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Posts Tagged ‘Westminster Confession of Faith’


This is a concept that has been debated at least since the 1970’s: can one be a “gay Christian”? It started with denominations for homosexuals who professed Christ. Recently it has “conquered” mainline denominations. The conversation is beginning to happen in conservative denominations, like the one I serve in. Okay, precisely the one I serve in. So far I’ve seen more heat than light in this debate. There is little thoughtfulness and plenty of knee jerk reactions.

As Joe Dallas notes in Speaking of Homosexuality, both terms in this phrase need to be identified so we know precisely what we are talking about.

“Gay can refer to someone sexually active, whether in a relationship or in more casual encounters. Or it can mean a person who’s not sexually active but it willing if and when the time seems right. It can also refer to a Christian who believes homosexuality is wrong but is tempted that direction and sometimes yields. Yet again, it could mean someone who’s homosexual in attraction only but chooses not to act on the attraction. Clearly the term’s meaning influences the question’s answer.

“Now, Christian, for some implied simply being “saved”; to others it implies both being saved and walking in rightness before God.

“Muddying the waters further is the question of salvation. Can it be lost, or is it a once-and-for-all status? How you view eternal security will likewise direct your answer to the gay Christian question.”

In addressing the second part of this question, Dallas writes as an Arminian. I am thinking this through in my own heritage, that of Reformed Theology. As such I ponder this in terms of the Preservation of the Saints and Assurance of Grace and Salvation. So, let’s work through the four ways “gay” can be understood.

Can a Christian be sexually active with the same sex?

The answer is yes. But before you either rejoice or want to stone me, let me explain. I do view homosexuality as a sin (like I would consider murder, theft, lying, gossip, adultery and other actions and predispositions to be sin or outside the boundaries established by God). Christians do sin. Sometimes we sin big too.

We should not simply say Christians persevere to the end because God preserves them in grace (by Christ’s merit & intercession as well as the indwelling Spirit). That is true, but not all that is true. We should reckon with the rest of what the Westminster Confession says about this, including:

3. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves. (WCF, XVII)

A Christian may, for a time, fall into the practice of homosexuality. This is disobedience, but Christians can and do disobey God. We see such sin a result of the remaining corruption within us (indwelling sin) which produces internal temptation, and the external temptations of Satan and the world which tells them it is okay, and “don’t knock it til you try it”. While they may feel “like themselves” in so doing, we see there are earthly consequences as they grieve the Spirit, harden their hearts and are deprived of a measure of graces and comforts from the gospel. Its hurts and scandalizes others as I know all too well from watching people I know fall into this sin and become entangled by it.

In the next chapter on Assurance of Grace and Salvation we see similar comments:

4. True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God’s withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair. (WCF, XVIII)

The key is “for a time.” One who is truly regenerate and justified will eventually repent and acknowledge its sinfulness as well as apprehending the mercies of God in Christ and endeavoring to obey. But “for a time” is vague. No time limit is given such as having 1 year. People would probably abuse that as an opportunity to spend such time in full rebellion of their choosing and show up at the appointed time with a mea culpa like Amish teens returned from their experience in the world.

For instance, I had a friend who was promiscuous as a teen. While working with teens later, his past was known. One teen contemplated partaking of fornication and his justification was “you repented.” My friend wisely replied, “How do you know you will?”

In the meantime, a faithful church will admonish, rebuke, suspend and possibly excommunicate a member to guard the honor of Christ, reclaim the sinner and protect the church (not from the person but from believing such actions are acceptable and appropriate among God’s people). In this sense it is possible to be a Christian and gay, but not part of the visible church due to discipline so they may produce a later harvest of righteousness.

In terms of Dallas’ second category, we see it is also possible to be a “gay Christian” in the same sense. They would need to repent of their erroneous understanding of homosexuality even if they aren’t sexually active. In due time this should happen if the Spirit really dwells in them.

In both the 3rd and 4th categories, the Christian experiences same sex attraction but knows that to act on it is wrong. The attraction is a result of remaining corruption, and they experience that inward pull toward people of the same sex romantically and sexually. While they know this is not what God intended in creation, it is what they experience due to the Fall, and have not yet been relieved of it in redemption. That may, and often does, await glorification as it does for all Christians though the particular temptations differ.

Here is where it is tricky. While the temptation flows from remaining corruption (our sinful condition) is the temptation itself sinful? Here is were some of the debate lies as we try to parse temptation. It is different from the temptation Jesus experienced in that it is internal. Jesus was tempted from without. We should confess it flows from indwelling sin and that it is wrong, though we have not committed a sinful act. The person who acts on such temptations periodically should repent like any other Christians who sins does. While they are still a Christian, they have been disobedient. As I noted above, this desire may never go away (though not experienced in every waking moment), just as other sinful desires may never go away.

There is another question that arise, should such a Christian as we see in categories 3 and 4 self-identify as a “gay Christian”? It seems strange to those of us who are straight. I’m not a straight Christian. Nor would I identify myself with any of my habitual sins. People don’t say “I’m an alcoholic Christian” or “a deceitful Christian.” Should we, as an act of repentance or confession? I suspect it isn’t very helpful.

In her book Openness Unhindered, Rosaria Butterfield addresses this question over the course of two chapters. In the first, she focuses on self-identification and the roots of self-identifying as gay. She ought to know since she used to teach Queer Theory at Syracuse University. For years she was working toward the world we now live in here in America: acceptance of homosexuality and same sex marriage as normal. So she unpacks all that so you know what many (not all) gay people mean by that term. She explains why she does not like the term “gay Christian” nor advocate for its use. In typical Rosaria-style she can be quite blunt.

“Any category of personhood that reduces a saint to a sum total of his or her fallen sexual behavior is not a friend of Christ.”

“Because as Christians, we need to practice what we want to model: a call to use words honestly. A call to use words honestly, in ways that correspond to God’s truth.”

“The conservative Christian church bears some responsibility for driving brothers and sisters in Christ into this “gay Christian” ghetto with our blindness to the way that we have insensitively tried to fix or fix up all of the singles in our church.”

“New nature does not necessarily mean new feelings (although it may). … “New creature in Christ” means that we have a new mind that governs the old feelings and a new hope that we are part of Christ’s body.”

“Believers know that help does not come in destigmatizing the word gay, but in helping the boy and his family do what all believers must do: mortify sin and live in faithfulness to God.”

While she argues against using the term, in the next chapter she talks about when Christians disagree, particularly about that issue. She addresses her relationship with a friend named Rebecca who has a different viewpoint, and is a professing Christian too. While Rosaria sees the word gay as laden with Queer Theory, Rebecca says “For me the word gay is no different than saying, “I am deaf” or “I am quadriplegic.” It simply refers to the truth that I have an enduring affliction (whether based in biology or environment) that has not been healed despite many years of prayers.” We return to the idea that two people can use the same term in different ways, and that we should try to understand how they are using it because we love them.

We see this problem in social discourse all the time. For instance, in the 2016 election “the wall” has very different meanings for progressives and those who voted for Trump. Progressives hear xenophobia, racism and other ideas that make them angry or want to cry. They see his election as betraying their ideals and lament for America. Many of those who voted for him (and may like myself who didn’t) hear wise immigration policy, having a border like most other nations that means we have some measure of control over who enters our country not because we hate other people groups but for our national and economic security. It doesn’t mean you are against immigration reform, but that you believe we actually have a border that matters.

Rosaria counsels love in the midst of such disagreements. She’s only advocating what the Scriptures do, but in this gospel-deprived society this is seen as a novelty. We have to allow each other some space to own our ideas instead of mandating that they agree with us. After all, the Scripture doesn’t directly address this. We can treat the use of this phrase as one of indifference as long as we are using very different definitions of the term. She talked with her friend, listened to her friend, and found they were using the term in very different ways. They could choose to disagree and remain friends because they agreed on the basics of the gospel and its implications for homosexuality even if they disagreed on the use of a term. I think there needs to be more of this: listening, understanding, discerning and accepting one another as Christ accepts us when we do disagree on secondary issues.

“Friendship and neighborly proximity are necessary components to working through theological differences in Christian love. … Ideas that divide must travel on the back of Christian life practices that allow us to stand shoulder to shoulder as we submit before our holy and loving God. This is the Christian labor of real neighbors.”

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I’ve been working on a Sunday School curriculum on the Westminster Standards. Among the resources I’m using are commentaries of the Westminster Confession by A.A. Hodge and Robert Shaw. The main resource was Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith by R.C. Sproul.

