Making the Legalist in Us Squirm (Luther)

 Martin Luther’s comments on Galatians 4:3 will make the legalist in us squirm.  But they will also help explain what “Christ alone” means for the guilty conscience:

The law does tell me to love the Lord my God, but it does not enable me to do so or to lay hold of Christ.

I do not say this in order that the law should be despised; nor does Paul intend this. It should be held in great esteem. But because Paul here is dealing with justification, he has to speak of the law as something contemptible and odious, for justification is poles apart from the law. We cannot speak contemptuously enough of the law when we are dealing with this matter. When the conscience is in this conflict, therefore, it should think of nothing and know nothing except Christ alone. The law should be completely removed from sight, and the promise of Christ alone embraced. It is easy to say this, but in times of temptation, when the conscience is struggling with God, it is the hardest of all things actually to do. When the law accuses you, terrifies you, reveals to you your sin, threatens your soul with the wrath of God and eternal death, then you need strong faith in Christ, as if there had never been any law or sin, but only Christ, grace, and redemption. You need to be able to say, “Law, I will not listen to you. The time has come for me to be free, and I will not put up with your tyranny any longer.”

Martin Luther, Galatians, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 198.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Are Our Good Works Accepted by God? (Boston)

 The Bible teaches that a sinner is justified by faith alone apart from works (e.g. Rom 3-4).  One question the Christian might ask in light of “faith alone” is this:  “How can any of our works be accepted by a holy God since there is so much sinfulness in even best of them?”  Thomas Boston (d. 1732) asked that question, and answered it this way:

Answer 1. In point of justification they are not, nor cannot be accepted; that is, our persons cannot be accepted as righteous for our works, since they are not legally perfect, perfect in every point. In the way of the covenant of works, the work was first to be accepted for its own sake, as absolutely perfect; and then the person for the works’ sake. So that whosoever seek by their works to be accepted of God, they go back to the covenant of works; and must either bring works every way perfect, or be rejected; and because they cannot do such works, “therefore by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified,” Gal. 2:16.

Answer 2. In point of sanctification the good works of the justified may be accepted; that is, one’s person being accepted, his works may be accepted, being evangelically perfect, though not legally; being perfect in parts, though not in degrees. For in the way of the covenant of grace, the person is first accepted in Christ, and then his work though imperfect. Hence it appears,

(1.) That to a person’s being accepted of God in Christ, there is no working, but believing required; Mark 5:36. For till the person be accepted of God in Christ, he can do no acceptable work. He can yield no savory fruit till he be ingrafted by faith in Christ.

(2.) That the way to bring sinners to good works, is to bring them to Christ in the first place by faith, that they may be justified and accepted in him. Men may be made proud legalists otherwise, but not evangelical Christians; whited sepulchers, but still full of rottenness.

(3.) That there is very good reason why the good works of unbelievers are rejected, because they are imperfect; and yet the good works of believers are accepted, though they be imperfect….

The Westminster Confession (16.6) says it in a similar way:

“The persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight, but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.”

The above quote is from Thomas Boston, (1852). The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Discourses on Prayer. (S. M‘Millan, Ed.) (Vol. 11, pp. 131–132). Aberdeen: George and Robert King.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Justified Today, Damned Tomorrow? Never! (Sibbes)

 We are weak.  Our faith is often feeble and barely flickering.  We have doubts; despair sometimes is a dark cloud in the Christian life.  “Prone to wander” is an understatement at times!  I appreciate how Richard Sibbes discussed this hard reality in the Christian life.  He met it with the gospel, with the comforting truths of the doctrines of grace:

Objection: “Oh… says the poor soul, I am a poor weak creature, and ready to fall away every day.”

Answer: “Yes, but Christ’s love is constant.  ‘Whom he loves, he loves to the end.’  What does the apostle say (Rom. 8:38-39)? ‘Neither things present, nor things to come, shall be able to separate us from the love of Christ.’  Therefore be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might; do not trust yourselves, nor trouble yourselves for things to come.  If you be free from guilt of former sins, never question time to come.  God is unchangeable in his nature, unchangeable in his love.  He is ‘Yahweh I AM’, always – not ‘I was or will be’, but ‘I am always.’  If ever he loved you, he will love you forever.”

“You see the constancy of Christ’s love when he told Mary, ‘Go tell my brothers’ (John 20:17).  Now when they had most deeply offended him, they were renegades, having all left him even then when he had most need of their comfort, being in greatest extremity – yet he called them brothers when he said, ‘Go tell my brothers.'”

“Beloved, let us not lose the comfort of the constancy and immutability of Christ’s love. Let us conceive that all the sweet links of salvation are held on God’s part strong, not on ours; the firmness is on God’s part, not on ours. Election is firm on God’s part, not on ours. We choose indeed as he chooses us, but the firmness is of his choosing; so he calles us, we answer, but the firmness is of his action. He justifies; we are made righteous, but the firmness is of his imputation. Will he forgive sins today, and bring us into court and damn us tomorrow? No. The firmness is of his action. We are ready to run into new debts every day, but whom he justifies he will glorify. The whole chain so holds, that all the creatures in heaven and earth cannot break a link of it. Whom he calls he will justify and glorify. Therefore never doubt of continuance, for it holds firm on God’s part, not thine.”

Richard Sibbes, A Heavenly Conference, p. 53.

(Note: the above quotes have been slightly edited for readability.)

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

The Principal Foundation of our Salvation (Turretin)

 I’ve always appreciated Francis Turretin’s discussion of justification by faith alone.  Here are some of his quotes on this topic that I’ve found quite comforting:

For the righteousness of Christ alone imputed to us is the foundation and meritorious cause upon which our absolutary (absolving) sentence rests, so that for no other reason does God bestow the pardon of sin and the right to life than on account of the most perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to us and apprehended by faith.  Hence it is readily gathered that we have not here a mere dispute about words (as some falsely imagine), but a controversy most real and indeed of the highest moment.  In it we treat of the principal foundation of our salvation, which being overthrown or weakened, all our confidence and consolation both in life and in death must necessarily perish.

…The gospel teaches that what could not be found in us was to be sought in another, could be found nowhere else than in Christ, the God-man; who taking upon himself the office of surety most fully satisfied the justice of God by his perfect obedience and thus brought to us an everlasting righteousness by which alone we can be justified before God; in order that covered and clothed with that garment as though it were of our first-born (like Jacob), we may obtain under in the eternal blessing of our heavenly Father.

…The obedience of Christ rendered in our name to God the Father is so given to us by God that it is reckoned to be truly ours and that it is the sole and only righteousness on account of and by the merit of which we are absolved from the guilt of our sins and obtain a right to life….”

Francis Turretin, Institutes, vol 2, p. 639, 647, 648.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Not Trusting My Own Merits (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.)  Those whom God justifies he also sanctifies.  These two truths are twin truths.  Where one is the other will also be.  We don’t want to separate justification and sanctification.  On the other hand, we don’t want to mix them together.  We need to make a proper biblical distinction between the two or we mess up the gospel of grace.  John Calvin understood this and explained it well more than a few times.  Here’s one instance from his tract called “On the True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church.”  (Note that “regeneration” in this context is broadly defined and means renewal and sanctification.)

Let the children of God consider that regeneration is necessary to them, but that, nevertheless, their full righteousness consists in Christ:

—let them understand that they have been ordained and created unto holiness of life and the study of good works, but that, nevertheless, they must recline on the merits of Christ with their whole soul;

—let them enjoy the righteousness of life which has been bestowed upon them, still, however, distrusting it so as not to bring before the tribunal of God any other trust than trust in the obedience of Christ.

 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 246.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Righteous in Christ, Not Ourselves (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.) In volume 3 of Tracts and Treatises you can find Calvin’s 1547 critical commentary on the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent.  It’s an excellent resource that not only sheds theological light on the central aspects of the Reformation, it’s also a wonderful and edifying defense of the solas and the doctrines of grace.  Here are some of Calvin’s helpful comments on the distinction between justification and sanctification:

It is not to be denied, however, that the two things, Justification and Sanctification, are constantly conjoined and cohere; but from this it is erroneously inferred that they are one and the same. For example: The light of the sun, though never unaccompanied with heat, is not to be considered heat. Where is the man so undiscerning as not to distinguish the one from the other? We acknowledge, then, that as soon as any one is justified, renewal also necessarily follows: and there is no dispute as to whether or not Christ sanctifies all whom he justifies. It were to rend the gospel, and divide Christ himself, to attempt to separate the righteousness which we obtain by faith from repentance.

The whole dispute is as to The Cause of Justification. The Fathers of Trent pretend that it is twofold, as if we were justified partly by forgiveness of sins and partly by spiritual regeneration; or, to express their view in other words, as if our righteousness were composed partly of imputation, partly of quality.

I maintain that it is one, and simple, and is wholly included in the gratuitous acceptance of God. I besides hold that it is without us [outside of us], because we are righteous in Christ only. Let them produce evidence from Scripture, if they have any, to convince us of their doctrine. I, while I have the whole Scripture supporting me, will now be satisfied with this one reason, viz., that when mention is made of the righteousness of works, the law and the gospel place it [righteousness of works] in the perfect obedience of the law; and as that nowhere appears, they leave us no alternative but to flee to Christ alone, that we may be regarded as righteous in him, not being so in ourselves. Will they produce to us one passage which declares that begun newness of life is approved by God as righteousness either in whole or in part? But if they are devoid of authority, why may we not be permitted to repudiate the figment of partial justification which they here obtrude [impose]?

…I, on the contrary, while I admit that we are never received into the favour of God without being at the same time regenerated to holiness of life, contend that it is false to say that any part of righteousness (justification) consists in quality, or in the habit which resides in us, and that we are righteous (justified) only by gratuitous acceptance. For when the Apostle teaches that “by the obedience of one many were made righteous,” (Rom. 6:19,) he sufficiently shews, if I mistake not, that the righteousness wanting in ourselves is borrowed elsewhere. …For however small the portion attributed to our work, to that extent faith will waver, and our whole salvation be endangered.

 John Calvin and Hendry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 115–116.

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

Nothing Done By Us… (Hodge)

Hodge ST Charles Hodge wrote that justification is…

…[A] declarative act in which God pronounces the sinner just or righteous, that is, declares that the claims of justice, so far as he is concerned, are satisfied, so that he cannot be justly condemned, but is in justice entitled to the reward promised or due to perfect righteousness.

The meritorious ground of justification is not faith; we are not justified on account of our faith, considered as a virtuous or holy act or state of mind. Nor are our works of any kind the ground of justification. Nothing done by us or wrought in us satisfies the demands of justice, or can be the ground or reason of the declaration that justice as far as it concerns us is satisfied. The ground of justification is the righteousness of Christ, active and passive, i.e., including his perfect obedience to the law as a covenant, and his enduring the penalty of the law in our stead and on our behalf.

The righteousness of Christ is in justification imputed to the believer. That is, is set to his account, so that he is entitled to plead it at the bar of God, as though it were personally and inherently his own.

What’s missing from these statements?  Scripture!  However, Hodge later gives all sorts of biblical references and implications as the source of these statements, including Romans 4:6-8; 5:18; 8:1, 33-34; John 3:17-18; Gal. 2:19; 1 Pet. 2:24; Col. 2:14, and so forth.  The entire section is for sure reading when considering the great topic of justification by faith alone.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 118.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI