“Of Pure Grace and Most Unmerited Favor” (Witsius)

  The Apostle Paul is very clear that a sinner is justified by faith alone apart from works (Rom 3.28, Gal 2:16). He also says that we are justified by grace (Titus 3:7).  When it comes to being justified by God, being declared righteous by him, it is not at all based on anything we’ve ever done.  Instead, our justification is based on the works of Christ, which we receive by faith alone. His righteousness is imputed to us.  We’re justified by his works!  I like how Herman Witsius discussed this in light of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace:

The Scripture confirms this truth, when it sets the grace of Christ in diametrical opposition to our works, maintaining, that there can be no mixture of the one with the other. “If righteousness comes by the law,” saith the apostle, that is, if, by our works, we can acquire a right to life eternal, “then Christ is dead in vain,” Gal. 2:21. And more clearly, Rom. 11:6. “And if by grace, then it is no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace; otherwise work is no more work.”

In order clearly to discern the force of the apostle’s inference, it is to be observed, that there are but two ways by which we can come to the possession of salvation, according to the two covenants entered into between God and man: 1) either one has a right to life because he has fully satisfied the demand of the law, according to the covenant of works, and to him that thus “worketh is the reward reckoned of debt,” Rom. 4:4; 2) or he hath a right to life, because the surety of a better testament has made satisfaction for him, which of pure grace and most unmerited favor is imputed to him, who worketh not, in order to acquire that right, ver. 5, according to the covenant of grace.

As these covenants do in the whole essence of them differ, and in this respect are contradistinguished from, and set in opposition to each other, it is evident they conjoin inconsistencies, who would join together our works with the grace of God, our righteousness with the righteousness of Christ, in the matter of justification.

Witsius, H. (1837). The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity. (W. Crookshank, Trans.) (Vol. 1, p. 369). London: T. Tegg & Son.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015


Why Study Theophany?

9781433554377While a number of studies over the years have looked at God’s appearing in theophany (a literal combination of the words God/θεος + To shine, become visible, appear/φαινω), several recent studies have been devoted to considering this topic biblically-theologically. Vern S. Poythress’ newly published Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing (Crossway, 2018) is an especially fine read. But lest one think that learning about theophany is too abstract – the kind of thing only for scholars to tackle – Poythress offers the following thoughts of why all of us can grow in our understanding of God and his word by paying attention to the theme of theophany:

The theme of theophany – the theme of God appearing – is important for several reasons. First, as we just observed, the theme has at its center the person of Christ, who is the permanent theophany anticipated by the temporary theophanies in the Old Testament. Second, the theme finds its culmination in the final vision of God described in the book of Revelation: “They [the saints] will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4). Thus, theophany is central to Christian hope. The final destiny of redeemed mankind is to experience the final theophany, when we “see his face.”

It helps to remember the larger plot of history. God’s purpose in history is to establish communion with mankind. That communion comes to consummation in the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21:1-22:5). At that time, the consummate communion takes place in a final theophany. God comes. God appears, and the Lamb appears on the throne (22:1). God’s promise is that his servants “will see his face” (v.4). This purpose of GOd is behind the whole history leading up to the consummation. It drives all of history. So it is important to reckon with it.

The purpose of God also has practical implications for us. It is God’s purpose for the church, for each one of us who belong to Jesus Christ. It defines who we are by showing what God’s plan is for us. Even now, in this life, we can experience communion with God through Jesus Christ. In the Bible, theophanies show us this same God. They show us that God comes to us and establishes communion with us in Christ. Understanding God’s appearing reorients the meaning of our lives and enables us to know the purpose of our life by knowing God.

Poythress, Theophany, pg. 23.

R. Andrew Compton
Mid-America Reformed Seminary
Dyer, IN

God Clothed in His Word and Promises (Luther)

Luther’s Works (55 vols.) Here’s a wonderful selection from Martin Luther’s commentary on Psalm 51:1a (Have mercy on me, O God, because of your loyal love! NET).  These comments have a lot to do with Luther’s critique of Rome’s “theology of glory.”  Notice how Luther talked about God “clothed in His Word and promises,” which have to do with Christ.  In fact, Luther’s contempt for the theology of glory had to do with his love for the biblical teaching of “Christ alone.”  We don’t find a loving, merciful God apart from His Word which reveals the suffering Messiah; this is the theology of the cross.  Here’s Luther’s comment:

“…Here at the very beginning [of the commentary on Psalm 51:1] you should be reminded of something so that you do not think that David is talking about God like a Mohammedan [Muslim] or like some other Gentile [unbeliever]. David is talking with the God of his fathers, with the God who promised. The people of Israel did not have a God who was viewed ‘absolutely,’ to use the expression, the way the inexperienced monks rise into heaven with their speculations and think about God as He is in Himself. From this ‘absolute God’ everyone should flee who does not want to perish, because human nature and the ‘absolute God’ are bitterest of enemies. Human weakness cannot help being crushed by such majesty, as Scripture reminds us over and over.

Let no one, therefore, interpret David as speaking with the ‘absolute God.’ He is speaking with God as He is dressed and clothed in His Word and promises, so that from the name ‘God’ we cannot exclude Christ, whom God promised to Adam and the other patriarchs. We must take hold of this God, not naked but clothed and revealed in His Word; otherwise certain despair will crush us.  This distinction must always be made between the Prophets who speak with God and the Gentiles.  The Gentiles speak with God outside His Word and promises, according to the thoughts of their own hearts; but the Prophets speak with God as He is clothed and revealed in His promises and Word. This God, clothed in such a kind appearance and, so to speak, in such a pleasant mask, that is to say, dressed in His promises—this God we can grasp and look at with joy and trust.

The above slightly edited quote is found in Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Volume 12, page 312.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Scottish Reformation: Patrick Hamilton

The Scots Worthies; Containing a Brief Historical Account of the Most Eminent Noblemen, Gentlemen, Ministers, and Others, Who Testified or Suffered for the Cause of Reformation in Scotland from the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century to the Year 1688 Patrick Hamilton (b. 1504) grew up in early 16th century Scotland in the Roman Catholic Church there.  He was very much a scholar, studying philosophy and theology under some of the prominent professors at St. Andrew’s.  He most likely rubbed shoulders with John Knox during his studies, but there is little or no indication that the two knew each other.  When Hamilton was 22 he began to grow suspicious of some aspects of Roman Catholic theology and practice.

During the 22nd year of his life, he left Scotland to study in Germany after hearing about Martin Luther’s teaching.  Luther and Melanchthon welcomed Hamilton and recommended that Hamilton study at Marp(b)urg under Francis Lambert.  While studying under Lambert, Hamilton began to feel the call to preach the gospel in his native Scotland.  Lambert warned him of the dangers of such a course, but Hamilton would not be dissuaded.

When he was just 23 years old he returned to Scotland and began to preach the gospel and rebuke Rome for her superstitions and corruptions.  (Here’s a sample of his writing.)  The Roman Catholic leaders, of course, quickly began to resent Hamilton and discussed how to get rid of him.  To make a long story short, Rome tricked him into visiting St. Andrews for a conference to discuss theology.  Hamilton argued his points well and in such a way that the Roman Catholic leaders could not refute him.  Knowing he had some support, Rome decided to arrest Hamilton and charge him for teaching heresy.  Below are some of the charge.  Rome arrested him for teaching:

  1. That the corruption of sins remains in children after their baptism.
  2. That no man is without sin as long as he lives.
  3. That no man, by the mere power of his free will, can do any good.
  4. That a man is not justified by works, but by faith only.
  5. That faith, hope, and love are so linked together, that he who hath one, hath all, and he who lacketh one, lacketh all.
  6. That auricular (private oral) confession is not necessary to salvation.
  7. That actual penance cannot purchase the remission of sins.
  8. That there is no purgatory.

There were other charges brought against Hamilton, including linking him to Luther; the ones I listed are some notable ones.  In February 1527, young Hamilton was burned at the stake as a martyr for Christ.

There’s one more aspect to the story very much worth mentioning.  While he was in prison, a Roman Catholic canon, Alexander Aless, visited Hamilton.  Aless did his best to get Hamilton to recant, but it was unsuccessful.  However, during these discussions, Aless actually was persuaded of the truths of the gospel and went on to teach them while criticizing Rome.  He was thrown in prison but later Aless escaped and went to Germany (to Melancthon) and England (to Cramner).

In God’s mysterious but good providence, he used a condemned man’s words to bring another man to faith; and this man went on to teach others about the faith.  “Faith of our fathers, living still; in spite of dungeon fire and sword!”

(The above story has been summarized from The Scots Worthies by John Howie, chapter one.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015



Are Our Good Works Accepted by God? (Boston)

 The Bible teaches that a sinner is justified by faith alone apart from works (e.g. Rom 3-4).  One question the Christian might ask in light of “faith alone” is this:  “How can any of our works be accepted by a holy God since there is so much sinfulness in even best of them?”  Thomas Boston (d. 1732) asked that question, and answered it this way:

Answer 1. In point of justification they are not, nor cannot be accepted; that is, our persons cannot be accepted as righteous for our works, since they are not legally perfect, perfect in every point. In the way of the covenant of works, the work was first to be accepted for its own sake, as absolutely perfect; and then the person for the works’ sake. So that whosoever seek by their works to be accepted of God, they go back to the covenant of works; and must either bring works every way perfect, or be rejected; and because they cannot do such works, “therefore by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified,” Gal. 2:16.

Answer 2. In point of sanctification the good works of the justified may be accepted; that is, one’s person being accepted, his works may be accepted, being evangelically perfect, though not legally; being perfect in parts, though not in degrees. For in the way of the covenant of grace, the person is first accepted in Christ, and then his work though imperfect. Hence it appears,

(1.) That to a person’s being accepted of God in Christ, there is no working, but believing required; Mark 5:36. For till the person be accepted of God in Christ, he can do no acceptable work. He can yield no savory fruit till he be ingrafted by faith in Christ.

(2.) That the way to bring sinners to good works, is to bring them to Christ in the first place by faith, that they may be justified and accepted in him. Men may be made proud legalists otherwise, but not evangelical Christians; whited sepulchers, but still full of rottenness.

(3.) That there is very good reason why the good works of unbelievers are rejected, because they are imperfect; and yet the good works of believers are accepted, though they be imperfect….

The Westminster Confession (16.6) says it in a similar way:

“The persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight, but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.”

The above quote is from Thomas Boston, (1852). The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Discourses on Prayer. (S. M‘Millan, Ed.) (Vol. 11, pp. 131–132). Aberdeen: George and Robert King.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Eschatology, Prophecy, and Foreshortening (Vos)

 When it comes to the OT prophets and eschatology, one area of discussion is the “literalness” of prophetic language.  Though not everyone agrees, in Reformed theology we see the prophets as speaking the truth in poetic and sometimes apocalyptic ways (similar to the Psalms, Revelation, and other parts of Scripture).  Therefore we don’t read the prophets with strict literalism, though we do read them with a view that they are part of the infallible Word of God.

There’s another thing about prophetism worth mentioning: it isn’t always chronological.  Sometimes prophecy is unchronological or non-chronological.  This matters in eschatology!  Here’s how Vos described it:

“Whenever the prophets speak in terms of judgment, immediately the vision of the state of glory obtrudes [imposes] itself upon their view, and they concatenate [join] the two in a way altogether regardless of chronological interludes.  Isaiah couples with the defeat of the Assyrians under Sennacherib the unequalled pictures of the glory of the end, and the impression might be created that the latter was just waiting for the former, to  make its immediate appearance.  The vision ‘hastens’ under their eye.  The philosophy of this foreshortening of the beyond-prospect is one of the most difficult things in the interpretation of prophecy in the Old Testament and New Testament alike.”

In other words, although it is a difficult aspect of interpretation, the words of judgment and glory in the prophets aren’t necessarily chronological.  For more helpful insight into OT prophetism, see Vos’ Biblical Theology, chapter six, part D (The Judgement and the Restoration: Prophetic Eschatology).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

He Continued To Be God (Cyril)

A Commentary upon the Gospel according to S. Luke Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444 AD) wrote a helpful commentary on the Gospel of Luke.  Cyril’s stand for the biblical teaching of Christ’s deity comes through clearly in his commentary.  Here’s one example from his comments on Luke 9:47, where it says that Jesus knew the thoughts of his disciples’ hearts:

And now let him who thinks that Jesus was a mere man learn that he is in error, and far gone from the truth. For let him know, that though God the Word became flesh, yet that it was not possible for Him to cease to be that which He was, and that He continued to be God. For to be able to search the hearts and reins, and know their secrets, is the attribute of the supreme God alone, and besides Him of no other being whatsoever. But behold, Christ searcheth the thoughts of the holy Apostles, and fixeth the eye of Godhead upon their hidden feelings. Therefore He too is God, as being adorned with honours thus glorious and divine.

The doctrine of Christ’s deity isn’t a late development in Christian theology.  The early church fathers believed it, defended it, and got it from Scripture.  As we think about Jesus today, it’s necessary for us to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us – who have followed in the footsteps of the apostles, and ultimately Christ himself.

 Cyril of Alexandria. (1859). A Commentary upon the Gospel according to S. Luke. (R. P. Smith, Trans.) (p. 242). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015