Results tagged “Sovereignty” from Reformation21 Blog

Free grace

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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?
Calvin thinks none too highly of persons who covet the lives of pigs and dogs. It seems to have been a considerable problem in his day; he refers in his comments on Genesis 3 to the "well-known complaints" of persons who consider the lot of "swine and dogs" (porci et canes) in life preferable to their own. 

Upon encountering Calvin's passing condemnation of such individuals, I initially felt a bit nervous. I can't recall ever having coveted the life of a pig, but -- I confess -- I have cast an envious eye upon my dog on occasion. It's not so much his diet (primarily whatever scraps "fall" from my daughters' plates) or routine (napping, playing, eating, napping again, etc.) that spark jealously in me, though the latter does seem rather desirable. It's more the reality, or at least my sneaking suspicion, that he ranks ever so slightly higher than I do in my wife's affections, even on my best days. I can't really blame my wife; our dog is rather endearing, even if at times annoying. I, on the other hand, am not endearing at all, and am almost always annoying.

I suspect Calvin would have some significant words of reproof for me on this score (both for being envious and for being annoying). Upon closer reading of his rebuke of swine-and-dogs-coveters, however, I'm not sure that my envy of Oakley (our dog), if viewed in relation to its roots, is really the kind of thing that was worrying him. That rebuke occurs in the midst of reflection upon "the number and nature of those evils" which humankind has brought upon itself by its defection from God. Calvin observes that many persons, with a view towards the difficulties that human sin has introduced to human experience, prove "unable to restrain themselves from raging and murmuring against God," professing among other things "that God has acted more mercifully to swine and dogs than to them." Thus they fail, Calvin observes, to "refer [their] miserable and ruined state... to the sin of Adam as they ought," and they "fling back upon God the charge of being the cause" of said evils.

Calvin's accusation against such "raging and murmuring" men is, ultimately, one of blasphemy more than one of envy. His particular concern with how persons relate the consequences of human sin to God requires further note, but first it may be useful to categorize such consequences of Adam and Eve's sin as Calvin sees them. 

1) Human sin entailed consequences, first of all, for human nature. Corruption resulting from Adam's sin infects every faculty of the human soul of every natural child of Adam; "no part is free from the infection of sin." The "mind" in particular, from which all affections and decisions flow, has been made subject to "horrible blindness, contumacy against God, wicked desires, and violent propensities to evil." Calvin is keen to point out that the "whole perverseness of our disposition" is "adventitious" (not to be confused with advantageous); i.e., human beings, prior to the fall as such, knew nothing of such "perverseness" in their inner persons. Perversity attached itself to human nature at a specific point in time; it is not, therefore of the essence of what it means to be human.

2) "The earth [was] cursed on account of the sin of man," thus becoming "that scene of deformity which we now behold." Such "deformity of the world... ought by no means to be regarded as in the order of nature, since it proceeds rather from the sin of man than from the hand of God." Under the rubric of "deformity of the world" belongs "inclemency of the air, frost, thunders, unseasonable rains, drought, [and] hail," as well as "diseases" and (sinful) human activities which serve to further destroy, rather than cultivate, the world entrusted to humankind.

3) Sin has introduced "strife, troubles, sorrow, dissensions, and a boundless sea of evils" into human relationships. Calvin offers as a particular case study of this point the institution of marriage: "It has happened by our fault, and by the corruption of nature, that [the] happiness of marriage has, in a great measure, perished, or, at least, is mixed and infected with many inconveniences." (Calvin, interestingly, had nearly a decade's experience of marriage when he wrote these words. He spoke of his late wife in other contexts as his "best companion" and "faithful helper." It appears, nevertheless, that he could remember the occasional spat or rough patch from his married years.)

4) Most seriously, sin has brought about "alienation from God," who created human beings in his own image and endowed them with every good gift from the first moment of their existence. "Alienation from God" is, in fact, that very "death" which God promised to Adam and Eve as the consequence of transgressing his law. In Calvin's view, then, the cessation of breath and brain waves constitutes the culmination but not the substance of death. The "life of man without God," being "wretched and lost," is the experience of death in its truest sense.

So, to return to pigs and dogs: Calvin's concern is that, in experiencing these consequences of sin on a day to day basis, we give blame where blame is properly due. He recognizes within us a tendency to immediately credit God for whatever ills -- perverse inclinations, ruined relationships, disease, death, etc. -- befall us, when in truth we should consistently credit ourselves for the same. It was, after all, we -- in solidarity with Adam -- who turned our backs on God, thereby inviting such ills into human experience. 

It seems to me that, somewhat ironically, it is Reformed Christians -- Calvin's heirs, if you will -- who might be most prone to do exactly what Calvin here denounces, that is, wrongly credit God, rather than human sin, for the inward perversity and outward deformity they experience in life. It is Reformed Christians, after all, who are typically quickest to recognize and (rightfully) assert that all things happen in accordance with God's perfect will (Eph. 1:11). And there is, to be sure, great comfort to be had in the knowledge that God has decreed and providentially rules over even the sin and evil in our lives. But ordering and providentially ruling is not the same as causing, and we must be careful -- even as we find comfort in God's sovereignty over every detail of our lives -- not to be guilty of laying upon God "the charge of being the cause of all... our evils." 

If anger at God, rather than trust in God, is our default response to troubles in life, we may be guilty of that very act of blasphemy which Calvin decries, even if pigs and dogs don't immediately figure into our outlook. And if, moreover, we're busy blaming God for whatever evil we encounter in and around ourselves, we miss the opportunity -- indeed, the responsibility -- to engage in "humble confession of our fault, [and] to bewail our evils," even while we rest and take comfort in the knowledge that absolutely nothing in our lives lies outside of the sovereign control of the one who never causes, but rather provides the ultimate answer to, sin and all its consequences.

Aaron Denlinger is blogging a series of reflections based on Calvin's Genesis Commentary. Catch up with the series here, here, and here.

God, Politics, and Evil

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Strange things happen in the days leading up to a national election. This morning's case was courtesy of the center article at CNN.com which reads "When 'God's Will,' Rape and Pregnancy Collide" (Caution: the article contains explicit details). Whatever political hiccup has given rise to this media maelstrom, the article undoubtedly brings up a profound theological and, even more immediately, deeply personal question: Does God will unspeakable evil to occur?

Any biblical answer to this question must take into account the full scope of God's self-revelation in Scripture, bow before his transcendent wisdom, coordinate our ethical discourse to His character, confess our human finitude, acknowledge the futility of unbelief, speak of His redeeming work in history, survey His unwavering promises, hope in His final judgment, and always look to the ruling Lamb who was slain by lawless men "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23) to the praise of His glory.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to explore these Christian imperatives nor to evaluate the article's featured comments by Rabbi Harold Kushner (which are disturbing for their sentimentality) or Father Tom Reese (whose comments pose a false disjunction between biology and sovereignty). The intent here is to respond to what may be the gut-level reaction of too many who first hear of God's will and the world's wickedness in the same sentence. The article quotes Paul Root Wolpe, the director of the Center of Ethics at Emory University, as saying that the idea of God's willing (presumably, in any sense) evil is akin to asserting that "you shouldn't pull people out of the rubble because God intended the earthquake to happen or we shouldn't try to cure disease because it's God who gave us the disease."

Of course, we who hear such statements should respond with patience and charity. But we must also remember that the Bible understands such deterministic notions (and the passivity they entail) to be wholly antithetical to its own teaching concerning the will of God and human action, including the proper response of Christians to divinely ordained evil. For starters, David's violation of Bathsheba was evil because it was first an assault on God (Ps 51:4). Assyria received her punishment because of the God who controls nations as a man would wield a club (Is 10:15-16). Similarly, Christian service has value because of the Lord who consecrates it (Col 3:23-24). Though we cannot comprehend it, these examples alone teach that human action, whether for evil or in compassion, is intelligible only because of the God whose personal presence and sovereign will makes it so, and none of that entails the sort of God-endorsement of evil or Christians' toleration of it as the media seem to be suggesting.

So friends, in the face of evil, let's be biblical. Let's be Calvinists. But, as I've heard it said, let's be Calvinists "who sweat." Even better, let's teach and model the fact that it is precisely Calvinists who sweat, and sweat the most, because of the overruling providential activity of the God who calls us to action. Whether we pull people from rubble, labor to cure disease, grieve over horrific sexual sin, weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15), or hand over some water to a little one (Matt 10:42), our work will register in heaven and on earth according to the will of the God who bled.

Results tagged “Sovereignty” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 10.3

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iii. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how He pleaseth: so also, are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.
      
God has wrapped some things in a cloud of mystery. We dare not venture into the darkness of such mysteries with the feeble light of our speculations, but must rest content in the beams of light shining from the Word. One such mystery is God's purpose in the death of those mentally incapable of understanding the gospel, whether infants or adults.

We cannot say that such persons are sinless. David confessed that he was in sin from the moment of his conception in his mother's womb (Ps. 51:5). Sinners go astray from their infancy, showing their inward corruption even in early childhood by speaking lies (Ps. 58:3). Nor can we say that they are free from guilt, for their death shows that they are bound up in Adam's fall and condemnation, even before they commit any willful act of transgression against the law of God (Rom. 5:14, 18). Children and mentally impaired adults, "descending from [Adam and Eve] by ordinary generation" (WCF 4:3), are included in the "all" who sinned in Adam and fell with him in his transgression. 

How can they be saved? God's ordinary way of saving sinners is to call them effectually through the gospel (2 Thess. 2:14). In fact, though there are many religions in the world, there is no other name but Jesus by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Those who follow other religions have no relationship with the true God and have no hope (Eph. 2:12). 

But the Bible sheds a beam of light when it reveals that God can save infants. John the Baptist was leaping for joy in Elizabeth's womb when he heard the voice of Mary, the mother of our Lord (Luke 1:41-44). The unborn child was already filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15). There is much we don't understand, but clearly God had saved the infant in the womb and moved him to rejoice in Christ. Therefore, we know that God is able to save sinners with underdeveloped or impaired mental capacities.

The Confession declares this comforting truth, but does so cautiously, saying that God saves "elect infants" and "elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word." God will have mercy on those whom He will have mercy (Ex. 33:19). The Confession does not say whether all persons in the world dying in infancy are elect, or only some. The Westminster divines evidently felt that we should not rush in to dogmatize where Scripture is silent. 

However, we can hope in the character of God. "Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations" (Deut. 7:9). He is our covenant God, whose blessings overflow to us and to our children. After David's infant son perished because of the consequences of David's sin, he had the faith to say, "I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me" (2 Sam. 12:24). Certainly the covenant people of God may entrust their children and childlike ones into the hands of a faithful God. David celebrates God's covenant faithfulness and reminds us that behind the promise stands the unchanging love of God:
      Unchanging is the love of God,
      From age to age the same,
      Displayed to all who do His will
      And reverence His Name.
      
      Those who His gracious covenant keep
      The Lord will ever bless;
      Their children's children shall rejoice
      To see His righteousness.
      
      --Psalm 103:17, 18 (The Psalter, No. 278:4, 5)
      
Thus, we affirm that, based on God's character and His covenant commitments to His own, that it is His normal way to save children of believers whom it pleases Him to take away in infancy. That's why the Canons of Dort say, "Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they, together with the parents, are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children, whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy" (1.17). This principle is also applicable to the mentally impaired, so that we believe that God's normal way is sovereignly and mysteriously to call them to life eternal in Christ by placing the seed of regeneration in their souls.  

Chapter 10.2

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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

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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 9.1

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i. God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined good, or evil

There is something of interest about the location of this chapter within the Confession. It falls immediately after a chapter describing all that Christ has achieved for us by way of atonement and immediately before a series of chapters answering the question, How is that which Christ has achieved made effectual in the life of an individual believer? Before issues of the ordo salutis can be discussed, the Confession must first address the problem of man's will. Employing an older faculty psychology (something which Jonathan Edwards readdressed in the following century), section one insists that the will is not constrained by any external factors or by the will itself. 

What the Divines (and before them Calvin) called free will in a trivial sense, and what today is better termed free agency, this section posits that free agency is a mark of what it means to be human. We are not robots, forced by an act of creation to respond in a given way. Rather, every human being makes decision based on what he thinks is right and wrong (though this moral compass may be entirely misled). Choices made are real (voluntary not deterministic) choices and for which there is moral responsibility/culpability. This understanding of free agency (the "natural liberty" of the will) is true of Adam before and after he sinned. 

Chapter 7.1, Part One

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i. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

What the Confession asserts in section one of Chapter 7 has massive and profound implications, first, for theology proper, then for our understanding of God's activity in history, and the order of these two is crucial. This first section deserves the meditative attention of every serious Christian, and it seems, for the most part, not to have gotten the attention it deserves.

There are three things worth noting in this majestic entree to the Covenant:

Point 1. In a chapter devoted to a summary of God's covenant with man, the first thing that the divines determined to express was the infinite distance between God and man. But just what is this distance? Surely the notion of "distance" must be a metaphor, since, in reality, there never was nor will there ever be a spatial distance between God and man. God is repletively present; he is present, fully and completely, in all places at all times, and into eternity, both in the new heaven and new earth and in hell. So the distance cannot be a spatial distance.

What is it then? It is a distance that has its focus in the being of God in comparison to the being of his creatures. That is, it is an ontological distance. God is, as the Confession has already affirmed, "infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible..." As infinite in being, as immutable, immense and eternal, God is wholly other; he is beyond anything that mere creatures can think or experience. We cannot conceive of what God's infinity is; our minds cannot grasp or contain what God's eternity is. He is limited by nothing, not by space and not by time. So, there is a "distance," a separation of being between God and his creatures. God, and He alone, is independent (a se). Everything else is dependent on Him.

This is no philosophical idea or human speculation. It is rather a necessary implication of the first words of the Bible - "In the beginning, God..." These words affirm that at the beginning of creation (including of time), God was. Given that truth, we confess that God alone is independent; what could God have needed when there was nothing existing but Him alone? He existed before creation and nothing else did. His existence was not dependent on anyone or anything else; it could not be dependent. Before there was creation, there was only God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There was no time and there was no space; there was no "when" of God's existence, nor was there a "where." There was only the Triune God.

It is incumbent on the Christian to recognize this before, and in the context of, our thinking about God's covenantal relation to creation. This is why the Confession begins where it does. The problem with any theology that will not confess the absolute independence and sovereignty of God is that it does not begin to think about God's existence and independence prior to his act of creation and of covenant. A theology that begins with "God-in-relationship" is a theology that will inevitably veer from the truth of Scripture, and from a true confession of God's character, as well as His covenant with man