Sanctification: A Slow Work of God’s Grace

Faith and Life  The Westminster Larger Catechism, among other things, says that sanctification is “a work of God’s grace” wherein his people “more and more die unto sin and rise unto newness of life” (Q/A 75).  Here’s how B. B. Warfield concludes a sermon on this topic from 2 Thessalonians 5:22-23.  This is an outstanding and much-needed reminder to be patient with God’s process of making us more like Christ.

“Certainly the gradualness of this process ought not to disturb us. It may be inexplicable to us that the Almighty God acts by way of process. But that is revealed to us as His chosen mode of operation in every sphere of His work, and should not surprise us here. He could, no doubt, make the soul perfect in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye; just as He could give us each a perfect body at the very instant of our believing. He does not.

The removal of the stains and effects of sin—in an evil heart and in a sick and dying body—is accomplished in a slow process. We all grow sick and die—though Jesus has taken on His broad shoulders (among the other penalties of sin) all our sicknesses and death itself. And we still struggle with the remainders of indwelling sin; though Jesus has bought for us the sanctifying operations of the Spirit. To us it is a weary process. But it is God’s way. And He does all things well. And the weariness of the struggle is illuminated by hope.

After a while!—we may say; after a while! Or as Paul puts it: Faithful is He that calls us—who also will do it. He will do it! And so, after a while, our spirit, and soul and body shall be made blamelessly perfect, all to be so presented before our Lord, at that Day. Let us praise the Lord for the glorious prospect!”

B. B. Warfield, Faith and Life (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1990), 372.

rev shane lems

Dear Presbyterian Churches: Don’t Ignore the Larger Catechism!

Product Details For various reasons, the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) has not been overly influential in American Presbyterian circles the last 100-200 years or so.  I won’t discuss those reasons here now.  However, I do want to take a moment to encourage our readers to read and study the WLC, since, as W. Robert Godfrey wrote, “The Larger Catechism is a mine of fine gold theologically, historically, and spiritually.”

From an essay he wrote in the introduction to J. G. Vos’ helpful commentary on the WLC, Godfrey gave a few ways the WLC is valuable for Christians today.  I’ll summarize the first ones, and give most of the final point below.

First, the value of the catechism should be seen in some of the outstanding summarizes of doctrine to be found there.

Second, some expositors of the catechism (i.e. John Murray) have argued that the Larger Catechism on some doctrinal points is superior to the formulations in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Third, the Larger Catechism provides an especially full and rich exposition of the Ten Commandments.

Fourth, the value of the Larger Catechism rests in its presentation of the doctrine of the church.  The Larger Catechism develops a full-orbed doctrine of the church – a subject almost entirely absent from the Shorter Catechism.

A final and most important value of the Larger Catechism is that it is a full, balanced, edifying summary of the Christian faith.  The Larger Catechism is a useful and worthy aid to the believer as he grows in the knowledge of God’s truth.  The catechism is not at all difficult to read and understand.  In fact, it is simpler in its statements than the Confession….  The difficulty of using the Larger Catechism is mainly in the length of its sentences, which can be daunting for the contemporary reader.  It is in fact easy to understand if taken one clause at a time.”

“The Westminster Assembly was remarkable in many ways.  The standards it produced are one of the great treasures in Christ’s church.  The Larger Catechism is a crucial part of that treasure, and churches of the Reformed tradition – especially Presbyterian churches – impoverish themselves if they fail to use it.”

W. Robert Godfrey, from the introduction to The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary by J. G. Vos.

rev shane lems
hammond wi

American Hymnody: The Musical Dark Ages

Democratization of American Christianity Around the turn of the 19th century, Christianity (and religion in general) was undergoing a change: it was becoming more and more democratic (a religion of the people, for the people, and by the people).  Not only did this democratization affect doctrine, ecclesiology, and piety, it also affected Christian and religious hymnody.  Here’s how Nathan Hatch explains it:

“What are the dimensions in the early republic of this popular gospel music – the ‘numerous ditties’ that the respected churchman Nathan Bangs claimed had ‘almost deluded’ the Methodist Church, and that Phillip Schaff decried as ‘a rude singing of the most vulgar street songs, so that it must be loathing to an educated man’?”

“A definitive answer is impossible, because this homespun, religious music began as an oral phenomenon, was taken up by scores of rustic and anonymous song-makers, and was only later compiled and printed.  Yet the importance of the process itself has gone largely undetected by historians because its manifestations do not conform to regional or denominational boundaries and fall outside the normal purview of church music history.”

“One historian, in fact, characterized this period as the ‘musical dark ages’ – a time when ‘men of correct taste…let go their hold, and the multitude had the management of it and sung what and when they pleased.’  It is clear that this upsurge in religious folk music is yet another aspect of the democratic impulse in American Christianity.  The same imperative that sent many ordinary folk into preaching and writing compelled some to express themselves in song.  In all the populist religious movements with which this study deals – from Christians to…Mormons – people developed their own traditions of religious folk music.  The public, in turn, seemed to have an insatiable appetite for new strains of spontaneous and lively gospel music” (p. 147).

We’re still dealing with the democratization of Christian music.  Many churches sing what people like and want – hence Christian top-40 songs make it into the pews (even if they don’t have one ounce of clear Christian truth).

However, we must remember that Christianity is not a democratic endeavor.  Choosing songs for worship isn’t a matter of what “we the people” desire.  Rather than ask what we want and like in music, the primary and pressing question is this: what does God want us to sing?  Music in worship has to do with the Regulative Principle of Worship (the RPW).  In the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, “The duties required in the second commandment are the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has instituted in his word” (Q/A 108).

Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

shane lems

Proper Christian Hatred

One of the most frequent ethical exhortations in the Bible is for God’s people to love – him, fellow Christians, and others (even praying for our enemies).  But there is an object of hatred that is proper in the Christian life.  We can and should hate Satan and his kingdom of darkness. 

Satan is a murderer who is so full of lies that he cannot speak the truth (John 8.44).  He is Christ’s sworn enemy (Gen. 3.15, Lk. 4.2, Heb. 2.14, 1 Jn. 3.8, etc.).  He is the Christian’s sworn enemy (1 Pet. 5.8).  He is the church’s sworn enemy (2 Cor. 2.11).  Satan wants to destroy God’s kingdom and his evil and dark heart is absolutely and in every way opposed to everything good, pure, and noble (Luke 8.12, Acts 5.3, 13.10, etc.).  Therefore, it is right and proper for Christians to hate and detest Satan.  Biblically, there is “a time to hate” and we are called to “hate evil” (Ecc. 3.8, Amos 5.15).  In fact, the fear of the LORD is the hatred of evil (Prov. 8.13, cf. Ps. 139.21).

William Ames said it this way: “With our entire heart and all our strength we ought to be against the kingdom of the devil….” (A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism, 212).

The WLC Q/A 191 says that in the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer we are praying “that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed.”  Likewise, the HC Q/A 123 says the second petition is a prayer that God would “destroy the devil’s work.”  In the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying that “Satan [be] trodden under our feet” (WLC 195).  It is good and right for us to pray fervently against Satan’s temptation and his wicked work. 

Thomas Watson wrote that the Christian “must offer violence to Satan. …We must offer violence to Satan by faith.  …There is a lion in the way but we must resolve upon fighting.  …Faith is a heroic grace; it is said, above all, to quench the fiery darts of Satan.  Faith resists the devil.  …Faith holds the promise in one hand and Christ in the other.” (Heaven Taken by Storm, ch. 10).

Martin Luther, as many of you may know, struggled intensely against Satan’s temptations and assaults. 

“The devil forever and a day would very much like to have us stray from the right way.  He knows very well that whoever believes in Christ will be saved.  That is why he tries with might and main and all manner of tricks to mislead us” (Sermons, 7.298).

The devil’s temptations are very real.  He tries to get us to lust, lie, doubt the promises of grace, and ignore God’s word.  If he would have his way, we’d all be literally doomed.  But Christ is much stronger than Satan and his horde.  He dealt the death blow to Satan on the cross and in the resurrection, and one day he’ll return to finish him off by throwing him into the pit of hell forever (Rev. 20.10).   This truth should make a great cheer rise up in our hearts already; part of the gospel is that Jesus will win total and eternal victory over Satan. 

So when Satan tempts you, with true love for Christ and deep hatred for the devil, you can tell him that you realize now he might win a few skirmishes here and there.  And you can tell him you hate him with every fiber of your Christian being.  You can tell him to leave you alone because you’ve been baptized and you have Christ as your Savior and Protector.  Finally, because of Christ’s certain victory, you can tell him to go to hell where he belongs.  You, however, belong to Christ, body and soul, and not even Satan can snatch you from his hand.  The battle may be hard, tear-filled, and bloody, but victory is certain.  Keep fighting!  God will soon crush Satan underfoot (Rom. 16.20).

rev shane lems

Jesus Keeps His Sheep

 In his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, Thomas Watson has a great discussion of the preservation of the saints (a.k.a. the “P” in TULIP or the last part of the Canons of Dort).  He says “a saint’s perseverance is built upon three immutable pillars.”

1) Upon God’s eternal love.  We are inconstant in our love to God; but he is not so in his love to us.  ‘I have loved thee with an everlasting love;’ with a love of eternity (Jer. 31.3).  When once the sunshine of God’s electing love is risen upon the soul, it never sets finally.

2) Upon the covenant of grace.  It is a firm, impregnable covenant; as you read in [2 Sam. 23.5] ‘God hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure.’  This covenant is inviolable, it cannot be broken; indeed, sin may break the peace of the covenant, but it cannot break the bond of the covenant.

3) Upon the mystical union.  Believers are incorporated into Christ, they are knit to him as members of the head, by the nerve and ligament of faith, so that they cannot be broken off (Eph. 5.23).  As it is impossible to sever the yeast and the dough when they are once mingled, so it is impossible when Christ and believers are united to be separated, even by the power of death or hell .

Well said; reminds me of the answer of the Westminster Larger Catechism that has to do with the perseverance of the saints (Q/A 79).  I’ve put the numbers in the text to more clearly show the reasons saints are preserved:

“True believers, by reason of the 1) unchangeable love of God,
and 2) his decree
and 3) covenant to give them perseverance,
4) their inseparable union with Christ,
5) his continual intercession for them,
and 6) the Spirit and seed of God abiding in them,
can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace,
but are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.”

The above quotes by Thomas Watson, which I edited slightly, are found on pages 131-132 of The Lord’s Prayer.

shane lems

Quotes On Listening

Studying James 1.19-25 this week led me to think long and hard about the virtue of good listening – specifically listening to God’s Word (v 22; cf Ecc. 5.1-2, Prov 10.19, etc).  It is so hard to be a good listener in our noisy and entertainment-driven culture of texting and images.  I enjoy movies and music, but I also try to enjoy these things in moderation because I know they slowly kill my skill of listening to the Word.  Here are a few great quotes I found on listening which I though our readers would appreciate.

“Today…much ‘church work’ makes congregants so busy that they have scant time and little capacity for listening.  …Loving God and other people depends on getting to know them intimately by listening to them ‘with the ear of the heart.'” (Schultz, 78-9).

An old monastery had these words carved into the stone wall: “Do not speak unless you can improve upon the silence.” (Schultz, 78)

“The Word comes not to the chatterer but to him who holds his tongue. … Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God.  We are silent before hearing the Word because our thoughts are already directed to the Word, as a child is quiet when he enters his father’s room.” (Bonhoeffer, 79).

“The listener is not permitted to suppose that the preached words are for anyone other than himself or herself.” (Peterson, 11).

“Doubtless, no one can be a true disciple of God, except he hears him in silence…. He (James) would…have us to correct and restrain our forwardness, that we may not, as it commonly happens, unseasonably interrupt God, and that as long as he opens his sacred mouth, we may open to him our hearts and our ears, and not prevent him to speak.” (Calvin on James 1.19).

“When we have heard a sermon, we should look up to Christ and beg his blessing upon it that it may not return void, but accomplish the work for which it was sent and be powerful and efficacious for the good of our souls.” (Love, 147).

“When we come to the Word preached, we come to a matter of the highest importance; therefore we should stir up ourselves and hear with the greatest devotion. … The devil is not one who refuses to come to church; he attends, but not with any good intent; he takes away the Word from men,” so “regard” and “remember” the Word. (Watson, 16-17).

“Why are we such poor listeners?  Today one of the major reasons is that we are so busy.  Our busyness substitutes frenzy for conversation and wrecks our relationships.  It fills our calendars and empties our lives of the ability to listen to anything that turns us away from our little gods.” (Hughes, 64).

“As real hearers we are indeed taken prisoner by this Word.  We surrender to it.  Inevitably, therefore, the totality of our existence is evidence of what we have heard.” (Barth, CD II.2, p. 365).

“It is required of those that hear the word preached that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the scriptures, receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.” (WLC 160).

Solae aures sunt organa Chistiani – “The ears alone are the organs of a Christian man, for he is justified and declared to be a Christian, not because of the works of any member but because of faith. (Luther, quoted in Webb, p. 144)

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

The Westminster Assembly Project: Announcement

This is good news for students of theology and church history, especially those of us with a Presbyterian “bent.”  Reformation Heritage Books (RHB) and The Westminster Assembly Project have teamed up to publish some older documents from the theologically fruitful Westminster Assembly and some of its delegates.  Go here for more info – and stay tuned!

Note: The Westminster Assembly Project website is here.

shane lems

sunnyside wa