Imitating Christ: Good, but not Gospel

God’s people should seek to be like Christ.  As Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, NIV).  But our imitating Christ is not the gospel.  J. G. Machen explained this well:

“It seems never to have occurred to the adherents of this religion [an imitation of Jesus religion] that there is such a thing as sin, and that sin places an awful gulf between man and God.  But those convictions, though they are unpopular at the present time, are certainly quite central in the Christian religion.  From the beginning Christianity was the religion of the broken heart; it is based upon the conviction that there is an awful gulf between man and God which none but God can bridge.  The Bible tells us how this gulf was bridged; and that means the Bible is a record of facts.”

Of what avail, without the redeeming acts of God, are all the lofty ideals of Psalmists and Prophets, all the teaching and example of Jesus?  In themselves they can bring us nothing but despair.  We Christians are not interested merely in what God commands, but also in what God did; in a triumphant indicative; our salvation depends squarely upon history; the Bible contains that history, and unless that history is true the authority of the Bible is gone and we who have put our trust in the Bible are without hope”  (J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ [New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1932], 385).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Hypercalvinism, Election, and Godliness (Zanchi)

The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 5 Hypercalvinism is a serious distortion of the gospel and the grace of God.  In hypercalvinist circles you’ll hear sermons on election and reprobation, but you’ll rarely hear calls to faith and repentance.  Hypercalvinists don’t want to sound Arminian so they usually don’t use terms like “receive Christ” or “flee to Jesus.”  Hypercalvinism shows up in practice too: if someone is elect, no need to worry about how he or she lives, speaks, or acts.  He’s elect, all is well – we need not be too concerned if he sleeps through sermons, swears like a sailor, or drinks too much on days that end with “y”.  So goes unbiblical the hypercalvinist logic.

Biblical preaching, however, not only explains election and reprobation, it also calls people (including professing believers) to repentance and faith.  Biblical, Calvinistic preachers are not afraid to use terms like “receive Christ,” and “flee to Jesus; come to the Lord!” True Calvinists bow to Scripture and admonish professing believers who are not living according to Scripture.  In fact, in Reformed theology, we teach that the doctrine of election leads to godly – not godless – living (see WCF 3.6, 8).  G. Zanchi, a 16th century Protestant Reformer, said one argument (among others) for the preaching of predestination is this:

..Namely, that, by it, we may be excited to the practice of universal godliness. The knowledge of God’s love to you, will make you an ardent lover of God: and, the more love you have to God, the more will you excel in all the duties and offices of love. Add to this, that the scripture view of predestination includes the means, as well as the end. Christian predestinarians are for keeping together what God hath joined. He who is for attaining the end, without going to it through the means, is a self-deluding enthusiast. He, on the other hand, who carefully and conscientiously, uses the means of salvation, as steps to the end, is the true Calvinist.

Now, eternal life being that, to which the elect are ultimately destined; faith (the effect of saving grace), and sanctification (the effect of faith), are blessings, to which the elect are intermediately appointed.  “According as he hath chosen us in him, before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” (Eph. 1:4). “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).  “Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God – Ye became followers of us and of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:4, 6).  “God hath chosen you to salvation, through sanctification of the spirit and belief of the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13).  “Elect, according to the foreknowledge [or, ancient love] of God the Father, through sanctification of the spirit, unto obedience” (1 Pet. 1:2).

I appreciate Zanchi’s words and Scripture quotes: the biblical view of predestination includes the means as well as the end.  Election and godly living go hand in hand.  God has lovingly and graciously chosen his people not so they can live however they selfishly see fit, but so that they love him and obey him.  Obedience to God is one fruit of election.

The above quotation is taken from Augustus Toplady’s translation of G. Zanchi’s The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination found on p. 294 of volume 5 of Toplady’s Works.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

God Crowns Grace with Grace (Sibbes)

Josiah's Reformation I’m finally reading Richard Sibbes’ Josiah’s Reformation – a book which was originally a four-part sermon series on 2 Chronicles 34:26-28.  So far so good!  Today I came across this great paragraph on how God crowns his grace with grace:

God hath set down this order in things, that where there is a broken heart there shall be a freedom from judgment; not that tenderness of heart deserves anything at God’s hand, as the papists gather, but because God hath decreed it so, that where tenderness of heart is, there mercy shall follow; as here there was a tender heart in Josiah, therefore mercy did follow. God’s promises are made conditionally; not that the condition on our part deserves anything at God’s hand, but when God hath given the condition, he gives the thing promised. So that this is an order which God hath set down, that where there is grace, mercy shall follow. For where God intends to do any good, he first works in them a gracious disposition: after which he looks upon his own work as upon a lovely object, and so doth give them other blessings. God crowns grace with grace.

(As a side, I noticed that the WTS bookstore is kicking off the new look of their website with a $5 coupon and free shipping.  Use this promo code at checkout: WTSNEW.  Hurry, because I doubt it will last long!)

The above quote is found in Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 6 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 31.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Three Uses of the Law (Luther’s Catechism)

Luther's Small Catechism (with Scripture explanation) Here’s a great Reformation treatment on the purposes (or uses) of God’s law.

“What purposes does the Law then serve?”

First, the Law helps to control violent outbursts of sin and keeps order in the world (a curb).

Second, the Law accuses us and shows us our sin (a mirror).

Third, the Law teaches us Christians what we should and should not do to live a God-pleasing life (a guide).  The power to live according to the Law comes from the Gospel.”

That’s worth committing to memory: the law is a curb, a mirror, and a guide for the Christian to follow by the power of the gospel.  Even young children can understand that!

This Q/A can be found in Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1991).  As I’ve mentioned here before, this is a sweet little hardcover book that goes through the basics of the Lutheran side of Reformation theology. Even though I disagree with some aspects of Lutheran theology, this book is a great one to own and read.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Balaam: Wizard or Prophet?

Numbers 22-24 contains a very interesting part of Israel’s history right before they entered the Promised Land.  In these chapters, we learn about Balaam and his talking donkey (she-ass).  Opinions about Balaam vary; some say he was God’s prophet who stumbled, others say he was a wizard or seer of some sort.  Which is it?  I appreciate Keil and Delitzsch’s (K&D) perspective:

This double-sidedness and ambiguity of the religious and prophetic character of Balaam may be explained on the supposition that, being endowed with a predisposition to divination and prophecy, he practised soothsaying and divination as a trade; and for the purpose of bringing this art to the greatest possible perfection, brought not only the traditions of the different nations, but all the phenomena of his own times, within the range of his observations. In this way he may have derived the first elements of the true knowledge of God from different echoes of the tradition of the primeval age, which was then not quite extinct, and may possibly have heard in his own native land some notes of the patriarchal revelations out of the home of the tribe-fathers of Israel.

K&D go on to say that Balaam had also heard about Yahweh from Israel’s overwhelming defeat of Sihon and Og, which happened right before Balak asked Balaam to curse Israel.  K&D continue:

[Through knowing this about Israel and Yahweh], Balaam was no doubt induced not only to procure more exact information concerning the events themselves, that he might make a profitable use of it in connection with his own occupation, but also to dedicate himself to the service of Jehovah, “in the hope of being able to participate in the new powers conferred upon the human race; so that henceforth he called Jehovah his God, and appeared as a prophet in His name” (Hengstenberg). In this respect Balaam resembles the Jewish exorcists, who cast out demons in the name of Jesus without following Christ (Mark 9:38, 39; Luke 9:49), but more especially Simon Magus, his “New Testament antitype,” who was also so powerfully attracted by the new divine powers of Christianity that he became a believer, and submitted to baptism, because he saw the signs and great miracles that were done (Acts 8:13).

And from the very time when Balaam sought Jehovah, the fame of his prophetical art appears to have spread. It was no doubt the report that he stood in close connection with the God of Israel, which induced Balak, according to Num. 22:6, to hire him to oppose the Israelites; as the heathen king shared the belief, which was common to all the heathen, that Balaam was able to work upon the God he served, and to determine and regulate His will. God had probably given to the soothsayer a few isolated but memorable glimpses of the unseen, to prepare him for the service of His kingdom. But “Balaam’s heart was not right with God,” and “he loved the wages of unrighteousness” (Acts 8:21; 2 Pet. 2:15). His thirst for honor and wealth was not so overcome by the revelations of the true God, that he could bring himself to give up his soothsaying, and serve the living God with an undivided heart.

Thus it came to pass, that through the appeal addressed to him by Balak, he was brought into a situation in which, although he did not venture to attempt anything in opposition to the will of Jehovah, his heart was never thoroughly changed; so that, whilst he refused the honours and rewards that were promised him by Balak, and pronounced blessings upon Israel in the strength of the Spirit of God that came upon him, he was overcome immediately afterwards by the might of the sin of his own unbroken heart, fell back into the old heathen spirit, and advised the Midianites to entice the Israelites to join in the licentious worship of Baal Peor (Num. 31:16), and was eventually put to death by the Israelites when they conquered these their foes (Num. 31:8).  Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 761–762.

In my view, this is a helpful perspective on Balaam; to compare him to the NT Jewish exorcists or Simon Magus makes a lot of sense.  This story also shows the sovereignty of God in using people like Balaam to accomplish His good purposes for His people.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

A Treasury of Quotes (Blanchard)

I don’t have many books of quotations, but one that I do have and use from time to time is Gathered Gold compiled by John Blanchard.  Many of the quotes in this book are from various Puritans (Thomas Watson, Thomas Brooks, Matthew Henry, etc.) or other Reformed leaders (B. B. Warfield, John Calvin, etc.), but there are also quotes from various other Christian teachers and preachers (such as John Wesley and C. S. Lewis).  To be fair, some quotes aren’t as helpful as others, but there are many great ones in this book.  Here are a few examples:

“Assurance makes heavy afflictions light, long afflictions short, bitter afflictions sweet.”  Thomas Brooks

“The Lord does not shine upon us, except when we take his Word as our light.”  John Calvin

“Orthodoxy of words is blasphemy unless it is backed up by superiority of character.” Blaise Pascal

“God chooses us, not because we believe, but that we may believe.” Augustine

“When we become too glib in prayer we are almost certainly talking to ourselves.” A. W. Tozer

“My future is as bright as the promises of God.” Adoniram Judson.

This book is around 350 pages and contains a subject index in the back.  Like other books of quotations, Gathered Gold covers topics such as prayer, love, trials, despair, marriage, purpose, and so forth.  Again, it is sometimes hit or miss, but I’d say it is worth getting, especially if you can find a good deal on a used copy.

John Blanchard, Gathered Gold: A Treasury of Quotations for Christians (England: Evangelical Press, 1984).

Shane Lems


God Behind The Curtains (Calvin)

God is able to make grass grow without sun and rain. He is able to heal without the hand of a doctor. It is possible for him to keep his people nourished without food or drink. However, in his providence, God has chosen to use means and instruments to accomplish his purposes. Rain and sun help make the grass grow, doctors and medicine play a key part in people’s health, and food keeps us nourished.  These things are called “secondary causes.”  Like the Westminster Confession V.3 says, “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means” (Is. 55:10-11). John Calvin stated this well:

When I spoke of the Providence of God being viewed with its mediums, my meaning was this: If anyone shall have assisted his fellow-man when sunk under an extremity of distress, the deliverance rendered by the hand of man is not a human, but a Divine deliverance. The sun rises day by day; but it is God that enlightens the earth by [its] rays. The earth brings forth her fruits; but it is God that giveth bread, and it is God that giveth strength by the nourishment of that bread. In a word, as all inferior and secondary causes, viewed in themselves, veil like so many curtains the glorious God from our sight (which they too frequently do),the eye of faith must be cast up far higher, that it may behold the hand of God working by all these His instruments.

But in what manner the Providence of God can work, without any medium or instrument at all, Christ taught us by His own example, when He repelled the assaulting Tempter with this shield: “Man doth not live by bread only: but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God doth man live” (Matt. 4:4). For as the Redeemer knew that the power of God needed no external support whatever, so He knew that He could supply that strength without bread, which He is nevertheless mercifully pleased to supply by means of bread.

John Calvin and Henry Cole, Calvin’s Calvinism: A Defence of the Secret Providence of God (Wertheim and Macintosh, 1857), 11–12.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI