The Rich Comfort of Justification by Faith Alone (Bavinck)

I’m so thankful to Jesus for his perfect and complete work to save me from my sin and misery.  I’m so thankful that my justification doesn’t depend upon my feelings, emotions, prayers, devotion, or good works.  Although my Christian life is far from perfect, and although I lament my sin and sporadic coldness in the faith, I have good confidence that I stand righteous before God because of what Christ has done in my place.  The biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone (apart from works) in Christ alone (and nothing else) has truly given me a rock on which to stand and comfortably rest.  Herman Bavinck put this truth well around 100 years ago.

“The benefit of justification through faith alone has in it a rich comfort for the Christian.  The forgiveness of his sins, the hope for the future, the certainty concerning eternal salvation, do not depend upon the degree of holiness which he has achieved in life, but are firmly rooted in the grace of God and in the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.  If these benefits had to derive their certainty from the good works of the Christian they would always, even unto death, remain unsure, for even the holiest of men have only a small beginning of perfect obedience.  Accordingly, the believers would be constantly torn between fear and anxiety, they could never stand in the freedom with which Christ has set them free, and, nevertheless being unable to live without certainty, they would have to take recourse to church and priest, to altar and sacrament, to religious rites and practices.  Such is the condition of thousands of Christians both inside and outside of the Roman church.  They do not understand the glory and the comfort of free justification.”

“But the believer whose eye has been opened to the riches of this benefit, sees the matter differently.  He has come to the humble acknowledgement that good works, whether these consist of emotional excitements, of soul experiences, or of external deeds, can never be the foundation but only the fruit of faith.  His salvation is fixed outside of himself in Christ Jesus and His righteousness, and therefore can never again waver.  His house is built upon the rock, and therefore it can stand the vehemence of the rain, the floods, and the wind.”

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, p. 466.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Regeneration, Christian Graces, and Assurance of Salvation (Gurnall)

When God sovereignly regenerates a sinner, that person is renewed, reborn, made new.  “…If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17 NASB; c.f. Gal. 6:15).  The person then walks in the newness of life (Rom. 6:4).  This doesn’t mean a regenerate person is sinless and perfect, but it does mean that his whole person is made new by God.  William Gurnall put it this way:

“As natural corruption is a universal principle of all sin that sours the whole lump of man’s nature; so sanctifying grace is a universal principle that sweetly seasons and renews the whole man at once, though not completely.  Grace indeed grows by steps, but is born at once.  The new creature has all its parts formed together, though not its degrees.  One grace may, we confess, be perceived to stir and so come to be noticed by the Christian before other graces.”

Gurnall is saying that when God renews and regenerates a person, that person is given true faith, repentance, love, fear of God, evangelical obedience, and so forth.  These things are called “graces.”  Sometimes a Christian sees one of his graces more than another, but it doesn’t mean that other graces aren’t there.  God doesn’t just give someone repentance but not godly fear or true faith.  Gurnall said that some parts of the world have been discovered before other parts of the world, but the whole world has been in existence since God created it.  So it is with Christian graces: God has given them all to all his people, even if we don’t always discover them or notice all these graces at once.

So what?  Why is this important?  Well, as Gurnall noted, knowing this fact gives relief to the Christian when he’s in doubt of his salvation.  Just because a Christian can’t immediately discern godly fear doesn’t mean he should “unsaint” himself.  If you don’t have godly fear but you do have a sincere desire to please him, be assured that God’s grace is at work in you, and in time you’ll notice godly fear.  Or if your faith is seemingly gone but you have a hearty sorrow when you sin against God, don’t despair.  Know that you are a new creation in Christ, and you will again see your faith – it is there!  Here’s Gurnall again:

“As by taking hold of one link you may draw up the rest of the chain that lies under water, so by discovering one grace, you may bring all to sight.  …This holy kindred of graces go ever together, they are knit, as members of the body, one to another.  Though you see only the face of a man, yet you do not doubt that the whole man is there.”

Here’s a good quote to end on:

“Moses would not go out of Egypt with half his company (Ex. 10).  Either all must go or none shall stir.  Neither will the Spirit of God come into a soul with half his sanctifying graces, but with all his train.”

