The Promise of Reward (Calvin)

Commentary on the Book of PsalmsThe 63rd Q/A of the Heidelberg Catechism deals with Scripture’s promise tthat God will reward the good that his people do.  The catechism says “This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.”  Here’s Calvin’s similar take on this theme found in his commentary on Psalm 62:12b, You reward everyone according to what they have done (NIV).

From this, and passages of a similar kind, the Papists have argued, in defense of their doctrine, that justification and salvation depend upon good works; but I have already exposed the fallacy of their reasoning. No sooner is mention made of works, than they catch at the expression, as amounting to a statement that God rewards men upon the ground of merit.

It is with a very different design than to encourage any such opinion, that the Spirit promises a reward to our works—it is to animate us in the ways of obedience, and not to inflame that impious self-confidence which cuts up salvation by the very roots.

According to the judgment which God forms of the works of the believer, their worth and valuation depend, first, upon the free pardon extended to him as a sinner, and by which he becomes reconciled to God; and, next, upon the divine condescension and indulgence which accepts his services, notwithstanding all their imperfections.

We know that there is none of our works which, in the sight of God, can be accounted perfect or pure, and without taint of sin. Any recompense they meet with must therefore be traced entirely to his goodness. Since the Scriptures promise a reward to the saints, with the sole intention of stimulating their minds, and encouraging them in the divine warfare, and not with the remotest design of derogating from the mercy of God, it is absurd in the Papists to allege that they, in any sense, merit what is bestowed upon them.

John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 432.

Shane Lems

Will the Jews Be Restored to Their Land?

Some dispensationalists teach that the Jews will one day return to their land en masse.  They believe that the OT prophecies about Israel in the future must be taken “literally” (e.g. Isaiah 11:11-12, Hosea 3:5, etc.).  It’s not quite that easy or simple, however.  I appreciate A.A. Hodge’s arguments against a future return of the Jews to Palestine:

1st: The New Testament is entirely silent on the subject of any such return, which would be an inexplicable omission in the clearer revelation, if that event is really future.

2nd: The literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies concerned in this question would be most unnatural, (1) Because, if the interpretation is to be consistent, it must be literal in all its parts. Then it would follow that David himself, in person, must be raised to reign again in Jerusalem, Ezek. 37:24, etc. Then the Levitical priesthood must be restored, and bloody sacrifices offered to God, Ezek. 40. to 46.; Jer. 17:25, 26. Then must Jerusalem be the center of government, the Jews a superior class in the Christian church, and all worshippers must come monthly and from Sabbath to Sabbath, from the ends of the earth to worship at the Holy City, Isa. 2:2, 3; 66:20–23; Zech. 14:16–21. (2) Because the literal interpretation thus leads to the revival of the entire ritual system of the Jews, and is inconsistent with the spirituality of the kingdom of Christ.  (3) Because the literal interpretation of these passages is inconsistent with what the New Testament plainly teaches as to the abolition of all distinctions between the Jew and Gentile; the Jews, when converted, are to be grafted back into the same church, Rom. 11:19–24; Eph. 2:13–19. (4) Because this interpretation is inconsistent with what the New Testament teaches as to the temporary purpose, the virtual insufficiency, and the final abolition of the Levitical priesthood and their sacrifices, and of the infinite sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ, and the eternity of his priesthood, Gal. 4:9, 10; 5:4–8 Col. 2:16–23; Heb. 7:12–18; 8:7–13; 9:1–14.

3rd: On the other hand, the spiritual interpretation of these Old Testament prophecies—which regards them as predicting the future purity and extension of the Christian church, and as indicating these spiritual subjects by means of those persons, places and ordinances of the old economy which were typical of them—is both natural and accordant to the analogy of Scripture. In the New Testament, Christians are called Abram’s seed, Gal. 3:29; Israelites, Gal. 6:16, Eph. 2:12, 19; comers to Mount Zion, Heb. 12:22; citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, Gal. 4:26; the circumcision, Phil. 3:3, Col. 2:11, and in Rev. 2:9, they are called Jews. There is also a Christian priesthood and spiritual sacrifice, 1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Heb. 13:15, 16; Rom. 12:1.

This is a longer discussion to be sure, but Hodge’s points are certainly worth thinking about when asking and answering this question about eschatology!

The above quote is found in Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines of Theology (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1863), 454–455.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

How We May Strengthen Our Hope

Christian hope is one of the greatest blessings because it increases our joy, assures us of our blessed future, gives us patience to bear burdens, and it helps us keep our eyes above, where Christ is.  But how can we strengthen our Christian hope?  William Gurnall gave six directions for strengthening hope.  I’ll summarize them below; notice how intimately the growth of Christian hope is tied to the Word and prayer.

  1. Study the word of God diligently.  The Christian is bred by the word, and he must be fed by it also.  “…Through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4 NASB).  God has provided in Scripture food to nourish every Christian grace, and in it we find particular respect to the welfare and growth of our hope.
  2. Keep your conscience pure.  Sins that are deliberately plotted and committed are to the Christian’s hope as poison is to his body.  Faith and good conscience are hope’s two wings that help her fly.  If you have wounded your conscience by any sin, renew your repentance so that receiving renewed forgiveness you may revive your hope.
  3. Pray to God daily and beg for a stronger hope in him.  This is what Paul prays about in Romans 15:3, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (NASB).  Be sure you humbly acknowledge God by a constant waiting on him for growth.  God will surely hear the prayers of his children when they beg for more hope.
  4. Labor to increase your love for the Lord.  There is a secret but powerful influence that love has on hope.  Love casts out fear (1 John 4.18).  “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love” and into the patient waiting for Christ’s return (2 Thes. 3:5).  Love him, and you will patiently wait for him – this has to do with hope.
  5. Exercise your hope much.  Repeated acts strengthen habits.  The promises of God are hope’s object to act upon.  Meditate on the promises, set some apart for yourself, and drink in the refreshing truths of God’s promises.  David did this when he remembered that with the Lord there is forgiveness (Ps. 130).  He exercised his hope by meditating on the promise of forgiveness.
  6. Fill up your experiences of past mercies, and your hope will grow stronger for future mercies.  Endurance works hope (Rom. 5:2-4).  A good Christian keeps track of the history of God’s gracious dealings in the past, and this gives him hope for the future.  “This I recall to mind, therefore I have hope” (Lam. 3:21 NASB).  When God gives one mercy, he opens a door so he can give it, and this open door leads us to expect more mercy through it.

William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armor, volume 2, pages 177ff.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

Abandon Facts but Keep Feelings? (Machen)

J. Gresham Machen Liberalism is not new.  The liberal seminary magazines I get in the mail are printed in full color and talk about smartphones, laptops, and podcasts, but the liberalism in them pre-dates today’s technology.  The magazine I got in the mail last week doesn’t mention the cross, sin or the resurrection, and it barely mentions Jesus or the Bible.  But it does talk about social justice, “Christian” art, interfaith dialogues, and debt.  This kind of liberalism has been around quite some time.

J. Gresham Machen and others had to deal with liberalism a century ago.  Back then the liberals didn’t mind letting go of facts as long as they could keep their religious feelings.  In other words, it didn’t matter to them if Jesus actually came back to life.  What was important was that they could feel him living on in their hearts.  Machen addressed this false Christianity quite well:

“It seems to be such a promising solution of our apologetic difficulties just to say that science and religion belong in two entirely different spheres and can never by any chance come into conflict.  It seems to be so easy for religion to purchase peace by abandoning to science the whole sphere of facts in order to retain for itself merely a sphere of feelings and ideals.”

“But in reality these tactics are quite disastrous.  You effect thus a strategic retreat; you retreat into …an inner line of defense whence you think that science can never dislodge you.  You get down into your pragamtist dugout and listen comfortably to the muffled sound of the warfare being carried on above by those who are old-fashioned enough to be interested in truth; you think that whatever creedal changes, whatever intellectual battle there may be, you at least are safe.  You have your Christian experience, and let science and biblical criticism do what they will!”

“But do not comfort yourself.  The enemy in this warfare is good at mopping up captured trenches; he has in his mechanistic psychologists a very efficient mopping up squad.  He will soon drive you out of your refuge; he will destroy whatever decency and liberty you thought you had retained; and you will discover, too late, that the battle is now lost, and that your only real hope lay not into retreating into some anti-intellectualistic dugout but in fighting bravely to prevent the initial capture of the trench.”

