Law and Gospel in the Canons of Dort

I really like how the Canons of Dort talks about the law and the gospel.  It’s found in the 3rd and 4th points of doctrine:

ARTICLE 5
Neither can the decalogue delivered by God to His peculiar people, the Jews, by the hands of Moses, save men. For though it reveals the greatness of sin, and more and more convinces man thereof, yet, as it neither points out a remedy nor imparts strength to extricate him from this misery, but, being weak through the flesh, leaves the transgressor under the curse, man cannot by this law obtain saving grace.

ARTICLE 6
What, therefore, neither the innate understanding nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation; which is the glad tidings [good news] concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it has pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old as under the New Testament.

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

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Faith Follows Regeneration (Phillips)

What's So Great About the Doctrines of Grace? by [Phillips, Richard D.] Here’s a brief but biblical explanation of the truth that faith follows regeneration:

“…It is clear from the Bible that the Spirit’s regenerating work always precedes and causes faith.  Jesus stated this to Nicodemus: ‘Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).  This is reflected more or less clearly in every conversation recorded in the New Testament.  An excellent example is the conversion of Lydia, which Luke records by writing, ‘The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14).  Likewise, Jesus ascribed Peter’s great confession not to the operations of his flesh but to divine grace: ‘Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’ (Matt. 16:17).”

“Regeneration – the new birth – precedes faith, so that prior to being born again it is impossible for anyone to believe on Jesus.  Paul explains why: ‘The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14).  Therefore, if regeneration had to result from faith – if unregenerate sinners had to believe in order to be saved – then according to Paul, no one would ever be regenerated and saved.  Instead, the Bible uniformly teaches what our sinful condition demands: regeneration precedes and causes saving faith.  The apostle John put it succinctly: ‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God’ (1 John 5:1).”

Richard Phillips, What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace, p. 76-7.

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

The Clarity of Scripture (Turretin)

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 1 (This is a re-blog from April, 2016)

The perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture has been denied by the Roman Catholic Church, the Socinians in the 17th century, and other such groups.  During and after the Reformation, the Reformers had to explain, teach, and defend this doctrine (e.g. WCF 1.6-8).  What does the clarity of Scripture mean?  What doesn’t it mean?  Francis Turretin (d. 1687) had a good discussion on it.  I’ll summarize it below.

A) The perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that they are perfectly clear to every person.  Scripture is not clear to unbelievers and the unregenerate (2 Cor. 4:3).  It does not mean that a person can understand the Word apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.  The perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that there are no mysteries in Scripture, nor does it mean that all parts of Scripture are equally clear.  The clarity of Scripture does not mean that we never need help (prayer, teachers, sermons, etc.) in understanding it.

B) The perspicuity of Scripture does mean, however, that Scripture is clear about the things essential to salvation: “Without the external aid of tradition or the infallible judgment of the church, [Scriptures] may be read and understood profitably by believers.”

This truth may be proven from Ps. 19:8, 119:105, and 2 Pet. 1:19.  In the Old Testament, God tells his people to obey the law, which means they understood it (Dt. 30:11).  The clarity of Scripture can be further proved:

  1. By their efficient cause (God, who cannot be said either to be unwilling or unable to speak plainly without impugning his perfect goodness and wisdom).
  2. By their design (to be a canon and rule of faith and practice, which they could not be unless they were clear).
  3. By the matter (that is, the law and the gospel, which anyone can easily apprehend).
  4. By the form (because they are to us in place of a testament, contract of a covenant or edict of a king, which ought to be perspicuous and not obscure.

Furthermore, the church fathers acknowledge the clarity of Scripture.  Chrysostom said,

“The Scriptures are so proportioned that even the most ignorant can understand them if they only read them studiously.”  He also said, “All necessary things are plain and straight and clear.”

Augustine:

“In the clear declarations of Scripture are to be found all things pertaining to faith and practice.”

Similarly, Irenaeus wrote,

“The prophetic and evangelic Scriptures are plain and unambiguous.”

I’ll end with Gregory:

“The Scriptures have, in public, nourishment for children, as they serve in secret to strike the loftiest minds with wonder; indeed they are like a full land deep river in which the lamb may walk and the elephant swim.”

You can read Turretin’s brief and helpful discussion in volume 1, pages 143-147 of Institutes of Elenctic Theology.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Preaching the Law with Love (Bridges)

A friend and I were recently discussing several parts of Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry. One section I have marked and underlined quite a bit has to do on how a preacher should rebuke with love.  This also has to do with preaching the law: it should be done with love.

