moves to legalism which rightly sees a place for the law, but wrongly depends on the law. This is his opportunity to begin introducing the proper place of the law. But he also shows the weakness of the law. While it reveals, it contains no power in itself. It reveals my sinfulness but cannot change it. I need to be united to Christ!

It’s evil twin is antinomianism which in its various forms indicates that the law has no significant place in our lives after conversion. It is a neglect of the law’s role in revealing righteousness to God’s children. It provides guard rails for us as we grow in Christ. How we lives does matter. The Holy One is making us holy ones.

He includes some book recommendations for further reading. He’s includes some important ones including Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Walter Marshall The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification and Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity. I also recommend these great books for better understanding how the gospel is at work in our sanctification.

Fesko provides us with a clear, succinct volume to help us understand sanctification. This could be a useful book to share with new(er) Christians and to aid conversation about this great work of God in us.

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This time last year the internet and FB groups were abuzz with discussion and disagreement about Revoice. Now we have the sequel as a number of PCA presbyteries are putting out their reports evaluating the Revoice conference. Unlike last year there is evidence to go on instead of speculation and fear.

One of the more weighty reports is the Central Carolina Presbytery report. It is relatively brief, focused and generally fair. I don’t say that last thing to impute wrong-doing. I’ll explain it as we go through.

For those who say “What is Revoice?” that is a complicated question. The answer can sometimes seem like the old proverb about blind people describing it based on the one part they hold. “A tree!” “No, a snake.” “I am holding a rope.” It is an elephant but those individuals have partial knowledge.

It does refer to a conference held at Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA) in July of 2018. After the initial planning of the conference, Revoice was formed as an organization. This order of actions may explain some (not all) of the lack of clarity regarding their purpose(s). They have scheduled another conference in 2019, which will not be hosted by a church. They also have a new advisory board.

In addition to hosting the event, the pastor of Memorial was a speaker at the initial event. A professor from the denominational seminary was the speaker for a workshop. He was asked because he is particularly qualified to speak to his topic based on his Tyndale Commentary of the Old Testament volume on Leviticus. Dr. Sklar spoke about the continuing relevance of the laws against homosexuality from Leviticus 18 and 20. These connections to the PCA created the false impression that it was a “PCA event”, sponsored or authorized. The church was a host sight, and hosted many events from outside groups. As the Missouri Presbytery ruled, they should have used more discernment and wisdom when approving this.

Their stated goal was misunderstood, as well as other elements of their language or vocabulary. Here is their recently updated purpose:

To support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians—as well as those who love them—so that all in the Church might be empowered to live in gospel unity while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.

They observe the historic doctrines of marriage and sexuality. This is an important thing to keep in mind. This means that they believe and teach that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that sexual activity is to be limited to the marriage relationship.

But the controversy comes with “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians”. Their use of those terms creates lots of heat and very little light.

Let’s pause for a moment because I’ve gotten ahead of myself. The Central Carolina study committee limited their work to the main speakers and their sessions. I understand, there were too many workshops to exhaustively examine. The downside of that is that Dr. Sklar was not vindicated as I desired to see happen. I did see one of the more controversial workshops having to do with “queer treasure” being brought into the kingdom. That workshop didn’t address that topic until the last few minutes, and I was still confused. It most mostly a sociological history of homosexuality in America.

They examined messaged by Matthew Lee Anderson, Ron Belgau, Brother Trout, Johanna Finnegan, Eve Tushnet, Nat Collins and Wesley Hill. Wesley Hill is one of the keynote speakers based on how influential his book Washed and Waiting was to the Revoice Founders.

As the Committee notes, this is a very diverse group of people. It is ecumenical in nature. Therefore they don’t speak from a unified set of beliefs beyond basic Christianity. I think this explains some of the lack of clarity as well. But they do represent a diverse set of opinions on topics like sanctification.

Anderson, for instance, talked about “sanctifying our illicit desire”. It would be much better to say we mortify or put to death our illicit desire. Illicit desires are those that we more and more die to. We more and more live to righteous desires.

I wish they had explored his talk more to see if he’s saying this in a way similar to the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sanctification, or as those those “illicit desires” somehow become good.

Question 35: What is sanctification?
Answer: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Belgau sees same sex attraction as a produce of the fall and needing to be mortified. Brother Trout focused on seeing oneself in the Story such that we have value and direction about how to live beyond the “do’s and don’ts”. Finegan touched largely on issues of language and identity. She also addresses what change a gay person should normally expect to see as they are drawn closer to Jesus. For her, the reality of SSA is part of God’s sovereignty to experience their weakness and seek Him. She also spoke about learning to agree with God when He speaks in His word.

Tushnet sought to provide wisdom for same sex friendships from some of the friendships we find in Scripture. This means she isn’t viewing them as romantic relationships. These become a goal for people. Secondly she wanted to comfort people from God’s love for the marginalized.

Nate Collins’ message was about lament, and touched on some potentially controversial areas when he talked about church leadership. Both Jesus and Jeremiah lamented the corrupt leaders of God’s people. Surely, many pastors and elders have not treated repentant people who struggle with SSA well. Surely some have made the nuclear family into an idol. Many have heard these things and been quite upset. But he does call those who have SSA to suffer with Jesus, to take up the cruciform life.

Hill spoke about the woman caught in adultery to address hope in the midst of shame. He noted that Jesus was not soft on sin. Jesus sees all sinners as needing grace, not some more than others. But Jesus frees her to live a new life.

The Study Committee organized their analysis around five themes:

  • Desire and temptation
  • Labels and identity
  • Spiritual friendship
  • Homosexuality as a gift
  • The pervasiveness of pain

The section on desire and temptation is the longest and most complex.

The Revoice speakers we heard were all united in their belief that the Bible does not allow for gay marriage and that sexual activity between persons of the same-sex is forbidden by God. Given the mood of our culture, not to mention the many revisionist theologies clamoring for our attention, Revoice’s affirmation of certain aspects of biblical sexuality is to be highly commended. We thank God for their commitment to an orthodox, Christian understanding of marriage, especially when such a commitment comes at a personal cost for many in the Revoice movement. (pp. 6)

They turned to the question of: desire for sin or sinful desire? Some may wonder about the difference. Are they desires to do something that is sinful, or are the desires sinful in themselves? The speakers seemed to give different answers to that question. Some spoke of permissible forms of same sex desire. Others spoke of redirecting or redeploying those desires. Others about mortifying those same desires. This is a key area where the ecumenical flavor wrecks havoc.

This is a key area of disagreement among Christians who hold to a traditional understanding of marriage: are same-sex desires sinful, or are they merely disordered desires that become sinful when acted upon? (pp. 6)

TImage result for do not enterhis is a key area, and has large implications for how to care for people as pastors (and elders). One critique that I have of this report is that it polarizes this question. In other words, there are more than two answers to this question. Is temptation sin from the get go, or only when acted upon? fits the two pole theory. But some would argue that temptation is not sin but can become sin in thought (aka lust in this case) even though you don’t act upon it.

One way of looking at this is that temptation is a door. You can see the sin in the other room. Do you close the door and walk away, mortifying that desire? Or do you “enter into temptation” and become carried away. by your lust so you are sinning in thought, and may then sin in deed as well?

This is a difficult question. I reject that idea that it is only sin when acted upon (unless you mean entering into temptation). To lust is clearly sin.

Back to the report.

Most of our disagreements with Revoice start with the theological conviction that the desire for an illicit end is itself an illicit desire. (pp. 6)

They begin with the use of “covet” particularly in the tenth commandment. They then discuss sinful desires or lusts. I prefer the term inordinate desire since the word seems to indicate uppermost desires. The question is: are temptation and lust, or inordinate desires identical? The study committee is answering yes.

Question 18: Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
Answer: The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

They rightly note that we are guilty not only for our sins, but also for original sin. We are corrupt in Adam and our sinful desires flow out of that original corruption. Or as the Catechism says “actual transgressions which proceed from it.” There is a distinction made between indwelling sin or the remnant of sin and the actual transgressions. Is temptation transgression?

The Report brings us to the difference between Roman Catholic Theology and Reformed Theology. In Catholic theology the inclination to sin is called concupiscence. It is to be wrestled with but does no harm unless consented to. Our disordered desires are a result of the fall, but do not become sin (actual transgressions) without our consent (though this is not necessarily defined in the report).

The Study Committee call upon John Calvin, Herman Bavinck and John Owen not only as representatives of Reformed Theology but also to indicate the uniformity of Reformed Thought in disagreeing with Rome AND saying these “inordinate desires” (Calvin) are in fact sin.

I would say that inordinate desires are sin as well. But I’m not identifying temptation with inordinate desires. Using James 1, they ask if ‘temptation’ provides that moral space.

On the face of it, this passage seems to indicate that it is possible to be tempted by evil desires without sinning. Only when the will consents to the temptation does the alluring and enticing desire become sin. Although a plausible reading of the text at first glance, the Reformed tradition has consistently interpreted James 1:14-15 along different lines. (pp. 8)

It gets murkier as we seek to separate bone from marrow. I will confess, my head starts to hurt.

For Calvin, there is indwelling sin (the temptations caused by desire in v. 14b), actual sin (the birth of sin in v. 15a), and—mentioned in the next paragraph in his Commentary—“perfected” sin (the deadly fully grown sin in v. 15b). When James talks about temptations leading to sin, he does not mean that the temptation (in this case) is itself morally neutral.(pp. 8)

TImage may contain: one or more people, people sitting and indoorhey rightly note that both “sin” and “temptation” have ranges of meaning. “Sin” can refer to both the condition and the transgression (want of conformity unto or breaking of God’s law). Temptation can refer to external pressure, such as Jesus experienced yet without sin (Hebrews 4:25). It can also refer to internal pressure, desire that arises from within, which Jesus did not experience because He did not have a sinful nature.

In reading Owen again for a recent sermon on this passage and subject, I wrestled with his nuance and distinctions. They do too!

The parsing of sin and temptation can be thorny, which is why Reformed theologians have typically explained these issues with careful nuance. A case in point is John Owen’s handling of temptation in The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin (1667). Once again, James 1:14-15 is a pivotal text:

“Now, what is it to be tempted? It is to have that proposed to man’s consideration which, if he close, it is evil, it is sin unto him. This is sin’s trade: epithumei—“it lusts.” It is raising up in the heart, and proposing unto the mind and affections, that which is evil; trying, as it were, whether the soul will close with its suggestions, or how far it will carry them on, though it does not wholly prevail.”

Up to this point, it sounds like Owen may consider temptation caused by lusts to be morally neutral, to be a kind of spiritual struggle that cannot be called sin until we acquiesce to its allurement. But notice what Owen says next:

“Now, when such a temptation comes from without, it is unto the soul an indifferent thing, neither good nor evil, unless it be consented unto; but the very proposal from within, it being the soul’s own act, is its sin.” (pp. 9)

As I considered Owen’s description phrase “enter into temptation” every example he used the person not only was tempted by acted upon that temptation. Yet, to be simply tempted is not inevitably to commit the act. Yet, they reach this conclusion:

What makes temptation a “temptation” is that it tempts us to actual, observable sin, but this does not make the temptation something other than sin. (pp. 9)

They continue with Owen distinguishing between passive and active temptation. The former is from without, and the latter from within. But here is their conclusion of this section:

Each step of the process is worse than the next. We should not think that the entanglement of the affections is equivalent to obstinately pursuing a life of sin. There is moral space to be found between each step. And yet, this process is not one that moves from innocence to sin, but rather one that sees indwelling sin move from the mind to the affections to the will and finally to the outward working of sin in the life (and death) of a person.

It sounds to me that while admitting moral space, each step is in itself sin (transgression) such that one is heaping up sins until the outward working of sin.

I may be misunderstanding, but they speak of the uniform rejection of the Roman doctrine (rightly!) and seem to imply this is also the uniform doctrine of the Reformed heritage. If that is the case, I argue this is the overreach.

For instance, in her book Openness Unhindered, Rosaria Butterfield writes:

The Bible is clear that all sex outside of biblical marriage is a sin. The Bible is also transparent that homosociality is not sinful. In addition, temptation is not a sin, but temptations to sin are never good. They are never from God. Therefore patterns of temptation can never be sanctified. (pp. 123)

Later on that page she does say that homosexual lust is a sin. Heterosexual lust as well. She’s drawing a distinction between temptation and lust, calling the latter a sin but not the former.

In his book Holy Sexuality, Christopher Yuan reads Owen a slightly different way as well.

“If you’re wracked with guilt for simply having same-sex sexual temptations, hear these words from John Owen: “It is impossible that we should be so freed from temptation a not to be at all tempted.” Being tempted doesn’t mean you have little faith because it is quite ordinary and human to be tempted. The truth of the matter is that temptations are not sinful.” (pp. 57)

You find similar statements in Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body and Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay?. If we look at the North Florida Presbytery’s Study Committee Report on Same-Sex Attraction we read:

That said, it is important to recognize that temptation is always an inducement to do wrong (1 Corinthians 7.5; Galatians 6.1; 1 Timothy 6.9; James 1.14-15). While the experience of temptation does not incur guilt, the temptation it self is not neutral. Temptation entices the Christian to transgress God’s will. In our sinful weakness, there is a short distance between sexual temptation and lust (Matthew 5.27-28). Therefore, it is wise to exercise caution and vigilance with all temptations to sexual immorality and to set our hearts and minds to what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and praiseworthy(Philippians 4.8; Colossians 3.1-4).

They put moral space between temptation and lust, the later of which incurs guilt.

Before I leave this subject, Kevin DeYoung wrote a blog post in 2013 entitled Temptation is Not the Same as Sin. He is one of the members of the Central Carolina Presbytery study committee. He may have changed his views since it has been 6 years. But the whole article creates that moral space. Here is part of his rationale:

Debts and trespasses require forgiveness; temptation needs deliverance. They are not the same. Just because you are struggling with temptation does not mean you are mired in sin. The spiritual progression in the human heart goes from desire to temptation to sin to death (James 1:14-15). We are told to flee temptation, not because we’ve already sinned, but because in the midst of temptation we desperately feel like we want to.

To sum this up. Some of the teaching of Revoice embraces the Roman Catholic view of concupiscence which states it is not a sin until consented and acted upon. We believe this view to be wrong.

We believe that temptations do arise from our sinful nature. Those should be mortified. There is some disagreement as to whether they are “a sin” or transgression. But based on the 10th commandment, among other passages, we should recognize that lust, or covetousness, is a sin because it is idolatry or an inordinate desire. Whether that is homosexual lust, heterosexual lust or the coveting of my neighbor’s possessions, it is a sin. We add further sin if we satisfy that lust.

 

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Recently new of the overture from Metro NY Presbytery has been burning up the internet and PCA pastor & elder groups on Facebook. I assume the same is true on Twitter and other social media.

Image result for phoebe in romansFor many this is a very controversial request for the General Assembly to consider this June in Dallas. The issue of women deacons has been churning since before I entered the PCA back in 2010. The issue has more layers than an onion, and just as many presuppositions that drive the (lack of) discussion. Sadly, the discussion quickly degenerates into accusations of being feminists or egalitarians, modernists, progressives etc. and people are told to leave for a denomination that permits women deacons. It is kind of wearisome for me as I grow older (wiser?) and read more John Newton. It is wearisome because we never really get to the root of the issue (those presuppositions) like the nature of ordination and authority, particularly in connection with the office of deacon.

My first decade in ministry was spent in the ARP, which allows each Session to decide if they will have women deacons. As a result, much of this overture is familiar with me. It is not forcing women deacons on churches, but permits those having that conviction to exercise it. This does not affect the courts of the church since women elders are not (and should not) be up for discussion. The issue of the courts of the church is precisely why most of these ‘women deacon-loving’ guys don’t go into denominations like the ECO and EPC as advised by some.

To the overture!

 

  • WHEREAS there has long been a sincere diversity of views among Reformed churches as to what Scripture says about the role of women in diaconal ministry…
  • WHEREAS conservative, complementarian scholars differ in their understanding of biblical texts that touch on the role of women in diaconal ministry, specifically 1 Timothy 3:11 and Romans 16:1…
  • WHEREAS there seems to be strong evidence that the word διάκονον in Romans 16:1 is used in a technical manner to describe an office Phobebe holds rather than in a general descriptive manner…
  • WHEREAS the Westminster Confession does not specifically address the office of deacon…
  • WHEREAS the Westminster Confession 20.2 does speak of Christian liberty and not unnecessarily binding the consciences of men…
  • WHEREAS it is in line with the historical spirit of the PCA to be a grassroots denomination and to defer to the judgment of local sessions in decisions regarding congregational ministry…
  • WHEREAS several conservative, reformed denominations within NAPARC allow women to serve as deacons (i.e. Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church, The Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ), and The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America)

The rationale for the overture begins with acknowledging that for quite some time there has been a diversity of opinion in the PCA and Reformed churches as to what the Scriptures teach regarding this issue. That is a key point, “what Scripture says”! This is not about culture, but about trying to rightly divide the Word.

The WCF in the first chapter recognizes the following:

7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

This is an issue that is not as clear as whether or not women may be elders. To me that is crystal clear. Deacons is far less so, which to me means we should be less dogmatic. This is a topic that is not necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation. This hits the well-being, not the essence of the church. It is important we put this in the right compartment so we don’t treat those with whom we disagree as heretics or unworthy of our fellowship. This isn’t the hill worth dying on. But we can discuss it, challenge each other and see this in the ‘reformed and reforming’ category as opposed to the ‘faith handed down by the saints’ category.

Image result for r.c. sproulConservative complementarian scholars do differ on this question. Some live in some sort of denial on this issue. John Piper is surely not a feminist. R.C. Sproul was not a liberal (though he thought the PCA should not have women deacons because of its views of deacons and authority). There are others as well. For instance, you can read the OPC Minority Report on this issue. You can’t get more conservative and complementarian than the OPC (yes, it was a minority report and was not approved, but some there held to that view).

TImage result for john calvinhe rationale brings up Phoebe in Romans 16. It mentions that she may have held an office rather than merely being a servant of the church. This is because of a lack agreement in gender; Phoebe being feminine and the word for deacon being masculine. That great liberal egalitarian John Calvin (tongue firmly in cheek) says about Paul’s mention of her: “he commends her on account of her office, for she performed a most honorable and a most holy function in the Church…” (Commentary on Romans, chapter 16, verse 1). Chrysostom, according to the footnote, considered her a deaconess (as did Origen which isn’t so great).

In his practice, Calvin did have a separate order of deaconness to assist the deacons. Through most of church history they were separate, with the deaconnesses helping the widows, poor women and quite early instructing female catechumens prior to baptism. Some have mentioned this, and perhaps this is a better option that will result in less upheaval.

The PCA currently has provision for assistants to the deacons (9-7), both male and female to be appointed by the Session. I wonder how many churches utilize this provision. I suspect not many do. When I mentioned this as an option for our congregation, I heard crickets. It seems to be another layer of bureaucracy. And it reminds us of Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott going round and round about assistant to the manager vs. assistant manager.

Women deacons, this rationale asserts, is not contrary to the Westminster Confession of Faith. We are not violating our confessional standards if we do this. We are merely changing our BCO which while is also part of our constitution is about how we enact our polity, not the system of theology to which we subscribe. As a result, while there are theological presuppositions at play this is a polity shift, not a move to reject our Confession of Faith, or Scripture (as noted above). This is a different category of disagreement.

The issue of binding the consciences of others is important. Currently, those congregations which believe the Scriptures permit women deacons are not able to practice their beliefs and convictions. Unlike issues like paedocommunion, this is not a confessional issue and perhaps more leeway and charity ought to be practiced. A solution similar to that of the ARP “principled compromise” may be a good way to move. Congregations opposed to women deacons don’t have to have them. Their freedom of conscience is preserved, though that of an individual may not. This argument can cut both ways, and should be only a supporting and not a main argument.

Because this issue is not directly related to the courts of the church- who gets to exercise judicial authority- it is about how a local congregation goes about its ministry (women elders necessarily affect the higher courts and aren’t simply about how a local congregation functions), it should be handled as a local matter. If your church has women deacons, it doesn’t affect mine unless people shift from one to another on the basis of that decision. As a grassroots denomination, this may be best made a local decision.

While not addressing the ‘slippery slope’ argument explicitly, they do by mentioning other NAPARC denominations which have women deacons. Those denominations have not slipped down the slope. Those that did previously rejected the authority of Scripture (for instance the CRC which rooted their decision in the giftedness of women despite what Scripture said) or just jumped off (the PC(US) which permitted both women deacons and elders at the same General Assembly). Yes, there are some in the ARP and RPCNA who would like to get rid of them.  Not too long ago, however, the ARP affirmed their ‘compromise’. We cannot know what will be, but only what has been and is. And those denominations have had women deacons for decades without slipping down that slope.

That is the rationale for the requested changes to the Book of Church Order. I’ll address those changes in future posts.

 

 

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In this, the Year of Newton, I’m trying to also read some shorter books. At the end of last year I bought a pair of books by Christian Focus. I’ve already reviewed the one on the ascension of Christ. Over the last week or so I’ve read the second- In Christ: In Him Together for the World by Steve Timmis and Christopher de la Hoyde.

In Christ: In Him Together for the WorldTimmis is generally known for his other work with Tim Chester, particularly Total Church and The Gospel-Centered Church. Those are both books I’ve benefited from in the past (here’s one blog post). He is an English pastor/church planter who is generally Reformed. I hadn’t heard of de la Hoyde before.

As the book indicates it is about union with Christ, which until recently was a greatly neglected theological subject. There are a number of newer titles looking at it from more academic and popular perspectives. This short book (90 pages) is an introduction in some ways. It doesn’t look at the subject exhaustively. What it does say is good and helpful, but keep in mind they aren’t trying to say everything.

The introduction prompts our thoughts in terms of what a church plant needs to learn and believe. This is not a surprise in light of Timmis’ role in Acts 29 Europe. They threw out a few options, like ecclesiology. They then bring up John Calvin, asserting that he was believe that a church plant needs to learn what it means to be united to Christ.

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ … This union (with Christ) alone ensures that, as far as we are concerned, he has not unprofitably come with the name of Savior.” John Calvin

This book, beginning with this quote from the Institutes, is drenched in Calvin’s thought. They are also dependent on theologians like John Owen. The organizing principle in Paul’s thought on salvation is union with Christ, or being “in Christ”. Rather than simply define it, they address it in terms of its benefits.

The first chapter is Safe in Christ. United to Christ we are safe from God’s wrath, but outside of it we are subject to it. The opening illustration is a house in the storm: in the house is safety, warmth and nurture. Outside is rain, wind, lightening and danger.

They do bring us back to Genesis 2 and humanity’s first home, the Garden of Eden. It was full of provision and peace. Adam and Eve lacked for nothing, except clothes but they didn’t need those. But then came sin and their exile. The curse means that our work is not as fruitful. Yet God held out hope for a new city, a new land.

As the story line of redemption develops we see that to be in the land is seen as enjoying prosperity and protection. To be removed or excluded from the land is a picture is a picture of judgement. Between Malachi and Matthew there were 400 years of silence, something of a 2nd Egyptian captivity where they are in the land but under the thumb of the Greeks and then the Romans. They are “exiled in the land” as a conquered people.

In comes Jesus, entering the land from the Jordan to begin a new conquest of the land. Jesus as the head of the new covenant is our representative. He bore the curse for us, and obeyed for us. We are now safe if we are “in Him.”

