The Workings of our Remaining Sinful Nature

51Wtr7fGObL._SX358_BO1,204,203,200_ Those who have true faith have truly been given new life in Christ.  If a person believes in Christ, he or she has been “born of God” (1 John 5:1).  Regeneration means that someone who was dead in sin is now alive in Christ (Eph. 2:4-5).  However, new birth (regeneration) does not mean that the old sinful nature is completely gone.  True believers still struggle with indwelling sin (Gal. 5:17).  As Luther rightly said, the Christian is a saint and a sinner at the same time.

This means that when we stumble into sin, we can’t simply blame the devil or the world.  The devil can mess with us and the world can entice us, but we sin because we still have the “old man” in us, the “flesh.”  So how does this “old man” function in us?  W. Brakel (d. 1711) explained this well in his discussion on sanctification.  I’ll summarize it below:

  1. Sometimes the old nature stirs us up to sin by violent assaults.  The lusts are so agitated and are stirring so vehemently that there is no time to think upon the fear of God. Even if the fear of the Lord is present, the lust is so strong and forceful that any good inclinations are quickly extinguished.
  2. Sometimes the old nature seeks some rest and relaxation.  He begins to think upon natural things and the lusts of the flesh begin to stir, and the thoughts pertaining to natural things become sinful.  His mind wanders and he lusts, covets, or becomes proud.  He falls into more sin as the moment permits, or even to the degree he never thought himself capable of.
  3. Sometimes the old nature gains strength due to recklessness.  He puts himself into situations he knows will ensnare him, but he does it anyway.  The sin at hand gains the upper hand.  Contact with grease cannot but leave a stain (vetjes maken smetjes).
  4. The old sinful nature also is engaged in keeping us from doing good.  A) He makes us think there is no time to pray, read Scripture, sing, or meditate upon the word.  B) He makes us procrastinate and say we will do godly things later.  C) He makes us believe that doing good is too difficult and impossible to do.  D) He makes us think that doing good is in vain because God is not paying attention and it will not benefit us. E) He makes us compromisers by saying the path is not as narrow as we think.
  5. The old sinful nature also wants to keep us from doing good so he attempts to spoil that which is good.  A) He makes our thoughts wander.  B) He distracts us by making us think about a good thing that isn’t applicable to the situation. C) He causes us to be proud of doing good, and the purity of the duty is contaminated.  D) He causes us to think we do not have the Spirit.  E) His atheism and unbelief surface and it ruins the good with evil.

Why is this important?  For one thing, it helps us as Christians to know ourselves.  We can’t point fingers and blame others for our sinful words, thoughts, and actions (Ps. 51:3-4).  It also keeps us truly humble to know we still have the old man of sin dwelling in us.  It helps us stay near the cross, where we receive continual cleansing from Jesus’ blood.  It makes us constantly confess our sins to God.  It makes us all the more dependent upon the Holy Spirit to give the new man strength in the battle.  It teaches us that God gets all the credit for any good in us or anything good we do in his sight.  Realizing that our old man remains in us also makes us long for heaven, when sanctification will be complete and we will be fully delivered from our remaining sinful flesh.  And the list goes on.  Paul put it this way: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body?  I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:24-25 HCSB).

The above edited and summarized quote is found in volume three of Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, p. 9-11.

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

Of Lawful Vows

The Christian's Reasonable Service, 4 VolumesVows are probably not on the radar of many Christians today.  Perhaps there isn’t a specific reason why we don’t think much about vows, or perhaps we’ve heard of crazy or unbiblical vows which has made us shy away from them altogether.  However, there are proper vows that Christians can voluntarily make to God.  Scripture has more than a few examples (e.g. Deut. 6:13, Ps. 50:14, 119:106; Eccl. 5:4-6, etc.).  So what is a biblical vow to God?

W. a Brakel defined a vow like this:

“[It] is a commitment toward God.  It is a voluntary commitment either to perform a good deed or to refrain from something, either as an expression of gratitude or to promote our spiritual well-being.”

Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith says a vow is only to be made to God voluntarily out of faith and Christian duty, to show God thanks for mercy, for petitioning God, for binding ourselves to Christian duties, or other reasons, as long as as they help us in these areas (WCF 22.6; cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 101-102).

Here are some things to think about concerning proper vows (the following is a summary of Brakel and the WCF’s discussion of vows):

1) A vow must pertain to lawful matters.  Christians cannot make vows that go against Scripture’s teachings or laws.  We cannot vow to do anything forbidden in God’s Word, and we must not vow anything that would hinder our Christian duty.  For example, we shouldn’t make a vow to avoid all unbelievers, since Scripture tells us to love and help our neighbors and even our enemies.  Positively speaking, it is proper to make vows that help us serve God and neighbor better.

2) A vow must be prudent.  That is, when we vow, we must be acquainted with the situation and circumstances.  A rash or sinful vow is made without knowing the circumstances and situations (Prov. 20:25).  Ignorant vows are not lawful vows.  For example, one shouldn’t make a vow to God that he will go to such and such a place to evangelize before he learns about that place.  Therefore, vows are to be made with religious care; we must be very careful when making vows (Ecc. 5:4-5).

3) A vow must be within the realm of what we are capable of doing.  It would be a reckless vow if someone promised to God that he would never sin again.  We must not make vows that we don’t have the ability to keep.  We must not make perpetual vows about neutral things (such as singleness, exact tithing amounts, abstaining from something, etc.) since we do not know what can transpire over time.  We should, by God’s grace, be able to keep the vow we are making, and it should be performed with faithfulness.

4) When we make a vow, we must not act as if we were making a business deal with God, such as, ‘If you will give me this, then I will give you this.’  Rather, it must be made as an expression of gratitude towards God (Ps. 50:14).

In the Presbyterian/Reformed (and other) traditions, God’s people make vows when professing faith publicly, becoming members of a local church, and serving in office (deacon, elder, or pastor).  These types of vows, done properly, are conducive to the glory of God and the good of his people.  A proper vow might also include promising to God that one is going to raise his children with prayer, in the church’s fellowship, and knowledge of the Word.  Another proper vow might be to promise devotion to a certain Bible study, promise to abstain from Sunday sports for the upcoming season since they hurt the Christian’s faith in the past, or to vow renewed commitment to one’s spouse during a serious illness.  The list of proper vows goes on.

Basically, in a word, proper vows are those that are in harmony with Scripture, carefully and thoughtfully made, able to be kept with God’s help, and not used as a bargaining chip with God.  “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of this mouth (Num. 30:2 NASB).

The above quotes and summarize of Brakel’s discussion of vows can be found in The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol 4, ch. 80.

shane lems

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.”

shane lems

Anthony Carter and Wilhelmus a Brakel

 I really liked this answer Anthony Carter, the author of On Being Black and Reformed, gave to the following question:

“If you could study under any theologian in church history…who would it be and why?”

Carter’s answer:

“…I would say that I would be most excited to study under Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635-1711).  Admittedly, most would not be familiar with a Brakel and his theological magnum opus The Christian’s Reasonable Service, but I have never been so moved by theological reflection as I am with a Brakel.  a Brakel seemingly had the unique ability to take heady theological reflection and not just make it pastoral, but even emotion-stirring.  Coming from the rich Dutch Reformed tradition, his biblical theological reflections are keen, but he never just settles for keenness.  His goal seems to be experiential – a rich, Reformed, experiential Christianity.  That’s what I pray to have.”

“Having spent countless hours poring over a Brakel, I feel in some sense that I have studied under him.  However, what a joy it would have been to be an eyewitness to the effect his theological insights had on his heart and the hearts of those to whom he was called to minister.”

What a great answer!  The entire interview with Carter is in the December 2011 issue of TableTalk.  And if you’ve read this blog before, you know Andrew and I also appreciate a Brakel quite a bit.  He’s on our “recommended reading” list.

shane lems

Systematic Theology: In Catechism Form

 I just got this in the mail from Reformation Heritage Books (RHB): Essential Truths in the Heart of a Christian by Wilhlemus Schortinghuis.  (If you’re Dutch, that’s Nodige Waarheden in het Herte van een Christen)  Schortinghuis (the most Dutch Dutch name I’ve ever heard!) was a pastor in the Reformed churches of Holland in the early to mid 18th century.  He was at the tail end of what scholars call the “Dutch Second Reformation” (Nadere Reformatie), which waned around the middle of the 18th century.  While it is true that Schortinguis wrote some very pietistic (in a negative sense) stuff, this book, Essential Truths, is quite in line with the orthodoxy of Reformed scholasticism before it.

Essential Truths is pretty much a very brief systematic theology in catechetical form, with proof-texts (citations, not the full verses) as part of the answers.  Below I’ve put a few examples of how this book is in line with Reformed orthodoxy (the examples also show the catechetical structure).

Part one talks about the knowledge of God.  “In whom is the knowledge of God found fully, to a greater or lesser degree?”  A: “In God himself (1 Cor. 2:7), in Christ (Matt. 11:27), in the holy angels (Matt. 18.10), in the believer in heaven (2 Cor. 5.7), and on earth (2 Cor. 5.7).”  The scholastics talked about archetype and ectype (concerning knowledge); this is the catechetical brief way to talk about it.

Part 11 (after Creation, Providence, etc.) is about the Covenant of Works.  “What is the covenant of works?  The agreement of God with the righteous man in which God promised life and threatened death, with the stipulation of perfect obedience to his law.  If man met the stipulation, he would enjoy eternal life (Hos. 6:7; Job 31:33).”  Later, the question is asked: “Did man have the ability to fulfill these demands?  Yes, indeed; because he was created in God’s image (Gen. 1:31; Eccles. 7:29), he was perfectly good and completely upright.” 

Part 26 is Schortinghuis’ discussion of justification sola fide.  “How is a believing sinner justified?  Not because of the worth of his faith or because of his imperfect Christian obedience, but purely by grace, for the sake of Christ’s perfect atonement and intercession (Rom. 3:24-26), with faith only as an instrument (Rom. 5:1), and apart from the works of the law (Rom. 3:28).”  He also mentions that a believing sinner embraces by faith Christ’s righteousness, which is imputed to the sinner (Q/A 5). 

“Do not our good works contain some virtue that God nevertheless may want to reward?  No, because they do not answer the requirement of meritorious work, since eternal life is a gracious gift earned by Christ that God grants for his sake by grace (Rom. 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9).”

This has to do with the covenant of grace.  “What does God promise and demand in the covenant of grace?  He promises all the essential benefits here and especially for eternity.  He promises: ‘I shall be a God to you” (Jer. 31:33).  And he demands faith and conversion [repentance] (Acts 16:31; Ezek 33:11), both of which he promises to provide (Eph. 2:8, Ezek. 36:27).”  The conditions in the covenant of grace are met by God working in the heart of the elect.

While I’ll summarize them to keep the post brief, Schortinghuis also talks about other Reformed truths, including the regulative principle of worship (part 10, Q/A 4), the law as both a threatening command that shows sin and a “rule of thanksgiving” (part 10, Q/A 10), the visible/invisible church (part 39, Q/A 4), and the essence of saving faith as a receiving instrument which consists of knowledge, assent, and trust (part 24, Q/A 4, 6).

The catechism itself is only around 100 pages; it is not long and tedious.  In many ways it reflects the Heidelberg catechism only with a few more “application” type questions.  Or, to put it another way, it is sort of like a very brief summary of the other Wilhelmus’ (Wilhelmus a Brakel) systematic, The Christian’s Reasonable Service.  At the end of many sections, the question comes: “What does [the doctrine under observation] teach you personally?” 

In summary, while I hesitate to commend all of Schortinghuis’ works (most of them are in Dutch anyway), I do recommend this one as a great, clear, and concise snapshot of orthodox Dutch piety – practical Christian doctrine in Q/A format.  The translators, editor, and publisher deserves a hearty thanks!

shane lems

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