“The spirit of love must deeply imbue the language of reproof.  We must ‘exhort,’ but ‘with all longsuffering’ (2 Tim. 4:2); bearing with the frowardness that will often resist the most affectionate pleading.  Meekness, gentleness, and patience must stamp our instruction of the opponents of the Gospel.  We must wound their consciences as sinners, not their feelings as men; carefully avoiding unnecessary excitement of enmity; and showing the faithfulness that lays open their sins, to be the ‘wounds of a friend’ (Prov. 27:6), the chastening to be that of a father (2 Cor. 2:4).”

“The recollection of our former state (not to speak of our present sympathy with them as their fellow-sinners) will give a considerate tenderness to our reproof, which without weakening its application, will powerfully soften the heart to receive it: so that it falls, ‘as a wise reprover upon an obedient ear’ (Prov 25:12).  Indeed it is when we most deeply feel our own sinfulness, that we speak most closely and powerfully to the consciences of our people.”

Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, p. 335.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Feeling is not a Fruit (Or: Feelings and the Faith)

Blessed Are the Misfits: Great News for Believers who are Introverts, Spiritual Strugglers, or Just Feel Like They're Missing Something by [Hansen, Brant] In evangelical circles, there’s a major emphasis on feelings.  Much popular Christian music is aimed at making us feel good so the lyrics are aimed at the emotions.  Many popular Christian books say so much about experiences and feelings.  Preachers preach with emotion and feeling and they preach to people’s emotions and feelings.  I’ve heard sermons where preachers spend quite a bit of time telling the congregation how a verse makes them feel.  They are very passionate and emotional about their feelings.  This even happens in Reformed and Calvinistic circles.

There’s a negative consequence when feelings are over-emphasized: Christians who don’t feel that way begin to think of themselves as inferior, less spiritual believers.  When a preacher talks about how a verse makes him feel, a Christian in the pew thinks, “I don’t feel that way at all…am I a bad Christian?”  Brant Hansen puts it this way:

“It’s no wonder so many analytical types find themselves estranged from a Christian subculture that traffics in emotional appeals.  We find ourselves wondering what’s wrong with us, perhaps even begging God to make Himself real to us in the way He clearly is to others.  When we’re told we’re not ‘open to the Spirit’ or ‘leaning too much on our intellect,’ we may redouble our efforts to somehow fix what’s wrong with us, before finally drifting away.”

“…The absence of feeling is not the absence of love.  Yes, you may occasionally feel things, maybe even intensely, but when those feelings vacillate, it doesn’t mean you love God less [or that he loves you less – SPL].  He doesn’t seem to prioritize emotion.  He’s looking for obedience.  For faithfulness.  For mercy.  For justice.  For compassion on the poor.”

Hansen later says that “Jesus said if you want to judge a tree, you look at its fruit.”  “Feeling” is not a fruit of the Spirit.

“Someone might immediately, like clockwork, break down in tears of genuine emotion at the first chord of every worship song.  Wonderful.  But that’s not ‘fruit,’ biblically speaking.  A Christianity that’s one-emotional-size-fits-all simply isn’t fair.  You may have Asperger’s, like I do.  You may have gone through trauma as a kid.  You might grapple with depression and just not emote like other people.  You may be wired differently.

When one person insinuates that another must be spiritually lacking because of a dearth of feeling, it’s worthwhile pointing out this is utterly foreign to the biblical concept of bearing fruit.”

Of course, feelings aren’t necessarily bad or sinful.  God created us as humans who laugh, cry, hurt, and have emotions.  The problem with feelings and emotions is that they are not trustworthy since we are sinful.  Proverbs 28:26 says he who trusts in his own heart is a fool (NASB)It follows that we should be very hesitant to trust the emotions that arise from our hearts.  Feelings come and go; they rise and fall.  Feelings depend on how much sleep you’ve had (or not had!) in the past week.  Feelings depend on how much coffee you had today (or didn’t have!).  Sometimes feelings change when the seasons change!  Emotions often change when circumstances change.  So don’t base your Christian faith on your feelings and don’t judge your commitment to Christ on how you feel at the moment.  If your feelings don’t match that of “better” Christians, don’t panic or get down on yourself. It’s okay; it’s no big deal.

The Christian faith is based on fact, not feeling.  Dear Christian, the blood of Jesus cleanses you from all sin even if it doesn’t feel like it.  The tomb is empty even when you’re way down in the dumps and you’re emotionally drained.  God’s love for you is constant and steady, even when you feel like a pile of crap.  You are justified even if that truth doesn’t make you emotional.  You’re being sanctified despite the fact you can’t “feel” sanctification.  Believe the truth of the gospel and rest in it.  Just rest.  Don’t panic.  Feelings about the gospel may come and go, but the fact of it remains.

The above quotes are found in chapters 5-6 of Blessed are the Misfits. (I received this book to review and was not compelled to write positive remarks about it.)

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

Called To Serve (Guinness)

I like this book so much: The Call by Os Guinness.  Here’s a section I found this morning while re-reading part of the book.  It has to do with God’s call and gifts:

“In the biblical understanding of giftedness, gifts are never really ours for ourselves.  We have nothing that was not given us.  Our gifts are ultimately God’s, and we are only ‘stewards’ – responsible for the prudent management of property that is not our own.  This is why our gifts are always ‘ours for others,’ whether in the community of Christ or the broader society outside, especially the neighbor in need.”

“This is also why it is wrong to treat God as a grand employment agency, a celestial executive searcher to find perfect fits for our perfect gifts.  The truth is not that God is finding a place for our gifts but that God has created us and our gifts for a place of his choosing – and we will only be ourselves when we are finally there.”

“…God does call us to ‘be ourselves’ and ‘do what we are.’  But we are only truly ‘ourselves’ and can only truly ‘do what we are’ when we follow God’s call.  Giftedness that is ‘ours for others’ is therefore not selfishness but service that is perfect freedom.”

Os Guinness, The Call, p. 46-7.

Shane Lems

God Told Me!? (A Critique of Mysticism)

What do you do when a friend says, “God told me I needed to go on a diet,” or “The Holy Spirit spoke to me last night and said you should make more friends”?  How do we even begin to respond?  It’s not easy to respond to such comments; it takes patience and wisdom!  If you’ve heard these statements before, you might appreciate Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ comments on this kind of “God-told-me” mysticism.  In the paragraphs below, Lloyd-Jones says these are his main critiques of mysticism: 1) it is claiming continuing inspiration, 2) it devalues Scripture, 3) it devalues the person and work of Christ, 4) it focuses on the Lord’s work in us so much that it forgets His work for us, 5) it is weak on the doctrine of sin, 6) it is entirely subjective, 7) it tends to extremism and fanaticism.  Here are his comments:

“The main criticism of the evangelical can be put in this form: It is a claim to a continuing of inspiration.  The mystic in a sense is claiming that God is dealing as directly with him as He was with the Old Testament prophets; he claims God is dealing with him as He did with the Apostles. …The mystic says he has received a new and fresh message and that he is in a state of direct inspiration…. Now we believe that God gave a message to the prophets, He gave a message to the Apostles; but we say that because God has done that, it is unnecessary that He should do that directly with us.

“My second criticism would be that mysticism of necessity puts the Scriptures on one side and makes them more or less unnecessary.  You will always find that persons who have a mystical tendency never talk very much about the Bible.  …They say, ‘No, I do not follow the Bible reading plans; I find one verse is generally enough for me.  I take one verse and then I begin to meditate.’  …He does not need this objective revelation; he wants something to start him in his meditation and he will then receive it as coming directly from God; he depreciates the value of the Scriptures.”

“I do not hesitate to go further and say that mysticism, as a whole, even tends to make our Lord Himself unnecessary.  …There have been people who have been mystical and who claim that their souls have immediate access to God.  They say that just as they are, they have but to relax and let go and let God speak to them and He will do so; they do not mention the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“…The danger of mysticism is to concentrate so much on the Lord’s work in us that it forgets the Lord’s work for us.  …It is so concerned about this immediate work upon the soul that it quite forgets the preliminary work that had to be done before anything could be done upon the soul.  It tends to forget the cross and the absolute necessity of the atoning death of Christ before fellowship with God is in any way possible.”

“We can go further….  Mysticism is never very strong on the doctrine of sin.  The mystic tends to say, ‘…If you want to know God just as you are, you have to start getting into communion with Him, and He will speak to you and give you all the blessings.’  They never mention the doctrine of sin in the sense that the guilt of sin is such a terrible thing that nothing but the coming of the Son of God into the world and the bearing of our sins in His own body….”

“Another very serious criticism of mysticism is that it always leaves us without a standard.  Let us imagine I follow the mystic way.  I begin to have experiences; I think God is speaking to me; how do I know it is God who is speaking to me?  …How can I be sure that I am not the victim of hallucinations, since this has happened to many of the mystics?  If I believe in mysticism as such without the Bible, how do I test my experiences?  How do I prove the Scriptures; how do I know I am not perhaps being deluded by Satan as an angel of light in order to keep me from the true and living God?  I have no standard.”

“In other words, my last criticism is that mysticism always tends to fanaticism and excesses.  If you put feelings before understanding, you are bound to end in that, because you have nothing to check your experiences with, and you will have no reason to control your sensations and susceptibilities.”

Lloyd Jones goes on to mention that the Scriptures are the “only authority and final standard with regard to these matters, with regard to a knowledge of God.”  He said, “the evangelical doctrine tells me not to look into myself but to look into the Word of God. …It tells me that God can only be known in His own way, the way which has been revealed in the Scriptures themselves.”

This entire section is very much worth reading.  It’s found on pages 89-92 of Life in Christ.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015