(These slightly modernized and edited quotes are found in the beginning of “Direction Ninth” in Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armor.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

 

Keeping Your Assurance

A Treatise of Effectual Calling and Election If you’re assured of your salvation in Christ; if you know you’re a child of God by grace, how can you stay strong in that assurance and knowledge? Or how can you grow in assurance?  Christopher Love (d. 1651) gave some biblical answers to these questions in a sermon on 2 Peter 1:10: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election” (NIV).  I’ve edited some of them and posted them below:

  1. Keep close to God in the duty of prayer.  Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete (John 16:24).  Jesus’ words imply that if you keep close to God in the duty of prayer, your spirits shall be complete and full.
  2. Keep close to God in the duty of reading the Word often.  By often reading the Word, you will often meet with promises and supports for your comforts.  That is the reason men lessen in comforts, because they  do not frequently read the Word; you cannot read a Chapter, but you will find there a prop for faith, and a prop for assurance. Keeping constant to the Word, that is the way to keep your assurance.  “These things have I written to you that believe, that you might know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). These things have I written, not only that you have life, but that you might know it. By reading the writings of John, John tells them they might better know they shall live for ever, and everlastingly be saved. Keep close to God in reading his written Word, and this will be of great use because there are promises scattered throughout the veins of Scripture. There is almost no Scripture you can read where there isn’t a promise or support for your faith one way or other.
  3. Keep close to God in constant and conscientious hearing of his Word.  This is a great means to get assurance. …Live under the ministry of the Word, and that ministry will give much assurance of your salvation!

In summary, if you want to grow in assurance of salvation, pray for it, read the Word often, and regularly listen to it preached!

The above (edited) quotes are found on pages 191-193 of Christopher Love, A Treatise of Effectual Calling and Election, (Morgan, PA:  Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1998).

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

Definite Atonement and Christian Comfort (Owen)

In Chapter seven of The Death of Death John Owen showed how Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (his “oblation”) is tightly connected with his intercession.  Owen argued that rather than say Jesus died for all and failed in his aim and design, we should agree with Paul, “grounding the assurance of our eternal glory and freedom from all accusations upon the death of Christ, and that because his intercession for us does inseparably and necessarily follow it.”  Owen then quoted Rom. 8:33-34 and wrote,

“Here is an equal extent of the one and the other; those persons who are concerned in the one are all of them concerned in the other.”

In other words, those for whom Jesus died are the same people for whom he intercedes.

A few pages later Owen noted that if a person separates and divides Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (oblation) from his intercession, that person cuts off all comfort the Christian has of assurance that Christ died for him.  Positively speaking,

“The main foundation of all the confidence and assurance whereof in this life we may be made partakers (which amounts to ‘joy unspeakable, and full of glory’) ariseth from this strict connection of the oblation and intercession of Jesus Christ – that by the one he has procured all good things for us, and by the other he will procure them to be actually bestowed, whereby he does never leave our sins, but follows them into every court, until they be fully pardoned and clearly expiated (Heb. 9:26).  He will never leave us until he has saved to the uttermost them that come unto God by him.”

This isn’t theological nitpicking or dry, dusty doctrine that is irrelevant.  To say that Jesus’ death is tightly connected with his intercession echoes biblical truth, glorifies Christ and his saving power, and it gives the Christian firm comfort and assurance that Jesus who died for us will also intercede for us, that our faith will not fail (Lk. 22:32).

The above quotes are found in John Owen’s The Death of Death (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), chapter 7.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WZI

Election and the Feeble Beginnings of Holiness

I just got a copy of Ichabod Spencer’s A Pastor’s SketchesThis book is a collection of spiritual conversations  Rev. Spencer had with the “seekers” of his day.  I haven’t read very many of his “sketches” yet, but one I did read today was quite helpful.  It was about a man who came to Spencer with a serious intellectual resistance to the doctrine of election.  Spencer gave some good counsel in his answer.  I really appreciated the following section (it is a bit lengthy, but stick with it because it’s worth the effort!):

[The third use of the doctrine of election is] to comfort God’s people. The grand trial of a life of religion is a trial of the heart. We have sins, we have weaknesses and temptations, which tend to a dreadful discouragement. Sin easily besets us. We easily wander from God. Holiness is an up-hill work. Our feet often stagger in the path of our pilgrimage, and tears of bitterness gush from our eyes, lest such weak, and tempted, and erring creatures should never reach heaven. Devils tempt us. The world presents its deceitful allurements, and more deceitful and dangerous claims. What shall cheer us when our heart sinks within us? Whither shall we fly for comfort, when our hearts are bleeding, when our sins are so many, when our gain in holiness is so little, when our light goes out, and the gloom of an impenetrable midnight settles down upon our poor and helpless soul?

We cannot, indeed, mount up to the inner sanctuary of God, open the seven-sealed book, and read our names recorded in it by the pen of the Eternal. But we can know that such a book is there; and that the pen of our Father has filled it with his eternal decrees, not one of which shall fail of accomplishment, as surely as his own throne shall stand. And when we find in ourselves, amid our tearful struggles, even the feeble beginnings of holiness, we know that God has commenced his work for us, a work which he planned before the world was; and that he who has ‘begun a good in work in us, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ,’ carrying into effect his eternal plan. Just as well as we know our likeness to God, we know our election to God.

We know that our holiness is his work, a work which he purposed from the beginning. If he had purposed it but just when he began it, if it were a work undertaken from some recent impulse, then we should have good reason to fear that some other impulse would drive him to abandon it. But when we know it from a part of his eternal counsels, and is no sidework, no episode, no interlude, or sudden interposition not before provided for – then we are assured that God is not going to forsake us; and deep as is our home-bred depravity, and many and malignant as are our foes, we are cheered with the assurance, that God will bring us off victorious, and ‘the purpose according to election shall stand.’ We love to see our salvation embraced in the eternal plan of God; and we know it is embraced there, if we are his children by faith in Christ Jesus.

We cannot read his secret counsels; but we can read his spiritual workings in us. We know the counsels by the evidence of the workings; and then we are cheered and encouraged amid our trials, by the idea that God will no more abandon us than he will abandon the eternal plan which his wisdom formed before the foundation of the world. ‘Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?’ He had their names in his book before they had shed a tear, before a devil existed to tempt them.

Ichabod Spencer, A Pastor’s Sketches, p. 238.

Shane Lems

The Christian’s Highest Good

A Sketch of the Christian Catechism (Classic Reformed Theology) In William Ames’ commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, he opens by quoting Psalm 4:6-8, which includes these words: “I will lay down and sleep in peace: because Thou alone, O Jehovah, wilt act so that I will dwell securely.”  He says the Psalmist writes these words so that he may show that his highest good (summum bonum) is located in God’s favor towards him.  Ames goes on to list five lessons we can learn from this text, and from the “comfort” theme of Q/A #1 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  I’ve listed them below (without his comments on each lesson):

1) The highest good ought to be considered and sought above all other things in our entire life.

2) The highest good of people in this life cannot be obtained from [earthly] goods.

3) Our true and highest good consists in the union and communion we have with God.

4) The joy that believers gain from the communion that they have with God overcomes, by its own sweetness, all human delights and happiness.

5) This joy and holy consolation convey a certain security to the consciences of the faithful.

As you may have noticed, this could be a commentary on the first Q/A of the Westminster Shorter Catechism as well!  You’ll have to get the book to see how Ames explains these five lessons in a biblical, edifying, and pastoral manner: William Ames, A Sketch of the Christian Catechism.  I especially appreciate how Ames brings up assurance of salvation in his discussion of our highest good (see #5 above).  Like the Heidelberg Catechism says, “Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life!”

shane lems
hammond, wi

Weak Faith, True Faith!

Heaven on Earth: A Treatise on Christian Assurance (Puritan Paperbacks)  Christians should desire a strong faith in Christ and his promises; it is biblical for God’s people to pray and strive for robust faith in the Lord.  However, our faith is imperfect since we are not yet fully sanctified.  We struggle with doubts, fears, questions, and sometimes we lack assurance.  Thankfully, the Bible doesn’t teach that we need perfectly strong faith in Christ to be justified and saved.  Thankfully, even an imperfect and weak faith saves because it trusts in a perfect and strong Savior.  Thomas Brooks said it this way:

1) A weak faith doth as much justify and as much unite a man to Christ as a strong faith.  It gives a man as much title to and interest in Christ as the strongest faith in the world.  A weak hand may receive a pearl as well as the strong hand of a giant.  Faith is a receiving of Christ (John 1.12).

2) The promises of eternal happiness and blessedness are not made over to the strength of faith, but to the truth of faith; not to the degrees of faith, but the reality of faith.  No man that is saved is saved on account of the strength of his faith, but on account of the truth of his faith.

3) The weakest faith shall grow stronger and stronger.  A weak believer shall go on from faith to faith.  Christ is the finisher as well as the author of our faith (Rom. 1:17; Heb. 12.2).  He that hath begun a good work will perfect it (Phil. 1:6).

4) A little faith is faith, as a spark of fire is fire, a drop of water is water, a little star is a star, a little pearl is a pearl.  Remember this, that the least measure of true faith will bring thee to salvation as well as the greatest measure of faith.  A great faith will yield a man a heaven here, a little faith will yield him a heaven hereafter.

Those are encouraging words that remind us that Jesus saves anyone who believes in him – people like the woman who sneaked up on him to just touch his robe and like the man who said, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief!”  It would be a distortion of the gospel to say that only a strong faith is saving faith.  The truth of the gospel is that because Christ is a strong Savior, even a weak faith saves.

The above quotes (edited and summarized) can be found in Brooks’ Heaven on Earth, 215-216.

shane lems