39 Articles—Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude (7)
November 13, 2017
Because we’ve had a month’s pause for #Reformation500, it would be good to review the previous seven articles that concern our salvation before we continue. Articles 9 and 10 set the extent of our guilt before God. They explain the nature of humanity’s lost condition through sin and our total inability to save oneself apart from God’s sheer grace. Articles 11-13 set out the scope of God’s grace. Our justification in Christ is by faith alone and not through works. Being impossible to justify oneself, good works are evidence of justification. Gratitude completes this section on our salvation in Articles 14-17. They set the parameters of the believer’s pursuit of holiness. Article 14 explaining the impossibility of exceeding God’s requirements in daily life while articles 15-17 sets the impossibility of reaching God’s requirements apart from the Lord Jesus Christ.
XVI—Of Sin After BaptismNot every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.
Article 16 reflects the teaching of two of Cranmer’s original articles on the same theme. Sin after baptism was article 15 in the Forty-Two Articles of 1553 followed by article 16 on the sin against the Holy Spirit. Article 16 on the sin against the Holy Spirit was omitted in Archbishop Parker’s revision in 1563. It is suggested that the Anglican divines preferred to leave the nature of the unpardonable sin less well-defined as it was in 1553. One could also suggest that the simplification’s purpose was to keep focused on the objective nature of salvation. We can see why in how article 16 continues the issue raised in article 15. Article 15 answered the question of human sinlessness in light of the unique sinlessness of Christ and article 16 examines its opposite of a hopeless sinfulness: if Christ alone was sinless, what about sins committed after baptism? Is this how we are to understand the sin against the Holy Spirit?
Two errors are confronted here that has dogged the church through the ages: either the teaching that great sins after baptism could not be forgiven or the teaching that it was impossible for the truly regenerate to sin. These errors seem to have been prevalent at the time of the Reformation. Cranmer’s Reformatio Legum affirms the same teaching of the article:
Those who believe that the justified can no longer fall into sin even though they are still living in this world, or that if they happen to do something which is forbidden by the laws of God, God will not count that as sin, also have a perverse conception of justification. Opposed to this opinion, but equally ungodly, are those who believe that any sin which may be committed by our will after we have received baptism is mortal, and who say that all such sin has been done against the Holy Spirit and cannot be forgiven [Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticorum, Gerald Bray, ed. 195].
Article 16 tracks the doctrine of our salvation by God's grace alone to its ultimate conclusion. It is easy humanly speaking to question the sincerity of a fellow Christian or in times of trial to question our sincerity. There are also those who have made a profession of faith at one time in their lives but fall away completely. What comfort is there for a family member who clutches a “decision card” completed years before? Is it possible to say, “once saved always saved?” The article rightly reminds us that the highest purpose of God’s plan of salvation in Christ, made known in Scripture, is not our blessedness, wonderful as this is. The highest purpose is God's glory. Through the gift of his Word and by the power of his Spirit, we come to gain a sense of God and his ways. We come to a sense of him. We come to understand him. But it is a limited, creaturely, understanding. As we gaze into the face of God in Jesus Christ, we say, “Heavenly Father I know you through your Son and by your Holy Spirit…” But we also say, "Oh! The depths! I will never get to the bottom of this. I will never be able to put my arms around all this, and my creaturely mind contain the wonders of it!" Articles 14-16 are very pastoral in their intention by pointing the believer back to the objective truth of their salvation rather than the stumbling block of their limited understanding.
Article 16 points out that the believer will sin after he or she comes to trust in Christ's word and work for their salvation. But those sins do not put us beyond God's forgiveness. The article is built on the truths explained in the articles that preceded it. When we understand how the article continues what came before, the point it makes is simple. We are sinners saved by God's grace. The dominion of sin has ended, but the presence of sin remains. Therefore, when we stumble and fall into sin, we can come to God in repentance and faith, trusting in his promise that we are justified in Christ. God forgives us because his wrath for our sin was propitiated on the cross. In the same way, human conceit is tempered as we are reminded that our righteousness is imputed, not inherent and that we must believe and trust that what is Christ’s is ours by adoption. Articles 14-17 remind us what a high privilege we enjoy in that God is pleased to glorify himself through the salvation of poor sinners like me and you.