The Law Is Not a Remedy for Sin

 (This is a re-post from October 2010)

You cannot fully understand Martin Luther’s work unless you understand his distinction between the theologian of the cross and the theologian of glory.  This distinction is also important for us today especially when some are leaving the biblical truths of the Reformation for the traditions of Rome.  I myself will not and cannot go to Rome because I believe the five solas are eminently biblical and also because I believe Luther was right in declaring that Rome taught a theology of glory in opposition to the theology of the cross.

Interested in this discussion?  You should be.  And you should get this outstanding book, On Being A Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde.  The book is sort of a commentary on Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation of 1518.  Though it is only around 100 pages long, it is one of the most profound discussions of the cross and salvation you’ll ever read.  The book will not only lead you away from Rome’s theology of glory, but it will also lead you away from yourself (your own righteousness, good works, and fig leaves) and lead you away from the things of this world.  It will lead you to the cross, and the cross alone.

I’ve blogged on this book before, so I won’t go into all the details.  But I do want to give an example of the contents of the book.  Here’s a small sample.

“The cross is the death of sin and the sinner.  The cross does the ‘bottoming out.’  The cross is the ‘intervention.’  The addict/sinner is not coddled by false optimism but is put to death so that a new life can begin.  The theologian of the cross ‘says what a thing is.’  The theologian of the cross preaches to convict of sin.  The addict is not deceived by theological marshmallows but is told the truth so that he might learn at last to confess, to say, ‘I am an addict,’ ‘I am an alcoholic,’ and never to stop saying it.  Theologically and more universally all must learn to say, ‘I am a sinner,’ and likewise never to stop saying it until Christ’s return makes it no longer true.”

“It is commonplace among evangelical Christians to believe that we can’t perfectly fulfill the law, but we often try to because we assume that if we only could we would do it.  Some believe that we must try to do something at least, and then, it is assumed, Christ will make up for our ‘shortcomings.’  But here is the bombshell: doing the law does not advance the cause of righteousness one whit.  It only makes matters worse.”

“The law is not a remedy for sin.  It does not cure sin but rather makes it worse.”

“Thesis 25.  He is not righteous who works much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”

“Thesis 26. The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done.  Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.

I could go on and on.  Again, trust me when I say that you need to get (and read!) this book if you haven’t yet: Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross.

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

Eyes Wide Open: A Review

Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything I recently picked up Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything by Steve DeWitt.  It sounded interesting and since it seemed like a topic I hadn’t read much on, I thought I should read it. Before I give my thoughts, I do have to note that the subtitle, “Enjoying God in Everything” is a bit off.  I was expecting the book to talk more about rejoicing in and glorifying God in everything we do, including menial chores, big projects, slogging through depressing illnesses, and so forth.  Probably a better subtitle would be, “Seeing God’s Beauty in Everything” or something like that.  Anyway, here are some of my thoughts, beginning with a basic outline of the book.

First, the basic structure: Part 1 is about the beauty and glory of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  “God is one and God is three,” DeWitt notes, and then argues (debatably), “This divine relational diversity existing in harmonious unity is the core and genesis of all beauty.”  He then notes the beauty of God’s love in giving his Son to die.  Part 2 is where DeWitt talks about the beauty in creation (nature and man), and how sin has marred it and makes us want beauty apart from God.  He then mentions the beauty of Jesus.  Part 3 is the section where DeWitt explains beauty all around should make us thank and praise God.  Art is also discussed in this section, and how, he says, “every artistic expression is part of God’s story.”  He ends the book talking about the beauty of heaven.

Second, positively, it is a very God-centered book.  DeWitt’s basic goal in the book is to get the reader to see the beauty of this world and therefore look to God as the source and creator of beauty.  This helps us praise, thank, and worship God whenever we see true beauty.  He quotes Augustine’s famous phrase (“You have made us for Yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You”) in the beginning of the book, and the rest of the book applies this phrase to beauty.

Third, I have to admit that for various reasons I wasn’t really moved or captured by this book.  Why?  A) I’ve read similar things in other evangelical books; this book was predictable.  It’s pretty basic theology to say that beauty in creation should make us worship/glorify God, but sin has marred it, so as Christians we should work to constantly see God’s handiwork (beauty) in creation and praise him for it as we journey to the most beautiful place, the New Creation.  Also, DeWitt quoted C.S. Lewis quite a bit – quotes which I’ve read/heard before.  B) The scores and scores of stories and illustrations in the book weren’t helpful to me; I was annoyed with the amount of illustrations and stories already before I was half-way through the book.  Without the stories and illustrations, the book would have been quite a bit shorter (and more helpful in my opinion).  I guess it is a bit subjective, but the writing style wasn’t the easiest for me to read and follow; it seemed like the author was trying too hard to describe beauty.

So do I recommend this book?  Yes, it would be good for Christians who haven’t thought much about beauty or who haven’t read C.S. Lewis or other authors who talk about God being the One who can fill our longings and desires.  If you have a hard time seeing God’s beauty in the world and praising him for it, get this book!  However, if you’ve read about or thought of these things quite a bit from a Christian perspective, you may want to pass, as it doesn’t say things others haven’t said elsewhere.  But the premise of the book is true: all true beauty should lead us to God the Creator and Redeemer!

Steve DeWitt, Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything (Grand Rapids: Credo House Publishing, 2012).

shane lems

A Review of Hamilton’s Biblical Theology

God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology I (Shane) have been working through some OT theology books lately – one of them being God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment by James Hamilton.  This book is a 550+ page discussion of Hamilton’s thesis, namely, that the main theme of the Bible is “God’s glory in salvation through judgment.”  Hamilton says that this is the center of both the Old and New Testaments.

The structure of the book is pretty straightforward.  After an introduction that talks about a “center” of biblical theology and Hamilton’s thesis, the rest of the book is a walk through the Bible.  From Genesis to Revelation and every book in between, Hamilton attempts to prove his thesis – that each book of the Bible is about God’s glory in salvation through judgment.  To summarize it in a most basic way, Hamilton simply discusses every text in every Bible book that proves his point.

God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment is a very detailed and dense book.  It doesn’t really read like a story; rather, it reads like an intricate defense of a thesis.  (This is not necessarily a critique, just an observation).  I was hoping to read it straight through, but I have to admit I got bogged down around Leviticus and Deuteronomy because there were so many details that I became overwhelmed.  I then began to read sections of it that interested me (including a few books of the Bible that I’m currently preaching on).  Hamilton has done his homework – there are scores of proof texts on almost every page (which is good to see but makes for cumbersome reading).

So what do I think of the book?  Well, as I already mentioned, it’s not an easy read because of the density.  Also, I have to admit that I’m not 100% convinced that “God’s glory in salvation through judgment” is the main message or center of the Bible.  I do believe it is one of the big themes, but I’m not ready to say it is the theme (for example, it doesn’t hold true before Adam’s sin [pre-fall]).  However, the book is still helpful in tracing this theme throughout the Bible in great detail.

Another thing that struck me was that other major themes in the Bible were downplayed at the expense of Hamilton’s thesis.  For one glaring example, Hamilton didn’t really deal too much with the covenants in the Bible.  He did mention them, of course, but not in much detail or in a way that really affected his theme/thesis.  And unfortunately Hamilton only spent 3 pages discussing the book of Hebrews.  Another theme I was hoping Hamilton would discuss was revelation – but there was almost nothing on how/when God reveals himself or the progressive aspect of revelation.  I suppose anytime someone traces a theme through the Bible there’s a good possibility of missing or downplaying other themes.  It’s impossible to do it all in one book, to be sure.

Finally, while Hamilton’s thesis and his walk-through of the Bible is a helpful addition in the area of biblical theology, I noticed that some of the content of the book builds on other work (i.e. Greg Beale, N.T. Wright, and Thomas Schreiner, among others).  And some of the summaries of Bible books are similar to those in evangelical commentaries and Bible summaries, so I saw overlap there as well (for example, I read Hamilton’s summary of 1 Samuel, which didn’t really tell me anything that my commentaries had not already told me).

God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment is a helpful resource that discusses a major Bible theme in a biblical-theological way.  It is level-headed, well argued, and very comprehensive.  Even though I’m not 100% in agreement with everything Hamilton says, his argument is stimulating and it gets the reader into the text and story of Scripture – for this I am thankful!

If you’ve read other biblical theologies (i.e. Vos, Beale, Goldsworthy, etc.) this book might simply be a review of biblical theology from a different angle.  Also, if you have a lot of newer evangelical commentaries and resources on various books of the Bible, the material will overlap them to some extent.  But if you’re not familiar with biblical theology and you want an extremely detailed defense of Hamilton’s thesis (that the center of the Bible is ‘God’s glory in salvation through judgment’), then you’ll for sure want to get this one.

By the way, for a condensed summary of Hamilton’s thesis, you might want to check out his similarly titled essay in Tyndale Bulletin 57 (2006): 57-84.  For those of you who are already well-read in Biblical theology, you may want to read the essay before getting the book.

shane lems
hammond, wi

The Happiness of Heaven

Here’s a great little booklet that summarizes the biblical teaching of heaven in a readable and edifying manner: The Happiness of Heaven by Maurice Roberts (Darlington: EP Books, 2009). In just over 100 pages, Roberts discusses the following: belief in heaven/hell, heaven’s creation, heaven and sin/salvation, children and heaven, heaven after death, the glorified body, the ‘place’ of heaven, and the beauty of heaven.  Thankfully, there’s also a handy Scripture reference at the end (which far too many books leave out!).  Here’s a nice excerpt that summarizes the main thrust of the book (from p. 41).

“We are told by many modern scholars that preaching the blood of Christ is old-fashioned and unappealing.  It is the theology of the slaughter-market, they say.  But let us be certain that there is no other way back to heaven for sinful men than the one that God has provided through the death of his Son.”

“Those who do not enter by this door but try to climb up some other way will be regarded as thieves and robbers.  They will find heaven’s door shut to them.  Only those who humbly glory in Christ’s cross will come home to God in heaven and be saved to sin no more.”

This is a perfect little book to give to older Christians who need a brief ‘primer’ on what the Bible says about heaven.  It isn’t too dense and difficult; in some ways it is like a summary of Cornelis Venema’s Promise of the Future (another outstanding resource, by the way!).  As a pastor, I get quite a few questions about heaven from the older saints – this is one book I give out to help answer many of those questions.

Many thanks to the kind folks at EP for this review copy.

shane lems

After Death: The Hope-of-Reunion (Wiedersehen)

There are some questions that pastors get asked quite often.  One of them that I hear often is what the Germans called Wiedersehen; the Dutch called it Wederzien.  This is the long-asked question, “Will Christians recognize each other in heaven?”  The German and Dutch translation is “hope-of-reunion” or “hope-to-see-one-another-again.”  (If only we Americans could say more without using so many words!).

Here’s Bavinck’s answer to Wiedersehen.

The hope of reunion on the other side of the grave is completely natural, genuinely human, and also in keeping with Scripture.  For Scripture teaches us not a naked immortality of spectral souls but the eternal life of individual persons.  Regeneration does not erase individuality, personality, or character, but sanctifies it and puts it at the service of God’s name.  The community of believers is the new humanity that bears within itself a wide range of variety and distinction and manifests the richest diversity in unity.  The joy of heaven, to be sure, first of all consists in communion with Christ but, further, in the fellowship of the blessed among themselves as well.

The part cannot be complete without the whole; the fullness of Christ’s love can only be known in communion with all the saints (Eph 3.18-19).  … The hope of reunion is not bad in itself, therefore, as long as it remains subordinate to the desire for fellowship with Christ (Dogmatics, IV.640-1).

As usual, Bavinck is working on the excellent biblical “grace restores nature” paradigm.  With a gospel-centered and biblically level-headed tone, Bavinck says wiedersehen is not something we should fight against, but long for with our eyes on Christ, because he is the central figure in the covenant of grace and the communion of saints.

shane lems

sunnyside wa