It is a layman’s guide. It is less technical than Hodge and Shaw. Paradoxically it is much longer than those commentaries. Sproul’s guide is 3 volumes. At times it was repetitive, particularly when he would launch into the elements of faith: content, assent and trust. On one hand I understand since faith plays a big role in the Confession showing up in many of the chapters. It begs to be understood. On the other hand, there is a chapter entitled “On Saving Faith” which addresses this topic. I’m not sure why he didn’t hold off on the discussion of faith until then. It doesn’t bother me, but when I consider those who would greatly benefit from studying the Confession, this may make it more difficult. Many laypeople are busy and don’t have time to read. And some really don’t like to read. A three volume set, while enticing to me, can look daunting to many.

As someone who has read most of his books, this is typical R.C. Sproul. He is gifted in making difficult subjects understandable for average people. It can be easy, in this case, to be overwhelmed with the Confession’s archaic language. But he breaks it down well. There are plenty of illustrations to help people understand.

It is not just for laypeople. I benefited from reading the book as well. There were somethings I hadn’t thought through before.

As a guide to the Westminster Confession, this set is essentially a systematic theology as it moves from the doctrine of Scripture and God to salvation and eventually to the Christian life (including the state, family and the church). It shows the progression of thought in all of this and shows the interconnectedness of these doctrines. This reflects the intention of the Westminster Divines.

While Sproul handles the Confession, the Catechisms are in appendices. This is a good thing in that they have a slightly different emphasis. The Short Catechism begins with the famous notion that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This is how I theologically orient the study. All of this is intended to help us glorify and enjoy God. The Larger Catechism has more of an emphasis on union with Christ. While Sproul does mention this topic, it could use more development (just like it could use development in the Confession).

So, caveats accepted this is a worthwhile set to add to a pastor’s library, a church library and officer training. It will also be of great interest to Christians old and young with an interest in theology.

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Session meetings are not often the highlight of a week. I enjoy being with the men, and I enjoy talking about church life and how we can be more faithful. The problem is that our meetings end late and some of us have a hard time the next day at work. I need time to decompress from a meeting, and even if they are held in my home, I don’t go to bed right away.

We have two options: have more but shorter meetings, or have more efficient meetings.

These are men who are already too busy so the first option really doesn’t seem to be an option. A few books were recommended to me. One of them was Meetings that Work by Alexander Strauch. One reason I bought it was that it was specifically about elders’ meetings. I had already read Strauch’s book Biblical Eldership. The third reason was it wasn’t very long. It was accessible for very busy men (I bought one for each elder too).

Our issues are not about character (though he mentions that), which seemed to be the thrust of some of the other recommendations. We have good men, who want to do a good job who just need help doing it quicker.

One thing is evident to me as I read this book: his gifting is kingly. He is all about efficiency, order etc. My gifting is prophetic and priestly, so I could use a bit more organization. But it didn’t make for an enjoyable read. It was informative. It was helpful. I’m not sure how to make this subject interesting. I, however, did not need interesting.

Another thing that became clear to me was how thankful I should be that I am in a confessional church. He often talks about discussing doctrinal issues. In over 15 years in ministry, I have not given very much time to doctrinal discussions in meetings. I am a doctrinally oriented person and read lots of theology. But the Westminster Confession of Faith means that we don’t have to spend time hammering out very many doctrinal issues.

Some of the issues require some wisdom and balance. In my first pastorate, EVERY conversation seemed to prompt an historical dissertation that bogged us down. A church’s history does matter. It does need to be discussed, but it cannot dominate the conversation or bog it down. I took his comments to almost exclude them. A wise moderator will begin to develop a sense of when it is helpful and when it isn’t.

There were, however, a number of very helpful ideas to help make meetings happen more efficiently. This brief book accomplished its purpose. This week we will discuss some of the ideas that we want to implement. Strauch’s book is well worth the investment of your time.

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If you love Christ you have most likely discouraged by the recent spat of news regarding Christian leaders, and laypeople, and sexual sin. It is disheartening to hear of yet another person who has fallen to this type of sin. I’ve lost track of the number of guys I knew in seminary that were disqualified from ministry due to sexual sin.

I’ve read something just as disheartening from the “pen” of a prominent blogger’s wife. I appreciate his ministry. I guess I just don’t get his wife’s perspective. It sounds to me like the old Bob Newhart skit.

What strikes me is how naive it sounds. It seems to minimize the power of indwelling sin and the wiles of our Enemy who wants to destroy the Church, marriage and family. I don’t say this to minimize the power of the Spirit nor the sufficiency of Christ’s work. I often push back against the worm theology that thinks we can never obey. We can grow in obedience, which means we can obey as we mature. The grace of God did appear to teach us to “no” to unrighteousness in this present age (Titus 2).

This does not mean it is easy, as we see in Romans 7 as Paul, who was a more mature Christian than me, cried out to be delivered from “this body of sin.” He shifted immediately into the gospel balm of there being “no condemnation for those who are Christ Jesus” which is so important because we continue to sin. He builds on this later in Romans 8.

Paul, in Romans 7 and Galatians 5, talked about sin and the sinful nature: indwelling sin. We talk too little about this fact. Indwelling sin means that we are still attracted to sin in various forms. If this woman was honest with us, she’d admit that there are sins she has seemingly made little to no progress in fighting. Her’s may be far less destructive to marriage and ministry than sexual sin, but that doesn’t mean she faces her own helplessness against sin. Were it not for indwelling sin, there would be nothing in me for temptation to hook.

Indwelling sin also hinders movement toward obedience. It is like trying to swim while wearing a few layers of clothing. At every turn, my flesh comes up with reasons not to obey. I need to talk to myself in gospel terms to goad myself on toward greater faithfulness to Him who died for me.

This is only the third of the great enemies of holiness. The others, of course, being the world and the devil. The former is under the control of the latter to some degree. The world promotes sexual sin, as we see with the existence of the Ashley Madison website, Tinder and pornography in more forms than you can shake a stick at. But lest we think sin is only “out there”, I remind you of indwelling sin which produced the visions of naked women experienced by Jerome as he hid from the world in a cave.

There is also that prowling lion looking to see whom he may devour who tempts us and places crazy and sinful thoughts in us. Satan hates God, but he can’t destroy God. He is aiming at the next best thing: God’s image. Sexual sin is one that strikes at the core of who we are since we were made male and female. Additionally, God gave us the creation mandate which includes “be fruitful and multiply”. Sex within marriage is essential for procreation that we might fill the world with God’s image. Satan does not want the world filled with God’s image, but he’ll settle for that tarnished image resulting from the fall. He wants to destroy the marriages of God’s people precisely because they are seeking to raise up godly seed. Satan wants to destroy the marriages of Christians, and one really good way to do that is sexual sin.

He also hates the Church and the Great Commission (an application of the Creation Mandate to the fallen world). He seeks to stop its growth and progress. One of the many schemes he has is sexual sin. He can destroy marriages, ministries and churches at the same time.

Impalement of PhinehasThink of how Balaam got God to curse the Israelites. If they sinned, turning away from God. So he told Balak to send in the Moabite “hoochie mamas” to seduce the sons of Israel with fornication leading to worshiping their Gods (Numbers 22-25). In discussing this in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul says their temptation was common to all.

This means that sexual sin is, in many ways, not like any other sin. While a particular person may not feel temptation to sexual sin, most Christians will. This also means that most pastors will too.

I don’t say this to excuse any sin, or anyone’s sin. I say to this to remind us of the danger there is to people. If you know you are particularly tempted, you need to take steps to be vigilant in fighting temptation. Spouses need to pray for one another (women commit these sins too!). People need to pray for their church leaders. Assume they at least occasionally face such temptation. The recent revelations should move us to pray for people to live upright lives in this present age. They should remind us that the Nancy Reagan “Just Say ‘No’!” approach is not as easy as it sounds when dealing with a sin that promises so much (that it cannot deliver).

“So far as moral failings are concerned, we need to show much more patience. It is easy to trip up here, and the devil is amazingly ingenious in leading us astray.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541)

2. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

3. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. WCF, XIII

114. Q. But can those converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with earnest purpose they do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God. Heidelberg Catechism

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At the beginning of his book, Calvin and the Sabbath, Richard Gaffin notes that everyone seems to make use of a quote from Calvin to support their view of the Sabbath. The subtitle helps us understand the quandary: The Controversy of Applying the Fourth Commandment.

This volume is a re-working of Gaffin’s Master of Theology thesis under John Murray at Westminster Seminary many years ago. This means it is not written at a popular level. Most of us will have to concentrate to track with Gaffin at times, and there will not be any interesting stories to help us understand a point. It is still an academic work.

Gaffin’s procedure is pretty simply. He begins with some background to the controversy before examining Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and some catechisms. Gaffin compares different editions of the Institutes as well. He then examines exegetical writings (his commentaries) and sermons. He then includes other Reformers and some of the Reformation Creeds to show a similarity of thought on the issue.

“First, widespread disagreement as persisted about what Calvin meant where he has expressed himself concerning the Sabbath.”

As you read you can see how it is that people can latch on one aspect of what Calvin says to support so many views of the Sabbath and its application to our corporate and personal lives.

In the background material Gaffin summarizes the main theories regarding the Sabbath or Lord’s Day.

1. The Antinomian View. This began with the Anabaptist movement during the Reformation which had a sharp antithesis between law and gospel. It argues that Christ fulfilled the law for us and we no longer have an obligation to keep the ten commandments. To fulfill this command would be to contradict the NT teaching regarding there being no distinction of days and seasons (Rom. 14 & Col. 2).

2. The Seventh-Day Sabbatarian View. Gaffin notes that this view also appears among 16th century Anabaptists. While Christ fulfilled the law for us, Jesus didn’t abolish the law and we keep it out of faith, love and gratitude.

3. The Ecclesiastical or Dominical View. This cluster of views hold that the Sabbath  has its origin in the Mosaic covenant and therefore was strictly for the Jews, not for Christians. The end result is the same as the Antinomian view, but the rationale is quite different. This has been the dominant view in Anglican churches.

4. The Sabbatarian View. This focuses on the Sabbath as a creation ordinance from Genesis 2. The Mosaic regulation of the Sabbath is not binding on us but was for Israel, yet the creation ordinance remains. This view was argued by many of the English Puritans.

On the eve of the Reformation the western church was overloaded with feast and fast days which were required to be celebrated as part of the sacramental system essential for salvation. The Reformers were not only dealing with the Scriptures but also their own historical context. We do best to keep this in mind. At times Calvin is arguing against the view of Rome. At other times he is arguing against the Antinomian Anabaptists. When we forget this we tend to see him as contradicting himself instead of addressing a different series of errors. This, in part, is why Gaffin wants to look at all of Calvin’s writings to get a more comprehensive understanding of Calvin’s view.

We could summarize Calvin’s view as Gaffin does in a number of places.

1. The weekly day of rest which Israel was ordered to keep by the fourth commandment fulfilled three distinct functions.

a) It was a promissory sign, typical of the spiritual rest from sin which God would one day give to his people.

b) It provided a day for public assembly, a stated time for hearing the law and offering sacrifices.

c) It provided a day of rest from toil for slaves and servants.

2. At the first advent of Christ, culminating in his death and resurrection, the Sabbath ceased to function as a type. The spiritual rest promised to Israel by the weekly day of rest, has become a full reality. Christians now enjoy that rest on every day of their lives. In this sense, as a type of spiritual rest, the Sabbath has been abrogated and should no longer be observed.

3. Although the typical character of the Sabbath no longer exists, the other two functions of the Sabbath given to Israel are still in force.

a) The fourth commandment requires the public assembly of the church … Which day of the week is set aside for this assembly, whether one or more, is a matter of indifference.

b) The fourth commandment requires that rest be given to those who in their labors are subject to the authority of others.

4. The fourth commandment must always be seen in its context, that is, as part of the Decalogue, which applies to all people in every age.

There, you got that? The commandment is still binding, but the typological function of the command has been fulfilled in Christ. What remains, basically is a spiritual rest from sin, the need for public worship and the provision of rest for those under authority. This view would be different from the way the Westminster Divines expressed our responsibility in a way very similar to its Mosaic expression. This presents a tension in denominations like my own which holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith and yet holds Calvin in high esteem with many pastors embracing his view (as they understand it).

“Here Calvin shows himself, despite undeniable and decided differences in theological rationale for observing the Lord’s Day, to be remarkably close, in practice, to later Puritan views, like those given confessional status in the Westminster Confession of Faith.”

Calvin’s view would not appear to undermine the system of doctrine in the Westminster Confession. He upholds it as part of the moral law which still abides, but differs on how to apply it.

Yet, I still experience some cognitive dissonance with Calvin’s view. I also experience some with regard to the view of the Confession (I did take an exception). In other words, neither view completely expresses my own view which even I struggle to express. This is because in some ways my views are still “cooking” or developing. I think of it like a stew that needs time for everything to come together.

Gaffin, in his evaluation of Calvin’s view, puts his finger on some of the areas of dissonance for me. First, his understanding of the Sabbath as spiritual rest for everyday seems deprive it of it’s place in the Decalogue. He quotes Edwards as one who recognized this: “And if it stands in force now only as signifying a spiritual, Christian rest, and holy behavior at all times, it doth not remain as one of the ten commandments, but as a summary of all the commands.” In other words it no longer stands alone and doesn’t really command anything in particular. It “merely” summarizes the many other commands to flee sin and pursue godliness.

Second, Calvin does not seem to fully appreciate the Sabbath as creation ordinance. Calvin sees the Sabbath within the context of sin. As a creation ordinance it has bearing on man as man, not only as sinner. He doesn’t seem to do justice to the concept that as made in the image of God I not only work, but rest as God does. I need rest as man, not only as sinner. “The meaning of the Sabbath institution prior to the fall seems not to have crossed his mind.” This is a big weakness in Calvin’s view. This also affects how he views work, or at least how he expresses his view of work. Work is good! But we cannot only work, even if we recognize work as worship.

Gaffin also notes that we lose the full eschatlogical significance of the Sabbath when we do this. Typology, Gaffin argues, is present in every aspect of creation. It points us to the new heavens and earth. We cannot enter into the rest that awaits unless we are in Christ, but also until we have completed the tasks appointed to us like Adam. We are only able to complete those tasks because we have been redeemed by Christ, and those works have been prepared for us beforehand (Eph. 2:10 for instance).

Sabbath as creation ordinance also reminds us that this regular rest, which prefigures our ultimate rest in Christ, is for all people everywhere. They suffer when they do not rest. As Gaffin, and one of my professors notes, they do deserve to suffer so since they are in rebellion. Yet, we should offer them rest as a common grace for the benefit of society.

“Faithful and joyful Sabbath-keeping, we should not forget, is among the most concrete ways for the church to witness to a world full of turmoil and unrest, as never before or at least as much as ever, that there does indeed “remain a rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9).”

This is an important book to read, but not always an easy book to read. Anyone wrestling with the Sabbath should include this volume as part of their study. It will be worth the investment of time and mental energy.

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In the last few years there has been an explosion of books on the topic of grace. Some of been excellent. Some have been controversial. Some of those that have been controversial had some significant flaws. Not a fatal flaw, mind you. They were still within the bounds of Christianity but not necessarily within the bounds of the community to which the author belonged (how’s this for vague?).

So, it was with a measure of anticipation and trepidation that I read Extravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness by Barbara Duguid. I had a sense of anticipation because I have found her husband Iain’s books very helpful. Additionally I saw that she was very dependent on John Newton from whom I’ve also benefited greatly. But I also had sanctification controversy PTSD.

Here is my bottom line: I loved the forest, but some of the particular trees may have issues.

Barbara has some obvious influences, and some that aren’t as obvious. In addition to John Newton, she has a certificate from CCEF, and holds to the Westminster Confession of Faith. When she sticks close to those the book is quite excellent and helpful. When she goes beyond them I found it less helpful and has some of the same issues that troubled me about Tullian Tchividjian’s books on grace. I try to remember what Dr. Pratt taught us: you can’t say everything any time you say anything. Yet a qualification or two saves a world of misunderstanding.

The Good

Throughout the book Barbara Duguid is quite honest about her own struggles, which essentially drive the book. This is nothing new. Many theologians have a doctrinal emphasis that reflects their own personal struggles. Think Luther and his emphasis on justification by faith alone. There is nothing wrong with this, particularly when we consider the providence of God in the matter. Yet we should recognize that we, as sinners saved by grace, can still run off into extremes. Her honesty, to get back to my point, is helpful. She is not writing theoretically, but has walked with God through these difficult places.

“God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin.”

This book is easy to read. It is not a technical book but intends to make theology practical. She does a good job of this. The first chapter, Welcome to Your Heart, easily introduces you to her heart and by extension yours through a story. She shows how pride lurks in our hearts, distorting our experience by trying to make us the center of … everything.

The next three chapters, leaning heavily on Newton, are about the three stages of Christian life: babes in Christ, maturing and grown-ups. Sadly, not many people talk about this. It is helpful to recognize the differences so a person has more accurate expectations. Babes often have few trials and lots of joy. God has merciful on them. There is often, in my experience, significant change almost immediately if one converts as an adult. But then life gets hard. God begins to work more deeply, and most often through hardship and failure. The focus is on developing deeper dependence on God, and the destruction of our pride.

“A mature believer studies all the aspects of a person’s struggle with sin and makes allowances. He never stops calling sin the ugly and evil thing that it is, but he understands how deeply rooted it is in human nature and how helpless every Christian is to stand against it.”

Her book offers hope to all of us who struggle with sin, which is every Christian. She reminds us of the providence of God, the preservation of the saints, and the doctrine of assurance (from the Westminster Confession of Faith) which instruct us that sometimes God does in fact bring us through periods of disobedience. The problem is most Christians don’t talk about with struggles (contrary to James 5) so when we struggle with sin we think we are the only one, or more messed up than everyone else in church.  We have to remember that God is up to something bigger than “sin management.”

Our struggles with sin should translate into greater patience with the sins of other Christians. When we consider how patient God is with us, and how sufficient His mercy is to us, we are able to be patient and extend mercy to our brothers and sisters even (particularly!) when they sin against us.

“The more I see myself as the biggest sinner and the worst transgressor, the more I will be able to step up to love others even when they sin against me time and time again.”

I can see Ed Welch’s (a professor at CCEF)  as well as Newton’s influence in the last chapter. Part of how we strive for holiness is in community and making use of the means of grace (Word and sacrament). We need each other profoundly. Her the individualism of Americans is anti-thetical to the gospel. We need help to see our sins. We need help through the prayers of others not only for our illnesses but our sins. We need to remember that the Lord’s Table is for us as saved sinners who still need grace along the pilgrim road.

Her audience is those who are depressed and overwhelmed by their on-going struggle with sin. These people need to know of God’s extravagant grace toward sinners saved by grace. There is plenty of truth to encourage them so they can strengthen their weak knees and keep moving by the grace of God.

“Although God did not create your struggle or tempt you to it, he has called you to walk with it. He has assigned it to you, and he loves you as he calls you to walk through it. He is not disgusted by you.”

The Questions the Reformed Community Needs to Address

There are some questions that are raised by this book, reflecting problems with other books on grace. The sanctification debates seemed largely focused on the third use of the law. These go deeper and are, I think, more important.

1. Is sanctification monergistic or synergistic? This book seems to give conflicting answers at times. Newton often refers to striving for holiness, and she echos that at times. But she is also critical of unnamed pastors who seem to focus on our responsibility. Philippians 2:13 has been one of the key verses for me to understand the relationship between gospel indicatives (facts) and gospel imperatives (commands). God works in me so I will and work according to His purpose. We can’t focus on only one part of that. Edwards noted that it is “all of God and all of me”. I can only work because He works in me (grace!!). But I actually work. He’s not working for me, believing for me, repenting for me. It is typically a hyper-Calvinist view to minimize the exercise of our wills. At times she comes really close to this.

2. What is the nature, or goal, of sanctification? She frequently criticizes the view that it is “sinning less and less.” This seems contrary to the way it is expressed in the Westminster Shorter Catechism to which she holds as a member of the ARP.

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.

She doesn’t really qualify or explain what she means. She is correct if she is referring to simply external obedience. The truth is that our “obedience” is often driven by fear and pride instead of faith and love. When we obey out of fear (the fear of getting caught, what people will think etc.) or pride (having a reputation to uphold, a sense of entitlement) we are not really obeying. If this is what she means, I wholeheartedly agree. God is working to address the fear and pride behind so much “obedience.” God also won’t give us “victory” (I hate that term) if it will lead us to spiritual pride. Fear and pride are sins too, but sins that drive other sins as well as counterfeit obedience.

3. What is the Degree of Regeneration?

Our depravity is total, but not absolute. Every aspect of us is affected but we aren’t as bad as we could be. She notes that though saved, we are depraved, weak little sinners. Where is regeneration? To what degree have we changed? Thomas Boston, in the Human Nature in its Fourfold Estate, argues that our regeneration is total in the same way that depravity is. Every aspect of us is affected by regeneration, but not absolutely. While regenerate we still have indwelling sin. We want to be neither triumphalists nor fatalists. She rightly criticizes the former but sounds an awful lot like the later.

4. Does God get angry with us? Can He be pleased by our actions?

She hammers our position in Christ. Indeed there is cause for great rejoicing with regard to our position in Christ as perfectly righteous. This is our hope: union with Christ. But in sanctification does God only see us positionally or does He also see us personally?

She notes the Israelites in the wilderness as the pattern for us in many respects, particularly their failure (she overlooks how many times it does say they did everything the Lord commanded Moses in particular matters). If they were converted (which I think many/most of them were) they were then united to Christ (apart from whom there is no salvation). During the wilderness journey we often see God angry with Israel (with no differentiation between the elect and non-elect). In Hebrews 12 we see that God disciplines us so we bear the harvest of righteousness. He necessarily sees us as less than personally righteous and moves us toward greater personal righteousness. We have Christ’s imputed righteousness in justification, and He imparts Christ’s righteousness to us in sanctification. These distinctions seem to be missing here (and in other some books about grace). If we can’t please God personally, then why does Paul pray for this in Colossians 1.

Love is not contrary to anger, as she seems to argue. Anger is an important part of love to protect the beloved from danger, including the destructiveness of sin. I wonder how much her own anger issues (one of the sins she says she struggles with) influence her views on this. I don’t want God to be angry with me, but I need his fatherly anger at times, as Calvin notes.

“The Spirit of love was given to Christ alone, for the express purpose of conferring this Spirit upon his members; and there can be no doubt that the following words of Paul apply to the elect only: “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us,” (Rom. 5:5); namely, the love which begets that confidence in prayer to which I have above adverted. On the other hand, we see that God is mysteriously offended [wondrously angry] with his children, though he ceases not to love them. He certainly hates them not, but he alarms them with a sense of his anger, that he may humble the pride of the flesh, arouse them from lethargy, and urge them to repentance. Hence they, at the same instant, feel that he is angry with them for their sins, and also propitious to their persons.John Calvin (Institutes 3:2:12)

The Big Picture Problem?

When she moves away from Newton, CCEF and the Westminster Standards, I pick up an organizational principle for salvation that is more Lutheran than Reformed. Lutheran theology (after Luther’s death) made justification by faith alone the organizing principle so union with Christ and sanctification (and all the other benefits) flow out of justification. This, in my opinion, means that justification flattens the other doctrines, our understanding of Scripture and the dynamic rather than static relationship we have with God. This shows up in focusing on the positional almost exclusively.

The Reformed view sees union with Christ as the organizing principle (to borrow Lane Tipton’s terminology, see Calvin’s Institutes, book 3 and the WLC #65-69). Out of our union with Christ we receive all the (distinct) blessings of Christ. We receive the double grace of justification and sanctification at the same time, though they are distinct. We experience definitive or definite sanctification at that point. It focuses on us as positionally sanctified (see Hoekema’s Saved by Grace). Progressive sanctification necessarily focuses on our personal sanctification. He sees us as we are in ourselves (but doesn’t condemn us because of our position in Christ). Reformed Theology has historically held these two in a biblical tension that appears to be lacking here.

Yesterday I looked at some other reviews to make sure I wasn’t missing the boat, or seeing something that isn’t there. Both Mark Jones and Dane Ortland saw the same things or similar things.

Like Dane Ortland I recognize the many good things about this book which includes some things that are rarely taught which need to be heard. But I want to filter out the ways in which she departs from (my understanding of?) Reformed Theology. Enjoy the forest, even if some trees have thorns. Or to use a different metaphor: it is a good meal, but there is some bone and gristle to toss out.

Time for a little Double Cure.

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Daughter who spies me reading the book: “Daddy, isn’t R.C. Sproul boring?”

“No, honey. Not to me.”

She is only 9 and R.C. is still a bit over her head. But one of Sproul’s strengths has always been putting the cookies where average people can reach them (not necessarily 9 year-olds however). As a young Christian I read his books and listened to his tapes. I owe him a great debt, so to speak.

In Not a Chance R.C. Sproul turns (most of) his attention away from theology and toward the philosophy of science. His concern is the growth of irrationality in science particularly as it intersects with issues related to creation. For people who don’t usually read philosophy, or haven’t in quite some time, he strives to make it accessible. He also strives to see the application. He interacts with a very long list of philosophers. He mostly succeeds in his goal of accessibility.

He begins with discussing the notion of chance. It can be used in the mathematical sense of probabilities, which is appropriate in science. We speak this way often: what are the chances of rain today? It can also be used to speak of something being accidental or unpredictable. This is typically an inappropriate use of the term in science. This use is growing as some scientists talk about things being created by chance. His point is that chance is not an entity and therefore cannot create anything. To speak as it can is to descend into irrationality. It is not irrational to say we don’t understand something at this point in time. But speaking of it as by chance is.

“I have been contending for the rigorous application of the laws of logic to inferences drawn from induction. Indeed that is what this book is all about.”

He also delves into the question of the universe as created, self-created or self-existent. Sometimes self-created and self-existent are used interchangeably by some scientists. They are not the same. All scientific data at this point in time would appear to rule out a self-existent universe. There was a “time” when it was not. Self-creation is also a logical nightmare. It cannot be and not be in the same sense and at the same time. The universe would clearly appear to be contingent as a result. He makes a brief argument for a Creator.

(more…)

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