Dear Weak Sinner: Come to the Table! (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.)  I’m so thankful that we don’t have to be superhero Christians to share in the Lord’s Supper.  We don’t have to have a strong, bullet-proof faith, nor do we need to reach a certain level of sanctification to partake in the table of the Lord.  As long as we’re repentant of our sin and at the same time believe that our hope is only in Christ, we can take Holy Communion even when we’ve had a miserable week.  I love how Calvin talked about this in his excellent pamphlet called “A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper.”  Calvin does mention that we have to come to the table denying ourselves and renouncing ourselves to rely only on Christ for salvation.  He also says we should come to the table with love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  He then clarifies:

But as not a man will be found upon the earth who has made such progress in faith and holiness, as not to be still very defective in both, there might be a danger that several good consciences might be troubled by what has been said if we did not prevent it by tempering the instructions which we have given in regard both to faith and repentance.

It is a perilous mode of teaching which some adopt when they require perfect reliance of heart and perfect penitence and exclude all from the table who do not have them. For in so doing they exclude all without excepting one. Where is the man who can boast that he is not stained by some spot of distrust? That he is not subject to some vice or infirmity? Assuredly the faith which the children of God have is such that they have ever occasion to pray — Lord, help our unbelief. For it is a malady so rooted in our nature, that we are never completely cured until we are delivered from the prison of the body.

Moreover, the purity of life in which they walk is only such that they have occasion daily to pray for forgiveness of sins and for grace to make greater progress. Although some are more and others less imperfect, still there is none who does not fail in many respects. Hence the Supper would be not only useless, but pernicious to all, if it were necessary to bring a faith or integrity as to which there would be nothing to dispute about them. This would be contrary to the intention of our Lord, as there is nothing which he has given to his Church that is more salutary.

A few paragraphs later Calvin wrote this:

Nay, if we were not weak and subject to distrust and an imperfect life, the sacrament would be of no use to us, and it would have been superfluous to institute it. Seeing, then, it is a remedy which God has given us to help our weakness, to strengthen our faith, increase our charity, and advance us in all holiness of life.  The use of the Supper becomes more necessary the more we feel pressed by the disease; so far ought that to be from making us abstain from it. For if we allege as an excuse for not coming to the Supper, that we are still weak in faith or integrity of life, it is as if a man were to excuse himself from taking medicine because he was sick. See then how the weakness of faith which we feel in our heart, and the imperfections which are in our life, should admonish us to come to the Supper, as a special remedy to correct them? Only let us not come devoid of faith and repentance. 

The above (slightly edited) quote is found in Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1849). Tracts Relating to the Reformation (Vol. 2, p. 179). Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, p. 178-9

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

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On the non-sellable gospel …

contentAlthough Michael Horton has written much more recent books on this topic (see his 2012 title, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples), already back in 1991 he weighed in on the consumerism and ‘mission creep’ that tempts evangelical (and even some Reformed) churches today. While some of the details of the latest and greatest models and proposals for “doing church” may differ, it is surprising how much of the “new stuff” is really just the “older stuff” repackaged with trendier sounding labels.

These paragraphs on the Great Commission are classic Horton:

Our Lord’s command was to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). This is a God-centered commission. There is nothing here about adapting our presentation to the “felt needs” of our audience. After all, Saint Paul said the gospel was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight…. So then, no more boasting about men!” (3:19, 21).

Of course, this does not mean that we ought to ignore the realities of contemporary struggles or the context in which the gospel is presented. Nevertheless, what we get from Scripture is that there is a real sense in which the gospel is not supposed to sell! If we succeed in making the gospel appealing to sinners on the basis of satisfying their consumer appetites, we have not succeeded at all. If unbelievers do not find Christianity offensive (that is, for the right reasons), there is something wrong with our presentation. The Great Commission was a command to make disciples, not to establish franchises for consumers.

Michael S. Horton, Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism (Baker, 1991), 64-65.

Though nearly 30 years old, Horton’s Made in America continues to sound a relevant note in our contemporary ecclesiastical milieu.

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

Why Do Reformed Churches Baptize Infants? (Horton)

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by [Horton, Michael] There are several different biblical reasons why Reformed churches baptize both infants and adults.  Louis Berkhof, Francis Turretin, Charles Hodge, John Calvin, and others have pointed out the various biblical reasons why Reformed churches baptize infants as well as adults.  There’s obviously more to the discussion, but I appreciate how Michael Horton put it:

From a covenantal perspective, it is impossible to separate the claim that the children of believers are holy (1 Cor 7:14) from the sign and seal of the covenant.  According to the traditional Anabaptist/Baptist view, the children are not regarded as holy until they personally repent and believe.  However, the New Testament preserves the clean/unclean distinction, only now it pertains not to Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, but to believing and unbelieving families, with baptism as the covenant’s ratification.  In fact, Paul especially labors the point that all, Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, are Abraham’s children and heirs of the Abrahamic covenant through faith alone, just like Abraham (Rom 4:3 with Gen. 15:6, Gal. 3-4).  The church, in its unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ, is understood as the fulfillment of Israel’s existence (Mt 21:43; Rom 9:25-26, 2 Cor 6:16, Titus 2:14; 1 Pet 2:9, Gal 6:16; Rev. 5:9).  Everything turns on whether we assume continuity or discontinuity as most fundamental to interpreting the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Given the way that the New Testament itself interprets the Old, we should privilege continuity.

If this is the case, then the burden of proof shifts from the paedobaptists (i.e., infant baptizers) to Baptists.  Given the Jewish background of the first Christians, it would not be the command to administer the sign and seal of the covenant to their children that would have been surprising, but the command to cease administering it to them.  However, we are not left to an argument from silence.  This promise for believers and their children is exhibited in the conversion and baptism of Lydia.  After she believed the gospel, ‘she was baptized, and her household as well’ (Acts 16:15).  Later in the same chapter, we read of the conversion of the Philippian jailer.  He too is told, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household…and he was baptized at once, he and all his family’ (vv 31, 33).  Paul recalls having baptized the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:16).  If children are included in the covenant of grace under its Old Testament administration, surely they are not excluded in the new covenant administration, which the writer to the Hebrews calls ‘better’ than the old (Heb. 7:22).

Again, there’s more to the discussion, but I appreciate Horton’s words on the continuity between the Old and New Covenants.  It’s also helpful to realize that infants had been included in the covenant for around twenty centuries before the apostles’ lived.  If infants are no longer part of the covenant community in the New Testament era, one would expect a very clear command to now exclude children of believers.  Instead, in the New Testament we’re told that children of believers are “holy” (set apart) and that the promise belongs to them as well as their parents (1 Cor 7:14; Acts 2:39).  Paul tells children to obey their parents in the Lord (Eph. 6:1).  Jesus himself welcomed little children, blessed them, prayed over them, and said, the kingdom of God belongs to such as these (Lk. 18:16 NASB).  Therefore, “why should the church refuse to welcome into her arms those whom Christ received into his?” (Francis Turretin).

The above quotes are found in Michael Horton, Christian Theology, p. 795-6.  Emphasis his.

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

Will the Lord Leave Him? (Bunyan)

Saved by Grace Most readers of this blog are familiar with these phrases: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.”  As a Christian, if you truly know your own heart, you know the reality of these words.  You know that things in this world have a strong pull and sometimes they draw you away from Jesus and you don’t act or look much like a Christian during those times.  We have to remember that this happens to other Christians too.  Other true followers of Jesus are prone to wander.  I’m not saying this to point fingers.  I’m saying this so we don’t harshly judge other Christians and quickly look down on them when they wander.  I’m saying this so we can show love, patience, and care for brothers and sisters who are currently wandering.

Thankfully Jesus’ grip on us is stronger than our grip on him.  Though we are prone to leave the God we love, he is not prone to leave the people he loves.  Here’s how John Bunyan talked about wandering (or backsliding):

…Perhaps the soul grows cold again, it also forgets this grace received, and waxeth carnal, begins again to itch after the world, loseth the life and savor of heavenly things, grieves the Spirit of God, woefully backslides, casteth off private duties quite, or else retains only the formality of them, is a reproach to religion, grieves the hearts of them that are awake, and tender of God’s name, etc.

But what will God do now? Will he take this advantage to destroy the sinner?
No.
Will he let him alone in his apostasy?
No. Will he leave him to recover himself by the strength of his now languishing graces?
No.
What then?
Why, he will seek this man out till he finds him, and bring him home to himself again: “For thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among the sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered.—I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick” (Eze 34:11, 16).

Later Bunyan talks about a child of God who wanders more than a few times:

“My people,” says God, “are bent to backsliding from me.” How many times did David backslide; yea, Jehoshaphat and Peter! (2 Sam 11, 24; 2 Chron 19:1–3; 20:1–5; Matt 26:69–71; Gal 2:11–13). As also in Jeremiah it is said, “But thou hast played the harlot with many lovers, yet return unto me, saith the Lord.” Here is grace! So many time as the soul backslides, so many times God brings him again—I mean, the soul that must be saved by grace-he renews his pardons, and multiplies them. “Behold, God does all these oftentimes with men, to bring back his soul from the pit, that he may be enlightened with the light of life” (Job 33:29-30 [NASB]).

I am prone to wander.  I know my sinful heart.  You also are prone to wander.  We should be patient and loving towards one another and other brothers and sisters in Christ.  And, as Bunyan pointed out from Scripture, the truth of the matter is that God will not leave us when we wander; he will bring us back again and again and again.  Since God never gives up on his people, neither should we.

 Bunyan, J. (2006). Saved by Grace (Vol. 1, p. 353). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

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

“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