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Posts Tagged ‘promises’


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Books on prayer are always a risky proposition.  They tend to raise some sort of controversy, whether they want to or not.  The Prayer of Jabez got lots of heat.  It was a little book, and wasn’t intended to be a treatise on prayer.  Did Wilkenson over-state his case?  At times.  But the book was not heretical like some people (at least in my circles) made it out to be.  Could have done without all the hype that spawned an industry.  Or take E.M. Bounds.  Some people love his stuff.  I just end up feeling guilty.  It only points out that facts that my prayer life is not like Martin Luther and John Calvin’s.  Not so helpful for me.

It is into this conflicted world that Will Davis Jr. released his latest book on prayer- Pray Big: The Power of Pinpoint Prayers.  I’m not sure what I was thinking when I asked for a review copy.  I guess I was hoping it would help my prayer life.  I’ve seen some reviews on Facebook- some people like this book, alot.

There were warning signs.  One of the blurbs on the back is by Don Piper.  Yes, Don.  He of 90 Minutes in Heaven fame.  The book that apparently has spawned its own cottage industry of calenders and devotionals.   Call me old-fashioned, but I’m thinking that if there is something about heaven God wants me to know, it will be … in the Bible!  So a guy who has functional issues with the authority of Scripture really likes this book.  Not a selling point for the likes of people like me.

Initially I had some agreement with Pastor Davis.  Most evangelicals are pretty superficial in their prayers.  “Bless Josh” is not really what the Father is looking for.  It reeks of a lack of thought both in knowing God and knowing Josh.  I also agree with Pastor Davis that Scripture should direct our prayer life.   Our areas of agreement began to dissipate quickly.  So quickly that I never finished the book.  The reason was there were unconstructive thoughts arising.  I felt I was being overly-critical.  Perhaps I wasn’t, but I decided for my own sake to stop reading.  Little did I realize it had it’s own cottage industry.

What was the problem?  I’ll mention 5.

(more…)

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This Sunday I’ll be preaching on Christ our Hope to kick of Advent season.  I’ll hit Matthew 1:1-14, discussing the hope(s) the Israelites had due to God’s promises to Abraham (Gen. 12) and David (2 Sam. 7).  I’ll talk about the seemingly interminable delay in the fulfillment of those promises.

As is often the case, my mind went back to The Shawshank Redemption.  It is one of my favorite movies.  The movie is essentially about hope, and its ability to sustain a suffering man.  Their hope had nothing to do with Christ, but ours does and is much greater and more powerful (Paul focuses on hope often in Romans).  I’d play this edited clip on Sunday, but there is an inappropriate word near the beginning.  Includes the exchange about hope between Andy and Red after Andy’s time in solitary, and the ending when Red discovers that hope is not as dangerous as he thought, but is really- the best of things.

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Spirituality is one of those touchy subjects prone to start a good fight.  And that is just within Christian groups, forget other religions.

By spirituality is meant how one “communes” with God, experiencing fellowship with Him and becoming more like him.

On this issue, the authors of Total Church come down decidedly on the side of the Reformed heritage that informs most of their theology.  They argue against the more mystical views of Christian spirituality, of which the Anabaptists would also lay claim.  The mystical forms of spirituality encourage contemplation, silence and solitude.  Instead of these, Reformed spirituality focuses on Word, petition and community.  This creates a Word, mission and community centered form of engaging with God rather than an individualistic, non-rational way of engaging God.

We are to contemplate, or meditate, but on God’s Word.  We get to know God as He revealed (and reveals himself- as we understand in the doctrine of illumination) in the Bible.  On the basis of the gospel and its promises, we petition God to fulfill those promises for us and others.  The Word, not our self-interest, sets the agenda for our prayers.

Union with God is not the result of our devotional exercises.  Our union with Christ occurs by faith as we believe the gospel.  It is this union with Christ that enables us to have access to the Father.  In mysticism it is the goal, not the means.

“The living, active word of God does its heart-softening work through gospel people reminding one another daily of gospel grace.”

The part of this probably most foreign to most people is the aspect of community.  We are used to hearing about private devotions, quiet times etc.  Those are not wrong by any stretch of the imagination.  But Scripture also recognizes corporate spirituality.

Our sin is most clearly brought to light in community.  Alone we are prone to neglect our study of the Word and prayer.  But practicing the spiritual disciplines together is meant to be an encouragement.  I know I pray longer and in a more focused way when praying with others.  Alone, sin easily decieves us.  Together we apply the gospel and its promises to our circumstances.  We are more likely to enjoy a healthier, more consistent spiritual life than just alone.

This chapter is probably too short.  It reads more like an article.  It could bear more fleshing out of the ideas.  But I can’t take any exception to what they do say, they just needed to say more.

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Some timely thoughts from the Puritan William Gurnall for my needy heart.  They are from the Christian in Complete Armour daily devotional.  Perhaps some others need to hear them too.

The grace which God has given you is a sure pledge that more is on the way.

God is not a loan shark who will only lend you money with the hope you will be able to repay.  God gives grace with the full knowledge we will need more, and more, and…  That he has provided grace in the first place (will not he who did not spare his own Son, but offered him up for us all…) proves more is to come (give us all we need).  Christ sits upon the throne of grace- seek him!

The same faith which caused you to work against your sins as God’s enemies will undoubtedly move Him to work for you against them. … The reason so many Christians complain about the power of their corruptions lies in one of two roots- either they try to overcome sin without acting on the promises, or else they only pretend to believe.

Faith praises God in sad conditions. … Faith can praise God because it sees mercy even in the greatest affliction. … Will we let a few present troubles become a grave to bury the memory of all His past mercies?  What God takes from us is less than we owe Him, but what He leaves us is more than He owes (us).

I really like that last series.  It was a great struggle in my heart to think that we might lose our home in this time of transition.  I saw that it had become an idol, but one that filled me with fear and despair.  I had to remember that God owes me NOTHING.  All I have is His, and He is free to give and take away as He sees fit.  It is a difficult thing getting to that place of acceptance.  And it happened just before I read that, oddly enough.

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All that work to go nowhere!

All that work to go nowhere!

Nothing excites me more than to hear a friend say that they want to be more like Jesus.  Too often they end up frustrated and dismayed.  Unfortunately we think that by following certain steps, rules or principles that we will magically become like Him.  The question nags at us each day as the sweat of our brow profits naught.  Try as I might, I fail.

Paul reminds us that if works cannot save, neither can they change us (Gal. 3:1-5).  This pilgrimage which begins with faith is not maintained by human efforts and schemes.  Rather, the same regenerate heart that produces justifying faith also produces sanctifying faith.  Such a faith believes that obedience prompted by love is more satisfying than the fleeting pleasures of sin (Heb. 11).  This is a faith that relies upon God’s promise to change us through the mundane events of everyday life (Rom. 8:28, 29) instead of spectacular experiences or ceremonies.  The focus is on God’s promises to us, not our promises to God.  It is a faith that expresses itself through love, fulfilling the very law that we are unable to keep by nature (Gal. 5:16).

This is not to say that we are inactive.  We are responsible to make use of the means of grace.  Faith is sustained through reading the Bible, prayer, public worship and evangelism.  Here we learn of God’s promises and His faithfulness.  As we fulfill these duties, trusting that what He says is true, our faith in Him is nurtured.  Performing these duties without faith only hardens our hearts.

The difficult part is how God makes our faith in Him grow.  Adversity and temptation stretch, deepen and purify our faith (1 Pet. 1:6, 7).  we slowly learn to love nothing more than Christ.  What obedience to the moral and ceremonial laws could not do, the Spirit produces through the providential events of life.  God slowly transforms our character in ways we cannot perceive through the blessings and hardships of life.  Our recognized need for Jesus and all that He has done grows.  We are responsible to avail ourselves of the means God has ordained for our growth, but He alone can make us grow.

This path is unique for each of His children.  It is not a novel program, but a call to trust that all that God commands you to do and brings into your life is designed to make you share in His holiness (Heb. 12:1-12).  Through faith we receive sanctifying grace.  He asks you to trust Him to bring you home safely.  The heart that truly believes will also be busy acting upon His sure Word.

(This was originally published in the May 1996 issue of Tabletalk Magazine [p. 43], published by Ligonier Ministries.)

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