Monday, March 30, 2009

0 Wise Words from William Gurnall

I'm embarking on a reading of William Gurnall's A Christian in Complete Armour today, and found the following statements in the first couple of pages which I suspect serve as an undergirding principle beneath this massive work. In these words, Gurnall reminds us of our duty to God first before any duty to man - and our priority in serving God rather than being concerned with the reaction of men to our 'odd' behavior.

Gurnall writes:

"No, the Christian must stand fixed to his principles, and not change his habit; but freely show what countryman he is by his holy constancy in the truth. Now what an odium, what snares, what dangers doth this singularity expose the Christian to? Some will hoot and mock him as one in a Spanish fashion would be laughed at in your streets. Thus Michal flouted David. Indeed, the world counts the Christian for his singularity of life the only fool;:" (p. 15, A Christian in Complete Armour, William Gurnall)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

0 Ames on Lord's Day 5: What the Law and the Sinner Cannot Do

In Ames's exposition for Lord's Day 5, found in A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, the author exposits Romans 8:3, which he translates as "For what was the impotence of the law, since in regard to strength it was destitute in the flesh, God sent His very own Son, in an entirely similar form of flesh liable to sin, and thus for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh." In this exposition, Ames makes some critically important points for our understanding of the Law of God and of the Gospel; in it, he praises God for His wisdom in willing both that His Law be perfectly satisfied, AND that His redemption of His elect be complete. It is because of these compelling decrees, Ames writes, that Paul could characterize the Law as "impotent".
"The apostle ... explains the means or cause of this defect, or impotence, which is not properly in the law itself but in our flesh or corruption, by which it happened that we may not fulfill the law, still less through the law climb up from death to life." (p. 27, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)
God's justice must be satisfied - and in this sense, the Law is powerless to save any, because it lies broken at the feet of Adam (and as Ames has previously described, all humanity shares in the guilt of that broken law, that broken covenant). Hence, Christ - the one and only means of salvation for lawbreaking sinners.
"From the immutability of His decree, it was necessary in some way for God to procure the deliverance from death of those whom He had elected and predestined to life. This double necessity of restoration or deliverance of the human race is established by the [immutability of His decree]: from our part, of course, the necessity of our indigence, and from the part of God, the necessity of His immutability." (p. 28, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)
The Law, then is impotent to deliver - and for this Ames offers several reasons which are worthy of consideration. We must note that because of the things Ames offers here, the Law as to our compliance with it and upholding of it can in no way play any role in our justification. Ames offers these reasons for "refutation against those who place their hope in their works and expect salvation from their good intentions and attempts." (pp. 28-29, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames) We are SO apt to place some hope in our own works, because we know we ought to obey God in all things, and in our flesh expect reward when we do... but we forget our failings and the fact that we lie under a pile of sin that we're already guilty of, and which the Law cannot expunge, even if we were to live perfectly from here on. Ames's reasons for arguing that the Law cannot deliver us from misery:
"1. The law promises no good thing to miserable sinners; it promises good only to those who observe it.
2. The law has no force in itself for removing sins; it has force only for punishing.
3. The law cannot be fulfilled by any sinner, as it says in the text, on account of the feebleness (imbecilitatem) of the flesh.
4. If the law could be fulfilled in the future, nevertheless past sins would destroy all hope of receiving a reward from the law. For this cause, the law is called the slaying letter, the ministry of death, and also the ministry of condemnation (2 Cor. 3)." (p. 28, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)
I can't add to these words - we must understand this, or we fail to understand the glory of the Gospel, and to understand the place of works in our lives.

Ames further adds additional reasons for the necessity of wholly externally applied redemption - the necessity of a perfect and complete substitute - of Christ's righteousness in FULL, as he discusses the proposition, "No sinner can free himself from this misery." (p. 29, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames) The law cannot free us, Ames says, on account of our flesh - and it follows, then, that because of our flesh, we cannot free ourselves either. Among the reasons he offers is one that connects to the previous thoughts: "If a person cannot save himself, and he has not preserved himself in the integrity in which he was created, it must not be thought that he will be able to restore himself anew." (p. 29, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)

We are so apt to place hope and trust in our obedience - that somehow we can claim a higher level of satisfaction of God's demands by our own level of conformity to God's Law... yet we fail, in thinking in this way, to recognize the enormous load of debt that we have piled up and continue to pile up daily against God and His standards. We either want to lower the standards, and accept some sort of neonomian ideal that says we can fulfill the Law by "evangelical obedience", or we want to puff up our own works, and pretend that they do in fact not carry the stain of sin. Either way, we denigrate God's complete atoning sacrifice given for His people in Christ. Ames closes with this direction, which I appropriate today for our exhortation:
"that we may not place any faithfulness or strength in ourselves, but that by denying ourselves we may wholly depend on the grace of God and His mercy in Christ." (p. 29, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)
Brothers and sisters, we cannot do it. Simply and plainly, we cannot satisfy God's Law - there never has been a way in which a sinner can be found guiltless before the Law of God apart from the free and complete imputation of Christ's righteousness to his account. There is only one means of satisfying the Law's demands - one standard - and only one has ever met that standard, the Lord Jesus Christ. Our obedience is our means of worship and honoring God - but it is NEVER part (ANY PART) of our standing just before Him. That is accomplished only through a wholly gracious act on the part of God in sending His Son for us. Let us be clear on this as we walk before Him each day, and place our obedience in an appropriate light.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

0 Ames on Lord's Day 4: Sin and the Recovery of God's Honor in the Face of It

Lord's Day 4 of the Heidelberg Catechism involves our duty before God despite our sinful condition, and God's wrath against all sin. In his treatment of this Lord's Day, I am particularly appreciative of Ames's method in his Sketch of the Christian's Catechism - namely, of his choice to exposit relevant Scripture passages on each Lord's day, and touch on the themes contained therein. The book is a wonderful addition to anyone's library, and a worthy accompaniment to more direct expositions of the Heidelberg such as Ursinus's Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, and George Bethune's Guilt, Grace and Gratitude.

In this day, Ames took up Paul's admonition to believers in Ephesians 5:6, "Let no one lead you astray with empty speech: for on account of these things the wrath of God comes upon the children of contumacy." One of the more valuable parts of Ames's treatments comes in drawing exhortation for us who are believers against the sinful tendency we have to contumacious attitudes toward God in our sin. How readily we fall into this trap - particularly in those sins which the Puritans called "bosom sins" or which later authors referred to as "besetting". There can arise a stubbornness and a sinful arrogation of 'right' to pardon which accompanies sin in the believer's heart, and Ames hits this tendency head on with his remarks, giving this particular use:
"For [i]admonition,[/i] so that we may especially guard ourselves from this sin of contumacy, which ought to be known not only generally, since it concerns the sort of contumacy in which people entirely refuse to turn towards God, but also specifically, in every act of obedience. For if we perceive that God calls us to this or that duty, it is our duty to attend to it at once, so that we may show our hearts to God in the matter as flexible and persuasible - to which point we are especially encouraged." (p. 23, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)
We are warned against contumacy - again, since that is our natural tendency - because it is that steadfastness of disobedience and that rebellious stance that those outside of Christ gladly remain in, and are carried off to Hell in.

Ames further goes on to give teeth to his warning against contumacy by reminding us of the hot and eternal wrath of God against sin. We so frequently forget this in our security - knowing that Christ died for us and was raised for our justification, we rarely want to think about the dishonor that God receives through our sin. Yet God's wrath is still, as Ames points out, "a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29), and this fact should move those of us who are His children. Perhaps one reason we do not often like to think about God's wrath against sin is that we who are redeemed sin nevertheless - and our guilt for our sinful actions and thoughts is not something we like to face.

A common objection to the duration of the punishment of sinners in Hell that shows how poorly people have been taught about the nature of sin is that it is unfair for God to punish finite and temporal sins with eternal wrath. There is a notion that sin which is finite in time and extent should be punished not with an eternity of Hell, but with some sort of "sentence" that is proportional.

God DOES punish sin in a proportionate manner... but the world (and often the church - witness the various "annihilationists", who argue that the only just punishment is annihilation, as opposed to an eternal venting of wrath) does not wish to face up to what is truly proportionate in this case. The tiniest of sins (if such can be said) deserves an eternity of punishment - as Ames notes,
"...the obligation that binds us to render the whole of obedience to God is inifinite. Consequently, the transgression in which sinners violate this obligation is in some manner inifinite...It follows that the wrath of God is infinite in duration, or eternal. It should not seem surprising to anyone that an eternal punishment is inflicted for one sin, which is done in a short space of time...

because he has disturbed a particular order, he cannot be freed from the just punishment that is owed, until God should restore His own honor at every point, which the impenitent sinner cannot accomplish in eternity." (p. 24, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)
God's Honor is inifinite in value. One sin besmirches that honor. How can a finite being ever atone for that offense? One cannot. Hence, the sin is infinite.... and the punishment of sin in Hell is eternal. Only Christ's sacrifice, given for the elect sinner, can serve to expiate God's wrath, and to atone for any sin on behalf of the one for whom Christ died. Only Christ in His divinity and His perfect humanity can substitute and draw the sinful wretch with perfect acceptance into His Kingdom. This should serve to increase our appreciation for Christ's sacrifice, and, as the truth of sin's infinite ugliness sinks in, help us to hate and reject it as something we are willing to engage in. Our flesh is weak - but by God's grace we can and will come to a better and better appreciation for the evil of sin and gain, more and more, the means to reject it and strive for a Christlike holiness in all things - all for God's honor and glory.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

0 Ames on Lord's Day 3: Adam's Created Goodness and the Imputation of His Sin

In reading Ames' Sketch of the Christian's Catechism for Lord's Day 3, I was struck again by the beauty of Paul's discussion of the likeness of Adam's sin and its results, and Christ's righteous works, and their results. Being in the section of the Heidelberg Catechism dealing with Man's Misery, Ames doesn't fully bring out the comparison, but several thoughts were suggested to me as I read this little chapter in his wonderful book.

In the opening paragraph of his discussion of Lord's Day 3, for which his exposition centers on Romans 5:12, Ames writes
"The apostle's counsel in this place is to illustrate the doctrine that had previously been handed down concerning justification through Jesus Christ, which he established for the purpose of a comparison of [i]the similarity between this grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the sin of our first parent, Adam. The comparison hinges on the efficacy and the effects of both.[/i] Verse 12 contains a proposition of comparison. The result is explained afterwards by a parenthesis. In this proposition, Adam is placed as the cause of a [i]double effect: the introduction of sin and of death.[/i]" (p. 16, A Sketch of the Christian's Catechism, William Ames)
Ames is making a very important point here, and one which is central to our understanding of covenant relations between God and man. The aim here is to connect to Paul's main thrust in Romans 5:12-21 - namely the likeness of the two Adams. Note in this regard the [i]double[/i] detriment that Ames discusses - SIN and DEATH - that arises in all people who are in Adam, born condemned (conceived condemned and under a sentence of death) and also tainted with sin such that sin is the only outcome of any act. Not only are people 1) judicially guilty, through the imputation of a guilty verdict passed on their covenant head, but they also 2) can do nothing but sin in their depraved nature. Adam's sin purchased (in a sense) both of these 'benefits' for all those who are in Adam (which is all humanity).

This two-fold effect of Adam is matched by a two-fold benefit of Christ, and this observation is, I believe, a critical one for us today in the church to understand. Christ by his life, death and resurrection benefits those who are in him with a two-fold grace... 1) justification - the judgment of them as FULLY righteous - declared to be without guilt and declared to owe no penalty for sin; and 2) sanctification - the process of becoming what they are, righteous and holy, by means of the blessing of the indwelling holy spirit. Christ purchased both of these benefits for all those who are in Him (which is all His people, the elect of God).

The two-fold detriment of Adam is matched to perfection by the two-fold grace of Christ. In order to understand the latter, it is utterly critical that one understand the former!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

0 Creation and God's Revelation of Himself In It

At the outset of chapter 14 of Book I of the Institutes, John Calvin discusses the Creation and God's revelation of Himself in it. He entitles the chapter, "Even in the Creation of the Universe and of All Things, Scripture by Unmistakable Marks Distinguishes the True God from False Gods."

One of Calvin's primary principles of interpretation is found in this book - both in the first and fourth sections: that we must NEVER try to pry further into the being of God or of His works than He has expressly revealed in Scripture. Not that we cannot discern doctrine from what the Westminster Confession deems "good and necessary consequences" of Scripture - but that we must never go beyond Scripture in determining who God is, or what his character is. Scripture fully discloses God's revealed will for us - we cannot go further. This implies also that when there are things that are, to our finite and puny minds, contradictory, where God has not revealed the solution to us, we must accept the truths that God has revealed, and leave the solution to Him. (an example of this is the crucifixion of Christ, which Scripture reveals as being predestinated and fully decreed by God - and which Scripture also reveals as being the responsibility of Herod and Pilate, and for which they are condemned - see Acts 2 and 4 for discussions of this.)
"Therefore, let us willingly remain enclosed within these bounds to which God has willed to confine us, and as it were, to pen up our minds that they may not, through their very freedom, to wander, go astray. " (p. 161)
Speaking of the angels and their creation, Calvin writes,
"What point, then, is there anxiously investigating on what day, apart from the stars and planets, the other more remotely heavenly hosts began also to exist? Not to take too long, let us remember here, as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to hold one rule of modesty and sobriety: not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God's Word." (p. 164)
This very thing I have seen people stumble over and try to discern answers to, and as Calvin says, this is simply not profitable, nor useful in any way. We have SO much to be concerned with in the Scriptures concerning doctrine for life and faith, that it is only detrimental to spend ANY time pondering on such silly questions. We are warned against this for good reason. God, through His Word, gives us instruction for Godliness... and His word is sufficient for our training therein. Going beyond it, then, to answer dumb questions that profit nothing, is to deny the sufficiency of Scripture - no less. Accepting Scripture's teaching is a simple matter of obedient submission to the King of Kings.

Calvin then goes on in sections 5 through 12 of this chapter to address various speculative theories concerning angels that were plaguing the church at the time of his writing... numbers, hierarchies, and orders of angels, the question of guardian angels (which Calvin refuses to answer definitively, the reality of angels, the error of assigning divinity to angels, etc. Then, as today, the doctrine of angels was a point of much abuse and error.

In sections 13-19, Calvin takes up the fallen angels - correcting a number of current errors concerning them as well. Most important among the statements made in these sections, I believe, is that the demonic is surely real - that fallen angels still do the bidding of Satan, and that the struggle continues in this day between God and the fallen and degenerate creatures known as demons, or fallen angels. One cannot be complacent about the reality of the adversary and the reality of spiritual evil. This being said, Calvin properly asserts that every evil power is subject to God. We see this powerfully illustrated in the opening chapters of Job, but elsewhere as well. NOTHING is done apart from God's will that it should be done, even evil acts perpetrated against the church by the enemy and his minions. The enemy is subject to God, PERIOD.
"As for the discord and strife that we say exists between Satan and God, we ought to accept as a fixed certainty the fact that he can do nothing unless God wills and assents to it... Satan is clearly under God's power, and is so ruled by his bidding as to be compelled to render him service." (pp. 175-176)
It cannot be accepted that Satan has any power whatsoever that is not given him by God - God is the supreme Sovereign, and Satan merely a creature - powerful to be certain, but ruled by God. We must take comfort in this as we see the enemy at work in the world. We must be assured that God is in Sovereign command of every circumstance and every single one of His creatures. We know, too, that because of this, nothing is lost for God - all is won; and those of us who are in His Son are in Him and have that victory secured by Him.

I close with a final word from Calvin in this chapter, in which he gives great praise to God as creator and as Sovereign. Let his words comfort you too, as you look at the world and our place in it - and see things contrary to the revealed will of God. Knowing that God indeed is in full and complete control is a great comfort to the people of God...
"To conclude once for all, whenever we call God the Creator of heaven and earth, let us at the same time bear in mind that the dispensation of all those things which he has made is in his own hand and power and that we are indeed his children, whom he has received into his faithful protection to nourish and educate. We are therefore to await the fulness of all good things from him alone and to trust completely that he will never leave us destitute of what we need for salvation, and to hang our hopes on none but him! We are therefore, also, to petition him for whatever we desire; and we are to recognize as a blessing from him, and thankfully to acknowledge, every benefit that falls to our share. So, invited by the great sweetness of his beneficence and goodness, let us study to love and serve him with all our heart." (p. 182)

0 Back to Life

Finally, I feel like I can breathe... I'm back from a trip to a conference in the Italian Alps (La Thuile, up very close to Mont Blanc) and we're on Spring Break. Given the stress reduction of getting done with the conference talk, and getting some time to ski, and returning home to family and friends, it's now time to resume regular blogging :)

So, I shall.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

0 The Institutes: Calvin's Trinitarian Doctrine, Part II

In the remainder of chapter 13 of Book I of the Insititutes, Calvin covers the deity of the three persons of the Trinity in some detail. I offer here only a couple of interesting points Calvin makes in this discussion:

In section 9, Calvin remarks that, in fact, Jesus Christ is clearly referred to by the prophets as Jehovah Tsidkenu - Jehovah our Righteousness. He does this in arguing for Christ's full identity as God, contrary to those who would claim that Jehovah is merely the name for the Father, and does not (and/or cannot) refer to the Son. Calvin writes,
"...nothing clearer can be found than the passage of Jeremiah, that 'this will be the name by which the branch of David will be called, "Jehovah our Righteousness"' (Jer. 23:5-6; cf. 33:15-16). For, since the Jews teach that the other names of God are nothing but titles, but that this one alone [Jehovah], which they speak of as ineffable, is a substantive to express his essence, we infer that the only Son is the eternal God who elsewhere declares that he will not give his glory to another. [Isa. 42:8]." (p. 132, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Christ, the branch of David, universally accepted as such, IS - by clear witness of the Scriptures internally referencing themselves, God almighty - Jehovah.

In another place, another strong indicator that Calvin discusses is the identity of the Lord of Hosts - again, unquestionably a title connected with the Almighty, Eternal God.
"For when Isaiah prophesies that the Lord of Hosts is to be 'a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense for the Judeans and Israelites' [Isa. 8:14], Paul declares this prophecy fulfilled in Christ [Rom. 9:32-33]. Therefore he proclaims Christ to be the Lord of Hosts." (p. 134, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Finally, we should easily recognize the divinity of Christ at times when the Jews wished to stone Him for blasphemy - when He claimed to be God. Contrary to many moderns who claim Jesus never laid claim to divinity, He most CERTAINLY did. Witness Calvin's discussion:
"...he not only participates in the governing the world with the Father; but he carries out the other individual offices, which cannot be communicated to the creatures. The Lord proclaims through the prophet, 'I, even I, am the one who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,' [Isa. 43:25] According to this saying, when the Jews thought that wrong was done to God in that Christ was remitting sins, Christ not only asserted in words, but also proved by a miracle, that this power belonged to him. [Matt. 9:6] We therefore perceive that he possesses not the administration merely but the actual power of remission of sins, which the Lord says will never pass from him to another. What? Does not the searching and penetrating of the silent thoughts of hearts belong to God alone? Yet Christ also had this power [Matt. 9:4; cf. John 2:25]. From this we infer his divinity." (p. 136, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Christ is God - a central doctrine of our faith, and one which is under assault today as it has always been, even from those who claim to be Christians. In the remainder of chapter 13 of Book I, Calvin establishes the divinity of the Holy Spirit and then goes on to lay out the distinctions between these three persons of the Triune God. His summary in section 20 is succinct and complete - and should be held sufficient by all to describe the Trinity. No need for illustrations that make the Trinity manageable - just say what Scripture says. This Calvin does wonderfully:
Therefore, let those who dearly love soberness, and who will be content with the measure of faith, receive in brief form what is useful to know: namely, that, when we profess to believe in one God, under the name of God is understood a single, simple essence, in which we comprehend three persons, or hypostases. Therefore, whenever the name of God is mentioned without particularization, there are designated no less the Son and the Spirit than the Father; but where the Son is joined to the Father, then the relation of the two enters in; and so we distinguish among the persons. But because the peculiar qualities in the persons carry an order within them, e.g., in the Father is the beginning and the source, so often as mention is made of the Father and the Son together, or the Spirit, the name of God is peculiarly applied to the Father. In this way, unity of essence is retained, and a reasoned order is kept, which yet takes nothing away from the deity of the Son and the Spirit. Certainly, since we have already seen that the apostles declared him to be the Son of God whom Moses and the prophets testified to be Jehovah, it is always necessary to come to the unity of essence. Thus we regard it a detestable sacrilege for the Son to be called another God than the Father, for the simple name of God admits no relation, nor can God be said to be this or that with respect to himself.
Now, that the name of Jehovah taken without specification corresponds to Christ is also clear from Paul’s words: “Three times I besought the Lord about this” [2 Corinthians 12:8]. When he received Christ’s answer, “My grace is sufficient for you,” he added a little later, “That the power of Christ may dwell in me” [2 Corinthians 12:9]. For it is certain that the name “Lord” was put there in place of “Jehovah,” and thus it would be foolish and childish so to restrict it to the person of the Mediator, seeing that in his prayer he uses an absolute expression which introduces no reference to the relationship of Father and Son. And we know from the common custom of the Greeks that the apostles usually substitute the name [Lord] for Jehovah. And to take a ready example, Paul prayed to the Lord in no other sense than that in which Peter cites the passage from Joel "Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” [Acts 2:21; Joel 2:32]. Where this name is expressly applied to the Son, we shall see in its proper place that the reason is different. For the present, it is enough to grasp that when Paul calls upon God in an absolute sense he immediately adds the name of Christ. Even so, Christ himself calls God in his entirety “Spirit” [John 4:24]. For nothing excludes the view that the whole essence of God is spiritual, in which are comprehended Father, Son, and Spirit. This is made plain from Scripture. For as we there hear God called Spirit, so also do we hear the Holy Spirit, seeing that the Spirit is a hypostasis of the whole essence, spoken of as of God and from God." (p. 144-145, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Chapter 13 is worth taking the time to work through. Calvin's treatment of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity therein is worth reading more than a few times - he deals with the prevalent historical errors he faced in his time, and, lo and behold, the same errors abound today, whether we're talking Oneness Pentecostals or modern liberals - Calvin dealt with and dispensed with their positions tidily.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

1 For those who haven't yet given up :)

Life's responsibilities, etc., have taken precedence over the past month or so, but I hope to be posting regularly again soon. I have a trip coming up to a conference starting a week from yesterday, and once I'm on that trip, things should settle down to the point at which I might actually be posting daily again :) Alas, as much as I enjoy blogging, it falls to the bottom of the heap pretty quickly when life gets hectic.

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