They develop this idea of representation with the illustration of Olympic athletes and, more importantly, Romans 5. Adam was our initial representative. All human beings from “ordinary generation” (human parents) are born “in Adam”: guilty of his sin and corrupt so we are also guilty of our own sins. If, by faith, we are “in Christ” His obedience is our obedience, we died and rose with Him. In other words, sin has no hold on us. We have already suffered its penalty with Christ. We have been raised to newness of life with Jesus as well.

“The gospel is God’s command and invitation for us to come out of Adam: out of sin and judgment. The gospel is also God’s command and invitation for us to come into Christ. The good in Christ is so much better than the bad in Adam.”

Then they move to Connected in Christ. Our union with Christ is a relational union. They begin to delve into the work of the Spirit who unites us to Jesus, and to one another. The Spirit unites us directly to Jesus thru faith, not through ritual. It is mediated by the Spirit, not the Church as in medieval Roman theology.

Connected to Christ we are in the presence of God. As we see in Ephesians 2 we’ve been made alive with Christ AND raise and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. We therefore have unlimited access to God in Christ.

They then talk about Growing in Christ. Christians, and congregations, become more like Christ. They grow through their union with Christ. Calvin notes that in Christ we receive the ‘double grace’ of justification and sanctification. We are accepted and righteous in Christ. His righteousness is imputed to us. But it is also imparted to us in sanctification.

While our union does not change, it is a dynamic union through which Jesus changes us. This brings them into discussions of progressive and definitive sanctification. It is important to remember that we don’t become more or less acceptable to God even though we can be more or less conformed to the likeness of Christ.

In Christ we are dead to sin, and need to think of ourselves as so. They bring us to Romans 6 to unpack this. But we are not only united to Christ in His death, but also in His resurrection. We’ve been raised to newness of life, and need to think of ourselves that way. We grow into our identity in Christ. Sin is not inevitable for us. We are not indebted to sin. We are indebted to Jesus.

In Romans 6, their credobaptist colors show a bit. This is one of the few points of disagreement I have with them. What we see in Roman 6 is what baptism signifies as a sign and seal of God’s promise. They take this as necessarily signifying what we have already received. Our disagreement is more about sacramental theology than union with Christ. But while our union with Christ is mediated by the Spirit, baptism is a sign & seal of our ingrafting to Christ. Paul speaks of them receiving this in baptism because as fruit of missionary work they believed, coming out of paganism, and were baptized.

They begin to unpack our mutual union in Together in Christ, bringing us to Ephesians 4 and 2 “for we are members of one another.” A great reunification has taken place because Jesus has removed the wall of hostility. But that does not mean that church life is easy.

“Church life is messy. It’s tough, it’s long and it’s often ugly. That’s why we need to help each other to regain God’s own view of His church: we are a people reconciled in Christ to display His wisdom  to the universe.”

They return to Ephesians 4 to address the practices that help and hinder membership in the one body. Not only do Christians grow in godliness, but churches are to as well. We are a light in the darkness.

They shift to Mission in Christ. Joined to Jesus we share in His mission. God’s mission becomes our mission because we are united to Christ. They discuss identity (who I am), purpose (why I am) and function (what I am). Then they have a few case studies to explore these concepts.

The final chapter is Everyday in Christ. They admit “the Christian life can be frustrating.” Our temptation, in frustration and boredom, as they note is to look outside of Christ for help. They bring us to Colossians to look at some of the things we look to in addition to Christ. They call us back to the gospel.

“We need more of Christ, not more than Christ.”

Christ, who lived for us, defines how we should live. This is not intended to be an abstract doctrine. For Paul, it was a doctrine that shaped our daily lives. They direct us to a few areas: prayer and marriage. There could have been more, and I wish there were more (at the least singleness).

This makes a great introduction to the subject. They take a biblical theology approach, viewing union from the perspective of the history of redemption (creation, fall, redemption & glorification) rather than a systematic approach. They also try to bring out the connections to church planting and other practical aspects. For this they are to be commended. Just as they aren’t saying all they could theologically, they aren’t saying all they could practically or in terms of implications/applications. They want this to be short and sweet. In light of this they also avoid lots of technical terms so ordinary people can understand what they are saying.

All this to say it was a good little book that I wish was a little longer.

 

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