Results tagged “faith” from Reformation21 Blog

A Merry Luther Christmas

Of all the advent sermons I have read, none are so profound and moving as those preached by the great German Reformer, Martin Luther. Luther was accustomed to preaching in step with the liturgical calendar so as to focus on the chronology of the birth narratives. In the dedicatory section to Prince Frederick, the Elector, in his Church Postils (homilies), Luther explained his primary purpose in preaching of these sermons:

"I have written not for those that are experienced but for the common people and those that have the Spirit, who are highly esteemed before God...I hope that I shall do enough if I uncover the purest and simplest sense of the Gospel as well as I order that the Christian people may hear, instead of fables and dreams, the word of their God, unadulterated by human filth. For I promise nothing other than the pure, unalloyed sense of the Gospel suitable for the low, humble people." (Luther, Church Postils, vol. 1, p. 7)

Luther's commitment to write for "the low, humble people" was rooted in his own astonishment with the fact that Christ was born into an impoverished family in impoverished circumstances and lived an impoverished life. This is evident from often Luther employs the word "poor"  throughout his advent sermons. Luther was, no doubt, tracing out the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Cor. 8:9, "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." This theme permeates swaths of Luther's house postils. For instance, In his advent sermon on Matt. 2:1-12, Luther explained why Bethlehem was the fitting birthplace for Christ. He wrote, 

"He comes without pomp, without violence, without estate, without money, without sword and muskets. He disregards the great and mighty cities, Jerusalem the most holy, Rome the most powerful, and others of the kind, and chooses for His birth-place the poor and lowly Bethlehem, so that one might judge, from the very place of His birth, what a Governor He would be: poor and mean before the world, but rich in spirit and all heavenly gifts." (Luther, House Postils, vol. 3, p. 202)

Then, in his sermon on Luke 2:22-32, Luther explained the supernatural faith of Simeon--a faith that enabled him to see the true identity of the poor beggar baby. He noted, 

"Simeon has a very penetrating eye. In this child this is no kingly mien or royal garb to see, merely the form of a poor beggar. The mother is poor, with hardly five pennies in her purse to redeem her child in keeping with the law. The child is wrapped in very poor swaddling clothes. Nevertheless, Simeon comes right up, without anyone's testimonial, and publicly attests: This child is the Savior of the world and a Light to all the Gentiles. This is a remarkable sermon and wonderful witness on behalf of this child, as Simeon looks upon this little infant wrapped in shabby rags. By reasoned judgment he would have to say, "This is no king, but a beggar child." But he does not allow his reason to judge by what his eyes behold, but denominates this child as a king, greater than all the kings in the world. For he calls Him a Savior, prepared by God for all nations, and a Light to lighten the Gentiles all over the world. Indeed for Simeon, this was to open one's eyes wide and look far beyond oneself. His eyes behold the whole world, from one end of the earth to the other. Wherever, in the whole world, he says, there are peoples and Gentiles, there this child is a Savior and a Light. Thus he comprehends everything that the Holy Scriptures state, and associates it with the child now lying in his arms."

In similar fashion, Luther drew attention to the fact that the wisemen overcame their unbelief and by faith came to pay homage to the infant Jesus as a great King over all the earth, irrespective of the impoverished circumstances in which they found him. He observed,

"When the wise men had overcome their temptation and were born again by the great joy they were strong and took no offense at Christ, they had overcome in the trial. For although they enter a lowly hut and find a poor young wife with a poor little child, and find less of royal appearance than the homes of their own servants presented, they are not led astray. But in a great, strong, living faith they remove from their eyes and their minds whatever might attract and influence human nature with its pretense, follow the word of the prophet and the sign of the star in all simplicity, treat the child as a king, fall down before him, worship him, and offer gifts. This was a strong faith indeed, for it casts aside many things which impress human nature. Perhaps there were some people present who thought: What great fools are these men to worship such a poor child. They must indeed be in a trance to make of him a king" (Luther, Church Postils, vol. 1, p. 363).

Finally, Luther entered into the experience of Mary and Joseph in receiving the prophecies made about Christ--despite what outward appearance would otherwise dictate. He explained, 

"If Joseph and Mary had judged according to outward appearances, they would have considered Christ [nothing] more than a poor child. But they disregard the outward appearance and cling to the words of Simeon with a firm faith, therefore they marvel at his speech. Thus we must also disregard all the senses when contemplating the works of God, and only cling to his words, so that our eyes and our senses may not offend us." (Luther, Church Postils, vol. 1, p. 252)

It would do us well to meditate anew this Christmas on the One who left the infinite glories of heaven to be born into a world of poverty, to a poor virgin, in a poor city, wrapped in poor clothing, surrounded by poor shepherds so that He might be the Savior of poor sinners like us who live in spiritual hopelessness and helplessness by nature. This is the grace of the Lord Jesus, "that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." 

Compromising the Truth in Love (of Self)


I fear that much, if not most, counseling in churches hurts people more than it helps them. Why would I say that? I say it because pastors want to be liked and perceived as caring shepherds. Often, that fact overrules the need to push back against what the person perceives to be their problem in order to challenge what needs to be changed in their thinking and actions. There are often long-standing underlying patterns of non-biblical responses to people and circumstances that must be exposed.

People rarely rightly identify their problem. What people perceive to be their problem is often not their actual problem. It usually takes time, effort, and intrusive questions to get at the real problem. In other words, effective discipleship counseling almost invariably involves pushing back at what the person thinks their problem is. Even when this is done with gentleness and respect, it is often met with a sense of offense and outrage.

Herein lies the problem. People come to be counseled assuming that you will accept their self-definition of their problem. If you do so, you will invariably give them advice that does not help them. Often, such advice will make their problems worse rather than better, but they will leave thinking of you as kind, caring, and compassionate. If you push to get at their real problems you'll often be labeled unkind, harsh, and an uncompassionate shepherd. In fact, some people will get mad, leave the church, and find a church down the road where a staff person will be glad to superficially console them.

Every church has to decide whether or not they are really trying to help and disciple people or are they simply a public relations firm, maintaining the brand and image at all costs. Sadly, it is often the superficial pastors and staff, consumed with image and perception, who are often outwardly applauded as being kind and caring shepherds. This applause comes even though they are neglecting the real problems of the sheep and doing them real harm.

Some time ago, I met with my staff to tell them we are going to be loving truth-tellers in counseling because we are called to be disciple-makers, not self-promoters. I made it clear that we often have to risk making people mad in order to really help them and if they made someone mad by loving them enough to tell them the truth I would stand behind them. Not long after this meeting, a young adult came for counseling with one of our pastors. She explained the people who were, in her mind, the problem (the issues were normal disagreements and mildly unkind comments) and asked for help in dealing with these people.

After attempting to get to the heart of the matter, the pastor told the young adult that he didn't think these other people were her primary problem. He explained that most people go through the kinds of conflict they were describing in relating to other people. He suggested to the one being counseled that she should consider she might be the problem because she had been responding to almost every situation in a highly self-referential way. The pastor suggested they should develop a plan to cultivate humility and an others-centered focus.

His redirection of the problem was not well received. The young adult got angry and suggested that the pastor was insensitive and victim-blaming, stormed out, knocking a few things off the desk on the way out. The pastor came to me and recounted what happened and said, even though what he said was true, he felt terrible about how the session ended. I asked him if he said what he said gently and out of love, he assured me he did. I told him the only way the young adult could be helped was by the truth and we committed to pray for the person. A few weeks, later the young adult showed up again at the pastor's office. This time to apologize and to say he was right and now wanted to be discipled regarding these issues. He connected her with a disciple partner and I am pleased to report a very positive life transformation in that individual's life.

I mention that situation to ask what would have happened if the pastor had just accepted the young adults self-definition of the problem out of self-protecting image managing? The person's life would have been made worse, and the needed humility would have been neglected rather than cultivated. As long as the counselee kept the problem defined as external, she could avoid the needed personal growth. I fear that too many pastors and staff are willing to leave people in their sinful attitudes because they love temporary peace and personal reputation more than they love the one being counseled. And more importantly, more than they love Christ who gave them the authority to counsel in His name.

Jesus is Lord of all, including discipleship counseling in His churches. The rich, young, ruler asked Jesus, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17). If Jesus had simply given him something simple to do, he would have gladly done it and would have been full of joy and great thoughts about Jesus. The problem is that it would have been empty joy because he would have been deceived with false assurance about eternal life. Mark tells us, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him" (Mark 10:21). He loved him enough to confront his real problem, a lack of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. The text tells us "he went away sorrowful," but that was what love demanded. It was the only way the rich, young, ruler could be confronted to repent and believe so that he could know real joy and assurance of eternal life.

Our churches are to be outposts of the kingdom of Christ, engaging in spiritual war, discipling in the name of King Jesus, for His glory and the advance of His kingdom. They do not exist to create and protect the brand and image of pastors and staff. Every time we in the church tickle itching ears, not just in the pulpit (2 Tim 4:3), but also in the counseling room, we add to the darkness as those who are "swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:4-5). Paul's admonition is to "Avoid such people" (2 Tim 3:5), even when their office door says pastor or church staff.

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.

Essential Tools for Preaching Christ (Part 3)


When a man and a woman are engaged to be married they can hardly talk about anything else. In fact, we might suspect that something is wrong if they don't express excitement about the wedding. The church is espoused to Christ and looks forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-9). Christ's love compelled Paul's preaching (2 Cor. 5:14) and he denounced himself with maledictions if he failed to preach the gospel (1 Cor. 9:16). In the end, ministers must preach Christ because they want to preach Christ. Christ should be central to their sermons because both preachers and listeners cannot bear to be without him whom their souls love (Song 3:1).

This post is the third and final one treating the proper methods of preaching Christ. It shows that preaching Christ is more a matter of the heart than the application of method. Preaching Christ is not ultimately a technique. Preaching Christ is a devotionally necessary response to the preacher's relation to Christ. Paul summarized the aims of the gospel in terms of preaching "repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21). The nature of saving faith and repentance, through which we exercise hope and love, highlights the reasons behind this devotional necessity.

The nature of saving faith makes preaching Christ necessary devotionally. While saving faith receives the whole Word of God because it is God's Word, "the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace" (WCF 14.1). Christ is the pioneer and the perfector of our faith (Heb. 12:2). Faith involves being confident that God is able to perform whatever he promises (Rom. 4:21). Christ is both the example and object of faith for believers. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). Faith trusts that if we pray according to God's will he hears us (1 Jn. 5:14-15). Faith teaches us to pray in Christ's name (Jn. 14:13-14), asking mercy from God for his sake and "drawing our encouragement to pray, and our boldness, strength, and hope of acceptance in prayer, from Christ and his mediation" (WLC 180). Ministers preach hoping that those hearing them will either come to faith in Christ or that they will grow in their faith in Christ (Eph. 4:13). Their own faith in Christ and their desire to foster saving faith in others must always lead them to preach Christ as the object of faith.

The nature of repentance unto life makes preaching Christ necessary devotionally. Repentance requires a true sense of sin in relation to its nature and not merely out of fear to its consequences. Sin is not hateful primarily because it is dangerous to sinners, but because it is offensive to God. We saw in a previous post from John 16:8-11 the relationship between Christ and the conviction of sin. Repentance involves grief and hatred for sin and turning from sin to God. Not all sorrow for sin is godly sorrow and not all sorrow for sin leads to life instead of to death (2 Cor. 7:10). Some people, like Peter, hate sin in its nature because they love Christ. Other people, like Judas, hate sin in its effects because they got caught. Remorse for sin is not repentance from sin. Before purposing and endeavoring after new obedience, we must apprehend God's mercies in Christ (WSC 87). Repentance creates a cycle or a tug of war between indwelling sin on the one side and increasing holiness on the other. Faith in Christ alone gives forward momentum to repentance.

It speaks volumes about the state of Christianity at the present day that preachers and hearers need to be told that preaching Christ should be central in preaching. It is a sadder reality that some construct arguments as to why Christ does not need to be in the sermon. This is like a bride not only lacking vigor and excitement over her betrothed but arguing why such things are not really an important part of marriage. A practical problem in this regard is that many pastors who love Christ struggle with how to preach him to small struggling congregations in which almost all listeners are professing Christians. The corrective to this apparent problem is to remember that how ministers should preach Christ to believing congregations is not radically different from how they should preach him to unconverted people. Preachers must always set Christ's glory and beauty before their hearers as the object of their faith and as the means of their repentance. The Christian life is not radically different than our first conversion, since we live by faith in the Son of God (Gal. 2:20). If we live the entire Christian life through faith and repentance, then we must live the entire Christian life out of devotion to Christ. Preaching void of Christ cannot call hearers to faith and repentance in Christ. If preaching cannot call sinners to faith and repentance, then it cannot call them to do anything. If preachers preach Christ from devotional necessity, then the other methods of preaching Christ will fall into place more easily. Their pent up joy and excitement over Christ will look for outlets. We must love Christ more fervently if we would preach him more effectively. We must treasure Christ more greatly if we would hear Christ in the preached Word more expectantly.

*This is the eighth post in a Dr. McGraw's series on Preaching Christ.

Luther's Royal Marriage


Martin Luther was an outsized personality, with great faith and some great flaws. Living with this great person has a good effect on you. Let me commend his little book, The Freedom of a Christian. When he challenged the practice of indulgences in 1517, and when he debated Johann Eck a year later, Luther's concern was pastoral, what Robert Kolb calls the "consolation of sin ridden consciences."1 Luther was becoming convinced that Christ alone is the savior, he alone is the Lord of the Church and His authority is found in the Scripture alone. But between 1517 and 1520, the leadership of the Church was not buying it. What the Church heard was Luther undercutting the Pope's authority and upsetting church order.

In July 1520 Pope Leo warned Luther of 41 doctrinal errors, and threatened him with excommunication. He had 60 days to recant. In November Luther published his statement of the Christian life, The Freedom of a Christian. He dedicated it to the Pope with an open letter, asking for peace. This is his statement of justification by faith alone.

The book has two theses, or propositions. "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none." This is true in the inner man. "A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."2 This is true in the outer man.

Perfect freedom is the definition of the believer's relationship to God. That freedom is his in his soul, and nothing can overcome it. Why not? [Because] nothing external can either produce righteousness and freedom, or bring unrighteousness and servitude. Luther defines freedom as being in a right relation to God. The only thing that can make a person free is trusting in the Word of the gracious God. If he has this faith, nothing can hurt him. If he lacks it, nothing can help him.

What did Luther have in mind by external good works? He was thinking of two popular religious lifestyles, the practice of penance, required for all Christians, and rigorous monastic practice. Penance kept up your relationship with God; it had three parts: contrition, confession, and works of satisfaction. Luther complained that contrition for sin had become a human effort that prepared the heart for approaching God, a human merit. "If you do your very best, God will not deny his grace."3 But this left the conscience in doubt. How could anyone be certain he had done his best? Confession of sins to priest had become the occasion for tyranny, rather than the pronouncement of free forgiveness for Christ's sake. And making satisfaction through good deeds assigned by the priest in confession turned people's faith toward human works, rather than to God's free promise.4 There was no freedom there.

How then can righteousness be found? It is found in the message of the Word of God, received by faith.

Luther said faith has three powers. Its first power is in receiving the treasures of grace that God freely offers in Christ.

...the moment you begin to have faith, you learn that all things in you are altogether blameworthy, sinful and damnable. When you have learned this, you will know that you need Christ, who suffered and rose again for you, so that if you believe in him, you may, through faith become a new man, in so far as your sins are forgiven, and you are justified by the merits of another, namely of Christ alone.5

No human work can accomplish this, neither can an outward work, but only unbelief of heart, make one guilty of sin.

Luther answers an objection: then why does Scripture command so many ceremonies and laws if faith alone "justifies, frees and saves"?  Martin's answer is to draw a line between the law and the gospel. The commandments show us what we ought to do, but give no power to fulfill. God intends them to teach us our inability to do good, and lead us to despair of it. But the second part of Scripture, the promises, are "holy, true, free, peaceful words, full of goodness." Luther is saying that when we entrust ourselves to the promises of God, the power and grace of the Word of God are communicated to the soul. No good work can rely upon God. Thus there is no need for good works to justify, and the Christian is free from the law. Good works are not necessary for righteousness and salvation.

Faith's second power is that it gives God his proper glory by trusting him as truthful, righteous and good. The highest honor we can pay anyone is to trust him. Conversely, if we do not trust him, we do him the greatest disservice. "Is not such a soul most obedient to God in all things by this faith? What greater wickedness, what greater contempt of God can there be, than not believing his promise? For what is this but to make God a liar?"6 If a person does not trust God's promise, he sets up himself as an idol in his heart. Then his unbelieving doing of good works is actually sinning.

Till now he had thought of God as a harsh judge who rewards individuals according to their merits. He does not deny God's wrath against sin. But now he says that God's basic disposition toward his sinful creatures is love and mercy, his personal favor, based on nothing but his own desire to show compassion.7 "What a kind, fine God he is, nothing but sweetness and goodness, that he feeds us, preserves us, nourishes us." He also has a new understanding of grace. He no longer defines grace as an internally located gift from God; it became instead his favor, his merciful disposition toward sinners.8

Faith's third power is that it unites us to Christ as our bridegroom. Here Luther becomes lyrical.

...Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh, and if between them there is a true marriage... it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly, the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has, Christ claims as his own. ... Let us compare these, and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death and damnation. Now let faith come between them, and sins, death and damnation will be Christ's, while grace, life and salvation will be the soul's... By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death and pains of hell, which are his bride's.... Her sins cannot now destroy her... and she has that righteousness of Christ, her husband, ... and [can] say, "If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and mine is his..."9

Luther calls this the glorious exchange, the royal marriage. By faith, then, the person can ascribe all glory to God and have no other gods. By faith he can keep all the commandments.

Finally, Luther says that by faith this perfect freedom means that we are kings and priests to God. Because Christ is king, so we are kings, (in the inner man) lords over all things. Nothing can hurt us. All things are made subject to the believer, to further his salvation. Nothing can subject him to harm, even if God ordains that he suffers and dies. The Christian is also a priest, because he can come before God, to pray to him acceptably.

How then is the Christian different from the church's priests, popes, bishops, and other "ecclesiastics"? There is no distinction, except that certain Christians are set apart to be public teachers and servants.10 But the church has turned these servants into lords.

The church should preach, not just facts about Christ, but what Christ is to be to us. "...that he might not only be Christ, but be Christ for you and me... faith is built up when we preach why Christ came, what he brought and bestowed, and what benefit it is to us to accept him."

What man is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depth, and in receiving this comfort, will not grow tender, so that he will love Christ as he never could by means of laws or works?"11

Faith is trust in God, not a virtue. It is the rejection of all possible virtue. Faith is not an inward good work that takes the place of outward good works. Rather, it looks to Christ. It knows Christ and rests in him and his righteousness for us.

"A Christian is a totally responsible servant of all, subject to all." This defines the believer's relationship to other people. We must continue to do good works, because we are still subject to sin, and we are bound to others.

Good works are valuable to the believer, but not as an alternative righteousness. If that "Leviathan" burdens them, they are actually not good at all. This notion destroys faith.12 All teaching about good works must be grounded in faith.

Faith is active through love.

That is, it finds expression through works of freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willfully serves another without hope of reward; and for himself, he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.13

His sum of the joyful service of the Christian:

Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore, freely, joyfully, with my whole heart and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ'14

Luther concludes "By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor."15

Luther brings us back to the Gospel. If we would follow Luther, our ministries must, above all things, seek to lead people to believe, to trust God's Word. We are to set forth Christ for us. God is good and trustworthy and he freely offers us all things, in Christ. Therefore the trustworthiness of the Word, and the necessity of faith is everything. What we want to do for everyone is to help them to believe in Christ as he is offered in the Word.

Second, Luther is not antinomian. He is clear that faith works through love (Gal. 5:3). But why do we need the moral law? Because we are still sinners, subject to temptation and to continuing unbelief. However, even as it instructs us as believers, the law has a largely negative function. Luther does not make a sound theological place for God's law as the believer's delight. But it is just the gospel that overcomes the problem of law. "If I am outside of Christ, the law is my enemy, because God is my enemy. But once I am in Christ, the law is my friend, because God is my friend."16 It is the deepest desire of my heart to obey God's law, and to do this in faith. Faith works through love.

Last, Luther's doctrine of sola fide in 1520 is closer to "union with Christ by faith alone," than to "justification by faith alone." His major metaphor is the union of the believer and the Bridegroom, the wonderful exchange between Christ and us. Luther clearly includes justification in this, an "alien righteousness," Christ's righteousness, by faith alone. But the more precise idea of his perfect, finished and final righteousness, counted ours once for all, is not here yet, because Luther speaks about our righteousness growing over our lifetime.

Later biblical reflection would clarify this, and Luther would be clearer about it too. God in free grace, reckons the righteousness of Christ to us, when we simply entrust ourselves to him. It is not faith, considered in itself, that grounds God's pronouncement. Christ's sacrifice for us, alone, is the basis of our being forgiven, fully and perfectly and once for all. In 1520 the brownies were still a little chewy. It took some time for this fully biblical idea of justification to bake completely. However, having said this, I think Luther's idea of the glorious exchange by union with Christ is sound and biblical. Union with Christ by faith alone truly is the "freedom of a Christian." When we receive Christ by faith alone, we receive both his righteousness as a completed gift, and are thus accounted righteous by God, once for all. And it is also true that our hearts are cleansed, what we term "sanctification," by this union. What Luther calls the good works of a good man, notice, a changed man, are the fruit of this union. John Calvin would later put it like this:

We do not contemplate him outside ourselves from afar, in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us, but because we put on Christ, and are engrafted into his body--in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.17

I close with these beautiful words of Luther:

Who then, can appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by the bride in the Song of Solomon says [2:16], "My beloved is mine, and I am his."18


1. Robert Kolb, Martin Luther, Confessor of the Faith (Oxford University Press, 2009), 72.

2. J. Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, selections from his writings (New York: Anchor, 1962), 53.

3. See Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000).

4. Kolb, 86.

5. Dillenberger, 55f.

6. Dillenberger, 59.

7. Kolb, 60.

8. Kolb, 34.

9. Dillenberger, 60f.

10. Dillenberger, 65.

11. Dillenberger, 66.

12. Dillenberger, 72.

13. Dillenberger, 74.

14. Dillenberger, 75f.

15. Dillenberger, 80.

16. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

17. Institutes 3.11.10. 18. Dillenberger, 80f.

*This lecture was part of RTS' "Luther's (Re)Formative Years: Engaging the Reformation at 500" Conference. The audio can be found here

Faith Among the Graces: Edwards on Faith and Love


This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation when the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a long series of academic debating points about the medieval Roman Catholic penitential system (the 95 theses) to the door of the Wittenberg church. One of the central questions of the Reformation revolved around the nature or essence of saving faith. Is faith in relation especially to the blessing or benefit of justification passive and receptive or is it an active or working faith? Does faith have its own integrity or does it have to be supplemented or completed by another grace?

The Reformation concluded that saving faith, as it is related to justification (i.e. the saving benefit of a sinner being found acceptable in the sight of a holy and righteous God by virtue of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ) is merely receptive. That is, one is justified by placing one's faith in Jesus and that results in the complete forgiveness of one's sins and the obtaining of a right(eous) standing before God. The Reformers determined that the Scriptures taught that faith was the alone instrument or means whereby the sinner unites to and apprehends Christ. While a true and living faith was understood to always be accompanied by all the other saving graces, none of these other graces were taken into consideration by God for his or her justification. It was sola fide or faith alone that was the instrument of justification.

The medieval Roman Catholic church held that saving faith was formed faith. That is, in order for faith to save, it must be formed or perfected by love. In practical terms, one was saved by faith and good works. Luther and the other Reformers recognized that a true and living faith always produced good works but that good works had no part in a proper and biblical understanding of the nature or essence of faith. Faith for Luther and the other Reformers, while accompanied by other graces such as love, was not defective and in need of some corrective such as love.

Over two hundred years later--and across the Atlantic Ocean--New England pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards addressed the question of the relation of faith and love in relation to each other in the thirteenth sermon in the preaching series later published as Charity and its Fruits entitled "Christian Graces Concatenated Together." Edwards has been at the center of a scholarly debate regarding whether or not his concern for sanctification in the Christian life, and specifically his concern with nominalism caused him to compromise his Protestant and Reformed principles about the integrity of justifying faith.

In the 1950s preeminent Edwards scholar Thomas Schafer argued that Edwards had in fact undermined, or called into question, his commitment to a biblical and confessionally Reformed understanding of faith and love in justification. Schafer did not suggest that Edwards intentionally departed from the faith once for all delivered to the saints, but that given his concerns with the new birth and growth in sanctification in the Christian life, he had perhaps accidentally moved away from the gold standard of Reformed orthodoxy. Schafer argued that Edwards embraced a quasi-Roman Catholic understanding of saving faith as formed faith, that is, faith formed by love. It is agreed that Edwards defended the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification in his graduation oration at Yale and in his lecture series on justification delivered at Northampton in 1734. No doubt we will not be able to settle this dispute here and now. However, we can look at how Edwards discusses the relation of faith and love in this sermon to open up for a window into how Edwards thought about this.

Before delving into the specifics of the sermon, we should note the context of this particular sermon. The sermon "Christian Graces Concatenated Together" is the thirteenth of a sixteen sermon series on 1 Corinthians 13, famously known as the "love chapter." I note this in order to point out the direct subject matter is not the doctrine of justification per se, or the nature of justifying faith. Having said this, any confessionally Reformed theologian worth his salt would always have a concern to be as clear and careful as possible when talking about faith (even in a context such as this sermon where the doctrine of justification is not directly in view)--to clearly define faith in such a way as to maintain its integrity as a discrete Christian grace. Faith is a broad biblical category of which justifying faith is one element or facet. What we say about faith more broadly, however, must not undermine what we say more narrowly about justifying faith.

Additionally, I should mention Edwards' emphasis on the integrated nature of the human soul. Edwards moved away from the faculty psychology of his day in which the powers of the human soul (intellect and will) worked concurrently with each other rather than in a reified, hierarchical manner. This means that faith for Edwards was a "whole soul" endeavor. It was not just a matter or the intellect or will alone, but both working together.

Now we can turn to the sermon "Christian Graces Concatenated Together." The main point of the sermon is that whatever Christian graces the Holy Spirit dispenses to Christians, they are chained (this is what concatenation means) together or they occur together or they are interlocked or linked. This is a thoroughly sound and biblical insight. Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 and not fruits. Wherever one fruit such as love, joy, or peace occur, so do others. The Westminster Assembly divines concurred in this (which is a good thing since they were aiming to be biblical!) when they noted that while justification was by faith alone, it was not a faith that was alone. True faith would always be accompanied by every other saving grace. In the case of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is arguing for the supremacy of agape love. In the end, only three graces remain and survive into the eschaton: faith, hope, and love. And, as Paul tells us, the greatest of these is love. Note that this is said by the Apostle of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Edwards tells us three things about the Christian graces: they always appear together, they depend on one another, and they are implied in one another. For our purposes, it is the second and third points that may be most problematic. To say that faith depends upon hope and love in order to be faith or vice versa does seem to suggest that faith does not maintain its own integrity or independence. The further point that faith implies hope and love or implicates them also casts into doubt Edwards' understanding of faith. Edwards goes further and says that love is of the essence of faith or is essential to faith or is an essential ingredient of faith.

One basic Pauline thought at this point is that the fruit of the Spirit, while multifaceted, is singular. We can even recognize a sort of synergy at work in the concatenated graces in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We can go further and say that each grace brings out the best in the others. But, to many, Edwards' language of faith depending upon hope and love to be what it is and to function properly seems to undermine the discrete integrity of faith. Some have suggested that it comes too close to the Roman Catholic notion of formed faith. It is one thing to say that hope and love enrich faith but it is another to say faith depends upon hope and love. This dependency relation suggests that faith cannot function in its own right. That is, faith qua faith, is insufficient. The same thing can be said about implication. Implication suggests that no grace is sufficient as God created them and gives them to his people. Is it logomachy to suggest that impinge might be a better word than imply?

Edwards' concern to stress that Christian graces come together like a floral bouquet is altogether legitimate. But dependency appears to undermine the proper functionality of each grace. Love is not faith--neither is it hope. Implication appears to undermine the discrete integrity of faith, hope, and love. Is Edwards' suggesting in so many words, that the Christian graces interpenetrate one another in a manner analogous to the perichoretic nature of the triune Godhead? He does not say as much in this sermon; but, one is left wonder.

We are left to conclude that while Edwards nowhere affirms in this sermon the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of formed faith, the logical implication of what he says seems to suggest something similar. Be that as it may, this does not square with what Edwards has written elsewhere about justification by faith alone. I suggest that we have a consistency breakdown in the teaching in this particular sermon.

In conclusion, what we learn from this experiment is that no fallen, sinful Christian theologian can be accepted in everything he teaches or advocates. This is in no way to undermine Edwards' proper due influence. However, with regard to the dependency and implication ideas, Edwards appears to accidentally undermine the biblical and confessionally Reformed notion of justifying faith as passive and receptive and complete in and of itself with its own proper functionality and discrete integrity. The Protestant Reformation recovered a biblical jewel when justification and justifying faith were clarified. Edwards' muddies the waters at this point. So brethren, let's go back behind Edwards to the crystal clear fount of Scripture and the Reformers! 

Dr. Jeff Waddington is the interim pastor at Knox OPC in Landsdowne, PA. He is the author is The Unified Operations of the Human Soul: Jonathan Edwards Theological Anthropology and Apologetic. Jeff is a contributor on the podcast, "East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards."

Any theological system worth its salt affirms that faith is a gift from God rather than the exercise of some innate power of the human soul. But that affirmation can be misleading, particularly so if one's notion of "gift" is determined by the culture of gift-giving and gift-receiving we currently inhabit. In our day, we tend to think of gifts as something we may or may not want, and may or may not actually keep. The assumption that gifts can be refused is so engrained in our modern way of life that we include "gift receipts" with gifts given in order, rather bizarrely, to facilitate their rejection on the part of those to whom we give them. The danger, then, is that in speaking of faith as a divine gift, we think of it as something analogous to those argyle socks that Aunt Gertrude sends us every Christmas. Argyle socks may be appeal to some (personally I'm a fan), but many are likely to return the socks in favor of a DVD or some fancy accessory for their smart phones.

Faith isn't that kind of a gift. Faith is the kind of gift that transforms its recipient into one who deeply values it (because he supremely values its object) and henceforth longs for more of it. Genuine, saving faith is not given or received with a "gift receipt." There are absolutely no returns on the faith that God gifts to those upon whom he has set his saving affection before the foundation of the world. Faith, in other words, is entirely unique in the genus of gifts. If anyone else has discovered another gift that by its very nature renders its recipient desirous of it, please, please, let me know -- I'd like to order whatever it is for my wife well in advance of Christmas. Because faith is unique compared to presents we might give or receive, we must define our terms very carefully when speaking of it as "gift." Fortunately, our Christian tradition is rather rich in resources for doing just that.

Three individuals/resources stand out to me for how they properly clarify faith's character as gift: Augustine, the Canons of Dort, and Francis.

Augustine on Faith as Gift

The late fourth/early fifth century Church Father Augustine unambiguously names faith as a divine gift in his work On the Predestination of the Saints: "Faith, then, as well in its beginning as in its completion, is God's gift; and let no one have any doubt whatever, unless he desires to resist the plainest sacred writings, that this gift is given to some, while to some it is not given." Augustine describes the transformative nature of this gift in numerous writings. So for instance he notes in The Gift of Perseverance that "[God] himself ... gives to ... unbelievers the gift of faith, and makes willing men out of those that were unwilling." And again in On the Predestination of the Saints he writes concerning faith: "This grace, therefore, which is hiddenly bestowed in human hearts by the Divine gift, is rejected by no hard heart, because it is given for the sake of first taking away the hardness of the heart."

The Canons of Dort on Faith as Gift

The Canons of Dort similarly identify faith as a divine and transformative gift: "Faith in Jesus Christ ... and salvation through him is a free gift of God. [...] The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decree. [...] In accordance with this decree God graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of the elect and inclines them to believe, but by a just judgment God leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen." The transformative nature of God's gift-giving to his people is re-emphasized further on in the Canons: "When God ... works true conversion [in his elect], God not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds."

Francis on Faith as Gift

With all due deference to Augustine and Dort, no individual has influenced or informed my understanding of faith's nature as gift more than Francis. Not Francis of Assissi. Not Rome's current pope. Mike Francis, senior pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church (PCA) in DeLand, Florida. Mike has influenced and informed my understanding of faith's nature as gift less by his teaching (though also certainly by that) than by the events of his own life.

My wife and I moved from Scotland to Central Florida in the summer of 2013. We began attending Immanuel Presbyterian Church the week we arrived, and were blessed to sit under Mike Francis's teaching for nearly two years. Mike is hands down the best preacher I've ever heard. He's also the most faithful shepherd of a congregation's souls that I've ever met. Until the day I die, Mike will stand out in my mind as the model of what a Christian pastor should be.

In May of 2015 Mike suffered a heart attack while cycling several miles from his house in Deland. His heart stopped beating. He was subsequently revived. Fourteen minutes elapsed between the point at which he climbed or fell off his bicycle at the side of the road and the point at which the paramedics revived him. Mike suffered an anoxic brain injury as a result of his heart attack. When he awoke from a coma and eventually spoke in the weeks after his injury, it became evident that Mike had lost much of his short-term and long-term memory. Close friends and members of his congregation -- individuals Mike had prayed for, preached to, wept and rejoiced with -- were strangers to him. When Mike first returned to the corporate worship of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, he would approach individuals after the service and introduce himself with these words: "I'm Mike. Have I already spoken to you today?" Ten seconds after the conclusion of such a conversation, Mike would have no memory of it. There was every possibility he would return to you in minutes, saying "I'm Mike. Have I already spoken to you today?"

It's a terrible thing to witness an individual's loss of memory. One realizes in such situations just how substantially memory is constitutive of friendships and identity. In a very real sense, Mike was stripped of both by his accident. He was surrounded by persons who loved (and still love) him, but the fundamental bond of human friendship -- shared (and remembered) experiences -- was broken. He knew his name, but the narrative that was his life -- the narrative that defined him to himself and others -- was lost to him.

But Mike retained one thing fully intact despite the loss of so much that defined him: his faith that Jesus Christ has lived and died for him, and so secured his inheritance of eternal life with God and with God's people. Several weeks after his accident, Mike awoke from his coma a confused man but a strong believer in Jesus Christ. I visited Mike in the hospital when he was in a semi-comatose state, and I wondered whether Mike would ever fully awake. I visited Mike in the hospital after he awoke, and I wondered if he would ever speak. Six months after his accident Mike stood up at a congregational gathering of our church and admitted to his congregation that his entire life had changed as a result of his accident. He then added, with more than a spark of the enthusiasm and passion that characterized his preaching for so many years, that one thing had not changed: His relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, a relationship founded on the saving work of God the Son incarnate for him.

Faith is a gift, and truly "the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11.29). That reality became increasingly clear to me as I witnessed Mike's life and conversation following his accident. Stripped of nearly everything that defined him, Mike still had faith. Mike still had faith because his faith was never a product of his own intellect or volition. It was God's gift to him. The reality that faith is God's gift became, in fact, one of the most powerful lessons Mike ever taught his congregation. He taught that lesson unwittingly, and with a childlike simplicity and beauty that words cannot obtain. Indeed, he's still teaching that lesson to the members of Immanuel Presbyterian Church. And I suspect that God has many more lessons yet to teach his people in Deland and beyond through Mike Francis.

Please beseech God for further healing and peace for Rev. Mike Francis, comfort and endurance for Mike's immediate family members, and wisdom for the session of Immanuel Presbyterian Church as they chart a forward course for Mike and the congregation.

Sarah's problem, in Calvin's estimation, was that she believed the promise of God. Or at least, that was part of her problem -- part, that is, of what actually drove her to let those very strange words pass the threshold of her lips: "Go, sleep with my slave" (Gen. 16.2; NIV).

There's no question, Calvin concedes, that Sarah desired a child per se. But Sarah's "natural impulse" to hear the pitter patter of little feet on ancient near eastern floors hardly accounts for the desperate lengths she went to -- offering her servant to her husband as a concubine -- in order to bring a baby into their nest. Had this merely been a case of pining for a child, the Reformer reasons, "it would rather have come into her mind to do it by the adoption of a son, than by giving place to a second wife." After all, Calvin adds, "we know the vehemence of female jealousy."

It was, rather, knowledge of -- and indeed, confidence in -- God's repeated promise of a child to Abraham (Gen. 12.1-3; Gen. 15.1-4) that drove Sarah to do precisely what she did. Calvin takes it as given that Sarah was "cognizant of those promises which had been so often repeated to her husband." Indeed, the rather desperate plan she hatched in Gen. 16.2 very likely reflected specific familiarity with God's most recent statement to Abraham in Gen. 15.4 that his own biological child would be his heir. Thus far in salvation history neither Abraham nor Sarah had received, at least to our knowledge, any corresponding affirmation that Abraham's offspring would also be her biological child. One can, then, perhaps understand her reasoning: "While contemplating the promise, she becomes forgetful of her own right, and thinks of nothing but the bringing forth of children to Abram. [...] While she reflects upon her own barrenness and old age, she begins to despair of offspring" -- she begins, that is, to despair of the realization of God's promise through her -- "unless Abram should have children from some other quarter."

Calvin goes so far as to discover something "laudable" in "Sarai's wish, as regards the end, or the scope to which it tended." Her actions, in other words, reflected a genuine and proper desire to see God's promise come to fruition. Nevertheless, "she was guilty of no light sin." So what precisely was her crime?

Calvin finds fault with Sarah in two regards. First of all, she failed to realize that when God promises some end, he sovereignly supplies and/or orchestrates the means to that end (as he orchestrates all things), and so achieves that end in his own time and manner. God, Calvin thus reminds his readers, is no consequentialist. In God's estimation, the end never justifies the means. The means themselves must conform to God's holy standards, regardless of whether the particular end in view is one of man's devising or God's promising. "However desperate" Sarah considered the situation, "still she ought not to have attempted anything at variance with the will of God and the legitimate order of nature." She should not, in other words, have violated that "divine law by which two persons [are] mutually bound together," regardless of her (possibly) proper desire to see God's promise realized.

Sarah's plan and efforts, together with her husband, to help God's promise along (so to speak) were, ultimately, a failure in faith. "The faith of both of them was defective; not indeed with regard to the substance of the promise, but with regard to the method in which they proceeded; since they hastened to acquire the offspring which was to be expected from God without observing the legitimate ordinance of God." In other words, faith at times looks directly to God's promises -- Abraham and Sarah had this part figured out. At other times faith looks not directly to God's promises but to God's character and commandments. After all, God has not revealed to us every detail of what he has in store for us, whether in this life or the next. It is, accordingly, an exercise of faith to conform to God's righteous standards even when we can't for the life of us figure out what God is up to, or how our present circumstances might lend themselves to the realization of his ultimate purposes for (and promises to) us. Abraham and Sarah failed in this regard. With eyes fixed on God's promise, they lost sight of God's law, and stumbled and fell.

But with characteristic insight (not to mention a slight tendency to indulge in speculation), Calvin discovers one further fault in Sarah that led her to plan and execute her crime. "What fault then shall we find in her? Surely that she did not, as she ought, cast this care into the bosom of God, without binding his power to the order of nature, or restraining it to her own sense. And then, by neglecting to infer from the past what would take place in future, she did not regard herself as in the hand of God, who could again open the womb which he had closed." Simply put, Sarah failed to pray. She failed to take her anxiety about the fulfillment of God's promise to God himself, and cast it upon him. And she failed to pray because she lost sight not only of God's power to achieve whatever he purposes, but also his tender and fatherly compassion towards her and her plight.

Calvin's claim regarding Sarah's failure to "cast [her] care into the bosom of God" is, as intimated above, speculative. But it rings true. And it provides us with an important lesson. It reminds us, which is just what Calvin intends, that prayer and faith are mutually supportive. Prayer is itself an act of faith. Prayer, in turn, sustains faith. Prayer sustains a similar, symbiotic relationship with our perception of God's tender and fatherly concern for us. Prayer is itself an acknowledgement of God's compassion. Prayer, in turn, stretches and informs our sensitivity to God's tender care.

In sum, then, we learn two valuable things from Sarah's unfortunate example in Gen. 16.3. First, we must trust God not only to deliver upon his promises, but to do so in his own time and manner. Faith sometimes leans more heavily upon God's character than upon any specific promise. And faith in who God is naturally prompts obedience to God's commandments. Second, we pray not only because we do believe, but also in order to believe. The frequency and fervor of our prayers provides some indication of the measure of our faith. But where faith proves to be weak, prayers proves to be one critical remedy -- which is, of course, good reason to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5.17), "casting all [our] anxieties on [God], because he cares for [us]" (1 Peter 5.7).

Given the controversies surrounding justification in his day, it's no surprise that Calvin camps out on Gen. 15.6 ("[Abraham] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness") for a significant space of time in his commentary on the first book of the Bible. This text, after all, figures critically in Paul's defense of justification by faith (alone) in both Romans and Galatians (cp. Rom. 3.21-4.25 & Gal. 3.1-9). Operating (like Paul) on the principle that "what is... related concerning [Abraham]" in Gen. 15 "is applicable to all," Calvin reflects at length on the nature and named fruit of Abraham's faith in God's repeat promise of a spiritual seed/Seed and a heavenly inheritance (Gen. 15.1-5; cf. Gal. 3.16). 

More surprising, albeit limited, is what the Reformer says in this context about Abraham's (and thus our own) doubt in relation to God's promise. No matter its ultimate theological import, Calvin reads Gen. 15.6 in its immediate context, and consequently notes the rather remarkable expression of Abraham's uncertainty regarding God's purposes for him that occurs just two verses after we read of Abraham's faith and its justifying fruit. When God reiterates, in Gen. 15.7, the promise of a (heavenly) land for Abraham and his (spiritual) children (the very promise Abraham has just believed), Abraham responds, in Gen. 15.8, with a question which suggests something other than complete confidence in God's ability and/or purpose to deliver on the same: "Lord God, how am I to know that I will possess [this]?"

One might expect Calvin to censure Abraham for this apparent instance of doubt regarding God's promise. In fact, however, he is rather forgiving of the Patriarch. The grace he extends to Abraham stems in part from the observation that "the protracted delay" between God's promise and its fulfillment "was no small obstacle to Abram's faith." It stems, I think, in equal part from the observation that every true believer who lives between the promise of eternal reward and its fulfillment is, like Abraham, plagued at times by some uncertainty about the things for which he has come to hope and/or the purpose of the One who promises those things.

In his treatment of Abraham's faith, Calvin goes out of his way to insist that good works are antithetical to genuine belief (in the context of justification). This follows from "the mutual relation between the free promise and faith." Insofar as forgiveness and restoration from sin are freely offered to sinners on the basis of the promised Seed's person and work, efforts to earn forgiveness and restoration constitute insults of the highest order. Only the worst kind of ingrate, after all, responds to the receipt of a birthday present by pulling out his wallet and insisting upon paying the giver for the gift.

But doubt, unlike good works, can apparently coincide with genuine belief. Indeed, doubt can point to the existence of true faith: "[Abraham's] questioning with God is rather a proof of faith than a sign of incredulity." Calvin explains: "The Lord... concedes to his children that they may freely express any objection which comes into their mind. For he does not act so strictly with them as not to suffer himself to be questioned. Yea, the more certainly Abram was persuaded that God was true, and the more he was attached to His word, so much the more familiarly did he disburden his cares into God's bosom." Of course, such an assumption (or rather, conviction) frees believers to deal with doubt exactly as Abraham did: taking it directly to God in prayer.

Calvin's comments on doubt in relation to faith and God's promise are heavily informed, I suggest, by the Reformer's characteristic sensitivity to the tender, fatherly nature of God's relationship to believers. After all, a kind father (such as God truly is) who has guaranteed some good (say, a trip to the sea) to his children doesn't reprimand them for unbelief when they pester him with questions about whether and when he will deliver on his promise. Indeed, such pestering is proof that his children nourish a proper expectation and hope for the joy held out before them. The absence of such pestering would point to a conviction that the promise itself was vapid, or to indifference towards the good promised, sentiments opposed to faith and hope respectively.

If there is solace to be found in Calvin's conviction, drawing on Abraham's example, that true (justifying) faith leaves room for doubt, there is equal solace to be found in his observations regarding God's response to Abraham's uncertainty. God does one better than reassure Abraham (or us) with a further word of promise, as thoroughly sufficient as such a word should be. God answers Abraham's doubt regarding his covenant word with a covenant ritual, a veritable feast for Abraham's senses in which God essentially pledges himself to Self-destruction should he fail to deliver on his promise (Gen. 15.9-21).

God's response to Abraham's doubt is every bit as paradigmatic for present-day believers' experience as Abraham's faith and doubt as such. "For the Lord, in order more deeply to affect his own people, and more efficaciously penetrate their minds, after he has reached their ears by his word, also arrests their eyes by external symbols, that eyes and ears may consent together." The rituals by which God confirms his word of promise to us (namely, baptism and the Lord's Supper) may, upon the surface, seem as strange and irrelevant to our doubts as God's solution to Abraham's doubt first (perhaps) did to the Patriarch. It's unlikely, after all, that Abraham immediately felt his anxieties regarding God's purpose for him resolved when God, in response to his questioning, told him to gather a cow, a goat, ram, and two birds (Gen. 15.9). But if, like Abraham, we wait and see how God employs such "external symbols" to confirm his promise to us, we stand to gain substantial (divine) medicine for our doubt. Thus the sacraments, which both symbolize and secure/enlarge our union with Christ, our designed by God to resolve our anxieties and bolster our confidence that we will one day possess in full the fruit of our union with Christ, which is nothing less than eternal fellowship with God himself. "Let us therefore learn meekly to embrace those helps which God offers for the confirmation of our faith."

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Scripture's account of Terah and Abraham's departure from Ur of the Chaldeans for Canaan (via Haran) presents Calvin with a difficulty. In Genesis 11.31 it appears that Terah takes the initiative in quitting Chaldea for the greener pastures of some other place. In Genesis 12.4 it appears that Abraham, in response to the divine call (Gen. 12.1), takes the initiative to abandon country and kindred in favor of a land yet to be named.

Calvin takes the line that Abraham, not Terah, orchestrated the family's departure from the city of Ur. In support of this position there is, first of all, the fact that God's call to Abraham to "go from your country and your kindred" makes precious little sense if Abraham had already done so in filial submission to his father. Had Abraham already left Chaldea in Terah's train, he might, Calvin wryly observes, have responded to God's command by insisting: "I have left my country, I am far removed from my kindred." The very substance of God's directive to Abraham, in other words, supposes that Abraham was "settled in his [Chaldean] nest, having his affairs underanged, and living quietly and tranquilly among his relatives."

There is, secondly, the evidence of subsequent canonical references to Abraham's call. In Gen. 15.7, God, again in dialogue with Abraham, names himself as the one who brought Abraham "out from Ur of the Chaldeans," not as the one who directed Abraham to Canaan after Terah had already uprooted the family. So also Joshua names Abraham, not Terah, as the one whom God brought forth from an eastern land of (un)happy idolaters (Joshua 24.2-3). Most definitively, perhaps, there is Stephen's testimony in Acts 7.2-4: "The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, 'Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.' Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans...."

Calvin is also sensitive, thirdly, to the paradigmatic nature of God's call to Abraham. In his view, the divine call which triggers Abraham's departure from idolatrous Ur for an eventual land of Yahweh worshippers serves as a theological model of sorts for that divine call which prompts elect sinners to quit the kingdom of darkness for the kingdom of God's Son. Should Abraham have already left idolatrous Ur when God's call came, one might get the impression that God helps those that have to some degree already helped themselves -- that God, in other words, privileges sinners who have cleaned up their act to some extent (and thus set sail from the shores of the kingdom of darkness, even if they haven't yet determined a destination). 

Calvin puts it this way: "This calling of Abram is a signal instance of the gratuitous mercy of God. Had Abram been beforehand with God by any merit of works? Had Abram come to him, or conciliated his favour? Nay, we must ever recall to mind, (what I have before adduced from the passage in Joshua,) that he was plunged in the filth of idolatry; and now God freely stretches forth his hand to bring back the wanderer." Calvin's understanding of divine election and the outworking of the same in vocation, justification, sanctification, and glorification leaves no room for sinners to prepare themselves for grace.

What, then, are we to make of Genesis 11.31, which seems to suggest that Terah orchestrated the family's departure from idolatrous Ur with the express intent, at least, of reaching Canaan? Based on the evidence cited above, Calvin argues that Terah "was not so much the leader or author of the journey, as the companion of his son." After all, Calvin notes, "the divine command to Abram respecting his departure did not prohibit [Abram] from informing his father that his only reason for leaving him was that he preferred the command of God to all human obligations." When Scripture, then, seemingly "assigns the priority to Terah [in Gen. 11.31], as if Abram had departed under his auspices and direction, rather than by the command of God," it does so with rhetorical respect to that "authority" that Terah naturally had over Abraham. In other words, "this is an honour conferred upon the father's name." "Nor," Calvin adds, "do I doubt that Abraham, when he saw his father willingly obeying [God's call to Abraham], became in return the more obedient to him."

Calvin reserves profuse praise for Terah with regard to his willingness to follow his son from Chaldea to Canaan. "It was," Calvin judges, "difficult for the old man, already broken and failing in health, to tear himself away from his own country.... [But] when he knew that the place, from which his son was commanded to depart, was accursed, it was his wish not to perish there; but he joined himself as an associate with him whom the Lord was about to deliver.... Easy and plausible was the excuse which he might have alleged; namely, that he would remain quietly at home, because he had received no command" (emphasis mine).

We present day believers tend to celebrate Abraham's faith, and make it a model for our own. And rightly so -- Scripture calls us to exercise faith just like that by which Abraham was justified (cf. Rom. 4 & Gal. 3); faith, that is, in the one who leads his people to the eternal Canaan. But if Calvin's take on Terah is right, we would do well to emulate Abraham's father's faith as well. Indeed, Terah's faith was, at least in one regard, more remarkable than his son's: Abraham directly received the divine call; Terah had to trust his son when his son claimed to have received that call.

Of course, in so trusting, Terah became -- ironically -- Abraham's first true son. Scripture, after all, identifies all those who look in faith to God's (ultimate) deliverer/deliverance as "Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise." Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham. His father Terah was one of them. Not the stuff of Sunday School songs, perhaps, but interesting, and potentially inspiring, nonetheless.

Let each of us, then, dare to be a Terah. Terah left Ur for Canaan clinging to the coattails (or their ancient near eastern equivalent) of his son. He made himself "an associate [of] him whom the Lord was about to deliver," however humbling such a move must have been, since that one was his own child. May we, with like determination (and humility), set a course for the true promised land by clinging to the coattails of Abraham's seed and God's own son, him whom the Lord has already delivered from death. Association with him is our only hope.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

The Act & Habit of Faith in Relation to Union with Christ

I've been meaning to write a book on important theological distinctions and how they can be of practical use to ministers and lay Christians. In the past I've discussed the distinction between God's absolute power and God's ordained power. Today I want to talk about the distinction between the act and the habit of faith in relation to union with Christ.

The act-habit distinction is pretty much the same concept as the act-power distinction. God grants the power, but we perform the act. So John Flavel: "though faith (which we call the condition on our part) be the gift of God, and the power of Believing be derived from God; yet the act of believing is properly our act..."

In other words, it is insufficient to merely possess the habit of faith in order to be justified; we must also produce an act of faith to be justified. True, the habit of faith enables us to believe; but we must really believe (i.e., it is our own act).

Peter Bulkeley argued that "the habit is freely given us, and wrought in us by the Lord himself, to enable us to act by it, and to live the life of faith; and then we having received the gift, the habit, then (I say) the Lord requires of us that we should put forth acts of faith." 

We are passive when God grants us the habit of faith. But upon receiving the habit of faith, we are then able to believe, and are therefore "active." How does this relate to union with Christ? 

Goodwin's The Object and Act of Justifying Faith is helpful in answering this question. In it, he speaks of the act of the will completing the union between Christ and the believer, which makes believers "ultimately one with him." 

However, as the bride, we are simply confirming a union that has taken place. So, contrary to the common view of marriage, which requires the consent of both partners since a man (usually) cannot marry a woman against her will, there is a spiritual union on Christ's part to the elect that does not require assent from the sinner "because it is a secret work done by his Spirit, who doth first apprehend us before we apprehend him." 

That is to say, Christ establishes a union with the elect sinner by "apprehending" him and then giving the Spirit to him. But this union is only complete ("ultimate union") when the sinner exercises faith in Christ. 

"It is true indeed the union on Christ's part is in order of nature first made by the Spirit; therefore Phil. 3:12, he is said first to 'comprehend us before we can comprehend him'; yet that which makes the union on our part is faith, whereby we embrace and cleave to him.... It is faith alone that doth it. Love indeed makes us cleave to him also, but yet faith first." (Note: The learned Bishop Davenant also argues the act and habit of faith precede the act and habit of love).

Goodwin is at his finest when he speaks of Christ "taking," "apprehending," and "comprehending" the sinner. Christ "takes hold of us before we believe" and "works a thousand and a thousand operations in our souls to which our faith concurs nothing...Christ dwells in us and works in us, when we act not and know not our union, nor that it is he that works." Before the new believer is aware, our Lord unites us to Himself ("takes hold of us") and works in us. 

As Witsius says, "By a true and real union, (but which is only passive on their part,) [the elect] are united to Christ when his Spirit first takes possession of them, and infuses into them a principle of new life: the beginning of which life can be from nothing else but from union with the Spirit of Christ...Further, since faith is an act flowing from the principle of spiritual life, it is plain, that in a sound sense, it may be said, an elect person is truly and really united to Christ before actual faith.

Witsius sounds very much like Goodwin and Owen in insisting that the elect are united to Christ when Christ's Spirit "takes possession of them" and regenerates them. And he likewise affirms that union precedes actual faith. But then he makes a similar point to Goodwin's, namely, that a "mutual union" inevitably follows from the principle of regeneration:

"But the mutual union, (which, on the part of an elect person, is likewise active and operative), whereby the soul draws near to Christ, joins itself to him, applies, and in a becoming and proper manner closes with him without any distraction, is made by faith only. And this is followed in order by the other benefits of the covenant of grace, justification, peace, adoption, sealing, perseverance, etc."

Not only is the "mutual union" emphasized by the act of faith in the sinner, but also by the fact that the benefits of the covenant of grace (e.g., justification) flow out of this union.


1. The faith that justifies is really our faith, which is why we are justified. The act of faith becomes the instrumental cause whereby we receive the righteousness of Christ. Our act does not justify, but our act of faith is necessary for God to justify us.

2. The faith that justifies is, however, enabled by the power (habitus) that God freely (graciously) grants to us, apart from works. 
Hence, we avoid the antinomian error whereby Christ believes for us; and we avoid the legalist error whereby we contend that faith is not a result of the natural capacity of man. And we hold that justification is an act of God that can never be revoked because the habit is formed by God himself so that he may impute to us Christ's righteousness because our act of faith is the instrument which enables us to receive full justification (WCF 11.2). 

In relation to union, we hold that Christ, in his grace, first takes a hold of us and then enables us to take a hold of him in the act of believing. When this is done, and only when this is done, are we justified and ultimate union takes place. But we only unite ourselves to Christ because he first united himself to us. 

There are a lot of other distinctions related to the doctrine of justification that warrant further discussion. But I am constantly amazed at how the most sophisticated theologians that I have read have done me the most pastoral good. That's why Seminaries might do well to have their best theologians in the PT departments!

That reminds me ...

Ah, yes - the answer! Who said this?
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.
The answer is, John Wesley, expounding Ephesians 2:8, in Sermons, on Several Occasions. Interesting.
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. - See more at:
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. - See more at:
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. - See more at:
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. - See more at:

"In a few words, but with great sublimity, Moses here commends the faith of Noah." Thus comments Calvin on Scripture's record that "Noah... did all that God commanded him" (Gen. 6.22). The terseness with which Scripture registers Noah's obedience is remarkable in light of the proportions of that obedience; what Noah "did" was devote "more than a hundred years" of his life to building a "triple story" boat of sufficient size to house and preserve his own family as well as select pairs of birds, mammals, creepers, and crawlers, from a flood of world-wide extent.

Interestingly, Calvin finds principally a commendation of Noah's faith, rather than his labors per se, in Scripture's record of Noah's accomplishments. Obedience of the kind exercised by Noah necessarily rests on a firm foundation of confidence that God will be true to his promise of both pending judgment and salvation. "Whatsoever... was worthy of praise in this holy man... sprung from this fountain." The nature of Noah's faith requires greater detail, but first it's worth noting the obstacles Noah would have encountered in his ark-building endeavors, and so to be impressed by how extraordinary Noah's faith and the obedience stemming from it actually were.

Calvin identifies five obstacles in particular. There was, first of all, the sheer enormity of the task itself. "The prodigious size of the [proposed] ark might have overwhelmed all his senses, so as to prevent him from raising a finger to begin the work." Noah, in other words, might have balked from the job entrusted to him upon considering "the multitude of trees to be felled, ...the great labor of conveying them, and the difficulty of joining them to together." The time scale for this building project was also rather intimidating: "the holy man was required to be engaged more than a hundred years in most troublesome labor."

There was, secondly, the snickers and insults of Noah's peers to deter him from his work. Noah's contemporaries can hardly have failed to have taken him to task for his "promising himself an exclusive deliverance" from the wrath to come. Calvin reckons that the "natural ferocity" of Noah's contemporaries may have been compounded by concerns on their part regarding the depletion of natural resources resulting from Noah's doings: "Noah, by felling trees on all sides, was making the earth bare, and defrauding them of various advantages." No doubt some evangelicals today would be pleased to think that Noah's iniquitous peers constituted the world's first tree-huggers, but Calvin appears to suppose that Noah's contemporaries wished to exploit earth's riches for their own (sinful) purposes, not to preserve them as such, and for that reason (rather than environmental concerns) took offense at Noah's apparent hoarding of the same.

There was, thirdly, the ironic truth that God commanded Noah to reserve "a two years' store" of food for both human and non-human ticket-holders for the ark after effectively calling him to trade in his farming career for that of a ship-builder. Noah was "disengaged from agriculture in order to build the ark," a fact which necessarily rendered difficult "the providing of food for [the] animals." Indeed, Noah might "have suspected that God was mocking him" on this score.

There was, fourthly, the difficulty involved in gathering all the wild animals together as such -- "as if, indeed, he had all the beasts of the forest at his command, or was able to tame them; so that, in his keeping, wolves might dwell with lambs, tigers with hares, lions with oxen." A background in zoo-keeping might have proved beneficial in this regard; there's little evidence to suggest Noah had one.

Fifthly, and most substantially, there was the rather dire reality of actually entering the ark once it was complete and thus voluntarily depriving himself "of air and vital spirit." Calvin likens Noah's entrance into the ark to a descent "into the grave." His abhorrence at the thought of what it was like to actually inhabit the ark is informed by attention to its relatively limited dimensions, its lack of translucent windows, the presence of animals, and the apparent lack of a latrine for either human or animal use. "The smell of dung alone, pent up as it was in a closely filled place, might, at the expiration of three days, have stifled all the living creatures in the ark." The repulsion thus expressed by Calvin at the thought of being in the ark may reveal more about his own psyche (perhaps betraying degrees of claustrophobia, scotophobia, and/or scatophobia?) than anything else.

Calvin discovers several practical exhortations for believers in the narrative of Noah's obedience, particularly so with reference to the obstacles that Noah actually faced in fulfilling God's instructions to him. So, for instance, we are reminded by Noah that we must set our sights firmly on our heavenly inheritance -- the eternal fellowship with the Triune God and other believers that awaits us in the world to come -- if we are to persevere in obedience in this world. Calvin feels quite certain that Noah kept heaven in his sights, rather than temporal life beyond the flood, as he built the ark, because -- quite frankly -- the temporal life he (re)inherited after the flood was hardly worth the bother of building the ark. "Better to die a hundred deaths, than to undertake a work so laborious, unless he had looked to something higher than the present life."

On this score, however, Calvin is keen to emphasize that Noah's heavenly inheritance in no way depended upon his obedience in that particular task assigned to him on earth. Noah, like Enoch before him in Gen. 5, was judged righteous on the basis of the coming Seed's right-doing before he embarked on any right-doing, or in this case ark-building, of his own, a point Calvin finds reflected in the first words said about Noah in Gen. 6.5: "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord." Noah built an ark in keeping with God's instructions because he had already been accepted by God and given the extraordinary gift of a heavenly inheritance, not in order to secure that acceptance or heavenly inheritance.

Another lesson we learn from Noah is the importance of regularly hearing and clinging to God's promises; indeed, it was God's promises -- both those of pending judgment and those of salvation through the ark -- that fueled Noah's faith, which faith in turn fueled his extraordinary obedience. "Let us therefore know, that the promises of God alone are they which quicken us, and inspire each of our members with vigour to yield obedience to God; but that without these promises, we not only lie torpid in indolence, but are almost lifeless, so that neither hands nor feet can do their duty. And hence, as often as we become languid, or more remiss than we ought to be, in good works, let the promises of God recur to us, to correct our tardiness."

In sum, then, "a remarkable example... of obedience is here described to us." But a proper learning from Noah's example will not lead us immediately to ark-building or any other act of supposed obedience which God solicits from us. A proper learning from Noah's example will lead us to set our sights on that eternal fellowship with God secured for us by the Seed that crushed the Serpent's head, and to have regular recourse to God's promises, which should inspire faith within us, and so ultimately obedience to whatever ordinary or extraordinary (and potentially even smelly) task God requires of us.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Just Add Water (2 of 4)


This is the second of 4 parts in response to Dr. Mark Jones on the question and meaning of Baptism and the Lord's table as the question stands between Baptistic types who practice a closed table and Presbyterian types who practice a more-open table.

Two items as caveats, as listed previously, before you read this and start hurling fruit at my kind hosts here at Ref21:

  1. The opinions and arguments here are mine and not the arguments of the Alliance.  Hate the player and not the game in this case.
  2. The arguments I will make here are also not the position of the local church I attend.  In spite of that church being baptistic in confession, they practice a more open form of communion than I would advocate for.  I'm not an elder there, so as I make my case for what I think is a robust response to Mark Jones, I speak for myself and not my church at

The Meaning of Baptism

There are a lot of important ideas to run down from where we left off last time, such as the meaning of maturity and how we can know the difference between immaturity and actual apostasy or faithlessness, but the scope of this essay is the question of Baptism.  If we accept the WCF's definition of saving faith (and I have, previously), do we really need anything else to understand who is and isn't "a Christian"?

The answer, obviously, is "no" and "yes."  In some important sense, we really don't need any more hair-splitting to answer the question of who is and is not a Christian - we just have to see it through to the end.  That is, we have to agree that someone who starts down the path of obedience to Christ ought to continue down that road (we hope with few pit-stops and detours, but we also know that even Peter actually denied Christ after declaring him to be the Son of God), and as James says in his letter we should show our faith by doing works. 

There's absolutely nothing controversial about this as the WCF says plainly:

Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.

These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.

And all good Protestant warning labels stipulated to this statement.  But foremost among these things "commanded by God in his holy Word," certainly not "devised by men out of blind zeal," are the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper -- and this is where the "yes" part comes in.  For my money, we Baptists would be best served to use the Presbyterian word here for two good reasons: (1) we are talking about the means of corporate worship in these items and not merely the more-common acts of obedience which the Bible commands, and (2) I think it clarifies what is at stake as we approach the question of how one influences the use of the other.

That relationship is the one which Dr. Jones' essay misses broadly as it considers why some of us Baptists are closed-table at the supper - because surely when Dr. Jones accuses Baptists of denying the Christianity of Presbyterians he isn't denying that one's baptism ought to come before one participates with the body of Christ and in the body of Christ at the Lord's table.  Of course not - what he is saying is that because baptism makes one a Christian, denying that one is baptized (by drizzling, before personal faith) denies that one is a Christian.  He isn't denying the logic that only the baptized ought to participate in the Lord's supper; he's questioning the meaning of denying the baptism of those baptized as Presbyterians are inclined to do -- which is to say, to baptize infants.

This is why the question of what makes one a Christian had to be addressed first.  In the Presbyterian view, what makes one a Christian is the sign and seal of Baptism.  It puts one inside the covenant in some way which may or may not be finally determinative -- I'll leave that for the FV and non-FV readers to settle in a back alley after school today.  This is why, after all, it is also called "christening" by many - it is what makes one a Christian in a formal and regulated way as opposed to the rather disappointing "asking Jesus into your heart" sort of way which doesn't really mean anything biblically or ecclesiologically. 

But let's be honest: Jesus didn't put it that way.  Jesus' mentioning of baptism comes at the end of all his other statements about the life of obedience, and at the beginning of the great mission of the church.  When the Apostles went out , they didn't first baptize anyone and then preach to them repentance until it made sense to them.  The message of the Gospel comes in the NT first by the preaching of repentance, then by the washing of the water for the sake of a clean conscience.  What is true under the new covenant is what was actually true under the old covenant: the right offering to God is a broken spirit and a contrite heart; God does not desire sacrifices but obedience; he desires that we love Him more than we commit to duties and rituals.  That doesn't eliminate the rituals by any means, but it does put the rituals in a place subordinate to the truth which they are communicating.

And that, frankly, is the actual Baptist objection to Presbyterian baptism - not that one does not have right faith now, but that one has somehow allowed that the ritual means anything prior to the real condition of the one practicing the ritual.  We may be guilty of waving off the baptism of babies as "sprinkling," but the meaning there is not that there's not enough water added: it is that somehow adding water takes the place of the faith the water ought to represent.

Honestly, only the Baptist with the hardest heart toward formal theology would deny any of the following from the WCF:

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, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ's own appointment, to be continued in his Church until the end of the world.

But we would have to be gullible to read the phrase, "a sign and seal of regeneration," and not ask the question: doesn't regeneration imply faith?  We certainly commit our (baptist) children to the waters when the waters definitely imply faith - because we ask them to make a confession of faith to be admitted to the waters.  And in that way, for us the sign and seal overtly demonstrate that faith which this child has as it has been given by God, and show them being raised in newness of life in the forgiveness of their sins on the basis of faith.

The problem we are objecting to, then, in paedobaptism, is that the sacrament is not a King James Version of "just add water."  We deny it's a baptism because we deny it's a sacrament unless it is preceded by faith.  That is:

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet, because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful and can not please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet their neglect of them is more sinful, and displeasing unto God.

The problem is not that you are not Christians now: it is that when you were wetted down, you were not Christians then.  You did not have faith then.  And with full respect to those who did have faith when they did this to you,  the sacrament is meaningless apart from the faith for which the sacrament is a sign -- which is, your faith, the faith God gave, not the faith which God might give.

Because of this, we would say you have not been baptized.  And without baptism, of course you cannot come to the Lord's table.

More on that next time.

Just Add Water (1 of 4)

Well, I was going to go on a bit more about the necessity of the local church in the posts headed to this space, but our dear brother in Christ Dr. Mark Jones has done what Presbyterians are prone to do when they interact with Baptists about Baptism, and as the new resident Baptist here I guess it's my job (by vocation if not by assignment) to disambiguate his confusion over why I would personally see his being sprinkled as an infant as no baptism at all, and why therefore I would say he's not to take the other ordinance (the Lord's Supper) in church.  Let me preface these remarks by saying I envy anyone whose name is "Dr. Jones," and even more any in this fine class who has the self-control not to change his first name to "Indiana."

Two items as caveats before you read this and start hurling fruit at my kind hosts here at Ref21:

  1. The opinions and arguments here are mine and not the arguments of the Alliance.  Hate the player and not the game in this case.
  2. The arguments I will make here are also not the position of the local church I attend.  In spite of that church being baptistic in confession, they practice a more open form of communion than I would advocate for.  I'm not an elder there, so as I make my case for what I think is a robust response to Mark Jones, I speak for myself and not my church at

So the main thrust of Dr. Jones article is that somehow the closed-table Baptist is declining to allow that Presbyterians are Christians at all if he doesn't allow one paedobatized to take the Lord's Table when it is presented during worship.  There are probably a dozen things that bother me about this innuendo, but the one which undoubtedly seems the worst to me is to consider all the baptized people a Presbyterian would refuse to serve at the table - that is, all the children which are Christians by the covenantal formula "in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, just add water." I'm looking forward to Dr. Jones' defense of paedocommunion under the pains of being accused of turning out babies from the family of God in his next installment, but I think it probably isn't coming.

Seriously now: if the charge that Dr. Jones has put forward here has any weight at all, it rests on the idea that refusing participation to the table demands a metaphysical statement about those refused - namely, that they do not belong to Christ at all, in any sense.  That's always the charge of Presbyterians against us poor and uncatechized Baptists - think of all the people we make into no Christians at all.  It's a middle-class, civilized version of the Reformation argument that we are schismatic - and I appreciate the good will it takes to get us this far (I have my copy of the Augsburg Treaty in hand if necessary), but the difference is only in whether or not there are torches and pitchforks involved.  I think there's a better way to discuss this, and a better solution.  And for those of you worried about it, I have put all my best jokes right here in the introduction.  The rest will be appropriately dour and solemn.

Let me provide you an outline of the posts in this (brief) series.

My Outline:

A. The meaning of being a "Christian"
B. The meaning of Baptism (especially for the local church)
C. The meaning of the Lord's Table
D. Conclusions/Parting Shots

The Meaning of being a Christian

I think, with very serious and deep respect, that the worst way to pose the problem here is as Dr. Jones did - which is to somehow intimate that either side here has a problem which wrongly frames the doorposts of the Kingdom of God - that is, that either side has either included or excluded the wrong people inside the group Jesus is on about in Mat 16.  Because let's face it: the actual ultimate state of any human person is a slippery fish.  I'm not comfortable hanging any argument on whether or not "I think" anyone is "a Christian" because I can barely tell you which kids in the gym belong to me - and I see them every day and know them better than I know any of you (esp. - you Presbyterians).  What "I think" sounds too much to me like doing what seems right in my own eyes, and we all know where that gets us (given that you are as well-read in the OT as Presbyterians ought to be).

All that to say this: I don't get to define who is and is not a Christian, and neither does Dr. Jones.  Jesus is the only one who has the authority to do this.  And fortunately for us, he was pretty liberal to tell us what he means by it - at least, as the label came into popular use in Antioch.  In Jesus' terms, anyone who is a "disciple" is a "Christian."  I could just toss that out here and expect the reader to fill in the blanks from his Greek NT, but briefly here are 3 references  that I would use to show that this is Jesus' meaning.

Mat 28:18-20 (ESV)
Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

That's fair enough, right?  It even includes the ordinance of baptism in it so that it plugs into the discussion.  But in Jesus view of it, those who are His disciples are His because of His authority, and in that authority they observe what he has commanded.  That is: the role of the disciple (the Christian) is one of being under the authority of Christ (rather than, as I mentioned above, the authority of "me").  Without writing a book here, this is a perfectly covenantal view of it as the disciple is something because of what Christ has done, but the disciple is therefore also running on new rules in Christ.

I'm sure plenty of you are breaking out the sheet music now to the "distinct imperative/indicative" overture, but it's not a violation of the Gospel to say that those who receive it, who believe in the name of Jesus, become children of God in more ways than just the final way in glorification.  The path of sanctification is necessarily part of the Gospel as Jesus didn;t just do something, but did something for us.

Mat 10:34-39 (ESV)
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a person's enemies will be those of his own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

Personally, I like this one because it's inflammatory by Jesus - set up so that you really can't misunderstand what Jesus means here.  In Jesus' view, it's not merely intellectual assent which is the hallmark of a disciple: it's being set against the world and its value system.  When he says this, Jesus is saying that his disciples will not just know something about him: they will go and do things which express their confidence in Him over all other relationships, and all other comforts.  But it underscores that the disciple is not merely a learner or hearer of the word of God (and the Word of God), but a doer of those things He has made clear.

Mat 16:21-28
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man."

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done."

This bit I love because poor Simon just got it right not 3 sentences earlier, but then Jesus starts saying that being the Christ means suffering and dying in Jerusalem.  That's too much for Peter who rebukes the Son of God (as he said), but Jesus says plainly that not only must he do this, but that there's no one who can follow him unless he follows him to the cross.  Look: that's not just a new way to think about how religion works: that's a way which leads a man to his own death for the sake of others.  It's a kind of doing which is not merely duty but doing for the sake of one's own soul.  We might here ask whether there are actually enough categories in the "imperative/indicative" paradigm because in this case it seems like Jesus is saying that there are some things one does because he must want to do it.

All of that to say that the meaning of being a Christian is not merely external (that is: what has been done for you) or merely internal (that is: what you think or affirm) but is somehow wrapped up in a new trajectory, a new path one is walking on.  That's probably why, in the book of Acts, it turns out that the movement these people manifested in the world was called "the Way."

This leads us to some interesting issues, such as how we can apply this paradigm to guys like the Thief on the Cross who was never baptized.  He was in paradise that very day with Christ - and no decent Baptist would reject the idea that the Thief was a Christian.  But it at least gets us to a place where we can know what we are talking about if we have to ask the question, "Is 'X' a Christian?"  If we are asking that question, I hope we are answering it like Jesus did, which is to say, "if a person is following Jesus, and dying to world daily, and seeking to do what Jesus commanded, that person is a Christian."  The WCF would say it this way:

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: by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatesoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently, upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principle acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed and weakened, but gets the victory; growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

So the problem that we face in this discussion is not about whether or not I (or any other closed-table Baptist) would not allow R.C. Sproul or Dr. Jones to be Christians.  The problem is about something else which, it seems obvious to me, Dr. Jones has swept under the covenantal rug.

I'll elaborate next time.  And good thing the comments are closed!

Fides sola est quae justificat; fides quae justificat non est sola. 

Latinisms can have a wonderful way of crystallising issues in theological reflection - so with this one: 'It is faith alone that justifies; but faith that justifies is never alone!' This isn't just a statement about the alone-ness of faith as the means by which we receive God's justifying grace, but something much more far-reaching. It highlights the crucial distinction we need to grasp as we try to understand what it means to be justified. Namely, that a person who is truly justified is never merely justified!

This may sound like theological hair-splitting, but actually it is tied in with one of the most vexed issues of Christian experience that goes back to the earliest days of the New Testament church and further back still. Because that is so, we are reminded that every pastoral problem has theological dimensions and every theological problem has pastoral implications and we dare not lose sight of either. Continue on Place for Truth.

Effective personal evangelism: faith

The marks of effective personal evangelism we have surveyed so far are love, tenacity, boldness, consistency, understanding and prayer.

The seventh mark of the effective personal evangelist is faith. With prayer is allied faith. Think of how the apostle speaks at the beginning of the letter to the Romans: he is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Rom 1.16). Is that your attitude? Do you believe that? I do not mean, "Do you nod because it is in the Bible?" but, "Are you fully persuaded concerning this gospel, this evangel, which we are called to declare, that when sinners hear God's truth, and the Lord is working in their hearts to invite and draw them to Jesus Christ, convincing them of their sin and misery, enlightening their minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing their wills, thereby persuading and enabling them to embrace Jesus Christ as he is offered to them, that they will be saved?" Is that not what we long for and can legitimately hope for when we make the gospel known? That when the truth is proclaimed and the Spirit is at work, the sinner's heart will be enlightened and enlivened, and will latch on to the Jesus that we proclaim? Do we believe that that is why God has given us a gospel? Are we persuaded that the preaching of that gospel is God's appointed means for the accomplishment of these ends? Do we confidently anticipate that God will bless his appointed means to his ordained ends? It is akin to the old story in a book of Spurgeon anecdotes of the student preacher complaining of his lack of fruitfulness. "And do you expect," asked the bearded man, "that the Lord is going to bless you and save souls every time you open your mouth?" "No, sir," replied the beardless youth. "Well, then," retorted the whiskered one, "that is why you do not get souls saved. If you had believed, the Lord would have given the blessing." However we might contend against the seeming simplicity of Spurgeon's logic, I think he would have said more than that under the right circumstances, and I believe that there is more than a grain of truth in the matter. "I go out, I preach the gospel, I knock on doors, but no-one listens, and no-one is likely to be saved. It is, after all, a day of small things. This is a dry place. There's a real spiritual hardness here. The people are carnally self-sufficient. Here I am, a gospel witness, absolutely assured that my labours are a grand waste of time." Is that attitude honouring to the God of saving grace? Can I really anticipate a blessing if I go about the business of making Christ known with the deep-rooted suspicion that this is the biggest waste of time in which I have ever been engaged? Such a spirit, should it seep out (and it will), is hardly going to endear the gospel to those to whom I speak! We need faith. We do not need to embrace novelties either of style or substance, abandoning the simple declaration of the truth as it is in Jesus, with love for God and men, seeking to make it known wisely and tenaciously, longing for God to do what he has promised to do. We must be galvanised by faith. If we go forth weeping, we shall doubtless come again with rejoicing. We cannot say when or how much blessing will come, but do we believe that if we go forth in the strength of God, in dependence upon God, with the truth of God, in expectation that God will honour his word, and that it will not return to him void, that there will be people - sooner or later - that God will be pleased to draw to himself? The seed brings forth fruit (Mk 4.28); ours is the sowing; the increase belongs to God, and that is our hope and expectation. We must wrestle with God in prayer, not just for those to whom we go, but for our faith as we go. Again, Spurgeon used to ascend to the pulpit in the old Tabernacle, and each time his foot hit the steps, he would assert with faith, "I believe in the Holy Spirit!" This was no mere mantra; he was reminding himself of God himself, laying hold of the truth concerning the means appointed and the agent engaged in blessing those means. If we are faithful in discharging our duty, God will glorify his name, and one of the ways he will do so is through the blessing of our labours to salvation. If it were not so, what would be the point? Why else do we go to men and women dead in their trespasses and sins? Why else do we keep reiterating God's saving mercies to our children? Why else do we go on preaching the same truths to people who so often seem unresponsive or even antagonistic? It is because we serve a saving God.

Results tagged “faith” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 15.5,6, part two

v. Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man's duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins particularly.

vi. As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so he that scandalizeth his brother, or the Church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended; who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.

Public and private repentance

Having explained the difference between general and particular repentance, the Confession goes on to remind us of the Bible's teaching about private and public repentance. We must always confess our sin to God, privately (at least) and perhaps sometimes publicly. We see confession of sin again and again in Psalm 51. David cannot help but to cry out to God, for it is against God first that he has sinned. It is his cry to his Lord that he would be cleansed and that the sins that haunted him would be hidden away (Ps. 51:4-5, 7, 9, 14). We see the same in Psalm 32, where the king acknowledges his sin to God, covering nothing. He confesses his 'transgressions to the LORD' and urges 'everyone who is godly' to pray to God while he may be found (Ps. 32:5-6).

The good news is that when we forsake our sin, we will find mercy. It is a sound proverb that 'he who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy' (Prov. 28:13). As the Apostle John once wrote, and as Christians have often recalled, 'if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness' (1 John 1:9).

A private confession to God is a necessity. In his presence believers will always find mercy. But there are some cases, particularly when we have scandalized or hurt a brother or sister, when we ought to be willing to confess the sin to other people. A truly repentant person will not shrink from a true repentance before the one that has been wounded. A husband must be ready to confess his sin to his wife, a mother to her daughter. There is no need to publish our sins, especially some sins, for all to hear. But there is good reason to repent of our particular sins before those whom we have personally wounded. It is James who writes, 'confess your sins to each other and pray for each other' (James 5:16). The principle of meeting with people to discuss our sin is raised in the gospel of Luke as well (Lk. 17:3-4). So this is instruction we cannot afford to ignore. 

Nonetheless, what if we have sinned publicly? During dinner with friends witnessing our rude comments? In front of the family when we lose self control? What if our behaviour has led the name of Christ to be tarnished in the whole community, or in his church. In such a case we are in Achan's situation. Everyone already knows what we've done, so we had better confess the act ourselves, as sin - no matter what the consequences. In Achan's case, the confession did not help him to escape his penalty. But he was assured that in his public death-row confession, he was giving glory to God (Josh. 17:9). Maybe it is that sort of public confession we see in one of David's Psalms, where the very title of his Psalm publicly announces that he had committed adultery with his neighbour's wife (Ps. 51:1).

However, we cannot end here. Just as we were reminded that God will forgive those who repent of their sins to him, we are told that we need to forgive those who repent of their sins to us - whether privately or publicly. When a brother or sister or neighbour repents of their sin, we must be reconciled. More than that, we must receive them in love. We need to be ready to forgive and comfort, as Paul urged the Corinthians to do, lest anyone be 'overwhelmed by excessive sorrow'. We need to reaffirm our love to those who repent (2 Cor. 2:7-8). And in doing so, we will be showing the same mercy to others that our Father in heaven has shown to us in Christ.

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 15.5, 6, part one

v. Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man's duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins particularly.

vi. As every man is bound to make private confession of his sins to God, praying for the pardon thereof upon which, and the forsaking of them, he shall find mercy; so he that scandalizeth his brother, or the Church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended; who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.

General and particular repentance

So far we have reflected on what repentance is and why it is important. These final paragraphs discuss the details of how repentance ought to look. Indeed, the need for details is the first thing mentioned in section five: we ought not to be content with a general confession of sin. 

Almost everyone will acknowledge that they are not perfect, and all Christians will confess that they are sinners. But sweeping admissions of sin should never content us. Many readers will have met people who have made general confessions of sin a science, or one of the fine arts. Listen to them pray and they can confess sin in general eloquently, seemingly without end.

The problem is not with their general repentance. The problem is that their repentance is always general. They will never be heard confessing a particular sin. They will not admit that they are wrong, either to their family, their friends, their co-workers, or their elders; nor are they much more particular on their knees. That is why the Confession goes on to remind us that 'it is every man's duty to endeavour to repent of his particular sins particularly'. We should consider this instruction in our own prayers, in the prayers of our children, and in the prayers of our leaders, such as parents and elders and deacons. Those who piously content themselves with general confessions of their sinfulness often prove to be the most stubborn sinners. 

The first step to repenting of particular sins is to realize that we commit individual sins. David prayed that the Lord would keep him from 'willful sins'; assumed in this prayer request is a confession that as a sinner, David could consciously commit acts of sin (Ps 19:13). 

The second aspect of particular repentance is actually naming sin. Even while stating that ignorance and unbelief contributed to his sin, the Apostle Paul was willing to confess that he had been a blasphemer, a persecutor, a violent man. A particular confession did not require him to repeat his blasphemies, to recall the details of his persecutions or to retell violent stories. No one needed to hear all of that. But it would not have been enough if Paul had piously asserted that he was the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:13, 15). 

Finally, particular repentance is evidenced in turning away from particular sin. That is one of the evils of contenting oneself with a general repentance - no particular sin is ever identified, so no particular sin is left behind, and no Christian grace is embraced. How different this is from the case of Zacchaeus the tax collector. He did not simply announce that he was a sinner. He said, 'I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount' (Lk. 19:8). There was nothing vague about that!

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.