Inquiring after the Weeds (Owen)

The Works of John Owen (24 vols.) I appreciate this section in John Owen’s “Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers”:

There are two things that are suited to humble the souls of men, and they are, first, a due consideration of God, and then of themselves; of God, in his greatness, glory, holiness, power, majesty, and authority; of ourselves, in our mean, abject, and sinful condition. Now, of all things in our condition, there is nothing so suited unto this end and purpose as that which lies before us; namely, the vile remainders of enmity against God which are yet in our hearts and natures.

And it is no small evidence of a gracious soul when it is willing to search itself in this matter, and to be helped therein from a word of truth; when it is willing that the word should dive into the secret parts of the heart, and rip open whatever of evil and corruption lies therein. The prophet says of Ephraim, Hos. 10:11, “He loved to tread out the corn” he loved to work when he might eat, to have always the corn before him: but God, says he, would “cause him to plough;” a labor no less needful, though at present not so delightful. Most men love to hear of the doctrine of grace, of the pardon of sin, of free love, and suppose they find food therein; however, it is evident that they grow and thrive in the life and notion of them. But to be breaking up the fallow ground of their hearts, to be inquiring after the weeds and briers that grow in them, they delight not so much, though this be no less necessary than the other.

This path is not so beaten as that of grace, nor so trod in, though it be the only way to come to a true knowledge of grace itself. It may be some, who are wise and grown in other truths, may yet be so little skilled in searching their own hearts, that they may be slow in the perception and understanding of these things. But this sloth and neglect is to be shaken off, if we have any regard unto our own souls

 Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 6, pp. 200–201). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

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

Advertisements

The Bible and the Doctrine of Sin (Hodge)

The Way of Life by [Hodge, Charles] If you read Scripture and take it seriously, you cannot get around what it teaches about the sinfulness of man.  Here’s how Charles Hodge explained it:

[The doctrine of sin] is not a doctrine taught in isolated passages. It is one of those fundamental truths which are taken for granted in almost every page of the Bible. The whole scheme of redemption supposes that man is a fallen being. Christ came to seek and to save the lost. He was announced as the Savior of sinners. His advent and work have no meaning or value but upon the assumption that we are guilty, for he came to save his people from their sins; to die the just for the unjust; to bear our sins in his own body on the tree. Those who have no sin, need no Savior; those who do not deserve death, need no Redeemer. As the doctrine of redemption pervades the Scripture, so does the doctrine of the universal sinfulness of men.

This doctrine is also assumed in all the Scriptural representations of what is necessary for admission into heaven. All men, everywhere, are commanded to repent. But repentance supposes sin. Every man must be born again, in order to see the kingdom of God; he must become a new creature; he must be renewed after the image of God. Being dead in trespasses and in sins, he must be quickened, or made partaker of a spiritual life. In short it is the uniform doctrine of the Bible, that all men need both pardon and sanctification in order to their admission to heaven. It therefore teaches that all men are sinners.

This quote is found in Hodge’s The Way of Life, chapter two.  (And, if you’re interested, it’s only $0.99 right now on Kindle!!)

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

Sexuality and Nature in Romans 1:26-27 (Stott)

 Romans 1:26-27 is a very deep text that talks about the darkness and destructiveness of depravity.  In the context of these verses, Paul is discussing how the rejection of God leads to all sorts of misery.  For example, rejecting God affects the mind and morals in very bad ways (v 18, 21).  Rejection of God necessarily leads to idolatry (v 23, 25).  Rejection of God can also result in God giving a person over to his or her sins – judicially withdrawing his restraint and letting them have the depraved lusts of their hearts (v 24).  Rejecting God has many dire and dark consequences: sometimes God punishes sin with sin.

