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

Advertisements

“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

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

Invocation of Saints and Prayer to Mary?

Systematic Theology, 3 Volumes The Roman Catholic Catechism still teaches and affirms prayer to Mary and invocation of the saints for help (see paragraphs 2675, 2676, 2683, 956, etc.).  In Protestant theology, specifically in the Reformed catechisms, prayer to Mary and to the saints is said to be idolatry – a violation of the first commandment.  Why or how is prayer to saints or Mary (or anyone besides God) a form of idolatry and a grave sin?  Charles Hodge explains this well as he gives three main theological objections to the invocation of saints (I’ve slightly edited the following for length):

1) It is, to say the least, superstitious.  It assumes, without any evidence from Scripture or experience, that the spirits of the dead are accessible to those who are still in the flesh; that they are near us, capable of hearing our prayers, knowing our thoughts, and answering our requests. The Church or the soul is launched on an ocean of fantasies and follies, without a compass, if either suffers itself to believe without evidence; then there is nothing in astrology, alchemy, or demonology which may not be received as true, to perplex, to pervert, or to torment.

2) The whole thing is a deceit and illusion. If in fact departed saints are not authorized and not enabled to hear and answer the prayers of suppliants on earth, then the people are in the condition of those who trust in gods who cannot save, who have eyes that see not, and ears that cannot hear. That the saints have no such office as the theory and practice of invocation suppose is plain, because the fact if true cannot be known except by divine revelation. But no such revelation exists. It is a purely superstitious belief, without the support of either Scripture or reason.  …If this be so, then how dreadfully are the people deluded How fearful the consequences of turning their eyes and hearts from the one divine mediator between God and man, who ever lives to make intercession for us, and whom the Father heareth always, and causing them to direct their prayers to ears which never hear, and to place their hopes in arms which never save. It is turning from the fountain of living waters, to cisterns which can hold no water.

3)  The invocation of saints as practiced in the Church of Rome is idolatrous. Even if it be conceded that the theory as expounded by theologians is free from this charge, it remains true that the practice involves all the elements of idolatry. Blessings are sought from the saints which God only can bestow; and attributes are assumed to belong to them which belong to God alone. Every kind of blessing, temporal and spiritual, is sought at their hands, and sought directly from them as the givers. This Bellarmine (a Roman Catholic theologian) admits so far as the words employed are concerned. He says it is right to say: “Holy Peter, save me; open to me the gates of heaven; give me repentance, courage,” etc. God alone can grant these blessings; the people are told to seek them at the hands of creatures. This is idolatry.  Practically it is taken for granted that the saints are everywhere present, that they can hear prayers addressed to them from all parts of the earth at the same time; that they know our thoughts and unexpressed desires. This is to assume that they possess divine attributes. In fact, therefore, the saints are the gods whom the people worship, whom they trust, and who are the objects of the religious affections.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 3, pages 283-285.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Martin Luther: Christ Alone!

Product Details (This is a re-post from March 2012)

When Martin Luther preached from the Gospel passages on John the Baptist, he always emphasized how John’s finger pointed to Christ, and how the church most follow in John’s footsteps and point people to the Lord without fail.  Salvation can only be found in Jesus and in no one or nothing else; that is the message the church must constantly preach.  But preaching this isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

“…The devil does not intend to allow this testimony about Christ.  He devotes all his energy to opposing it and will not desist until he has struck it down and suppressed it.  In this respect, we humans are weak and stubbornly perverse and are more likely to become attached to saints than to Christ.  Within the papacy they have preached about the service rendered by these beloved saints, that one ought to rely on their merit.”

“And I, too, believed and preached thus.  St. Ann was my idol, and St. Thomas my apostle.  I patterned myself substantially after them.  Others ran to St. James and strongly believed and firmly trusted that, if they conformed, they would received all they wished and hoped for.  Prayers were said to St. Barbara and St. Christopher in order to avert an early and sudden death, and there was no uncertainty here.  So completely is man by nature bent on renouncing this testimony of John the Baptist.”

“For this reason it is necessary constantly to persevere and adhere to John’s testimony concerning Christ.  For it requires toil and effort to continue with word and testimony, for a person at death to be able to say, I must die, but I have a Savior concerning whom John the Baptist testifies; on him and on no other creature, either in heaven or on earth, do I rely.  However, that a person can die as cheerfully by believing in St. Barbara, in an indulgence, or in a pilgrimage to Rome, as in the man to whom alone John the Baptist points, is out of the question.  Also, that a person can build as strongly on monkery or monastery life as on holy baptism is a forlorn hope.”

“What I am telling you is that it is easier for us humans to believe and trust in everything else than in the name of Christ, who alone is all in all, and more difficult for us for us to rely on him in whom and through whom we possess all things.”

Here we see one of the major issues of the Reformation.  The Roman Catholic Church clouded the gospel by adding assistants and helpers into the mix of salvation.  Rome preached a gospel of “Jesus and:” Jesus and Mary, Jesus and purgatory, Jesus and the saints, Jesus and works of charity.  Luther and the Reformers cleared the fog by ridding the church of helpers in salvation.  They preached the gospel once again in all its clarity: Christ and Christ alone is sufficient for salvation.  Since Rome has not changed, and since our own hearts constantly look elsewhere for salvation, the issue is still before us today.  So it is still the duty of the church to clear away all helpers and assistants in salvation and preach Christ and him alone.  He is all we have for salvation, but he is all that we’ll ever need.

These quotes are taken from volume five of Baker Publishing’s 7-volume set of Luther’s sermons (page 79).

shane lems

Mary, Rome, and the Gospel

In the mid-19th century Charles Chiniquy was a priest in the French Canadian Roman Catholic Church.  To make a very long story short, Chiniquy constantly wrestled with the teachings of Rome since they didn’t mesh with the teachings of Scripture.  After a long and intense spiritual struggle, Chiniquy left Rome for the Reformation.  The unabridged edition of this book is quite long and detailed, but it is worth the effort.  (FYI, you can find it on Kindle for less than $2.00.)  I’m reading through the unabridged edition, and though I don’t agree with it all, it has been a fascinating read; it’s not one I’ll set down and forget about.

One section that stands out for me is where Chiniquy recounted a sermon about Mary that he preached when he was a Catholic priest.  (Speaking of Mary and Rome, here’s a summary of Rome’s teaching on prayer to Mary.)  Chiniquy’s sermon went like this (edited/abridged):

“I was sincerely devoted to the Virgin Mary.  Nothing seemed to me more natural than to pray to her, and rely on her protection.  The object of my sermon was to show that Jesus Christ cannot refuse any of the petitions presented to him by his mother; that she has always obtained favors she asked he Son, Jesus, to grant to her devotees. Of course, my address was more sentimental than Scripture, as it is the style among the priests of Rome.  But I was honest; and I sincerely believed what I said.”

“The Gospel says, in reference to his parents, …’he was subject unto them (Lk. 2:51).  What a grand and shining revelation we have in these few short words: Jesus was subject unto Mary!  Is it not written, that Jesus is the same today, as he was yesterday, and will be forever (Heb. 13:8)?  He has not changed.  He is still the Son of Mary… in his divine humanity, he is still subject unto Mary.  This is why our holy Church, which is the pillar and fountain of Truth, invites you and me, today, to put an unbounded confidence in her intercession.  Remembering that Jesus has always granted the petitions presented to him by his divine mother, let us put our petitions in her hands, if we want to receive the favours we are in need of.”

Chiniquy says quite a bit more about devotion and prayers to Mary in this sermon.  At one point, he says that because Jesus is so holy and we are so sinful, we cannot go directly to Christ.  Therefore, he preached, we should go to Mary – because she is the mediator and intercessor between sinners and Christ.  Chiniquy even quoted Pope Gregory XVI: “Mary is the only hope of sinners.”

Soon after he preached this sermon, Chiniquy was reading through the Gospels where he found accounts of Jesus rebuking Mary and the stories where Jesus says his mother and brothers are those who do the will of God (e.g. John 2:4, Mark 3:34-35, etc.).  These texts pierced his conscience like a sword, and he felt incredibly guilty (to the point of tears) for preaching lies:

“A voice, the voice of my conscience, whose thunders were like the voice of a thousand Niagaras was telling me: “Do you not see that you have preached a sacrilegious lie this morning, when, from the pulpit, you said to your ignorant and deluded people, that Jesus always granted the petitions of His mother, Mary? Are you not ashamed to deceive yourself, and deceive your poor countrymen with such silly falsehoods?  …Do you not see you have presented a blasphemous lie, every time you said that Jesus always granted the petitions of His mother?”

Chiniquy took his concerns to a bishop who could not answer his questions, but simply directed him to the early Church fathers.  Chiniquy then looked deep into the fathers, but did not find them advocating the worship of or prayers to Mary.  He continued to wrestle, thinking that he was able to put up with Rome’s several errors more than Protestantism’s many errors.  Later he came to the conclusion that there were more errors in Rome than in Protestantism.  Therefore he left Rome and her unbiblical superstitions, unchristian traditions, and distortions of the gospel.  By the way, Rome hasn’t changed her position on Mary.  The Reformation happened for a reason!

The above quotes can be found in chapter 46 of Charles Chiniquy, Fifty Years in the Church of Rome.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Protesting Papal Snares

https://i0.wp.com/covers3.booksamillion.com/covers/bam/0/14/043/477/0140434771.jpgSometimes we Protestants forget our protest.  The Reformation came about because certain Christian men boldly protested the heinous abuses of the Roman Catholic Church.  These weren’t minor abuses; it wasn’t like the Reformers were simply upset about a few songs, candle arrangements, and the writings of one or two priests.  The Reformers protested against Rome because her official teaching contradicted the heart of Scriptural truth: salvation from sin by grace alone (not grace + merit) through faith alone (not faith + works) in Christ alone (not Mary’s or anyone else’s merits), which we are taught from Scripture alone (not ecclesiastical tradition) for God’s glory alone (not for the glory of the Pope or any man).

It’s important to keep this in mind when reading Reformed works that criticize the theology and practice of Rome.  Protestants have often used harsh language when writing against Rome.  Although these Protestant writers were not without sin, by in large Rome’s corruption and abuses deserve harsh language because Rome distorts the gospel, binds consciences, and takes the spotlight off of Christ, his promises, and his love.  Here’s an example from William Tyndale, one of the early English Reformers.

“Woe be to you lawyers! For ye lade [load] men with burdens which they are not able to bear, and ye yourselves touch not the packs with one of your fingers,” saith Christ, Luke 11, Our [spiritual] lawyers, verily, have laden us a thousand times more. What spiritual kindred have they made in baptism to let [hinder] matrimony!  Besides that they have added certain degrees unto the law natural for the same purpose. What an unbearable burden of chastity do they violently thrust on other men’s backs, and how easily bear they it themselves! How sore a burden, how cruel a hangman, how grievous a torment, yea, and how painful an hell, is this ear-confession unto men’s consciences! For the people are brought in belief, that without that they cannot be saved; insomuch that some fast certain days in the year, and pray certain superstitious prayers all their lives long, that they may not die without confession. In peril of death, if the priest be not [near]by, the shipmen shrive themselves [make confession] unto the mast [of the ship]. If any [person] be present, they run then every man into his ear [to confess]: but to God’s promises fly they not, for they know them not. If any man have a death’s wound, he crieth immediately for a priest. If a man die without shrift [confession], many take it for a sign of damnation. Many, by reason of that false belief, die in desperation. Many, for shame, keep back of their confession twenty, thirty years, and think all the while that they be damned.

I knew a poor woman with child, which longed, and, being overcome of her passion [hunger], ate flesh [meat] on a Friday; which thing she durst [dared] not confess in the space of eighteen years, and thought all that while that she had been damned, and yet sinned she not at all. Is not this a sore burden, that so weigheth down the soul unto the bottom of hell? What should I say? A great book were not sufficient to rehearse the snares which they have laid to rob men both of their goods, and also of the trust which they should have in God’s word.

This is why men like Tyndale protested against the heavy burdens of the papacy.  Rome was binding consciences far beyond the Word, propagating religious superstitions, messing with God’s law, removing free grace from the gospel, not pointing to God’s unfailing promises for solace, and driving people to spiritual despair.  These things were – and are! – certainly worth protesting with vigor!

The above quote is found on pages 101-102 of Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man, first published in 1528.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi