“The Preacher Who Takes Up Vos’ Biblical Theology…” (Clowney)

Preaching and Biblical Theology Over the past 15+ years I’ve come to a pretty strong conviction that an understanding of redemptive history is of utmost importance in the pulpit ministry.  Preaching that has no understanding of redemptive history is preaching that lacks.  There are nuances to this discussion of course.  I’m not an advocate of hyper redemptive-historical preaching.  And I believe there is a time and place in the pulpit for topical and doctrinal sermons as well as solid application.  Basically, my view is that the pulpit ministry should have a firm and balanced grasp of systematic theology and biblical theology, both of which should be generally evident in the preaching.  I like how Edmund Clowney spoke about this in his very good book, Preaching and Biblical Theology.

“There is…no opposition between biblical theology and systematic or dogmatic theology, though the two are distinct.  Systematic theology must draw from the results of biblical theology, and biblical theology must be aware of the broad perspectives of systematics. …The development of systematics is strictly thematic or topical.  …The development of biblical theology is redemptive-historical.”

Later Clowney mentioned Geerhardus Vos; I’ve always liked these paragraphs:

“The preacher who takes up Vos’ ‘Biblical Theology’ for the first time enters a rich new world, a world which lifts up his heart because he is a preacher.  Biblical theology, truly conceived, is a labor of worship.  Beside Vos’ ‘Biblical Theology’ should be set his little book of sermons, ‘Grace and Glory.’  There we hear a scholar preaching to theological students (the sermons were delivered in Princeton Seminary), but with a burning tenderness and awesome realism that springs from the grace and glory of God’s revelation, the historical actualization of his eternal counsel of redemption.”

Clowney then talked about the text and the pulpit.

“An old Dutch preacher has sagely observed that the pulpit must not drive us to the text, but rather the text must drive us to the pulpit.  In biblical theology that scriptural dynamic impels the preacher’s heart with unimagined strength.”

Edmund Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology, p. 18-19.

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

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The Impossibility of Preaching Jesus Without A Creed (Vos)

A church without a creed is a church to avoid.  Why?  Because a big part of the Christian’s faith includes knowledge of biblical doctrine, factual truth-statements to which faith clings.  Geerhardus Vos said it quite well:

“Faith presupposes knowledge, because it needs a mental complex, person or thing, to be occupied about.  Therefore, the whole modern idea of preaching Jesus, but preaching Him without a creed, is not only theologically, not merely Scripturally, but psychologically impossible in itself.  In fact knowledge is so interwoven with faith that the question arises, whether it be sufficient to call it a prerequisite, and not rather an ingredient of faith.”

“The very names by means of which Jesus would have to be presented to people are the nuclei of creed and doctrine.  If it were possible to eliminate this, the message would turn to pure magic, but even the magic requires some name-sound and cannot be wholly described as preaching without a creed. …To be sure, mere knowledge is not equivalent to full-orbed faith, it must develop into trust, before it is entitled to that name.”

Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 389.

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

Judged According to Works? (Vos)

The Bible teaches that sinful people cannot earn salvation or contribute to their salvation.  Justification and eternal life are free gifts of God received by faith alone in Christ alone (Rom 4:1-8, Gal. 2:15-16, Eph 2:8, etc.).  Or as the Heidelberg Catechism says, the good we do can’t make us right or help make us right with God because he demands entire perfection, but “even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin” (Q 62).   However, doesn’t God promise to reward obedience (Mt. 5:12, 10:41-41, Heb. 11:6, etc.)?  Geerhardus Vos explained this well:

“That being judged “according to works” also applies to believers is apparent from Matthew 25:34–40; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 22:12. However, this is not to be understood in the sense that works provide the basis for the decision whether one has earned or not earned salvation. Works will come into consideration as a manifestation of genuine saving faith. Work in the scriptural sense also means not just an external display but the expression of one’s life that flows out of the depth of the heart. So understood, works are in fact evidences for the presence of faith.

But works occur in yet another sense than as evidences of faith. Scripture also speaks of reward for believers (“their works follow them,” Rev 14:13; Matt 5:12, 16; 6:1; Luke 6:23; Heb 10:34–38). This reward comes as compensation for the cross, as restitution for what was robbed, as recompense for love shown to the servants of the Lord, etc. There will be proportion in this reward (Matt 25:21, 23; Luke 6:38; 19:17, 19; 1 Cor 3:8). It is presented as a reaping that corresponds to what is sown (Gal 6:7–10). Salvation will be perfect for all, but nonetheless not entirely the same for all. This is certain: the difference will not possibly provide any occasion for unhappiness. Accordingly, for believers works are a criterion for the glory to be received. But this is a reward out of grace (Rom 11:35; 1 Cor 4:7; John 3:27). And the bestowing of salvation, as such, will take place solely on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ received by faith.

So it’s not as if we receive initial justification by faith and then final justification by faith plus works.  Not at all.  It’s all of grace.  The Heidelberg Catechism summarizes Scripture well when talking about the rewards of obedience: “This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace” (A 62).  Or, as the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians 15:10,

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. NIV

[The above quotes by Vos are found in his Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 5 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2016), 293.]

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Prophets, Suffering, and Jesus (Vos)

 In an article on Jeremiah 31:3 (I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. NIV) Geerhardus Vos explained the context of Jeremiah’s ministry as one of suffering and the burden of having a prophetic understanding of Israel’s dismal future.  In that context, a reminder of God’s love must have been like a bright, warm ray of sunshine that penetrated the weeping prophet’s darkness.  Here’s how Vos discussed it:

In taking the comfort of the prophetic promises to our hearts we do not, perhaps, always realize what after the tempests and tumults, in the brief seasons of clear shining which God interposed, such relief must have meant to the prophets themselves. For they had not merely to pass through the distress of the present; besides this they were not allowed to avert their eyes from the terrifying vision of the latter days. In anticipation they drank from the cup “with wine of reeling” filled by Jehovah’s hand.

Nor did the prophets see only the turbulent surface, the foaming upper waves of the inrushing flood, their eyes were opened to the religious and moral terrors underneath. The prophetic agony was no less spiritual than physical: it battled with the sin of Israel and the wrath of God, and these were even more dreadful realities than hostile invasion or collapse of the state or captivity for the remnant. In a sense which made them true types of Christ the prophets bore the unfaithfulness of the people on their hearts. As Jesus had a sorrowful acquaintance with the spirit no less than the body of the cross, so they were led to explore the deeper meaning of the judgment, to enter recesses of its pain undreamt of by the sinners in Israel themselves.

So we can find a preview of Christ’s sufferings in the sufferings of the prophets.

You can find this quote in Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 288.

Shane Lems

All Our Works Excluded (Vos)

  When it comes to being right with God – being declared righteous by God and accepted by him – all our works are completely excluded.  Or, as the Bible says, we are not justified by works, but by faith in Christ (Hab. 2:4, Rom. 3:28, 10:10, etc).  This is the meaning behind these solas: faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to God’s glory alone.  Geerhardus Vos explains justification apart from works in volume three of his dogmatics:

Not only the works that we do in our own strength, or that we do before regeneration, or that we do without the merits of Christ, but all [our] works, of whatever sort, are excluded from justification.

This is so repetitively certain in Scripture that proof is almost superfluous. Galatians 2:16 reads, “… nevertheless, knowing that a man is not justified by law-works [ἐξ ἔργων νόμου].” In no way is the reference here to works prescribed by one or another specific law, because the article is missing. All law-work as such is excluded from justification. According to Paul, faith and works form an absolute contrast in the matter of justification (Rom 11:6).

This must be maintained against the Roman Catholic teaching about the instrumentality of works in justification, as well as against Pelagians, Rationalists, and Remonstrants. The first two mentioned, the Pelagians and Rationalists, maintain that Scripture excludes only the works of the Jewish law, that is, the ceremonial law, but that the moral law certainly has to be observed by us for justification.

The last, the Remonstrants [the 17th century Arminian group], go one step further, and in place of the moral law in all its severity put a lighter form, the law of the obedience of faith. They speak of a fides obsequiosa [submissive faith] and of an obedientia evangelica [evangelical obedience], which, while in itself not perfect, is accepted by God as perfect.

Vos also summarizes the “causes” of justification.  Notice the work of the triune God in justification:

      The effective cause (causa efficiens) of justification is God, more accurately God the Father, and still more accurately His grace and righteousness. The meritorious cause is the obedience of Christ the Mediator (causa meritoria). The instrumental cause (causa instrumentalis) is faith worked in the heart through the Holy Spirit and then put into action. The final cause (causa finalis) is the glorification of God regarding all His virtues related to justification.

Of course we want God to receive all the glory in everything – especially our redemption.  When we submit to Scripture and acknowledge that God justifies sinners because of Christ’s imputed righteousness received by faith alone, we give God all the glory.  When we admit that even our faith is a gift of God the Holy Spirit, we give God all the glory.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to Your name give glory
!
(Ps. 115:1 NASB)

Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2014), 143, 151–152.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Peace (Vos)

Most of the books in my library are replaceable.  I do loan out my books and try to keep track of who has what.  But if one of these books would get lost, I wouldn’t be too upset.  There are, however, a handful of books that I don’t loan out because I have so much writing in them.  These would be hard to replace because I’ve written my own indexes and marginal notes. They’d also be hard to replace for sentimental reasons: I usually remember when and where and what stage I was at in my Christian life when I read these books.  Geerhardus Vos’ Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation is one of those books I don’t loan out because it would be hard to replace.  Speaking of this book, one article in it stands out for me: “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology.”  I read this one more than a few times and still find nuances I missed before!  Here’s one part that I highlighted and underlined:

If man already stood in a covenant relation to God before the fall, then it is to be expected that the covenant idea will also dominate in the work of redemption. God cannot simply let go of the ordinance which He once instituted, but much rather displays His glory in that He carries it through despite man’s sin and apostasy. It was merely the other side of the doctrine of the covenant of works that was seen when the task of the Mediator was also placed in this light. A Pactum Salutis, a Counsel of Peace, a Covenant of Redemption, could then be spoken of.

There are two alternatives: one must either deny the covenant arrangement as a general rule for obtaining eternal life, or, granting the latter, he must also regard the gaining of eternal life by the Mediator as a covenant arrangement and place the establishing of a covenant in back of it. Thus it also becomes clear how a denial of the covenant of works sometimes goes hand in hand with a lack of appreciation for the counsel of peace.

If you have to read these lines a few times to get the point, don’t feel badly; I did too.  But Vos is right on here: the covenant God made with Adam and the covenantal aspect of Christ’s work go hand in hand!  Herman Bavinck, another Dutch Reformed theologian, echoed a similar conclusion: “The covenant of works and the covenant of grace stand or fall together.”

You can find Vos’ article in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Proving the Deity of the Holy Spirit

Vos Some cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, deny the historic Christian – and biblical – doctrine of the Trinity.  For example, they deny the deity of the Holy Spirit.  In light of this denial, the question is, “How do you prove the deity of the Holy Spirit?”  Geerhardus Vos gives excellent biblical answers:

1) He bears divine names.  Acts 5:3, 9; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; and 1 John 4:13.

2) Divine attributes are ascribed to him. a) Eternity: Gen. 1:2, b) Omnipresence: Ps. 139:7-8; 1 Cor. 3:16), c) Omniscience: 1 Cor. 2:10; John 16:13; 2 Pet. 1:21, d) Omnipotence: Luke 1:35.

3) Divine works are attributed to him: a) Creation: Gen. 1:2, Ps. 33:6, b) Preserving and governing: Ps. 104:30, c) Miracles: Mt. 12:28; 1 Cor 12:4, Luke 1:35, d) Forgiveness of sins and regeneration: 1 Cor. 6:11; John 3:5, e) Governing the church: Acts 13:2; 15:28; 20:28, f) Foretelling future events: John 16:13, g) Illumination and sanctification: Eph. 1:17-18; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2, h) Resurrection from the dead: Rom. 8:11.

4) Divine honor is given to him (Mt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:15; Rev. 1:6, 1 Cor. 6:19-20).

5) One can sin against the Holy Spirit and then, in fact, commit the most severe, unforgivable sin (Mk. 3:29).

Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 1, p. 73-74.  (Note: I’ve slightly edited the format of the above quote for the purposes of this blog.)

shane lems