Puritan Sayings (6)
March 29, 2018
I have never taken part in an Evangelism Explosion course but I do know and have at times used one of their well-known diagnostic questions: “If God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven?’ what would you say?” This question is designed to discover if the person understands the gospel, and what or in whom the person is trusting in order to enter heaven. Are they trusting in Jesus or in the fact that they are a decent person?
Many, many years before Evangelism Explosion was founded by Dr. D. James Kennedy in 1962, Anthony Burgess, a leading member of the Westminster Assembly, asked a similar question. He was concerned that the necessity of repentance had led “ignorant and erroneous people” to think that repentance is the cause or ground of their salvation. He knew this to be true because of the answers to his own diagnostic question: “Ask why they hope to be saved or justified, why they hope to have their sins pardons; they return this answer, because they have repented, and because they lead a godly life: thus they put their trust and confidence in what they have done.”
Burgess’ diagnostic question is found in his book on justification, which was published in 1648. The primary focus of this book was to counteract the rising tide of antinomianism. One of the key doctrines of antinomianism was justification before faith and Burgess was at pains to demonstrate that a man is not justified until he repents and believes. The indispensable requirement of repentance, however, needed to be understood properly. It did not usurp the role of Christ’s work or merit in justification. In order to elucidate the role of repentance, Burgess appealed to the distinction between a qualification and a cause. Repentance is necessary as a qualification of the person to be justified, but it is not a cause of his justification or pardon. Only those who repent of their sins are justified but people are not justified because of or on the ground of their repentance. The grace of God is the efficient cause, the blood of Christ is the meritorious cause and repentance, if it must be understood in terms of a cause, is a material cause but only in the sense that it qualifies the subject and it has no influence regarding the mercy itself.
Burgess pointed out that this distinction between cause and qualification is a necessary one because without it we will either denigrate the proper role of repentance or we will steal the glory that is due to “Christ and his merits.” Burgess wrote:
“So that by all this which hath been delivered, we may give repentance those just and true bounds, which Gods Word doth assign to it, and yet not give more then Gods Word doth. Nei∣ther may we think it a nicety or subtilty to make a difference between a qualification, and a cause; for if we do not, we take off the due glory that belongs to Christ and his merits, and give it to the works we do, and we do make Christ and his sufferings imperfect and insufficient…”
Burgess’ diagnostic question, or the EE one for that matter, may indeed be helpful in exposing moralism or legalism. However, I do think that we need to exercise caution so that we don’t jump to a wrong conclusion. If someone answers the question, “because I have repented and believed,” we shouldn’t automatically think that the person is a Neonomian. The “because” doesn’t have to be interpreted as meritorious. It could be instrumental with regards to faith and a qualification with respect to repentance, though person may not articulate it in those terms. And if that is the case, then they are right. It is not the only way to answer the question or the full answer to the question. But it is right because we need to repent and believe in order to be saved. In short, diagnostic questions are helpful but use them with wisdom.
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