Results tagged “Soteriology” from Reformation21 Blog

Of the twelve affirmations that constitute the Apostles' Creed -- perhaps the most regularly recited statement of basic Christian doctrine in the western Church of the last 1500 years -- none has caused greater uncertainty and debate over the centuries than that declaring that Jesus Christ "descended into hell." This affirmation, wedged between assertions that Christ "was crucified, died, and buried" and "rose again" on "the third day," received fundamentally different interpretations by Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians of the Reformation era. The sixteenth-century Roman Catholic Church staked out its understanding of this affirmation in the Catechism of Trent, suggesting it named Christ's visit not to "hell strictly so-called," but to that "limbo" where "the souls of the just before the coming of Christ the Lord were received, and where, without experiencing any sort of pain... they enjoyed peaceful repose." Christ, according to Rome, spent the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday -- "Holy Saturday" as it is sometimes called -- in this limbo, freeing the souls therein to enter into heavenly bliss.

The (arguably) inherent ambiguity of the Creed's claim regarding Christ's descent into hell, coupled with Rome's rather speculative interpretation of the same (itself rooted in late-medieval Christian thought which, without clear biblical warrant, added purgatory and several limbos to heaven and hell in the landscape of the afterlife), has caused (even) some Reformed churches to revise the Creed's affirmation to something less confusing (namely, "he descended into the grave"), or to omit the phrase entirely.

John Calvin strongly warned against such tampering with the Creed, even before there were many noteworthy efforts to do so. "We ought not to omit [Christ's] descent into hell," the Reformer warned, calling that descent "a matter of no small moment in bringing about [our] redemption." Calvin was decidedly keen not to deprive (Reformed) believers of the opportunity to confess their faith in the very words that Christians for centuries before them had used. He was quite sure that, properly understood, there was nothing in the words of the Creed -- every last one of them -- to cause genuine believers alarm. "We have in [the Creed] a summary of our faith," Calvin wrote, "full and complete in all details, and containing nothing in it except what has been derived from the pure Word of God." Calvin was even more keen not to deprive believers of the opportunity, every time they recited the Creed, to reflect upon a very critical aspect of Christ's saving work which, in his judgment, is embodied in the affirmation in question: "If any persons have scruples about admitting this article into the Creed, it will soon be made plain how important it is to the sum of our redemption: if it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ's death will be lost."

Calvin denied that Christ's descent into hell merely named his descent into "a grave," thus simply repeating "in other words what had previously been said [in the Creed] of his burial." He argued, rather, that Christ's descent into hell complements the preceding clause which describes Christ's death, alerting us to the spiritual dimension -- the sustaining of God's wrath on behalf of our sin -- of Christ's suffering upon the cross. God incarnate, after all, did not merely undergo physical torment and physical death upon the cross. Indeed "if Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual [for our salvation]." Upon the cross, rather, Christ endured "the severity of God's vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment." And this, according to Calvin, is precisely what the Creed's affirmation that Christ "descended into hell" describes. "Christ was put in [the] place of evildoers as surety and pledge -- submitting himself even as the accused -- to bear and suffer all the punishment that they ought to have sustained.... No wonder, then, if [Christ] is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered [there] the death that God in his wrath [has] inflicted upon the wicked!"

Calvin has a ready answer for those who find it strange to find this affirmation of Christ enduring hell on the cross situated subsequent to the affirmation that Christ "suffered, died, and was buried." He argues that the Creed's affirmation constitutes grammatical apposition -- a phenomenon where some noun or clause restates an immediately preceding noun or clause, but adds something to it. An instance of apposition is discovered in the sentence: "This is my daughter, Kaitrin." "Kaitrin" in that sentence (who, by the way, is my daughter, not Calvin's) renames or restates "daughter." Similarly, "he descended into hell" renames or restates what occurred when Christ "suffered" and "died," but fleshes out that preceding clause with rather significant detail. "The point," Calvin concludes, "is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ's body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price [by] suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man."

No wonder, in short, that Calvin felt so strongly about retaining this affirmation of the Creed. Stripped of this affirmation, the Creed fails to speak meaningfully of what Christ actually suffered upon the cross, as his eternal Father -- in light of our sins imputed to Christ -- turned his back upon him. Indeed, provided we accept Calvin's interpretation of this Creedal statement, it becomes (arguably) the pivotal affirmation of the entire Creed, the hinge upon which our salvation turns, the basis of the remarkable benefits, subsequently listed in the Creed, that belong to us ("the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting").

Of course, it takes some effort to educate believers about what Christ's descent into hell actually entails. But thus educating believers is a far better option than revising the Creed or simply omitting a statement which admittedly requires explanation (and by explanation, I mean opportunity to instruct others in the meaning of the cross).

An examination of Christ's suffering upon the cross under the rubric of "hell" also stands, incidentally, to help us understand hell itself better. Hell, like every other created reality (or perversion of the same), can only properly be understood in relation to the Creator. Our own thinking about hell should begin, not end, with attention to Christ's endurance of it upon the cross. Such is the proper path towards a theological rather than physical or metaphysical understanding of hell. Such is the proper path, in other words, towards properly understanding the horrible fate, irrevocable estrangement from God, that awaits those who reject the grace of God that is offered to us in Christ Jesus.

In short, we should continue to confess that Christ "descended into hell" not only for the sake of catholicity (though certainly for that), but also in the interest of regularly affirming the profound reality of what Christ endured for us upon the cross. To steal and tweak a phrase from J. Gresham Machen, "I'm so thankful for Christ's descent into hell. No hope without it." Indeed, no description of Christ's person and work is complete without reference to the same -- reference, that is, in some form at least to the reality that Christ has suffered hell itself on behalf of his people.

Christ inhabited hell. But not, as Rome would have us believe, tomorrow in the liturgical calendar (Holy Saturday). He inhabited hell today (Good Friday), when he drank the cup of God's wrath against our sin to the very dregs, and so freed us from ever having to down a single drop of the same. Praise be to God for Christ's descent into hell.

Spurgeon's standards for conversion and membership

Spurgeon, Charles Haddon 4.jpgI hope that I will be able at some point to provide a review of Tom Nettles' excellent volume, Living for Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (pastors and preachers, you need this book, and can get it at,, Westminster).

In the meantime, there are a couple of threads from the book that it is profitable to weave together. Spurgeon was adamant that the door to the church be well-guarded, and had a carefully-developed system whereby converts applying for membership were graciously but robustly assessed by elders, himself, and the whole congregation. He did not rush people into professions of faith, baptism and church membership (indeed, he had some distaste for the inquiry room as potentially exerting a pressure beyond that of the Holy Spirit's work on the heart of a sinner).

At two separate points in the book, Nettles shows how - at times of particular evangelistic endeavour, as well as during the more regular procedures of church life - the saints were encouraged to make a thoughtful and scriptural assessment of a man's standing with God and prospective relationship with the local church.

With regard to conversion,
counselors of inquirers looked for three pivotal evidences of true conversion. One focused on the nature of the individual's perception of his sin and dependence on the work of Christ. Did the inquirer seem to have a clear and distinct and abiding sense of the seriousness of his offense toward God, a healthy remorse for that sin, a desire to turn from it and cease such offensive behavior toward God; did he also recognize that God was willing to receive him through the atonement made by Christ and through that alone? Second, did the present determination of the person's soul indicate a clear intention to live for Christ and overcome the opposing forces of the world; did he feel the urgency of seeing others escape from the wrath to come? Three, with a full knowledge of his own unworthiness and his full dependence on God, did the person have some knowledge of the doctrines of grace and that mercy was the fountain from which his salvation flowed? (310-11)
Then, with a great deal of common ground, here is the expectation for church membership:
Arnold Dallimore's examination of this book [called the Inquirers {sic} Books, in which interviewing elders recorded their comments] showed that the entire interview process centered on the determination of three things. One, is there clear evidence of dependence on Christ for salvation? This involved a clear and felt knowledge of sin and a deep sense of the necessity of the cross. Two, does the candidate exhibit a noticeable change of character including a desire for pleasing God and a desire for others to believe the gospel? Three, is there some understanding of, with a submission to, the doctrines of grace? The only effective antithesis to merit salvation, in Spurgeon's view, was a knowledge of utter dependence on divine mercy. (248)
Perhaps, in our day, we are not always sure what we should be looking for in the heart and life of men and women who profess faith in the Lord Jesus. Far too many churches, perhaps feeling the pressure of numbers or some other force, are inclined to drop their standards or blur their distinctions, if they have them in the first place. In the face of that, these standards seem to me to be thoroughly biblical, genuinely gracious, and appropriately robust. They combine doctrinal understanding, experimental religion, and principled obedience - a religion of head, heart and hand, if you will. If more congregations embraced a righteous assessment of this sort with regard to professing converts and applicants for membership, I am persuaded that they would be spiritually healthier places than they too often are.

Results tagged “Soteriology” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 15.3, 4, part two

iii. Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God's free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.

iv. As there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.

The necessity of repentance

Though repentance is not the cause of God's pardon, we must also be clear that there is no pardon without repentance. Ponder the parallel, even if it is not a perfect one: God requires faith in Christ, but faith does not save us. In a similar way, God requires repentance, but repentance does not save us. However that does not mean that either faith or repentance remain unimportant to God. On the contrary, 'it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it'. 
Jesus said this on more than one occasion, and once he said it twice in a row: 'unless you repent', he told a crowd, 'you too will all perish' (Luke 13:3-5). This is as true for people on the streets of Jerusalem as it is for the philosophers on the Acropolis: as Paul explained, God 'commands all people everywhere to repent' (Acts 17:31; c.f., 30-31).

Comfort for sinners

Everyone is commanded to repent because 'all have sinned' (Rom. 5:12). Everyone is commanded to repent, even the people who commit small sins, because 'there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation'. Paul did not suggest that the wages of really major sin is death. He said that 'the wages of sin is death', without any qualification (Rom. 6:23). Who will leave the bar of heaven breathing a sigh of relief that God did not care about the little sins? Who can sincerely say that the Word of God is not including us and our sins in these sweeping declarations about humanity and human sin? 

Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was he who said 'that men will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless [or idle] word they have spoken' (Mt. 12:36). When we recall these words, some of us will find great comfort in this divine truth expressed in human words: 'there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent'. Is that not near the very heart of God's message in Isaiah? 'Let the wicked forsake his way', he says, 'and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon' (Isa. 55:7). Or as Paul put it to the church in Rome, 'there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus' (Rom. 8:1). 

That is good news for sinners. Perhaps that is why this comfort is placed up front in the opening paragraphs of Isaiah's long prophecy: 'take your evil deeds out of my sight!' the Lord commands, 'Stop doing wrong'. And what does the Lord promise to those who heed this call? He promises that 'though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool' (Isa. 1:16, 18). Have you wounded others with your careless words? Are you stained with sin that you cannot wash away? Then look to the grace of God in Christ, and repent of your sins. If you do, you will surely find a gracious redemption that is full and free.

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn is the associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. He is the editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1653.

Chapter 11.3

iii. Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father's justice in their behalf.  Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

The doctrine expressed in the Westminster Confession's third paragraph on justification is one of the most excellent and beautiful theological statements ever penned. The burden of this paragraph is to insist that justification is by grace alone. Yet, in making this point, the divines gather up all that they have previously said about justification in order to show how fully this doctrine glorifies God. There are three things for us to emphasize: the work of Christ in obedience and satisfaction; the substitutionary nature of Christ's work; and the free grace of God that is glorified in the justification together with his justice.

First, a right understanding of Christ's saving work is so essential to the Westminster divines that they cannot miss another opportunity of stating it. Christ accomplished two great saving works in his first coming. First, he made a "proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father's justice" for those who believe. This refers to Christ's sacrificial offering of his life to pay the just penalty of sin. The divines were convinced that penal substitutionary atonement is at the heart of Christian salvation. This is a truth that needs to be emphasized today, as postmodern-leaning evangelicals find themselves embarrassed by the cleansing blood of Christ. The effect of Christ's satisfaction was to "fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified." Thus to be justified means, first, to have your sins forgiven and your penalty forever paid by Jesus.  

Moreover, Jesus positively fulfilled the demands of God's law so as to secure the verdict of "righteous" for his people. Not only was his "satisfaction," but also "his obedience... accepted" by God so as to justify his people. With this in mind, we see that the aphorism is partly true which says justification means "just as if I'd never sinned." Yet justification is actually more than this.  It goes further actually to say that in Christ I am "just as if I'd always obeyed." 

Second, this third paragraph emphasizes the substitutionary nature of Christ's work as being key to the operation of justification. How can I be forgiven when I have sinned and how can I be justified when I have not been righteous? The answer is found in the vital words, "in their stead."  I am forgiven because Jesus stood in my stead to pay the penalty my sins deserved. I am justified because Jesus fulfilled the law in my stead so as to attain all righteousness. Thus was John the Baptist's query answered, when he marveled that Jesus would submit to the baptism of repentance. "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" John asked. Jesus answered, "Let it be so now, of thus it is fitting for to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt. 3:14-15). By this act, Jesus was standing under God's law for his people, "in their stead," in order to achieve a perfect righteousness on behalf of those who sins disqualified them from eternal life. One theologian who understood this key matter, despite his other failings, was Karl Barth. When once asked what is the most important word in the Bible, Barth answered with the Greek preposition huper, which means "on behalf of." At the heart of the gospel is the substitutionary work of Jesus on behalf of sinners. "Christ died for us," Paul insisted (Rom. 5:8).

Third, the divines emphasized that justification is by God's free grace alone. Paul wrote, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:23-24). With this teaching in mind, the divines state that Christ justified sinners "freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace." The Christian thus declares that he or she is justified apart from any merit or virtue in himself but only for the grace of God in Christ.  It is the free gift of God's grace so that all the glory belongs to him. 

This glory pertains not only to God's grace, however, but also to his justice. We must not believe that mercy sets aside justice in our justification, as if one attribute of God could be set against another. Rather, God's mercy fulfills God's justice perfectly through the satisfaction and obedience of Christ. The believer in Jesus may therefore point not only to God's grace in his justification, but may also look to the justice of God that once we so dreaded and say, "God's justice demands my justification!"  How is this? How may a sinner be admitted by the sword of God's perfect, holy justice - not only admitted but demanded admittance? The answer is the grace of God in Christ, which fully and forever satisfies the justice of God. Thus "both the exact justice and rich grace" of God are "glorified in the justification of sinners." 

How shall we reply to the glorious drama of the doctrine of justification? James Boice put it this way: "All merit, boasting set aside, by faith alone I'm justified / Before the throne I take my place and rest in God's amazing grace."

Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina and chairs the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

Chapter 11.2

ii. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification.

The Westminster Confession unabashedly declares justification through faith alone. It defines faith as "receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness," calling faith "the alone instrument of justification." In our next study, we will see how the faith that justifies is joined to good works. But first we must emphasize that works are not part of justification itself. We are justified by trusting in Christ's work; our own works contributing nothing to justification. Paul stated this clearly in Galatians 2:16, "We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ."

While "faith alone" is stressed in paragraph two of the chapter eleven, this emphasis also plays an important part of paragraph one's teaching of the nature of justification. We have noted that justification is by imputation, not infusion. So how is Christ's righteousness imputed to Christians? Paragraph one states, "not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone." This means that when we trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ - both his sin atoning death and his perfect law keeping life - we are justified on the basis of his works and not our own. I like to stress that justification is most certainly by works - indeed, in an important sense, sinners are justified only on the basis of works. But the glory of the gospel is that we are justified by Christ's works, which we receive through faith alone.  

This is our answer to the Roman Catholic charge that justification through faith alone involves a "legal fiction" that disgraces God. They argue that, under our doctrine, God justifies those who have no legal basis for righteousness. In reality, however, our doctrine teaches that sinners are justified by a perfect legal fulfillment under God's justice. Christ's works have perfectly fulfilled God's law and his atoning death has perfectly paid the penalty of our sins demanded by the law.  Therefore, we are justified through faith alone, apart from our works, by the righteous works of Jesus Christ. On a pastoral level, this reminds Christians that in justification it is not merely God's mercy that declares our salvation. Justification more directly involves God's justice demanding our acceptance because all of its requirements have been satisfied by the perfect work of Jesus Christ for us.

The Confession is careful to avoid another error, this time coming not from Roman Catholicism but from Protestant Arminianism. This is the teaching that we are justified by faith as a substitute for works. Under this view, recently championed by Robert Gundry, since sinners cannot be justified by the law (which we have broken) we are instead justified by that act of faith, which is our righteousness. The Confession answers by specifying that we are justified not "by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness." Faith is not a substitute for law keeping in justification. Rather, through faith the sinner receives Christ's law fulfilling work on our behalf: God imputes "the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith."  The Arminians claim the proof text of Genesis 15:6, where Abraham "believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness." We should admit, they say, that this teaches that faith is our righteousness before God. In Romans 4:4-5, however, where Paul exegetes that text, the apostle insists that justification is by imputation and that we are justified while remaining "ungodly." So it is not the case that believing makes us righteousness, since in justification we remain ungodly while Christ's righteousness is "credited" to us.

According to the Confession, then, faith is "the alone instrument of justification," as the means by which we receive Christ's righteousness by imputation. Finally, the Confession stresses that the very faith by which we are justified is "not of themselves, it is the gift of God." This stems from Paul's vitally important statement: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). According to the Bible, Christians are personally involved in our justification through faith. Yet justification remains by grace, since that faith is God's gift to us and God's work in us.  Expressing the genius of the Gospel, Paul explains: "That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace" (Rom. 4:16).