Back to Romans 1:26-27.  In these verses Paul says that one result of God giving a person over to his or her sinful lusts is that they exchange natural sexual relations with unnatural ones: men lust after men and women lust after women.  John Stott has some helpful comments on these verses:

Verses 26–27 are a crucial text in the contemporary debate about homosexuality. The traditional interpretation, that they describe and condemn all homosexual behaviour, is being challenged by the gay lobby. Three arguments are advanced. First, it is claimed that the passage is irrelevant, on the ground that its purpose is neither to teach sexual ethics, nor to expose vice, but rather to portray the outworking of God’s wrath. This is true. But if a certain sexual conduct is to be seen as the consequence of God’s wrath, it must be displeasing to him. Secondly, ‘the likelihood is that Paul is thinking only about pederasty’ since ‘there was no other form of male homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world’, and that he is opposing it because of the humiliation and exploitation experienced by the youths involved. All one can say in response to this suggestion is that the text itself contains no hint of it.

Thirdly, there is the question what Paul meant by ‘nature’. Some homosexual people are urging that their relationships cannot be described as ‘unnatural’, since they are perfectly natural to them. John Boswell has written, for example, that ‘the persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual people’.  Hence Paul’s statement that they ‘abandoned’ natural relations, and ‘exchanged’ them for unnatural (26–27). Richard Hays has written a thorough exegetical rebuttal of this interpretation of Romans 1, however. He provides ample contemporary evidence that the opposition of ‘natural’ (kata physin) and ‘unnatural’ (para physin) was ‘very frequently used … as a way of distinguishing between heterosexual and homosexual behaviour’. Besides, differentiating between sexual orientation and sexual practice is a modern concept; ‘to suggest that Paul intends to condemn homosexual acts only when they are committed by persons who are constitutionally heterosexual is to introduce a distinction entirely foreign to Paul’s thought-world’, in fact a complete anachronism.

So then, we have no liberty to interpret the noun ‘nature’ as meaning ‘my’ nature, or the adjective ‘natural’ as meaning ‘what seems natural to me’. On the contrary, physis (‘natural’) means God’s created order. To act ‘against nature’ means to violate the order which God has established, whereas to act ‘according to nature’ means to behave ‘in accordance with the intention of the Creator’. Moreover, the intention of the Creator means his original intention. What this was Genesis tells us and Jesus confirmed: ‘At the beginning the Creator “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one.’ Then Jesus added his personal endorsement and deduction: ‘Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’

In other words, 1) God created humankind male and female; 2) God instituted marriage as a heterosexual union; and 3) what God has thus united, we have no liberty to separate. This threefold action of God established that the only context which he intends for the ‘one flesh’ experience is heterosexual monogamy, and that a homosexual partnership (however loving and committed it may claim to be) is ‘against nature’ and can never be regarded as a legitimate alternative to marriage.

 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 77–78.

Shane Lems
Hammon, WI, 54015

The Workings of our Remaining Sinful Nature

51Wtr7fGObL._SX358_BO1,204,203,200_ Those who have true faith have truly been given new life in Christ.  If a person believes in Christ, he or she has been “born of God” (1 John 5:1).  Regeneration means that someone who was dead in sin is now alive in Christ (Eph. 2:4-5).  However, new birth (regeneration) does not mean that the old sinful nature is completely gone.  True believers still struggle with indwelling sin (Gal. 5:17).  As Luther rightly said, the Christian is a saint and a sinner at the same time.

This means that when we stumble into sin, we can’t simply blame the devil or the world.  The devil can mess with us and the world can entice us, but we sin because we still have the “old man” in us, the “flesh.”  So how does this “old man” function in us?  W. Brakel (d. 1711) explained this well in his discussion on sanctification.  I’ll summarize it below:

