Starting with a crazy question, Danielle Spencer taught her children about God's sovereign provision. Here is a brief part of their discussion:
"Do you know what would happen if the world suddenly stopped spinning?" I asked my kids during our morning Bible time. My 12-year-old consulted one of her favorite books What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.1 If the earth and all terrestrial objects stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity, almost everyone would die immediately. If you weren't swept away by the thousand-mile-per-hour winds, you'd certainly be pulverized by the thousand-mile-per-hour impact of all the debris flying about. You would be safe for a time if you were deep underground or in a polar research station (since the strongest winds would be nearest the equator), but not for long. The wind would eventually stop by way of friction with the earth's surface, but that would heat the air and atomize the surface of the ocean, resulting, among many other phenomena, in massive global thunderstorms. After that, for 6 months one side of the earth would bake in the heat of the sun and the other would freeze since the sun would no longer rise and set once per day, but only once a year. Eventually, the moon would get us spinning again, but "us" would be long gone.
Now that I had their attention, we read Psalm 104--in which we have 35 verses praising the Lord for his power, control, and care over his creation...
Read more over at The Christward Collective.
"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 wounds the conscience and grieves 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 so 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 mean time, they are supported from utter despair."
"Under the Old Testament none loved God more than he; none was loved of God more than he. The paths of faith and love wherein he walked are unto the most of us like the way of an eagle in the air,--too high and hard for us. Yet to this very day do the cries of this man after God's own heart sound in our ears. Sometimes he complains of broken bones, sometimes of drowning depths, sometimes of waves and water spouts, sometimes of wounds and diseases, sometimes of wrath and the sorrows of hell; everywhere of his sins, the burden and trouble of them. Some of the occasions of his depths, darkness, entanglements, and distresses, we all know. As no man had more grace than he, so none is a greater instance of the power of sin, and the effects of its guilt upon the conscience, than he."
"Now, I say, a gracious soul, after much communion with God, may, on the account of sin, by a sense of the guilt of it, be brought into a state and condition wherein some, more, or all of these, with other the like perplexities, may be its portion ; and these make up the depths whereof the psalmist here complains."
At the outset, I want to be clear that I stand firmly against those who teach that legal repentance and reformation is necessary in order for someone to come to Jesus--as if one needed to clean himself or herself up to make oneself acceptable to Christ. However, what Manning taught (from a disputed passage of Scripture, I would add) is not in keeping with the details of the text or the general manner of Christ's saving work in the lives of sinners. After telling the woman caught in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you," Jesus says to her, "Go and sin no more" (John 8:11). Having forgiven this woman of disrepute, Jesus called her to live out a godly life in keeping with the redemption that she had experienced by His grace."I don't think that anyone reading this would have approved of throwing rocks at the poor woman in adultery, but we would have made darn sure she presented a detailed act of contrition and was firm in her purpose of amendment. Because if we let her off without saying she was sorry, wouldn't she be back in adultery before sunset?" (The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 173).
When storms come (and they will), where are you anchored? Do you toss to and fro by the waves, or does your anchor hold?
"A sure-footed journey through the doctrines of grace - foundational truths for godliness and discipleship - by a trusted guide. Reading this book will both thrill and convict, challenge and confirm. Essential reading for discipleship groups, Adult Sunday School classes, and individuals determined to grow in grace. Warmly recommended."--Derek W. H. Thomas; Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia SC; The Robert Strong Professor of Systematic and Pastoral Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta
I've enjoyed the recent interaction between Mark Jones and Rick Phillips on the question of whether divine grace informed the covenant of works. I've also appreciated the generally cordial spirit of their interaction.
As both Mark and Rick know (and have reminded us), confessional theological traditions, by their very nature, permit a significant degree of difference on relatively important (or at least intriguing) issues. Confessional traditions, for those unfamiliar with such terminology, are those which look to one or several historic confessions of faith (the Westminster Confession, the Gallic Confession, the Augsburg Confession, etc.) to establish boundaries for appropriate theological expression. The original authors of such confessions -- for example, the Westminster Divines -- disagreed among themselves about quite a few things (See Haykin and Jones's Drawn into Controversie). Thus they purposefully produced statements of faith which were simultaneously inclusive of their divergent views and exclusive of views which, to their thinking, were sinister enough to require a severing of Christian fellowship. Present-day disagreement which occurs within the boundaries created by some common, historic Confession of Faith (such as the WCF) is, then, intramural (intra = within; muri = walls) and fraternal (fratres= brothers) by definition. That realization can and should inform the tone of such disagreement.
With that in view, I'd like raise a question or two in response to Mark and Rick's respective posts. I hope my questions will reflect the fraternal tone I've just advocated. I hope, more importantly, that they might serve to clarify where the boundaries actually lay -- for those who subscribe to the WCF -- for what's permissible and appropriate to say about divine grace and human merit vis-à-vis the covenant of works.
On Grace in the Covenant of Works
Regarding, first, the issue of grace in the covenant of works: I wonder if Mark hasn't overstated his case to some degree? Mark's done a masterful job of demonstrating that numerous seventeenth-century Reformed divines recognized the covenant of works as an essentially gracious arrangement, and/or acknowledged Adam's obedience, as long as such lasted in the Garden, as a product, ultimately, of divine grace. It would, I think, be irresponsible, in light of Marks' argument, to read the WCF as if it denied any present-day Reformed believer the freedom to refer to the covenant of works as a gracious relationship in which Adam's "perfect and perpetual obedience" might have secured (eternal) "life" for "Adam and... his posterity."
At times, however, Mark almost seems to suggest that recognition of grace in the covenant of works was unanimous among early modern Reformed thinkers, and -- consequently -- that the WCF's reference to every divine covenant per se being an instance of "voluntary condescension on God's part" was tantamount to naming the covenant of works as gracious in kind. So, for example, Mark advises those who "wish to maintain general agreement with the Reformed orthodox of the seventeenth century" to "be comfortable with (and perhaps insist upon) pre-Fall grace."
I'd like to point out, on this score, that there were early modern Reformed thinkers who very explicitly denied divine grace a presence or role in the pre-Fall covenant of works. Robert Rollock, the first principle of Edinburgh University and a pivotal figure in the history of Reformed covenant thought, comes to mind. In Rollock's 1596 catechism on the divine covenants he firmly insisted that those "works" which God required from Adam in the pre-Fall covenant were products of Adam's holy and upright nature, and so of his innate powers, not "works proceeding from grace." This, I take it, would distinguish Rollock from Ames. In his Treatise of Effectual Calling a year later, Rollock denied that divine grace served as the fundamentum -- the foundation or basis -- of the covenant of works, and named Adam's holy and upright nature and friendship with God as the proper foundation of said covenant. This, I take it, would distinguish Rollock from the multitude of writers Mark quotes who insisted on recognizing every covenant between God and man as an instance of divine grace per se. Rollock's analysis of the covenant of works is consistent with his own definition of "divine covenants" per se, a definition which omits any mention of grace.
It may be that Rollock was entirely alone in his refusal to place grace in the Garden of Eden. But I doubt it. Rollock was, by all accounts, a force to be reckoned with in the development of Reformed covenant theology, and I suspect that one finds his views on this matter reflected to some extent at least among his students and theological heirs. I suspect, moreover, that when the Westminster Divines spoke of "voluntary [divine] condescension" as the basis for each and every covenant, they were, with a view towards Rollock's opinion if not the man himself, more intentional in their avoidance of the term "grace" then Mark contends. The very carefully crafted wording of WCF 7 permits one to acknowledge grace -- not redemptive grace, but grace in some more general sense -- as foundational to the covenant of works as such. It certainly doesn't require anyone to acknowledge the covenant of works as a divinely established gracious relationship.
On Merit in the Covenant of Works
On the issue of merit in the covenant of works: I wonder if Rick hasn't misread the sources to some extent when he claims that "the [Westminster] confession restrict[s] merit to the person and work of Christ alone," and denies such (that is, merit) to anyone else, Adam included. There's no question that our Confession denies the possibility of fallen sinners meriting forgiveness and eschatological life (16.5), but, so far as I can see, the WCF never explicitly comments upon the issue of whether Adam's obedience could or would have been meritorious or not.
Such lack of commentary on the issue of pre-Fall merit follows, I'd wager, from the diversity of opinions one actually encounters among seventeenth-century Reformed writers on this question. Rollock, whom I referenced above, specifically denied that Adam's obedience would have had the nature -- the ratio -- of merit because his work was owed to God in light of God's preceding goodness (not grace) to him. Others, however, insisted that Adam's obedience would have been meritorious, even if they labored to define "merit" in some way contrary to medieval notions of condign and congruent merit.
So, for instance, Johannes Braun wrote in his De doctrina foederum: "If Adam had remained upright and done everything which God required of him, he would indeed have merited his reward, but not condignly, as if either his own person or his works were equal in value to the reward. For no creature, no matter how perfect, can merit anything from God in that sense. [...] Rather he would have merited ex pacto, according to the stipulation of the covenant -- that is, according to God's good pleasure." One finds the same doctrine of pre-Fall merit in Francis Turretin, Benedict Pictet, and -- I presume -- in others of the period.
I would contend, then, that diversity on the question of pre-Fall merit existed just as much as it did on the issue of pre-Fall grace. Thus, moreover, I would contend that persons affirming the meritorious nature of Adam's works in the pre-Fall covenant are no more "out of bounds" (as it were) than persons affirming/denying the presence of grace in the Garden.
I doubt that current debates over covenant theology can be effectively arbitrated by appeals to our Reformed "tradition," our historic confessions, or any singular Confession (say, Westminster). There's considerable diversity in our tradition (even with regard to something as specific as the covenant of works) and our historic confessions reflect that diversity by refusing to take sides on intramural squabbles. Contemporary debates over aspects of Reformed covenant theology are important and necessary, but they must be waged primarily on the fields of exegesis, biblical theology, and systematics. What our shared Confession of Faith can do in these debates is remind us of the unity we share despite our lack of complete uniformity in doctrine, a point which should in turn inform the tenor of our conversations.
Whatever parties exist on questions of grace and merit in the covenant of works, all who genuinely ascribe to the WCF affirm "the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ," and base their hope for eternal reward entirely upon the same. That truth bears repeating in the midst of (fraternal) discord. I'm reminded of Calvin's words to Bullinger in the 1540's regarding their differences on the Lord's Supper: "In whatever way I may hold the firm persuasion of a greater communication of Christ in the sacraments than you express in words, we shall not on that account cease to hold the same Christ and to be one in him. Some day, perhaps, it will be given us to unite in fuller harmony of doctrine."
1. All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man are of his mere grace, bounty, or favour; his free, undeserved favour; favour altogether undeserved; man having no claim to the least of his mercies. It was free grace that "formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into him a living soul," and stamped on that soul the image of God, and "put all things under his feet." The same free grace continues to us, at this day, life, and breath, and all things. For there is nothing we are, or have, or do, which can deserve the least thing at God's hand. "All our works, Thou, O God, hast wrought in us." These, therefore, are so many more instances of free mercy: and whatever righteousness may be found in man, this is also the gift of God.The answer is, John Wesley, expounding Ephesians 2:8, in Sermons, on Several Occasions. Interesting.
2. Wherewithal then shall a sinful man atone for any the least of his sins? With his own works? No. Were they ever so many or holy, they are not his own, but God's. But indeed they are all unholy and sinful themselves, so that every one of them needs a fresh atonement. Only corrupt fruit grows on a corrupt tree. And his heart is altogether corrupt and abominable; being "come short of the glory of God," the glorious righteousness at first impressed on his soul, after the image of his great Creator. Therefore, having nothing, neither righteousness nor works, to plead, his mouth is utterly stopped before God.
3. If then sinful men find favour with God, it is "grace upon grace!" If God vouchsafe still to pour fresh blessings upon us, yea, the greatest of all blessings, salvation; what can we say to these things, but, "Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!" And thus it is herein "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died" to save us "By grace" then "are ye saved through faith." Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.
3. If then sinful men find favour with God, it is "grace upon grace!" If God vouchsafe still to pour fresh blessings upon us, yea, the greatest of all blessings, salvation; what can we say to these things, but, "Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!" And thus it is herein "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died" to save us "By grace" then "are ye saved through faith." Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation. - See more at: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2015/02/free-grace.php#sthash.r46Cmayq.dpuf
This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1Tim 3:1-7)Toward the end we have the insistence of some kind of proven track record of this godliness of life, that the man be no novice, and - in addition - have a good testimony among the unbelievers. Timothy is no celebrity, but he enjoys a credibility grounded in his home church environment, developed and demonstrated in often thankless service, and obtained from good association with and definite commendation from other credible men.
Why should not the right answer be given, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved'? Tell him what Christ is, what he has done and suffered to obtain eternal redemption for sinners, and that according to the will of God and his Father. Give him a plain downright narrative of the gospel salvation wrought out by the Son of God; tell him the history and mystery of the gospel plainly. It may be the Holy Ghost will work faith thereby, as he did in those firstfruits of the Gentiles in Acts 10.44. If he asks what warrant he has to believe on Jesus Christ, tell him that he has an utter indispensable necessity for it, for without believing on him he must perish eternally; that he has God's gracious offer of Christ and all his redemption, with a promise that, upon accepting the offer by faith, Christ and salvation with him are his: that he has God's express commandment (1Jn 3:23) to believe on Christ's name, and that he should make conscience of obeying it, as much as any command in the moral law. Tell him of Christ's ability and goodwill to save; that no man was every rejected by him who cast himself upon him; that desperate cases are the glorious triumphs of his art of saving. (27-28)But we must also answer the question, "What does it look like to be saved?" And there we must answer, "gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1Pt 1:13-16).
Walter Marshall's Directions 4-9 from Gospel Mystery of Sanctification emphasize that in the pursuit of holiness the order is Gospel then godliness, not godliness then Gospel.
The means or instruments by which the Spirit of God accomplishes our union with Christ, and our fellowship with Him in all holiness, are the gospel, by which Christ enters into our hearts to work faith in us, and faith, by which we actually receive Christ Himself, with all His fullness, into our hearts. And this faith is a grace of the Spirit, by which we heartily believe the gospel and also believe on Christ as He is revealed and freely promised to us in this, for all His salvation.
We cannot attain to the practice of true holiness by any of our endeavours while we continue in our natural state and are not partakers of a new state by union and fellowship with Christ through faith.
Those that endeavour to perform sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, as the condition by which they are to procure for themselves a right and title to salvation, and a good ground to trust on Him for the same, do seek their salvation by the works of the law, and not by the faith of Christ, as He is revealed in the gospel and they shall never be able to perform sincere and true holy obedience by all such endeavours.
We are not to imagine that our hearts and lives must be changed from sin to holiness in any measure, before we may safely venture to trust on Christ for the sure enjoyment of Himself and His salvation.
Be sure to seek for holiness of heart and life only in its due order, where God has placed it, after union with Christ, justification and the gift of the Holy Ghost and, in that order, seek it earnestly by faith as a very necessary part of your salvation
We must first receive the comforts of the gospel, that we may be able to sincerely perform the duties of the law.
So far, as we have pointed to some highlights of Walter Marshall's justly lauded book, "Gospel Mystery of Sanctification," we have learned the following from him about growth in grace in the Christian life:
1. Those who have been saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone properly and by virture of regeneration and their new nature aspire to increase in holiness, in faithfulness to Christian duty and in obedience to God's law.
(In other words, this aspiration is not a sign that the believer "doesn't understand the Gospel," "doesn't understand grace," or is a "legalist," "moralist," or "Pharisee.")
2. The first step in this lifelong process is to learn from the Scriptures what are the powerful and effective means that God has appointed and provided in order that we may grow in holiness and obedience.
(Because, though we may rightly aspire to a growth in holiness, we may also wrongly assume that this increase in holiness can be gained simply through the exertion of our own wills, by our own efforts and via our own personal resources and resolutions.)
Then Marshall explains that the believer needs three things to go forward in grace-growth: propensity, persuasion and power. To expand on this, we'll put it in the form of a third point.
3. If we are to grow in holiness, we need a Spirit-wrought, grace-enabled (1) inclination to do so; (2) a firm persuasion of our reconcilation with and acceptance by God, and of our future heavenly hope; and (3) the strength both to want to do our Christian duty, and to do it.
This brings us to Marshall's "third direction" for sanctification, which has to do with the empowering source of our motivation and ability to grow in grace: Union with Christ. He says: "The way to get holy endowments and qualifications necessary to frame and enable us for the immediate practice of the law, is to receive them out of the fullness of Christ, by fellowship with Him; and that we may have this fellowship, we must be in Christ, and have Christ Himself in us, by a mystical union with Him."
So, where do we get the inclination to grow in holiness and obedience? Where do we get a strong persuasion of God's love, acceptance, and reconciliation, and a sure and certain sense of our future hope? Where do we get the power to want to be holy? And the power to actually live in a more godly way? Marshall says: in fellowship with Christ. And that fellowship is experienced only in union with Christ. So, our union with Christ is the fountainhead of our sanctification.
In our first highlight from Walter Marshall's "Gospel Mystery" we saw no antipathy to the ideas of the believer's duty or to the believer's aspiration to holiness or to the believer's endeavor to obey the moral law. Marshall says, to repeat, in his "first direction: "That we may acceptably perform the duties of holiness and righteousness required by the law, our first work is to learn the powerful and effectual means by which we may attain to so great an end."
Marshall importantly addresses the issue of how we must pursue holiness, that is, by "what powerful and effectual means" that we are to grow in godliness. But he does so without pitting the means against the end, as one often hears today, and without labeling the aspiration to spiritual growth as legalism or moralism.
In Marshall's "second direction," he goes on to say: "Several endowments and qualifications are necessary to enable us for the immediate practice of the law. Particularly we must have an inclination and propensity of our hearts thereunto; and therefore we must be well persuaded of our reconciliation with God, and of our future enjoyment of the everlasting heavenly happenings, and of sufficient strength both to will and perform all duties acceptably, until we come to the enjoyment of that happiness."
In other words, long before Edwards, this Puritan emphasized the importance of the desires and affections in the Christian life. If we want to grow in godliness "we must have an inclination and propensity of our hearts thereunto." He also asserts the necessity of Holy Spirit-supplied power for progress in holiness (see Ephesians 3:14-19) -"sufficient strength both to will and perform all duties acceptably."
In fact, the second direction may sound a little like Jonathan Edwards "Religious Affections" and John Piper "Future Grace" all rolled upon into one.
John Murray famously commended Walter Marshall's "Gospel Mystery of Sanctification" as the best book ever written on the subject. Recently, however, some sound divines have become suspcious of the work, in part because of who is citing it and because of dubious appeals to its authority.
However, the book ought to be read and digested. If you are Reformed and want to know how to preach a robust biblical doctrine of growth in grace in the Christian life, that is Gospel-shaped, Spirit-empowered and Christ-centered and that does not denigrate the "third use of the Law," - then Marshall is your man and "Gospel Mystery" is your book.
Here is the first sentence of the book, Marshall's "first direction" - "That we may acceptably perform the duties of holiness and righteousness required by the law, our first work is to learn the powerful and effectual means by which we may attain to so great an end."