The Puritans on the Law/Gospel Distinction

One thing I always appreciate about the Puritans is the fact that they make the proper distinction between the law and the gospel.  From Thomas Watson to John Bunyan to William Perkins, the Puritans did not mix the law with the gospel or the gospel with the law.  I got to thinking about this again recently when looking over the chapter on the law and the gospel in A Puritan Theology.  As I noted before, this is one of the weaker chapters in an otherwise helpful book.  I’ve written extensively on the law/gospel distinction here before, but I thought it would be beneficial to give a few more examples of how the Puritans distinguished between the law and the gospel.  First, here are a few quotes from Thomas Goodwin:

“The law was a dead letter, and though it shewed us the will of God, yet it changed us not into the image of it; but the gospel reveals the glorious image of Jesus Christ to true believers, and changeth them into the same image, yet so as by degrees, from one degree of glory to another, this glorious image being perfected by little and little, till we come to the full stature of Christ” (Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1863), 218).

“Now what is the gospel? Truly it is nothing else (take it strictly in the special sense and meaning of it) but that doctrine which holds forth the grace of God justifying, pardoning, and saving sinners, and which holds forth Jesus Christ made righteousness to us. Now then, this gospel it is called in a peculiar respect ‘the word of faith;’ and for what respect but this? because it is a special object of a special faith which God saveth us by. The apostle, in Rom. 10:8, speaking of the gospel in distinction from the law, and from all else in the Scripture, saith, ‘This is the word of faith which we preach….’” (Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 8 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), 286.)

Here’s Thomas Boston:

That which I aim at, and intend therein, is to show unto myself, and others that shall read it, the difference betwixt the Law and the Gospel — a point, as I conceive, very needful for us to be well instructed in, and that for these (two) reasons:

  1. Because, if we be ignorant thereof, we shall be very apt to mix and mingle them together, and so to confound the one with the other; which, as Luther on the Galatians truly says, “doth more mischief than man’s reason can conceive;” and therefore he doth advise all Christians, in the case of justification, to separate the Law and the Gospel as far asunder as heaven and earth are separated.
  2. Secondly, Because if we know right how to distinguish betwixt them, the knowledge thereof will afford us no small light towards the true understanding of the Scripture, and will help us to reconcile all such places, both in the Old and New Testament, as seem to be repugnant; yea, and it will help us to judge aright of cases of conscience, and quiet our own conscience in time of trouble and distress; yea, and we shall thereby be enabled to try the truth and falsehood of all doctrines…”  (Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Explication of the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 7 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1850), 459.)

I like how Goodwin explained the power of the gospel and how Boston listed the benefits of knowing how to distinguish between the two.  Indeed, as the author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharius Ursinus, said,

“…The law and gospel are the chief and general divisions of the holy scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein” (Zacharias Ursinus and G. W. Williard, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 2.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI

As The Sun Shines on the Dung Hill (Or: Grace and Works Inconsistent)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston (12 vols.)  Thomas Boston (d. 1732) was a preacher-theologian who clearly preached and taught the gospel truth that a sinner is justified through faith alone apart from works.  God justifies a sinner only by grace, and faith is a God-given instrument that receives God’s free gift of Christ’s righteousness.  In a sermon on Ephesians 1:6, Boston noted that grace is “love and favor freely flowing, without anything in the object to draw it out.”

Later in the sermon Boston explained the way a sinner is accepted by God:

“First, It is “freely.” There is nothing in the sinner himself to procure it, or move God to it (Rom. 3:24), but as the sun shines without hire on the dung-hill, so God accepts sinners of mere grace.”

How is it free?

“It is without respect to any work done by the sinner (Titus 3:5). Grace and works are inconsistent in this matter. Men may render themselves acceptable to men, by some work of theirs, that is profitable or pleasant to them; but no work of ours can render us acceptable to God. It is natural for men to think to gain acceptance with God, by their doing better; and when they have set themselves to do and work for that end, they please themselves that they are accepted. But mistake it not, that way of acceptance is blocked up.”

This is true because:

(1.) All works of ours are excluded from our justification, whereof our acceptance is a part (Rom. 3:20), and faith and works are opposed in that matter (v. 28; Gal. 2:16).
(2.) Our best works are attended with sinful imperfections (Isa. 64:6), and mixed with many evil works (Jam. 3:2). So in them there is ground for God’s loathing and condemning us; how then can we be accepted for what is in itself loathsome and condemnable?
(3.) We can do no good works before we be accepted (John 9:31; Heb. 11:6). The tree must be good, ere [before] the fruit can be so. The person out of Christ can work no works, but dead works (John 15:5), for he is, while so, in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. And what is all that the man can do before he believe and be accepted in Christ, but a parcel of hypocritical works?

You can read this entire excellent sermon in Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Discourses on Prayer, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 11 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1852), 162.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

A Kind Of Implicit Blasphemy In Complaining (Boston)

The Works Of Thomas Boston: Volume 1 by [Boston, Thomas] If you know a few things about Israel’s wilderness years, you know they complained and grumbled more than once.  Israel’s grumbling was a terrible sin, because it showed that they doubted God’s providence and promise, it showed their arrogant and covetous hearts, and it showed they didn’t trust God.  Paul says we can learn from Israel’s sin: “…And don’t grumble as some of them did, and then were destroyed by the angel of death” (1 Cor. 10:10 NLT).  Paul also said we should do all things without grumbling and arguing (Phil. 2:14).

While talking about God’s providence and sovereign decree, Thomas Boston (d. 1732) listed some notes of application.  What does it mean that God sovereignly decrees all things that come to pass, and by his providence is in control of all things?  Here’s one application point that has to do with complaining (I’ve slightly updated the language):

“See here the evil of murmuring and complaining at our lot in the world. How quick are you to quarrel with God, as if he were in the wrong when his dealings with you are not according to your own desires and wishes? You demand a reason, and call God to an account, ‘Why am I thus? Why so much afflicted and distressed? Why so long afflicted? And why such an affliction rather than another? Why am I so poor and another so rich?’ Thus your hearts rise up against God

But you should remember, that this is to defame the counsels of infinite wisdom, as if God had not ordered your affairs wisely enough in his eternal counsel. We find the Lord reproving Job for this: ‘shall he that contend with the Lord instruct him?’ (Job 40:2). When you murmur and fret under irritable and afflicting dispensations, this is presuming to instruct God how to deal with you, and to reprove him as if he were in the wrong. Yea, there is a kind of implicit blasphemy in it, as if you had more wisdom and justice to dispose of your lot, and to carve out your own portion in the world. This is the language of such a disposition, ‘Had I been on God’s counsel, I had ordered this matter better; things had not been with me as now they are.’

O presume not to correct the infinite wisdom of God, seeing he has decreed all things most wisely and judiciously.”

To combat sinful complaining, we need to contemplate the sovereign decree and providence of God, and trust that he does all things well.  He’s the Potter, we are the clay!

Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Part 1, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 1 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 166.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

“Comprehend Him Ye Cannot”

When Thomas Boston talked about the Christian’s duty to love God, he said that we need to know God in order to truly love him.  But Boston was careful to explain this knowledge by using a great phrase: “Comprehend him ye cannot, but apprehend him ye must, as he has revealed himself.” Richard Muller summarizes this doctrine well in volume three of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics:

God is not known through his essence – but “through his effects and his names, by which he wills to reveal his virtues to us” (Cocceius, Summa Theol).  The nature of God can be known, then, “according to the manner of divine Revelation, and the measure of our knowledge” and is to be discussed in terms of the name of God and in terms of the definition (Ibid.).

The exposition of doctrine, moreover, proceeds on the premises that whatever is said or predicated of God is not God himself – for God is ineffable – but rather what the human mind in its limitation can apprehend about God. Indeed, a distinction must be made between “comprehension” and “apprehension,” inasmuch as we cannot have an “adequate” idea of God in the sense that we know and understand God fully or are able “fully to describe” the divine perfections, but we can have “some imperfect or inadequate ideas of what surpasses our understanding and we can have “a full conviction that God hath those infinite perfections, which no creature can comprehend” (Ridgley, Body of Divinity)

Thus, language about God proceeds cautiously, frequently according to a negative manner; as when God is called “incomprehensible” or “infinite.” These identifications of God are intended to “remove far from him the imperfections of creatures” (Trelcatius, Scholastic Methods).

In other words, our human minds are limited, darkened by sin, and finite. Therefore we cannot fully comprehend God nor can we perfectly describe and explain him.  Even our best theology is imperfect.  However, because he has revealed himself (in creation but more specifically in his Word and in Jesus), we can apprehend him and know him in a true and saving way.  It’s not because we deserve it or because we’re smart, super intelligent, or supremely wise.  It’s because he is gracious.  It is his good pleasure to reveal himself to his people and give them the hearts to believe his Son (cf. Matt. 11:27, Luke 10:22, & 2 Cor. 4:6)!

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 165.

Shane Lems

Why Does God Allow Sin to Remain in the Regenerate? (Boston)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston (12 vols.) “Why do I keep struggling with the same sinful thoughts?”  “Why can’t I just gain victory over lust and pride?”  “Why in the world does God allow sin to remain in his people?”  These are questions Christians ask from time to time.  We think of how nice it would be if we didn’t have to struggle with sinful thoughts, words, and deeds.  But, in his sovereignty, God has a reason for allowing sin to remain in his children.  Thomas Boston (d. 1732) gave some helpful answers to the question of why God allows sin to dwell in his elect while on earth.  Here are some of Boston’s answers (which I’ve edited and summarized):

  1. God has ordered the matter of the believer’s sanctification, that sin is left to be active in their souls while here on earth, for their further humiliation.  For example, God gave Paul a thorn in the flesh to keep him low.  And so we find David, after his grievous fall, grows in the grace of humility.
  2. The Lord allows sin to remain in his people so they are stirred to the frequent exercise of prayer.  The soul feels the continual need of pardon, and therefore must be much lying at God’s footstool.  When his children grow remiss in their duty, the Lord sometimes allows them to fall into some grievous sin to awaken them and wound their conscience, so they cry to Him like a child who falls into a small fire.
  3. The sin left in us makes us more watchful of our hearts which still are prone to wander.  When a prisoner escapes, and they catch him, they will put him in more close custody than before.  We walk through a world filled with many snares; if we were not watchful, we would be caught in them.
  4. Just like God allowed some Canaanites to remain in the land to try his people, so he has left remains of natural corruption in them for their exercise and trial.  Therefore Christ’s soldiers know whom they fight against, and by whose strength they may overcome.  God gives his people armor at their conversion; is it reasonable that it should lie beside them rusting?  Indwelling sin makes us lean on Christ’s strength and use God’s armor in the battle.
  5. Through sin left in us, we are made more and more to feel our need for Christ, and his precious blood for the removal of our guilt daily contracted anew, and for the strengthening of our souls in our Christian course, so that we come out of the wilderness resting upon our Beloved.  So we see that our security is not in our hand; if it were, we would be quickly lost.
  6. It is God’s ordinary way to bring about a great work by degrees – including the great work of the believer’s sanctification.  God could have created all things in one moment; instead, he was pleased to take six days to do it.  He could have sent Christ immediately after Adam fell, but he instead let thousands of years pass.  He could have brought Israel to the Promised Land immediately; instead it pleased him that they should wander in the wilderness for forty years.  So it is with sanctification.
  7. Finally, through the indwelling sin that remains, Christ is glorified.  While the enemy (sin) does dwell in us, Christ’s grace and Holy Spirit are at work in us so that the enemy cannot overcome, domineer, or destroy us.  Because of indwelling sin we know that we cannot justify ourselves, but can only be justified by the perfect obedience of Christ, which we lay hold of by faith.  In this, Christ is glorified.

After noting these seven points, Boston wrote, “To see how God makes such an excellent medicine of such poisonous ingredients cannot be but very delightful.”  The struggle against indwelling sin is difficult for sure.  But when we remember God’s sovereign use of indwelling sin in his people for their good and his glory, it helps us press on in the faith with our eyes fixed on Jesus.  He will one day graciously give us the full victory over sin.

Near the end of the treatise, Boston wrote this:

“Finally, to shut up [summarize/end] all; it is plain, that the more difficulties the work of man’s salvation is carried through, the free grace of God is the more exalted; our Lord Jesus, the author of eternal salvation, hath the greater glory: but in this way it is carried on over the belly of more difficulties, than it would have been, if by the first grace the Christian had been made perfect.”

Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Sermons and Discourses on Several Important Subjects in Divinity, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 6 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1849), 124.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Promoting Our Neighbor’s Good Name

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston, Vol. 2: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 2 Thomas Boston (d. 1732), along with many other volumes, wrote a commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  I’ve enjoyed using it in my studies and sermons on the Ten Commandments.  Below I’ve written a section where Boston talks about one of the implications of the 9th commandment: rather than lying, we should speak well of our neighbor and promote his good name (WSC Q/A 77; cf HC Q/A 112).  The question is, what does the 9th commandment require of us towards our neighbors?

1. A charitable opinion and esteem of our neighbors (1 Cor. 13:7); being ready to hope the best of them, unless the contrary be evident.

2. A desire of, and rejoicing in, their good name and reputation (Rom. 1:8). We are to love them as ourselves, and therefore should be glad of the sweet savor of their name, though their reputation outshine ours.

3. Sorrowing and grieving for their faults (2 Cor. 12:21). The blasting of anybody’s name by their sins, should make us mourn, and the rather that the same root of bitterness is in all naturally: and they are the deeper in God’s debt that get through the world with an unblemished reputation.

4. Covering their infirmities with the mantle of love (1 Pet. 4:8). Everybody has some weak side, and needs a cover from others in love: and it is a dangerous business to aggravate and blaze abroad this to their dishonor.

5. Freely acknowledging the gifts and graces that are in any (1 Cor. 1:4–7).  As none are so good but they have some discernible infirmity, so hardly is one so bad but there is some one thing or another praise-worthy in them. And if it were but one thing, it is our duty frankly to own it.

6. Defending their innocence, as Ahimelech did David’s (1 Sam. 22:14): “And who among all your servants is as faithful as David, even the king’s son-in-law, who is captain over your guard, and is honored in your house?” (NASB). It is necessary and just to defend the innocent, especially if absent, against the poisonous bites of a viperous tongue lest we be held consenting to the tongue-murder of him, in God’s account.

7. An unwillingness to receive an ill report of them, and a readiness to admit a good report of them (1 Cor. 13:6, 7. Ps. 15:3). Love readily opens the door to a good report of our neighbor, but is not very hasty to let in an evil one, being truly sorry if it should be true.

8. Discouraging tale bearers, flatterers, and slanderers, who go about gathering all the filth they can find to throw upon the name and reputation of others. These should be discouraged as the pests of human society, as David did, ‘Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, him I will destroy’ (Ps. 101:5 NASB).

9. Lastly, watching over one another, giving sound and seasonable admonitions, checks, and reproofs, for what is ill or ill like in others (Lev. 19:17); and telling themselves of it, so as it may not be blabbed out without necessity: whereby both their souls might be timely preserved from the snare, and their good name preserved too.

The above quotes are found in Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 2, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 2 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 316–317.

shane lems

The Baxterian Winding of Righteousness

Marrow of Modern Divinity As some of our readers might know, Thomas Boston (d. 1732) wrote an excellent commentary on Edward Fisher’s (d. 1655) The Marrow of Modern Divinity.  Both The Marrow and Boston’s notes on it talk about faith, justification, works, law, gospel, sanctification, and so forth from a historic Reformed perspective.  I appreciate this resource because the authors understand justification and sanctification, distinguish between the law and the gospel, and steer the readers away from both antinomianism and legalism.  Speaking of the latter, I appreciate the following section where Boston criticizes Richard Baxter’s (d. 1691) view of justification:

“As to the point of justification; no man is, nor can be justified by the law.  It is true, the Neonomians or Baxterians, to wind in a righteousness of our own into the case of justification, do turn the gospel into a law, properly so called; and do tell us, that the gospel justifieth as a law, and roundly own what is the necessary consequent of that doctrine, namely, that faith justifieth, as it is our evangelical righteousness, or our keeping the gospel law, which runs thus: “He that believeth shall not perish.”

In other words, Boston said that the neonomians/Baxterians taught a person is justified by faith – not faith apart from works, but faith that is faithful.  Or, to restate one phrase above: “faith justifies because it is our evangelical righteousness.”  Boston continues by explaining the Reformed/biblical doctrine of justification:

“But the holy Scripture teaches, that we are justified by grace, and by no law nor deed, (or work of a law, properly so called) call it the law of Christ, or the gospel law, or what law one pleaseth; and thereby faith itself, considered as a deed or work of the law, is excluded from the justification of a sinner, and hath place therein, only as an instrument.  Gal. 2:16, 3:11, 5:4, Rom. 3:28.  See also WLC 73 and WLC 19.6.

Again, in other words, the Bible teaches that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone.  We are not justified by law-keeping, no matter what one calls the law – the gospel law, the law of Christ, etc.  Furthermore, our faithfulness, or faith viewed as a work or deed, is not the grounds for our justification.  Justifying faith is an instrument that rejects our own righteousness and lays hold of Christ’s righteousness.  On the basis of Christ’s righteousness received by faith, imputed by God, a person is justified.

When we say we’re justified by faith alone, we mean none of our works, love, thoughts, merits, sincerity, attempts, religious deeds or feelings are the grounds for our justification.  The only way we can stand justified before God is if we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness alone, not his mixed with ours.

For the larger context, see p. 193-194 of Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

shane lems