Results tagged “Salvation” from Reformation21 Blog

The Good, the Bad and the Providence of God


Johannes Maccovius, in his Theological Distinctions, treated the subject of the Divine providence toward the righteous and toward the wicked with the maxim, "In this life, what happens to good people is never bad and what happens to bad people is never good." He then appealed to the 14th Century theologian, Thomas Bradwardine--who, in his De Causa Dei Contra Pelagium, told the following story:

"Once upon a time, he says, there was a hermit who was thinking that the wicked received the good and the righteous received evil. Therefore, he began to doubt the existence of God and whether He, should He exist, was a righteous God, because human affairs continued to be in a completely perverse order. He gave up his solitary life and wandered through the world. While he was doing this, an angel in the shape of a man joined him in traveling through the country. Together they met somebody who received them politely and treated them very well. Rising at midnight, the angel took a golden cup from him and went away with the hermit. Next, they met and stayed with someone else who, equally polite, received and treated them. Rising at midnight together with the hermit, the angel went to the cradle and strangled the baby lying in it. For the third time they went and met somebody who was not willing to receive them in his house, but let them pass the night in the open air. Early in the morning, the angel knocked on the door and presented to the wicked man the golden cup which he had stolen from the good man, and said to him: I give you this cup for the kind hospitality with which you received us. Finally, they came to a man who treated them most kindly. When the angel was about to leave, he asked him to send his servant in order to show them the way to go. So it happened. When they reached a bridge over rapid waters the angel threw the servant into the river. 

The hermit, seeing all this and thinking about it, said: now I want to leave you, because you are a villainous man. But the angel said to him: wait a moment. I will tell you who I am and teach you that everything that has been done, has happened justly by virtue of God's order. He said: I am an angel of God and I am sent to teach you that many things that seem unjust to human kind, are very just and good.The first man we met and from whom I took away the golden cup profited from this, because, before possessing this cup, he feared God. But after having received the cup he was drunk every day. Thus God sent me in order to remove this incentive to drunkenness, so that this good man would no longer endanger his eternal salvation. To the other inhumane man to whom I gave the cup I was not good but I did much harm to him. For through this cup he was induced to the same fault committed before by the other man, i.e. drinking. Therefore, God decided to give him something else in this life, because after this life he will have nothing at all. Before he was blessed with offspring the man whose child I killed was generous to the poor. But after the child was born, he washed his hands off the poor. Therefore, by order of God, I killed his child, so that this man would no longer endanger his eternal salvation, but, in fact, would return to his previous generosity. Regarding the servant sent to us by the landlord in order to show us the way: that night he was about to murder the lord, the landlady and their children. But because God loved this family, He sent me to prevent this evil. Then the angel said: 'Off you go and stop judging divine providence in the wrong way, because you see bad things happen to good people and good things to bad people.'"1

1. Johannes Maccovius Scholastic Discourse: Johannes Maccovius (1588-1644) on Theological and Philosophical Distinctions and Rules (Apeldoorn: Instituut voor Reformatieonderzoek, 2009) pp. 173-175.

The Mission of the Church in the Story of Jesus' Birth


As 2018 draws to a close, we look back on a year in which perhaps the most pressing issue for Reformed Christians is the relationship between the church and the world. How does the church respond to cultural shifts in terms of human identity and sexuality? And what is the mission of the church when it comes to matters of social justice?

It occurs to me as I read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth that here the question about the church's mission finds an answer. Consider three episodes in the birth narratives, each of which focuses the purpose of Christ's birth on the spiritual mission of redeeming his people from sin:

In Matthew 1:20-21, Joseph has just learned the troubling news that his fiancée is pregnant. But an angel informs him that the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel declares: "She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." Notice two things about this declaration. The mission of Jesus is directed toward "his people," that is, the elect. Moreover, the aim for which Jesus was born was salvific, delivering believers from sin.

In Luke 1:30-33, the angel Gabriel reveals to Mary that she will conceive a holy child. Here again, his name will be "Jesus," meaning, "Yahweh saves." His mission is conceived not in terms of the influence he will exert in worldly society but in raising up the kingdom of God: "the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Lk. 1:33).

Luke 2:13-14 reports the angel song before the astonished shepherds outside Bethlehem: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" Here again, the incarnation is directed towards the elect (those with whom he is pleased) so that they would receive peace with God and peace from God. This is the work of the gospel, bringing the spiritual ministry of saving grace into the lives of God's elect people.

How clear and striking it is, as we hear the voices announcing the birth of Jesus, to see the spiritual focus on the gospel work of salvation from sin. The angels did not announce a reform agenda for Herod's regime or a critique of class distinctions in Caesar's Rome. They announced a Savior, born on earth from heaven, as the Son of God incarnate, and his mission of delivering his chosen people from their sin. As we conclude 2018 and look ahead to a new year that may be counted on to be filled with struggle and strife among men, our calling as a Church is to spread forth the good news of the angels: "Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk. 2:11).

The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 7, Salvation


[Editorial Note: This is the seventh post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]

WE AFFIRM that salvation is granted by God's grace alone received through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Every believer is united to Christ, justified before God, and adopted into his family. Thus, in God's eyes there is no difference in spiritual value or worth among those who are in Christ. Further, all who are united to Christ are also united to one another regardless of age, ethnicity, or sex. All believers are being conformed to the image of Christ. By God's regenerating and sanctifying grace all believers will be brought to a final glorified, sinless state of perfection in the day of Jesus Christ.

WE DENY that salvation can be received in any other way. We also deny that salvation renders any Christian free from all remaining sin or immune from even grievous sin in this life. We further deny that ethnicity excludes anyone from understanding the gospel, nor does anyone's ethnic or cultural heritage mitigate or remove the duty to repent and believe.

Salvation. It, along with the related term gospel (the subject matter of Article VI), is one of the most widely used and recognized of evangelical terms but also one about which there is much misunderstanding.

The New Testament employs two primary words for salvation: sozo (σῴζω) and rhuomai (ῥύομαι), both of which carry the idea of rescue or deliverance. Salvation then, in a very real sense, is an act of deliverance and being saved is to be in a constant state of being delivered. When God saves someone, He delivers that person. In Psalm 144:1-2 David writes, "Blessed be the Lord, my lovingkindness and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer." God, by His character and nature is a deliverer. But from what? From what are we delivered and into what are we delivered?

We are delivered from ourselves - Most people today have this vague belief that as long as they are "good" people who do good works and are sincere that these efforts will earn them a place in Heaven. The notion that we can save ourselves, referred to by theologians as autosoterism, may be popular but it is foreign to the Bible. Scripture very clearly teaches that "all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment" (Isaiah 64:6) before a thrice holy God. Good works will profit those apart from Christ nothing in the day of judgment and will serve only as damning testaments against their self-righteousness.

Just as the Ethiopian cannot change his skin and the leopard cannot change his spots (Jeremiah 13:23), so we cannot deliver ourselves. Repentance from sin is not something a person can do on his own. Repentance unto salvation is in and of itself granted by God (Acts 5:30-31; 11:17-18; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). Saving faith in Christ's atoning work on the cross is also granted by God. The Apostle Paul writes,

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).

The "gift of God" in the Greek is grammatically neutral indicating that both grace and faith are divine gifts sovereignly given by God. If we could somehow gin up faith on our own then we would have reason to boast in ourselves. But such self-boasting is exactly one of the things from which the Gospel delivers us.1

We are delivered from sin and its power - When God grants repentance and saving faith a person is delivered from the judicial penalty of sin. Every human being is a sinner by nature, by choice and by action (John 3:19; Romans 3:23; 5:12) and is spiritually dead deservedly facing eternal judgment in Hell (Ephesians 2:1, 3; Romans 6:23; Revelation 14:9-11). Once wrought in the human heart, the miracle of the new birth frees so completely from the penalty of sin that "there is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" and against God's elect no one can bring a charge (Romans 8:1, 33).

Not only are we delivered from sin's penalty, but we are also delivered from its power over us. Before conversion a person is a helpless slave to the ruthless master of his own depraved desires. After conversion, he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God and is a slave to his new Master, Jesus Christ. The Christian has been granted a new nature and with it comes new desires. As believers we begin to love what God loves and hate what He hates.

It is not that a Christian is incapable of sin. Though often used in an evangelistic context, 1 John 1:9 is written to believers, not the lost. As Christians we can and do sin. But the glorious truth is that though Christians stumble into sin, they do not swim in sin. Christians do not relish sin and look for opportunities to sin. One of the hallmarks of a genuine believer is that when he does sin it grieves him. Arthur W. Pink writes:

The nature of Christ's salvation is woefully misrepresented by the present-day evangelist. He announces a savior from hell rather than a savior from sin. And that is why so many are fatally deceived, for there are multitudes who wish to escape the Lake of Fire who have no desire to be delivered from their carnality and worldliness.2

It is good and it is right to warn people to flee from the wrath to come. But just as much as we should want deliverance from hell, we should want deliverance from sin. We should have a godly sorrow over our sins (2 Corinthians 7:9-11). When we sin, it should grieve us because we understand that our sin grieves God. The gospel delivers us from our love of sin to a love for holiness.

This deliverance from our fallen affections leads to a deliverance toward holiness and sanctification. In 1 Corinthians 6, the Apostle Paul gives a long list of sins which mark the lives of unbelievers: fornication, idolatry, covetousness, drunkenness, homosexuality, theft, reviling and swindling. Such people will not inherit the kingdom of God. Then Paul says, "Such were some of you" (vs. 11). Notice the past tense. His readers were those things, but they are not anymore. We can no more speak, for example, of a gay Christian than we could of a murdering Christian. Christians do not have their identity in sin, but in Christ.

Paul then says, "but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God" (vs. 11). Notice these three terms: washed, sanctified, and justified. The two bookend terms, "washed" and "justified," deal with the new birth, salvation. The term in the middle, "sanctified," deals with the believer's personal growth and conformity into the image of Christ. Those whom God saves, He sanctifies. There are no exceptions to this. Where there is no sanctification, there has been no salvation. It is a package deal. The initial, definitive sanctification that occurs at conversion continues throughout the believer's life until glorification.

We are delivered into a new family - The new birth gives us a new family. Those who receive Christ are "given the right to become the children of God" (John 1:12) and have "received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!'" (Romans 8:15). That is a staggering reality. God takes those who were formerly His enemies, delivers them from sin and adopts them into His own family. Consider this passage from Matthew's gospel:

"While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, 'Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You." But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, 'Who is My mother and who are My brothers?' And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, 'Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother'" (Matt. 12:46-50).

Many of us have experienced a strain in relationships or even alienation from members of our family after conversion to Christ. What a comfort this passage is in such times. Our salvation may result in alienation from our blood family but we also gain a new family - and a big one at that. We instantly gain millions of brothers and sisters in Christ scattered all over the world.

This brings me to one aspect of the social justice movement that deeply grieves my heart. The message from many in this camp is that the gospel is sufficient to cleanse one's conscience and turn one's behavior from adultery, theft, fornication, blasphemy, etc., - but not racism! To deal with racism the big guns must be brought to bear. I do not understand such thinking.

One of the great blessings that has been mine as an evangelist is that God has granted me opportunities, as of this writing, to preach in 25 countries. I have preached in countries throughout Central America, South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia. It does not matter what country I am in, with what culture I am surrounded, how much or how little material belongings the people have, or even what language is spoken, when I am with like-minded believers in Christ there is an instant bond, an instant kindred spirit, an instant fellowship and an instant love between us.

Another thing that does not matter is ethnicity. I do not care what color their skin is nor do they care what color mine is. I have never been in a church overseas and had the thought, 'They really need more white people in here.' I have never once felt unwelcome. We do not mistrust one another. We love one another. Even though we may have just met for the first time I have an instant love for them and they for me - because we are family. And because we have all been delivered from Adam's family into the family of God, none of these superficial differences matter. The dividing wall has been broken down (Ephesians 2:13-19) and we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

Salvation is deliverance. Glorious and beautiful deliverance. We have been delivered from the dead and made alive in Christ (Colossians 2:13). We have been delivered from sin and its deadly hold on our hearts. We have been delivered into the family of God where superficial differences matter not. And, we will one day be delivered and presented to the Son as a love gift from the Father where we will enjoy Him and glorify Him forever (John 6:37; 17:2, 9, 24) all "to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved" (Ephesians 1:6).

1. This in no way diminishes man's responsibility and accountability before God. God is sovereign and man is responsible. God's sovereignty and man's responsibility are twin truths that, at times, are even seen in the same passage. See for example: Matt. 11:27-28; Acts 2:23.

2. Pink, Arthur W. "A. W. Pink's Studies in the Scriptures," pg. 373. Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.

The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 4, God's Law


[Editorial Note: This is the fourth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]

Article 4: God's Law

WE AFFIRM that God's law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness. Violation of that law is what constitutes sin.

WE DENY that any obligation that does not arise from God's commandments can be legitimately imposed on Christians as a prescription for righteous living. We further deny the legitimacy of any charge of sin or call to repentance that does not arise from a violation of God's commandments.

The same God who gave us the gospel has also given us his law. This point can be easily overlooked by Christians who are concerned to be centered on the gospel. That concern is appropriate and those believers who have lived through seasons where the gospel was neglected or at best assumed are understandably sensitive to anything that would compete with its pride of place in the life of the church. However, we can never honor God's gospel by despising his law.

In fact, lack of clarity about the nature and significance of the law inevitably results in a lack of clarity or even confusion about the gospel. A clear understanding of God's law provides the foundation for the proclamation of the gospel. I agree with John Bunyan, who wrote, "The man who does not know the nature of the law cannot know the nature of sin. And he who does not know the nature of sin cannot know the nature of the Savior."

Article 4 of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel is vital because it gets at the foundation of much that is being erroneously advocated under the banner of social justice. John Newton wisely observed,

Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes. This is the root of self-righteousness, the grand reason why the Gospel of Christ is no more regarded, and the cause of that uncertainty and inconsistency in many, who, though they profess themselves teachers, understand not what they say, nor whereof they affirm.

The God who saves us is the same God who created us and who rules us. He has revealed his will to us in his law. Our duty, therefore, can only be defined in terms of what he has commanded.

Obviously, Scripture reveals various types of commandments that have come from God. To rightly understand our relationship to all that has been commanded we must make distinctions, as Paul clearly does in Romans 2:25-27.

Historically, interpreters from Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin to the Puritans to the Westminster & Second London Confessions of Faith have all recognized a three-fold division within the commandments in order to understand God's law. As John MacArthur helpfully explains,

"We can divide the law of God into three parts: the moral law, the judicial law, and the ceremonial law. The moral law was for all men, the judicial law was just for Israel, and the ceremonial law was for Israel's worship of God. So the moral law encompasses all men, it is narrowed down to Israel in the judicial law, and to the worship of Israel toward God in the ceremonial law."

It is that moral law that the statement affirms as God's unchanging standard of righteousness. In other words, God and God alone has the authority to tell us what constitutes righteousness and, conversely, what sin is.

This is vital for Christians to keep in mind as we think about how people should live. We are not free to live only for ourselves. We were made for God and must love him supremely above all else. Along with that we must love our neighbors--our fellow image-bearers--sincerely.

What does such love look like? It looks like obedience to God's commandments. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15) and Paul writes, "For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet," and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Romans 13:9).

What does sin look like? Violation of God's commandments (1 John 3:4). Before we call anyone to repentance we should be clear that the offense in view is actually a violation of God's law. And before we start justifying ourselves by thinking that the moral law only governs our outward actions, we must remember the strictness and spirituality of that law as explained by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Both the physical act of adultery as well as the lustful, sexual desires are violations of the seventh commandment.

Though the law of God was never designed to provide a way of salvation for sinners, it does show us what God requires. That remains just as true for Christians as for unbelievers. It also helps us to understand and appreciate all that Jesus has provided for us by his life of obedience and death in behalf of lawbreakers.

It is impossible for people to live without standards of right and wrong. When God's standard that he has revealed in his law is ignored, neglected or assumed, you can be sure that other, man-made standards will be enforced. That is why J. Gresham Machen's words are as true now as they were when he wrote them in the early part of the twentieth century:

A new and more powerful proclamation of [the] law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law.... So it always is; a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace. Pray God that the high view may again prevail.

The Necessity of Preaching


Salvation is an expansive term. It essentially means "safety." Salvation includes the application of Christ's work from the new birth, through faith and repentance, to Justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Christians share in Christ's benefits because they are united to him through faith and they enjoy communion in all his benefits. We have been saved (Eph. 2:8), we are being saved (2 Cor. 2:15), and we shall be saved (Rom. 5:9). God uses means such as the Word, the sacraments, and prayer to save sinners (WSC 88). We receive Christ by faith as we use his appointed means to foster and to exercise our faith.

Is reading the Bible in private enough to save us? Not ultimately. Like the Bereans, we must receive the preached Word "with all readiness" and we must search the Scriptures daily "to find out whether these things [are] so" (Acts 17:11). Preaching is necessary for salvation because it is the ordinary means through which we hear Christ and are saved by him. This passage explains why preaching is necessary, who should do it, what it proclaims, its opposition, and its purpose. These truths show us why we need preaching as a means of promoting our salvation through union and communion with Christ.

The necessity of preaching of so clearly highlighted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 10, where he wrote:

"How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!' But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed our report?' So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:14-17).

Preaching is necessary because people need to hear Christ in order to believe in him for salvation. Romans 9-11 answers the question why so many Jews did not receive Christ as their Messiah. In chapter 9, Paul answered that not all Jews came to faith because God did not elect all of them to salvation. Chapter 11 concludes that God preserved an elect remnant of ethnic Jews now, such as Paul, and that God would save many more of them in the future. Chapter 10 explains that unbelieving Jews were accountable for their unbelief. Paul explained that God would save both Jews and Gentiles through preaching. He pressed the necessity of preaching in light of the fact that people need to call upon Christ through faith. Circumcised Jews needed to be circumcised in heart (Jer. 9:25-26; Rom. 2:28-29). Uncircumcised Gentiles "were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). Only Christ's blood could bring both Jews and Gentiles near to God (v. 13-18). Paul added that it was not enough to hear about Christ. People need to hear Christ's voice. The Greek text of Romans 10:14 says literally, "How shall they believe him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear [him] without a preacher?" As Christ spoke in Paul (2 Cor. 13:3), and as Christ pleads with sinners through his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), so people hear Christ through preachers in order to believe Christ himself. This does not mean that Christ does not call people through Bible reading and that he does not use the sacraments and prayer as means of salvation. Yet preaching is the ordinary means by which we must learn Christ and hear his voice (Eph. 4:20). How God can save sinners and how he ordinarily chooses to do so are different questions. When we listen to sermons, we should expect to hear Christ in the sermon as he calls us to himself by his Word and Spirit.

Preaching comes through Christ's sent messengers. This implies that preachers are necessary for preaching and that God must equip and send them to preach on Christ's behalf. This point builds upon the previous post, which defined preaching as a public authoritative proclamation of the gospel through Christ's ordained ambassadors. To identify preaching we must identify the preacher properly. We saw that Christ gifts preachers through the Spirit. Christ sends preachers to do their work by calling them to office through the church. He calls men to office through the election of the congregation and the laying on of hands by a group of elders (presbytery, in Greek. Acts 1:23, 6:3-6, 14:23; 1 Tim. 4:14). This former act is election and latter is ordination. The church recognizes the gifts of those whom Christ is sending to preach; it does not convey gifts to them. This reinforces the idea that we must define preaching largely in terms of office. We should seek to hear and receive Christ through the preaching of those preachers whom he has sent.

Preaching is necessary because it brings to us glad tidings from God. Paul cited Isaiah 52:7 to show the blessedness of those who bring "the gospel of peace." "Gospel" means "good news" and proclaiming this good news is inherent to preaching. This means that preaching has a positive aim. It is the "sweet savor of Christ" to God" (2 Cor. 2:15) and God intends preaching to be the "savor of life unto life" to those who believe (v. 16). Preaching should have a positive tone because Christ's person and work are its objects. In preaching, we hear the voice of the Christ who saves.

The positive aim of preaching often meets opposition. Paul cited Isaiah 53:1 to show that preaching does not always bring life. The preached Word becomes a "savor of death" to those who reject Christ (2 Cor. 2:16). It was so to unbelieving Israel in Isaiah's day, it was so to unbelieving Jews in Paul's day, and it remains so to all people who refuse Christ's voice through preaching today. Preaching condemns incidentally. Its aim is to save rather than to condemn. Preaching announces God's love in sending his Son to save those who believe (Jn. 3:16). He did not send him to condemn the world, but to save it (v. 17). Preaching condemns only those who do not believe in the only begotten Son of God (v. 18). People bring their own darkness to bear on the gospel, the nature of which is light (v. 19). Those who love darkness hate light and shun its radiance (v. 20). Yet those who love the truth as it is in Jesus (Eph. 4:21) love the light that he is and brings. The darkness in people's hearts leads them to flee the light, but the darkness of the world cannot overcome the light (Jn. 1:5). God will achieve the end of calling people out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9) and he will use preaching as a means of doing so.

Preaching is necessary as the primary means that Christ uses to bring people to salvation because it is his primary means of promoting saving faith. "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). Some manuscripts read, "the word of Christ," instead of, "the word of God." In either case, Paul teaches us that preaching is the primary means of converting sinners and of building up the saints to salvation because we hear Christ through preaching. Christ must, therefore, be the primary object of preaching. Though preaching is defined largely in terms of office, Christ's work in sending preachers defines preaching in terms of its content as well. Christ commissions preachers, they speak on Christ's behalf, and Christ speaks through them, in order to unfold the unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8). Failing to preach Christ in a sermon denies the definition and nature of preaching. Christian sermons must be distinctively Christian. Do we listen to sermons expecting to hear and receive Christ through them?

Lay up Treasures (i.e. People) in Heaven

Soon many will begin re-reading the Bible from cover-to-cover throughout the year. This is a practice I heartily commend. But there's another practice that has been immensely beneficial to me as I've read portions of God's word in recent times. 

As I read the various commands Christ gave to his disciples during the course of his public ministry on earth, I sometimes meditate on the manner in which he personally kept the command he gave. Keeping this thought in mind can open up the Scriptures in fresh and exciting ways.

For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ gives the following command:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt. 6:19-21).

Christians are to lay up for themselves treasures in heaven. Did Christ, the pioneer of our faith (Heb. 12:2), keep this command? And if so, how did he keep this command? 

It seems to me that Christ principally kept this command by laying us up for himself in heaven (Jn. 10:10). We are his treasured possession (Deut. 7:6). He raised us up, where we are seated with him (Col. 3:1; Eph. 2:6). In this way, as in all things, he and the Father have the same purpose and will, namely, to lay up people (i.e., treasures) for themselves in heaven: "... [God's] glorious inheritance in the saints" (Eph. 1:18).

There are a number of ways in which we can keep this command. While Christ procured salvation, the application of salvation to sinners usually involves human agents (Rom. 10:14). So there is a sense in which we, too, can lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven by holding out the Word of life to an unbelieving world (Phil. 2:16). 

Wives can lay up for themselves treasures in heaven according to Peter's command in 1 Peter 3:1-2, "Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct."

Pastors can lay up for themselves treasures in heaven according to Paul's command to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16, "Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers."

Believers can live such godly lives that unbelievers will be won to the kingdom (1 Pet. 2:12; Matt. 5:16). 

Parents can play a role in bringing salvation to their children (Eph. 6:4; 2 Tim. 3:15).

We can therefore understand Matthew 6:19-21 in a way that keeps us from being overly selfish about our rewards/treasures in heaven. Our treasures in heaven will include God's people, just as Christ's treasure is his bride. But, remarkably, we even have a role to play in "laying up people/treasures in heaven." 

I have heard many appeals for why we should evangelize. "People are going to Hell." True enough. "God is not worshipped." True indeed. But we may also say that we have an obligation, as Christ did, to lay up for ourselves treasures (i.e., souls) in heaven, which is a great part of our reward. Heaven will be a family of people who are in every way a treasured possession not only to Christ, but also to us. Do we, in our evangelism, tell people we want to spend eternity with them in heaven?

Christ's whole life was missionary activity. Adam was God's treasured possession. Adam sinned. But Adam remained God's treasured possession. How would God himself lay up Adam in heaven? Through Christ. Christ thus enjoys Adam in heaven because the Father desires to enjoy Adam in heaven. Adam, like each redeemed saint, is a bond of love between the Father and the Son. 

We are also told that where our treasure is there our heart will be also (Matt. 6:21). Where is the heart of Christ in heaven? It is towards sinners on earth and the redeemed in heaven because we are his treasure - those whom he personally carries to the Father.

So I'd like to think that when Christ issued this command to his disciples, he knew precisely that he would be laying them up for himself in heaven because his heart was with them.

Free grace

Preparing to preach tomorrow, I came across these stirring words in a suprising place:
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.

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.
There will be no prizes for guessing, and unimaginable shame for cheating, but I wonder how many of us might quickly guess the source?
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." 2 Corinthians 13.14

B. B. Warfield long ago observed that the apostolic writings do not develop but rather presuppose the doctrine of the Trinity. The New Testament is not evidence of a transitional stage in the evolution of a trinitarian faith that is only conceptualized and codified in later centuries. The New Testament exhibits the presence within the apostolic church of a deeply ingrained trinitarian faith that, almost effortlessly, articulates itself in trinitarian summaries of the gospel events (e.g., Gal 4.4-7), trinitarian formulations of sacramental practice (e.g., Matt 28.19), trinitarian outbursts of praise (e.g., Eph 1.3-14), and trinitarian benedictions, such as we have in 2 Corinthians 13.14. 

This little verse is a trinitarian theology of salvation in miniature. As the God in whose name it blesses is one and three, so too is the salvation it commends. 

Second Corinthians 13.14 coordinates each phase of God's saving work--from its conception to its accomplishment to its effect--to a different person of the Trinity. Thus "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" coordinates the accomplishment God's saving work to the Son: our Lord and elder brother who graciously humbled himself to bear our curse and who was gloriously exalted to bestow his Father's blessing (2 Cor 8.9). "The love of God" coordinates the conception of God's saving work to the Father: whose love initiated the sacrifice of his beloved Son (John 3.16) and whose love intended our adoption as that sacrifice's gracious consequence (Eph 1.4-5). "The fellowship of the Holy Spirit" coordinates the effect of God's saving work to the Spirit: who brings us into adoptive fellowship with the Father (Gal 4.5-6), through mystical fellowship with the Son (Eph 1.3), in and by the corporate fellowship of the local church (1 Cor 12). 

The text does not coordinate the three persons of the Trinity to the three phases of salvation because all three persons are not united in all three phases of God's saving work (the external works of God, after all, are undivided) but in order to highlight the distinctive glory of each particular person in each particular phase of salvation. Consequently, as the Father's distinctive personal character lies in begetting the Son and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in conceiving the plan of salvation in love. As the Son's distinctive personal character lies in being begotten of the Father and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in accomplishing the gracious plan that brings many sons to glory. As the Spirit's distinctive personal character lies in being breathed forth by the Father and the Son in their mutual fellowship and love, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in welcoming us into the fruit or effect of God's gracious plan of salvation: the fellowship of the Spirit.

Two quick observations follow from the preceding discussion. 

First, contrary to Warfield's reading, this verse does not contradict the principle that an ordered procession of persons exists within the Trinity; it rather confirms it. Though syntactically the Son precedes the Father and the Spirit in this verse, his position in the work of salvation corresponds to his personal order within the Trinity, as we saw above. The significance of 2 Corinthians 13.14 for trinitarian theology, we might say, lies not in syntax but in semantics. 2 Corinthians 13.14 presents to us a salvation initiated by the first person, accomplished by the second person, and perfected by the third person in correspondence with their eternal relations.

Second, as with the persons themselves, the phases of God's work of salvation may be distinguished. However, as with the persons, God's work of salvation cannot be divided. God's salvation, like God himself is one. No conception of salvation without salvation's accomplishment. No accomplishment of salvation without salvation's effect. 

This observation, it seems to me, holds powerful implications for how we think about the place of the local church within God's saving purpose. If it is indeed true that the fellowship of the Spirit (with the Father, through the Son, in the local church) is inseparable from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father, then we cannot expect to enjoy the grace of the Lord Jesus or the love of the Father apart from the church, the community within which the fellowship of the Spirit flourishes. Accordingly, to the extent that we would lean into the love of the Father and into the grace of the Lord Jesus, we must lean into the fellowship of the Spirit in the place where he pours forth the realities of that fellowship, in the local church.

And this also seems to be why Paul concludes a series of exhortations toward restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace (see 2 Cor 13.11) with a trinitarian benediction: because the triune God of love, grace, and fellowship is the one whose blessing and presence is absolutely essential in forming a community characterized by restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace.

Very Presbyterian problems

If you have wandered around at all online you have probably seen one of those silly articles that purport to offer a string of very British problems, most of them variations on the joke about two British people marooned on a desert island, rescued ten years later, and found never to have spoken to one another because they had never been properly introduced. Mark's article on Presbyterian parenthood put me in mind of such things: problems that arise from the very nature of the beast. That, of course, is not to suggest that there are no tensions or questions in a Baptist approach to the same issue: as a Christian parent, how do I deal with my children?

Mark's historical survey introduces some of the debates that have characterised Presbyterian discussions. My angle on those would, of course, be different, as I am not working from precisely the same set of convictions. I also appreciate and face some similar difficulties. At the same time, I believe that a Baptist solution to the problems is more scripturally simple and straightforward, as well as avoiding any danger of making baptism a saving ordinance, and avoiding discussions about the difference between actual and federal holiness, and what seems to be the more-than-mere-tension of not knowing whether or not something is true but still judging it to be so. I suspect that Mark would endorse many of the elements of my parenting (and I would doubtless do the same with regard to his). I also know his esteem for particular Baptists (probably Particular Baptists), whatever he may think of yours truly (no need to respond, brother - we try to keep things civil here).

However, I thought that it might be helpful to offer some thoughts from a Baptist parent trying before God to raise his children in a way that becomes my convictions.

My children hear the gospel in the family and in the church. Although I do not presume them to be disciples, there is a sense in which I "teach them diligently" the ways of God, and "talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (Dt 6:7). I want them to learn to see the world through God's eyes, as it were, defined by divine assessments and directives, so that they may respond appropriately, as the Spirit works in their hearts. I teach them, therefore, from the book of general revelation, so that they may know that there is a Creator who made them and to whom they are accountable, and from the book of special revelation, so that they may know that there is a Saviour from whom they may receive salvation. I am deeply conscious of the particular privileges that they enjoy growing up in a home where Christ Jesus is known and loved and proclaimed, and I urge them to improve those privileges by trusting in and serving the Lord Christ.

I explain to them the context, realities, invitations and demands and promises, and consequences of God's salvation in Christ Jesus. I tell them that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13). I assure them that "the LORD is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth" (Ps 145:18 cf. Rom 10.12). I urge them to do what any sinner should do in order to be saved: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31), emphasizing that  "the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2Pt 3:9). I do so, confident that all that the Father gives Christ will come to Christ, and the one who comes to Christ he will by no means cast out, for it is the will of the Father who sent the Son that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have everlasting life; and Christ will raise him up at the last day (Jn 6:37-40). I would - in essence - insist upon the same gospel for my children as I would for anyone else.

In similar fashion to John Bunyan, I want to point them to Christ out of a sense of their own need of a Saviour. In dealing with the more specific problem of whether or not we should teach children forms of prayer, Bunyan answers:
My judgment is, that men go the wrong way to teach their children to pray, in going about so soon to teach them any set company of words, as is the common use of poor creatures to do.

For to me it seems to be a better way for people betimes to tell their children what cursed creatures they are, and how they are under the wrath of God by reason of original and actual sin; also to tell them the nature of God's wrath, and the duration of the misery; which if they conscientiously do, they would sooner teach their children to pray than they do. The way that men learn to pray, it is by conviction for sin; and this is the way to make our sweet babes do so too. But the other way, namely, to be busy in teaching children forms of prayer, before they know any thing else, it is the next way to make them cursed hypocrites, and to puff them up with pride. Teach therefore your children to know their wretched state and condition; tell them of hell-fire and their sins, of damnation, and salvation; the way to escape the one, and to enjoy the other, if you know it yourselves, and this will make tears run down your sweet babes' eyes, and hearty groans flow from their hearts; and then also you may tell them to whom they should pray, and through whom they should pray: you may tell them also of God's promises, and his former grace extended to sinners, according to the word.

Ah! Poor sweet babes, the Lord open their eyes, and make them holy Christians. Saith David, "Come ye children, hearken unto me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord" (Psa 34:11). He doth not say, I will muzzle you up in a form of prayer; but "I will teach you the fear of the Lord"; which is, to see their sad states by nature, and to be instructed in the truth of the gospel, which doth through the Spirit beget prayer in every one that in truth learns it. And the more you teach them this, the more will their hearts run out to God in prayer. God never did account Paul a praying man, until he was a convinced and converted man; no more will it be with any else (Acts 9:11). (John Bunyan, A Discourse Touching Prayer, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2006), 635.)
When my children sin and ask for forgiveness from God, I assure them that the Lord delights to hear such prayers from the hearts of truly convinced sinners, and is ready to forgive those who come to him through Christ Jesus. I assure them that age is no bar to salvation, and that the Lord Christ welcomed people of all sorts and ages. If they have come to him in repentance and faith, then he will forgive them, and he will help them to live in accordance with it. I explain the difference that salvation makes, and what I would expect to see in the heart of a Christian boy or girl, a love for God, his word, his people, his holiness, that is in keeping with their circumstances and relative maturity. If and when I see those things developing in the heart and life of my child, I rejoice in hope. At the same time, I recognise that - because of the very nature of a child - there may be a measure of willingness to please Dad and Mum, and that they are in an environment in which they are largely defended against and protected from some particular outward pressures and temptations. And so I seek to train them and equip them, trusting that I will in due course see the measure of tried and tested spiritual understanding, maturity and development that gives me and them confidence that a true work of the Spirit has taken place. As and when that comes to an appropriate and demonstrable fruition - a credible profession of faith, which, for me, necessitates a measure of mental and emotional development and maturity - I hope to see them baptized (and, as every honest Greek scholar will inform you, which doubtless includes my erudite chum, Mark, that means immersion) as a testimony of their having been united to Christ by faith, identifying with him in his death and resurrection.

With regard to obedience, I emphasize that the commands of God are right and true, but that we need the grace and strength of the Spirit in order to obey. And so I do not hold back in making plain the things that God requires, urging them to understand that only in Christ are they able to obey from the heart in a way that is pleasing to God, and trusting that - if they see their own falling short of the glory of God - it will be a means of their casting themselves upon him for salvation. When they sin, I point out to them the dynamic of forgiveness that operates within the family, and trace out the parallels in God's readiness to forgive us.

I don't know whether or not my children can sing "Jesus loves me, this I know." I actually think it tends toward the twee, and tend not to teach them such stuff. Besides, I am not sure that they are ready for a disquisition on the kind of love with which the Lord may be said to love different people. I urge them to sing, and hope that the same sense of spiritual reality will impress itself upon them as they learn of God's glory and goodness. I urge them to consider whether or not the words that they sing are coming from their mouths or their hearts.

I want them to call upon the Lord as Saviour. I want them to pray in the light of God's gracious dealings with them as a benevolent Creator. I can honestly say that the most often expressed desire of my children in prayer is that the Lord would save them. I believe that the Lord answers that prayer from the hearts of even the youngest, and I prayerfully hope to see the fruit in due course that will prove that they were not simply parroting words, and that the Lord is indeed gracious to those who come to him.

I would be quite happy for my children to have a "boring" testimony - any variety of testimony, in fact, as long as it is a testimony of God's saving grace to a sinner. The dawning light of salvation may enter a soul suddenly, as when the curtains are suddenly thrown open on a summer morning, or more gradually, as when the curtains are left open and the gradually rising sun slowly floods the room with light. Either way, there is a passing from darkness to light. I would hope that my children will say, in essence, "One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see" (Jn 9:25). I have known children from Christian homes who have been converted with very little trauma of soul, and some who have wrestled in agony. Some have turned against all they have known and fought hard before being cut to the heart; others have felt the deepest pangs of conscience despite an outwardly benign life, feeling the sin of their hearts. Some have simply, under the Spirit's influence, accepted the truth of the Christ who saves. Others have fought long and hard before being subdued. I simply ask that the Lord would do all that is needful to make my children his. "Daddy, am I really forgiven?" "My son, my daughter, if the Lord has drawn you to Christ with faith and repentance to trust in him for the pardon of your sins and peace with God, you are indeed."

This all makes sense to me as a Baptist, and I can do it all with a clear conscience and an earnest hope. It makes far more sense to me, the lines being more clearly and scripturally drawn, in accordance with my understanding of the Word of God, than the resolutions that Mark proposes. I am sure that other Baptists will have slightly different approaches or nuances, but I imagine that a number of them will have essentially the same approach. I think it is plain that there are points of overlap in the answers that Mark and I have given, even measures of common understanding and expectation. I would anticipate that, and am delighted with it. However, there are also some very significant and substantial differences, and I hope that this stimulates some thought and discussion.
We have several copies of a new book by Phil Ryken, Bible teacher on Every Last Word radio and internet broadcast.

Salvation by Crucifixion sends a challenge to readers: if the historic facts of the cross are true, and the emphasis the Bible places on the crucifixion is justified, then what difference should that make for our lives? Just as it is the key moment in all world history, it is the key moment in our own personal existence and understanding it better becomes of vital importance.

These are a wonderful gift from Christian Focus Publications! We don't have many to give away, but those few we have will be given away here! So sign up today.


The road to joy

I have just returned from a very pleasant week of fellowship and ministry among the Reformed Presbyterians in Northern Ireland. It was my privilege to preach at the Knockbracken Bible Week, as well as at a men's meeting beforehand, and to the students at the Reformed Theological College during one of the days.

My appointed topic in Knockbracken was the joy of salvation. I was only able to develop it briefly, considering it first against the backdrop of the curse, then looking at justification both in terms of the forgiveness of sin and the granting of righteousness, then on to what it means to be called sons of God, then finally the unfailing God who is the eternal portion of the saints.

Though I had not particularly planned it, there was a particular theme which developed along the way. As the week advanced, I emphasised repeatedly the truth that our sense of the blessings of God is grounded not just in what we have been saved to but also in what we have been saved from. So our appreciation of the blessings in Christ are in large measure proportionate to our sense of the curse from which he has delivered us. The joy of sins forgiven will be commensurate with our grief at sins committed. Our delight in peace with God will hinge in large part on our sense that we have been at enmity with him. We will most appreciate being called sons of God when we recognise that we were by nature children of wrath. It is because our flesh and heart fail that there is sweetest relief in an unfailing God as the rock of our hearts and our portion forever.

Your entry into and experience of joy depends, then, largely on your honesty before God and with yourself and others. That begins with honesty about our misery, our sin, our rebellion, our nature and our weakness. It is only when we face these facts that we will begin to find corresponding peace with and delight in God known in Christ Jesus. As sinners - even as saved sinners - there is nothing to be gained by denying or downgrading the depth of our past and present deeds and needs. Rather, our guilt and weakness is the very backdrop against which the grace of God shines most brightly. The bitterness of our sin and frailty makes the sweetness of divine mercy all the more distinct.

That also means that it is incumbent upon ministers of the gospel to make plain what it means to be without God and without hope in the world, to be under the Lord's wrath and curse on account of our sinfulness of nature and sins in deed. There is no need - we might say, little possibility - for exaggeration. Such honesty not only drives sinners out of themselves to Christ, it also means that there will be a deep and true appreciation of the mercies of God in Christ, with all corresponding joy. Such honesty keeps the saints humble in themselves and close to God, conscious of their blessings in him alone. And all this while securing the glory of God as it brings to light the greatness of our so great salvation.

Many today - even in the church - want a gospel that has no shadows, but the good news exists and makes sense only in the context of the bad news. If we want the sick to run to the doctor seeking the right medicine, we need accurately to diagnose the disease and provide the prognosis. Repentance is the heart-cry of the sinner who has come to see his sin as God sees it, and mourns accordingly. Faith is the whole-souled casting of oneself upon Christ as we confess that there is no hope in anyone or anything else. Christ's atonement is not therapy for the lightly troubled. It is life from death. That life is all the more valued and its Giver all the more exalted when the awful nature of death is properly appreciated. Everyone seems to want joy, but few seem ready to pay the price of sorrow beforehand.

It is the darkness of the night that makes the dawn precious. It is the torment of pain that makes relief so sweet. It is the misery of sickness that makes recovery so valued. It is the grief of lostness that makes being found so wonderful. It is the emptiness of self that makes the fullness of Christ so delightful. It is the horror of the curse that makes the blessing of salvation so great. It is the weight of sin's burden that makes its removal so overwhelming. It is the pain of rebellion that makes peace so dear. It is the distance of being cast out that makes the nearness of being drawn in so enticing. It is the frailty of the creature that throws the might and mercy of the Creator and Redeemer into sharp relief.

There are no short cuts to such joy. We should not seek them or offer them. Preach the truth to bring sinners to an end of themselves and to send them to Christ. Face the truth that strips you of all hope outside of God's gracious provision. Then run to the Lord Jesus and find in him all that you will need for salvation, in time and for eternity, and there you will find joy indeed.
Henry van Dyke, an English literature professor at Princeton University in the 19th-20th centuries, wrote, "As long as habit and routine dictate the pattern of living, new dimensions of the soul will not emerge." We, therefore, prize spontaneity. Many things that come prepackaged are overly familiar and sometimes boring. It is common to place one's daily activities in the realm of "habit" and "routine."

Every morning you awake to the same tune--whining children, an alarm, whistling birds outside your window. You look in the mirror at the same face, use the same toothbrush, wear the same shoes for work, and drive the same car. You come home at the same time, unless traffic prohibits, to an empty house or perhaps your family. As your evening retires, you awake the next morning, provided the Lord wills, to do it all over again. Where is the freshness? Where is the novelty? With such a life, will "new dimensions of the soul...emerge?"

If you are not careful, the Christmas season could easily fall into nothing more than habit and routine. Every year after Thanksgiving, you begin preparing for Christmas. The brown, red, and orange decorations are buried in the boxes while the green, red, and gold colors emerge. The nativity scene--lest baby Jesus--is placed on a table in your house, and the reef is placed on the front door. The initial days of December afford you the right to purchase a Christmas tree. Your home is now newly revived with a scent of pine. Presents are placed under the tree as you await 12:01am on December 25th. All this is routine. It is a pattern that emerges year-after-year. Where is the freshness and novelty? They both come not necessarily from decorating your home or Christmas tree, though that can provide a sense of joy. The novelty, if I may put it this way, comes from 'what's in the box.' That's the excitement--new presents. That's the freshness--new toys. 

We may not consciously be thinking about this at the moment we open our gifts, but the gifts ultimately point to the Greatest Gift--the Lord Jesus Christ. This costly Gift is ours; we celebrate it every Sunday; we celebrate it during the Christmas season. This is Christmas Doctrine 101--what then does this have to do with the star on your Christmas tree? My observations, I believe, will neither take away nor add to the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Rather, it may provide an insight to the Christmas season that might, according to the late Professor van Dyke, add "new dimensions [to] the soul." 

First, let's consider the historical narrative leading to the birth of Christ. 

"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was" (Matt. 2:1-2, 9; ESV). 

Far from Matthew foreshadowing the first On Star navigation system, this star represented something so striking it is no wonder people want to take the Christ out of Christmas. However, in order to comprehend the meaning of this star, and correspondingly the star on top of your Christmas tree, one must take a trip down memory lane to Numbers 24.

There, the king of Moab was fearful that Israel was going to destroy his nation. He, therefore, called a seer, Balaam, to prophesy against Israel. In his final prophesy, he said,

"I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly. And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!" (Num. 24:17-19; ESV). 

Contrary to what the King of Moab desired, Balaam prophesied that the enemies of Israel would be destroyed. "Edom [would] be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, [would] be dispossessed." The star, along with the scepter, indicated destruction was near. The scepter represented sovereign rule, the duty of a king, and the star indicated destruction, the movement of a king.

It is fitting that Jesus, therefore, in Matthew's Gospel is portrayed as king (Matt. 1:1, 2:2, 4). He exercises dominion over all nations and peoples (Matt. 28:16-20). It was his duty, nevertheless, to do much more than rule. Jesus also came to destroy. More particularly, he came to destroy all his and your enemies (WSC 26).

The star in Matthew 2, mentioned also in Numbers 24, was a sign for the people that God was going to stretch out his right arm of power. He was going to retrieve what was ruined by sin and Satan. He was coming to destroy. As the wise men, therefore, were somehow led by the star, their final destination--the resting place of the star--indicated that they found the king, the one who exercised sovereign dominion over all the nations and peoples, the one who came to destroy his enemies. 

It must have been striking to be led to a child. How could a child rule and destroy the enemies of God and his people? Whatever their thoughts, Jesus did accomplish all that his Father purposed. Yes, while Jesus offered great hope for sinners, we must not forget that one part of his mission was to destroy the enemies of God. Colossians 2:15,

"He disarmed the rulers and authorities, and put the to open shame, by triumphing over them..."

Therefore, this is an exciting time of the year, one that, while it is filled with routine, provides opportunity for an invigorating taste of the past and the future. The Son of God clothed himself in human flesh to destroy his enemies. Then, it was largely spiritual (Col. 2:15). However, when he comes again, he will destroy people (Rev. 20:11-15).

Does the star atop your Christmas tree point you to destruction? Are you reminded that just as the wise men were led by a star to the Great Gift--one who would destroy his enemies--so, too, you are led by the star atop your Christmas tree at dusk to lesser gifts? As you look at that star, are you reminded that just as your savior came once to destroy, he is coming again? You, who are united to Christ, have a great hope, namely your savior who is coming to bury all your enemies, which includes sin and death, once for all. 

Do not be completely immersed in the idea of routine and habit this Christmas season. It is easy to be conditioned by pattern without experiencing joy. Routine is good; habit can be as well; the new dimensions of the soul, however, is what will come when all that the star atop your Christmas tree represents is fully realized and you see your savior face-to-face, for you will be like him.

Losing Adam

Losing Adam means losing so much more besides. That is because losing Adam is likely to prove the beginning of losing our Bibles. Like the gardener who decides to trim his hedge, he finds that an aggressive cut at one point leaves a lopsided creation which requires further cuts here and there in order to restore a sense of balance and proportion to his judging eye. As Lloyd-Jones makes plain, "the Bible is a unity. We must take it all." The whole of Scripture stands or falls together. Once the first cut is made, there is no saying how many more cuts must follow until the man with the knife is satisfied.

What are some of the specific cuts that might follow when we lose Adam? What, in this sense, falls with an historical Adam? When the creation and the Fall are undermined, what tumbles with them?

Losing Adam means losing my dignity. As a son of Adam, I know I am made in the image of God. That Adam was made distinctly, separate from every other creature, for a particular purpose and with a particular stewardship, establishes not just the dignity of my being, but that of every human being. Losing Adam may mean, in principle, losing vital ground in the battles against the sex trade, abortion, slavery, and a multitude of other spheres where the conviction of human worth is a reason for Christian engagement. It means losing that sense of vocation that comes from being, after a fashion, a steward in and of God's earth.

Losing Adam means losing my humanity. What it means to be male, and - by extension - female, finds its roots in the creation of the first man and the first woman. Hinging upon this is the whole construct of marriage. It is no accident that when the Lord Christ and the apostle Paul speak to the issue of marriage, they go back to creation. Losing Adam means losing the solid basis for complementarianism, with the God-ordained pattern for male-female relationships that has its origin in the very beginning of human life.

Losing Adam means that I have no adequate explanation for the sinfulness of my soul or my race. Adam as some kind of generic Everyman does not provide me with that foundation. Only Adam properly explains how sin and death entered God's world. Losing Adam means I have no fixed point from which to interpret the misery of mankind lost in sin and the awful realities of spiritual and physical death, for "through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Rom 5.12). It robs me of that which makes sense of the world as it is, populated by people like me whose hearts are by nature wholly inclined to sin, and it threatens to rob me of the need for atonement.

Losing Adam means losing hope, for my solidarity with Adam as a man condemned finds its Scriptural counterpart in my solidarity with Christ, the last Adam, as a man redeemed. Adam is "a type of him who was to come" (Rom 5.14) - all the God-ordained parallels and constructs out of which my salvation finds its form and substance are lost if an historical Adam is lost. "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive," wrote the apostle in 1 Corinthians 15.22. But if there is no Adam in relationship to whom I die, how can I be confident that my parallel relationship with the Christ secures my life? If there is no imputation of Adam's sin, why should there be an imputation of Christ's righteousness? I cannot have one without the other. Thomas Goodwin's famous illustration illuminates the concern: if there are, in essence, and as far as God's dealings with the world are concerned, only two men in the whole world, two giants upon one of whose belts every other individual is hooked, then what shall I do when one of those giants is suddenly taken out of the equation? All of a sudden the existence of the other, specifically in that relationship of soteriological solidarity, begins to look more than a little hazy. If the one is a mere fairy tale or cipher, what of the other?

But losing Adam means losing not only my present but also my future hope. If there is no earthly man whose image I have borne, what confident expectation do I have of one day bearing the image of the heavenly man? The parallels again demand either that having shared in Adam's earthiness I will - united to Christ - one day share in his heavenliness, or that with my abandonment of an historical Adam so I must largely abandon my expectation of a physical resurrection in Christ Jesus. And not only that, but if the Fall falls with Adam, then what restoration do we have to look forward to? There is, perhaps, nothing to restore. The creation does not groan for redemption under the weight of Adam's transgression because no Adam transgressed, and if we have nothing to look forward to in the consummation of our redemption, then the creation either does not groan or groans in vain. What will become of the new creation if we lose the old one? What hope of a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells if the old one had no historical Adam who had an historical Fall? I am told to wait for that moment when, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, we shall be changed. Must I now reinterpret that to mean an aeons-long progression of gradual development toward the heavenly state?

If I want to know who and what I am, before God and by divine design and intention, as a redeemed man with the prospect of glory with Christ ahead of me, then I need an historical Adam. In one sense, he paints all the needs that Christ meets. In another, he provides the outlines which Christ fills and the constructs within which Christ operates. Ultimately, if I lose the first Adam, I lose the second and last Adam. Losing Adam means losing Christ.

"Come, merciful and mighty God"

C.M. (Brent)
Come, merciful and mighty God,
And break these hearts of stone:
Your word the heavenly instrument,
The power yours alone.

These stubborn wills conform to yours;
To feeble minds give light;
Put fire into these empty hearts;
Exert your gracious might.

Give life where death is ruling now:
Prove Jesus Satan's bane!
Break every chain, throw wide the door,
Let glorious freedom reign.

May Christ be Lord of every life,
And King of every heart;
Break sin's dominion; cleanse, renew,
And righteousness impart.

Come, merciful and mighty God,
We look to you alone;
Exert your power: give hearts of flesh
In place of hearts of stone.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

The rebel and the king

Consider the man born into a family of terrorists. The man's father had rebelled against the King of the kingdom in which he lived, and - having so rebelled - all his posterity were brought up to hate and fight the King who ruled in this kingdom. It is to this family that the man belongs. Having been falsely taught all his life that the sovereign is cruel, vindictive, proud and unjust, and hating him as a tyrant accordingly, he has racked up a long list of foul crimes and misdemeanours against the King, all of which bring him under sentence of death. This life of rebellion takes its toll on the terrorist, cut off as he is from all that makes life worth living in the kingdom. His misery and wretchedness increase day by day as he slowly loses his foolish fight. Finally, he receives an overture of peace from the King. The King knows of the rebel's appalling condition, and has had compassion on the man. Together with his son, the Prince, and his Lord Chancellor, the King has devised a way by means of which, without any detriment to the King's justice and glory, the rebel might be entirely forgiven, and - even more - brought into the King's royal family. He publishes this offer by means of his ambassadors. At first, the terrorist cannot believe that such an offer can be true. After all has heard and believed of this king and his character, after all he has done to merit death, can the alleged tyrant really be ready to forgive all his sins and actually adopt him as his own?  Then the Lord Chancellor himself comes to press upon him the reality of the king's free and gracious offer: the Prince himself will take the entire punishment that the law demands and which the rebel deserves. The rebel, finally persuaded, gratefully accepts his merciful terms and embraces all that is bound up in leaving his life of crime. The Lord Chancellor conducts him back to the King's palace, where he is inducted into the life of a true son of the King, dearly beloved of the sovereign, and heir to all that the Prince himself is entitled to receive. Overwhelmed, scarcely believing his mercies, he yet knows that to him now belongs all the freedom of the kingdom. However, it is worth noting that while his relationship to the King has altered radically in some respects, there are some underpinning realities which have not altered. The King has become his father, with all the blessings involved in his adoption. The weight of the law as an instrument of condemnation has ceased to hang over him. But has the father now ceased to be a King? By no means! And is the ex-rebel any less obliged to obedience to the law of the kingdom because he has been delivered from its condemnation? By no means! His obligations to obedience have been by no means reduced, but only heightened. He is all the more obliged - love and gratitude and position all oblige him - to embrace and obey the law of his King and his father. He has all the obligations that belong to him as one under the royal authority, as well as all the obligations that belong to him as an adopted son, overwhelmed by gratitude for the undeserved privileges bestowed upon him. It is the same law that was in place while he was a terrorist, the very same law as condemned him to death for treason. The law has not changed, and he now cheerfully obeys that law both as a subject under its royal authority and as a son in his father's household. The royal law is still in effect, is as potent and extensive as it ever was, except that now it is profoundly, readily, willingly embraced by one who has come to have that law truly impressed upon him as the continuing standard of life in the kingdom of his father, which his father the King, his natural son, the Prince, and the Lord Chancellor have all seen fit to honour in bringing him from the condemnation of death to life and to liberty.

I am that rebel. I have been condemned by God's law. And yet, by grace, I have been redeemed from my sins through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, atoning for my ungodliness, being called by the Father and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. God having justified me through faith, I have been set apart to him, called to a life of holiness, and adopted into his family. I am no longer condemned by the law, but the law still exposes sin in me. I am no longer condemned by the law, but the law still expresses my Father's will for what is right and holy and just. I am no longer condemned by the law, but that law no longer presses upon me from without, rather springs up from within, having been written on my heart. I am no longer condemned by the law, but have come to recognise it as good and just, and embrace it with a willingness and readiness to obey it in all its parts. It is that law that is now written not on tablets of stone, but on the fleshy tablet of my heart. It is as a son, as a redeemed man, that the law becomes my delight as well as my duty.

Results tagged “Salvation” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 28.1, Part Two

i. Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, or remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.

The Westminster Confession's second important theme in treating baptism concerns the efficacy of baptism. This is a vitally important matter today, in which Christians must avoid errors that fall on both sides of the Bible's teaching. On one side, Baptists and many other evangelicals err by denying that there is any efficacy to baptism, instead treating the sacrament as a bare sign. On the other side, hyper-covenantal Reformed Christians err by granting too much efficacy, or rather the wrong kind of efficacy, to baptism's role in Christian salvation. This latter concern is especially associated today with the so-called Federal Vision movement, which treats the rite of baptism as being essentially the principle instrument of salvation.

The Confession takes up this matter by making the classic statement that baptism is "a sign and seal of the covenant of grace." As a sign, baptism points to the blood of Jesus which cleanses our sin and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit that enables us to believe and be saved. As a seal, baptism presents an authentic offer from God and an official authentication of saving faith when it has been acknowledged by the elders of the church. Properly defining the word "seal" is essential, since some readers take the Confession to mean that the grace of Christ is more or less infused by baptism into the recipient's spirit. Instead, baptism serves as a seal in the way that a government seal makes a passport official. Those who profess true faith in Jesus receive baptism as a seal that makes the covenant relationship official, together with all its benefits.

A particular controversy today concerns the claim that the Confession's teaching that baptism confers "ingrafting into Christ," "regeneration," and "remission of sins." This is the Federal Vision teaching that states that baptism confers the reality of these saving graces, so long as one upholds his or her baptism by remaining in the church. This is not what the Confession teaches, however. The Confession teaches that baptism confers the "sign and seal" of these things.  Union with Christ, forgiveness of sins, and regeneration come only with faith; baptism presents the sign and seal of these things, upon the confirmation of saving faith. Appeal is made to paragraph 6, where the Confession states that "the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost."  This is true, so long as we remember that the grace promised in baptism comes in the form of sign and seal. Baptism never confers the reality of union with Christ and its saving benefits, but rather the sign and seal of those blessings which only faith may receive. This understanding is confirmed when we consult WCF 14:1, which says, "The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word." Salvation is received only through faith in the Word of God (see 1 Pet. 1:23). That statement goes on to say, "by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened" (WCF 14:1). In other words, union with Christ and its saving benefits occurs through faith alone in God's Word, and that saving faith is then strengthened by the Word, the sacraments and prayer.

WCF 28:6 makes the interesting point that the "efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether or age or infants) as that grace belongeth to, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time." This answers the objection that many are baptized without believing (often as infants), so that they cannot receive the grace offered by baptism. The Confession answers that the grace of baptism is nonetheless conveyed at the time of saving faith, at whatever time that God has willed. Here again, we must remember that the Confession speaks of baptism conferring not saving grace but signing and sealing grace - that which signifies and confirms salvation through faith. The point of the Confession is that whenever true and saving faith occurs, that is when the sign and sealing grace of baptism is actually received.

Consider two situations. When a non-Christian adult believes, the subsequent baptism conveys the sign and seal of the covenant that faith has received. What about a covenant child who was baptized as an infant, who then comes to saving faith later in life? In this case, the saving faith looks back to what was offered and exhibited in baptism, the reality of which has now been conferred through the gift of faith. Understanding this teaching helps us to realize that when a covenant child is baptized, the grace of salvation is really offered and exhibited to him or her, and the sign and seal of that grace (to be received through faith) is really conferred. With such a beginning to the child's life in the church, our covenant nurture of the child must continue to offer and exhibit the covenant of grace. Later, when faith marks the child as truly possessing salvation, that faith receives the grace that was set before the child from the beginning of his or her life in the church, through baptism, which grace now belongs to the believing child through the Spirit's gift of saving faith.

Rev. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 25.3

iii. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.

Some people think that true spirituality is so mystical that we really do not need the church with its creeds and confessions, and its forms of worship, so long as we follow what God says to our hearts. A personal relationship with the Lord trumps everything else, even the plain teaching of the Bible. Other people put so much stock in the sacraments that they think receiving baptism, attending church, and taking the Lord's Supper virtually guarantees their salvation unless they do something really bad. Reformed Christianity, in contrast to these extremes, does not separate the life of the visible church and the invisible work of the Spirit, but emphasizes both as crucial to knowing and pleasing God.

We treasure the church because Christ has given to the visible church the means by which He saves His people. First, Christ gives them the ministry, that is, men gifted and called as servants of the Word. Paul taught that the ascended Christ builds up His body by giving ministers of the Word to the church (Eph. 4:10-12). These men are not saviors but only servants of God and stewards of God's truth (1 Cor. 4:1). Still, ministers who are faithful in their lives and teachings are instruments by which God saves the church from sin and brings it to glory (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:10).

Second, Christ gives to the church the oracles of God (Rom. 3:1-2), the Holy Scriptures. I am grateful that in America we live in an age of unprecedented access to the Scriptures (just a click away on the internet). But the church, as "the pillar and ground of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:15), still plays a central role in preserving the Scriptures, guarding their faithful translation and interpretation, promoting education and literacy, reading them as part of public worship, and encouraging the private reading of the Bible in personal devotions and family worship.

Third, Christ gives the ordinances to the church. By "ordinances" the Confession refers to the public means of worship which Christ ordained or commanded, such as baptism, the Lord's Supper, public prayer, and singing praise to God (see Confession, 21.5). The holy God inhabits the praises of Israel (Ps. 22:3), and many times God's people have experienced His presence dwelling with them as they worship together on the Lord's Day. Indeed, Christ promised His special presence when believers assemble in His name (Ps. 22:22; Matt. 18:20).

Christ commanded His church to preach the Word and to use the ordinances, and promised, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28:19-20)--implying that these means of grace will never grow obsolete and we must faithfully use them to the end of the world. Far from despising the means, we should use them with great expectation, for as we use the means, Christ is present with us. And Christ will not let His church fail.

However, we do not turn the means of grace into a surrogate Christ, but instead, as the Confession says, believe that Christ must make them effective by His own presence and Spirit. Mechanical rituals and even the preaching of sermons do not have any inherent power to do spiritual good. Reformed Christianity rejects the ex opere operato ("by the work having been worked") principle of the Roman church where the mere performance of the liturgy confers grace. Instead, we do the work of the church constantly remembering Christ's words, "I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:5).

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 25.2

ii. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

In this section the Westminster Confession discusses the visible church. In my last post, I considered what the Confession means when it speaks of the invisible church. We make this distinction because the church is a people called together, but the call is twofold. There is an external call through voice of the preacher (Matt. 22:9-10, 14), and an internal, effectual call through the powerful work of the Holy Spirit upon the soul (1 Cor. 1:23-24). We can see the people who have outwardly responded to the preacher's call, but we cannot directly view the inward working of the Spirit. 

Sometimes people find the distinction of visible/invisible to be confusing with regard to the church. Are we talking about two different churches? By no means! Perhaps an analogy would help. An old Dutch divine, Wilhelmus à Brakel, compared it to the soul and body of a man. We recognize that human beings have an invisible aspect and a visible aspect to their lives. The soul is hidden within the body. But we do not divide the soul and body of a living man. We do not expect people to walk around as souls without bodies. Nor do we say that a body without a soul is really a man--it's just a corpse. 

In the same way, we recognize that the church has an invisible aspect and a visible aspect. The invisible church is hidden within the visible. But we do not divide them into two churches. The claim to be part of the invisible church while having nothing to do with the visible church is as plausible as spirits walking around without bodies--and almost as frightening. On the other hand, a church without a vital union with Christ by the Holy Spirit is not a true church. It is an institutional corpse. In reality, the invisible church shows itself on earth in and through the visible church.

The Confession teaches us that the visible church is also universal, adding the explanatory note that it is not confined to one nation. From the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God's visible church consisted of Israel and those few foreigners such as Rahab and Ruth who were joined to Israel. The risen Christ commissioned His servants to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19), and this they did by planting churches in many lands (Acts 14:23). 

Historically, Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have taught that the universal church is visible not only in local churches but also in the order or structure that binds many congregations together into one, such as classes or presbyteries, and synods or general assemblies. This church polity is distinguished from Congregational (and Baptist) polity, in which the visible church has no higher authority than the elders who rule over local congregations, though congregations may consult together and cooperate in missions.

The visible church consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion. That is to say, membership of the visible church is defined by those persons who confess the faith, who publicly declare that they believe in Jesus Christ and obey the teachings of Christianity. The New Testament argues that personal trust in Christ will produce a public confession of Him before men (Rom. 10:9-10), and warns that those who refuse to confess Christ will not be owned by Him on Judgment Day (Matt. 10:32-33). A profession of Christ as Lord also includes receiving the sacraments, and walking in obedience to God's laws (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:38, 41; 1 Cor. 11:26). The visible church has a responsibility to exclude from its membership those who embrace serious error or sin and refuse to repent.

In addition to professing believers, the confession declares that the children of those that profess the true religion are also members of the visible church. Here the Confession stands on the pattern of the covenant that is universal in Scripture, whereby promises made to believers are extended to include their children (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39). Note that membership in the visible church is no guarantee of membership in the invisible church. Nonetheless, the practice of the visible church must conform to the promise, and so children of believers are to be baptized and received as members of the church. 

Though it is true that some in the visible church are not saved, we should never fail to cherish the visible church. The Confession says that it is the kingdom of Christ and the house and family of God. The exiled Judean poet expressed it well: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy" (Ps. 137:5, 6).  

It may shock modern evangelicals, but the Confession also says that there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of the visible church. The Book of Acts tells us about many miracles done by the apostles, and visits from angels. But in every case where someone is saved from sin, it is by the ministry of the church. Even when an angel visited Cornelius, the angel proclaimed the gospel to him, but directed him to the apostle Peter, "who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts 11:14). We do not deny that God may use a gospel tract or well-placed Bible to convert a sinner. But His ordinary means are set forth in Paul's argument for the necessity of preaching: "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14). Therefore, cherish the visible church, faithfully attend its assemblies, make diligent use of the means of grace it provides, for God is pleased to use the preaching of the Word to save sinners.

Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chapter 10.4

iv. Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the law of that religion they do profess. And, to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested.
The Lord Jesus said, "Enter ye in at the strait [narrow] gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matt. 7:13-14). Christ's teaching about the narrow way does not sit well with modern religious relativism, but the Son of God speaks with divine authority and we must listen to Him.

The Westminster Confession addresses two cases of people who are not in the narrow way to life. In the first case, they go to church and hear the gospel preached. They may experience some work of the Holy Spirit upon their souls, such as conviction of sin (John 16:8), happiness at the message of God's love (Matt. 13:20-21), and insight into the meaning of the Bible (Heb. 6:4). Perhaps they even exercise some spiritual gifts for ministry (Matt. 7:22). They may even for a time joyfully profess to be followers of Christ (Matt. 13:20-22). But they are not saved. Why not?

The Confession declares that "they never truly come to Christ." Coming to Christ does not mean going up front in a meeting or reciting a prayer. Coming to Christ means trusting in Christ alone for eternal life and joy (John 6:35). Whatever else they do, these people do not repent of sin and believe on the Lord Jesus as their only Savior. They are guilty of the great sin of unbelief, and therefore God's wrath abides on them (John 3:36). Their good works and religious duties are done in vain, because they do not proceed from a true faith, and "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11:6).

Yet the Confession probes deeper. Why didn't they come to Christ? Someone might answer that it was their own free choice not to believe. This view only raises the question, "Why then did they choose not to believe?" The Confession has the answer. They were called by the ministry of the Word, but they were not effectually called by God. And why didn't God effectually call them? He did not call them because they were "not elected," not chosen by God and "ordained to eternal life" (Acts 13:48). This is what Jesus said, "Many are called, but few are chosen" (Matt. 22:14). Many hear the gospel invitation to come to Christ, but few are elected by God. Therefore, they refuse to come to Christ and perish forever.

The second case is persons "not professing the Christian religion." They may profess another religion, or profess to have no religion at all. They may try to live a good life according to their conscience ("the light of nature"). They may fervently follow their own religion. They may be very noble and even sacrifice themselves for their god or their country. But they are not saved. Why not? Again, it is because they do not come to Christ. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). Christ is the only Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). All other ways are excluded. No other way has been provided.

This exclusiveness may make God seem very harsh and unfair, but in fact it is necessary because God is very holy and just. Are you offended at the thought that God must effectually call a person through the gospel in order for him to saved? If so, you should ask yourself why we need to be saved. And saved from what? The answer is that people are not innocent or basically good. They are sinners, and they deserve to be condemned and punished.

Sinners don't deserve God. Sinners don't desire God. Citing many passages from the Old Testament, Paul writes in Romans 3:10-12 "There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one." When Christ sends His Word and Spirit to a sinner, His love compels Him to seek after someone who hates Him. He embraces someone who spits in His face. He pursues someone who is running away from Him.

Far be it from us to accuse God of injustice. Rather, let us marvel and be amazed that God effectually calls anyone out of the band of rebels that our race has become. Why would He do it? Ephesians 2:4-5 tells us, "But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved)." Abundant mercy!  Boundless love! Triumphant life! Glorious grace! The inspired Psalmist paints this picture of saving grace at work:
      Rebels who had dared to show
      Proud contempt for God Most High,
      Bound in iron and in woe,
      Humbled low with toil and pain,
      Fell, and looked for help in vain.
      To Jehovah then they cried
      In their trouble, and He saved,
      Threw the prison open wide
      Where they lay to death enslaved,
      Bade the gloomy shadows flee,
      Broke their bonds and set them free.
      --Psalm 107:10-14 (The Psalter, No. 293:1, 2)
Finally, the Confession confronts our modern tendency to modify the claims of Christ to accommodate the claims of those who profess some other religion. "To assert and maintain" that such persons can be saved in some other way than the way of Christ is "very pernicious," that is, destructive, ruinous, even fatal, since we are encouraging a vain hope in these people, one that will lead ultimately to their being "punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thess. 1:9); and therefore, this view is "to be detested," that is, abhorred and rejected.

Chapter 10.2

ii. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.
Charles Spurgeon once sat listening to a boring sermon, and his mind began to wander. He asked himself how he had become converted. It was because I prayed. But then it occurred to him, why did he pray? I was moved to pray by reading the Scriptures. But the questions persisted; why had he read the Bible? And suddenly, Spurgeon realized that God was at the bottom of it all, and He is the author of saving faith.

We often want to claim something for ourselves in our conversion. One way of doing this is to say that God looked ahead into history and foresaw that you would trust in Christ, given the opportunity to do so. God therefore chose you, in this scheme, because He knew you would choose Him. But why would you choose Him? No one seeks for God (Rom. 3:11). In reality, we only choose Him because He first chose us.

The Westminster Confession reminds us that God did not choose or call you because He knew that you would respond positively. God announced the destiny of Esau and Jacob when they were "not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth" (Rom. 9:11). 

God did not save you because you were better or more worthy than anybody else. He did not succeed in converting you because you cooperated more than other sinners do. Salvation is by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9). You were dead in sin, utterly unable to move towards God and horribly offensive to His holiness (Eph. 2:1-3). You played no more role in your effectual calling than a corpse plays in its being raised from the dead (Eph. 2:5).

This is what the Confession means when it says that mankind "is altogether passive therein, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit." We contribute nothing to our salvation except our desperate need. That is not to say that unconverted people can do nothing at all. The same legs that take them to a bar can carry them to a church service. They can read, listen to, and think about the Word of God (Acts 17:10-11). They may even fear God's wrath. Like the blind man, they can cry out for Christ to have mercy upon them until He gives them sight. Sadly, most fallen human beings are not willing to do even what they can.

Most importantly, lost sinners cannot stir up the least drop of saving faith, hope, or love in themselves. Man is perishing in spiritual inability. Without the Holy Spirit, they are unable to receive the truths of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14), unable to submit to God's law (Rom. 8:7-8), and unable to come to Christ (John 6:44). They cannot bow before the Lord Jesus, and confess Him unto salvation (1 Cor. 12:3).

Grace alone makes us alive and enables us to repent, and to believe, love, obey, and hope in Christ. Whoever believes in Christ has been born of God--the perfect tense of "has been born" showing that our faith comes from God's regenerating work within us (1 John 5:1). We do not love God by nature, but by grace, we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:10, 19).

This is why Paul erupted into praise to God whenever he heard that someone had been converted (1 Thess. 1:2-4; 2:13). Why else would he thank God for the faith, hope, and love of converts, unless all the glory or credit for them must go to God? Let us therefore praise God fervently for our effectual calling, and rejoice whenever a sinner repents! As the psalmist teaches us to sing:
      Lord, if Thou shouldst mark transgressions,
      In Thy presence who shall stand?
      But with Thee there is forgiveness,
      That Thy Name may fear command.
      Hope in God, ye waiting people;
      Mercies great with Him abound;
      With the Lord a full redemption
      From the guilt of sin is found.
      --Psalm 130:3, 4, 7, 8 (The Psalter, No. 363:2, 5)

Chapter 10.1

i. All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased in His appointed and accepted time effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.
Why am I a Christian, when so many other people are not? Many godly people have asked this question. They realize that they are no better than other sinners. Yet now they rejoice in the riches of Christ, while others go on living in sin and misery. Isaac Watts expressed it well when he wrote,
While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
"Lord, why was I a guest?
"Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there's room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?"
Ultimately, the answer must be the Lord. Christ is the great evangelist. Whenever the gospel is preached, it is Christ who preaches even if the hearers belong to nations far off that never heard the physical voice of Jesus of Nazareth (Eph. 2:17). Unlike mere human evangelists, this great Evangelist has the power to call sinners effectually; that is, to cause them to hear His Word, to understand it, to believe it, and to obey its command to come to Him for salvation and life. 

The Shepherd calls to sinners by the Word, and His sheep know His voice, follow Him, and are enfolded with His people (John 10:3, 16). He laid down His life for His sheep, and though others will not believe Him, yet His sheep hear and recognize His voice and follow Him all the way to glory (John 10:11, 26-28). Christ's voice has the power to raise the dead (John 11:43-44), and He is raising the spiritually dead to believe in Him and live (John 5:24-25). 

The Westminster Confession of Faith recognizes and explains this reality in this chapter on effectual calling. Webster's defines "effectual" as "characterized by adequate power to produce an intended effect." In terms of the gospel as preached by Christ (Mark 1:14, 15), effectual calling is extending a call that has power to produce the intended response of repentance and faith. Note that "effectual" goes one step beyond the more common word "effective" by including the idea of purpose. An effectual call is one that can produce not just any result but the intended result. It effects or works the result designed by the one who issues the call. Such a call is said to "answer to its purpose." 

Effectual calling must therefore be the work of God and not man. It is an exercise of the sovereignty that belongs only to God. So Paul can describe God's sovereignty at work for our salvation in the "golden chain" of Romans 8:30: "Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." We are justified by faith in Christ (Rom. 5:1). God's call is the outworking of His eternal decree of predestination, and it results in justification. So it must have power to produce the faith that justifies the sinner. It is more than the gospel call, invitation to salvation, and offer of Christ (Matt. 22:14). It is the outworking of God's eternal purpose and grace in a person's life and experience (2 Tim. 1:9). For the same people are predestined in Christ to eternal life, called to faith in Christ, justified by their faith in Him, and ultimately glorified with Him.

It should also be noted that these terms "effectual calling" are unique to the Westminster Confession. The Westminster divines were attempting to clarify the ambiguity that often surrounds the word regeneration. The term can refer to one's initial experience of saving grace; it can also refer to the ongoing and progressive work of sanctification, or the daily renewing of our lives. By coining the term "effectual calling," the divines made it clear that they had in mind the initial quickening of the sinner, enabling him to believe and be saved, as distinct from the further regeneration or renewal of his life as a believer.

The Confession rightly highlights God's sovereignty over the persons who hear, and the timing of God's effectual call. The Lord is so utterly in control of this call and our resulting faith that He often calls precisely those people whom we would least expect--the foolish, the weak, the base, and the despised people of this world (1 Cor. 1:26, 27), while passing by many others. While the wise and powerful of this world sneer at the gospel, "unto them which are called" the gospel shines with the glory of "Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:24). God turns on the light in their hearts, and they are captivated by the divine beauty of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). Have you experienced this? 

God effectually calls sinners on His own timetable. The Lord converted Saul, the great persecutor of the church, "when it pleased God" to do so (Gal. 1:15). We cannot manipulate conversion, for our times are in His hand and God wrote all the days of our lives in His book before we were born (Ps. 31:15; 139:16, marginal note 7). Yet the ministers of the Word must be faithful to preach and to pray, for God calls by His Word and Spirit (John 6:63), and in answer to our prayers. And if we are not saved, then we must diligently listen to the preaching of that Word with the cry that God would open our eyes to behold its truth, and our hearts to receive it.

The Westminster divines explained God's work in the soul with biblical metaphors. First, it is a transforming light: "enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God." To be sure, there is a degree of illumination that only convicts and may bring moral reformation but does not save (Heb. 6:4). Wicked Felix trembled at Paul's preaching, but he did not repent of his covetous ways (Acts 24:25, 26). In effectual calling, this light dawning in the heart is nothing less than a quickening or resurrection of the inner man (Eph. 2:1-7), previously dead in sin. It produces an experiential knowledge of God in Christ that is in its essence a new life born in the soul (John 17:3).  "Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light" (Eph. 5:14).

Second, effectual calling is a heart transplant: "taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh." Here the divines alluded to Ezekiel 36:25-27, "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them." In place of a "whorish heart" that rejects God and runs to idols (Ezek. 6:9), the Lord promised to give His people a tender, responsive, believing heart towards Him.

Third, effectual calling is a sovereign persuasion: "renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ." To be sure, sinners resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51). But He sweetly conquers them with God's love. God does not draw people to Christ against their will. The Lord works upon their wills to make them willing to obey Christ (Ps. 110:3; Phil. 2:12-13). He draws them to Christ in such a way that "they come most freely, being made willing by His grace." Yet this is an "effectual drawing" that always results in their coming to Christ and being saved (John 6:37, 44). God works upon our hearts so that we love Him (Deut. 30:6). Thus we say with Watts,
'Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

And then we can sing with David:
      Thou bidst me seek Thy face, and I,
      O Lord, with willing heart reply,
      Thy face, Lord, will I seek.
      Hide not thy face afar from me,
      For Thou alone canst help afford;
      O cast me not away from Thee
      Nor let my soul forsaken be,
      My Saviour and my Lord.
       --Psalm 27:8, 9 (The Psalter, No. 73:2b, 3)

Chapter 9.3

iii. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.

Can the natural man choose Christ apart from the enabling of the Holy Spirit? Putting the question in a different way, which comes first, faith or regeneration? Is the will of man capable of believing the gospel, capable of inclining itself to choose to come to Jesus Christ? The Divines, following Augustine, Luther, and Calvin answered in the negative. More provocatively, we could suggest that they were simply yielding to what Jesus said in John 6:65: "No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father," or 6:44: "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me  draws him." 

Arminians agree with this practically - after all, no one ever says to God, "I am thanking myself for salvation; after all, I made a free and good choice." Even Arminius himself agreed that God makes us able and added that the natural man needs to cooperate with this enabling of God. But in the end, human ability is not wholly lost in this way of thinking. 

Reformed theology insists that the natural man, while free to determine choices according to his fallen nature, he is not free to choose all possible moral choices. His nature predisposes him to choose in accord with his idol-producing mind. Not only is the natural man unable to convert himself, he is not able to "prepare" himself for conversion. In the 1570's, some were advocating that an unregenerate sinner could prepare himself for the grace of regeneration by considering his sins in the light of God's law. By careful self-examination, the sinner could and ought to stir himself up to loathe his own sinfulness and to desire mercy and, by a judicious use of means (especially attendance upon the preaching of the gospel), he could put himself in the position of being a likely candidate for the new birth. This view undermines the gospel and the Divines insistently excluded any such possibility. 

Chapter 8.6,7,8

VI. Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after His incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect, in all ages successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices, wherein He was revealed, and signified to be the seed of the woman which should bruise the serpent's head; and the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world; being yesterday and today the same, and forever.

VII. Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature.

VIII. To all those for whom Christ has purchased redemption, He does certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them, and revealing unto them, in and by the word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by His Spirit to believe and obey, and governing their hearts by His word and Spirit; overcoming all their enemies by His almighty power and wisdom, in such manner, and ways, as are most consonant to His wonderful and unsearchable dispensation.

The final sections of chapter eight continue in their summary of Scripture's teaching on Christ as mediator, particularly in relation to the application of redemption to His people. In section six we confess that while Christ's work of redemption was not actually done until after his incarnation, "the virtue, efficacy, and benefits" of it were "communicated to the elect, in all ages successively from the beginning of the world." Adam, Eve, and Abel were saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, just as Noah was, and Abraham, Moses, David, Ezra, the apostles--all believers through church history to the present. Our confession here is of the unity of God's covenant of grace, through its old and new testament administrations. Christ was revealed in the Old Testament era, and his virtue, efficacy, and benefits communicated to the elect "in and by those promises, types, sacrifices" in which "he was revealed, and signified to be the seed of the woman" who would "bruise the serpent's head... the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world... the same yesterday, today and forever." (Gen. 3:15, Rev. 13:8, Heb. 13:8) 

Christ's work of mediation involves his whole person--we confess that he "acts according to both natures." The Westminster divines judiciously summarized Scripture's teaching and advised a careful hermeneutic regarding the revelation of the person of Christ, his natures, and his work. All of this was in response to Roman Catholics who argued that Christ is mediator only as man. 

The chapter concludes by turning to the application of redemption. That is, the divines are summarizing the Bible's teaching on redemption in relation to the individual believer. Christ saves all those for whom he "has purchased redemption." Not one will be lost. He certainly and effectually applies and communicates his purchased redemption to each one. He makes intercession for them. He reveals to them in and by the Word the mysteries of salvation, and effectually persuades them to believe and obey. He governs their hearts by his Word and Spirit--overcoming all his and our enemies--in exactly the ways that are best. 

The reality that it is God's sovereign grace towards those he has chosen does not negate the sincere and free offer of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all; nor does it negate his complete sufficiency to save any. Rather, our confession of Scripture is that while he proclaims "Come, everyone who thirsts... listen diligently to me... come to me, hear, that your soul may live" (Isaiah 55:1-3), all by nature willfully reject His gracious call--unless by the Spirit he regenerates and transforms our hard hearts and minds. This is a truth both profoundly humbling, in revealing our utterly fallen natural condition, and profoundly comforting. Our responsibility is to come, to run to him as he welcomes us to do! As we run to him, we look back and see it is the Father who has given us to the Son--the Son who is our Mediator--and the Holy Spirit is working in us to will and to do his good pleasure. Realizing this Triune love, what can we do but sing in worship and adoration? "What shall separate us from the love of Christ? ... nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:35, 39).

Dr William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and Visiting Professor of Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.