  1. Sometimes the old nature stirs us up to sin by violent assaults.  The lusts are so agitated and are stirring so vehemently that there is no time to think upon the fear of God. Even if the fear of the Lord is present, the lust is so strong and forceful that any good inclinations are quickly extinguished.
  2. Sometimes the old nature seeks some rest and relaxation.  He begins to think upon natural things and the lusts of the flesh begin to stir, and the thoughts pertaining to natural things become sinful.  His mind wanders and he lusts, covets, or becomes proud.  He falls into more sin as the moment permits, or even to the degree he never thought himself capable of.
  3. Sometimes the old nature gains strength due to recklessness.  He puts himself into situations he knows will ensnare him, but he does it anyway.  The sin at hand gains the upper hand.  Contact with grease cannot but leave a stain (vetjes maken smetjes).
  4. The old sinful nature also is engaged in keeping us from doing good.  A) He makes us think there is no time to pray, read Scripture, sing, or meditate upon the word.  B) He makes us procrastinate and say we will do godly things later.  C) He makes us believe that doing good is too difficult and impossible to do.  D) He makes us think that doing good is in vain because God is not paying attention and it will not benefit us. E) He makes us compromisers by saying the path is not as narrow as we think.
  5. The old sinful nature also wants to keep us from doing good so he attempts to spoil that which is good.  A) He makes our thoughts wander.  B) He distracts us by making us think about a good thing that isn’t applicable to the situation. C) He causes us to be proud of doing good, and the purity of the duty is contaminated.  D) He causes us to think we do not have the Spirit.  E) His atheism and unbelief surface and it ruins the good with evil.

Why is this important?  For one thing, it helps us as Christians to know ourselves.  We can’t point fingers and blame others for our sinful words, thoughts, and actions (Ps. 51:3-4).  It also keeps us truly humble to know we still have the old man of sin dwelling in us.  It helps us stay near the cross, where we receive continual cleansing from Jesus’ blood.  It makes us constantly confess our sins to God.  It makes us all the more dependent upon the Holy Spirit to give the new man strength in the battle.  It teaches us that God gets all the credit for any good in us or anything good we do in his sight.  Realizing that our old man remains in us also makes us long for heaven, when sanctification will be complete and we will be fully delivered from our remaining sinful flesh.  And the list goes on.  Paul put it this way: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body?  I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:24-25 HCSB).

The above edited and summarized quote is found in volume three of Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, p. 9-11.

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

Electing Love (M’Cheyne)

Sermons of Robert Murray M'Cheyne “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last…” (John 15:16 NIV).

These wonderful words of Jesus are precious to his followers because they display his electing love for them:

“This showed them that his love was first with them – that he had a love for them when they were dead in sins.  And then he showed them that it was love that would make them holy.”

So wrote Robert Murray MCheyne in a sermon he preached in the mid-19th century.  He said this text (John 15:16) tells these three truths:

  1. Men naturally do not choose Christ.  This was true of the apostles; this is true of all that will ever believe to the end of the world.  The natural ear is so deaf that it cannot hear.  The natural eye is so blind that it cannot see Christ.  It is true in one sense that every disciple chooses Christ – but it is when God opens the eye to see him, when God gives strength to the withered arm to embrace him.  Every awakened sinner is willing to embrace Christ, but not til he is made willing.

  2. Christ chooses his own disciples.  Christ looked upon them with a look of divine love and said, ‘I have chosen you.’  Christ chooses his own before they seek him.   One might ask, ‘Why did he choose me?’  I answer, the very reason why  he chose you was the good pleasure of his will.  There is no reason in the creature, the reason is in him who chooses.  ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.’  See Malachi 1:2, Rom. 9:15-16, Eph. 1.

  3. Christ not only chooses who are to be saved, but he chooses the way.  He not only chooses the beginning and the end, he chooses the middle also.  Eph. 1:4, Rom. 8.  Salvation is like a golden chain let down from heaven to earth.  Two links are in the hand of God – election and final salvation.  But some of the links are on earth – conversion, adoption, etc.  Christ never chooses a man to believe, and then makes him leap to glory.  This takes away the teeth out of all the objections raised against this holy doctrine of election.  Some may say, ‘If I am elected, I will be saved, I can live as I like.’  No; if you live an unholy life you will not be saved.  Some may say, ‘If I am not elected, I will not be saved, do as I like.’  Whether you are elected or not, I known not, but this I know: if you believe on Christ you will be saved.

This is an edited summary of a longer sermon by M’Cheyne, found in The Sermons of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, p. 138ff.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Predestination & Reformed Theology (Vos)

VosThe doctrine of election (predestination) is tied tightly to other aspects of Reformed theology.  Geerhardus Vos expresses this well in his Reformed Dogmatics (recently published in English for the first time thanks to Logos and Lexham Press – see here and here).  Vos asks this question (in vol. 1.5.4): “At what points is the doctrine of predestination or election related to the rest of Reformed doctrine as a whole?”  Here’s his answer (summarized):

1) It is a direct consequence of God’s sovereignty, as that has been shaped based on Scripture.  Luther came to predestination from man and his salvation.  Calvin did so from God.  God is everything and the creature is nothing, and the creature, even in its highest importance, remains subordinate to God and must serve him.  Whoever gives up the doctrine of predestination must therefore also drop the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and subsequently falsify biblical teaching at numerous places.

2) The doctrine of human inability after the fall is inseparably connected with predestination, so that one must maintain them both together or drop them both together.  One of the two; it depends on God or it depends on man who will be saved.  If one chooses the first, then one has accepted predestination.

3) Predestination is related to mystical union and the body of Christ.  The elect form a body.  In a body the members must be fitted to each other and are intended for each other.  If this body of Christ originated accidentally by the free-will choice of individual men, then there would be no guarantee that it would become a properly proportioned body.  God must decide in advance how many ought to belong to it, who those many shall be, and when they should be fitted into it.  Predestination is nothing other than the decision of God concerning these matters.

4) Predestination is no less related to the doctrine of the merits of Christ.  Christ earned for us 1) satisfaction of our debt of guilt by his passive obedience, 2) eternal life by his active obedience.  According to Scripture, the Holy Spirit applies the merits of Christ to his people.  If man himself decides by not believing or believing of himself, then faith is a work of man and no longer a fruit of the merits of Christ.  Christ cannot have merited for us what we ourselves provide.  And so it is, not only with faith but with all other parts of this application of salvation.  Denial of predestination includes, so viewed, a denial of the actual merits of the Mediator.

5) Predestination also relates to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  God, by sovereign election, decides both the coming into the state of grace and the preserving of those who have once come into it.

Vos does say a bit more about these points – and they are worth reading for sure!  The full discussion is found in volume 1 of his Reformed Dogmatics.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Lewis Got it Wrong

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed many of C.S. Lewis’ books.  I’m not overly enamored with his work, but his writing is thought-provoking and quite helpful in many areas.  In other areas, however, he’s not so helpful.  One of those areas is the doctrine of sin and depravity.  Here are some quotes from an otherwise decent book, The Problem of Pain.

“The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship (p. 29).”

“This chapter [on human wickedness] will have been misunderstood if anyone describes it as a reinstatement of the doctrine of Total Depravity.  I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature (p. 61).”

I think it is safe to say that Lewis did not rightly understand the doctrine of total depravity.  What he is reacting against is not total depravity, but absolute depravity.  While hyper-Calvinists may teach some form of absolute depravity, the Reformed creeds and confessions do not teach it.  Lewis mixed the two up.  Here’s how the Reformation tradition describes this aspect of total depravity:

“There remain…in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior” (Canons of Dort, III/IV. 3).

“[Through Adam’s sin man] has lost all his excellent gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof…” (Belgic Confession article 14).

In other words, the “total” of total depravity means that sin has spread to the entire person – mind, heart, body, soul.  “Total” doesn’t mean that we’re as sinful as we possibly could be.  Romans 1:18ff is important here.  Total depravity doesn’t mean everyone is absolutely depraved in such a way that they have absolutely no idea what is true and good; it doesn’t mean man has absolutely lost the image of God.  But it does mean that our “total” selves are infected with sin in such a way that we fight against the truth and goodness God has clearly shown us.

C.S. Lewis misunderstood this.  He got it wrong.  He wasn’t really a theologian – much less a Reformed theologian – so we can charitably disagree and use this occasion to remember the right definition of total depravity.

rev shane lems
hammond, wi