What Does “The Empty Hand of Faith” Mean? (Boston)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston (12 vols.)You may have heard someone talk about coming to Christ with an empty hand of faith.  What does this mean?  This phrase has a historical background.  In the 17th century, some Christian teachers were saying in order to be forgiven and justified a sinner needs to have repentance.  [Repentance in this context has a broad meaning which includes hating sin, turning to God, and endeavoring unto new obedience (see WLC 76 or HC 88-90)].  For example, Richard Baxter taught that a person must be forsaking sin and following Christ to be pardoned and justified.  This led some Reformed preachers to say that Baxter was setting up a new covenant of works!

I appreciate how Thomas Boston discussed this topic.  Here are some things he said in a treatise on this topic:

“I conceive that such doctrine is injurious to the grace of God, and doth much darken the free pardon offered in the gospel, in regard the pardon is promised immediately to those that believe (Acts 10:43 ‘Through his name, whosoever believes in him shall receive remission of sins’).

Boston noted that if someone does need to be forsaking sin and following Jesus to obtain forgiveness, it would be like earning forgiveness.  Boston quotes Preston favorably: “It is a fault to think that God’s pardons are not free and that you must bring something in your hand.”

Upon the whole we may see that the gospel teaches us to come empty-handed to the market of free grace for remission of sins and God’s favor.  But he does not come empty-handed who brings repentance along with him.  If any shall say we screw up matters so high in this point that we must also cast away faith as well as repentance for obtaining pardon, as if faith is something we bring to attain pardon, I say this:

For the safety of God’s grace, let the ‘work-faith’ and the ‘inherent-quality-faith’ go, and be made to stand back, while the sinner stands before God’s tribunal to be justified – that the empty-handed, ‘taking-faith’ may alone have place.  Hasn’t the Lord made pardon to be only of faith, that it might be of grace, while faith comes with an empty hand and receives all?

Boston then said that in this matter there’s a big difference between faith and repentance (conversion/living a new life), for one receives (faith) and the other gives (repentance).  In fact, Boston exhorted readers not to turn the covenant of grace into a “bastard covenant of works” by saying we have to bring something when we come to Jesus to obtain his favor.

So what does “the empty hand of faith” mean?  It means coming to Christ empty-handed simply to receive the free, gracious gift of full forgiveness.  When we come to Jesus for pardon and justification, we don’t need to bring Him anything in exchange; we don’t need to clean up our act, put nice clothes on, or do a few good deeds so He notices us.  We come like a beggar would come before a king with nothing but an open hand to receive a gift from the king.  And as the Bible teaches, this King blesses beggars who come with an empty hand of faith!

The above-edited quotes are found in Thomas Boston, Works, Volume 6, p. 87ff

Shane Lems

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Various Ways to Faith

I’ve often heard it said that though there is only one way to the Father – through Jesus – there are many ways to Jesus.  In other words, there are various ways people come to faith in Christ.  Therefore, we should never make our experience of coming to Christ a paradigm for others when they come to Christ.  Nor should we rigidly follow others when they make their experience of coming to Christ a paradigm.  The stories in Scripture prove that conversion experiences are quite different!

Now, it does sometimes happen in Christian circles, when a preacher talks about his feelings and experience of coming to Christ and he makes it sound like you must have the same feelings and experience or you might not be a true Christian.  This kind of emotional preaching can leave Christians depressed since they don’t share the same feelings and experiences as the preacher does.  I’ve even had it myself years ago when listening to a popular preacher share his Christian feelings; mine didn’t match, so I wasn’t sure what to do with that.  Thanks to  John Newton I have a better idea about it now:

“It would be well if both preachers and people would keep more closely to what the Scripture teaches of the nature, marks, and growth of a work of grace instead of following each other in a track (like sheep) confining the Holy Spirit to a system, imposing at first the experience and sentiments of others as a rule to themselves, and afterward dogmatically laying down the path in which they themselves have been led, as absolutely necessary to be trodden by others.”

“There is a vast variety of the methods by which the Lord brings home souls to himself, in which he considers (though system-preachers do not) the different circumstances, situations, temperament, etc. of different persons.  To lay down rules precisely to which all must conform, and to treat all enquiring souls in the same way, is as wrong as it would be in a physician to attempt to cure all his patients who may have the same general disorder (a fever for instance) with one and the same prescription.  A skilful man would probably find so many differences in their cases, that he would not treat any two of them exactly alike.”

These are wise words.  If you don’t have the exact same emotions, feelings, and experiences as others in coming to Christ (and following him), don’t doubt your faith and repentance.  Don’t try to get the same emotions, feelings, and experiences of others, even if they are of a popular preacher.  Here’s Newton’s advice:

“I hope the Lord has made me willing to learn (if I can) from all, but ‘Nullius in verba jurare’ is my motto (take no one’s word as final; examine for yourself).  If you read Scripture and your own heart attentively, you will have greatly the advantage of those who puzzle themselves by too closely copying the rules they find in other books.”

John Newton, Wise Counsel, p. 120-121.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Do Not Sleep Another Night Without It! (McCheyne)

While reading several of Robert Murray McCheyne’s letters this morning, I came across one he wrote to a stranger in 1840.  McCheyne’s friend told him of a man he knew that might benefit from an evangelistic letter.  So McCheyne sent a letter since he wasn’t able to visit the stranger in person.  Here’s a very encouraging excerpt from the letter:

“Look at Romans 5:19.  By the sin of Adam, many were made sinners.  We had no hand in Adam’s sin, and yet the guilt of it comes upon us.  We did not put out our hand to the apple, and yet the sin and misery have been laid at our door.  In the same way, ‘by the obedience of Christ, many are made righteous.’  Christ is the glorious One who stood for many.  His perfect garment is sufficient to cover you.  You had no hand in his obedience.   You were not alive when He came into the world and lived and died; and yet, in the perfect obedience, you may stand before God [as] righteous.”

“This is all my covering in the sight of a holy God.  I feel infinitely ungodly in myself: in God’s eye, like a serpent or a toad; and yet, when I stand in Christ alone, I feel that God sees no sin in me, and loves me freely.  The same righteousness is free to you.  It will be as white and clean on your soul as on mine.  Oh, do not sleep another night without it!  Only consent to stand in Christ, not in your poor self.”

R. M. McCheyne, Memiors, ed. Andrew Bonar (Chicago: Moody Press, 1951), 93.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Not Giving Up On A Sinner (Spencer)

Sometime around the middle of the 19th century, a woman spoke to Rev. Ichabod Spencer about the things of the Christian faith.  After the discussion, the woman was interested in becoming a Christian.  Spencer met with her many times over the next two years.  Over and over Spencer told her about sin, repentance, faith in Christ, and what it means to be a disciple.  Over and over he showed her the verses about these truths.

For reasons only God knows, she was very slow to believe.  She just couldn’t quite commit.  Spencer had talked to her so many times he became weary of talking to her; he even was tempted to tell her, “I’ve said everything that needs to be said.  Don’t see me anymore.”  It got to the point where he was annoyed when he saw her coming to talk, which made him feel guilty about it.  He never did turn her away simply because he knew the agony she was in.  Spencer noted that he had never spent so much time talking to an unbeliever about the faith.  To make a long two-year story short, by God’s grace the woman finally did come to faith, as did her husband, her sister, and some of her friends.  After telling this story, Spencer wrote this:

“Ministers ought never to despair of the salvation of any sinner.  To despair of any one is just the way to make him despair of himself.  Many have been ruined in this way, probably.  We ought to expect sinners to repent – and treat them accordingly.  Who shall limit the Holy One of Israel?  It took me long to learn the lesson, but I have learned never to give up a sinner.  We must urge the duty of an immediate faith and repentance, as the Bible does so continually; but we must be careful to enjoin this duty in such a manner that, if it is not immediately done, the individual shall not be led or left to cease seeking God.  Many a sinner turns back, when just at the door of heaven.”

Ichabod Spencer, A Pastor’s Sketches, II.III.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Definite Atonement and The Free Offer of the Gospel

Sometimes people wrongly think that the doctrine of limited/definite atonement means we can’t preach the gospel to all people because we don’t know if Christ died for them or not.  In hyper-calvinistic circles this might show up from time to time.  However, in solid Reformed theology, we don’t focus on God’s hidden decree and will, but his revealed decree and will.  God’s revealed will (Scripture) tells us that Jesus died for sinners, and that whoever repents and believes in him will be saved.  While we don’t look people in the eye and say, “Jesus died for you, believe in him and be saved,” we do look them in the eye and say, “Jesus died for sinners, believe in him, and be saved!”

Louis Berkhof talks about this well in his book Vicarious Atonement Through Christ.  In the paragraphs below, Berkhof quotes William Cunningham.  It’s quite helpful:

It is very evident that our conduct, in preaching the gospel, and in addressing our fellow men with a view to their salvation, should not be regulated by any inferences of our own about the nature, extent, and sufficiency of the provision actually made for saving them, but solely by the directions and instructions which God has given us, by precept and example, to guide us in the matter — unless, indeed, we venture to act upon the principle of refusing to obey God’s commands until we fully understand all the grounds and reasons of them. God has commanded the gospel to be preached to every creature; He has required us to proclaim to our fellow men, of whatever character, and in all varieties of circumstances, the glad tidings of great joy — to hold out to them, in His name, pardon and acceptance through the blood of the atonement — to invite them to come to Christ, and to receive Him — and to accompany all this with the assurance that ‘whosoever cometh to Him, He will in no wise cast out.’

God’s revealed will is the only rule, and ought to be held to be the sufficient warrant for all that we do in this matter — in deciding what is our duty —in making known to our fellow man what are their privileges and obligations — and in setting before them reasons and motives for improving the one and discharging the other. And though this revelation does not warrant us in telling them that Christ died for all and each of the human race — a mode of preaching the gospel never adopted by our Lord and His apostles — yet it does authorize and enable us to lay before men views and considerations, facts and arguments, which, in right reason, should warrant and persuade all to whom they are addressed, to lay hold of the hope set before them….

William Cunningham, quoted in Louis Berkhof, Vicarious Atonement through Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1936), 173–174.

shane lems

Receiving Christ?

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms Once upon a time, in a Reformed church, a visiting pastor used the phrase “receive Christ” in a sermon.  Some people afterwards said the man was Arminian because he used the phrase in a positive way.  On a similar note, I’ve heard Calvinists explain that we can’t use the term “accept Jesus” because it’s an Arminian phrase.

Now, I’m not an Arminian, but I think it is perfectly fine to use those phrases in the right context.  We can affirm total depravity, bondage of the will, irresistible grace, and also use the above phrases (accept/receive Christ) in a biblical and Reformed way.  Scripture doesn’t use those exact phrases, but it does use that kind of language.

For example, God’s people are called to “accept” the words of God’s wisdom and instruction as well as his discipline (Prov. 4:10, 19:20, Zeph. 3:7).  Jesus says that those who “accept” the word will bear fruit (Mk 4:20).  Unbelievers do not “accept” the things of God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14).  This is why the Westminster Confession says that the principle acts of saving faith include “accepting” Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life (WCF 14.2).  Used in the correct Biblical and confessional way, it isn’t Arminian to talk about accepting Christ and his benefits.

What about receiving Christ?  The Westminster Confession also says that a principle act of saving faith includes “receiving” Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life (WCF 14.2).  The Confession gets this language from Scripture.  For example, in John 1:11-12 we learn that some people did not “receive” Christ, but those who did “receive” him (that is, who believed in his name), he gave the right to become God’s children.  James talks about “receiving” the word with meekness (James 1:21).  Abraham “received” God’s promises (Heb. 11) and the Thessalonian Christians “received” the word as God’s word, not man’s (1 Thes. 2:13; cf. 1:6).  Paul said that just as we have “received” Christ Jesus the Lord, we should also walk in him (Col. 2:6).

In summary, while the above phrases might sometimes be used in an Arminian way that emphasizes free will and rejects the bondage of sin and irresistible grace, it is also possible to use these phrases in a biblical and Reformed way – those terms are confessional!  We don’t want to reject Arminianism to the extent that we go too far the other way into hyper-Calvnism!  Again, here’s the section of the Westminster Confession I quoted above:

“The principle acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”  WCF 14.2

shane lems
hammond, wi

Point of Contact

He is There and He is Not Silent Here’s a note from Francis Schaeffer on the point of contact between Christians and non-Christians:

“As a Christian approaches the non-Christian, he still has a starting place from which to know the person in a way that the non-Christian does not have, because he knows who the person is.  One of the most brilliant men I have ever worked with sat in my room in Switzerland crying, simply because he had been a real humanist and existentialist.  He had gone from his home in a South American country to Paris, because this was the center of all this great humanistic thought.  But he found it was so ugly.  The professors cared nothing.  It was inhuman in its humanism.  He was ready to commit suicide when he came to us.  He said, ‘How do you love me, how do you start?’  I said I could start.  ‘I know who you are,’ I told him, ‘because you are made in the image of God.’  We went on from there.”

“Even with a non-Christian, the Christian has some way to begin: to go from the façade of the outward to the reality of the inward, because no matter what a man says he is, we know who he really is.  He is made in the image of God; that’s who he is.  And we know that down there somewhere – no matter how wooden he is on the outside, or how much he has died on the outside, no matter if he believes he is only a machine – we know that beyond that façade there is the person who is a verbalizer and who loves and wants to be loved.  And no matter how often he says he is amoral, in reality he has moral motions.  We know that because he has been made in the image of God.  Hence, even with a non-Christian, the Christian has a way to start, from the outside to the inside, in a way that non-Christians simply do not have” (p. 82-3).

Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent.

shane lems