“No, the battle between naturalism and supernaturalism, between mechanism and liberty, has to be fought sooner or later; and I do not believe that there is any advantage in letting the enemy choose the ground upon which it shall be fought.  The strongest defense of the Christian religion is the outer defense; a reduced and inconsistent Christianity is weak; our real safety lies in the exultant supernaturalism of God’s Word.”

Exactly.  Abandoning the facts of the faith (like the flood, the exodus, the wilderness wanderings, the monarchy, the miracles of Christ, his death and resurrection, etc.) may seem like a peaceful move, but it only exposes one to the head-on assaults of Satan.  Machen is right: “Our real safety lies in the exultant supernaturalism of God’s Word,” which gives the historical, factual accounts of God’s supernatural intervention to redeem his people from sin through Christ’s cross.  Under that banner, the Christian can bravely fight the battle!

The above quote is found on page 362 of Machen’s Shorter Writings.

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

 

The Danger of Biblicism

Biblicism is a problem in the conservative Christian church today.  By “biblicism” I mean an over-rigid adherence to certain Bible texts or teachings at the expense of context and other biblical teachings.  Biblicism is a cousin of legalism since both are often quite rigid, demanding, and unforgiving.  Some examples of biblicism would be an inflexible adherence to things like courting, abstinence from all alcohol, and insistence on a certain way to run a home (to name just a few).  Biblicism often doubts the value of general revelation and sometimes views the Bible as a science textbook.  I’ve also noticed that many biblicists are self-taught and sometimes do not like creeds and confessions.  Biblicism can lead to many problems in a church’s life and in a Christian’s life.

Terry Johnson has a helpful section on biblicism in his book on the five solas called The Case for Traditional Protestantism.  Here’s part of it:

“Believers must not fall into an unwarranted biblicism which, in the name of biblical authority, narrows the scope of its application to only that which the Bible explicitly states and not to that which it implies as well.  This is a danger when the nature of Scripture is not understood.  There is not a verse for every occasion.  The Bible is not a book of detailed causistry providing answers for every imaginable ethical question.  No doubt some have wished that the Bible were such a book….  Yet it still applies to every occasion.  How so?  It reveals general principles which, to be grasped, must be illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and, to be applied concretely in life, must be joined with reason and wisdom.  The need of wisdom can be illustrated by this fact – almost all of life is lived between the lines of explicit biblical commands.”

“We can summarize our point in this way: The Scriptures are sufficient to reveal to us the truth and will of God when read in conjunction with biblical wisdom.  Biblical wisdom can be defined as understanding the nature of things.  To do so I must know the ‘sacred writings,’ ‘which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3:15).

Johnson later notes how a person may know what the Bible says but not really understand the nature of things and therefore misapply the Bible’s teaching.  The farmer doesn’t plant in the spring because the Bible commands it.  “He does so because he correctly percieves the nature of things and acts in harmony with it.”  The wise Christian understands general revelation and special revelation, and conforms his life “to the reality that both books (nature and the Bible) reveal.”

Yes, the Bible is the Christian’s highest authority in all of life, and yes, Scripture is sufficient for doctrine and life.  But that doesn’t mean we should ignore general revelation.  It doesn’t mean that there’s a Bible verse for everything.  It doesn’t mean we can ignore context and flatten out the Bible.  It doesn’t mean we don’t have to use wisdom in all areas of life.  Biblicism sometimes sounds good because it uses Scripture so much, but we have to remember there is a wrong way to use it!  And typically, as Augustine said, the person who has himself as a teacher has a fool for a student (cf. Prov. 1:7, 12:15, and 28:24). So we need to humbly listen to wise counsel and fervently pray for wisdom ourselves, which – thankfully! – God gives to those who ask in faith (James 1:5-6).

The above quotes are found in chapter two of The Case for Traditional Protestantism by Terry Johnson.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Dear Devil, Go Eat the Dung (Luther)

In 1532 Martin Luther preached a sermon at the funeral of Duke John of Saxony.  He preached on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.  It’s a good sermon in many ways.  One helpful part of this sermon is where Luther explained how Satan, the accuser, uses the law in a crafty way.  He first tells us that we have to be good and keep the law, but then he reminds us that we haven’t kept the law.  “And with that thought he brings one into such anxiety that one is ready to despair.”  Luther continues:

And again when occasionally I have done something good, Satan is nevertheless able to turn it around in such a way that my holiness is reduced to nothingness. Then I make haste to seize hold of the article of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for my sins [I Cor. 15:31]; and this is precisely what Satan does not want to let into my heart. But what does go into the heart is that I have done this and not done that, that I have given alms, been good, etc., just as I can say of our beloved prince that he had a faithful heart, devoid of malice and envy.

In other words, if Satan can’t get us to despair about our many sins, he tries to get us to be proud of our obedience.  Again, Luther:

But by all means take care not to let anybody persuade you of this on your deathbed; for then the devil is not far away; he can throw in your face a little sin which reduces all such fine virtues to nothing, so that finally you come to such a pass that you say: Devil, rage as much as you please, I do not boast of my good works and virtues before our Lord God at all, nor shall I despair on account of my sins, but I comfort myself with the fact that Jesus Christ died and rose again, as the text here says.

Lo, when I believe this with my whole heart, then I have the greatest treasure, namely, the death of Christ and the power which it has wrought, and I am more concerned with that than with what I have done. Therefore, devil, begone with both my righteousness and my sin. If I have committed some sin, go eat the dung; it’s yours. I’m not worrying about it, for Jesus Christ died. St. Paul bids me comfort myself with this, that I may learn to defend myself from the devil and say: Even though I have sinned, it doesn’t matter; I will not argue with you about what evil or good I have done. There is no time to talk of that now; go away and do it some other time when I have been a bad boy, or go to the impenitent and scare them all you please. But with me, who have already been through the anguish and throes of death, you’ll find no place now. This is not the time for arguing, but for comforting myself with the words that Jesus Christ died and rose for me. Thus I am sure that God will bring me, along with other Christians, with Christ to his right hand and carry me through death and hell.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 51, p. 241.

Shane Lems

Why Does God Make Us Wait?

Quite often waiting is very difficult.  In our instant culture, most of the time we don’t even like waiting one week for a package to come in the mail; we get impatient if our internet is a tiny bit slower than usual or if our data connection isn’t lightning fast.  Waiting can be frustrating!

When it comes to the Christian faith there is a lot of waiting involved.  God’s people are already justified, but not yet fully sanctified.  We have been saved, but we don’t yet have full and complete deliverance.  We have the promise of eternal life but don’t yet experience it.  God promised that he will glorify all of his people, but that’s something for which we still wait.  Christ will come again to make all things new, but we don’t know when.  Therefore we wait and pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!”  Sometimes in the Christian life, waiting is hard and we get impatient.  We even ask: “Why does God make us wait so long?”

William Gurnall answered this question with another question:

Why does God make any promise at all to his creatures?  This may well be asked, considering that God is free from owing any kindness to his creatures; till, by the mere good pleasure of his will he put himself into covenant bonds, and made himself, by his promise, a debtor to his elect.  This shows that the former question is flippant and over-bold, as if some great rich man should make a poor beggar that is a stranger to him his heir, and when he tells him this, the poor man asks, ‘But why should I wait so long for it?’

Truly, any time is too soon for him to receive a mercy from God that thinks God’s time in sending it is too late.

Gurnall goes on to say that impatience in waiting for God’s promises to come true arises from our selfishness since we prefer our own contentment and satisfaction before God’s glory.  Impatience also arises from ingratitude and forgetfulness (Ps. 106.13).

To combat spiritual impatience, we need to pray for more hope and patience.  Here’s Gurnall again:

“Patience is the back on which the Christian’s burdens are carried, and hope is the pillow between the back and the burden, to make it sit easy.”

God wasn’t obligated to make any good promises to sinners like us.  But in his sovereign and free mercy, he did promise salvation and all the blessings that go with it. Therefore, it’s fitting and right to be patient and to say that his timing is best.  And we put on “the hope of salvation as a helmet,” knowing he will keep his promise (1 Thes. 5:8)!  “And this is what he promised us – eternal life” (1 John 2:25 NIV).

The above-edited quote by William Gurnall is found in volume 2 of The Christian in Complete Armor, p. 151-2.

Shane Lems