The Radical Duality of Anabaptist Ecclesiology (Bavinck)

(This is a repost from August 2015)

One thing that Herman Bavinck did so well was put his finger on the pulse of the radical Anabaptist theology in the post-reformation era.  Here’s one of his many penetrating insights into the Anabaptist dualism.

“Anabaptism proceeded from the premise of an absolute antithesis between creation and re-creation, nature and grace, the world and the kingdom of God, and therefore viewed believers as persons who in being born again had become something totally different and therefore had to live in separation from the world.  Its program was not reformation but separation: Anabaptism wanted a separated church.  For centuries [they said] there had been no church but only Babel, and Babel had to be abandoned and shunned.  In Munster it was said that there had been no true Christian in 1,400 years.  The true church was a church of saints who, after making a personal profession of faith, were baptized, and who distinguished themselves from others by abstaining from oaths, war, government office, and a wide assortment of worldly practices in food and drink, clothing, and social contact” (Reformed Dogmatics, IV.292).

This is pretty significant to understand, especially in light of an earlier post here concerning the conversion experience.  Over and over Bavinck reminds us that grace restores nature; it does not work against or remain outside, above, or beside nature “but rather permeates and wholly renews it.”  In other words, conversion experiences are as diverse as the scores of people who have been converted: there is no one conversion that trumps the others.

This is where the conversion experience and the doctrine of the church go hand in hand: if one sharply distinguishes grace from nature, he sees conversion as a separation from (or destruction of) nature instead of a renewal/reformation of it.  When it comes to the church then, it has to be made up of only those who are separated from nature and show it by their sharp distinction between themselves and everything else.  In pretty blunt terms, it is as if conversion is a lightning-bolt-supernatural-shock which results in something totally different, and those who are totally different make up a totally different church (almost an a-natural church).  In Reformed terms (and Bavinck’s terms), this is a dualistic principle that underlies more than a few sects that emerged within Protestantism following the Reformation.

What is the Reformed response?  It is quite detailed, but the first thing to note with Bavinck is the organic working of grace, the way grace restores and works through, in, and with nature.  We see this principle 1) in the writing of Scripture (God didn’t destroy the personalities of the author, but used them for his purposes), 2) in the unfolding promises of his covenant of grace (his ordinary way of working is through the natural means of parents and their seed), 3) in conversion (which is a renewal [not destruction] of the imago dei), 4) in sanctification (God reforming his people – including their various personalities and emotions), and 5) in the church (he uses natural things like speaking, bread, wine, and discipline – the 3 marks of a true church – to help his people).  These are just five areas – there are more.

There is a pastoral side to this.  Just as with conversion we don’t always need to see the “hell to heaven” experience that one can pinpoint (though those are fine), so too with sanctification and the doctrine of the church.  In a church, we’re going to find a whole bunch of people with different personalities, different ways of struggling with sin, different methods of speaking about Jesus, and so forth.  Since grace renews nature, we should expect to see one parishioner fight sin with tears, another fight it with a more upbeat attitude, and yet another fight it quietly behind the scenes while a fourth sings a favorite Psalm to combat sin.  When I counsel a believer who struggles with some type of addiction, for example, though we follow general Scriptural principles, he may not fight that addiction like I would.  This sometimes frustrates me, since I tend to be Luther-like, fighting sin with fists flying.   When Bavinck reminds me that grace restores nature, I can rest at night knowing that God’s gracious renewal gives us the same weapons to fight, but we all use those weapons in different ways.   Just because the sinner-who-is-a-saint doesn’t throw fists at sin like I do doesn’t mean he isn’t fighting it!  Just because a church is made up of people who are at different stages of struggling and have different methods of struggling doesn’t mean the church is impure!   A church is made up of sinners using the same weapons to fight sin, only they wield the weapons differently.  Grace renews nature!

This post is too long already, but this topic also has implications for preaching.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Maintaining Christian Freedom (Bolton)

The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Puritan Paperbacks) (This is a repost from March, 2014)

Near the end of his excellent exposition of Christian liberty, Samuel Bolton (d. 1654) explained how Christians are to stand fast in the liberty which Christ has won for us (cf. Gal. 5:1).  Here’s one helpful paragraph from that section.  I suggest reading it more than once!

“Maintain your liberty in Christ by refusing to look any more to the law for justification, and by refusing to fear its words of condemnation. You are to live, in respect of your practice and obedience, as men who can neither be condemned by the law nor justified by it. It is a hard lesson to live above the law, and yet to walk according to the law. But this is the lesson a Christian has to learn, to walk in the law in respect of duty, but to live above it in respect of comfort, neither expecting favor from the law in respect of his obedience nor fearing harsh treatment from the law in respect of his failings.”

Let the law come in to remind you of sin if you fall into sin, but you are not to suffer [allow] it to arrest you and drag you into the court to be tried and judged for your sins. This would be to make void Christ and grace. Indeed Christians too much live as though they were to expect life by works, and not by grace. We are too big in ourselves when we do well, and too little in Christ in our failings. O that we could learn to be nothing in ourselves in our strength, and to be all in Christ in our weakness!”

“In a word, let us learn to walk in the law as a rule of sanctification, and yet to live upon Christ and the promises in respect of justification.”

Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2010), 219.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Christ Our Brother (Sibbes)

 In his book A Heavenly Conference, Richard Sibbes has a great section about Christ our “brother” (cf. Mt. 25:40; Heb. 2:11-12; 17).  Sibbes was talking about Christ’s words to Mary in John 20:16-17, where Jesus told her to “go to my brothers” and tell them that he would ascend into heaven.  Here are some of Sibbes comments:

Objection: “Ay, but saith the poor soul, I that have been so sinful, and so unworthy, a wretch, shall I have comfort in this, that Christ is my Brother, and I am Christ’s? I cannot do it.”

Answer: I profess thou canst not do it, flesh and blood must not teach it thee, thou must be taught by the Spirit of Christ; but consider how the Apostles used Christ. Thou canst not call Christ Brother, because thou hast been a sinner, and hast carried thy self unkindly to Christ. And did not the Disciples so? Did not they leave him, and one of them deny him, and that with oaths. Therefore whatsoever our sins have been, deny not our relation to Christ. The poor Prodigal said, I am not worthy to be called a son, I am not worthy to be called a servant. He denied not that he was a son, but he was unworthy of it. And so I, unworthy to be a spouse and brother of Christ, yet do not our unfaithful hearts too much pleasure, as to deny our relation.

The Apostles were so dignified, as to be called the ‘pillars of the world;’ but these left him, and yet for all that in this time of their desertion of him, he said, ‘go tell my brethren.’ Therefore be not discouraged, go to Christ in our worst condition, in our greatest temp∣tations, when our hearts misgive us most, that we have used God most unkindly, and Satan assailed us most with desperate temptations, yet own him for our brother, who owned his disciples, when they dealt most unkindly with him.

I beseech you count it a comfort invaluable, which no tongue is able to express, that Christ after his resurrection, should call them brethren. He might well call them brethren after the resurrection, because then all debts were discharged by his death. He had paid their debts, and now the acquittance was due to them, because Christ, as surety, had paid all. Now I am risen, go, and tell my brethren so. If we can make use of the death and resurrection of Christ, and say, Christ hath died for my sins, and rose again for my justification, I will interest my self in his death, I will claim the virtue of his resurrection, then take the comfort of this.

…So when any temptation cometh for our unworthiness, and our undeserving: then think Christ after his resurrection called his apostles brethren, and he will be content to be my brother, if I will believe, he died for me, and I will cast my self upon him, therefore away with all doubts.

Richard Sibbes, A Heavenly Conference, p. 37-39.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

 

 

Legalism: A Complex and Deadly Spiritual Disease

Legalism is not a rare thing in Christian circles.  It’s not confined to a certain denomination, age, gender, race, or class.  Legalism is not rare because it’s the default mode of the sinful human heart.  Thomas Boston said it is “engrained in man’s corrupt nature.”  From one angle, then, we could even say that legalism is alive and well in non-Christian religious circles since people, in general, tend to think of God as a strict master demanding obedience to his strict rules.  Many people think that we need to obey God to gain his favor and acceptance.  Legalism is not rare!

Legalism is also dangerous and deadly because, as Sinclair Ferguson notes, it is “separating the law of God from the person of God” (p. 83).  Instead of seeing God as a loving and generous Father who gave the law for the good of his children, a legalist sees God as a “magnified policeman who gives his law only because he wants to deprive us and in particular to destroy our joy” (p. 83).

Legalism is poisonous because it is “not only a distortion of the gospel but in its fundamental character it is also a distortion of the law” (Ferguson, p. 88).  A legalist distorts the gospel by mixing the law with it, as if the gospel has to do with one’s obedience.  He distorts the law by forgetting that God gave it to his people in love as a light for their paths.  Or, like John Colquhoun said, “They [the legalists] perverted both the law and the gospel, and formed for themselves a motley covenant of works.”

There is obviously a lot more to legalism.  Legalism comes in many shapes and sizes, degrees and layers; it is a complex spiritual disease.  Based on Ferguson’s discussion of legalism, my interaction with legalists, and my own experience battling legalism, here are some characteristics of legalists:

  • Legalists are unbalanced in that they stress law over grace, God’s justice over his mercy.
  • Legalists are typically rigid, harsh, and judgmental because of their emphasis on laws and rules.
  • Legalists often lack love; being “law-heavy” makes one “love-light.”  For them, judgment triumphs over mercy.
  • Legalists are often unteachable since they believe they are right and others are wrong.
  • Legalists are often biblicistic and their biblicism leads them to ignore the context of Scripture as well as other Scriptures which might go against their rigid beliefs.
  • Legalists often demand/expect perfection and are impatient with others who are not like them.
  • Legalists are often inconsistent and unbalanced.  They emphasize minor, tertiary rules or laws (i.e. clothing rules) but sometimes neglect major important laws (i.e. love and help your neighbor).

More could be said about these things, of course.  Perhaps you could add to the list!  The point I want to make (and repeat) is that legalism is dangerous and deadly.  Here’s Ferguson again:

“[Thomas Boston] knew from experience that a ‘legal frame’ or spirit can pervade the whole of an individual’s life.  It can twist the soul in such a way that it comes near to and yet veers away from the grace of God in the gospel.  Particularly if it is present in someone engaged in preaching and pastoral ministry, it can multiply and become an epidemic in the congregation.  …It lies at the heart of many pastoral problems and is one of the most common spiritual sicknesses” (p. 79-80; 123).

What’s the medicine for the deadly disease of legalism?  It’s for sure not antinomianism.  What then?  The person and work of Christ.  The gospel.  Grace!

For more information, you’ll for sure want to read Ferguson’s chapters on legalism in his excellent book, The Whole Christ.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

God’s Free Grace Made the Difference (Henry)

Matthew Henry's Commentary There’s an old hymn called, “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place.” When we sang it last Sunday during worship, the following lines stuck out:

Why was I made to hear Your voice, and enter while there’s room,
when thousands make a wretched choice, and rather starve than come?

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast that sweetly drew us in;
else we had still refused to taste and perished in our sin.

Scripture says it this way: In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4-5 NIV).  Paul also talks about this extensively in Romans 9, where he says that God’s election of some to salvation has nothing to do with their merit, but his mercy: I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Rom. 9:15).  Election is unconditional!  Matthew Henry wrote well on this theme as he commented on Romans 9:

All God’s reasons of mercy are taken from within himself. All the children of men being plunged alike into a state of sin and misery, equally under guilt and wrath, God, in a way of sovereignty, picks out some from this fallen apostatized race, to be vessels of grace and glory. He dispenses his gifts to whom he will, without giving us any reason: according to his own good pleasure he pitches upon some to be monuments of mercy and grace, preventing grace, effectual grace, while he passes by others.

The various dealings of God, by which he makes some to differ from others, must be resolved into his absolute sovereignty. He is debtor to no man, his grace is his own, and he may give it or withhold it as it pleaseth him; we have none of us deserved it, nay, we have all justly forfeited it a thousand times, so that herein the work of our salvation is admirably well ordered that those who are saved must thank God only, and those who perish must thank themselves only, Hos. 13:9.

Applying this general rule to the particular case that Paul has before him, the reason why the unworthy, undeserving, ill-deserving Gentiles are called, and grafted into the church, while the greatest part of the Jews are left to perish in unbelief, is not because those Gentiles were better deserving or better disposed for such a favour, but because of God’s free grace that made that difference.

 

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2217.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Every Work Excluded (Colquhoun)

A Treatise on the Law and Gospel by [Colquhoun, John] One of the great themes of the Reformation – and of the Apostle Paul – was that a sinner is justified not by works, but only by faith in Christ.  In other words, a sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone, not by any sort of obedience to the law in any way, shape, or form.  Here’s how John Colquhoun (d. 1827) summarized this point that Paul emphasized in Galatians:

The great design of our Apostle, then, was to draw them [the readers] off from their false views of the law; to direct them to right conceptions of it in its covenant form in which it can admit of no personal obedience as a condition of life, but such as is perfect — and so to destroy their legal hope as well as to confute their wrong notions.

In other words, Paul was telling the Galatian Christians that when a person thinks he can gain salvation from works of the law, he has a false view of the law.  In this way, Paul destroyed their “legal hope” and their “wrong notions” of the law.  Colquohoun continues:

By the reasonings of the apostle upon this subject, it is manifest that every evangelical, as well as every legal, work of ours is excluded from forming even the smallest part of a man’s righteousness for justification in the sight of God. It is evident that even faith itself as a man’s act or work, and so comprised in the works of the law, is thereby excluded from being any part of his justifying righteousness (see the Westminster Confession of Faith XI:I).

When Paul says that all works are excluded, that means we can’t even claim that faith is a sort of work that contributes to our justification.  More:

It is one thing to be justified by faith merely as an instrument by which a man receives the righteousness of Christ, and another to be justified for faith as an act or work of the law. If a sinner, then, relies on his actings of faith or works of obedience to any of the commands of the law for a title to eternal life, he seeks to be justified by the works of the law as much as if his works were perfect.

If he depends, either in whole or in part, on his faith and repentance for a right to any promised blessing, he thereby so annexes [adds] that promise to the commands to believe and repent as to form them for himself into a covenant of works. Building his confidence before God upon his faith, repentance, and other acts of obedience to the law, he places them in Christ’s stead as his grounds of right to the promise; and so he demonstrates himself to be of the works of the law, and so to be under the curse (Galatians 3:10).

Justification by faith alone, as Scripture teaches, means the sinner doesn’t contribute anything towards his justification.  Like the Heidelberg Catechism says,

“It is not because of any value that my faith has that God is pleased with me.  Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me right with God.  And I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone” (Q/A 61).

The above quote is found in John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, p. 19-20.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Augustine and Love (Oberman)

The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications This is an excellent resource: The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications” by Heiko Oberman.  I just finished reading the chapter that covered mysticism in the medieval church; it was quite helpful.  It’s too detailed to summarize in one blog post, so for now I’ll just quote a section where Oberman summarized Augustine’s view of love.  This is worth thinking about – especially the two different “orbits”.

[Augustine was] a theologian of love. Not only is his great survey of history in ‘De civitate Dei’ (The City of God) shot through with the theme of love, but his ‘Confessiones’ (Confessions) take from the love of God and from God’s love a new definition of the person. Reason and intellect do not place us in the cosmic hierarchy, contrary to what Augustine had learned while studying philosophy, but love. Love is ‘pondus’ (weight), and ‘pondus’ is not a burden but rather gravity, and therefore determines the orbit into which a human being gravitates.

Augustine assumes that there are only two sorts of people, who move in two different orbits. One sort rotates around themselves, the other sort, around God. Both orbits are determined by the love that seeks the center, either by amor sui, self-love, or by amor Dei, the love of God. In order to make the jump from the ‘self-centered’ orbit to the other one, human beings need the help of a sovereign act of God. God alone makes this jump from the old to the new orbit happen—by his grace alone, ‘sola gratia.’

Heiko Augustinus Oberman, The Reformation : Roots and Ramifications (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 82–83.

(A paperback copy of this book is available on Amazon.)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI