The Essence of Faith: Neither Obedience Nor Love

The Christian's Reasonable Service, 4 Volumes In Reformed theology when we talk about the essence of justifying faith, we exclude love and obedience.  In other words, justifying faith is passive, outward looking, and receptive: it does not work or earn, but receives a free gift of grace that comes from God in Christ.  Wilhelmus a Brakel says it well when he explains what the essence of justifying faith is not:

First, faith does not consist in love, which is what the papists and the Arminians maintain.  Love is not the essence of faith, for 1) faith and love are two distinct virtues (1 Cor. 13:13).  It is rather obvious that one virtue cannot be the essence of another.  2) Love is the fruit of faith (Gal. 5:6).  Faith does not derive its efficacy from love, but rather faith is efficacious toward the operation of love.  …The result of something cannot be its essence.

Secondly, faith does not consist in obedience to and observance of God’s commandments.  For faith is expressly distinguished from works (1 Cor. 13:13, 1 Tim. 1:5, etc.).  Yes, in the matter of justification, works and faith are contrasted with each other (Rom. 3:28, Gal. 3).  True faith is the fountain of good works.  Good works are fruits of faith and characteristic of it, and it is thus evident that where good works are absent, true faith is also absent.

In other words, love and works are not the same as justifying faith; love and works are not the essence of  faith.  The sinner is not justified by faithful obedience, or by faith working through love, but by faith alone, only, period.  True faith always results in love and good works, but love and good works are not the essence of justifying faith – they are the effects.  To distinguish between essence and effects is crucial!

What is the essence of justifying faith?  To paraphrase the Westminster Larger Catechism,

Justifying faith is a gift of God, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit.  By this faith the sinner 1) is convinced of his sin and inability to save himself, 2) assents to the truths of the gospel promise, 3) receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness for the forgiveness of sins and being counted righteous in God’s sight.

Faith does not justify a sinner because of the other graces which always accompany it or because of the good works that are the fruit of it…. Faith justifies a sinner only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and his righteousness (Q/A 73, 74).

These aren’t word games; this isn’t logic-chopping.  This distinction between the essence and effects of faith flow from Paul himself and have everything to do with the gospel of sovereign grace.  If a person adds works or love to the essence of faith, that person is saying that Christ’s work is not enough and that we must contribute something to our justification.  Paul condemns such ideas as turning from grace to a different gospel – no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-7)!  This is why we in the Reformation tradition stand so firmly on the truth of justification by faith alone.

The above quote from Brakel was slightly edited and can be found in volume 2, pages 275-276 of The Christian’s Reasonable Service.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church, Hammond, WI

How Are Humans Different Than Animals?

(This is a repost from July 2013).

In one section of his excellent book, Seven Truths That Changed The World, Ken Samples explains how human beings differ from animals.  It might seem like a no-brainer to some, but this is important to remember when evolutionary theories are creeping into Christian circles and churches.  (Note: as usual, I’ve edited this list to keep it brief, though I recommend the entire section and book.)

“Specific qualities and traits set people apart from all other creatures.  According to historic Christianity, and specifically in light of the imago Dei, these acute differences are expected.”

1) Human beings have an inherent spiritual and religious nature.  Nearly everyone pursues some form of spiritual truth.  People generally have deep-seated religious beliefs and engage in intricate rituals.  This defining characteristic of humankind is so apparent that some have designated humans as homo religiosus (religious person).  Though animals can be intelligent, they show no sign of spirituality or of concern with ultimate issues.

2) Human beings possess unique intellectual, cultural, and communicative abilities.  Humans are thinkers capable of abstract reasoning and able to recognize, apply, and communicate the foundational principles of logic.  Only human minds develop propositions, formulate arguments, draw inferences, recognize universal principles, and value logical validity, coherence, and truth.

3) Human beings are conscious of time, reality, and truth.  Humans alone recollect the past, recognize the present, and anticipate the future.  Only human beings pursue the truth, which has led to the founding and development of philosophy, science, mathematics, logic, the arts, and a religious worldview.

