Every Work Excluded (Colquhoun)

A Treatise on the Law and Gospel by [Colquhoun, John] One of the great themes of the Reformation – and of the Apostle Paul – was that a sinner is justified not by works, but only by faith in Christ.  In other words, a sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone, not by any sort of obedience to the law in any way, shape, or form.  Here’s how John Colquhoun (d. 1827) summarized this point that Paul emphasized in Galatians:

The great design of our Apostle, then, was to draw them [the readers] off from their false views of the law; to direct them to right conceptions of it in its covenant form in which it can admit of no personal obedience as a condition of life, but such as is perfect — and so to destroy their legal hope as well as to confute their wrong notions.

In other words, Paul was telling the Galatian Christians that when a person thinks he can gain salvation from works of the law, he has a false view of the law.  In this way, Paul destroyed their “legal hope” and their “wrong notions” of the law.  Colquohoun continues:

By the reasonings of the apostle upon this subject, it is manifest that every evangelical, as well as every legal, work of ours is excluded from forming even the smallest part of a man’s righteousness for justification in the sight of God. It is evident that even faith itself as a man’s act or work, and so comprised in the works of the law, is thereby excluded from being any part of his justifying righteousness (see the Westminster Confession of Faith XI:I).

When Paul says that all works are excluded, that means we can’t even claim that faith is a sort of work that contributes to our justification.  More:

It is one thing to be justified by faith merely as an instrument by which a man receives the righteousness of Christ, and another to be justified for faith as an act or work of the law. If a sinner, then, relies on his actings of faith or works of obedience to any of the commands of the law for a title to eternal life, he seeks to be justified by the works of the law as much as if his works were perfect.

If he depends, either in whole or in part, on his faith and repentance for a right to any promised blessing, he thereby so annexes [adds] that promise to the commands to believe and repent as to form them for himself into a covenant of works. Building his confidence before God upon his faith, repentance, and other acts of obedience to the law, he places them in Christ’s stead as his grounds of right to the promise; and so he demonstrates himself to be of the works of the law, and so to be under the curse (Galatians 3:10).

Justification by faith alone, as Scripture teaches, means the sinner doesn’t contribute anything towards his justification.  Like the Heidelberg Catechism says,

“It is not because of any value that my faith has that God is pleased with me.  Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me right with God.  And I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone” (Q/A 61).

The above quote is found in John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, p. 19-20.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI


Paul’s Conversion

Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul's Theology of Justification (New Studies in Biblical Theology) In studying Galatians 1:11-24, I came across a some good stuff from two church fathers.  Chrysostom said of Paul’s conversion: “[He] was sobered at the very height of his madness.”  Ambrose, reflecting on how the church in Judea glorified God because of Paul’s conversion, said of v.24, “By these words they ascribe all to divine grace.”  Mark Seifrid also has some helpful reflections on Paul’s conversion in chapter two (though I don’t agree with everything he wrote in the chapter).  Here are some quotes:

“…In this [i.e. his persecution of the church] he obviously regards himself as having been guilty of a fundamental sin.  It is impossible to miss the irony in his final statements in Philippians 3:6.  His zeal was such that he was a ‘persecutor of the church,’ to which he adds, ‘as to the righteousness which is in the law [I was] blameless.’  In looking back on his preconversion life, he sees that the law was capable of providing a righteousness according to human standards, but not before God and in the heart, where he now knows Christ as Savior (Phil. 3:7-8).”

“God’s choice and calling were unconditioned by Paul’s ‘progress in Judaism’ (Gal. 1:14).  From birth God had set him apart, like the prophets before him, prior to any works or worthiness on his part.  His ‘calling’ came by the sheer grace of God.  His coming to faith was a matter of divine revelation in which Paul himself played no role.  It was a ‘birth,’ indeed a premature one (1 Cor. 15:8). …This contrast [in 2 Cor. 4:4-6] which Paul draws between the absolutes of darkness and light, and his interpretation of his conversion as a new creation, make it clear that he regards this change as purely and utterly an act of God.  Paul’s heart was the ‘darkness’ in which the light of the gospel now shines.”

“…Prior to his conversion, Paul fought with heart and soul against the confession of a crucified Messiah.  His rage corresponded to his blindness.  The grace of God came to him like a ‘plumb-line from above’ without any preparation on his part, just as Paul himself indicates in his letters.”

Mark Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness, chapter one.

shane lems

The Sledge Hammer of the Law

  Here is more gold from Luther’s commentary on Galatians (specifically 3.19). I found this while studying Q/A 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism in sermon preparation.  It has to do with the purpose of the law.

“The fatuous [silly] idea that a person can be holy by himself denies God the pleasure of saving sinners. God must therefore first take the sledge-hammer of the Law in His fists and smash the beast of self-righteousness and its brood of self-confidence, self-wisdom, self-righteousness, and self-help. When the conscience has been thoroughly frightened by the Law it welcomes the Gospel of grace with its message of a Savior who came into the world, not to break the bruised reed, nor to quench the smoking flax, but to preach glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, and to grant forgiveness of sins to all the captives.”

“Man’s folly, however, is so prodigious [great in degree] that instead of embracing the message of grace with its guarantee of the forgiveness of sin for Christ’s sake, man finds himself more laws to satisfy his conscience. “If I live,” says he, “I will mend my life. I will do this, I will do that.” Man, if you don’t do the very opposite, if you don’t send Moses with the Law back to Mount Sinai and take the hand of Christ, pierced for your sins, you will never be saved. When the Law drives you to the point of despair, let it drive you a little farther, let it drive you straight into the arms of Jesus.”

That’s worth printing out and putting in a place where you can read it each day!  Also, this is why John Newton once said that “ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes.”  We have to understand the purpose of the law if we want to rightly understand the gospel of grace.  The law shows us our sin, the gospel saves us from it.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

Live by the Spirit (Gal. 5.16)

 This morning (Friday) I had to peel myself away from replays of the Cardinal’s epic game six World Series comeback (and I doubt Josh Hamilton actually heard God tell him he’d hit a home run) to do something far more worthwhile: study Paul’s exhortation to “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5.16).  This is a great but tough subject.  What does it mean to live by the Spirit?  Of course it has to do with sanctification and not justification, but it is difficult to explain what Paul means since the Spirit’s work is largely a mystery (cf. John 3.8).  I found John Murray’s discussion of this biblical teaching very helpful.  The following paragraph is found in Redemption Accomplished and Applied, specifically the chapter on sanctification.

“It is imperative that we realize our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit.  We must not forget, of course, that our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent in the process of sanctification.  But we must not rely upon our own strength of resolution or purpose.  It is when we are weak that we are strong.  It is by grace that we are being saved as surely as by grace we have been saved.  If we are not keenly sensitive to our own helplessness, then we can make the use of the means of sanctification the minister of self-righteousness and pride and thus defeat the end of sanctification.  We must rely not upon the means of sanctification but upon the God of all grace.  Self-confident moralism promotes pride, and sanctification promotes humility and contrition” (p. 183).

Isn’t this a great way to explain Paul’s exhortation to live by the Spirit?  I especially like Murray’s line that says we have been saved by grace and are being saved by grace.  Justification is by grace alone; so is sanctification.  In Paul’s terms, it is foolish to think we’ve started the Christian life by the Spirit but we reach the goal by our own strength (Gal. 3.3).  And so he ends the epistle of Galatians with the benediction: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you…Amen (6.18).

If you’ve never read Redemption Accomplished and Applied, do it soon!  This is one of “those” books on my shelves that was groundbreaking the first time I read it and is still helpful and edifying when I read parts of it again (and again!).

shane lems

Legalism: Working for God’s Favor Forfeits It

 In this excellent summary of Christian theology (which I’ve used to train younger as well as newer Christians), J. I. Packer writes the following about legalism.

“Legalism is a distortion of obedience that can never produce truly good works.  Its first fault is that it skews motive and purpose, seeing good deeds as essentially ways to earn more of God’s favor than one has at the moment.  Its second fault is arrogance.  Belief that one’s labor earns God’s favor begets contempt for those who do not labor in the same way.  Its third fault is lovelessness in that its self-advancing purpose squeezes humble kindness and creative compassion out of the heart.”

“So far, then, from enriching our relationship with God, as it seeks to do, legalism in all its forms does the opposite.  It puts that relationship in jeopardy and, by stopping us [from] focusing on Christ, it starves our souls while feeding our pride.  Legalistic religion in all its forms should be avoided like the plague.”

This quote is found on pages 175 & 177 of Concise Theology by J. I. Packer.  Right now it is selling for under $10!  I highly recommend this one for all Christians – whether young in the faith or old. 

shane lems

Christian Liberty: The “Appendage” of Justification

Tucked away between his discussion of justification by faith alone and Christian prayer in The Institutes of Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote a wonderful summary of the meaning and importance of a proper view of Christian liberty. Understanding Christian liberty is “a thing of prime necessity, and apart from a knowledge of it consciences dare undertake almost nothing without doubting” (III.XIX.1). Stronger: “unless this freedom be comprehended, neither Christ nor gospel truth, nor inner peace of soul, can be rightly known” (Ibid.).

The proper place to discuss this important biblical teaching is right after justification, Calvin argues (following Paul’s brilliant order in Romans and Galatians). It properly consists of three parts: 1) Freedom from the curse of being “under the law,” 2) Freedom from the fear of being “under the law,” and 3) Freedom from “things indifferent,” a.k.a. adiaphhora. Calvin unpacks these a bit.

1) Since we are justified by faith alone, since our works have no place in justification, our consciences are free from the loud thunder-curse of the law. “Almost the entire argument of the letter to the Galatians hinges upon this point” (III.XIX.3). In Galatians, Calvin argues, the freedom Christ has won for us removes us forever from Jewish ceremonies (i.e. circumcision), but also much more than ceremonies. “Paul insists that believers should not suppose they can obtain righteousness before God by any works of the law…through the cross of Christ they are free from the condemnation of the law…so that they may rest with full assurance in Christ alone” (Ibid.). In summary, a distortion of Christian liberty quickly leads to a distortion of justification by faith alone – a distortion of the gospel.

2) We are free – liberated – from being servants of the law and its whip. That is, Christians do not obey the law out of dread, thinking that God is about to punish for every tiny infraction. Rather, God calls us with “fatherly gentleness,” so with cheerfulness and great eagerness we follow him in obedience. Calvin gives an illustration: those who are not liberated from the law are like servants who must do what their master says, servants who dare not appear before their master unless they have done their task perfectly. Christians, however, are sons, knowing that they have been accepted as sons by the Father, so even if our works are incomplete and half-done, God will mercifully approve and accept them.

3) Christian liberty means we are free from the things indifferent – superstitions, religious laws and customs of men, ascetic paths, and so forth. This is the point the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Westminster Confession of Faith both mention: God alone is Lord of our consciences. Calvin comes back to Romans 14 several times here, noting that we can use all of God’s gifts to us with no “scruple of conscience, no trouble of mind” (III.XIX.8). Calvin says that this excludes gluttony and the showcasing of liberty, and it also means that we should use our freedom wisely – in ways that never make our weaker brother trip up.

Calvin and Luther agree here: a Christian is master over all and servant of none, but also master of none and servant to all. Understanding the gospel means understanding true liberty. Christians are free from the demands of the law for salvation, so any introduction of “new laws” under the umbrella of justification (or even sanctification!) empty the gospel of being gospel.

Additional note: very interestingly, Calvin talks about the two kingdoms under the heading of Christian liberty. See III.XIX.15-16 for a robust discussion of conscience, liberty, church, and state.

shane lems

sunnyside wa