Our Foundation of Grace (Owen)

In one part of his exposition of Psalm 130, John Owen discussed receiving forgiveness and being assured of it.  One of his “rules” was this: “Mix not foundation and building-work together.”  By this Owen meant that the Christian’s foundation of forgiveness and acceptance with God is not by works, but by grace alone and found in Christ alone.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Our foundation in dealing with God is Christ alone, mere grace and pardon in him.  Our building is by holiness and obedience, as the fruits of that faith by which we have received the atonement.

And great mistakes there are in this matter, which bring great entanglements on the souls of men. Some are all their days laying the foundation, and are never able to build upon it any comfort to themselves or usefulness to others; and the reason is, because they are mixing with the foundation stones that are fit only for the building. They will be bringing their obedience, duties, mortification of sin, and the like, to the foundation. These are precious stones to build with, but unmeet to be first laid, to bear upon them the whole weight of the building.

The foundation is to be laid, as was said, in mere grace, mercy, and pardon in the blood of Christ. This the soul is to accept of and to rest in as mere grace, without the consideration of any thing in itself, but that it is sinful and obnoxious unto ruin. This it finds a difficulty in, and would gladly have something of its own to mix with it. It cannot tell how to fix these foundation-stones without some cement of its own endeavors and duty; and because these things will not mix, they spend a fruitless labor about it all their days.

But if the foundation be of grace, it is not at all of works; for “otherwise grace is no more grace. ” If any thing of our own be mixed with grace in this matter, it utterly destroys the nature of grace; which if it be not alone, it does not exist at all….

This, then, is the soul to do who would come to peace and settlement.  Let it let go of all former endeavors, if it has been engaged unto any of that kind, and let it alone receive, admit of, and adhere to, mere grace, mercy, and pardon, with a full sense that in itself it has nothing for which it should have an interest in them, but that all is of mere grace through Jesus Christ: ‘Other foundation can no man lay.’ Depart not hence until this work be well over. Cease not from an earnest endeavor with your own heart to acquiesce in this righteousness of God, and to bring your souls unto a comfortable persuasion that “God for Christ’s sake hath freely forgiven you all your sins. “

This is a great reminder of that biblical truth that we are justified, forgiven, and accepted by God only through Christ and only because of God’s grace (Rom 3-4, Gal 2-3, Eph 2, etc.).  Our justification, forgiveness, and acceptance are not in any way dependent upon our works, deeds, or merits.  As we begin to grow in understanding of this foundational truth, our assurance also grows and we learn more about what it means to give God all the glory.

The above quote is found in John Owen’s exposition of Psalm 130, chapter 13, rule 7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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 Promise of Reward (Calvin)

Commentary on the Book of PsalmsThe 63rd Q/A of the Heidelberg Catechism deals with Scripture’s promise tthat God will reward the good that his people do.  The catechism says “This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.”  Here’s Calvin’s similar take on this theme found in his commentary on Psalm 62:12b, You reward everyone according to what they have done (NIV).

From this, and passages of a similar kind, the Papists have argued, in defense of their doctrine, that justification and salvation depend upon good works; but I have already exposed the fallacy of their reasoning. No sooner is mention made of works, than they catch at the expression, as amounting to a statement that God rewards men upon the ground of merit.

It is with a very different design than to encourage any such opinion, that the Spirit promises a reward to our works—it is to animate us in the ways of obedience, and not to inflame that impious self-confidence which cuts up salvation by the very roots.

According to the judgment which God forms of the works of the believer, their worth and valuation depend, first, upon the free pardon extended to him as a sinner, and by which he becomes reconciled to God; and, next, upon the divine condescension and indulgence which accepts his services, notwithstanding all their imperfections.

We know that there is none of our works which, in the sight of God, can be accounted perfect or pure, and without taint of sin. Any recompense they meet with must therefore be traced entirely to his goodness. Since the Scriptures promise a reward to the saints, with the sole intention of stimulating their minds, and encouraging them in the divine warfare, and not with the remotest design of derogating from the mercy of God, it is absurd in the Papists to allege that they, in any sense, merit what is bestowed upon them.

John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 432.

Shane Lems

Do Not Sleep Another Night Without It! (McCheyne)

While reading several of Robert Murray McCheyne’s letters this morning, I came across one he wrote to a stranger in 1840.  McCheyne’s friend told him of a man he knew that might benefit from an evangelistic letter.  So McCheyne sent a letter since he wasn’t able to visit the stranger in person.  Here’s a very encouraging excerpt from the letter:

“Look at Romans 5:19.  By the sin of Adam, many were made sinners.  We had no hand in Adam’s sin, and yet the guilt of it comes upon us.  We did not put out our hand to the apple, and yet the sin and misery have been laid at our door.  In the same way, ‘by the obedience of Christ, many are made righteous.’  Christ is the glorious One who stood for many.  His perfect garment is sufficient to cover you.  You had no hand in his obedience.   You were not alive when He came into the world and lived and died; and yet, in the perfect obedience, you may stand before God [as] righteous.”

“This is all my covering in the sight of a holy God.  I feel infinitely ungodly in myself: in God’s eye, like a serpent or a toad; and yet, when I stand in Christ alone, I feel that God sees no sin in me, and loves me freely.  The same righteousness is free to you.  It will be as white and clean on your soul as on mine.  Oh, do not sleep another night without it!  Only consent to stand in Christ, not in your poor self.”

R. M. McCheyne, Memiors, ed. Andrew Bonar (Chicago: Moody Press, 1951), 93.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Rewards of Heaven (Hodge)

Below is a helpful way to talk about justification through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone and the rewards of heaven promised in Scripture (Mt. 6:4, Mk. 9:41, 1 Cor. 3:14, etc.).  They are not contradictory!  I appreciate the emphasis on grace and Christ’s work:

…Although Protestants deny the merit of good works, and teach that salvation is entirely gratuitous, that the remission of sins, adoption into the family of God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit are granted to the believer, as well as admission into heaven, solely on the ground of the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ; they nevertheless teach that God does reward his people for their works. Having graciously promised for Christ’s sake to overlook the imperfection of their best services, they have the assurance founded on that promise that he who gives to a disciple even a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, shall in no wise lose his reward. The Scriptures also teach that the happiness or blessedness of believers in a future life will be greater or less in proportion to their devotion to the service of Christ in this life. Those who love little, do little; and those who do little, enjoy less. What a man sows that shall he also reap. As the rewards of heaven are given on the ground of the merits of Christ, and as He has a right to do what He will with his own, there would be no injustice were the thief saved on the cross as highly exalted as the Apostle Paul. But the general drift of Scripture is in favor of the doctrine that a man shall reap what he sows; that God will reward every one according to, although not on account of his works. (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, pages 244-5)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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 Importance of “Christ Alone” (Luther)

Martin Luther’s Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (recently reprinted by Lexham Press) is an excellent resource to have when studying Matthew 5-7.  The language/translation is a bit dated, but it is outstanding and well worth the effort.  Today I read the following, which I marked up quite a bit:

For if I cling to this, that Christ alone is my righteousness and holiness, no monk will ever persuade or mislead me by his hood, rosary, this or that work and childish human notion. For through faith I am a judge of all imaginable conditions and ways of living, so that I can condemn everything that offers to show me anything else that is to avail before God.

In other words, Luther said that if we understand that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, we’ll rightly reject and condemn any other way to be right with God.  Luther continued:

But if I neglect this, and let the treasure go, and am instructed to seek elsewhere and otherwise to be pious, to conciliate God and atone for sin, then I am already prepared for all sorts of snares and nets of the devil, and to let myself be led as he pleases; then presently comes someone who preaches to me: ‘If you want to be pious and serve God, then put on a hood, pray daily so many rosaries, burn so many little candles to St. Anna.’  Then I fall in with this like a blind man and everybody’s fool and prisoner, and do everything I am told, so completely that I cannot defend myself from even the most trifling mistake.

If you take away the teaching of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, people will believe and do anything they are told to be accepted by God.  This is a rejection of the gospel.  Therefore we should, following the Apostle Paul’s insistence, clearly preach and firmly believe that we are not justified by works, but through faith alone in Christ alone (Rom 3:28, Gal. 2:16, etc.).

Luther, Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, p. 68.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015