4) Human beings possess a conscience, identity, a value system, and legislate moral laws for society.  People have an inner sense of moral right and wrong or good and bad (conscience).  They deliberate about moral choices, feel the pull of prescriptive moral obligation, and conform their lives according to a system of ethical conduct.

5) Human beings are uniquely inventive and technological.  Human innovation has not only lengthened the human lifespan but also brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction.  In this sobering and humbling fact, people once again prove themselves unique among all living creatures.

6) Human beings possess an intense curiosity to explore and understand the created realm.  Birds may look to the star patterns in the sky to guide them in migrations, but humans seek to comprehend the source of starlight and what lies beyond it.

7) Human beings possess aesthetic taste and appreciation for more than just practical purposes.  People distinctly create, recognize, and appreciate beauty.  Humans often create because they are moved by a deep and mysterious sense of the beautiful.

“These seven characteristics clearly place human beings in a different category from the rest of Earth’s creatures.  In many respects humans are different in kind, not just in degree, from the animals.  And the distinct attributes of humankind comport well with what Scripture reveals concerning the imago Dei.”

Kenneth Samples, Seven Truths That Changed The World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), chapter 12.

Shane Lems

Ways People Try To Soothe Their Guilty Conscience

Christopher Ash’s book, Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience, is a helpful resource on what the conscience is, how it works, and what it means to have it renewed and shaped by the Word.  In chapter six Ash talks about the hardened conscience and takes some time to explain how people make their guilty conscience hurt less.  Here are a few of the many was which people try to soothe their guilty conscience (I’ve edited these for the sake of space):

  1. Moral effort.  Some people, troubled by a guilty conscience, respond by just trying harder to be good.  They try extra hard not to sin.  But, as John Owen noted in Indwelling Sin, people who do this find that sin is stronger than they had first thought, much to strong to defeat by their own moral effort.  Paradoxically the renewed moral effort that was intended to make conscience hurt less, ends up with conscience hurting more.

  2. Escapism.  The prophet Jonah, as he ran from God, had escaped in such a way that he could even sleep.  That sleep is a picture of the escapism with which many in Western society run away from conscience.  People ‘amuse themselves to death,’ spend time in a virtual world, on social networking, and try to create alternative identities to escape the guilty conscience.

  3. Blaming others.  Conscience tells me it is my fault.  But if I can persuade myself it is someone else’s fault, then I can neatly shift the blame and get away from the voice of conscience.  This is the great evasion of the so-called victim culture, where we are all victims and no one is responsible any more.

  4. Gradually desensitizing the conscience.  Ignoring conscience gradually desensitizes this sensitive instrument.  Paul writes about this in 1 Timothy 4:2.  A native American described the conscience like this: ‘It is a little three-cornered thing inside of me.  When I do wrong it turns round and hurts me very much.  But if I keep doing wrong, it will turn so much that the corners become worn off and it does not hurt any more.’

  5. Self-righteousness.  This is a strategy used sometimes by church-goers.  Self-righteousness may make me feel better about my own conscience because I can compare myself favorably with those I think are worse than me.

Ash lists a few more then these, including rejecting the Bible, persuading ourselves that godliness is an external thing, and hearing the Word of God repeatedly without repenting.  I appreciate this list because it will help me avoid unbiblical ways to soothe my conscience when it pains with guilt.  If you struggle with a guilty conscience, or if you want your conscience formed more according to the Word, I highly recommend this book: Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Expository, Thematic, or Topical Preaching: Yes!

The labels “expository preaching” and “topical preaching” are often used to contrast two different ways of preaching.  For example, sometimes people are so adamant about expository preaching that they make strong statements against all other preaching.  I, on the other hand, agree with Greg Scharf that these terms aren’t overly helpful.  Here a few things he says about the taxonomy of different kinds/types of sermons:

“The titles themselves, including ‘topical’ and ‘expository’, have become, on the one hand, epithets of derision, and on the other, badges of honor.  Instead of helping preachers know what to do when deciding how much text to preach, they have become fortresses behind which lazy preachers hide or toward which others fire their missiles.  They have become associated with various preachers, as if each of us should unthinkingly embrace the method of one or another popular preacher.”

“…These titles have become caricatures.  The result is that some preachers wrongly despise topical or thematic sermons that are in fact thoroughly biblical and pastorally helpful.  Others criticize so-called ‘expository sermons’ that those of us who aspire to expound Scripture would also find equally – or perhaps more – inadequate as sermons.  That is, they take such sermons as typical of this category of sermon and vilify the whole group on the basis of the shortcomings of sermons they put in that category.”

Scharf goes on to echo John Stott’s point that all biblical preaching should be expository.  However, this doesn’t mean “expository-and-not-topical-or-thematic.”  By “expository” Scharf means “bringing out what is there, as opposed to ‘impository,’ imposing our ideas, presuppositions, and biases on the text.”

Expository sermons can be thematical, topical, or more of an explanation of a single section of Scripture (we might call this a “sectional” way to preach; it is preaching on a section of Scripture).

Citing Walter Liefeld, Scharf lists what expository preaching is not:

  1. Expository preaching is not verse-by-verse exegesis.

  2. Expository preaching is not simply a running commentary.

  3. Expository preaching is not a captioned survey of a passage.

In other words, good, biblical preaching expounds (or exposes) the truth of Scripture in a thematic, topical, or sectional manner.  We shouldn’t think in terms that exclude these different kinds of preaching.  A topical sermon can be solid and biblical; so can a thematic one or sectional one.

I’ll come back to this helpful book on preaching later: Let The Earth Hear His Voice by Greg Scharf (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2015). The above quotes came from chapter 5 of this book.

Shane Lems

Study, Thinking, and Honoring God

I mentioned this helpful resource on Christian education before: Piety and Philosophy by Richard Riesen.  It’s a level-headed and brief discussion of the nuts and bolts of Christian schooling, including the biblical basis, liberal arts, the academic aspect, and the spiritual side of education (among other topics).  I was happy to see Riesen strike a helpful note on intellect and learning.  For example, read these two paragraphs:

“…You cannot pretend to love Truth and not care about truths; you cannot pretend to love the Creator and not care about His creation; you cannot be grateful for His blessed gifts of intellect and curiosity and not use them diligently and enthusiastically.  We are created in the image of God; in gratitude – in worship – we are obliged to live in the image of God. Often we have been told that because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit we should not abuse them with alcohol or drugs or overeating – or neglect.  In the same way, because God has made us in His likeness by His gifts of volition and intellect and creativity, we should not abuse them by neglecting to use them.  That is, we should not despise them.

A Christian honors God – I cannot help but think, pleases God – by his careful study and clear thinking.  By them he is diligent and responsible.  He is interested, and that is a lovely thing.  On the other hand, deliberate ignorance, a refusal to think, not caring about ideas, all dressed up to look like piety – intellectual indifference coupled with self-righteousness – this dishonors God and advances his kingdom not at all.  Christians, made alive in Christ, awakened to God and the wonders of His creation, ought to be the most joyful and enthusiastic astronomers and artists and physicists and philosophers of all.  Ignorance, like its parent indifference, is not a Christian virtue….”

Immediately following these statements, Riesen does temper his focus on intellect with a reminder to avoid pride in our Christian education and intellect.  You’ll have to get the book for the full – and in my opinion, excellent – discussion!

Richard Riesen, Philosophy and Piety, p. 145.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Friendship: A Needed Blessing

Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love Good, solid friendships are blessings from God.  But it’s not always easy to find a good friend or be a good friend.  What can we do to be a friend who truly loves, cares about, and encourages others?  Ed Welch’s book Side By Side is a help in this area.  Here’s an excellent summary section about “ordinary steps” of friendship.

  • We greet them.

  • We have short but meaningful conversations.

  • We gradually discover what is important to them.

  • We begin to pray for them.

  • We see the good. We like them. We enjoy them.

  • We have longer conversations.

  • We continue to pray for them.

“These ordinary steps are reminders of how to be a friend rather than profound insights about helping.  We all can do them.  They are easy and ordinary.

The risk is that their very ordinariness might cause us to judge them as second-rate ways to care for one another.  But the truth is that following these steps is powerful enough to reach into our souls.  When people have practiced just one or two of these steps on us, they have left their mark.  That’s because every step has the imprint of Jesus, so you can be sure that each one will be fruitful.”

After these insights Welch talks about how good relationships lead to helping one another through the struggles and sins in life.  Perhaps I’ll come back to that topic later, but for now I just wanted to highlight a helpful Christian resource on friendship.  Since a major part of the Christian walk is to love others, we should always seek to grow in our love for others.  This book will help in that area.

Ed Welch, Side By Side (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 101.

Shane Lems

“Creeds Blind People” (Is That A Creed?)

The Creedal Imperative (This is a slightly edited repost from October, 2011.)

I recently heard an evangelical praise and worship song that had the following lines in it: “Lord you’ve caused the blind to see / We have blinded them again / With our man-made laws and creeds….”  Aside from the fact that “see” doesn’t rhyme with “creeds,” there’s a major problem here.  The song clearly claims that creeds blind Christians.  In around seven seconds this song throws out some of the major moments and documents in church history: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, not to mention the Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, and Baptist confessions (among others).  There are many – myself included – who can explain how creeds and confessions have been a great help in Christian thought and life.  No Christian mindful of solid theology and church history should ever say that creeds blind Christians.

This makes me think of one major thesis in Carl Trueman’s new book, The Creedal Imperative: all Christians have creeds.  He argues well that no Christian or church simply believes the Bible.  In other words, no Christian, when asked what they believe, is going to start reading Genesis 1:1 and end at the last verse of Revelation.  Every church and Christian will give a summary of what they believe when asked.  That is essentially their creed or confession.  Even the song mentioned above is a creed of some sorts, as one friend reminded me.

Trueman tells the story of a man who once told him that he had “no creed but the Bible.”   He then writes, “What he [this man] really should have said was: I have a creed but I am not going to write it down, so you cannot critique it; and I am going to identify my creed so closely with the Bible that I am not going to be able to critique it either” (p. 160).

“There are numerous obvious ironies here, not least that last point.  It is probably this person objected to creeds on the grounds that they represent a man-made framework which was imposed upon the Bible by the church and thus distorted how the Bible was read.  In fact, by refusing to acknowledge even the existence of his own framework, he removed any possibility of assessing that framework in the light of Scripture.  Thus, he invested more absolute authority in his private creed and his tradition than even the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox, who at least have the decency to put their confessional standards into the public domain.”

“The standard evangelical objection to creeds and confessions is simply not sustainable in the light of its own self-referential incoherence, the Bible’s own teaching, and the history of the church.  I argued in an earlier chapter that creeds and confessions actually fulfill a vital role in the function that Paul makes an imperative for the church and her leadership, that of the stable transmission of the gospel from one generation to another.  Thus, if you take the Bible seriously, you will either have a creed or confession or something that fulfills the same basic role, such as a statement of faith.”

“Here, I want to make the point that those who repudiate such ideas are being unintentionally disingenuous: they still have their creed or confession; they just will not write it down and allow you to look at it and scrutinize it in the light of Scripture.  They are in a sense more authoritarian than the papacy” (p. 160-161).”

Again, I highly recommend this book to our readers: Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative.  It’ll really help you understand the beauty, necessity, and importance of creeds and confessions.  They will not blind you, but aid you in understanding the great truths of Scripture.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI