The Rich Comfort of Justification by Faith Alone (Bavinck)

I’m so thankful to Jesus for his perfect and complete work to save me from my sin and misery.  I’m so thankful that my justification doesn’t depend upon my feelings, emotions, prayers, devotion, or good works.  Although my Christian life is far from perfect, and although I lament my sin and sporadic coldness in the faith, I have good confidence that I stand righteous before God because of what Christ has done in my place.  The biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone (apart from works) in Christ alone (and nothing else) has truly given me a rock on which to stand and comfortably rest.  Herman Bavinck put this truth well around 100 years ago.

“The benefit of justification through faith alone has in it a rich comfort for the Christian.  The forgiveness of his sins, the hope for the future, the certainty concerning eternal salvation, do not depend upon the degree of holiness which he has achieved in life, but are firmly rooted in the grace of God and in the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.  If these benefits had to derive their certainty from the good works of the Christian they would always, even unto death, remain unsure, for even the holiest of men have only a small beginning of perfect obedience.  Accordingly, the believers would be constantly torn between fear and anxiety, they could never stand in the freedom with which Christ has set them free, and, nevertheless being unable to live without certainty, they would have to take recourse to church and priest, to altar and sacrament, to religious rites and practices.  Such is the condition of thousands of Christians both inside and outside of the Roman church.  They do not understand the glory and the comfort of free justification.”

“But the believer whose eye has been opened to the riches of this benefit, sees the matter differently.  He has come to the humble acknowledgement that good works, whether these consist of emotional excitements, of soul experiences, or of external deeds, can never be the foundation but only the fruit of faith.  His salvation is fixed outside of himself in Christ Jesus and His righteousness, and therefore can never again waver.  His house is built upon the rock, and therefore it can stand the vehemence of the rain, the floods, and the wind.”

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, p. 466.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

The Church: Organism and Institution (Bavinck)

The church of Christ has always had leaders and a teaching ministry (cf. Eph. 4.11, Titus 1:5, Heb. 13:17, etc.).  It’s not wrong to think of the church as an institution; the church does have a structure.  But the church also is the body of Christ, a living community that is called to love and serve.  So we can also think of the church as an organism.  Herman Bavinck explained this in a balanced way:

Government is indispensable for the church as a gathering of believers. Just as a temple calls for an architect, a field a sower, a vineyard a keeper, a net a fisherman, a flock a shepherd, a body a head, a family a father, a kingdom a king, so also the church is unthinkable without an authority that sustains, guides, cares for, and protects it.

Bavinck then explained the role of Christ in governing his church.  He goes on:

…The church is not conceivable without a government.  Granted, Christ could have exercised his office without any service from humans. If it had so pleased him, he could have dispensed his spiritual and heavenly blessings without the help of institutions and persons. But this was not his pleasure; it was his pleasure, without in any way transferring his sovereignty to people, to nevertheless use their services in the exercise of his sovereignty and to preach the gospel through them to all creatures. And also in that sense the church was never without a government. It was always organized and institutionally arranged in some fashion.

As the gathering of believers, the church is itself used by Christ as an instrument to bring others to his fold. By it Christ administers his mediatorial office in the midst of the world. Thus, from the very beginning, the church appears on the scene in a dual form. It is a gathering of the people of God in a passive as well as an active sense; it is simultaneously a gathered community and the mother of believers or, in other words, an organism and an institution.

Herman Bavinck, ed. John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 330.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

“Roman” and “Catholic” – Mutually Contradictory (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation The phrase “catholic church” in the Apostles’ Creed is a reference to God’s people throughout history from all different tribes, tongues, and nations.  Of course this phrase, “catholic church” is also used by the papacy, which calls its church “The Roman Catholic Church.”  But how can a church be tied so closely to a geographical place (Rome) and single person (the Pope) and still be truly catholic?

Herman Bavinck pointed out this inconsistency in volume four of his Reformed Dogmatics.  He noted that the terms “Roman” and “catholic” are “mutually contradictory.”  He said,

The Roman Catholic Church makes the faith and salvation of humans dependent on a specific place and on a specific person and thereby fails to do justice to the catholicity of Christianity. The name “Roman” or “papal church” therefore expresses its nature much more accurately than “Catholic.”

Bavinck then went on to explain what catholicity truly means:

As a rule, people understand it (“catholic church”) to mean the universal church, which embraces all true believers and is manifest in varying degrees of purity in various churches, or the New Testament church, which… is meant for all peoples and places on earth.

The word “catholic” does not occur in Scripture. But the texts to which the church fathers appeal for the catholicity of the church (such as Gen. 12:3; Ps. 2:8; Isa. 2:2; Jer. 3:17; Mal. 1:11; Matt. 8:11; 28:19; John 10:16; Rom. 1:8; 10:18; Eph. 2:14; Col. 1:6; Rev. 7:9; and so forth) prove that its meaning consists especially in the fact that Christianity is a world religion suited and intended for every people and age, for every class and rank, for every time and place. That church is most catholic that most clearly expresses in its confession and applies in its practice this international and cosmopolitan character of the Christian religion. The Reformed had an eye for it when in various countries and churches they confessed the truth in an indigenous, free, and independent manner and at the Synod of Dort invited delegates from all over Reformed Christianity.

I agree; a truly catholic church will not be dependent upon a certain place or person.  An I appreciate Bavinck’s notes that the Christian religion is a “world” religion suited for all kinds of people in all kinds of places.  Or, as it says in Scripture, the church Christ died for is an innumerable multitude from all tribes, peoples, and languages (Rev. 7:9).

The above quotes can be found in Herman Bavinck, ed John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 323.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Are Our Children Lost?

One recent and popular Christian book called Parenting spent a chapter talking about how our kids are “lost.”  It wasn’t a minor theme mentioned in three sentences; it was a major point of the entire chapter that Christian parents are raising “lost” children.  For example, Paul Tripp wrote, “Our children are not just disobedient; they are disobedient because they are lost. …Our children are not just lazy; they are lazy because they are lost” (p. 98).  He goes on to talk about the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son and explains how they apply to parenting lost children.

I realize that Tripp may be writing from a Baptist perspective.  Of course Christians in Baptist circles will differ from Christians in Reformed circles when it comes to views on children in the home.  Thankfully whether Baptist or Reformed we can still call each other brother or sister in Christ.  But is it biblically accurate to call children in a Christian home “lost?”  A Reformed perspective says “no” based on Scripture’s teaching.

First, a more nuanced approach to the “lost” parables would deal with the kingdom of God, Israel, the first century background and other exegetical and interpretive matters (which would take too long to discuss here).  I’m a little hesitant to talk about these parables primarily in terms of parenting “lost” children.

Second, the Bible doesn’t specifically call the children of believing parents “lost” or little heathens (even if they act like it from time to time!!).  In both the Old and New Testaments Scripture talks more positively about the children of God’s people.  Abraham is a good example; God says he will be Abraham’s God and the God of his children (Gen 17:6).  Herman Bavinck explained this covenantal aspect further:

Children are a blessing and heritage from the Lord (Ps. 127:3). They are always counted along with their parents and included with them. Together they prosper (Exod. 20:6; Deut. 1:36, 39; 4:40; 5:29; 12:25, 28). Together they serve the Lord (Deut. 6:2; 30:2; 31:12–13; Josh. 24:15; Jer. 32:39; Ezek. 37:25; Zech. 10:9). The parents must pass on to the children the acts and ordinances of God (Exod. 10:2; 12:24, 26; Deut. 4:9–10, 40; 6:7; 11:19; 29:29; Josh. 4:6, 21; 22:24–27). The covenant of God with its benefits and blessings perpetuates itself from child to child and from generation to generation (Gen. 9:12; 17:7, 9; Exod. 3:15; 12:17; 16:32; Deut. 7:9; Ps. 105:8; and so forth). While grace is not automatically inherited, as a rule it is bestowed along the line of generations.
The Bible also says that Jesus blessed and welcomed little children.  Paul wrote that children in the home of even one believing parent are not unclean but “holy,” or set apart (1 Cor. 7:14).  Again, Bavinck:
The holiness Paul mentions here must not be taken as subjective and internal holiness but as an objective, theocratic kind of holiness, for otherwise the children and the husband would not be holy on account of the believing mother and wife but on their own account. Nor is Paul in any way thinking here of infant baptism, nor of anything that might serve as a basis for it. His sole interest is to show that the Christian faith does not cancel out the natural ordinances of life, but rather confirms and sanctifies them (cf. 1 Cor. 7:18–24).

This passage is of importance for infant baptism, however, because it teaches that the whole family is regarded in light of the confession of the believing spouse. The believer has the calling to serve the Lord not only for oneself but with all that belongs to oneself and with one’s entire family. For that reason the children of believers are admonished by the apostles as Christian children ‘in the Lord’ (Acts 26:22; Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20; 2 Tim. 3:15; 1 John 2:13). Also the little ones know the Lord (Heb. 8:11; Rev. 11:18; 19:5), and have been given a place before his throne (Rev. 20:12). Scripture knows nothing of a neutral upbringing that seeks to have the children make a completely free and independent choice at a more advanced age. The children of believers are not pagans or children of the devil who still—as Roman Catholics and Lutherans hold—have to be exorcized at their baptism, but children of the covenant, for whom the promise is meant as much as for adults. They are included in the covenant and are holy, not by nature (Job 14:4; Ps. 51:5; John 3:6; Eph. 2:3) but by virtue of the covenant.

While I applaud many of Tripp’s helpful tips on Christian parenting, I think it is unhelpful and unbiblical to view our children as “lost.”  Are they sinners who need Jesus like I do?  Yes, for sure!  But a healthy biblical and covenantal perspective won’t let us call our kids “lost;” we’re not missionaries to our kids.  Like the Heidelberg Catechism (Q/A 74) says, “Infants, as well as adults are in God’s covenant and are his people.  They, no less than adults, are promised the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit who produces faith.”  Our job is to teach them what it means to be a child of God: to repent, believe, and follow the Lord!

The above quotes are from Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 529–530.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Gospel Does Not Discriminate (Bavinck)

Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (Paperback) There is nothing that tears down walls between people like the gospel does.  There is nothing that brings all sorts of people together like the gospel does.  Herman Bavinck describes this quite well:

“In order to be a Christian, a citizen of the kingdom of God and heir of eternal life, it matters not at all whether one is Jew or Greek, barbarian or Scythian, male or female, free or slave, rich or poor, socially important or unimportant.  The only way to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is available to all, is by way of regeneration, an inner change, faith, conversion.  No nationality, no gender, no social standing, no class, no wealth or poverty, no freedom or slavery has any preference here.”

“The walls of division have fallen away, the palisades taken down; the gospel is intended for all and must be proclaimed to all.  The despised and those without rights in antiquity – the barbarians, the uncivilized, the ignoble, women, slaves, publicans, sinners, whoremongers, idol worshipers – are all people of God’s family, destined for his kingdom.  Yes, if there is any preference, then the poor, the ignoble, the unlearned, the oppressed are the ones who are considered first for the gospel.  God chooses the poor, the despised, and the ignoble, so that no one should boast before him.”

“What a revolution this gospel brought about in the ancient world: it gave a reforming power to humanity!  All people are equal before God.  He rates no one inferior because of social standing or rank, because of simplicity or unimportance.  God loves everyone who fears him from all peoples and generations and social classes.  This is a raising in status, this is the birthday of a new humanity, the beginning of a new society.  Christians, however different they were among themselves in origin and social status, were an elect family, a holy nation, a people made his own, a holy priesthood, one body with many members.”

We desperately need to remember this truth today: …in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to the other member…Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you... (Rom 12:5 NIV).  We need to make sure that we don’t put up walls and barriers that Jesus broke down on the cross.  No matter our political views, no matter how we school our kids (home, private, public), no matter our ethnicity, no matter our income level or job situation, the gospel brought us together and it must keep us together!

The above quotes are found on page 140-141 of Herman Bavinck’s Essays on Religion, Science, and Society.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)  Hammond, WI
https://www.facebook.com/covenantpresbyterianchurch/

History Taken Out Of God’s Hands: Middle Knowledge

Reformed Dogmatics : Volume 2: God and Creation by [Bavinck, Herman] Reformed Christian theology teaches that God, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordained everything that comes to pass (Ps. 33:11, Heb. 6:17, etc.; see also WCF 3.1).  In other words, all things come to pass because God decreed them.  He works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:11 NIV).  God predestined some unto salvation because it was his good pleasure, not because he foresaw some choosing Christ.

