Faith Must Not Be Built Upon Works

The Beatitudes Thomas Watson  (d. 1686) is one of my favorite Puritan authors.  He wrote clearly, concisely, and biblically. Here’s one great example from his discussion of faith and works in The Beatitudes.

Julian [a Roman emperor who renounced Christianity when he became emperor) upbraided the Christians that they were Solifidians, and the Church of Rome lays upon us this aspersion, that we are against good works.  Indeed we plead not for the merit of them but we are for the use of them.  ‘Let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses’ (Titus 3:14).  We preach that they are needful both as they are enforced by the precept and as they are needful for the general good of men.”

“…This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works.’ (Titus 3:8). …Faith alone justifies but justifying faith is not alone.  You may as well separate weight from lead or heat from fire as works from faith.  Good works, though they are not the causes of salvation, yet they are evidences.  Though they are not the foundation yet they are the superstructure.  Faith must not be built upon works, but works must be built upon faith. …Faith is the grace which marries Christ and good works are the children which faith bears.”

Similarly, the Westminster Confession says (16.2):

“These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith.”

(The above quote by Thomas Watson is found in The Beatitudes, p. 155-156.)

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My Faith Is Weak!

A Body of Divinity: Contained In Sermons Upon The Westminster Assembly's Catechism By Thomas Watson What happens when a Christian doubts his or her faith?  Thomas Watson answers well: “We must distinguish between weakness of faith and no faith.  A weak faith is true.  The bruised reed is but week, yet it is such as Christ will not break.  Though thy faith may be weak, be not discouraged.”

1) A weak faith receives a strong Christ.  A weak hand can tie the knot in marriage as well as a strong one; and a weak eye might have seen the bronze serpent.  The woman in the Gospel did but touch Christ’s garment, and received virtue from him.  It was the touch of faith.

2) The promise is not made to strong faith, but to true faith.  The promise of God does not say ‘whoever has a giant-faith that can move mountains or stop the mouths of lions.’  Rather, it says ‘whosoever believes, though his faith be ever so small.’  Though Christ sometimes chides a weak faith, yet that it may not be discouraged, he makes a promise to it (Matt. 5:3).

3) A weak faith may be fruitful.  Weakest things multiply most; the vine is a weak plant, but it is fruitful.  Weak Christians may have strong affections.  How strong is the first love, which is after the first planting of faith!

4) Weak faith may be growing.  Seeds spring up by degrees; first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.  Therefore, be not discouraged.  God who would have us receive them that are weak in faith will not himself refuse them (Rom 14:1).  A weak believer is a member of Christ, and though Christ will cut off rotten members from his body, he will not cut off weak members.”

In other words, and to summarize Watson’s (slightly edited) points, true faith says, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24).  Even weak faith saves, because it trusts in and receives a strong and gracious Savior.

Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, p.220.

shane lems

Powerful Motives to Repentance

The Doctrine of Repentance (Puritan Paperbacks) Thomas Watson’s little booklet on repentance is an excellent resource on confessing sin.  In chapter seven he gives a list of “powerful motives to repentance.”  Here are some of them, edited a bit for length and readability.  What are the benefits of a repentance and humility?  Why should we truly repent of our sins?

1) Sorrow and melting of heart fits us for every duty.  A piece of lead, while it is in the lump, is of no use; but melt it, and you can form it into any shape, and it is made useful.  So a heart that is hardened by sin is good for nothing, but a heart softened by repentance is useful.  A melting heart is fit to pray (Acts 9:11).  A melting heart is fit to hear the word (2 Chr. 34:19).  A melting heart is fit to obey (Acts 9:6).

2) Repentance is acceptable to God.  The Lord will not despise a contrite and broken heart (Ps. 51:17).  Augustine said Mary’s tears were better than the ointment she brought Jesus (Luke 7:38).  Tears are loud cries for mercy.  They are silent, but they have a voice: ‘The Lord has heard the voice of my weeping’ (Ps. 6:8).

3) Repentance commends all our services to God.  Prayer is delightful to God when it ascends from the altar of a broken heart.  No prayer touches God’s ear but what comes from a heart touched with the sense of sin; consider the publican for example (Luke 18:14).  We know God hears us when we repent; this is a great blessing.

4) Repentance is bitter and sweet.  Repentance, though bitter in itself, yet it is sweet in the effects.  It brings inward peace.  Augustine said, ‘Let a man grieve for his sin and rejoice for his grief.’  A woman in childbirth has sorrow, but once the child is born there is joy (John 16:21).  The sorrow of repentance is met with joy from God.

5) Great sins repented of shall find great mercy.  Though our sins are of a scarlet color, God’s mercy can wash them away (Is. 1:18).  You say, ‘Oh, but my sins are too many to number!’  Do not make them greater by not repenting.  Repentance unravels sin and makes it as if it had never been.  With the Lord is plentiful forgiveness.  We sinned, Christ bled.

6) Repentance makes joy in heaven.  The angels rejoice when a sinner repents (Luke 15:10).  When men neglect the offer of salvation and freeze in sin, this delights the devils, but when a soul is brought home to Christ by repentance this makes joy among angels.

7) Lack of repentance means a hard heart – and a hard heart is the worst heart.  It is called a heart of stone (Ezek. 36:26).  Hard-heartedness is a sin that grieves Christ (Mark 3:5).  A hard heart is not malleable; it is untuned for every duty.  Weep with Peter in repentance, for a hard heart is the anvil on which the hammer of God’s justice will be striking to all eternity.

8) The days of our mourning will soon be over.  After a few showers fall from our eyes we will have perpetual sunshine.  Christ will provide a handkerchief to wipe off his people’s tears (Rev. 7:17).  You who repent will shortly put on garments of praise; you’ll exchange your sackcloth for white robes, and instead of your sighs you will have shouts of triumph.  This will happen when Christ returns and makes all things new.  The repentant soul shall at the last day lift up his head with comfort and be acquitted by the Judge himself.

The entire section can be found in Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance, chapter 7.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Reformed Kingdom Ethics




Last week, I mentioned the historic Reformed distinction between the two kingdoms – God’s kingdom of power and his kingdom of grace/glory (LINK).  Along with this kingdom distinction, Reformed theology has taught what we might call a kingdom ethic.  Or, to ask a catechism question, what do we pray for when we pray, “Thy kingdom come?”  Here are several answers based on WLC Q/A 191 and HC Q/A 123.

1) We pray that Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed (WLC 191).  We pray that the devil’s work may be vanquished, and every force which revolts against God and his Word would be overcome (HC 123).  We pray for justice in the world (Amos 5:14-15, 24) and we promote justice and peace (Prov. 21:3; Mic. 6:8; Matt. 5:9).

2) We pray that Christ’s church would grow; we pray that the gospel would be “propagated throughout the world” and that sinners would be given new life (WLC 191, HC 123).  Kingdom ethics have an emphasis on missions; we are to not only support mission work, but also let our own light shine before others in good works so God receives glory (Matt. 5:16).  This means we even seek the salvation of those around us: “The kingdom of grace increases in a man’s own heart when he labors to be instrumental to set up this kingdom in others” (Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 78).

3) We pray that Christ’s church would be strong in the Lord and in his Word.  We pray that the church would be “furnished with all gospel officers and ordinances” and “purged from corruption” (WLC 191).  We desire that God would “preserve the ministry which he has instituted” (Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 636).

4) We pray that Christ would rule in our hearts more and more: “[Lord,] rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way that more and more we submit to you” (HC 123).  Wilhelmus a Brakel said that some duties of God’s people in the kingdom of grace are a) to be a good Christian example to others, b) to love others – believers and unbelievers alike (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, III.520).  Thomas Vincent, Thomas Watson, and Zacharias Ursinus also talk about piety, holiness, and sanctification as part of the 2nd petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  When we pray “thy kingdom come,” we’re asking God to give us more faith in Christ, more love for him and our neighbor, more holiness in life, and more hope for the glory to come.

In summary, Reformed kingdom ethics are not ethics of withdrawal, indifference, or passivity.  Instead, they are mission minded.  They are focused on the purity of the church.  And Reformed kingdom ethics have to do with sanctification: growing more like Christ and loving/helping people around us.  This is an ethic that makes me concerned about evangelism, committed to serving in Christ’s church, and compassionate toward my neighbor.  Luther put it well in his “Large Catechism” on the 2nd petition of the Lord’s Prayer:

“We pray that His name may so be praised through God’s holy Word and a Christian life that we who have accepted it may abide and daily grow in it [His Word], and that it may gain approval and acceptance among other people.”

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Kingdom Distinction in Reformed Theology

Lords Prayer, Hardback Historic Reformed theology has typically made distinctions when discussing the kingdom of God.  Reformed theologians said there is a kingdom of power as well as a kingdom of grace/glory.  (Lutheran theologians have used similar terms.)  The kingdom of power is God’s general (non-redemptive) reign over all things (Ps. 103:19).  The kingdom of grace/glory is God’s specific (redemptive) reign over his people (Col. 1:13).  Speaking of Christ’s mediatorial reign (regnum Christi), the Reformed scholastics also distinguished between Christ’s general reign (regnum naturale or universale) and his saving reign (regnum oeconomicum).

You can typically see this kingdom distinction in historic Reformed commentaries on the Lord’s prayer’s under the second petition, “Thy kingdom come.”  Here’s how Thomas Watson explains this petition (in The Lord’s Prayer, p.59).

Watson says that this petition does not speak of “God’s providential kingdom” (cf. Ps. 103:19).  “This kingdom we do not pray for when we say, ‘Thy kingdom come;’ for this kingdom is already come.  God [already] exercises the kingdom of his providence in the world.  …The kingdom of God’s providence rules over all.”  This is what Reformed theologians call the kingdom of power.

What then do we pray for in this petition?

“Positively a twofold kingdom is meant.  1) The kingdom of grace, which God exercises in the consciences of his people …We pray that the kingdom of grace may be set up in our hearts and increased.  2) We pray also, that the kingdom of glory may hasten, and that we may, in God’s good time be translated into it.  …The kingdom of grace is glory in the seed, and the kingdom of glory is grace in the flower.  (In other words, the kingdom of grace is “already,” while the kingdom of glory is “not yet.”)

For more information on this Reformed kingdom distinction, see an earlier post here called “The Reformed Scholastics on the Regnum Christi.”  Interestingly, Abraham Kuyper also recognized these terms to some extent.  (For a very closely related topic, we might also consider how Reformed theology has distinguished between God’s general providence and his special providence – terms which the WCF uses in 5.7.)  In a word, and to summarize, Reformed theology makes distinctions when it comes to the topic of God’s kingdom(s).

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The Grounds of Perseverance

Chapter 38 of A Puritan Theology is titled, “The Puritans on Perseverance of the Saints.”  In this chapter the authors list four grounds or foundations of the perseverance of the saints as taught by the Puritans.  To state it as a question: “What are the grounds of the perseverance of the saints?” (I’ve edited the following to keep it brief – though I do recommend the entire section.)

Ground One: The Father’s electing love.  The Puritans stressed that our perseverance in faith is based on God’s preservation of us in grace.  Watson said, ‘It is not your holding God, but his holding us, that preserves us.  When a boat is tied to a rock, it is secure; so, when we are fast tied to the Rock of Ages, we are impregnable.’

Ground Two: Christ’s merit and intercession.  The Puritans said our union with Christ cannot be dissolved.  Christ will not let his people be sundered from him, any more than a head will willingly be cut off from its body or a husband from his wife.  The Puritans taught that the merit or value of the sacrifice Christ made at the cross guarantees that for those whom he died will be eternally saved.  The Puritans also viewed the intercessory work of Christ as our high priest as integral to the believer’s perseverance in faith.

Ground Three: The indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Richard Sibbes said, “There are none that hold out but those that have the Spirit of God to be their teacher and persuader.”  The ground of perseverance is closely connected with the Word of God which abides in us, for the Word of God and the Spirit of God are always closely connected.  Owen wrote, “…The Father gives the elect in to the hands of Christ to be redeemed; having redeemed them, in due time they are called by the Spirit, and marked for God, and so give up themselves to the hands of the Father.”

Ground Four: The Covenant of Grace.  The agreement of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from all eternity is intimately connected with God’s covenant mercies to us because in the covenant God revealed the order of the cooperative work of the Trinity through the incarnate Mediator.  The covenant promises that God will be faithful to his people, and he will ensure their faithfulness to him.  True believers may be assured that they will have heaven because they already have the Lord as their covenant God, and that is the essence of heaven on earth.

Standing upon these four grounds, the Puritans said, the Christian’s hope is solid, substantial, and certain.

Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 607ff.

rev shane lems
hammond, wi

The Christian and God’s Law

Product Details I appreciate Thomas Watson’s explanation of the relationship between the Christian and God’s moral law.  This might be considered a commentary on the Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 97 (“What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?”).  Note: I’ve slightly edited the following quote for length.

“In some sense [the moral law] is abolished to believers: 1) With respect to justification.  They are not justified by their obedience to the moral law.  Believers are to make great use of the moral law, but they must trust only Christ’s righteousness for salvation.  2) With respect of its curses.  Believers are freed from the law’s curse and condemnatory power because of what Christ has done on the cross (Gal. 3.13).

“…But though the moral law be thus far abolished, it remains as a perpetual rule to believers.  Though it be not their Savior, it is their guide.  Though it be not ‘foedus,’ a covenant of life, yet it is a ‘norma,’ a rule of life.  Though a Christian is not under the condemning power of the law, yet he is under its commanding power.  To love God, to reverence and obey him, is a law which always binds and will bind in heaven.”

“This I urge against the Antinomians, who say the moral law is abrogated to believers; which, as it contradicts Scripture, so it is a key to open the door to all licentiousness.  They who will not have the law to rule them shall never have the gospel to save them” (p. 44).

Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, p. 44.

rev shane lems