Not everyone agrees with this view.  Some people say that it detracts from human freedom, so they speak of God’s middle knowledge.  That is, although God knows all the possibilities of what might happen in the future, his decree depends on man’s choices and actions.  In this view, God decreed that which he foresaw would happen.  For a simple example, long ago God knew every possible action and choice Billy might make, but he only decreed that which he foresaw Billy actually doing.  God’s decree comes after his foreknowledge of Billy’s actions.  His decree is dependent upon Billy’s actions.  This view is an attempt to harmonize freedom of the will and God’s omniscience and sovereignty.

Reformed theology strongly opposes this teaching of middle knowledge.  Herman Bavinck critiqued this well as he explained middle knowledge:

[Middle knowledge teaches that] God does not derive his knowledge of the free actions of human beings from his own being, his own decrees, but from the will of creatures. God, accordingly, becomes dependent on the world, derives knowledge from the world that he did not have and could not obtain from himself, and hence, in his knowledge, ceases to be one, simple, and independent—that is, God.

Conversely, the creature in large part becomes independent vis-à-vis God. The creature did indeed at one time receive “being” (esse) and “being able” (posse) from God but now it has the “volition” (velle) completely in its own hand. The creature sovereignly makes it own decisions and either accomplishes something or does not accomplish something apart from any preceding divine decree. Something can therefore come into being quite apart from God’s will.

The creature is now creator, autonomous, sovereign; the entire history of the world is taken out of God’s controlling hands and placed into human hands. First, humans decide; then God responds with a plan that corresponds to that decision.  …What are we to think, then, of a God who forever awaits all those decisions and keeps in readiness a store of all possible plans for all possibilities? What then remains of even a sketch of the world plan when left to humans to flesh out? And of what value is a government whose chief executive is the slave of his own subordinates?

In the theory of middle knowledge, that is precisely the case with God. God looks on, while humans decide. It is not God who makes distinctions among people, but people distinguish themselves. Grace is dispensed, according to merit; predestination depends on good works

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 201 (slightly edited).

Bavinck made it clear that Reformed theology firmly rejects middle knowledge because it strays from the teaching of Scripture that God – not man! – is completely omniscient and sovereign.  He is on the throne, we are not.  We are but clay in the hands of the Potter (Jer. 18:6, Rom. 9:21).  Not to us, but to Him be the glory (Ps 115:1)!

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Significance of the Resurrection

In volume 3 of his Reformed Dogmatics Herman Bavinck spent some time talking about various (false) views of Christ’s resurrection.  For example, some say Jesus only appeared to be dead.  Others say it doesn’t matter if Jesus was physically raised from the dead – all that matters is that he lives in my heart.  Bavinck does a nice job rejecting these false views and affirming the historical, physical resurrection of Jesus.  He ends the section with these great words:

For Scripture… everything depends on the physical resurrection of Christ. The that is integral to the how: if Christ did not arise physically, then death, then sin, then he who had the power of death has not been defeated. In that case, actually, not Christ but Satan came out the victor. According to Scripture, therefore, the significance of the physical resurrection of Christ is inexhaustibly rich. Briefly summarized, that resurrection is:
(1) proof of Jesus’ messiahship, the coronation of the Servant of the Lord to be Christ and Lord, the Prince of life and Judge (Acts 2:36; 3:13–15; 5:31; 10:42; etc.);
(2) a seal of his eternal divine sonship (Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:3);
(3) a divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the “Amen!” of the Father upon the “It is finished!” of the Son (Acts 2:23–24; 4:11; 5:31; Rom. 6:4, 10; etc.);
(4) the inauguration of the exaltation he accomplished by his suffering (Luke 24:26; Acts 2:33; Rom. 6:4; Phil. 2:9; etc.);
(5) the guarantee of our forgiveness and justification (Acts 5:31; Rom. 4:25);
(6) the fountain of numerous spiritual blessings: the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:33), repentance (Acts 5:31), spiritual eternal life (Rom. 6:4f.), salvation in its totality (Acts 4:12);
(7) the principle and pledge of our blessed and glorious resurrection (Acts 4:2; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; etc.);
(8) the foundation of apostolic Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12ff.).

Since Christ has been raised, those who believe in him have a strong hope and sure foundation of salvation.  Sing praises to the risen Christ!  Alleluia, he is risen!

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 442.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI