Chapter 1, Of the Holy Scriptures

Bible by RyanM

The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible (a) rule of all saving Knowledge, Faith and Obedience; Although the (b) light of Nature, and the works of Creation and Providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and His will, which is necessary unto Salvation. (c) Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His church; and afterward for the better preserving, and propagating of the Truth, and for the more sure Establishment, and Comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the World, to commit the same wholly unto (d) writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. (a) 2 Timothy 3:15-17; Isaiah 8:20; Luke 16:29, 31; Ephesians 2:20; (b) Romans 1:19, 20, 21; Romans 2:14, 15; Psalms 19:1, 2, 3; (c) Hebrews 1:1; (d) Proverbs 22:19, 20,21; Romans 15:4; 2 Peter 1:19, 20)


 

The framers intentionally begin the Confession with an extensive statement on Scripture, which is important given that Scripture is the starting point and the basis for the Confession. Richard Muller states, “In the orthodox or scholastic codification of Lutheran and Reformed doctrine, the sola Scriptura of the Reformers was elaborated as a separate doctrinal locus placed at the beginning of theological system and determinative of its contents.”[1] Thus this chapter serves not only as an outline of the nature (P1), scope (P2-3), and authority (P4-6, 10) of Scripture, but also provides key hermeneutical principles (P7-9) used by framers of the Confession. In regards to the extensiveness  of this chapter, Robert Letham states: “The first chapter of the Confession [Westminster] ranks as the most thorough statement of classic Reformed Protestantism on the subject of Scripture and possibly the finest to date from any source.”[2]  The 1689 Confession closely follows the Westminster Confession in this chapter, and added the first clause. Thus we are privileged to begin our study of the 1689 Confession by examining the most thoroughgoing confessional statement on Scripture in Christendom.

The Confession begins: The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.[3]  The remaining entirety of the Confession will be devoted to the address of saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. And so, it is essential to establish matters of authority first in this chapter before addressing matters of knowledge, faith and obedience (practice). In other words, on what authority does the Confession claim these things to be God’s revealed truth and will. This opening statement immediately thrusts us into the authoritative source of that saving revelation. Let’s begin by looking at a sentence diagram of this important opening statement.

1689 1.1 diagram color change crop

 

The above sentence diagram helps us to see its core meaning: Scripture is the rule.[1]  The word “rule” refers to a particular standard or authority.  Scripture is the authoritative standard of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. We will get to each of these words in a moment, but for now, we note the exclusivity of this claim, for if Scripture is the rule of all saving revelation, then no other book, person, institution, or church has that authority, and this is the Reformation’s sola scriptura principle (Latin for ‘Scripture alone’) .  As such, the Scriptures are holy, meaning sacred, consecrated, or set apart from all other writings. In fact, Scripture itself makes this claim of being sacred:  “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures (Romans 1:2 (ESV). “And how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15 (ESV). Thus, it is fitting and biblical to refer to the Bible as the Holy Scriptures. 

The Holy Scriptures are the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. The word “only” modifies (i.e. compliments) the words immediately after it, and so the Holy Scriptures are exclusively the sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving revelation. Again, we note the emphasis on sola Scriptura.

Sufficient, in this context, means “of a quality, extent or scope adequate to a certain purpose or object.[5] The Bible is fully able to accomplish its aim; it is the only sufficient standard for all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.  Samuel Waldron helpfully states:

  • “It is often said that the Scriptures are sufficient for showing us the way of salvation.  This is liable to be misunderstood today because of the minimizing mentality abroad, which is intent on reducing the way of salvation to its barest elements.  It surely must be clear that such an understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture is a deviation from the historic Reformation understanding articulated in the Westminster Confession. ‘All things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life’ is far more than the ‘Four Spiritual Laws.’  It is nothing less than sufficiency for the redemption of man both individually and corporately in the whole ethical and religious sphere of life that is asserted.” [6]

The Bible is also the only certain rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.  The wordcertain’ is defined as “sure, unerring, not liable to fail, to be depended upon, wholly trustworthy or reliable.”[7]  The Bible is sure and is a fully-reliable standard of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. Jesus said: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt 7:24ESV). We can rely on the doctrine of the Bible as a firm foundation upon which to rest our souls for their salvation. I am reminded of the first stanza of the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,”

  • How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
  • Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
  • What more can He say than to you He has said,
  • To you, who for refuge to Jesus have fled?[8]

The Bible is also the only infallible rule or standard of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.  The word infallible meansincapable of error.[9]  It is compatible with our modern word inerrancy. Theological liberalism has attacked the Bible. But despite these attacks, we see that it is completely rational to believe the Bible is infallible (i.e. inerrant). Infallibility is what we would expect from the Author of Scripture, for God is truth. Since Scripture is the rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, it is imperative that there are no errors in Scripture; otherwise, we could not trust it to reveal the way of salvation. But since it is the only infallible rule of all saving revelation, we can entrust our souls to its saving instruction.

Having commented on the nature of the rule of Scripture, we now turn to that which the rule or standard of Scripture pertains.  The Holy Scripture is the only rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. What type of knowledge, faith, and obedience?  The answer is the saving kind.   It appears that the phrase “all saving” is an ellipsis,[10] and is implied before each word that follows it (i.e. all saving knowledge, all saving faith, and all saving obedience).[11] The word “all” is significant, for if Scripture is the authoritative standard of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, then nothing else is. It is all in the Bible and revealed nowhere else.

When it comes to all saving knowledge, Scripture provides the knowledge needed for salvation.  Consider this passage: “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15 ESV).  To be saved, knowledge is required, but what kind of knowledge?  Well, the answer is saving knowledge.  What is that?  The knowledge that saves is the gospel message. Does knowledge of the gospel save you?  No, but when saving knowledge is accompanied by saving faith it does; we are justified by faith alone, not by knowledge alone.  The knowledge or wisdom referred to in 2 Timothy did not save Timothy, but it made him “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Scripture is the standard of saving faith. Faith rests on something—not merely a faith in faith. Scripture reveals what our faith is to rest on for salvation, and that is the true gospel, not others which merely pose as the gospel.  Chapter 14, Of Saving Faith will address what saving faith is. I might also recommend chapter 11, Of Justification, where it explains faith related to justification.

As we come to the last phrase, there is no need to stumble over saving obedience,[12] as if the Confession were promoting legalism or works-based salvation. In context, we understand it to mean that Scripture is the rule of all that a saved person is to practice (i.e. obedience). We are created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10), and Scripture reveals those works God has created for us. Chapter 16, Of Good Works, begins this way: “Good works are only such as God has commanded in his holy Word.” This brings home that radical Reformation principle that Scripture alone reveals, not only saving knowledge and faith, but what works are to follow faith. All that we need to live a godly life is found in Scripture alone. We are in fact told in Chapter 21, Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience, paragraph 2: “God alone is Lord of the Conscience, and hath left it free from the Doctrines and Commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to his Word, or not contained in it.” It is not simply that the Bible has good ideas about how to obey God, or that it contains what we are to do, and more can be added. No, all that a person who is saved and who is being saved from sin is to practice is found only in Scripture. This is radical even for many Evangelicals today, but it was especially radical for those coming out the Roman Church with her many doctrines and commandments of men. The Judaizers were light-weights compared to all the Roman Church heaps on her adherents. Sola scriptura was that Reformation principle that recovered the gospel, leading many to freedom from the bondage of Romanism.

To sum up this section and include the ellipses, the Confession is saying: The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, [only] certain, and [only] infallible rule of all saving knowledge, [all saving] faith, and [all saving] obedienceThis portion has established the starting point: all that we need to know and can know about saving knowledge, faith and obedience are found in the Holy Scriptures. There is no other source and rule in this regard.

The Scripture is referred to in the field of theology as special revelation. Baker’s Dictionary of Theology defines special revelation (also called particular revelation) as “redemptive revelation conveyed by wondrous acts and words.”[13] Special revelation is redemptive or saving revelation (i.e. saving knowledge, faith, and obedience). Special revelation differs from general revelation (also called natural or universal revelation)—all terms from the field of theology.  While general revelation is conveyed by God’s wondrous works of creation and providence, it has no words, and it conveys no redemptive or saving revelation. R. C. Sproul states:

  • “General revelation, unlike special revelation, comes to us basically through nature and is called general for two reasons. First, the audience is general; God gives knowledge of himself universally, so that every human has this revelation, which is built into nature.  Second, the content of general revelation gives us a knowledge of God in general.  It reveals that he is eternal; it reveals his power, deity, and holiness. General revelation, however, does not disclose God’s way of salvation.  The stars do not reveal the ministry of Christ.  In fact, general revelation reveals just enough knowledge of God to damn us, to render us without excuse.”[14]

The Confession is about to explain the insufficiency or inability of general revelation to redeem sinners. The insufficiency of general revelation to save stands in stark contrast to the saving sufficiency of the special redemptive revelation of Scripture.

The Confession states: Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable. There are three sources of general revelation mentioned here that “manifest (reveal) the goodness, wisdom and power of God.” These three things are so plain and clear that they leave all “men inexcusable.”

The first source of general revelation is the light of nature.  “The light” is metaphorically referring to knowledge.  This light (knowledge) must come from somewhere; the phrase tells us the light comes from or is of “nature.” But should we understand “nature” to be a synonym for creation?  The phrase “light of nature” is used four other times[16] in the Confession. [17]   The other contexts relate to issues of natural or general revelation, but seem to reference not the external evidence of creation or providence, but the internal work of conscience and consciousness.  Robert Letham helpfully states: “The light of nature” is a reference to the consciousness of God that he has imprinted on the human mind.”[18]  God placed his law in man’s heart (Rm. 2:15) which witnesses to God’s decree or law (Rom. 1:32), but God also put in mankind an awareness of God (Rm. 1:19).  What makes the light of nature distinct from the works of creation and providence is that it is internal, whereas these testify of God externally.

General revelation also comes to us through the works if creation.  The works of creation refer to God making all things in six days.[19]  Chapter 4, Of Creation, will deal in detail with the works of creation.  Paul indicates: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20 ESV). Creation testifies of God.  We see this in Psalm 19.  “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun” (ESV).

God’s works of providence are the third source of general revelation. How does providence manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God?  The simple answer is that since God provides (i.e. PROVIDEnce) for his creation, and we can observe this; it is evidence of his goodness, wisdom, and power in that action.  We will discuss this in more detail in Chapter 5, Of God’s Providence.

The Confession continues, yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation.  It is sobering to realize that not only is general revelation insufficient to reveal saving knowledge of the gospel, but general revelation provides enough knowledge to damn us. The lost sinner cannot deduce the gospel message from general revelation.  Chapter 20, Of the Gospel and the Extent of Grace Thereof, explains this in more detail.  Since general revelation does not reveal the gospel, this makes the Scriptures most essential.

The Confession states: Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in divers manners to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church. The word “therefore” points both back to the fact that general revelation is not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation, and it points forward indicating that as a result of that insufficiency: it pleased the Lordto reveal himself and to declare that his will unto his church.  The Lord graciously of his free-will—God is always most free to do as he pleases—revealed two things. One, he revealed himselfunto his church. We should not pass over that point too quickly.  God who is infinite, unchangeable, incomprehensible, invisible, who dwells in unapproachable light revealed himself to the church! That is remarkable.  Secondly, the Lord declared his will unto the church; that is another astonishing act.  God has not only revealed himself to the church but has made his will clear to her.  The reference to the church here is to all God’s elect in all ages, including the Jewish Church (21:1b) of the Old Testament.  We will touch upon this issue later in the Confession, but for now we should not only think of the church[20] as those from the New Testament forward.

The Confession states that it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in divers manners to reveal and declare his will to the church. This phrase is a direct quote from Hebrews 1:1; presumably from the King James Bible.  The New American Standard Bible translates this as: “in many portions and in many ways.” The phrase at sundry times (or in many portions) means that God spoke at various times and epochs. That revelation was not given all at once, but it came in portions—each new portion added to the prior.  In this way, the revelation progressed until its fullness in Christ (see Rm. 16:25-27).[21] The phrase in divers manners (or in many ways) means that God transmitted the revelation of himself and his will to the church in various or different ways (i.e. various methods, or modes).  What are those ways or modes?  In David Dickson’s book, Truth’s Victory over Error, he asks: What were the sundry times and divers manners?”  He answers citing six modes of revelation.  We do not have space to review each, but this list is helpful with the references provided for further study:

  • By inspiration (2 Chron. 15:1; 2 pet. 1:21)
  • By visions (Num. 12:6-8)
  • By dreams (Job 33:14-16; Gen. 40:8)
  • Urim and Thummim (Num. 27:21; 1 Sa. 30:7-8)
  • By signs (Gen. 32:24-32; Exod. 13:21)
  • By audible voice (Exod. 20:1, Gen. 22:15)

Dickson then adds, “All which do end in writing (Exod. 17:14), which is a most sure and infallible way of the Lord’s revealing his will unto his people.” [22] 

The Confession continues: and afterward for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

We will need to break this down for clarity sake. Let’s focus on the core meanings of these statements. We will do this for the whole paragraph, so we have context:

  1. The Holy Scripture is the…rule.
  2. Natural knowledge…creation…providence…manifest…God; [thus to] leave men inexcusable.
  3. Yet…[nature…creation…providence are] not sufficient to give… knowledge of…salvation.
  4. Therefore it pleased the Lord…to reveal himself, and to declare…his will unto his church;
  5. and afterward…to commit the same wholly unto writing;
  6. …those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

We have already covered one to four. Five states: and afterward…to commit the same wholly unto writing. The phrase afterward refers to the time after God had revealed himself and his will to the church (in the sundry times and divers manners) until it was put to writing.  So why did God commit his revelation to writing?  The Confession states: for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world. There are seven reasons the revelation was committed to writing. Let’s briefly look at these one at a time.

The first benefit of having the revelation written is that it better preserves the truth.  Writing is usually more reliable than word of mouth, it is open for anyone to see, it preserves words which would others wise be forgotten. The second benefit is the better propagating (promotion) of the truth.  We think of the many Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and of the many translations of those into other languages.  All of this would not be the case if the revelation had not been committed to writing.  It is by the sheer quantity the manuscripts that the written truth is preserved and promoted.

Reasons three through seven provide five benefits to the revelation being committed to writing; these benefits are directed to the church, whereas the prior reasons were related to the truth itself.  The more sure establishment… of the church. “Establishment” means “something that strengthens, supports, or corroborates.” [23] The revelation committed to writing is also for the comfort of the church (see Romans 15:4).  This establishment (i.e. strengthening) and comfort from the written truth assists the church against three enemies: 1) the corruption of the flesh, 2) the malice of Satan, and 3) [the malice of][24] the world.  Spurgeon calls these three enemies “the horrible trinity of the world.[25]  Most believers will immediately understand how the Word of God helps the church against these three enemies.

The Confession indicates that the revelation of God and his will for the church—previously transmitted in different non-written modes—was wholly committed to writing. Samuel Waldron states: “It is not that everything once revealed is written, but that everything now revealed is written.  The redemptive revelation contained in the Bible is an accurate and sufficient epitome of the whole of redemptive revelation.”[26] We content ourselves with the knowledge that everything we need for salvation, and to live in Christ Jesus is written in the Scriptures, as the first clause of this chapter’s paragraph stated.  When one looks at the breadth of the Old Testament alone, we do not get the sense that we are missing anything.  When we add the New Testament to that, we recognize we have the whole revelation of God and his will for the church.  Even if we do not have every single thing ever revealed in writing, we do wholly have the whole counsel of God in the Holy Scriptures.

Paragraph one ends with these words: which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. Because the previous way that the Lord revealed himself and declared his will to the church—it being unwritten and no longer given—the writing of the revelation is necessary.  Otherwise, the revelation which ceased would fade, and the truth would not be preserved and propagated; and, the church would not be more surely established and comforted.

Let’s summarize this paragraph: the Holy Scriptures are the rule for saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. General revelation is insufficient to reveal saving knowledge faith and obedience.  Thus, God revealed himself and his will to the church.  Since God’s prior modes of giving revelation have ceased, it was most necessary that God’s revelation of himself to the church and his will for the church be written down for the sake of the truth and the church.

Bible by RyanM

  1. Under the Name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the Books of the Old and New Testament which are these,

Of the Old Testament.

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, II Kings, I Chronicles, II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.

Of the new TESTAMENT.  

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, The Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, to Titus, to Philemon, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistle of James, The first and second Epistles of Peter, The first, second and third Epistles of John, the Epistle of Jude, the Revelation. All of which are given by the (e) inspiration of God, to be the rule of Faith and Life. (e) 2 Timothy 3:16.


 

This paragraph is rather straightforward; having defined the nature of the Word of God, it is important to explicitly state which books are part of that rule (i.e. canon). This list of books implies that all other books not mentioned are not part of the rule.  From the outset, the Confession is settling matters of authority; this is necessary before it can proceed further.

The Confession states that all these books are inspired by God, and are to be the rule of faith and life. The Confession is in part reflecting 2 Timothy  3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17 ESV). R.C. Sproul states: “When Paul says that all Scripture is inspired, or God- breathed, he is technically saying that Scripture is breathed out of the mouth of God, where it originates.”[27]  These books are accepted by the church as authoritative because these are God breathed; they are directly from God without error, and thus by their very inspired quality, they are the rule of faith and life. These words are the standard (i.e. the rule) for what we should believe (i.e. faith), and how we are to live (life). The phrase “rule of faith and life” is not a new statement or concept in the Confession, but rather it is a reiteration—in shortened form—from paragraph one: the Scriptures are the “rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.”

Bible by RyanM

  1. The Books commonly called Apocrypha not being of (f) Divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon (or rule) of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority to the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved or made use of, then other humane writings.  (f) Luke 24:27, 44; Romans 3:2

 

The Roman Church holds the Apocryphal books as inspired along with the books of the Old and New Testament. The Apocrypha was written during the Inter-Testamental period (from about 400 B.C. to Christ’s arrival).  The Books of the Apocrypha are: I Esdras, II Esdras, Tobit, Judith, The rest of Esther, The Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, with the Epistle of Jeremiah, The Song of the Three holy Children, The History of Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, The Prayer of Manasses, I Maccabees and II Maccabees.

Protestants do not hold these books as God breathed for a good reason; there are inaccuracies in history and other areas that show them to be fallible, and therefore not inspired.   The Confession states: “Therefore, are of no authority to the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved or made use of than other human writings.” It is not to say that the Apocrypha has no value historically, culturally, or literarily.  The 1689 Confession is not saying one should not read the Apocrypha, or that it has no value, but humans books are not sufficient, certain or infallible as a rule of saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.

  James White helpfully addresses what is meant by the word “canon”

  • “Canon refers to a standard or rule.  In this case, the rule, standard or canon refers to which books are inspired or God breathed.  Which writings are inspired and which ones are not.” White also states: “The canon is a function of the Scripture themselves.  The canon is not just a listing of books; it is a statement about what is inspired.  The canon flows from the work of the author of Scripture, God Himself.  To speak of the canon outside of speaking of what “God-breathed” is to speak nonsense.  Canon is not made by man.  Canon is made by God.  It is the result of the action of His divine inspiration.  That which is God-breathed is canon; that which is not God-breathed is not canon.  It’s just that simple.  Canon is a function of inspiration, and it speaks to an attribute of Scripture.” 

White then applies this to the Roman Church:

  • “The Roman error lies in creating a dichotomy between two things that cannot be separated, and then using that false dichotomy to deny sola Scriptura.”  “Often two separate but related issues get confused when this topic is discussed: (1) the canon’s nature, and (2) how people came to know the contents of the canon.  An illustration might help.  I have written eight books.  The action of my writing those books creates the canon of my works.  If a friend of mine does not have an accurate or full knowledge of how many books I have written, does this mean there is no canon of my books?  No, of course not.  In fact, if I was the only one who knew how many books I had written, would that mean that the canon of my books does not exist?  The point is clear.  The canon is one issue, and it comes from God’s action of inspiring the Scriptures.  Our knowledge of the canon is another.  Our knowledge can grow and mature, as it did at times in history.  But the canon is not defined by us nor is it affected by our knowledge or ignorance.”[28]  

The Apocrypha is declared by the Roman Church to be canonical along with the rest of the Bible, but she has no authority to make that declaration.  The only authority of canon is God, who inspired the particular documents; a church council or human decree cannot declare something to be inspired—of what value is that?

The Protestant list of inspired books is the recognition they are inspired by God. By the time the churches made a formal list of the canonical books, their usage was already established.  Why was that so?  Because when a book was recognized as inspired, the church used it.  And so, the canonical list of books is a list of recognition, rather than a list of pronouncement.

Bible by RyanM

  1. The Authority of the Holy Scripture for which it ought to be believed dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon (g) God (who is truth itself) the Author thereof; therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.  (g) 2 Peter 1:19, 20, 21; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 John 5:9 )

 

The Confession states that the authority of the Bible depends not on the: “testimony of any man.” If God has inspired the Scripture of the Old and New Testament, and he has, then it follows that the authority, the rule, of Scripture is not dependent upon any person for its authority. Paul wrote: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13 ESV).

The Confession adds that the authority of the Bible does not depend on the testimony of any church.  It is likely that the Roman Church was in mind here.  As David Dickson wrote, near the time of the Westminster and 1689 Confessions: “Well then, do not the popish church err, who maintain the Scripture to be an imperfect rule, and therefore to stand in need of a supply of unwritten traditions?”[29] If Scripture alone is not the sole authority, then it is not the authority at all.

The Confession adds that the authority of the Bible depends but wholly upon God. 1 John tells us: “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son” (1 John 5:9 ESV). We have many commands in Scripture that necessitate not adding to its words, but if we add non-inspired books to the canon, we are in a real sense adding to the words of Scripture.  If we assign the authority of Scripture to another besides God, we are in a sense taking away, not words, but authority.  Consider these passages from Scripture: “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deut. 4:2 ESV). “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.  Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Prov. 30:5-6 ESV).  “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Rev. 22:18-19 ESV).  The 1689 Confession states that the Author of Scripture, God, is truth itself, and therefore it is to be received as the Word of God. If we do not, we are rejecting God’s authority, his word, and his truth.

 Bible by RyanM

  1. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church of God, to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the Doctrine, and the Majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God) the full discovery it makes of the only way of mans salvation, and many other incomparable Excellencies, and intire perfections thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence it self to be the Word of God; yet notwithstanding, our (h) full persuasion, and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our Hearts. (h) John 16:13,14; 1 Corinthians 2:10, 11, 12; 1 John 2:20, 27

 

This paragraph points out three ways or means by which we may know the Bible is from God—the third being the ultimate. The first way: We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church of God to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures. It is the duty of the church to be a pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).  One way we do that is to show a high and reverent esteem of the inerrant Word of God.  By this, many will be moved and influenced to see Scripture for what it is.

The second way: and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, and the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, and many other incomparable excellencies, and entire perfections thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God. In addition to the church’s testimony moving us to a high and reverent esteem for the Bible, this list gives arguments and abundant evidence that it is the Word of God. This list indicates things that are internal to the Word of God itself.  It is Scripture’ itself that gives abundant evidence that it is the Word of God.  Michael Kruger states:  “Of all the attributes of canonicity, the divine qualities of Scripture are the least discussed in modern canonical studies. Most scholars prefer to devote their studies to their energies to the corporate reception of these books, or perhaps to their apostolic origins, but attention is rarely given to their divine qualities.”[30]The heavenliness of the matter,” in the words of Letham, this means Scripture is “speaking of realities that transcend our mundane perceptions.”[31] “The efficacy of the doctrine” is referring to the power and capacity to produce effects.[32] “The majesty of the style,” or we could say the grand and splendid quality. “The consent of all the parts,” speaks of how the parts all agree with each other. “The scope of the whole” is unified by its parts. “Which is to give all glory to God,” is connected with “the consent of all the parts,” and means that the individual parts and the whole give glory to God.  “The full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation,” refers to the full and clear way the gospel is understood. “And many other incomparable excellencies, and entire perfections thereof.” We gather from this that this is not an exhaustive list; we could go on and on.   These “are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God.” The Confession means here that just this list alone makes the case that the Bible is the Word of God.

The third way: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. Even with the consideration of both means mentioned above, ultimately our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof (i.e. of the Word of God) comes from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. We need to recognize that our conviction about the Word of God comes from the inward work of the Spirit in a believer’s life. I recall once hearing John MacArthur, Jr. say that in all his years of ministry in teaching the Word of God, he has never had to convince a believer in Christ that the Bible is the Word of God; he or she is convinced by the Spirit.  The reason for that is due to the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness (testimony) in our heart that Scripture is indeed from the mouth of God.

 Bible by RyanM

  1. The whole Counsel of God concerning all things (i) necessary for his own Glory, Mans Salvation, Faith and Life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new Revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men.

Nevertheless, we acknowledge the (k) inward illumination of the Spirit of God, to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church common to humane actions and societies; which are to be (l) ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (i) 2 Timothy 3:15, 16, 17; Galatians 1:8,9; (k) John 6:45; 1 Corinthians 2:9, 10, 11, 12; (l) 1 Corinthians 11:13, 14 &  ch. 14:26 & 40


 

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture. This statement first addresses the perspicuity of Scripture in four areas, and secondly, how this whole counsel is to be discovered in Scripture.

First, the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for: 1) God’s own glory, 2) man’s salvation, 3) faith, and 4) life is… found in the Scripture. This resembles the first clause in chapter 1:1 and the last clause of 1:6.  But here the paragraph further adds that all of God’s will (his whole counsel) is in the Holy Scripture. We are again confronted with this radical claim that all that is needed for man to know in these areas is wholly and only found in Scripture. We sometimes fail to grasp the expanse and significance of such a statement.  There are likely several reasons for this, but one is repetition. It is natural for repetition to turn into callousness. If we once grasped the significance of statements like the above or a shorter version such as “Scripture is the rule of all faith and life,” repetition can cause our appreciation of its significance to fade and wane until eventually we just tune it out.  For others who have never grasped the significance, repetition turns into triteness and triteness to contempt given its seeming meaningless repetition. We have attempted to show that for the person at the time of the Reformation such a statement would have stood out like a sore thumb.  It would have been such a contrast to the views of the Roman Church.  Today, such a statement is heard this way: “the Bible contains instructions on how to live the best Christian life.” But that is not what it means. It actually means “only the Bible contains all instructions for how to live the only Christian life that is pleasing to God.” To be a Christian, we must shape and make our lives conform to the whole counsel of God found only in the Bible.  Unfortunately, many professing believers today see the Bible as an optional Christian manual.  For the most part they treat the Christian life like someone who would seek to operate an aircraft without first reading the flight manual.  It is extremely dangerous to do so as any pilot will tell you. If such professing believer grasped what was stake, eternal life or damnation, they might pick up the manual and pay serious and careful attention to what is states.

The Confession provides a hermeneutic for discovering the whole counsel of God in Scripture. The counsel of God is found expressly set down or necessarily contained in Scripture. In other words, the counsel of God is set down in explicitly statements or statements which require necessary inferences.  This hermeneutic is critical to not only a Reformed approach to Scripture, but particularly for a Puritan approach. The Puritan’s were masters at mining the word of God for the necessary inferences of Scripture.  A reading of Thomas Watson’s, The Ten Commandments, will reveal the incredible depths the Puritan’s mined the Ten Commandments. An example of something “expressly set down” or explicit in Scripture is “Thou shall not murder.” An example of something “necessarily contained” or necessarily inferred from the same text is seen in the Baptist Catechism 73: Q. What is required in the sixth commandment? A. The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life and the life of others. Or for the seventh commandment, “Thou shall not commit adultery”: Baptist Catechism 67: What is required in the seventh commandment? A. The seventh commandment requireth the preservation of our own and our neighbors chastity, in heart, speech, and behavior.”

Of course, we have from Jesus himself the same necessary inference principle: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mat. 5:27-28 ESV). This is a hermeneutic of application if anything. But behind this hermeneutic is the principle that there is no other source for the counsel of God to us for all matters related to glorifying God, salvation of men, faith, and life (i.e. obedience or observance). Thus we must mine the word of God deeply to find the whole counsel of God. One suspects that the lack of appetite for such digging is the belief that the Bible is insufficient for such things or is optional.  But there is no other manual for the Christian life, and since the stakes are so high, serious study of the only and all sufficient manual is required.

It might be useful to note that the doctrine of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) does not imply that we should read no other book to assist us in the Christian faith and life; that would be solo scriptura. It means that the supreme and final authority is Scripture, and all other books must ultimately bow to its authority.  Thus while the Bible alone contains the whole counsel of God, the studies of others which explain the Scriptures are indispensable to a greater comprehension of Scriptures. Also, sola Scriptura does not negate creeds and confessions as a way to formulate the doctrine of Scripture.  In fact, we will see in paragraph 10 that all such counsels of church and ancient writers are to be examined in light of the Scripture.

The Confession states that since we have the whole counsel of God in writing, nothing at any time is to be added. Thus, since Bible contains it all, we cannot add anything to these areas which are not in Scripture. Again, if one believes this, then there is nothing to add to Scripture to properly glorify of God, regarding salvation, faith and life. It’s all there.  Unfortunately, this principle does not guide most of Christendom, which looks beyond Scripture to pragmatic methodologies, asceticism, aestheticism, Roman papal authority, and so on—looking for things to be added to worship, salvation, faith, and life.  A view of Scripture that sees in it the full clarity and breadth of the whole counsel of God will dive deeply into that source—and will not seek to add anything to that which is already fully complete.

Whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men, we are not to add anything at any time to the whole counsel of God for any reason, including so-called “new revelation” or the “traditions of men.” During the writing of the Confession, there were those who believed revelation was found not only in Scripture but inwardly. The Quakers promoted the belief that inner light or revelation was part and parcel of the Christian life. The Papists believe that the traditions of the church and the Pope could add authoritative and supplementary revelation. There is certainly no shortage of groups today who believe in modern revelation in one form or the other, and we still have with us today the Roman Church. David Dickson states of the Roman Church: “Well then, do not the Papists err who maintain that things necessary to salvation are obscurely and darkly set down in Scripture; and that without the help of unwritten traditions and the infallible expounding of the church the Scriptures cannot be understood? Yes. Because the Scripture enlighteneth the eyes and maketh the simple wise (Psa. 19:7-8).”[33] Since Scripture contains all things needed for us to glorify God, regarding salvation, faith and life, there is nothing that should be added to what is already existing, regardless of the reasoning, whether new revelation or traditions of men.

Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.  While the Confession states that the Scripture contains all that is necessary for salvation, nevertheless… the framers of the confession and Reformed churches in general, acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit is still needed in order to savingly understand all these things.  Scripture tells us: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV). So the Spirit of God must illuminate a person if they are to saving understanding of the things revealed in the Word of God.[34]  This applies to effectual calling certainly, but such illumination is also required to truly grasp all things in the Word of God.  It is the Spirit alone who ultimately opens up the Scripture to show us the depths contained therein.

While the whole counsel of God is contained in the Scriptures, yet there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. This is likely to be misunderstood at first glance. First, the Confession has already clearly indicated that all things necessary to glorify God are in Holy Scripture. Thus, this truth is not equivocated or lessened here. It is not speaking of areas the whole counsel of God does not address, for that interpretation takes away from the sufficiency of Scripture regarding worship and the government of the church.  This is speaking matters which Scripture intentionally leaves open to accommodate for various circumstances concerning worship and the management of the church. These circumstantial variables are common to human actions and societies. These involve circumstantial matters that commonly vary from church to church such as: the time of a worship service, how many services, the place of worship, the order of liturgy, or even whether Psalms alone are used for music or a mix of hymns and spiritual songs. These are matters which vary according to the needs of the people of God around the world. These are circumstantial variables which do not fall under the regulative principle; circumstantial matters are those which do not involve essential, non-negotiable elements of worship such as the public reading of Scripture, expository preaching, the Lord’s Table, or worshipping on the Lord’s Day (see 22:2-8).  Rather, these non-regulative items may be determined by the light of nature, Christian prudence, and the general principles of the word of God. As we discussed in Chapter 1, paragraph 1, the light of nature refers to general revelation. R.C. Sproul comments that throughout the church age, general revelation has been thought of as infallible just as special revelation is infallible.[35] Thus the light of nature does provide revelation, even if it is not salvific. And it is of use in these matters. Christian prudence can be understood as godly wisdom. Both of these are to guide the circumstances of worship and the managing of the church by the general principles of the Word. The general principles of the word of God can be discerned by implication and applied to areas not necessarily mentioned in Scripture.  The light of nature and Christian prudence are applied to the circumstances of worship and church guided by the general rules or principles of the Bible.  In this way, such circumstantial matters are always to be observed.[36] We will speak more specifically about the regulative principle of worship in Chapter 22, Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day.

Bible by RyanM

  1. All things in Scripture are not alike (m) plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for Salvation, are so (n) clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them. (m) 2 Peter 3:16; (n) Psalms 19:7; Psalms 119:130

 

The Confession freely admits that all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all. Anyone who has read the Bible would agree that there are things in it that are hard to understand.  Peter himself said as much: “There are some things in them [i.e. Paul’s Scriptural writings] that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16b ESV). But the Confession affirms, yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them. Those things necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are clearly propounded.  Notice the parallel here with the opening statement of Chapter 1:1, “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge [known], faith [believed], obedience [observed].” If Chapter 1:1a is true, then it would hardly do to have that saving revelation concealed.  Thus the Confession states that this saving revelation is so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other. To propound means “to put forth, set forth.” [37]  The gospel is set forth and opened in various places in the Bible beginning in Genesis 3:15 and continuing in greater clarity until its full discovery and completion in the New Testament (7:3). Thus the things necessary for salvation are in Scripture set forth and opened in some place or the other.

The Confession states all things are so clearly propounded in one place or another that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them. In other words, Scripture is so clear salvifically that anyone can understand, even the unlearned.  Thus, the focus is on the accessibility of Scripture.  The Confession is not claiming the “ordinary means” are only for the unlearned, as if extraordinary ways are only for the learned. No, it is saying that the Bible is so accessible that both can understand it by ordinary means.   The phrase “ordinary means” refers to means common to all people, and thus it is not referring to special grace.  What are ordinary means? “Ordinary means” refers to private reading of Scripture, public reading of Scripture (beneficial to the literate and illiterate alike), and perhaps especially private and public preaching and teaching (again beneficial to learned and unlearned alike). We see a hint of this in Luke’s narrative: “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:42 ESV). Paul also took to private and public preaching and teaching: “How I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21 ESV). Additionally, Paul states: “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22 ESV). The gospel is for all. There is no class in God’s kingdom as if the elect were only those educated. Thus, by ordinary means the learned and unlearned may attain a sufficient understanding of them.

 Bible by RyanM

  1. The Old Testament in (o) Hebrew, (which was the Native language of the people of God of old) and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the Nations [)] being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and Providence kept pure in all Ages, are therefore (p) authentical; so as in all controversies of Religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them (q.) But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read (r) and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every Nation, unto which they (s) come, that the Word of God dwelling (t) plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope. (o) Romans 3:2; (p) Isaiah 8:20; (q) Acts 15:15; (r) John 5:39; (s) 1 Corinthians 14:6, 9, 11, 12, 24, 28; (t) Colossians 3:16

 

The Confession states: The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations).  The Old Testament was written in Hebrew.  “The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2 ESV).  Hebrew was the common or native language that the people of God in the Old Testament spoke.  The New Testament was written in Greek.  Greek was the most common language of the Hellenized world at the time, though it was not the only language.  Each Testament, written in Hebrew or Greek, is “immediately inspired by God.”  “Immediately” means directly, without any other intervening or mediating means.  We understand the Confession to mean here that the original autographs of Hebrew and Greek were directly inspired.[38] We are reminded that: “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16-17 ESV).  God’s words have come—metaphorically speaking—directly from his mouth or breath.

God’s Word came via the common language of the time of Hebrew and Greek respectively. Hebrew or Greek are not special “languages of the Spirit,” as some have believed;[39] rather these were human languages of the time, and God was pleased to have Scripture written in these common human languages.  God not only immediately inspired the autographs, but he has “by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages the Old and New Testament.  God has done so by his special providence (i.e. his singular care).  God has preserved the original autographs through the thousands of manuscripts, especially of the New Testament, to such an extent that we are able to reconstruct the original autographs with a very high degree of certainty. By God’s preservation then the Scriptures are authentic.  Authentic means that all the manuscripts together produce an accurate copy of the original autographs.  

The Confession states of Scripture that in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them.  Dickson’s statement is to the point: “Well then, do not the Papists err who maintain that the Church of Rome, and the pope are the supreme judges of all controversies of faith; and that his decrees and determinations are to be believed without examination, and implicitly to be believed by all believers? Yes. Do not likewise the Quakers err who maintain that the light within which teacheth the elect is the only judge of all controversies? Yes.”[40]  Scripture tells us: “To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn” (Isaiah 8:20 ESV).

The Confession states of the Old and New Testament that they should be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come. Just as the Old and New Testament were written in the native tongue of God’s people, so now the word of God should be accessible in the vulgar language (i.e. the common language) of all. The view that the Scripture should be translated for all was not the position of the Roman Church.  Those who translated the Bible into a vulgar language of the people, such as Tyndale, were either persecuted or executed at the hands of the Roman Church.  Many today continue the work of translating the Word of God into the common language of all tribes and nations; the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura continues to push the Protestant church forward in this mandated translation work.

Why should the nations have the Word of God in their own language?  That the Word of God dwell plentifully in all.  Scripture states: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col 3:16a ESV).  Why should the Word of God dwell plentifully in all? So that they may worship him in an acceptable manner. We have seen that Scripture alone provides the necessary instruction to properly glorify or worship God. We will see this again Chapter 22.  The translation of Scripture is therefore essential for the people of God to worship God in an acceptable manner, that is, in a regulated manner according to the Scriptures. And through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope. The Confession cites Scripture directly: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope (Rom. 15:4 KJV).  Since the Scriptures are the rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience, the elect can access these necessary things only if they can read and study the Bible in their native language (1 Cor. 14:6, 9, 11, 12, 24, 28).

Bible by RyanM

  1. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the (u) Scripture it self; And therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one) it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly. (u) 2 Peter 1:20, 21; Acts 15:15, 16

 

The Confession indicates that the infallible rule of interpreting Scripture is Scripture itself. In other words and more commonly said, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” This Reformation principle is a direct response to the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of the magisterium. Bernard Ramm helpful points out, “The Roman Catholic Church claimed that it possessed the mind of Christ and the mind of the Spirit in its teaching magisterium so that it could render obscure doctrine clear. The Reformers rejected the claim of the Roman Catholic Church that it had the gift of grace and illumination to know what the Holy Spirit taught. In place of an appeal to the teaching magisterium of the Church, the Reformers proclaimed that Scripture interprets Scripture.”[41] The Church of Rome is not the infallible interpreter of Scripture, as it claims; rather that authority belongs to Scripture alone.

Based on this principle, therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly. The Confession is saying that when we do not understand the true and full sense of a particular passage of Scripture—there is only one meaning, not many (i.e. manifold), then we search for other places in Scripture that speak more clearly. Bernard Ramm states: “In this expression [“Scripture interprets Scripture”] the word “Scripture” is used in a double sense. As the first word of the formula, Scripture means the total Scripture; in the second occurrence it means a part of Scripture, either a verse or a passage. Restated the principle would read: ‘The entire Holy Scripture is the context and guide for understanding the particular passages of Scripture.’”[42] This Reformation principle is also referred to as “the analogy of Scripture.” Richard Muller defines the analogia scripturae as: “The interpretation of unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages of Scripture by comparison with the clear and unambiguous passages that refer to the same teaching or event.”[43]

The idea that the Roman Catholic Church can provide infallible interpretation to those obscure passages by the mind of Christ and his Spirit is attractive to some people. But, in reality, all it does is kick the proverbial tin can further down the road.  The magisterium does not solve the challenge of understanding difficult passages; even Rome herself is not always consistent on such matters, sometimes providing manifold meanings.  No, if the obscure meaning can be known, Scripture itself will provide the help, not a mere mortal or fallible church.

Bible by RyanM

  1. The supreme judge by which all controversies of Religion are to be determined, and all Decrees of Councils, opinions of ancient Writers, Doctrines of men, and private Spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which (x) Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved. (x) Matthew 22:29, 31, 32; Ephesians 2:20; Acts 28:23

 

As we come to the last paragraph of this chapter, it seems appropriate that it conclude with practical application. Therefore, based on all that has been said, The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture. Since the Bible is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, there is no higher authority, no better source, and no other source besides Scripture by which to resolve all controversies of religion. All decrees of church councils are subject to Scripture. One might think of the Council of Trent, which clearly misused Scripture in her canons. Or, we might even think of those vital early church councils which brought about the great orthodox creeds; even these, as rightly respected as they are, do not ultimately judge in controversies and supersede Scripture.  We believe the orthodox creeds accurately represent the Scriptures in what they address, but ultimately they are only helpful tools and models of sound words;[44] they do not replace the authority of Scripture.  It is very easy to slip into the subtly of appealing to creeds and councils in matters of controversy, or to ancient writers as if these are infallible interpreters.  While we afford these a degree of authority—rightly so—we must always ultimately appeal to the word of God as the supreme authority in such matters of controversy. This also applies to the doctrines of men and private interpretations (those of single individuals).  It is ultimately only in sentence of Scripture we rest, for there is no higher authority to appeal to than that which God has given.

Jesus held the Scripture to be the supreme judge in matters of controversy in religion. For example, we see in the Gospel of Matthew: “But Jesus answered them [the Sadducees], “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching” (Matt 22:29-33 ESV).  Jesus judged this controversy by Scripture, and rendered his judgment based solely on the Scripture: “You are wrong.”  Why? “You know neither the Scriptures.” If our Lord used Scripture as the supreme judge in these matters, clearly we are to do the same.

Since we are about to embark on an extensive examination of the Confession, it is certainly appropriate to pause and ask ourselves what the Confession’s relationship is to the Scripture. Scripture is the supreme judge over the Confession, and any attempt to appeal to the Confession as the supreme judge is to violate what the Confession says of itself. The Confession subjects itself to the authority of Scripture and that is exactly as it should be.

The 1689 Confession has addressed throughout this entire chapter, the Reformation teaching of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).   The Confession has given us a doctrine of Scripture most excellent. Based on this foundation, the rest of the Confession presents the whole counsel of God. In our commentary, we will seek to show the Confession is a biblical formulation. We will do this by generous Scripture citations, references, and explanations. But while we view the Confession as a tremendous help in many ways, we do not see it as the supreme authority, by any stretch.  That is reserved for Scripture alone.

  • “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”

Isaiah 40:8 ESV

Access Chapter 2, Of the Holy Trinity, using the right-hand column Table of Contents (at top of this page).


ENDNOTES

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (1985; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995), 284.

[2] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009), 120 (brackets mine).

[3] The Westminster Confession begins chapter 1: “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient….”

[4] The word ‘rule’ is a predicate nominative.  A predicate nominative renames or explains the subject.  For example, “John is a teacher.”  ‘Teacher’ renames or describes the subject ‘John.’  So in the Confession, the word ‘rule’ explains the subject (Scripture).

[5] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).  Robert Martin states of this dictionary: “The OED is an indispensable tool for determining the seventeenth-century meaning of English words.  This, and not the modern meaning of the words of the Confession, is our first interest.  The question is that of authorial intent, a concern which has vanished to an alarming degree in our post-modern world.”  Robert Martin, “The Second London Confession on the Doctrine of Scripture: An Exposition of Chapter 1: “Of the Holy Scriptures (Part 1),” Reformed Baptist Theological Review, Vol. IV, No. 1 (2007): 61.  We will make use of this dictionary throughout the commentary.

[6] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 43.

[7] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[8] Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: Great Commissions Publishing, 1961), hymn 80.  “How Firm a Foundation ye Saints of the Lord.”  The author is unknown, and the time of origin is likely the 18th century.

[9] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[10] An ellipsis is a “feature by which an incomplete idea requires the reader to supply a missing element that is self-evident.” Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional, 2011), 837.

[11] The Confession consistently utilizes ellipses (i.e. the omission of a previously used word implied in words that follow it).

[12]. See footnote 11.

[13] Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 456-57.

[14] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. I, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006),   6-7.

[16] See 1:6, 10:4; 20:2; 22:1.

[17] Article thirty-seven of the Orthodox Creed states: “Nor yet do we believe, that the works of creation, nor the law written in the heart, viz. natural religion, as some call it, or the light within man, as such, is sufficient to inform man of Christ the Mediator, or of the way to salvation, or eternal life by him;” This was written in 1679, only two years after the framing of the 1677 Baptist Confession.  This statement certainly seems to correspond with the concept of the light of nature.

[18] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009),  122-23. Letham adds that Calvin wrote about what he called a sensus divinitatis (a sense of the divine). Letham cites as support Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 209-45.

[19] Baptist Catechism Question 12 nicely defines the works of creation: The work of creation is God’s making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good.

[20] The word ‘church’ is used 55 times in the Confession.  For example see chapters 26:1; 7:3; 11:6 to illustrate the church in the Old Testament.

[21] The Confession tells us in Chapter 7:3: “This covenant [of grace] is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament.”

[22] David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (1684; reprint, Carlisle, Pa.:  The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007),  4-5.  This book is especially relevant for our study of the 1689 Confession because this book is one of the oldest commentaries on the Westminster Confession, first published in 1684.  1684 puts us fairly close to the time frame of the 1646 Westminster Confession, and thus gives us a contemporary lens in which to view the wording of the Westminster Confession, and the 1677 Confession when it parallels the WCF.

[23] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[24] The prior ‘malice’ is left out (an ellipsis), but is clearly implied of ‘the world.’

[25] C.H. Spurgeon, Morning by Morning; or, Daily Readings for the Family or the Closet (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1865) 207, July 25. This is the Morning version of the Morning and Evening by Spurgeon.

[26] Samuel Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press,, 1999),  32-3.

[27] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. I, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006),  11.

[28] James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy: Catholics & Protestants—Do the Differences Still Matter? (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996), 93-94

[29] David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (1684; reprint, Carlisle, Pa.:  The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007),  9.

[30] Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 125.

[31] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R, 2009),  136.

[32] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[33] David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (1684; reprint, Carlisle, Pa.:  The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 11-12.

[34] See Baptist Catechism 27: Q. How doth Christ execute the office of a prophet? A. Christ executeth the office of prophet in revealing to us, by his word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation.

[35] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. I, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006),  22.

[36] See ARBCA Position Paper, “A Position Paper Concerning the Regulative Principle of Worship,” http://s3.amazonaws.com/churchplantmedia-cms/arbca_carlisle_pa/regulative-principle.pdf

[37] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[38] Regarding ‘immediately inspired’ Robert Letham writes: “This is an appeal to the original autographs.” The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009),   144. The ‘autograph’ is a term often used to describe the original document written by the writer of Scripture.  We do not have any of the original autographs.  The term ‘manuscript’ is used to refer to copies of the original autograph (copies of copies, etc.).

[39]  Köstenberger and Patterson writes of the New Testament: “Rather than write in their native Hebrew or Aramaic, these Palestinian Jews (with the possible exceptions of Luke and the author of Hebrews) composed their writings in the lingua franca of the day, so-called koinē or “common” Greek, that is, the Greek spoken by everyday persons all over the Roman Empire.  There is thus no special “Holy Spirit” Greek. Rather, the Greek of the New Testament is the same as that spoken in ordinary language and found in everyday documents, such as papyri recording business transactions, personal letters, and the like.” Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel  Academic and Professional, 2011),  580.

[40] David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (1684; reprint, Carlisle, Pa.:  The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 16.

[41] Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 104-105.

[42] Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), 105 (brackets mine).

[43] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (1985; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995), 33.

[44] Carl Trueman states of 2 Tim. 1:13 and Titus 1:9; 2:1, that “the word ‘form’ describes a model, form, or standard that is intended to function as a trustworthy or reliable guide” Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 2012), 74.

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Chapter 32, Of the Last Judgment

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Chapter 31, Of the State of Man After Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead

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Chapter 30, Of the Lord’s Supper

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Chapter 29, Of Baptism

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Chapter 28, Of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

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Chapter 27, Of the Communion of the Saints

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Chapter 26, Of the Church

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Chapter 25, Of Marriage

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Chapter 24, Of the Civil Magistrate

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Chapter 23, Of Lawful Oaths and Vows

Under Construction as of 11.30.17

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Chapter 22. Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day

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Chapter 22, Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day

  1. The light of Nature shows that there is a God, who hath Lordship, and Sovereignty over all; is just, good, and doth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the Heart, and all the Soul, and with all the Might. But the acceptable way of Worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself; and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be Worshipped according to the imaginations, and devices of Men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way, not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures. (Jeremiah 10:7; Mark 12:33; Deuteronomy 12:32; Exodus 20:4-6)

During the reign of Charles I (1625-1649), The Act for the Uniformity of Common Prayer had begun to be enforced. These laws required clergy to follow the Book of Common Prayer in England’s churches. Violators were subject to penalties ranging from 6 months in prison to life imprisonment (after the third violation). Charles I also sought to rule England without regard to Parliament; this brought about great tension between the King Charles I and Parliament. In 1640, the Parliament began to rule England without Charles I—eventually trying him for treason; he was convicted and later executed in 1649. Parliament now being in control, they sought (among other things) to reorder the Church of England, making it more fully protestant. In 1643, Parliament called for an assembly of clergy (divines) to set out the doctrine of Scripture in a confession of faith for England’s church, meeting at Westminster. In the Westminster Confession we see instead of these oppressive enforcements, the liberty to worship God as he has revealed and instituted. Robert Letham states, “In this context, the focus of WCF 21.1 is more immediately liberating than restricting. Bound in its worship to the direction of the Word of God alone, the church is freed from the dictates of man, whether these are contrary to the Word or simply in addition to it.”[1] And thus we want to approach this chapter with this historical perspective in mind, and not with our modern mindset which too often takes a liberal approach to the worship of God. And, moderns may feel this chapter represents a strict view of worship, but for those in the seventeenth century, this chapter represented freedom to worship God as he has instituted.

The framers of the 1689 Baptist Confession (framed in 1677) agreed with the Westminster Confession here, making relatively small changes to this chapter. The Westminster divines had laid out the regulative principle, and as we continue through the chapter we will come to understand this principle, how it is applied, and how it differs from other principles of worship. Chapter 22 can be outlined as follows: Paragraph 1: establishes the authority that regulates worship; paragraph 2 shows the proper subject of worship; paragraphs 3 to 5 instruct about the proper means by which to worship; paragraph 6 teaches about the proper place to worship, and paragraph 7 to 8 the proper day in which to corporately worship God. As we delve into this chapter, we will discover the Puritan’s distinct approach to the weighty matter of the worship of God.

The light of nature shows that there is a God.  The light of nature refers to the knowledge placed within man’s nature that God exists (Rom. 1:19). Robert Letham helpfully states: “The light of nature is a reference to the consciousness of God that he has imprinted on the human mind.”[2] We have already addressed this phrase in chapter 1:1 of the Confession, but here additional aspects are mentioned. The light of nature imprints upon man a God who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is just, good and doth good unto all (see Rom. 1:20a; Matt. 5:45).  Chapter 1:1 indicated that general revelation is insufficient to reveal the way of salvation—only Scripture does that.  The light of nature is sufficient to reveal God with enough clarity so as to require man to worship God:  and [God] is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart and all the soul, and with all the might.  We will not explain in each phrase here in detail given that they are somewhat self-explanatory. We should note, however, the close Scriptural terminology and that part of this clause is a citation from Deuteronomy 6:4, which Jesus also cited as recorded in the synoptic Gospels. No one is excluded from the light of nature; therefore no one is excluded from the requirement to worship God.

Having established that all of mankind is accountable and required to worship God, further clarification is given. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will.  While God’s general revelation requires worship, yet God requires it to be done only as he has revealed, and that acceptable way is only revealed in the Scriptures.  God has made it plain that he requires his people to worship only as he has prescribed in passages like these:

  • When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ 31 You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. 32   “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (Deut. 12:29-32 ESV).

The meaning of verse 32 is to be understood in light of verses 29-31, and has to do particularly with worship. God’s words make it very clear that we must be careful to worship him only as he has commanded. We must worship in the way he said, and only in that way. It must be done carefully. And, as if to reiterate the point, God said: do not add anything to worship; do not detract anything from worship. Thus, all mankind knows enough about God to worship him, but in order to do so in a way that God accepts as true worship, they must worship only as he has instituted.

The Confession declares that God himself has instituted the acceptable way to worship; therefore, God may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.  God’s instituted way of worshipping him is sometimes called the regulative principle of worship. This principle is broken down here in to four areas. We cannot worship God according to 1) the imagination and devices of men, 2) the suggestions of Satan, 3) by visible representations, or  4) in any other way not specifically prescribed or ordered in the Scripture.

That God may not be worshipped according to the “the imagination and devices of men” is likely derived in part from Acts 17:29:  “Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device” (KJV). The Confession here rejects what has been called the inventive principle of worship.

  • “This is the view of Rome. It says that the church is free to establish the parameters of worship, hence the inventiveness of certain elements, like the mass, etc. The church may invent or create as it pleases. Authority resides in the church. Because Roman Catholicism recognizes the church and church tradition as an equal authority with the Bible, it is impossible to say that this is only careless wording or ignorance. It is most certainly a position that has been established with careful thought. This view cannot coexist with the regulative principle. It is antithetical to the regulative principle.”[3]

Further, we may not worship God according to “the suggestions of Satan.” We see from the beginning that Satan is a crafty opponent. In the garden, he did not simply tell Eve to eat the fruit and disobey God. No, he suggested or implied that God was withholding something desirous from her and her husband.  He suggested audibly that they disobey God, and while we do not hear Satan audibly, yet he suggests to the mind all sorts of blasphemy. Paul wrote: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3 ESV).  William Perkins (1558-1602), often called the father of Puritanism, writes: “The devil in tempting a man to sin, first conveys into his mind, either by inward suggestion, or by outward object, the motion or cogitation of that sin which he would have him commit.”[4] Christians throughout the ages, not just the Puritans, believed that the Satan at times suggestions to our mind sin, including suggesting the adding or taking away from God’s instituted worship. When it comes to the worship of God, Satan and his demonic spirits are particularly connected with attempts to taint the worship of God or bring about explicit idolatry (Deut. 32:16–17; Lev. 17:7; Matt. 4:9; 1 Cor. 10:20). Sinful men are especially vulnerable to Satan’s suggestions when it comes to the worship of God; therefore, it is essential we rely wholly and only on what God has revealed regarding proper.

God may not be worshiped under any visible representations. God said, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:1-6 ESV; see also Deut. 5:9). Calvin writes of this Second Commandment:

  • “In the First Commandment, after he had taught who was the true God, He commanded that He alone should be worshipped; and now he defines what is legitimate worship. Now, since these are two distinct things, we conclude that the commandments are also distinct, in which different things are treated of. The former indeed precedes in order, viz., that believers are to be contented with one God; but it would not be sufficient for us to be instructed to worship him alone, unless we also knew the manner in which He would be worshipped. The sum is, that worship of God must be spiritual, in order that it may correlate with His nature.” [5]

Thus, following Calvin’s perspective, the Second Commandment is not merely saying “do not worship idols,” but in light of the First Commandment, it provides instruction about how to worship God alone. The “how” instruction is the prohibition against the worship of God with “carved image, or any likeness.” It is especially so since connected with the use of images in worship inevitably comes the worship of the image—seen in the second part of the Second Commandment (i.e. “You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”). Therefore, it follows that these images are excluded in any setting, whether artistic or even “instructional” for child or adult. We see in another Reformed formula, the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 97) and the Particular Baptist revision of it, The Orthodox Catechism, (Q. 108): “But may not images be tolerated in churches, which may serve as books to the common people? A. No, for that would make us wiser than God, who will have His church to be taught by the lively preaching of His word and not with speechless images. (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:19; Jer. 10:8ff.; Hab. 2:18-19).”

While many modern Protestants believe that the use of images of God (i.e. specifically, the Father and the Spirit) are inappropriate under any circumstance, yet many make an exception allowing images of Christ in settings which may not, strictly speaking, involve worship. Such images, for example, may be a painting of Christ in a museum, home, a motion picture depicting Christ, or in Sunday school curriculum. But the Puritans believed the Second Commandment prohibition also applied to images of Christ in any form, under any circumstance. For example, the Westminster Larger Catechism, question Q. 109. “What are the sins forbidden in the second commandment? A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counselling, commanding, using, and anywise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it…” Johannes G. Vos (son of the well-known Biblical Theologian, Geerhardus J. Vos) explains the meaning of the above question and answer this way:

  • “Is it wrong to make paintings or pictures of our Savior Jesus Christ? According to the Larger Catechism, this is certainly wrong, for the catechism interprets the second command as forbidding the making of any representation of any of the three persons of the Trinity, which would certainly include Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, God the Son. While pictures of Jesus are extremely common in the present day, we should realize that in Calvinistic circles this is a relatively modern development. Our forefathers at the time of the Reformation, and perhaps for 300 years afterward, scrupulously refrained, as a matter of principle, from sanctioning or making use of pictures of Jesus Christ. Such pictures are so common in the present day, and so few have conscientious objections to them, that it is practically impossible to obtain any Sabbath School helps or Bible story material for children that is free of such pictures. The American Bible Society is to be commended for its decision that the figure of our Savior may not appear in Bible motion pictures issued by the Society.” [6]

Getting back to the wording of our Confession, David Dickson in his 1648 commentary on the Westminster Confession provides a helpful perspective. He asks, “Well then, do not the Papists err who teach that the images of Christ and the Trinity ought to be worshipped, and that not improperly but even properly and per se with that same sort of worship wherewith Christ and the blessed Trinity are adored? Dickson answers, “Yes [they err].”  Then he adds, “Do not likewise the Greeks [i.e. Greek Orthodox] err who maintain that the painted images of God may be adored, but not the engraved or carved images of God? Yes [they err].” [7]

Since the Confession itself does not specifically state Christ’s image is part of the prohibition, some may conclude the framers were intentionally silent, so as to make an allowance for such images of Christ. But given that the word “God” in this paragraph of the Confession obviously includes all three persons of the Trinity (since God is triune) such explicit wording is unnecessary. There is no “argument from silence” here; they were not silent, here or in their other writings. It is only in our modern setting that we think it ought to be spelled out. For them it was a given, and thus unnecessary to explicitly mention in the Confession—though they did state it more plainly in the accompanying catechisms. In the end, the Confession, and all the Reformed Confessions and catechisms, reject any and all uses of images of the three persons of the Godhead (including Christ), whether in a worship service, outside of a worship service, artistic expression, or even “instructional purposes” for the “common” person.

The Confession concludes the last clause this way: Or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.  The word “prescribed” here refers to God’s commands regarding the worship of God: what to do, and what to not do.  Thus the regulative principle of worship excludes anything not positively commanded or negatively commanded.  This clause rules out the normative principle of worship, which has been described this way:

  • “This view [the normative principle], held most notably by Lutheranism and Anglicanism states that you may have in worship whatever God has expressly commanded plus whatever is not expressly forbidden. Included under this view of worship would be many of the elements of worship found in higher church liturgy, the charismatic movement, modern day contemporary worship, seeker-sensitive worship, etc. Such elements would consist of liturgical ceremonies, drama, dance, performance oriented music, etc. The statement ‘God doesn’t prohibit this practice,’ justifies many of these practices. That statement is a key to the normative principle.”[8]

The Confession rules out additions to God’s prescribed instructions for worship and subtractions from it. Here is a helpful definition of the regulative principle.

  • “The regulative principle emphasizes the instituted elements of worship as the priority. Scripture reading, significant exposition of Scripture, prayers, congregational singing, the sacraments, etc., mark the priority of worship according to the regulative principle. Worship according to the regulative principle examines the order, elements, priorities, and musical selections from a regulated biblical perspective. It does not reject an old hymn simply because it is old nor does it reject new hymns and songs simply because they are new. Reformed hymnology was “new” when it was instituted. Worship according to the regulative principle does not jump on the bandwagon of high church liturgy, exclusive Psalmody, contemporary music, or normative additions of any kind from the motive of personal tastes. It examines the order, elements, priorities, and musical selections from a regulated biblical perspective. God regulates his worship. Worship is prescribed and commanded, and the elements of his worship are revealed.”[9]

This paragraph has established the proper authority for the worship of God: God himself. Since God alone has the authority to prescribe the way he is to be worshiped, we must conform to his acceptable way of worship.

 

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  1. Religious Worship is to be given to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to him alone; not to Angels, Saints, or any other Creatures; and since the fall, not without a Mediator, nor in the Mediation of any other but Christ alone. (Matthew 4:9, 10; John 6:23; Matthew 28:19; Romans 1:25; Colossians 2:18; Revelation 19:10; John 14:6; 1 Timothy 2:5)

Having then established that the authority for worship is God, who has revealed his will for worship in the Scripture, the Confession now addresses the proper subject of worship, and the proper mediator. We will note that we have moved beyond speaking of “natural worship,” and are now speaking of religious worship. What is the difference? Natural worship is that worship which is required of all men based on the light of nature. Even in his fallen state, man knows God exists, created him and this world, and that God is good to his creatures; thus, they are to honor him as God by giving him thanks and worship. So, while natural worship is based on general revelation (natural revelation), religious worship is based on special revelation: “God’s revealing of himself, and declaring his will to the church” (1689 1:1). Religious worship has already been defined by the Confession for us in paragraph 1 as “the acceptable way of Worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself; and so limited by his own revealed will.”  Thus, if religious worship is the worship of the true God only in the way he has instituted, then we must worship God as he has revealed himself in Scripture: unity in Trinity and Trinity in unity.

Religious worship is to be given to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to him alone. We may recall the phrase from chapter 2:3 of the Confession: “In this divine and infinite being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and the Holy Spirit, of one substance, power and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided.” On this basis, and in order for religious worship to be in truth and Spirit (John 4:24), worship is to be given to the Triune Godhead.   Even in the great commission we see, by implication, that God is to be worshipped as Triune. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mat.28:19 ESV). The Confession indicates the proper subjects of religious worship, but by adding the phrase “and to him alone,” all others beside the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are excluded. Jesus himself affirmed the command to worship God alone in his response to Satan’s temptation. “And [Satan] said to [Jesus], ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’”” (Mat. 4:9-10 ESV).

Again, since the Triune God alone is to be worshipped, then religious worship is not to be given to angels, saints, or any other creatures.  This is, of course, a direct response to the teaching and practice of the Roman Church. A.A. Hodge states, “The most authoritative Standards of the Church of Rome teach…that the Virgin Mary and saints and angels are to receive true religious worship, in proportion to their respective ranks.”[10] Interestingly, we see angels themselves instructing us not to worship them:  “Then I fell down at his feet to worship him [the angel], but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God” (Rev 19:10a ESV). The Apostle Paul said: “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind” (Col 2:18 ESV).  Further, we are not to worship saints as the Roman Church advocates.  “God alone,” means God alone.  We are not to worship any other creatures.  Worship is to be reserved for divinity alone, not for creatures.  Yet, corrupted mankind has a proclivity to worship the creature: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Rom. 1:25 ESV).

The manner God has prescribed for acceptable worship includes the prescription that we are not to worship God ever since the fall, without a mediator, nor in the mediation of any other but Christ alone.  Simply put, we must come to God by only one mediator, Christ. On the basis of Chapter 8, Of Christ the Mediator, we know why he is the only mediator between God and man. As well, from the prior chapters in the Confession, we know why we need a mediator after the fall.  Therefore, the only way to stand before God in worship in an acceptable way is by the merits of another, namely Christ alone.  Mary is not sinless, despite the Roman Church’s teaching, nor did she atone for our sin; therefore, as a fellow sinner, Mary, saints, or angels cannot stand as effective mediators between us and God.  “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5 ESV).

 

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  1. Prayer with thanksgiving, being one part of natural worship, is by God required of all men. But that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the Name of the Son, by the help of the Spirit, according to his Will; with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and when with others, in a known tongue. (Psalms 95:1-7; Psalms 65:2; John 14:13, 14; Romans 8:26; 1 John 5:14; 1 Corinthians 14:16, 17)

Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of natural worship, is by God required of all men. The 1658 Savoy Declaration revised the Westminster Confession in this clause (the 1689 Confession following the Savoy).  The Westminster Confession states: “Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is required of all men.” The Savoy Declaration states:  “Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of natural worship, is by God required of all men.” The revision harmonizes better with the first paragraph which speaks of the light of nature as the basis of natural worship, and certainly prayer is part of natural worship. The change here simply keeps the “natural worship” versus “religious worship” distinction clearer.

The phrase, prayer with thanksgiving, seems to reflect two passages. Positively, prayer is to be offered with thanksgiving: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (Phil. 4:6b KJV).  Negatively, mankind who though they knew God “glorified him not as God, neither were thankful” (Rom. 1:21b KJV). We notice that the Confession says prayer is a special part of natural worship.  It appears this simply means that prayer is a “particular” part of natural worship: there being also other aspects of natural worship.

Prayer is required of all mankind based on the general revelation to all, but prayer may be accepted only under certain conditions. What are those conditions? The remaining paragraph will explain what makes prayer acceptable to God. First, prayer is to be made in the Name of the Son. We see in John 14:13-14: “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it” (KJV). It might be helpful to add that merely reciting, “in Jesus’ name,” is not adequate—as if the mere recitation of certain words is truly offering prayer through the Son. The Westminster Larger Catechism (a summary of the Westminster Confession), question 180, states we are “to pray in the name of Christ…not by the bare mentioning of his name, but…from Christ and his mediation.” Thus it is not simply the “bare” mentioning of his name, as if it were an incantation that makes prayer acceptable. No, it is prayer offered in faith based on the merits of Christ which makes prayer acceptable to God. An unbeliever cannot simply recite “in Jesus’ name” absent faith in that “Name” and expect that prayer to be accepted.

Further, prayer must be offered to the Father in Christ’s name by the help of the Spirit.  That we require help from the Holy Spirit is clear from passages like Romans 8:26-27, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.  27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (ESV).  Or, Ephesians 6:18a, “Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (ESV).  In what ways does the Spirit help us pray? The Westminster Larger Catechism, question 182, states: Q. How doth the Spirit help us to pray? A. We not knowing what to pray for as we ought, the Spirit helpeth our infirmities, by enabling us to understand both for whom, and what, and how prayer is to be made; and by working and quickening in our hearts (although not in all persons, nor at all times, in the same measure) those apprehensions, affections, and graces which are requisite for the right performance of that duty. Johannes G. Vos wisely states in his commentary on the Westminster Larger Catechism 182, “The Holy Spirit remedies our spiritual weakness, not by revealing to us any truth apart from or in addition to the Bible, but by opening our spiritual eyes so that we can discern the true meaning of what is already revealed in the Bible, and thus be enabled to know the will of God concerning prayer.”[11]

It is only by the Spirit’s help that we can pray according to his Will.  We see in 1 John 5:14, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (ESV). This is likely to be misunderstood. The idea is not that praying “according to the will of God,” is aligning our prayer requests with God’s unrevealed will , and only then will God answer that prayer. What is intended is that we are to pray in the manner and way that God has told us and to pray in his Word. It is then we are assured he hears us. We are not to pray in ignorant ways as pagans or the superstitious—such as unbiblical practices promoted in the Roman Church—but we are to exercise prayer in an informed manner according to the Word of God.

The next portion of this paragraph states we are to pray with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and when with others, in a known tongue. These appear to all be subordinate to the last three prerequisites for acceptable prayer: in Jesus’ Name, with the Spirit’s help, according to the will of God.

What is meant by the phrase “with understanding”? This seems related to what we just spoke of, but also may have to do with praying with our mind engaged, thus not prayer with meaningless repetition, whether that be Latin phrases or other kinds of prayer. Jesus said: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7 ESV). We may also think of Paul’s words: “What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (1 Cor. 14:15 KJV).

We are to pray with reverence.  The Westminster Larger Catechism, summing up the Westminster Confession states we are to pray with an “awful apprehension of the majesty of God,” and in relation to corporate worship the proof text is Ecclesiastes 5:1: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil” (ESV).  Christ also demonstrated this reverence as we see in Hebrews 5:7, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (ESV).

We are to pray with humility. The Westminster Larger catechism states we are to pray with a “deep sense of our own unworthiness,” and sites: Genesis 18:27, “And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes” (ESV).  It also sites Genesis 32:10, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast showed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands (ESV).  In terms of humility in prayer, we cannot overlook the account Jesus gave of the contrasting prayers of the prideful Pharisee versus the humble tax collector.

  • He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

We are to pray with fervency. Scripture speaks of the need for fervency in prayer. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16b KJV). Or, James 5:17,  “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth” (ESV).

We are to pray with faith. Scripture states in James 1:6-8, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (ESV).

We are to pray in love for God and our neighbor. Scripture states in 1 Timothy 2:8, “I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. And we may imply from Paul’s words even prayer is to be done with love.  Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:14 (ESV).

We are to pray with perseverance. Scripture tells us, “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints” (Ephesians 6:18). Or, Luke 18:1, “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart (ESV).

We are to pray, when with others, in a known tongue. At the time of the Reformation, the Roman Church offered prayers in Latin during their corporate worship. Only the few educated who understood Latin could benefit. The congregation could in no way participate in offering prayer if they had no knowledge of the words being used. The Reformation was against such practices because it alienated non-Latin speakers (the common people) from corporate worship. The Reformation sought to reform corporate worship to be just that—for and of the corporate body of Christ—and not merely a mindless spectator sport.  Paul said, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me” (1 Cor. 14:10-11 ESV).  This Corinthian exhortation is very much applicable to the Romanist worship services in Latin. This Reformation principle also ought to be applied to the varying situations churches today find themselves in, whether at home or abroad in the foreign mission field.

 

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  1. Prayer is to be made for things lawful, and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter; but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death. (1 Timothy 2:1, 2; 2 Samuel 7:29; 2 Samuel 12:21-23; 1 John 5:16)

 

In a sense, this paragraph is an expansion of the last one, for it informs us how to pray in Jesus’s name, with the Spirit’s help to understand how Scripture tells us to pray. Biblical prayer is to be made for things lawful. We are to pray for the things which God has revealed to be in accord with his law. We do not pray, for example, for someone who has murdered that they may escape the state’s justice, or that God would, say, bless someone’s sinful divorce and re-marriage.[12] We pray as Jesus taught: Thy will be done on earth as thy will is done in heaven.”

Further, we pray for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter. Scripture states, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2  for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1-2 ESV).  But, while we are to pray for all men (i.e. mankind). There are two qualifier in this phrase: 1) men who are living, and 2) men who will live in the future. The Confession clarifies these two in the remaining paragraph. “But not for the dead,” the Confession provides 2 Samuel 12:21-23 as a proof text.Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23 But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:21-23 ESV). The Roman church offered prayers to the dead in the seventeenth century, and still does.[13] Presumably, the Confession has the Roman Church in mind here particularly, but there are certainly wider implications then as well as to today.

In addition, nor [should we pray] for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death. Scripture states:If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that (1 John 5:16 ESV). What is the sin of death? We will let John Calvin, the expositor, explain this passage—the proof-text provided for us by in the Confession:

  • “There is a sin unto death.  I have already said that the sin, to which there is no hope of pardon left, is thus called.  But it may be asked, what this is; for it must be very atrocious, when God thus so severely punished it.  It may be gathered from the context, that is not, as they say, a partial fall, or a transgression of a single commandment, but apostasy, by which men wholly alienate themselves from God.  For the Apostle afterwards adds, that the children of God do not sin, that is, that they do not forsake God, and wholly surrender themselves to Satan, to be his slaves.  Such a defection, it is no wonder that is mortal; for God never thus deprives his own people of the grace of the Spirit; but they never retain some sparks of true religion.  They must then be reprobate and given up to destruction, who thus fall away so as to have no fear of God.”[14]

The question that perhaps remains is whether we can know if someone has sinned this way? Without deeply exploring this question, it seems John implies we may know, at least in some instances.

While this paragraph has included private prayer to God, much of it addresses prayer in the corporate worship setting. We are shown just how much Scripture actually speaks of acceptable prayer to God.  A careful study and application of this paragraph no doubt will improve our private and corporate prayers to God.

 

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  1. The reading of the Scriptures, Preaching, and hearing the Word of God, teaching and admonishing one another in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual songs, singing with grace in our Hearts to the Lord; as also the Administration of Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are all parts of Religious worship of God, to be performed in obedience to him, with understanding, faith, reverence, and godly fear; moreover solemn humiliation with fastings; and thanksgiving upon special occasions, ought to be used in an holy and religious manner. (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:2; Luke 8:18; Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19; Matthew 28:19, 20; 1 Corinthians 11:26; Esther 4:16; Joel 2:12; Exodus 15:1-19, Psalms 107)

We are still addressing  elements of religious worship—religious worship being “the acceptable way of Worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself; and so limited by his own revealed will” (22:1). As we continue looking that the elements which are a part of religious worship, we come to the role of Scripture in corporate worship and other public settings.

The Confession begins by stating, “The reading of the Scriptures, preaching, and hearing the Word of God… are all parts of Religious worship of God.” These three elements of corporate worship (reading, preaching, and hearing of Scripture) are distinct, but nonetheless very much related. We observe all three in Scripture explicitly and implicitly. For instance, the entire book of Deuteronomy is in a sense an exposition of the law as Moses re-tells it in five discourses to the people of God assembled. We can imply from this the principle that reading Scripture and the explaining of it holds a vital role for both the Old Testament church and the New Testament church. Much later in history, we observe King Josiah reading the Book of the Law to all the assembled people, it having been neglected and indeed lost (2 Chron. 34:30). Later, upon the return to Promised Land after the exile, we see the law being read before all the people, and being explained: “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8 ESV). As we move into the Second Temple period (the time between the Old and New Testament), it is plain from both the historical evidence and Scripture that the Jews continued the practice of reading Scripture in what became the synagogue (centers of local worship on the Sabbath day for the Jews). The Jews continued this practice in Palestine and throughout the regions to which they had been dispersed and into the first century (Luke 4:16; Acts 13:27; Acts 15:21; 2 Cor. 3:15), and even to this very day. While the Jewish practice of the reading of the Old Testament is not Scriptural evidence that the New Testament church ought to do the same, certainly the Old Testament precedence does implicitly.

As we move into the New Testament church period we see Christ himself and the apostles instructing the church to the public reading and instruction of Scripture. Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20 ESV). While this command is not restricted to the corporate setting, the corporate setting is certainly intended. Paul gave instructions to the Colossians to have his letters read to the brethren:   “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16 ESV).  And, “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thess.  5:27 ESV).  Paul explicitly instructs Pastor Timothy to give attention to the public reading of Scripture and its exposition: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13 ESV).  Further, Paul told Pastor Timothy, to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2 ESV).  If we look at all these things, it is not difficult to see Scriptural explicit and implicit instructions that the church is to give attention to the reading and preaching of Scripture in the corporate worship setting. In terms of hearing the Word of God, here the Confession focuses not merely on the task of reading and preaching, but the duty of attending corporate preaching, but also to the way we listen to the preaching of the Word of God. Jesus said, Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18 ESV). While the elders or pastors have their duties, so do the hearers of Scripture and its preaching.

The Confession continues listing elements of religious worship: teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord… are all parts of Religious worship of God. This is a citation from Scripture: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16 ESV). As well, in Ephesians, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph. 5:19 ESV). Here we see the element of corporate music in corporate worship. Reformed Baptists, while favoring the use of Psalms in worship, do not reject other types of songs for it appears quite Biblical to also include hymns and other songs which are spiritual in nature. We are to sing all of these songs to the Lord with grace (i.e. thankfulness: “full of thanks” for God’s grace) in our hearts.

Music is a topic that is sure to elicit strong convictions in many, especially when you bring in the legitimacy or not of modern contemporary worship music and bands. We are not going to address that here. We are to let the regulative principle instituted by God guide us by the good use of Christian prudence in these matters.  God has given the church such a rich depository of music from the ancient times of the Old Testament all the way to the present with new music continuing to be written. The music and its text is a gracious gift from the Lord which has enriched all our lives immeasurably. May we not neglect music in the corporate worship setting for it is indeed an element of worship instituted by God.

Also the administration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are all parts of Religious worship of God. Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20 ESV).  Baptism is instituted by Christ himself, and it must be part of religious worship. It does not have to be part of the main worship service, but it should be done in a setting that is one of worship with the church present. And, certainly religious worship includes as a center-piece the Lord’s Supper. Jesus himself instituted this element of religious worship as an ordinance when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19 ESV). Paul reiterated Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23-26 ESV).  Since Scripture is clear that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are parts of religious worship instituted by Christ himself, and few disagree, we will take these to be self-evidently part of religious worship.

These elements of religious worship are to be performed in obedience to him, with understanding, faith, reverence, and godly fear.  These are to be performed in obedience to him since they are instituted elements of religious worship; they are not suggestions, alternatives, or simply what God prefers. No, they are what he has instituted, and are therefore non-negotiable elements of religious worship. For both layperson (in choosing where to be a church member) and pastor/elder (in ordering the church as instituted by God) this duty is to be performed in obedience to God.

In all of these elements of religious worship, we must perform them with understanding (see 22:3). We are to perform these duties as the Word of God instructs. We may not perform these duties as we please or as seems pragmatic or convenient. We may not perform these in ignorance like the pagans engage in their worship, or like the papists.  By way of application, part of performing these parts of worship in obedience “with understanding” is seeking to engage in the worship of God with all our heart, mind and strength. The nature of men and women being what it is, even in churches which have a biblical liturgy, our minds can tune out the words of the liturgy, hymns or preaching out of sheer repetition. But we are to worship with understanding, not only being informed, but with our minds engaged and perceptive to the meaning of the elements of religious worship being performed.  Do we “understand” the creeds recited, such as “Light from Light,” or “the Son of God, begotten of the Father?”  We should seek to understand what is unclear. We should seek to understand each aspect of corporate worship and mentally engage so that we can fully worship God for his glory.

These are to be performed with faith. Scripture states, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6 ESV).

We are to perform religious worship with reverence and godly fear. Scripture declares, Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling (Ps. 2:11 ESV). As well, “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: 29 For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29 KJV).

Moreover, [we are to preform religious worship with] solemn humiliation, with fastings and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, ought to be used in an holy and religious manner.  We see examples of religious worship “upon special occasions” with “solemn humiliation and fasting” throughout Scripture. “’Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish’” (Esther 4:16 ESV). And, “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12 ESV). There is a time and place for the special occasions of religious worship, and these are to be done in a “holy and religious manner” (i.e. in a sacred and reverent manner). Sproul helpfully comments that such “special occasions [are] in addition to its normal weekly corporate worship”[15]

 

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  1. Neither Prayer, nor any other part of Religious worship, is now under the Gospel tied unto, or made more acceptable by, any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed; but God is to be worshipped every where in Spirit, and in truth; as in private families daily, and in secret each one by himself, so more solemnly in the public Assemblies, which are not carelessly, nor willfully, to be neglected, or forsaken, when God by his Word, or providence calleth thereunto. (John 4:21; Malachi 1:11; 1 Timothy 2:8; Acts 10:2; Matthew 6:11; Psalms 55:17; Matthew 6:6; Hebrews 10:25; Acts 2:42)

 

Neither prayer nor any other part of religious worship, is now under the gospel, tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed. Under the old covenant, there were ceremonial feasts, such as the Passover, whereby males were required to perform religious worship only in Jerusalem (see Ex. 23:14-19). As well, prayer was sometimes offered facing towards Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:29-30; Dan. 6:10). Since the feasts and the temple were merely types of the true heavenly things they represented, and such were fulfilled in the gospel under the new covenant, the place of religious worship and the direction one may face in prayer are abrogated (see 1689 19:3). Unfortunately, some Christian traditions (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or other Orthodox traditions) carried these old covenant practice over of praying eastward into their traditions. There may be differing reasons for these traditions not necessarily tied to the old covenant practices, but the Reformation rejected these practices as not “tied” to the gospel.

The reason the Confession gives for not “tying” these to the gospel or as practicing making prayer any more acceptable is that God is to be worshipped everywhere in spirit and in truth. Indeed Jesus himself made it plain in his response to the Samarian woman at the well. She said: “’Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.’ 21 Jesus said to her,’Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him’” (John 4:20-24 ESV). Part and parcel of the new covenant was this prophecy: “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 1:11 (ESV). We will recall from chapter 21, Of Christian Liberty and Conscience, paragraph 1,

“All which were common also to Believers under the Law for the substance of them; but under the New Testament, the Liberty of Christians is further enlarged in their freedom from the yoke of a Ceremonial Law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the Throne of Grace; and in fuller Communications of the Free Spirit of God, than Believers under the Law did ordinarily partake of.”

Whether continuing old covenant practices or by the traditions of men, to honor such in our practice is to betray the freedom Christ purchased.

The Confession continues: as in private families daily, and in secret each one by himself, so more solemnly in the public Assemblies, which are not carelessly, nor willfully, to be neglected, or forsaken, when God by his Word, or providence calleth thereunto.   The next portion, following the semi-colon (i.e. following “truth;”), speaks about three different settings where prayer is to occur: 1) private families, 2) one by himself, 3) and public Assemblies.

First, prayer in private families daily is not to be neglect or forsaken. We see in the example of Cornelius’ family. “A devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God (Acts 10:2 ESV). The Confession sets forth that families are to pray daily. Family worship and prayer was a high priority for the Puritans, and given the challenges to today’s modern families, daily prayer in family life is as essential as ever. There are two proof-texts in the Confession indicated by the letter ‘b’ before the word “daily.”[16] The first is Matthew 6:11, where Jesus said in context pray like this: “Give us this day our daily bread” (ESV) from which we can imply the need for coming to God daily for our sustenance.   The second is Psalm 55:17, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice” (ESV). Prayer in the private family is not to be carelessly forsaken or neglected. This means the family should not show disregard or a lack of concern or care to attend to this duty and need. As well, families should not willfully neglect or forsake it. This means that families should not knowingly choose to not pray.

What is meant by when God by his Word or providence calleth thereunto?  There are things God tells us to pray for and times we are to pray, and certainly for these we are not to neglect prayer. But there are also times providences are such (whether dark or critical situations) when God is calling us to prayer by his providence. God does speak through his providences, not by revelation, but by circumstance. Such times call for prayer. Providential calls to prayer could also come by special calls to prayer by a local church, or even by a nation’s leaders calling its people to special prayer.   We may think of the potential slaughter of the Jews in Persia. The Jews called for special prayer at this critical juncture: “Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16 KJV). In the end, anytime God has so ordered by his Word or his providence a call to prayer, we are not to neglect prayer.

Secondly, prayer is to be done in secret each one by himself. So also men and women are not to be careless and willfully neglect prayer “done in secret.” Secret prayer means prayer by oneself or privately. This follows Jesus’ words:  “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6 ESV).

Thirdly, prayer is to be done so more solemnly in the public Assemblies. Public prayer could be the assembled local body of Christ, some other religious gathering, or a public assembly such as an inauguration or which calls for prayer. Prayer with solemnity is especially called for in this setting. Solemnly means prayer is to be done with reverence and seriousness.  Public prayer is not to be attended with carelessness or willfully neglect or forsaken. The Confession provides a proof-text here: “Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Certainly this phrase of the Confession primarily applies the local church on Sunday morning worship, and other services such as Sunday evenings. Consider Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (ESV).

 

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  1. As it is of the Law of nature, that in general a proportion of time by God’s appointment, be set apart for the Worship of God; so by his Word in a positive-moral, and perpetual Commandment, binding all men, in all Ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath to be kept holy unto him, which from the beginning of the World to the Resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week which is called the Lord’s day; and is to be continued to the end of the World, as the Christian Sabbath; the observation of the last day of the week being abolished. (Exodus 20:8; 1 Corinthians 16:1, 2; Acts 20:7; Revelation 1:10)

We continue looking that the elements of worship that are instituted (thus regulated), and therefore non-negotiable. Having looked at the issue of the place of worship, and the direction of worship, we now look at the day of worship.  The Confession establishes that the binding basis of the Sabbath is: 1) “the law of nature,” and 2) his Word. It states, as it is the law of nature, that in general a proportion of time, by God’s appointment, be set apart for the worship of God, so by his Word, in a positive moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men, in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept holy unto him.

The Confession is speaking of “the laws of nature” as that which is ingrained into creation or nature itself. Hodge helpful states of this law of nature: “The Sabbath was introduced as a divine institution of the race, and was then enjoined upon man as man, and hence upon the whole race generally and in perpetuity.”[17] Thus the Sabbath is part of creation (nature, or natural) itself, and thus binding on all. The Sabbath was designed to fit mankind’s need for a day to rest from labor and the need to worship God formally once a week.

Man needs the proportion of time God himself provided and appointed.  The phrase “in general” is connected to the phrase “proportion of time.” In other words, the “law of nature” is not specifically only about the seventh day, per se; rather it is about a proportion of time (one day) within the seven day week cycle. The use of “in general” avoids the error of restricting the perpetuity of the Sabbath in an unwarranted manner to only the seventh day. As we will see, after the Lord’s resurrection, God moved the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day of the week. Thus the Sabbath is more about a proportion of time (a day of the week) than a specific day. This does not mean we are free to choose just any day, it means that God is free to change the day.

What is to be done during this God proportioned appointed time? It is to be set apart for the worship of God. How do we know the Sabbath day is for worship when the text of Genesis 2:1-3 does not expressly say it? The fact that God made it “holy,” means he “sanctified” it. John Giarrizzo states: “God made this day holy. The fact that God “sanctified” this day, points us to the original institution of the Sabbath. This was done that man might observe the Sabbath for the purpose of worshipping God. It is true that this text does not give an explicit command for man to worship God on this day. But we are left with the question, why then did God bless and sanctify this day? The word sanctify means to make holy, to consecrate and set apart for service to God. So, while no no explicit command to worship God is given in Genesis 2:1-3, God’s use of the word sanctify makes worship implicit.”[18] Thus, implicit in making the day “holy,” is that God is to be worshipped on that sacred day.

The Confession continues: “so by his Word, in a positive moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men, in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept holy unto him. We come to the second reason the Sabbath is perpetual and not abrogated. While the law of nature itself is sufficient to show the Sabbath’s perpetuity, even more authoritatively God has spoken the command by his Word.

  • “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:8-11 ESV).

How or in what manner has God spoken of the Sabbath? He has spoken in a positive moral, and perpetual commandment. Hodge states that a positive command is one that has its ground or basis “simply and purely in the divine will.”[19] God specifically commanded, in a straight-forward manner, that we are to honor the Sabbath. It is moral in the sense that it involves right or wrong; it is disobedience to neglect the Sabbath and obedience to honor it.  The Sabbath is moral law (see 1689, Chapter 19), though it contains aspects of ceremonial law.[20] The fourth commandment is also a perpetual commandment: it has no end until God reveals otherwise. On the basis, then, of “the law of nature” and “by his Word” the Sabbath is binding all men, in all ages. Since it is of the law of nature and a positive moral command, even the unbeliever is bound to the Sabbath. As a day for worship, both of natural and religious worship are commanded. Further, since this law of nature was given at the beginning of creation, there has never been an “age” (i.e. time period) when it was not binding.

The Confession now expands upon the phrase “all ages.” From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week. So, from the age of Adam to Christ’s resurrection, the Sabbath command was directed to holy rest on the seventh day (i.e. “the last day of the week”). From the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week. From the age of the resurrection of Christ forward the proportion of time was changed from the last day of the week to the first day of the week, which is called the Lord’s day. The Confession refers to the biblical New Testament language of “the Lord’s day” (see Rev. 1:10).

How long is the “age” or period that the Lord’s Day to be observed? The Confession states it is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished. Where in the Bible do we see that 1) the Sabbath was changed by the resurrection of Christ to the first day, and 2) the last day of the week was abolished? It is by implication: First, the Scripture states that Christians were observing worship on the first day of the week?Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come” (1 Cor. 16:1-2 ESV). And, On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight” (Acts 20:7 ESV). And in terms of the resurrection being the specific reason for the change of the Sabbath day, we see John referring to the resurrection as “the Lord’s day. “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet” (Rev. 1:10 ESV). There is no doubt after the resurrection, the church was meeting for worship on Sunday, the Lord’s day, the first day of the week.

With the foundation established that we are to honor the Sabbath day, and when we are to honor it (Sunday, the first day of the week), the Confession now moves in the next paragraph to explain how we should keep the Christian Sabbath.

 

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  1. The Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering their common affairs aforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all day, from their own works, words, and thoughts, about their worldly employment, and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (Isaiah 58:13; Nehemiah 13:15-22; Matthew 12:1-13)

The Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when….  It is one thing to set aside the Sabbath day as unique among other days of the week, but that does not necessarily mean the day is then treated in a holy manner unto the Lord. Many unbelievers treat the Sabbath day as separate, but then spend the day on their own amusements and recreations: motocross, biking, hiking, watching sports, and so on and so forth. That is not what Scripture commands when it says to rest from your labors. The day is to be set aside as sacred, sanctified, and holy unto the Lord. Thus, the Confession says the Sabbath is “kept holy unto the Lord” in particular ways. These ways are listed in general categories. These categories are as follows:

  • due preparing of hearts
  • ordering common affairs aforehand
  • observe an holy rest all day, from their own works, words, and thoughts, worldly employment, and recreations
  • taken up the whole time in the public
  • and private exercises of his worship,
  • and in the duties of necessity and mercy

To set aside this day and to treat it as holy unto the Lord requires deliberate preparation and forethought. First, it requires: men after a due preparing of their hearts.  In other words, men (and women) ought to take the due (i.e. necessary or needed) steps to prepare their hearts for this day in such a way that will render their heart, soul, mind and body prepared for this holy day unto the Lord. It is beneficial that we wake up Sunday morning prepared and ready for this holy day, having already oriented our whole demeanor towards the Lord for this sacred day. Part of preparing our heart for this day is ordering our common affairs aforehand. We are to take the steps required so that the things we normally need to do on Sunday are ready before then, such as cooking, cleaning, perhaps putting fuel in our vehicle, and so on. This would include preparing things we may need done before morning Monday by having them already done by the end of Saturday.

The goal of such “preparing” and “ordering” prior to the Sabbath is so that: we not only observe an holy rest all day, from their own works, words, and thoughts, about their worldly employment, and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship. We essentially prepare and order our world so that the day is clear; then we can devote ourselves to these sanctified things on the Lord’s Day. The Confession simply outlines what is needed for us to honor the Christian Sabbath. There is no detailed legalistic list of things which constitute Sabbath violations; rather, listed are the general categories of what it means to rest and worshipping the whole day. And the Confession seems to follow Isaiah 58:13-14: “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; 14 then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (ESV).  The passage shows us that to rest from work is not simply to refrain from the narrow definition of working for hire, or to do nothing. The resting is from worldly (earthly) employments and recreations, and it is a commitment to activities which are holy and sacred.[21] We note the Confession indicates we are to engage in public worship and private worship, not one or the other. In terms of the Sabbath commanding public or corporate worship, we may think of Hebrews 10:25: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (KJV).

What does the Confession mean when it says and in the duties of necessity and mercy? This appears to encompass not only what we might call an allowance, but even more a duty to take actions of necessity and mercy on the Sabbath. When we look at the Scriptural proof-texts of the Confession regarding “duties of necessity and mercy,” we find referenced Matthew 12:1-13. In this section of Scripture there are two narrative accounts where Jesus essentially corrects the Pharisees’ wrong view about Sabbath keeping. The two accounts are quite involved, and it would go beyond our scope here to explain them in detail. But essentially Jesus shows by Old Testament precedence and principles, and by his own authority, that keeping the Sabbath holy also requires that we fulfill our duty to do good to others and show mercy. The Sabbath does not over-write our duty to love our neighbor. The duty of necessity and mercy on the Sabbath encompasses a wide field of possibilities. For example, if we are on our way to church and pass by someone who needs help, we cannot pass them by using the rational that such will break the Sabbath. That rendering good to someone is a necessity and a mercy. Or, additionally, there are those who by employment are required to work on the Sabbath by necessity. For example, police officers, emergency personnel and physicians must work on the Sabbath, at least at times. It is not a “necessity” simply because their employer requires them to work, but rather it is a necessity because it is a needed for the welfare of others. As well, our pastors/elders minister the word and the ordinances on the Lord’s Day, but this is permitted because these are actions of necessity and mercy. The lists of “what abouts” can be endless here, but the Confession avoids that; there is no hint of a Pharisaic spirit in this Puritan Confession, but rather it sweetly follows the Lord’s explanation: “So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:12 ESV).

The entire chapter has dealt with the worship of God: prayer, reading, preaching and hearing the Word of God, baptism and the Lord’s Supper in worship, and the Christian Sabbath. In all these things, the Confession takes the word of God seriously as that which regulates these areas of worship. It is too common today that professing believers take a very lax view of these areas, taking either a minimalistic approach or omitting these things according to their taste. But the church needs to tremble at God’s word and take a very careful and circumspect look at Scripture in light of our practices and preferences of these things, whether in public or private worship. To do so is to show our love and reverence for our Triune God and to understand that he has made clear how we are to approach him in worship in both transcendent ways and in practical ways. If we neglect the careful consideration of what he has said in these areas, have we not forgotten that our God is a jealous God who requires that we worship him with purity? And purity in worship was very much the concern of the Puritan’s in England: that worship be pure and free from “the imaginations, and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan.” Such concerns are especially reflected in this important chapter of the Confession.

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[1] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009), 303. I credit Letham’s book for highlighting this important historical context and connection.

[2] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009),  122-23. Letham adds that Calvin wrote about what he called sensus divinitatis (a sense of the divine). Letham cites as support Paul Helm, John Calvin’s Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 209-45.

[3] “A Position Paper Concerning the Regulative Principle of Worship,” A Report by the Theology Committee of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (Formally Approved by the General Assembly March 8, 2001), pg. 7. http://www.arbca.com/regulative-principle.

[4] William Perkins (1558-1602), The Works of William Perkins, vol. 1, edited J. Stephen Yuille; general editors: Joel R. Beeke and Derek W. H. Thomas (reprinted, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 97.

[5] Calvin’s Commentaries, vol II, (reprinted, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 2009), 106-7.

[6] Johannes G. Vos, The Larger Catechism: A Commentary, edited by G.I. Williamson (Phillipsburg, NJ: P& R Publishing, 2002), 291-2.

[7] David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (1684; reprint, Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 139.

[8] David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (1684; reprint, Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 139.

[9] Ibid.

[10] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 272-3. Hodge includes a fair presentation of how the Church of Rome seeks to avoid the charges of idolatry, but nonetheless, what Hodge states is accurate.

[11] Johannes G. Vos, edited G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary (P&R Publishing, 2002), 523.

[12] This is intended to apply only to unbiblical divorce and unbiblical remarriage.

[13] See Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1032

[14] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Baker Books, Grand Rapids: 2009) Volume XXII, 1 John, Pg. 269.

[15] •[24] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess, Vol. II (P&R Publishing, New Jersey: 2007) 332.

[16] This is found in a facsimile of the original printing of 1677. A Confession of Faith, Facsimile Edition (1677 reprinted, B & R Press, 2000).

[17] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 281-2.

[18] John Giarrizzo, The Lord’s Day Still Is (Reformed Baptist Publications), 6.

[19]A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 280.

[20] There is a ceremonial aspect to the Sabbath, though this does not diminish the moral dimension. John Calvin’s Geneva Catechism, questions 166 to 184 on the Fourth Commandment are insightful.  http://www.reformed.org/documents/calvin/geneva_catachism/geneva_catachism.html

[21] If “rest” implied simply no activity, then the worship of God which requires activity would be excluded.

 

 

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Chapter 21, Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience

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  1. The Liberty which Christ hath purchased for Believers under the Gospel, consists in their freedom from the guilt of Sin, the condemning wrath of God, the Rigour and Curse of the Law; and in their being delivered from this present evil World, Bondage to Satan, and Dominion of Sin; from the Evil of Afflictions; the Fear, and Sting of Death, the Victory of the Grave, and Everlasting Damnation; as also in their free access to God; and their yielding Obedience unto him not out of slavish fear, but a Childlike love, and willing mind. All which were common also to Believers under the Law for the substance of them; but under the New Testament, the Liberty of Christians is further enlarged in their freedom from the yoke of a Ceremonial Law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the Throne of Grace; and in fuller Communications of the Free Spirit of God, than Believers under the Law did ordinarily partake of. (Galatians 3:13; Galatians 1:4; Acts 26:18; Romans 8:3; Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 15:54-57; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; Romans 8:15; Luke 1:73-75; 1 John 4:18; Galatians 3:9, 14; John 7:38, 39; Hebrews 10:19-21)

This chapter nicely follows chapter 20 regarding the gospel, showing all of the liberties which Christ purchased for the believer in the gospel. The very first clause establishes the grid by which we must view all these liberties.  The grid is “The Liberty which Christ hath purchased for Believers under the Gospel.” We must recognize first and foremost that Christ purchased these liberties for us. R.C. Sproul writes: “Christian liberty is one of the most important fruits of our redemption that was won for us by Christ.”[1]  Notice that this purchase is only for believers, and is under the gospel.  In other words, the benefits are only applied to believers through the gospel.  The gospel is the only means by which the believer may be saved and receive these liberties (see 20:1-4).

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin. We can see this in several ways: First, it consists of freedom from the guilt imputed to the believer by Adam’s sin. “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (Rom. 5:15 ESV). Second, it consists of freedom from the guilt of actual sin. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:1-5 ESV).   Thirdly, it consists of freedom from a guilty conscience for our actual sin. “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14 ESV). “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22 ESV).

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the condemning wrath of God. Oh, how truly liberating it is to know we are no longer under the wrath of God—the most fearsome thing in the entire universe.  Scripture states: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18 ESV).  But for the believer, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:1-2 ESV).

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the rigour and curse of the Law. Scripture states: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13 ESV).  The curse of God is upon all who are under Adam’s headship, for he violated the covenant of works; but for those under Christ’s headship this is not so. Christ took the curse upon himself so that believers are no longer are under the rigours (unrelenting strictness) of the law; that is, we are free from the judgment of the law because of God’s inflexible justice.  In line with this, we are freed from the curse of the law upon all violators.  The judgment of God on Adam and his posterity was the curse (Gen 3:16-19). We are freed from those rigors of the law, and the curse of the law violated because Christ took the curse upon himself and under the gospel, and he applies it to all believers.  What a glorious liberty!

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their being delivered from this present evil world. Scripture states: “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4 ESV). Again, the believer is no longer under Adam’s headship, but under Christ’s.  We are not of this world, but instead our citizenship in heaven where Christ is (Phil. 3:20).  We are saved from the evil that is now present in the world.  Because we are delivered from this evil present world, we overcome it: “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:4-5 ESV)?

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from bondage to Satan and dominion of sin. Scripture speaks of Adam’s race as being in bondage to Satan; this is closely related to being under the dominion of sin. And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1-2 ESV).   When Jesus appeared to Paul, he spoke of those who are under the power of Satan, who would turn through the gospel Paul would preach (Acts 26:15-18).  Regarding the dominion of sin, Christ purchased for us freedom from being under the reign of sin: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14 ESV).

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the evil of afflictions. While God does not free us from affliction, he frees us from the evil of it.  In other words, God uses afflictions for our good, not for evil.  As Scripture states: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28 ESV).  Shaw states: “Christ does not grant to believers an entire exemption from the troubles that are common to men, but frees them from all the penal evil of afflictions.  The cup of their affliction may be large and deep, but there is not one drop of judicial wrath mingled in it.”[2]  This cannot be said of those outside of Christ. It is indeed a glorious thing that God has freed us from the evil of affliction and uses it for our good to accomplish his purpose in us.

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the fear and sting of death, the victory of the grave, and ever lasting damnation. The Confession is in part referencing what the writer of Hebrews said of Christ’s power over death since he came to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15 ESV).  It is also a reference to Paul’s words: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ: (1 Cor. 15:55-57 ESV). The liberty from the fear of death or its sting and victory is a freedom which we should rejoice in.  Some unbelievers are not afraid of death only because they put its reality far from their mind.  The believer need not put it far from their mind to avoid fear, for they can look it in the eye and not be afraid of its ultimate victory.  The believer may have some trepidation about the instant translation from this world into the glory at death, but that is an immensely different thing from the unbeliever’s fear of eternity and the waiting judgment. It is not just the fear of the unknown or its finality that causes people to fear death, but far worse: ever lasting damnation. Christ frees us from ever damnation!  What shall we say to this: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift” (2 Cor. 9:15 ESV)!

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel also consists in their free access to God. Scripture states: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (Heb. 10:19-20 ESV). How can we measure the value of this freedom! We can come confidently to the Father through this new and living way opened up by Christ: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16 ESV).

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear but a child-like love and willing mind. We have liberty to obey God now that we have been regenerated and given a new heart in Christ. Since we are no longer in Adam and under the law, but in Christ, we are now at liberty to love and obey God.  We are not fearful of the threats of the law and God’s judgment since we are God’s well-loved children. Scripture states: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ “ (Rom. 8:15 ESV). And also: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18 ESV).  God makes us willing and able to obey him out of love. In chapter 9, we read of God’s work which frees the will of man to do spiritual good by translating man into the state of grace (9:4).

The Confession adds, All which were common also to Believers under the Law for the substance of them. In other words, these liberties were also those of the Old Testament believers.  It is true they were still under the ceremonial law (and judicial), but nonetheless, these liberties were theirs in substance, even if the forms were different.  We recall from chapter 20, paragraph 1: “in this Promise, the Gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and therein Effectual for the Conversion and Salvation of Sinners.” Since the elect of all ages are effectually called by the gospel, they also received these liberties. We do not want to miss the differences between the Old and New Testament, but we also do not want to under-estimate the common liberties.  But while continuity of liberty for believers exists in both the old and new covenant, yet there was advancement in liberty in the new covenant.  Therefore, the Confession adds: but under the New Testament the liberty of Christians is further enlarged. The Confession avoids a radical continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenant, and takes the middle way of moderate continuity and discontinuity.

The Confession will now address what these further liberties are under the New Testament (New Covenant). Under the New Testament, the liberty of the Christian is further enlarged in their freedom from the yoke of a ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected. The abrogation of the ceremonial law was discussed in more detail in chapter 19, paragraph 3. There is no question that the ceremonial law was a yoke, that is, a burden set upon their shoulder. The New Testament believer is no longer under that law, and that is clearly a further enlargement of liberty. Notice the Confession references the Old Testament saints as the Jewish church. If the elect of both the Old and New Testaments are saved in the same way (11:6), that is, through the efficacy of Christ’s work, then Christ has only one church consisting of both Jew and Gentile saints.

As well, under the New Testament liberty is further enlarged in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace. We see this in Hebrews 10:19-20: Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh” (KJV). This passage does not imply that the Jewish church had no access to God, for certainly we see many places in Scripture where the people of the Jewish church prayed and had access to God.  The prayers in the Psalms demonstrate this reality. The Hebrews passage does, however, indicate a greater boldness or confidence exists by this “new and living way.”

The liberty under the New Testament is also further enlarged in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.  The word “communications” refers not to mean God speaking to us, but rather the fuller transmittal of the Spirit.  In other words, Christ by his Spirit transmits to us or gives to us under the New Testament fuller gifts, fuller power, fuller illumination of truth, and so forth.  Jesus made it clear that after he ascended into heaven, he would send the promised Spirit.  Jesus said it was better that he depart so that he would send the Spirit (John 16:7; 14:26; 15:26).  This promise was described this way in John: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:38-39 ESV). As well, Scripture declares: “Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory” (2 Cor. 3:7-8 ESV)?  The question is rhetorical.  The free Spirit of God means the Holy Spirit is sovereign, and he gives his gifts and power and grace to his people as he determines.  “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills (1 Cor. 12:11 ESV).

When the Confession speaks of believers under the law, it is identifying believers who existed at a particular stage in the progress of redemptive revelation and completion. The Old Testament believers were still bound, for example, to the ceremonial and judicial law; however, that has no impact on the fact that salvation for Old and New Testament believers is based on faith alone, not based on keeping the covenant of works.  The Confession here cites two proof-texts: Galatians 3:9 and 14. “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:9 ESV). “So that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14 ESV). Verse 9 speaks of the faith by which Abraham was justified, as were all other Old Testament believers under the law.  It is implied from verse 14 that the predicted promise of the Spirit meant a greater effusions of the Spirit were to come.  That time came under the New Testament, and thus believers under the New Testament have received a fuller transmittal of the Spirit gifts (Eph. 4:8-14) than in the Old Testament.  It is notable that the Confession adds: did ordinarily partake of. In other words, there were exceptions in the Old Testament of believers who received the Spirit in fuller ways.  We might think of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon, Elijah, and prophets.

When we look at this grand itemization of Christian liberties purchased by Christ and given to the believer, and the enlargement of them under the New Testament, we are reminded just how great the freedoms are that Christ purchased for the believer. It is easy to forget these in the battles against, sin, the Devil, the world, and the duties of life.  But as we reflect upon these liberties, we might rejoice in the Lord and recognize that these liberties cannot be taken from us regardless of the circumstance.

  • Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” 2 Cor. 3:17 ESV

 

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  1. God alone is Lord of the Conscience, and hath left it free from the Doctrines and Commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or not contained in it. So that to Believe such Doctrines, or obey such Commands out of Conscience, is to betray true liberty of Conscience; and the requiring of an implicit Faith, an absolute and blind Obedience, is to destroy Liberty of Conscience, and Reason also. (James 4:12; Romans 14:4; Acts 4:19, 29; 1 Corinthians 7:23; Matthew 15:9; Colossians 2:20, 22, 23; 1 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 1:24)

 The Confession now addresses the liberty of conscience. The Confession begins” God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word, or not contained in it. The conscience is bound only to God, since he is Lord over it. Scripture teaches: “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor” (James 4:12 ESV)? James is essentially saying that God alone has the authority to make laws or commandments, and to judge his creatures by them. Therefore, we are not to pronounce judgment upon others as if we were the lawgiver and judge. The implication of this passage regarding the confessional wording is that only God has the authority to make doctrine and commandments, and therefore the conscience is free, that is, not bound to the unauthorized doctrine or commandments of men.  How do we know if the doctrines are merely of human origin or true doctrines and commandments of God? If the doctrines and commandments are contrary to (i.e. contradict) the word of God, or not found in the word of God, then they are of man and not God.

Jesus said: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt 15:9 ESV).  The Pharisees made many commandments of men. R.C. Sproul states: “The chief point of conflict that Jesus had with the Pharisees, the church authorities of the day, was that they substituted their own human traditions for the law of God.  When Jesus violated their human traditions, they wanted to kill him.  In order to be faithful to his vocation as the Messiah, Jesus was responsible to obey every law of God.  He kept running into conflict between his Father’s will and the will of the Pharisees.  They represented an attempt of the church of the time to usurp the law, the will, and the authority of God.  Even the Christian church can rob people of their Christian liberty.”[3]

When the religious leaders commanded Peter and John stop preaching the gospel, the apostles responded, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20 ESV). We see two things here. First, the leader’s command was not binding on Peter and John, since God trumps man’s command.  Secondly, we see that Peter and John identify God as the only one who binds their conscience.  We even see prayer to God to give them strength to obey God and not man: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29 ESV).  Following this Peter and the apostles again face the anger of the religious leaders for disobeying.  After being reprimanded, Peter and the apostles respond by saying: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29 ESV). The passage provides Scriptural direction as to whom our conscience is bound.

The Confession explains why we are not to believe or obey the doctrines and commands of men: so that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience. The Confession cites the following proof-text : If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:20-23 ESV). If we submit to the doctrines and commandments of men in matters of self-made religion (i.e. matters of religion that are merely human), we betray true liberty of conscience which Christ purchased for us. Scripture explicitly instructs us: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor. 7:23 ESV).[4]  When we believe the doctrines of men or practice their commands that are contrary to or absent from the word of God, following our conscience, then we enslave our conscience.

Several Reformers were so pressured to deny the liberty of their conscience that they were threatened with burning at the stake if they refused to affirm the Roman Church’s system of the Eucharist. But as true heroes of the faith they did not forfeit their true liberty of conscience, choosing rather to burn at the stake—often in front of their wives, children, and congregations.[5]  What a testimony to us to not betray the true liberty of conscience which Christ has given us in him.  How sad it is today to see those who once professed true religion of the gospel converting to Roman Catholicism; they return to a system of the doctrines and commandments of men—a gospel-less system of works.  “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1 ESV).

And the requiring of an implicit faith, an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also. In the previous statement we are instructed not to submit our conscience to the unbiblical teachings and requirements of others, unless the teaching and requirements are in the Word of God.  But here the warning is given to those who would require the submission of others conscience to their own beliefs—beliefs which they may very well believe come from the Bible.  As Morris states: “It is as sinful to require such obedience as it is to yield to it, and the authority ecclesiastical or otherwise which makes requisition is guilty of invading holy freedom which God has given to every Christian as part of his spiritual birthright.”[6] Two things are required from others: 1) an implicit faith, and 2) absolute and blind obedience.

What does implicit faith mean?  Samuel Waldron indicates “‘Implicit faith’ is requiring someone to believe what we teach is the Word of God without proof from the Word.”[7] Requiring an implicit faith can happen at many differing levels.  It may be done by a false teacher—certainly so-called “Christian cults” require people to believe their interpretation of Scripture without proving it to be the actual meaning of the biblical text. But Christian pastor-elder, deacon, and member can also fall into the habit and trap of speaking with authority about the meaning of the Bible without giving the accompanying evidence for their interpretation.  Fathers can do this to their children and wives.  Calvinists can do this to their Arminian brothers and sisters.  It is something anyone can do to another, and we must be very careful that we all approach people with enough courtesy, respect, gentleness and humility so as to not require implicit faith without a reason why from the Scripture.  The Word of God itself states: “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15-16 ESV).  To make a defense means using Scripture in a way that accurately reflects the context and meaning of the biblical text. We can easily say to person ‘A’ that ‘X’ is true, but this passage indicates that more than that is required. When someone asks why you believe what you do, you must be able to provide an reason for your belief, and that must be based on Scripture. Implicit faith, then, is the requiring of someone to believe something.  Why are we not to do this?  Because it is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason.

What does absolute and blind obedience mean?  Waldron states: “‘Absolute and blind obedience’ is requiring someone to obey our commands as if they were the commands of God himself (absolutely), and without scriptural proof that they are (blindly).”[8]  And so while “implicit faith” is about belief, this phrase is about requiring people to behave a certain way.  Historically, the most immediate example in the minds of the framers of the Confession was likely the Roman Church. She had created many commandments and sacraments which the people were required to absolutely and blindly obey, and she could not prove it by Scripture.  We may recall that Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms, in Germany who was required by the Roman Church recant his own liberty of conscience and reason.  He was under extreme pressure to recant what he believed that the Scriptures taught.  Luther struggled at first, asking for  more time to consider the demand upon him, but in the end he gave the famous statement that unless convinced by Scripture and reason, he could not recant his teaching.  He refused to allow them to destroy his liberty of conscience and reason.  The Roman Church had not been able to show Martin Luther he was wrong about the Scriptures, and yet they demanded him to submit to their yoke, despite his conscience and reason.  There are innumerable ways this happens even in the Protestant church which has had its fair share of dominating leaders who require absolute and blind obedience they just do it in different ways from the Roman Church.

We do not want to be found guilty of take someone’s liberty of conscience and reason away because Christ purchased it for them. Do we want to steal from Christ.  God forbid!  In the end, men are at best merely servants.  Paul acknowledged this lowly place as God’s servant: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each” (1 Cor. 3:5 ESV).  Even the Apostles, said: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith” (2 Cor. 1:24 ESV). And so, whether we are talking about doctrine or practice, let us be circumspect about our dealings with other people, especially those of God’s household.

  • For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1 ESV).

 

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  1. They who upon pretence of Christian Liberty do practice any sin, or cherish any sinful lust; as they do thereby pervert the main design of the Grace of the Gospel, to their own Destruction; so they wholly destroy the end of Christian Liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of all our Enemies we might serve the Lord without fear in Holiness, and Righteousness before him, all the days of our Life. (Romans 6:1, 2; Galatians 5:13; 2 Peter 2:18, 21)

This paragraph sums up the purpose of Christian liberty, which thereby rules out the idea that Christian liberty is a license to sin. Historically this section may have the errors of the Anabaptists in mind, but the error is certainly not limited to them.  Shaw states: The liberty pleaded for in the Confession is not absolute and uncontrollable.  To assert that men have the right to think and act as they please, without respect to the moral law, and without being responsible to God, would be atheistical.”[9] Christian liberty is freedom to obey God’s commands, not disobey them.  Those who use the doctrine of Christian liberty as a means to practice any sin only pretend that Christian liberty makes such allowance. Pretense is the perfect word for such people.  In the phrase “Christian liberty” all they hear is “liberty,” and in their unregenerate state they can only perceive of liberty as autonomy from God and his commands. They hear nothing of the word “Christian” and its significance. By the practice of sin under the banner of Christian liberty they do thereby pervert the main design of the Grace of the Gospel. The grace of the gospel is a means to an end: sanctification, that is, obedience to God’s moral law. Thus the main design of the gospel then is freedom from sin, not freedom to sin (Titus 2:14).  It is a complete perversion or distortion of the gospel to practice sin—any sin—by such a twisting of the main design of the gospel. No one is at liberty to practice and cherish sin, especially Christians for whom “he chose… before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4 ESV). To pervert the gospel so severely shows a complete lack of true gospel knowledge and faith. If it is possible for the regenerate to make such a pretense, and that seems unlikely, it is something that they will most certainly have to repent of before they will be restored to God.

They who make this pretense and perversion wholly destroy the end of Christian Liberty. What is that end, purpose or goal? It is that being delivered out of the hands of all our Enemies we might serve the Lord without fear in Holiness, and Righteousness before him, all the days of our Life. The purpose of the Gospel or Christian liberty is plainly stated by the Confession directly from the words of Scripture. Luke 1:73-75, records the words of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, who had been unable to speak since the angel’s announcement of John the Baptist’s soon coming birth, due to his unbelief.  But when the Spirit opened his mouth after John’s birth, Zechariah prophesied about the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel to send Christ.  The nature of Christ’s work is that “the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:73-75 ESV).  The commentator, Matthew Poole,[10] said of Luke 1:73-75 that the Messiah was a “confirmation in God’s resolution to send the Jews a Saviour, who would save them from their sins, the guilt and dominion of them, and from the power of hell, and purchase a spiritual liberty for them to serve the Lord all their days, without fear, in holiness and righteousness.”[11] Christ purchased for us the liberty to serve the Lord without fear and to do so in holiness and righteousness.  Along these lines, Hodge states of this same paragraph from the Westminster Confession:

  • “The subject of this chapter is that liberty wherewith Christ makes his people free, which is very different from that freedom of the will which we discussed under chapter ix. We there saw that freedom of the will is an inalienable constitutional faculty of the human soul, whereby it always exercises its volitions as upon the whole as it pleases in any given case.  This liberty of will is essential to free agency, and is possessed by all free agents, good or bad, or they could not be held accountable.  Christian liberty, on the other hand, implies two things:– (1.) Such an inward spiritual condition of the soul that a man has full power through grace to desire and will as he ought to do in conformity to the law of God; and (2.) Such relations to God that the person is delivered from constraining motive of fear, and brought under the ennobling impulses of love and hope; and such relations to Satan and evil men that he is delivered from their coercive influences; and such providential circumstances that he has knowledge of his privileges and gracious aid in availing himself of them.”[12]

Thus, Christian liberty is freedom to be a slave of righteousness, not a slave to sin. Praise to God!

As we conclude this chapter, there is a lot to consider and apply to our lives. Christ has himself purchased our Christian liberty, and what a glorious liberty it is.  We should be mindful of these liberties and treat them with great care and appreciation.  Further, God is the Lord of our conscience.  It is God’s will that our conscience is free in Christ, and bound to the Word of God alone.  We glorify God by living according to a liberty of conscience and by this we live a holy and happy life. When we believe things that others want us to believe, and do so by an implicit faith—unsupported by the Word of God—we destroy our liberty of conscience and faculty of reason.  The Word of God alone is to inform our faith and practice.  Our liberty is not freedom from obedience to the moral law of God; rather it is liberty to freely obey it out of a renewed will and a new heart that freely loves God.  These liberties are for the purpose of  sanctification—that is the will of God (1 Thess. 4:3).  That is true freedom!

  • “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 ESV).

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[1]  R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. 2, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006 ), 278.

[2] Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, eighth edition, (Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1857), 202.

[3] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. 2, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006 ), 290.

[4] The immediate context of this passage refers to a person who becomes a slave for the purpose of receiving a bond, which was an option at the time.  It is reasonable to make the application from this passage that since our liberty of conscience is bought with a price, we likewise ought not submit it to slavery.

[5] J.C. Ryle, Five English Reformers (1890; reprint, Carlisle, Pa.:  The Banner of Truth Trust, 1981).

[6] Morris, page 562.

[7] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 261.

[8] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 261.

[9] Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, eighth edition, (Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1857), 209.

[10] Of Matthew Poole, Spurgeon said, “On the whole, if I must have only one commentary, and had read Matthew Henry as I have, I do not know but what I should choose Poole.” Cited from C.H. Spurgeon, Commenting on Commentaries, (New York: Sheldon & Co., 1876), 19.

[11] Matthew Poole, A Commentary on the Holy Bible, vol. iii (Peabody, Ma.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010).  This reprinting appears to be based upon the 1700 edition, although it does not say that in this reprint edition.

[12] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 260.

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Chapter 20, Of the Gospel and of the Extent of the Grace Therein

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  1. The Covenant of Works being broken by Sin, and made unprofitable unto Life; God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ, the Seed of the Woman, as the means of calling the Elect, and begetting in them Faith and Repentance; in this Promise, the Gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and therein Effectual for the Conversion and Salvation of Sinners. (Genesis 3:15; Revelation 13:8)

This chapter of the Confession does not exist in the Westminster Confession. It is taken from the Puritan Congregationalists’ Savoy Declaration.  What do we know regarding the reason this chapter was added? The Congregationalists stated in their Preface to the Savoy Declaration of 1658 the following: “After the 19th c[h]ap[ter] of the Law, we have added a c[h]ap[ter] of the Gospel, it being a Title that may not well be omitted in a Confession of Faith: In which Chapter, what is dispersed, and by intimation in the Assemblies’ Confession, with some little addition, is here brought together, and more fully, under one head.”[1] The Congregationalists, then, added this chapter based on things intimated (already stated and implied) from the Westminster, and with a few additions of their own, they created this chapter, “Of the Gospel and the Extent of the Grace therein.”  The 1689 Confession follows the Savoy Declaration nearly exact.  Since much of the 1689 Confession follows the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession, much of this chapter touches on doctrine already explained in it.  And so we will not go into as much detail for those items, but will point back to the section where it was previously expounded.

The chapter opens with these words: The covenant of works being broken by sin. This follows well on the heels of the last chapter, which spoke of the universal law and the particular precept. God required prefect obedience to both upon pain of death. As we know, Adam violated the particular precept, and thereby broke the covenant of works.  Adam lost his original righteousness, and by it the ability to fulfill the terms of the covenant of works.  As such, the covenant of works was made unprofitable unto life. In other words, they could no longer fulfill the covenant of works, being made by their corruption “utterly indisposed, disabled and made opposite to all good and wholly inclined to all evil” (6:4).  Implied in this is that they no longer we able to receive the reward of life through the covenant of works.  As a result, God was pleased to give forth the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman. We saw in chapter 7, Of God’s Covenant, paragraph 2a that man brought himself under the curse, but it was by God’s good pleasure to promise a future Savor, Christ, who would proceed from Eve’s seed.  We have already seen the promise of the seed mentioned in chapter 7:3 based on Genesis 3:15.  God the Father would use Christ, the seed of the woman, as the means of calling the elect, and begetting in them faith and repentance. This is of course, speaking of effectual calling (see 10:1-4).

In this Promise, the Gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and therein Effectual for the Conversion and Salvation of Sinners. This promise of the gospel found in Genesis 3:15 was but a dim light, but the substance it brought about the effective conversion and salvation of sinners. The promise of it, if believed, was effective even prior to the completion of Christ’s work of redemption, because of the substance of the gospel.  Samuel Waldron helpful points out: “The Confession replies that in substance the promise concerning the seed of the woman given immediately after the Fall in the Garden of Eden was the gospel.”[2] Again Waldron states: “The unity of the message of salvation in all ages is confirmed.   Men have always been saved in the same way and by the same gospel.  In the Old Testament and in the New Testament that gospel was revealed.  Every man ever saved was saved by its means.  This corrects the indecisive Christian who wants to say that men were always saved by Christ, yet has also been taught that somehow it was different in the Old Testament.  For such we have this assurance, men have always been saved in the same way—full stop!”[3]

Essentially this first paragraph presents the gospel by showing the fall, then, the means God brought about to redeem mankind from that fall—the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman. By the gospel of Christ, elect men and women are effectually called, working faith and repentance in them.  The substance of the gospel saves men and women, even the promise of the gospel in Christ through the promise of the seed of the woman.

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  1. This Promise of Christ, and Salvation by him, is revealed only by the Word of God; neither do the Works of Creation, or Providence, with the light of Nature, make discovery of Christ, or of Grace by him; so much as in a general, or obscure way; much less that men destitute of the Revelation of him by the Promise, or Gospel; should be enabled thereby, to attain saving Faith or Repentance. (Romans 1:17; Romans 10:14,15,17; Proverbs 29:18; Isaiah 25:7; Isaiah 60:2, 3)

 

This promise of Christ, and salvation by him, is revealed only by the Word of God.  In this paragraph, the emphasis is on the exclusivity of the special revelation of the gospel.  This is not exactly a new point; as we look back we see this mentioned in Chapter 1:1, 7:3, 10:1 and 14:1. But it is stated more explicitly here.  Chapter 1:1 indicates, the light of nature, the works of creation and providence are insufficient to convey the gospel.  Thus the gospel is only revealed by the Word of God.  Therefore, neither do the works of creation or providence, with the light of nature, make discovery of Christ, or of grace by him, so much as in a general or obscure way. I would refer the reader to chapter 1:1 for that portion of the commentary where a fuller explanation is given for these phrases.  The point is that general revelation does not contain the gospel.  Paul made this plain: “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:14-17 ESV).  Faith comes only through the gospel and does not come from general revelation—not so much as in a general or obscure way. As if to make the point crystal clear, Confession adds that the gospel is not present in general revelation in any degree.  Therefore, much less that men destitute of the revelation of Him by the promise or gospel, should be enabled thereby to attain saving faith or repentance. If general revelation does not in any degree reveal the gospel, then it is not possible that any person who is destitute (lacking) the revelation of Christ can be effectually called, and thus attain to faith and repentance.  This reinforces chapter 1:1 regarding the sufficiency of Scripture alone for saving faith.  As well, it reinforces chapter 10:1-2 regarding the need effectual calling by the outward ministry of the gospel. We have passages such these which show the need for the gospel and effectual calling to enable the sinner to savingly believe. “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law” (Prov. 29:18 ESV).  The prophetic vision alludes ultimately to the gospel. “And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations” (Is. 25:7 ESV). God will by the gospel and effectual calling the covering of blindness, or that veil spread over the nation. “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Is. 60:2-3 ESV). God will cause the elect from among the nations to come to Christ. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14 ESV).  These passages all affirm the necessity of the gospel in effectual calling.

This paragraph, then, has affirmed the necessity for gospel preaching since the gospel is declared only in special revelation (the Word of God) not in general revelation—not even in the slightest degree. This is an important point which many people overlook.  Some people back read into creation the gospel, and say that the unreached people can indeed be saved by evidence of the gospel in creation if they live up to that light.  This paragraph states that there is no light of the gospel in creation at all.  This gospel light only began to dawn when God declared the promise of the seed of the woman to come, and the light continued to grow until the full day of Christ’s personal appearance—recorded in the New Testament.

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  1. The Revelation of the Gospel unto Sinners, made in divers times, and by sundry parts; with the addition of Promises, and Precepts for the Obedience required therein, as to the Nations, and Persons, to whom it is granted, is merely of the Sovereign Will and good Pleasure of God; not being annexed by virtue of any Promise, to the due improvement of men’s natural abilities, by virtue of Common light received, without it; which none ever did make, or can so do: And therefore in all Ages the preaching of the Gospel hath been granted unto persons and Nations, as to the extent, or straitening of it, in great variety, according to the Counsel of the Will of God. (Psalms 147:20; Acts 16:7; Romans 1:18-32)

The revelation of the gospel unto sinners, made in divers times and by sundry parts, with the addition of promises and precepts for the obedience required therein, as to the nations and persons to whom it is granted, is merely of the sovereign will and good pleasure of God. It seems the framers of this portion sought to emphasize that the gospel is essential for salvation, but also that the addition of promises and precepts for the obedience of believers is also critical. This wording corresponds to the Great Commission:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20 ESV). The point here is that the revealing of the gospel—along with all that Christ commanded—comes to both nations and to individuals solely by the sovereign will and good pleasure of God. The gospel does not come to every nation and to every single person before their death and judgment.  This is a hard truth to many modern believers who focus on fairness rather than God’s sovereignty.  It is indeed a duty that the church preach the gospel to the whole world, but this is only done by God’s enablement.  At the end of the day, it is in the hands of our sovereign God which nation and person receives gospel preaching.  We can see the hand of God sovereignly directing Paul’s in his missionary work: “And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (Acts 16:7 ESV).  This serves to remind us that while man plans, ultimately God enables and directs.

God grants by his sovereign will which nation or individual the gospel is revealed to, and not being annexed by virtue of any promise to the due improvement of men’s natural abilities, by virtue of common light received without it, which none ever did make, or can do so. In other words, God does not annex (i.e. add onto) to his sovereign will the actions of men as the reason he chooses one nation over another, or choses one person over another to receive the gospel. Man can do nothing to warrant or cause God to bring the gospel revelation to them or their nation. Man cannot on the basis of a promise to improve natural abilities, an improvement particularly from mere general revelation, influence God to bring the gospel to a land or people.  Europe or England did not attract God’s attention by any improvement they made to their lands or themselves that warranted the gospel coming to them by the Reformation.  What does Scripture say about Israel? “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7 ESV). Or of the NT believers: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26 ESV). Thus we can by implication see that the gospel never comes to a nation, people group, or person because of something good in the nation, people, or person; if that were the basis, the gospel would never come to anyone.  It comes because it was God’s sovereign good pleasure and for that reason alone. God’s eternal decree is the first cause of all things, including the gospel coming to a land, a people, or a person.  Paul’s words which follow are contextually  speaking of God sovereignty in election, but it is not straining the text to also apply them to God’s sovereign will regarding the choice of God in who will hear the good news: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”” (Rom. 9:14-15 ESV).

The Confession concludes, therefore in all ages, the preaching of the gospel has been granted unto persons and nations, as to the extent or straitening of it, in great variety, according to the counsel of the will of God. Thus, in all times, gospel preaching is only granted according to God’s sovereign will.  And whether the gospel comes to a large amount of people (i.e. “the extent”), or the gospel is proclaimed to a small or narrow (i.e. “straightened”) quantity of people,[4] or any large variation (i.e. great variety) between the two , it is according to the counsel of will of God.  This paragraph, following the prior one regarding the necessity of the gospel, addresses the sovereignty of God in which lands and people will receive gospel preaching and all that Christ taught his followers to obey.

 

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  1. Although the Gospel be the only outward means, of revealing Christ, and saving Grace; and is, as such, abundantly sufficient thereunto; yet that men who are dead in Trespasses, may be born again, Quickened or Regenerated; there is moreover necessary, an effectual, insuperable work of the Holy Spirit, upon the whole Soul, for the producing in them a new spiritual Life; without which no other means will effect their Conversion unto God. (Psalms 110:3; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 1:19, 20; John 6:44; 2 Corinthians 4:4, 6)

This paragraph is a clarification that while the gospel is the only outward means to reveal Christ and his saving grace—it being more than able (abundantly sufficient) to save men by Christ’s grace—yet the inward work of the Spirit is also necessary to actually save. Since men and women are dead in sin (Eph. 1:19-20), thus unable to do any spiritual good unto salvation (see 9:3), it is necessary that the Spirit cause a person to be born again, quickened (making alive) and regenerated by the effective insuperable[5] (i.e. something “that cannot be overcome or vanquished; unconquerable, invincible” Oxford English Dictionary) work of the Holy Spirit.  It only by that “effectual grace” or “irresistible grace” made upon the whole (entire faculty) of the soul that new spiritual life will be produced in them. There is no other means or no other way to bring about this transformation and conversion. If one has read the entire commentary up to this point, it will be recognized that this is essentially a review and summary, and if there was any doubt, this is paragraph is speaking of effectual calling (see 10:1-4).

The Congregationalists said that it is important to include in a confession of faith a chapter dedicated to the gospel. Our 1689 Baptist Confession is richer for this added chapter, and even though it is an accumulation of what is already said in the Confession, it is helpful to have all the ingredients in one place that is solely focused on the gospel under a separate title. It is also important to note that given the issue of deism[6] which viewed God’s world as something which mechanically functioned without God’s direct, personal, providence, the Confession greatly clarifies that the gospel is also not be seen as a message which saves by the mere mechanical preaching of it, without the need for God’s personal, supernatural and insuperable (irresistible) power working inwardly to convert the soul unto God through Christ.

———————-

[1] The Creeds of Christendom, edited by Philip Schaff and revised by Donald S. Schaff, 6th ed., vol. III, The Evangelical Protestant Creeds (1931; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983-2007), 715. While I have used a different source than Samuel Waldron, I credit this reference to his work in 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition (Evangelical Press, Darlington, England).

[2] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 246-247.

[3] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 248.

[4] A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (Carey Publications, Leeds, England: 2002), states in modern terms: “Hence in all ages the extent to which the gospel has been proclaimed, whether to wider or more confined areas, has been granted to persons and nations in greatly varying measures according to the all-wise God.” We may be familiar with the King James Version of Matthew 7:13: “Enter ye in at the strait gate,” that is, the narrow gate.  It is an older English word used to describe a narrow passage.  We may also see this usage of ‘strait’ reflected in geography: the Strait of Gibraltar, etc.

[5] The 1689 Confession uses the word ‘insuperable’ in lieu of ‘irresistible’ in the Savoy Declaration.

[6] See commentary for 5:2 for further discussion on Deism.

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Chapter 19, Of the Law of God

sylwia-bartyzel-1127211. God gave to Adam a Law of universal obedience, written in his Heart, and a particular precept of not eating the Fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; by which he bound him, and all his posterity to personal entire exact and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it. (Genesis 1:27; Ecclesiastes 7:29; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:10, 12)

The subject of God’s law and its relationship to the Christian life is extremely important, and yet today many Evangelicals today seem uncertain about its use, and some even deny its relevance. Reformed Theology is clear about the role of the law in the Christian life. This chapter of the Confession is a centerpiece of Puritan theology. Beeke and Jones write in their book entitled, Puritan Theology: “Much of the Protestant Reformation and the Puritan movement revolved around questions of God’s law.  Ernest Kevan wrote in The Grace of Law, his masterful treatment of the law in Puritan theology, ‘The place occupied by the moral Law of God is observable in every department of theology, and particularly of Puritan theology. Sin is the transgression of Law, the death of Christ is the satisfaction of Law, justification is the verdict of the Law, and sanctification is the believer’s fulfillment of the Law.’”[1] The robust theology of the law is what we will see in the following seven paragraphs.

The Confession begins, God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written on Adam’s heart (see 4:2a).  In other words, God gave to Adam a law that was an all-encompassing (universal) which informed him how to perfectly and completely obey God in every area of morality.  The use of the word “universal” contrasts the upcoming word “particular.” To say the law is written on Adam’s heart, means this law was part of his very nature; it was inherent to his very being (see 4:2 and 6:1) as one made in the image of God. A.A. Hodge states: “God introduced man at his creation as a moral agent, under inalienable and perpetual subjection to an all-perfect moral law, which binds his conscience and requires perfect obedience.  This follows self-evidently and necessarily from the very nature of God as a moral Governor, and from the nature of man as a moral agent.”[2]

In addition to the law of “universal” obedience, God also gave Adam a particular precept of not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (see 4:3). We find this precept in Genesis 2:16-17: And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17  but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (ESV).  This precept is “particular” because it was a unique and a specific precept revealed by God externally, not written on the heart. It had also particular terms and conditions attached to it: “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” If God had not revealed this precept, Adam would not have inherently known not to eat of this one tree from all the others. In this way we see the distinction between the law of “universal” obedience and the “particular” precept.[3] But while distinct, perfect obedience was required to all God had commanded to remain in happy communion with God, and to receive the reward of the life (see 7:1).

The Confession states: by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience.  Both Adam and his posterity were bound to the law of universal obedience, but in principle they were both also bound to the “particular precept,” since Adam is the federal head of all mankind; Adam’s failure to keep the particular precept was also his posterity’s failure, and thus Adam’s disobedience to the particular precept was imputed to his posterity. God bound Adam and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obediencePersonal: Adam, Eve, and each and every person born out from them are individually obligated to all aspects of the law given to Adam, and in Adam to his posterity.  Entire: The Westminster Larger Catechism 93 uses the word “perfect” instead of “entirely.” Each person is required to obey every single aspect perfectly.  Perpetual: obedience is required forever.

God promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.  The reward of life was promised to Adam if he fulfilled both moral law and the particular precept.  For a discussion of the reward of life see the commentary on chapter 7, Of God’s Covenant, paragraph 1. The threatening of death, if the particular precept was breached is found in Genesis 2:16-17. God had not only created Adam in holiness and righteousness, but he also endued Adam with the power and ability to keep the law of universal obedience (the moral law) and the particular precept (see 4:2). If God had created Adam with a law that he was not empowered to carry out, God’s goodness would be undermined as well as Adam’s responsibility for his sin.  Given that God did empower Adam, and yet he still sinned compounds Adam’s guilt.  Adam could not say, “The devil made me do it,” because Adam had the power to obey, even in the face of temptation, and yet he did not.

 

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  1. The same Law that was first written in the heart of man, continued to be a perfect rule of Righteousness after the fall; and was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in Ten Commandments and written in two Tables; the four first containing our duty towards God, and the other six, our duty to man. (Romans 2:14, 15; Deuteronomy 10:4)

The same law that was first written in the heart of man continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall. God’s law and its requirement of Adam and his posterity remained the same standard and requirement after the fall. And even though the fall marred the law’s clarity on the heart, yet the Confession seeks to plainly state that did not in any way alter the law’s requirement of perfect obedience; it remained the inflexible perfect standard or rule of righteousness. And while, the law’s letters on the heart were no longer in high definition after the fall, yet the letters remained present with sufficient clarity that man still knew right and wrong, even without the coming codification of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

“The same law that was first written in the heart of man” was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables, the four first containing our duty towards God, and the other six, our duty to man. It seems that the first clause of paragraph 2 is an ellipsis—an implied part of our current clause, thus it would read as follows: “The same law that was first written in the heart of man…was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in Ten Commandments.” When read this way, we see the continuity of the first law with that of the Ten Commandments. Robert Shaw writes: “But the original edition of the law being greatly obliterated, God was graciously pleased to give a new and complete copy of it. He delivered it to the Israelites from Mount Sinai, with awful solemnity. In this promulgation of the law, he summed it up in ten commandments; and, therefore, it is commonly styled the Law of the Ten Commandments. These commandments were written by the finger of God himself on two tables of stone.–Exod. xxxii. 15, 16, xxxiv. 1.”[4]  The continuity of the Sinai Law shows the nature of the Ten Commandments: the moral law (i.e. the one and only moral law). This moral law is put into two categories: 1) the four first containing our duty towards God, and 2) the other six, our duty to man. By this we understand that the moral law does not merely consist in how we deal with God, but also how we deal with others.

 

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  1. Besides this Law commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel Ceremonial Laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties, all which Ceremonial Laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only Lawgiver who was furnished with power from the Father, for that end, abrogated and taken away. (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17; 1 Corinthians 5:7; Colossians 2:14, 16, 17; Ephesians 2:14, 16)

Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws.  When the Confession states “besides this law,” “this law” refers to the one moral law: the moral law given to Adam and codified in the Ten Commandments. In addition, then, to that moral law, God was pleased to give Israel ceremonial laws.  These ceremonial laws were not given to all mankind to obey, but only to Israel.

The Confession continues: containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties.  The ceremonial laws are by nature typical, meaning they are types.” A “type” in Scripture is something that has its own significance in its own right, and yet points toward something (usually in the future) that has a greater significance.  It is “like” it, but it is not it, and it is not as important. “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col. 2:17 ESV).  Ordinances are things formally prescribed by God to be carried out regularly. Of these ceremonial laws which contain typical ordinances, there are two kinds: 1) Those dealing with worship, and 2) those which give instructions. Of the ceremonial laws that deal with worship, they prefigure Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefit.  Of the ceremonial laws which give instructions, these typify higher moral duties.

The typical ordinances of worship prefigure Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits.  Hebrews 10: 1 states: “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” (ESV).  These prefigured Christ, that is, they herald or suggest a greater reality to come to be found in Christ himself.  These also prefigure Christ’s graces, actions, and suffering.  They prefigure his benefits as well.  Some of the prefiguring is clearer than others—but we can now look back through Christ and see what the ceremonial laws point toward.  Before Christ they were mere shadows, but in Christ the shadows were filled with light.

In addition to typological ordinances made of worship, there are also typological ordinances partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties.  The instructions are typological in nature, and they point to a higher moral duty.  When we consult the original Westminster Confession of Faith there are three Scriptural proof-texts listed for this portion of the Confession: 1 Cor. 5:6-8; 2 Cor. 6:17; Jude 1:23. Since the 1689 Confession closely follows the Westminster Confession for this paragraph, with only a slight variation, these biblical proof-texts are helpful interpretive clues for understanding our Confession. These passages show how Paul and Jude make use of typological instructions, such as those having to do with unleavened bread or ceremonial uncleanness, to illustrate a higher moral use. It is important to understand the distinction between typological instruction and that which is actually moral. We do not want to find morality in things that are not moral. Unleavened bread typifies impurity, but it is not morally impure itself. Uncleanness typifies or signifies moral filth, but certain animals are not literally morally filthy. Someone who is ceremonial unclean, is not morally filthy because of the thing that made them unclean, such as touching a dead corpse, or contracting leprosy. Paul and Jude understanding the typical use of these typological instructions, use them as a short-hand way to communicate about actual morally impure things.

Since ceremonial laws are merely types pointing to a greater substance, we can conclude that they had only have a temporary function; once the substance of what they represent arrives, they no longer need to function in the life of the church for the New Testament saints.  Thus the Confession states the following: All which ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away. The phrase “the time of reformation” comes directly from Scripture itself: The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing: 9  Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience; 10  Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation (Hebrews 9:8-10 KJV). Thus “the time of reformation” refers to the time that Christ would come and by his work fulfill the types and foreshadows of the ceremonial law, and by fulfilling them he abrogated them. Jesus Christ, as the only lawgiver, has the authority to bring this reformation. Further, since “the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17 ESV), he is the rightful and only one to bring such reformation. The Confession states: Jesus Christ was furnished with power from the Father for that end.  He was furnished with power—for the very purpose of bringing the reform.  We learned in chapter 8:3b that, “in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell, to the end that being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace ad truth, he might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a mediator and surety.”   To be furnished with power means to be fully empowered, equipped, and authorized to carry out one’s office.

This reformation was radical in that Christ abrogated and took away the ceremonial law.  Abrogated means to end an agreement or contract formally and publicly.  Scripture states of the ceremonial law: These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17 ESV).  And, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace (Eph. 2:14-15 ESV). Paul indicates that Christ abolished the ceremonial laws and ordinances.  Paul is not speaking of the moral law being abolished. For instance, Paul makes it clear in Galatians and elsewhere that the ceremonial law of circumcision has been abrogated: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6 ESV). When the substance arrived, the illustrative models were no longer required.

 

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  1. To them also he gave sundry judicial Laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only, being of moral use. (Ex. 21 entire chapter; Ex. 22: 1-29; Gen 49:10 with 1 Peter 2:13-14; Matt. 5:17 with verses 38-39; 1 Corinthians 9:8-10)

In addition to the moral law and the ceremonial law, to them [Israel] also he gave sundry judicial Laws. The original Westminster Confession’s proof-texts reference Exodus chapter 21 to chapter 22:25 as examples of the judicial laws.  These sundry (i.e. various) judicial laws cover a range of issues—many especially applicable once Israel was “in the land.”[5]

The Confession states the judicial laws expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution.  When Israel ceased to exist as a nation, so also the obligation to the nation’s judicial laws ceased.  This is a pragmatic and reasonable conclusion; however, there are also biblical reasons for this conclusion.  The proof-texts provided by the Westminster divines for this portion are: Genesis 49:10 which go with 1 Peter 2:13-14. We see in Genesis 49:10 that Jacob prophesied while blessing his son Judah: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be” (KJV). The prophetic blessing given by Jacob to Judah is full of meaning and significance, but we lack the time to discuss all of it.[6]  For our purposes, a key element of the passage is Jacob prophecies that the dominion of Judah will be superseded by that of Christ. This hints at the temporary nature of Israel as a nation, with land and civil laws. Letham states: “Once Israel as such ceased to be the particular vehicle for God’s saving purposes, these laws expired.”[7] When the nation of Israel ceased to exist, so the administration of their judicial laws upon their people ended. We will recall that most of these judicial laws were given by God on Sinai, many for use once they arrived “in the land;” that was their immediate purpose. Once that situation no longer existed, they no longer had the same purpose and use. 1 Peter 2:13-14 (KJV) instructs submission to whatever jurisdictional ruler one finds one’s self under.  Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; 14  Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.”  The divines presumably intended to show by this reference that the judicial laws of Israel are not universal for all people and nations, since Peter tells believers, even Jewish believers, to submit to the non-Israeli judicial laws in whatever government system they live under.

With the expiration of these judicial laws, the Confession adds, their general equity only, being of moral use. In other words, now the Israeli judicial law is only of moral use, since there is no Israeli nation under its jurisdiction.  These civil laws were never intended, then or now, for other nations. That being said, these judicial laws, given by God, on Sinai no less, still have moral uses. The original Westminster Confession’s proof-texts for these judicial laws is Exodus Chapter 21 and 22:1-25, and these provide examples of the various judicial laws the divines had in mind: those dealing with slavery, crime, liability for bodily injury (tort law) and property damage.  In these various civil laws, we find morality; that is, moral obligation to our neighbor. From these laws, then, we can extrapolate, not a legal use per se, but a moral use (i.e. a moral application). We will recall that all Scripture is useful for correction, rebuke, and instruction; therefore, even expired laws have these values.

 

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  1. The moral Law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator; who gave it: Neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation. (Romans 13:8-10; James 2:8, 10-12; James 2:10, 11; Matthew 5:17-19; Romans 3:31)

            In paragraph 1 and 2, the Confession has shown that the moral law of God is binding upon all mankind (paragraphs 1-2). While it is true that the ceremonial law is abrogated (paragraph 3), and the judicial law expired (paragraph 4), nonetheless, the moral law is not abrogated or expired. It is always and forever binding on all.  The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof.  Obligation to obey the moral law applies to every single person from Adam to each of his posterity. This obligation is not reduced one iota for the justified.  “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19 ESV). There is no basis to believe that Christ’s fulfillment of the law on behalf of the justified, in any way abrogates the justified person’s obligation to it law.

The moral law is binding not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it.  Samuel Waldron states that at the time the Confession was framed, “some were apparently saying that while we ought to do what the law says as to its content or matter we should not do it because the law says it, but simply because of gratitude to Christ.”[8]  The Confession indicates the reason we are bound to it is not because we are grateful to Christ, which we certainly are, but it is ultimately based upon God’s authority as Creator over his creature. The justified fall under God’s Creator authority; therefore, they are not immune and are not given a different or replacement reason to obey God. All the antinomian argumentation that the justified are not bound to the moral law cannot overcome this reality: all are under God’s authority as their Creator; therefore all are obligated to keep the moral law. Scripture is clear:

“He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.11 For God shows no partiality (Rom. 2:6-11 ESV).

Since justification does not annul God’s Creator authority over us, then neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.  In the gospel teaching ministry of Christ, there is no evidence he removed obligation to the moral law. We already read Matthew 5:19.  The gospel ministry of Jesus strengthens the obligation to the moral law; it does not abolish it (see Rom. 13:10 and James 2:8-12). This will be further developed in paragraph 7.

 

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  1. Although true Believers be not under the Law, as a Covenant of Works, to be thereby Justified or condemned; yet it is of great use to them as well as to others: in that, as a Rule of Life, informing them of the Will of God, and their Duty, it directs and binds them, to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their Natures, Hearts and Lives, so as Examining themselves thereby, they may come to further Conviction of, Humiliation for, and Hatred against Sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his Obedience: It is likewise of use to the Regenerate to restrain their Corruptions, in that it forbids Sin; and the Threatenings of it serve to show what even their Sins deserve; and what afflictions in this Life they may expect for them, although freed from the Curse and unallayed Rigour thereof. The Promises of it likewise show them God’s approbation of Obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof, though not as due to them by the Law as a Covenant of Works; so as man’s doing Good and refraining from Evil, because the Law encourageth to the one and deterreth from the other, is no Evidence of his being under the Law and not under Grace. (Romans 6:14; Galatians 2:16; Romans 8:1; Romans 10:4; Romans 3:20; Romans 7:7, etc; Romans 6:12-14; 1 Peter 3:8-13)

 

Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned.  True believers (in contrast to temporary believers and nonbelievers) are made right before God (i.e. justified) under the terms of the covenant of grace, not under the terms of the covenant of works. Additionally, they are not condemned under the requirements of the covenant of works, being now under the covenant of grace. This is the glorious reality of the grace filled new covenant; it causes us to glory in the gospel. We can rejoice, finding great comfort and rest, knowing we are gloriously justified before God with finality; the law no longer hangs over us an inaccessible means to God, or as a means of our damnation. All of these things are absolutely the case for the true believer. But, as we shall see, the law also has other uses beside a covenant of works. Yes, the law is a covenant of works, but at the same time the law is also other things.

If the true believer is not justified or condemned by the law, what is the role of the law in the believer’s life? The answer is yet it is of great use to them as well as to others. It is of “great use,” meaning beneficial use.   It is beneficial to the believer, but also to others who are not believers. How is it beneficial to the believer and others?  The Confession will illustrate these great uses in three areas, one exclusively useful for the believer alone. We will note that none of these following uses of the law are salvific in and of itself.

Firstly, the law is of great use to the believer and others as a Rule of Life, informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them, to walk accordingly. As a rule of life, the law informs both believer and unbeliever of the following: 1) God’s will, and 2) their duty, and 3) it directs them and binds them to walk by it. We can see from God’s own words this beneficial use of the Ten Commandments: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction’ (Ex. 24:12 ESV).  The benefit is that the “law of universal obedience” is now summarized in ten objective and intelligible categories of moral law. All of the law of universal obedience (i.e. every single moral situation) fits under at least one of the Ten Commandments. These ten commands serve as a rule of life: a standard by which to order one’s life according to the will of God.  While these are binding directions showing them how they are to obey God and fulfill their obligation to him, yet that the law informs them how they will be the happiest by living within the order God has designated. How terrible it would be if we did not know that order. His law serves to benefit his creature, not to keep them away from benefits. Of course, sinful creatures think that which is forbidden is good, and that which is commanded is bad. Our lusts wage war—against us, not for us. Regardless, God’s law is good and obeying it is of great benefit to all mankind, believer and unbeliever.

Second, for both believer and unbeliever the law discovering also the sinful pollutions of their natures, hearts, and lives, so as examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against, sin together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ and the perfection of his obedience. The Apostle Paul wrote: Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Rom. 7:7b ESV).[10]  The law reveals the pollution present in human nature—the corruption in their heart.  The believer who examines his or her sin in light of the law, will receive further conviction—a conviction that leads to humiliation and hatred of sin (i.e. repentance).  This further conviction will give them a clearer understanding of their need for Christ. Paul said: “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24 NASB). For the unbeliever, the law may lead the same direction by the work of the Spirit through the gospel.[11] The law also shows the need for a complete or perfect obedience. We will never arrive in this life at perfect obedience, but the law is perfect, and we see in it our need to align with its perfection in our complete obedience.

Third, it is likewise of use to the regenerate to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin; and the threatenings of it serve to shew what even their sins deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them, although freed from the curse and unallayed rigour thereof.  There are three important things to note here bout the law: who, what, and how. The “who” is the regenerate.  The “what” is the restraint of corruptions? The “how” is the forbidding of sin and threatening consequence of it. The law forbids sin; those who are regenerate are now able, under the state of grace (9:4), to abstain from the law’s forbidding. No, not perfectly; they still have remaining corruption; however, by the law’s instruction with the Spirit’s help, Scripture is a means of grace to assist us in restraining our corruption. Further, the threatenings of the law serve to show the regenerate what deserve for their sin, and even what afflictions they can expect for disobedience

Thankfully, the regenerate person is free from the curse of the law, and the “unalloyed” (i.e. unappeased or calmed) “rigours” (i.e. hardship and affliction) for violators of the law. God will not pour out his unalloyed justice on the regenerate; he will discipline his children for their good, but they are free in Christ from the “evil” of affliction (21:1). God will discipline us, but it is to make us holy not to eternally condemn us. “But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32 ESV; see also Rom. 8:28).

The New Testament itself proclaims the law’s use in restraining the regenerate person’s corruption. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17 ESV). The law is certainly included in the “all Scripture;” therefore, we cannot deny it use in sanctification: instructing, reproving, correcting, and training in righteousness that we may be equipped for every good work.

The promises of it likewise shew them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof, though not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. Obedience to God’s law comes with a promise of blessing.  “Approbation” means, God’s approval.  The law shows us that we may expect blessing for obedience. Scripture states: “For  ‘Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; 11 let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’ 13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good” (1 Peter 3:8-13 ESV)? The Old Testament passage Peter is quoting from uses the promise of blessing to motivate those who “would desire life and good days. Nonetheless, blessing does come by the covenant of works, as if our obedience earned blessings. No, blessing for obedience comes from the provisions of the covenant of grace; that is, the merits of Christ’s perfect obedience credited to us; without that, our obedience would count for nothing. Nonetheless, God does, in Christ, bless his children for their obedience.

So as man’s doing good and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law and not under grace.  One cannot simply equate the regenerate person doing good and refraining from evil, because the law encourages and deters them, as an attempt on their part to fulfill the covenant of works. This is what many antinomians conclude. But such a conclusion is in error for is assumes the law is only one thing: a covenant of works.  But the law is not only a covenant of works, but also a rule of life, a tutor pointing to Christ, a restrainer of corruptions, and a motivation for good by the regenerate. So, the regenerate using the law as a means of grace is actually evidence they are under grace—the “state of grace” (9:4).  The next paragraph essentially makes that point.

 

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  1. Neither are the aforementioned uses of the Law contrary to the Grace of the Gospel; but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the Will of man, to do that freely and cheerfully, which the will of God revealed in the Law, requireth to be done. (Galatians 3:21; Ezekiel 36:27)

Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it.  The “aforementioned uses of  the law” found in the prior paragraph are as follows: 1) The law is a beneficial rule of life, 2) The law brings about conviction of sin—showing the need for Christ, and 3) The law is useful in restraining the remaining corruption of the regenerate.  The Confession denies these uses are contrary to the gospel, and it affirms that these uses of the law sweetly complies with the gospel.

The evidence for the denial and affirmation is this: it is the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done. It is by the gospel that man is transferred from the state of sin, into a state of grace.  What is the state of grace? The Confession states in 9:4a the following: “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good.”  Thus, it is the very design of the grace of the gospel to transform the true believer by regeneration into a new creation—a new creation who is enabled to freely and cheerfully do the will of God. What is the will of God? The will of God is revealed in the law, and all the rest of Scripture.

Organic to the New Covenant is obedience to God’s law. The Old Testament promise of the New Covenant demonstrates this: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32  not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33  For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:31-33 ESV). Also, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules(Ezek. 36:27 ESV).  In the New Covenant, the Spirit of Christ causes the regenerate to walk and obey.  What do they walk in? They walk in God’s statutes.  What do they carefully obey? They obey God’s rules? What are the statutes and rules?  These are the laws of God.  If God himself characterizes the New Covenant as causing his people to obedient his law, then it seems rather obvious that the goal of the New Covenant (i.e. the gospel) is obedience to the law by being transferred into a state of grace.  Therefore, the grace of the gospel sweetly complies with the law.

This chapter explained that the law of universal obedience was given to Adam and written on his heart prior to the fall. The Confession elucidated how that law remained the perfect rule of righteousness even after the fall, and that is was codified on Mount Sinai in the Ten Commandments.  In addition to the moral law, God gave Israel ceremonial laws, some of worship which prefigured Christ and others which typified higher moral uses; both kinds of typical ordinances were abrogated by Christ at the time of the first century reformation.  God also gave Israel judicial laws, which expired when Israel ceased to be a nation.  There are general principles of equity in the judicial laws which serve moral uses today (not civil legal uses).  Of these three divisions of the law, the moral law is still binding upon all mankind, including the justified, since they as well as others are under God’s authority as the Creator who revealed to them his unchanging will.  The true believer is not justified or condemned by the law as covenant of works; however, the moral law is still binding upon them, and is of great use as 1) a rule of life, 2) that which brings conviction of sin to both the unjustified and justified, pointing them to their need for Christ, and 3) for the regenerate the law is a means of grace by its forbidding, threating, and promise of blessing for obedience with the help of the Spirit. These uses of the law for the regenerate do not demonstrate, as the antinomian claims that the regenerate are under the law, not under grace.  It rather shows that the regenerate benefit from the good and holy law by the power of the Spirit who enables to obey God’s law cheerfully. The law is not at cross-purposes with the gospel, but in fact sweetly complies with it—the Spirit causing the regenerate to walk in and obey God’s law.

“Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97 ESV).

[1] Cited in Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Kindle location 21110.

[2] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 249.

[3] One may ask whether it is legitimate to include the law of universal obedience in the covenant of works since it was seemingly only the particular precept that contained the threat and was violated. Puritan Thomas Vincent states in his book titled, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture, under Question 15 (Westminster Shorter Catechism) that while the particular precept of not eating from a fruit seems morally indifferent, it became a great sin to disobey what God forbade. In Adam’s disobedience of the particular precept, Vincent outlines many other sins: rebellion, treason, ambition, luxury, ingratitude, unbelief, and murder. Thus the violation of the particular precept involved also violation of the law of universal obedience, which certainly forbids these sins.  The violation of the precept and the universal obedience, then, constitutes a violation of both aspects of the covenant of works.

[4] Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, eighth edition, (Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1857), 194.

[5] See Philip Ross, From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law (Ross-Shire, Scotland: Mentor, Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2010), 113-115.

[6] Calvin’s Commentaries go into some detail on this passage with great skill and insight.

[7] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009), 296.

[8] Samuel Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 240-1.

[9] Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000).

[10] Paul illustrates how the sinfulness of sin takes advantage of the good law, and stirs up sinful desire against the commands. Thus, while it seems like it us the law that stirs up sinful desires, such as coveting, it is actually sin that stirs to act against the law. “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead” (Rom. 7:8 ESV).

[11] This does not imply the law is the actual law that convicts; that comes by the outward ministry of the word (the gospel) and the inward work of the Spirit.  Gospel preaching does, however, bring the law to bear on the sin of men and women so that they see their need for the gospel. Only the gospel has the power of God unto salvation, not the law.  Nonetheless, we do see in this second use of the law, the role of the Spirit in bringing conviction of sin through the law (John 16:8).

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Chapter 18, Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation

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  1. Although temporary Believers, and other unregenerate men, may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes, and carnal presumptions, of being in the favour of God, and state of salvation, which hope of theirs shall perish; yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good Conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of Grace; and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God which hope shall never make them ashamed. (Job 8:13, 14; Matthew 7:22, 23; 1 John 2:3; 1 John 3:14, 18, 19, 21, 24; 1 John 5:13; Romans 5:2, 5)

Having concluded the ordo salutis in the Confession in chapters 10 to 17, we come to chapter 18, which will address assurance regarding the state of grace and salvation.  Assurance is a very practical and pastoral matter: has the redemption accomplished by Christ been applied to us by the Spirit?  How do we know that?  This chapter provides assistance to the believer in this critical area.  Unfortunately, errors abound—errors that were quite relevant to the reformers, and are still pertinent to us today.  So we will need to carefully attend to this chapter.

Let’s now move to the confessional wording itself. Although temporary Believers, and other unregenerate men, may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes, and carnal presumptions, of being in the favour of God, and state of salvation, which hope of theirs shall perish. We come again to the phrase “temporary believers.”  A temporary believer is one who believes or professes to believe in the gospel and Christ, but only for a time.  But it is not just temporary believers, who are addressed here, but also other unregenerate men, people who may not even profess to believe, but yet still think God favors them.  Both kinds of unregenerate people, vainly deceive themselves.  In other words, this deception is played on them, and the deception is vain because it has no value. It does not persuade God to show them favor simply because they think they have it.  It matters little what they think, but entirely matters what God thinks. God declares a person justified; no one else.  The basis of their self-deception is false hopes.  There are a whole host of false hopes unregenerate men and women have regarding God’s favor.  For instance, many believe themselves to be “good” people in the main; while they know they also do bad things, on the whole they figure they have more good than bad.  These falsely hope that God judges based on their subjective judgment of themselves, rather than by an objective standard of holiness and inflexible justice.

In addition to self-deception based on false hopes, they also deceive themselves with carnal presumptions. Carnal presumptions means fleshly presumption; these are presumptions flowing from the nature of a natural, non-spiritual man or woman.  These cannot discern spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14), for they are unspiritual or natural.  These fleshly presumptions are worldly and do not come from what God has said.  Some think that since life has been good for them, this reflects God’s favor on them.  That is partly why it is so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God; they assume that since God has blessed them here and now, his favor is upon them.  They fail to realize that God’s goodness to them is to bring them to repent, not go on living as they please.  Based on the theory of past continuance, they fail to see the need for present repentance.  Carnal presumption also abound in the earthiness and fleshliness Roman sacraments; sacraments upon which many vainly hope with false hope for salvation.  We may think of the Roman Eucharist, their indulgences, or even penance. All these things people hope against hope will bring favour with God.  One would think that with their soul at stake, they would not leave the state of their eternal souls pinned on vain hopes and fleshly ways of thinking.  The end of these false hopes and carnal presumptions is that they do not bring favor with God or salvation.  Thomas Watson asks: “What are the differences between true assurance and presumption?”  He answers:

“Divine assurance flows from humiliation for sin; I speak not of the measure of humiliation, but the truth. There are Palermo reeds growing, in which there is a sugared juice; a soul humbled for sin is the bruised reed, in which grows this sweet assurance.  God’s Spirit is a spirit of bondage before it is a spirit of adoption; but presumption arises without any humbling word of the Spirit. ‘How camest thou by the venison so soon?’ The plough goes before the seed is sown; the heart must be ploughed up by humiliation and repentance, before God sows the seed of assurance.”[1]

This vain hope of theirs shall perish. This is a citation from Job: So are the paths of all that forget God; and the hypocrite’s hope shall perish: 14 Whose hope shall be cut off, and whose trust shall be a spider’s web” (Job 8:13-14 KJV). On that final day, when they face a holy God whose justice is inflexible, they will find that all their false hopes were in vain.  The only hope they ever had was in Christ alone, but since they rejected him in this life, in the next they shall also be without him.  “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:23 ESV).

The Confession now moves to address true hopes and well-founded assurance of God’s favor in the regenerate.  The Confession states: yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. In contrast with false assurance, the Confession now speaks of who truly believe (15).  This true belief is in the Lord Jesus. Not only do these believe in Christ, but they demonstrate the fruit of true faith: they love him in sincerity.  Part of that sincere love for the Lord Jesus is demonstrated by their endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV). Scripture speaks often of walking before God with a clear conscience: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5 ESV).  Or, “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16 ESV).

Those who demonstrate a true faith in these ways may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace. We note that this speaks of “this life.” In this life, they can with certainty be assured that they are in the state of grace.  Why is this so?  All the above things are evidences of the state of grace.  The “state of grace” was defined in 9:4: “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good.  This is not possible for those who remain in a “state of sin” (9:3).  1 John promotes a proper basis for assurance of salvation: “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him” (1 John 3:18-19 ESV).  “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (1 John 3:21 ESV).  “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us” (1 John 3:24 ESV). “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14 ESV).  John sums up his letter this way: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13 ESV).  The assurance of the true believer is not based on vain hope or fleshly presumption, but on the evidence that indeed God has translated them into a state of grace.

Based on a true belief in Christ, and all the accompanying evidences, their hope shall never make them ashamed. This is an allusion to Romans 5:5: “And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom. 5:5 KJV).  In contrast to the well-founded assurance found here in 18:1b which shall never fail, the vain self-deception of the unregenerate in 18:1a “shall perish.”

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  1. This certainty is not a bare conjectural, and probable persuasion, grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith founded on the Blood and Righteousness of Christ revealed in the Gospel; and also upon the inward evidence of those graces of the Spirit unto which promises are made, and on the testimony of the Spirit of adoption, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God; and as a fruit thereof keeping the heart both humble and holy. (Hebrews 6:11, 19; Hebrews 6:17, 18; 2 Peter 1:4, 5, 10, 11; Romans 8:15, 16; 1 John 3:1-3)

 

This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope, but an infallible assurance of faith. David Dickson states: “Well then, do not the Papists and Arminians err who maintain that the assurance of salvation is only conjectural, or at the most only probable, which hath for its foundation a failing and fading faith?”[2] This certainty is not a bare conjecture; that is, it is not a baseless opinion; it is not bare, but clothed with evidence.  We will see what that evidence looks like in a moment.  The Confession makes a radical statement here: this assurance of faith is infallible.  What a contrast to the Roman Church!  Letham states: “Rome’s semi-Pelagian doctrine of salvation, together with its penitential system, cast a perpetual cloud of uncertainty over the believer’s status.”[3]  The view of infallible assurance is a substantial reform from Rome’s doctrine. In addition, given the Arminian view that perseverance depends upon the believer’s free will, the Arminian Remonstrance in the Netherlands suggested that having infallible assurance was doubtful.  Letham states: “In reply, the Synod of Dort affirmed emphatically that such assurance was to be expected, despite struggles that the Christian may undergo, since all God’s elect will persevere in faith to the very end.”[4]  The Reformed position is not only that assurance is infallible, but that each believer can have such assurance; and far from being harmful, it is beneficial.  After all, the Scripture is clear: “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (Heb. 6:11-12 ESV).  And, later in the same chapter of Hebrews we read: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:19-20 ESV).  Each believer ought to seek assurance to avoid sluggishness and to encourage imitation of faith-full, persevering believers.

This infallible assurance of faith is founded on the blood and righteousness of Christ revealed in the Gospel. This assurance of faith has an object upon which it rests—the perfect work of Christ (11:1b).  Assurance does not rest upon faith itself, as if we have faith in faith; rather, assurance rests securely upon Christ.  Assurance is also based also upon the inward evidence of those graces of the Spirit unto which promises are made. Assurance also comes from inward evidence that the graces of the Spirit have been given.  These inward evidences may be such things as love, joy, peace, and the inward virtues which the Spirit works in us.  If these inward graces come with promises: “For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11 ESV). In addition to the inward evidence that the Spirit has worked grace in us, assurance is also based on the testimony of the Spirit of adoption, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God. Scripture states:For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom. 8:15-16 ESV).  This is also an inward testimony by which the Spirit.  The Confession states that the fruit thereof, keeping the heart both humble and holy. In other words, the fruit of these things upon which assurance is based, give believers a humble and holy heart. “And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3:3 KJV).

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  1. This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true Believer, may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it; yet being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may without extraordinary revelation in the right use of means attain thereunto: and therefore it is the duty of every one, to give all diligence to make their Calling and Election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the holy Spirit, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this Assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness. (Isaiah 50:10; Psalms 88; Psalms 77:1-12; 1 John 4:13; Hebrews 6:11, 12; Romans 5:1, 2, 5; Romans 14:17; Psalms 119:32; Romans 6:1,2; Titus 2:11, 12, 14)

 

The Confession states: Infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true Believer, may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it. Assurance is not inextricably connected with the essence of faith (i.e. the “nature” or “whatness” of faith).  If assurance were of the essence of faith, then a believer with no assurance would also have no faith, and thus no salvation.  Faith rests on Christ alone for salvation, not on assurance of salvation.  Therefore, a distinction is required between assurance and the essence of faith.   The Confession is saying that while one may have saving faith, they may not necessarily have the accompanying assurance equal with that saving faith. One should not assume that a lack of assurance is the same thing as a lack of saving faith.  A true believer may have to wait a long time and experience many conflicts and difficulties before he or she obtains infallible assurance.  As a result, the believer should not despair and assume he or she has no faith and remains unsaved just because he or she lacks assurance.  And at the same time, he or she should not assume that they will never obtain assurance of salvation.   Scripture admonishes us to seek assurance.  By way of application, Isaiah 50:10 encourages the believer with no assurance to trust in the Lord in the meantime: “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10 ESV; see also Ps. 88; Ps. 77:1-12).

While some believers may not have assurance for some time, yet being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of means, attain thereunto.  The believer does not need extraordinary revelation to have infallible assurance.  Because the Spirit enables the believer to know the things that God freely gives him, special or extraordinary revelation is unnecessary.  Rather, by 1) the Spirit’s enablement (“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” 1 John 4:13 ESV), and by 2) the right use of means (“show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end” Heb. 6:11 ESV), the believer may attain to full or infallible assurance of salvation.  The Confession is in part refuting here the false teaching of the Roman Church which indicates that extraordinary revelation is required for one to have infallible assurance, and the Roman Church indicates such assurance is not to be expected by ordinary believers. Contrary to Rome, Scripture encourages each believer to attain to the full assurance of faith (Heb. 6:11-12; 2 Peter 1:10-11).  The Confession states that rather than the requirement of extraordinary revelation, assurance comes from the right use of means.  What are some of those means for obtaining assurance?  Those means of grace may consist of the following and more:  the Word of God, prayer, fellowship, church attendance, credo baptism, and the Lord’s Table.  The Confession mentions the right use of means.  Thus, we must approach these various means in the right way if we are to receive the graces which lead to assurance.

Because the Spirit enables the believer to know what God has given, and because the right use of means leads to assurance, the Confession says: therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure. This is a citation from Peter: “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10-11 KJV).  Peter implies that we can be assured of our calling and election by attending to the faith and virtues in 1 Peter 1:3-7. Thus by diligently attending to those, we grow in those graces; that demonstrates that God has indeed called us and elected us.  John MacPherson states: “Not by prying into Divine secrets, but through attention to the duties of the practical Christian life, is the comfort of true assurance to be gained.”[5]

The Confession states that by the believer’s diligence to make his or her calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance. By showing diligence and thereby growing in assurance, we experience the fruits of this assurance.  Those proper fruits are:  1) his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5 ESV); “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17 ESV); 2) in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience. “I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart” (Psalms 119:32 ESV)!  “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3 ESV).

Based on Peter’s exhortation alone, the Confession can confidently assert of assurance: so far is it from inclining men to looseness. Clearly, since Scripture exhorts us to seek assurance, and since assurance comes in part from diligently attending to a holy life, there is no rational reason to suggest assurance promotes an antinomian and unholy life.  “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14  who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14 ESV).

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  1. True Believers may have the assurance of their Salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special Sin, which woundeth the Conscience, and grieveth the Spirit, by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God’s withdrawing the light of his countenance and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light; yet are they never destitute of the seed of God, and Life of Faith, that Love of Christ, and the brethren, that sincerity of Heart, and Conscience of duty, out of which by the operation of the Spirit, this Assurance may in due time be revived: and by the which in the mean time they are preserved from utter despair. (Canticles 5:2, 3, 6; Psalms 51:8, 12, 14; Psalms 116:11; Psalms 77:7, 8; Psalms 31:22; Psalms 30:7; 1 John 3:9; Luke 22:32; Psalms 42:5, 11; Lamentations 3:26-31)

Since this infallible assurance comes in great part by our attendance to various means of grace, the Confession states: True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted. Assurance though infallible, can ebb and flow at various times in the Christian life.  Thomas Watson writes of assurance: “though infallible, [it] is not perfect.  There will be sometimes trepidation, but he is safe amidst fears and doubts; as a ship lies safe at anchor, though shaken by the wind.”[6]  The Confession lists four reasons assurance can be shaken, diminished and intermitted (interrupted).

First, it may be adversely affected by negligence in preserving of it. If we neglect our attendance upon the various means of grace, which strengthen and maintain our walk, it only stands to reason that our assurance may fade in one degree or another.  This may come from the fading of external evidences of fruit, and/or from a failure to receive the needed internal encouragement and comfort from the Spirit.  R.C. Sproul wisely states: “We can be negligent in attending worship, in reading the Scriptures, and in prayer.  We can remove ourselves from those means of grace by which our assurance is strengthened daily.  If we get careless, there will be consequences.  The level of our assurance will begin to diminish and we will be “on again, off again.”[7]

Secondly, assurance can be adversely affected by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit. The Confession has already addressed on several occasions the consequences of great and grievous sin.  There is a progression here: 1) falling into some special sin, which 2a) wounds the conscience, and 2b) grieves the Spirit.  By special sin, the Confession likely means a particular sin that is great and grievous (15:2, 5; 17:3).  Paul speaks often about the perils of a wounded conscience and the need to not grieve the Spirit.  This double consequence of special sin (2a and 2b), may certainly affect our assurance.

Thirdly, our assurance may be adversely affected by some sudden or vehement temptation. Waldron states:  “By distinguishing this from the previous cause, the authors of the Confession apparently intend us to think here, not of giving into temptation and sinning, but of an overwhelming trial or solicitation to evil which for a time so shakes the believer’s emotional frame that he questions assurance.  The texts cited at this point in the 1689 Confession [Ps. 116:11] confirm this interpretation.”[8]  We see this experience of believers in Scripture: “I said in my alarm, ‘All mankind are liars’” (Psalms 116:11 ESV). “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? 8 Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time” (Psalms 77:7-8 ESV)? “I had said in my alarm, “I am cut off from your sight.” But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy when I cried to you for help” (Psalms 31:22 ESV).

Fourthly, assurance can be adversely affected by God’s withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light. For various reasons, solely up to God, he may for a time take away the light of his countenance, that is, the sense of his favor and presence.  He may do so to those who are upright and blameless; Job is certainly one prominent example.  Without this light, we sense that we are walking in darkness and have no light. “By your favor, O Lord, you made my mountain stand strong; you hid your face; I was dismayed”   (Psalms 30:7 ESV).  Such seasons may shake, diminish or interrupt our assurance. But even though that sense of God’s favor and closeness may be absent, yet are they never destitute of the seed of God. Our Lord told us that he would never, no never, leave us or forsake us.  And so even when the heavens feel locked in silence, our God has not left us; if he did, then, we would be truly destitute.  This section very much overlaps with 17:1b regarding the perseverance of the saints.  Regardless of being insensible of God’s favor, the seal of the Holy Spirit (1 John 3:9) remains with the believer as a deposit or guarantee that of our future inheritance.  John Owen wrote: “So much as we have the Spirit, so much we have heaven.”[9]  God will not default on his deposit; he has fully purchased us, and he will return to claim his purchase. In these times when assurance is shaken, diminished or interrupted, nevertheless, the believer is never destitute of the life of faith. Though our assurance is negatively impacted, yet our faith still remains and cannot be moved off the foundation and rock of Christ Jesus (17:1).

In fact, because the seed of God abides in us—even through those dark times of fading assurance—that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart and conscience of duty out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may in due time be revived, and by the which, in the meantime, they are preserved from utter despair. In other words, due to the operations of the Spirit (since the Spirit ever abides in us as a seed or seal), we sincerely from the heart and out of awareness of our duty, persevere in our love of Christ and the love of his people.  By doing so, our assurance will be revived in due time.  And, in the meantime (during the time our assurance is shaken, diminished, and interrupted), we are preserved from utter despair.  Despair is one of those deep and dark experiences which would seem to destroy the very soul of a person, but God promises that though the believer may experience a certain level of despair due to a lack of assurance, it will not be utter despair; God is still with him, and will never, no never, forsake the believer.  “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation” (Psalms 42:5 ESV). “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalms 42:11 ESV). “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. 27 It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. 28 Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; 29 let him put his mouth in the dust— there may yet be hope; 30 let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. 31 For the Lord will not cast off forever” (Lam. 3:26-31 ESV).

While the unregenerate may deceive himself or herself with false hopes and presumptions of God’s favor, yet those hopes will perish and be shown to be unfounded. On the other hand, the assurance of the true believer will not perish, but will show itself to be a well-founded. Such infallible assurance rests on Christ, the work of the Spirit evidencing graces in a person showing forth evidence that one is in the state of grace.  Since assurance is not the same things as saving faith, a lack of assurance is not equivalent with being unregenerate and unsaved.  Assurance comes not by extraordinary revelation that one is saved, but by the work of the Spirit and attendance upon our duties to grow in faith, virtues, and fruit.  Since assurance is not simply given by the Spirit, but also comes in part by our attending to various means of grace, our neglect of those means can affect our assurance.  Special sin, severe evil, and God’s withdrawing the light of his countenance upon us may also lead to a lack of assurance.  But if we persevere, we can expect that the assurance will return in time, and during the time of shaken assurance, God will preserve us from utter despair. This chapter indeed contains practical pastoral counsel based on the Word of God.  Let us end this chapter with these words from Pastor C.H. Spurgeon:

“Brethren, if you know that you have eternal life, you are prepared to live, and equally prepared to die. How frequently do I stand at the bedside of our dying members! I am every now and then saying to myself, “I shall certainly meet with some faint-hearted one. Surely I shall come across some child of God who is dying in the dark.” But I have not met with any such. Brethren, a child of God may die in the dark. One said to old Mr. Dodd, the quaint old Puritan—”How sad that our brother should have passed away in the darkness! Do you doubt his safety?” “No,” said old Mr. Dodd, “no more than I doubt the safety of him who said, when he was dying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”” Full assurance, as we have said before, is not of the essence of salvation. Still, I beg of you to note this, that all along through these many years, in each case, when I have gone to visit any of our brethren and our sisters at death, I have always found them departing in sure and certain hope of seeing the face of their Lord in glory. I have often marvelled that this should be without exception, and I glory in it. Often have they said to me, “We have fed on such good food that we may well be strong in the Lord.” God grant that you may have this assurance, all of you! May sinners begin to believe in Jesus, and saints believe more firmly, for Christ’s sake! Amen.”[10]

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[1] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 251-2.

[2] David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (1684; reprint, Carlisle, Pa.:  The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007),  111.

[3] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009),  284.

[4] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009), 284.

[5] John MacPherson, The Westminster Confession of Faith (T & T Clark: Edinburgh, Scotland), 113.  Brackets mine.

[6] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 251.

[7] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. 2, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006 ), 243.

[8] Samuel Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 231. Brackets mine.

[9] John Owen, Communion with God, in Works, 2:246. Cited in Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology (Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Kindle location 4272.

[10] C.H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, The Blessings of Full Assurance (http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/2023.htm), Sermon No: 2023.

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Chapter 17, Of the Perseverance of the Saints

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  1. Those whom God hath accepted in the Beloved, effectually called and Sanctified by his Spirit, and given the precious faith of his Elect unto, can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end and be eternally saved, seeing the gifts and callings of God are without Repentance, (whence he still begets and nourisheth in them Faith, Repentance, Love, Joy, Hope, and all the graces of the Spirit unto immortality) and though many storms and floods arise and beat against them, yet they shall never be able to take them off that foundation and rock which by faith they are fastened upon: notwithstanding through unbelief and the temptations of Satan the sensible sight of the light and love of God, may for a time be clouded, and obscured from them, yet he is still the same and they shall be sure to be kept by the power of God unto Salvation, where they shall enjoy their purchased possession, they being engraven upon the palm of his hands, and their names having been written in the book of life from all eternity. (John 10:28, 29; Philippians 1:6; 2 Timothy 2:19; 1 John 2:19; Psalms 89:31, 32; 1 Corinthians 11:32; Malachi 3:6)

 

This chapter will address the last of the element in the ordo salutis (i.e. order of salvation) except glorification (31).  By way of review, the order of salvation is as follows in the Confession:  chapter 10, effectual calling/regeneration; chapter 11, justification; chapter 12 adoption; chapter 13, sanctification; chapter 14, faith; chapter 15, repentance; chapter 17, perseverance; and chapter 31, glorification. As we move to this last aspect in the order of salvation (notwithstanding the ultimate last act of glorification), perseverance is among the most important. Here is a basic outline of the chapter: Paragraph 1 will address the nature of perseverance of the saints and its significance. Paragraph 2 will speak of the basis for perseverance of the saints, and paragraph 3 will instruct us about the state of those elect who fall into grievous sin for a season.

Those whom God hath accepted in the beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, and given the precious faith of his elect unto. Much of this portion is a review, but these are especially relevant to the new topic of perseverance. Let’s briefly review these four items as it relates to the perseverance of the saints. Those whom God accepted in the Beloved refers to a particular group of people, not of all humanity; it is only these wo will endure to the end.  This wording comes from Ephesians 1:6b “he hath made us accepted in the beloved” (KJV).  Only those who are in the Beloved, the Lord Jesus Christ, are accepted by the Father, and only these will persevere and be eternally saved. God hath effectually called them.  Scripture says of those effectually called: “Those whom he predestined he also called” (ESV). Effectual calling is the consequence of God’s eternal decree of election, and those were elected were done so in Christ, the Beloved.  These effectually called are also sanctified by the Spirit. It appears from the sentence structure (particularly the lack of a comma separating “effectually called and sanctified by the Spirit”) that these are intended to be tied closely together.  Given the Spirit’s work in effectual calling, we would expect them to be closely tied together.  The Spirit, in effectual calling sets us apart for God. Those who are spoken of in this portion are also given the precious faith to his elect. The phrasing “precious faith” likely reflects the wording of Scripture: Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1 KJV). The precious faith God gives to his elect then is part of what is required to persevere.  If we look at Hebrews 11, for example, we see how much Scripture emphasizes the role of faith in endurance.  God gives a true faith that cannot fail.

And so, those accepted by the Father (in the Beloved), effectually called and sanctified by the Spirit, and given precious faith, can neither totally nor finally fall from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved, seeing the gifts and callings of God are without repentance. These who are beloved, called, sanctified and given a genuine faith cannot totally fall from the state of grace, and they cannot finally fall from that state.  By “totally” the Confession means these cannot completely fall from the state of grace, and “finally” means they cannot permanently or forever fall from the state of grace.  What is “the state of grace” referring to?  The state of grace then refers to that condition whereby God frees us from our natural state of slavery to sin in Adam, and translates us into a state of grace in Christ where by God’s enablement we freely desire and do spiritual good (9:4). Thus, the elect cannot totally or finally lose the enablement to will and to do spiritual good, for the state of grace is a work of God which is irreversible as we will see in a moment.   Paul said under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6 ESV).  Any who do fall will be sooner or later renewed unto God through repentance, and continue to persevere—moving forward.  We are also reminded of the provision in the covenant of grace of renewal through repentance (15:2). This paragraph provides a rebuttal to the Roman Church that teaches those who fall into “mortal sin” fall from “the state of grace.”  These, according to the Roman Church can only be renewed by absolution granted by the priest when the mortal sinners partakes of the sacrament of penance.  The Confession denies that any sin is mortal exists for those accepted, called, sanctified by the Spirit and given faith.

It not merely that the elect cannot totally and finally fall from grace, but it is that positively they shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved. James Montgomery Boice states: “The doctrine of perseverance means that God who has begun a good work in electing and then calling an individual to salvation, according to his own good purpose, will certainly keep on in that purpose until the person elected and called is brought home to the blessedness that has been prepared for him or her.”[1]  Puritan John Flavel states of perseverance: “It is a steady and constant continuance of Christians in the ways of duty and obedience, amidst all temptations and discouragements to the contrary.”[2]  We will note throughout this chapter both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. It is quite true that God preserves us: “The LORD will preserve him” (Psalm 41:2 KJV).  But God’s preserving us is so that by his power in us we persevere.  God work in us moves us to outwardly work.  Perseverance takes exertion on our part we cannot deny, even as we understand God is behind our exertion.  Jesus said of man’s responsibility: But the one who endures [perseveres] to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:13 ESV).

Why is it that the elect do not totally and finally fall from the state of grace, and persevere? Seeing[3] [i.e. because] the gifts and callings of God are without repentance. This is a direct citation from Romans 11:29: “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (KJV).  In the citation, Paul refers to the fact that the Jews remain beloved by God because his gifts and calling is without repentance, or without revocation.  If this is true of Israel, it is certainly true of the church.  Thus, by God’s electing love he called his elect to himself and gives graces enabling the elect to persevere; the gifts and calling are irrevocable.  The wording “without repentance” is from the KJV version; it is clearer in the ESV:  “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”  God does not elect, call, give graces and then change his mind.  And it is a good thing for us: “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6 ESV).  

The God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable whence he still begets and nourisheth in them faith, repentance, love, joy, hope, and all the graces of the Spirit unto immortality. “Whence” refers back to the irrevocable gifts and call.  The word “still,” indicates the begetting and nourishing is something that God began, and “still” continues.  For God to “beget,” means that God produces in us.  For God to “nourish” means he keeps alive.  And so, begetting and nourishing are both necessary.  He produces and causes to grow “faith, repentance, love, joy, hope, and all the graces of the Spirit unto immortality.”  These, and all the other many graces given to us by the Spirit, cause us to persevere unto (i.e. with the result of) immortality. Reflection upon each word (“faith, repentance, love, joy, hope,”) is worthwhile, but there seems no need to provide commentary as each is probably familiar to most readers. This is a very tender picture of God’s care for his people.

And though many storms and floods arise and beat against them, yet they shall never be able to take them off that foundation and rock which by faith they are fastened upon. The trials and tribulations of this life are metaphorically referenced as “storms and floods.” The metaphor points to storms which cause powerful waves which beat not against the shoreline, but against God’s people. Despite this mighty beating, God’s people shall never be moved off that foundation and rock.  The faith is fastened upon the foundation and rock which would of course refer to Christ.  God’s people are not simply sitting upon the foundation and rock, but they are fastened to it.  What fastens them to the foundation?  It is faith.  As hard the waves beat upon God’s people, the mighty waves shall not take them off Christ the foundation and rock; he is their solid foundation, and their faith fastened to him shall not fail.  That Christ cannot fail them is a given, but that their faith will not fail is unexpected.  It would be expected, if it were not for God begetting and nourishing faith and all the other graces in them, that their faith would fail and the storm waves would move them off of Christ the foundation and rock.

 God’s people remain fastened upon the Christ by faith, despite the following: notwithstanding, through unbelief and the temptations of Satan, the sensible sight of the light and love of God may for a time be clouded and obscured from them. Even though they remain fastened upon the foundation and rock by faith, it does not mean that unbelief and temptation of Satan may not cause unbelief which obscures that sense of the light of God (i.e. the knowledge of God) and God’s love. It is not of necessity that this happen to all believers, but it seems most believers do indeed have this experience in one degree or another. There are various seasons which a believer finds himself or herself doubting or being tempted. Regardless of the obscuring clouds of doubt and temptation, those accepted in the Beloved, effectually called, sanctified by the Spirit, and given precious faith, cannot totally and finally fall from the state of grace.

Even though you lose a clear line of sight on God, yet he is still the same, and they shall be sure to be kept by the power of God unto salvation. God is still the same (Heb. 13:8).  We shall be “sure,” that is, securely fastened upon that foundation and rock, and kept by the power of God, and so eternally saved. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28 ESV).  What tremendous comfort there is which sees beyond the stormy gales and cloudy skies to the sureness and security we have because God keeping us fastened upon Christ the solid rock upon which we stand.

As a result of God’s power keeping the elect of God unto salvation, they shall enjoy their purchased possession. We will not be forever insensible of the light and love of God, because God will restore the joy of our salvation (Ps. 51:12).  God people have been purchased by Christ, and that purchase is our precious possession, and nothing can shake that salvation.  Because God is gracious to his people, they shall enjoy that purchased possession, and they shall not be forever insensible of the light and love of God. This is so because they [are] engraven upon the palm of his hands, and their names having been written in the book of life from all eternity. These reflect at least two biblical passages: “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me” (Isaiah 49:16 ESV). “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life” (Rev. 3:5a ESV).

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  1. This perseverance of the Saints depends not upon their own free will; but upon the immutability of the decree of Election flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ and Union with him, the oath of God, the abiding of his Spirit and the seed of God within them, and the nature of the Covenant of Grace from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof. (Romans 8:30; Romans 9:11, 16; Romans 5:9, 10; John 14:19; Hebrews 6:17, 18; 1 John 3:9; Jeremiah 32:40)

 This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will. Reformed doctrine, dare we say, biblical doctrine of perseverance is juxtaposed to the Arminian view. Louis Berkhof states: “The Arminians rejected this view and made the perseverance of believers dependant on their will to believe and on their good works.”[4]  The Confession states that the cause of perseverance is not man’s will, but the immutability of the decree of election.  In other words, it depends on God’s decretive will, not man’s free will.  Jonathon Edwards states: “To suppose that a right to life is suspended on our own perseverance that is uncertain, and has nothing more sure and steadfast to secure it than our own good wills and resolution…is exceeding dissonant to the nature and design of the gospel scheme.”[5] It is a serious deficiency to place the ultimate cause of perseverance in man, and locate it in man’s free will. God’s decree is the first cause of all things; therefore, the first cause of perseverance is God’s decree of election which is immutable—unlike man’s will which could change hourly.  Scripture states: “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call” (Rom. 9:11 ESV).  God’s decree comes before perseverance and is the first cause of it.

The Confession indicates that God’s decree of election flows from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father. This harkens back to chapter 3, Of God’s Decree, paragraph 1: “God hath decreed in Himself…freely and unchangeably.” God decrees only because he is pleased to do so, and thus all his decrees are free and are of and in himself.  Since God’s essence is love, God’s decree of election freely flows out of his love—the love of God the Father.  This is something we must never forget:  God elected his people because he loves them with a particular love which he freely set upon them. It is beyond our grasp why he set his love upon us, but he did: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1a ESV).

This perseverance also depends upon the efficacy of the merit…of Jesus Christ. It is helpful to note the repeating word “upon” in this paragraph; it will point us back to the topic: perseverance is not based upon our free will, but based upon….  The first “based upon” was God’s decree of election.  The next “based upon” is found here.  The word “efficacy” applies to “merit,” and also to “intercession” by way of ellipsis.  Christ’s reward or merit he earned by his perfect life and death is effective.  Christ stood in the stead of his elect, as their representative (their federal head), and he did so effectively; Christ satisfied divine justice in full.  “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:9-10 ESV). Jesus said: “Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live”(John 14:19 ESV).  Thomas Watson states: “Would Christ, think ye, have shed his blood that we might believe in him for a little while, and then fall away? Do we think Christ will lose his purchase?”[6]  Therefore, perseverance is based upon Christ’s effective purchase of his elect.

Further, this perseverance depends upon the efficacy of the…intercession of Jesus Christ. Christ’s intercession for us is effective; Jesus always prays according to the Father’s will, and since he sits at the right hand of the Father, there is no prayer that Jesus prays the Father will not answer. This makes Jesus an effective intercessor on our behalf. Do we think for one moment that any of Christ’s prayers for his elect fail?  John 17 records Christ’s prayer for his own while on earth; certainly the Father answers that prayer.  As well, certainly that prayer in John 17 is an excellent reflection of what his prayers look like now in heaven while he is seated at the right hand of the Father.  A.A. Hodge states: “Since, therefore, neither Christ’s redemption nor his intercession can fail of the ends for which they are designed, it is evidently impossible that those for whom he was substituted, and for whom he acquired a perfect righteousness, and for whom he offers an effectual intercession, can fail of salvation.”[7]  Puritan William Gurnall states: “Does Christ pray for us?  Yea, does He not live to pray for us?  Oh, how can children of so many prayers, nay of such prayers, perish?  Say not, your weak faith shall perish, till you hear that Christ has left praying, or meets with a repulse.”[8]

The Confession also adds that this perseverance depends uponunion with him.  Again, we are in a list of things “upon” which perseverance depends.  We discussed the importance of our union with Christ in 13:1.  Our union with Christ is eternal since it is rooted in election and the covenant of redemption whereby Christ agreed with the Father to become our federal head.  Thus, the elect are in union with Christ from eternity ideally in election, objectively by Christ’s perfect work in time, subjectively in the work of the Spirit whereby we are mystically joined with him at the time of our calling, and into eternity we shall forever remain in Christ.  Our union with him underlies all the benefits we receive from him, regeneration, justification, sanctification, adoption, and glorification.  The perseverance of the saints, then, is based upon our union with him.

 Perseverance is also based upon…the oath of God. Scripture states: “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath (Heb. 6:17 ESV). And so, our perseverance does not depend upon our own free-will, but upon the very oath of God. This brings to mind a stanza of the hymn, “The God of Abraham Praise:”

  •  He by himself hath sworn, I on his oath depend
  • I shall on eagle’s wing up borne to heaven ascend
  • I shall behold his face, I shall his power adore
  • And sing the wonders of his grace forever more.[9]

Our perseverance is also based upon…the abiding of his Spirit, and the seed of God within them. Scripture states: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9 ESV). Samuel Waldron states: “By perpetuity is meant the idea that the indwelling of the Spirit is not temporary, but permanent.  The first three grounds of perseverance have, thus, focused attention respectively on God the Father in the decree of election, God the Son in the work of redemption, and God the Spirit in the application of redemption.  The gift of perseverance is from all three persons of the Trinity. The Confession speaks of ‘the abiding of the Holy Spirit and the seed of God within them’.  This implies (and I agree with the implication) that the seed of God mentioned in the Scripture refers to the indwelling of the Spirit of God (1 John 3:9).  1 John 3:9 (however the assertion that those born of God do not sin is to be understood) emphatically and unmistakably teaches the perseverance of the saints.”[10]

Now, the Confession moves to show additionally that perseverance does not depend upon free will, but uponthe nature of the covenant of grace. What is the nature of the covenant of grace in regards to perseverance? We see in the book of Jeremiah that God promises to make a “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31:31.  Still speaking of this “new covenant” in Jeremiah 32:40, God states: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (ESV). This covenant is what we often refer to in Reformed circles as the covenant of grace.  The nature of that covenant of grace consists of the following: 1) the covenant is eternal; 2) God will not cease doing good to the beneficiaries of this covenant; 3) God will put his fear in their hearts; 4) that they may not turn from God.    Based upon the nature of this covenant that they will not turn from God, the Confession then adds: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof. In other words, perseverance arises from (or is based upon) the certainty and infallibility of the nature of the covenant of grace which Jeremiah 32:40 describes is that “they may not turn away.” Thus in the provisions of the covenant of grace is the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (see also 15:2).

As we review this paragraph, we see persuasive evidence that perseverance does not depend upon our free will; rather, we see it depends upon the Triune God and the nature of his covenant. This relieves a great deal of unsettledness from the unbiblical view that perseverance depends upon us.  Our wayward will and corrupt desire is not something we want our eternal salvation to depend upon.  Now, we ought not to conclude from all this that perseverance of the saints means we do not have to actively persevere.  We need to persevere to the end; the point is that it is God who causes and enables us to do so.

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  1. And though they may through the temptation of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of means of their preservation fall into grievous sins, and for a time continue therein; whereby they incur God’s displeasure and grieve his holy Spirit, come to have their graces and comforts impaired, have their hearts hardened, and their Consciences wounded, hurt, and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves: yet shall they renew their repentance and be preserved through faith in Christ Jesus to the end. (Matthew 26:70, 72, 74; Isaiah 64:5, 9; Ephesians 4:30; Psalms 51:10, 12; Psalms 32:3, 4; 2 Samuel 12:14; Luke 22:32, 61, 62)

 While the saints do persevere, they do at times falter and waiver their way to glory. This paragraph views perseverance of the saints in light of the struggles Christians face this side of glory.  The Confession states: And though they may, through the temptation of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins, and for a time continue therein. The Confession in no way paints a picture of the Christian walk as a perfectionistic journey to the Celestial City.  We have observed several such statements of the Christian life which wages war against sin (5:5; 6:5; 9:4; 11:5; 13:2; 14:3; 15:2; 16:4).  Here is yet another statement which speaks realistically of the Christian life with remaining corruption.  The Confession indicates four means by which the believer may fall into grievous sin. The first is by the temptation of Satan.  The second is the temptation of the world.  The third is the prevalency of corruption remaining in them (see also 9:4b, 13:2).  The fourth is the neglect of the means of their preservation (see also 14:1b).  This refers to neglecting things that strengthen us in our walk with Christ.  Neglecting our growth in Christ is a sure path to grievous sin since both our external enemy, Satan, never ceases to look for an opportunity (Luke 4:13), and our internal enemy, remaining corruption, never ceases to look for an opportunity for sin). There is little need to expound on these four issues as they are self-explanatory.  It is, however, interesting to note that God gave us the Scriptures to address all four of these (1:1b).  Thus, we cannot afford to neglect the word of God in our lives.  These four may even lead us not only to serious sin, but may even lead to the continuation in that sin for a time (i.e. for a season).

As a result of these four things, several things may happen in the believer’s life. First, they incur God’s displeasure and grieve his Holy Spirit. Since God is not partial and hates all sin, even in his people—perhaps especially in his people—the believer’s sin brings God’s displeasure. Scripture says: “Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people” (Isaiah 64:9 ESV). Also, Paul tells us: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption(Eph. 4:30 ESV).  Secondly, believers will come to have their graces and comforts impaired. God may withhold the full measure of his graces from his people while they remain in grievous sin. Even their prayers may be impaired: “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7 ESV).  It is not that God won’t hear his people prayers, in the same sense that he will not regard the prayers of the wicked.  But Scripture seems to indicate God may not regard our prayers if we regard sin: “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18 ESV; see also 1 Peter 3:7).  The comforts of the Spirit are impaired (i.e. reduced, hindered) while the believer remains in grievous sin.  We that the comforts of David salvation were impaired, and so he prays: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. 11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalms 51:10-12 ESV).  David seems to have lost his graces and comforts, and in repentance he seeks their restoration to him.

By grievous sin, believers come to have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded. The Psalmists seems to be describing in what follows a lack of repentance:For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah” (Psalms 32:3-4 ESV). Paul talks about those who lack a clear conscious due to sin: “This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”( 1 Tim. 1:18-20 ESV).

And believers by grievous sin hurt and scandalize others. Scripture speaks of the dishonor we bring to God when those who name the Lord do not depart from sin: “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:23-24 ESV).  Waldron wisely exhorts: “Brethren, there is no guarantee that anyone of us will not fall into such sins apart from perpetual watchfulness.  You may be a Christian, but that does not exclude the possibility that you may damn your children, hurt others, bring judgments on yourself and family, and/or have your assurance greatly weakened.  It is wise, then, dear Christian, to go on indolent, sluggish, careless, neglectful in known duty?”[11] Further, by grievous sin they bring temporal judgments upon themselves. We see an example of this when David and Bathsheba’s baby died: “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die” (2 Sam. 12:14 ESV).  God does discipline his own: “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him” (Heb. 12:5 ESV).

Despite the grievous sin that the believer may fall into, yet shall they renew their repentance and be preserved through faith in Christ Jesus to the end. This echoes the statement in 15:2: “God hath, in the Covenant of Grace, mercifully, provided that believers so sinning, and falling, be renewed through repentance unto salvation.” Those believers who fall into grievous sin and remain in it for a time will yet renew their repentance.  Jesus spoke of Peter’s renewed repentance as an assured event that would occur: “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32 ESV). Later in that chapter, after Peter denied the Lord, we see the fulfillment of Jesus’ assurance that Peter would turn (repent). “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ 62 And he went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61-62 ESV).  Waldron states: “True Christians renew their repentance and faith in Christ (Luke 22:32, 61-62; 1 Cor. 11:32).  Just as the elect will not die before they are converted, so the regenerate will not die before they repent. This is a vital argument against Satan’s whisper, ‘If you sin, you can repent.’  Yes, and you will, but to truly repent is to vomit up the sin.  All the enjoyment of eating the dainty morsel of sin is more than made up for by the miserable nausea and vomiting.  There will always be more misery than pleasure in sin for a true Christian!”[12]

This chapter has expressed that the saint will persevere to the end, and will do so because: 1) God begets and nourishes the graces which enable them to persevere; 2) God the Father has unchangeably elected them by decree; 3) Christ’s effective merit and intercession for them; 4) the abiding Spirit of God who seals his elect; and 5) the nature of the covenant of grace. While the saints will persevere, they may by the temptations Satan, the world, and the remaining corruption of the flesh, and neglect of the means of grace, fall into great and grievous sin, and they may remain for a time in that sin; nonetheless, God will ensure that they renew their repentance, and thus they will not perish.  The robust doctrine of the perseverance of the saints stands juxtaposed to the view of today’s easy-believism.  Easy-believism superficially views eternal security as something that requires nothing of the believer but, well, easy-believism.  Such a view rests upon the core value of easy-believism: easiness. That view is vulnerable to the critique that eternal security fosters antinomianism, as indeed easy-believism often does.  However, such a critique cannot fairly be leveled at the perseverance of the saints, for in fact, the perseverance to the end is required for eternal salvation.  But while eternal salvation requires perseverance, that perseverance is found not in man’s free will, but in the Triune God who gives the grace and nourishment needed to sustain his own to the end. The biblical doctrine of the perseverance of the saints contains both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.  We seem to think God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility is an “either… or” proposition.  But biblically speaking they are both mutually inclusive in the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.

—————————-

[1] James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive and Readable Theology (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Ill., Leicester, England: 1986), 518.

[2] John Flavel, An Exposition of the Assembly’s Catechism, in Works, 6:206. Cited by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 22792.

[3] From the word “seeing” forward to the end of paragraph 1, the 1689 Confession adopts the wording from the 1646 First London Confession.  The Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration  stop at the word “saved” in paragraph 1.

[4] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (William B Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, Cambridge), 545.

[5] Jonathan Edwards: “Miscellanies,” no. 695, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 18, “The Miscellanies,” 501-832, ed. Ava Chamberlain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), 280.  Cited by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 23068.

[6] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 283. Cited by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 22975.

[7] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 236.

[8] William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour: A Treatise of the Saints’ War Against the Devil (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1964), 1:265.  Cited by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Kindle loc. 22987.

[9] Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: Great Commissions Publishing, 1961), 32.

[10]   Samuel Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 219.

[11]   Samuel Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 222.

[12]   Samuel Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 222.

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Chapter 16, Of Good Works

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  1. Good Works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word; and not such as without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intentions. (Micah 6:8; Hebrews 13:21; Matthew 15:9; Isaiah 29:13)

While speaking to King Agrippa, the apostle Paul characterized his gospel preaching to the Jews and Gentiles as a call to repent, turn to God, and perform deeds in keeping with their repentance (Acts 26:19-20). Based on this, it is very appropriate that chapter 16 follow after chapters about faith and repentance.  Based on the passage in Acts, we are to be performing deeds in keeping with our repentance, and so we come to that topic of good works.

The first thing we must know is what constitutes good deeds. The Confession states: Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word. The standard or rule for good works is the word of God.  We have already been instructed on this in chapter 1, Of the Holy Scriptures: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. In fact, Scripture says God has spoken and provided instructions for good works: “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel” (Ps. 147:19 ESV).  And, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 ESV)? When the Confession’s parent document, the Westminster Confession was being framed, there was much concern to refute the antinomian (anti-law) position, as well as other errors.  But immediately the antinomian view is denied in the very first words: God works are only found in Scripture.  Robert Letham states: “This chapter in the Confession is unusually long, due, one suspects, to concerns over antinomianism.  Good works are defined only by what God commands in his Word.”[1]

Because God has positively revealed what good works are in his holy word, the implication then is that good works are not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intentions. In other words, good works consist only of that which God has revealed in his commands, not in what man devises or makes up out of blind zeal, or so-called good intentions. The Pharisee sect arose in Palestine because of a zealous desire to avoid God’s judgment of exile again.  They were zealous that the people obey God, and thus in that they had good intentions for Israel.  The problem was that they sought to bring about obedience by creating a buffer zone around God’s law, which added to God’s commands.  Thus anything that could be construed in any way to be work on the Sabbath was forbidden.  This way a person would not even come close to disobeying the Sabbath command.  Thus they created detailed Sabbath laws, for instance, limiting all kinds of activities that God had not directly commanded.  And it is precisely where they went wrong.  Jesus had very strong words for the Pharisees who put a heavy burden of regulation around the people’s necks—a burden not even the Pharisees were willing to abide by.   “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matt. 23:1-4 ESV).  And, because they added their traditions, as if they were the very commands of God, Jesus rebuked them:  “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matt. 15:7-9 ESV).

The issue of good works was very much at the center of the Reformation, given the Roman Church’s unbiblical layers of so-called good works, and their confusion of good works with justification. Morris states:

  • “The Council of Trent was not indifferent to so important an issue, as its declarations in regard to the nature of good works, and their merit in connection with justification (decree on Justif. Chapter XVI and the corresponding Canons) clearly show. It was charged upon the Protestants  by the Council that in emphasizing justification by faith they were ignoring and even forbidding good works, and thus proving recreant to the moral element in Christianity.  And it was in view of that charge specifically, that the framers of the Augsburg Confession introduced a long Article (XX) into their Symbol, in which on one side they condemn the childless and needless and unprofitable works, ceremonial and formal, imposed by the Roman priesthood, and on the other side assert their loyalty to the Ten Commandments, and all other moral obligation enjoined in the holy Scriptures.”[2] 489

Thus early on Luther was dealing with the issue of how good works relate to justification and the Christian life. This was an issue of importance in all subsequent reformed  symbols, and the Westminster Divines spent a great deal of time carefully delineating this doctrine—the Savoy Declaration and the 1689 Baptist Confession following the Westminster Confession of Faith virtually word for word in this chapter.

In the recent history of the church, there have been denominations, particularly those apart of the Holiness Movement, that have done the same thing by requiring that their church members not go to movies, dances, drink alcohol, etc. In their zeal for holiness, they devised rules to avoid worldliness.  The problem is that they themselves determined what was worldly, as if God had not already clearly spoken on the subject.[3]  God has made it plain what sin is by his commands, and only God has the authority to issue such commands; man has no authority to add a single requirement beyond God’s commands.

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  1. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits, and evidences of a true, and lively faith; and by them Believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries and glorify God whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end eternal life. (James 2:18, 22; Ps. 116:12-13; 1 John 2:3,5; 2 Pet. 1:5-11; Matt. 5:16; 1 Tim. 6:1; 1 Pet. 2:15; Phil 1:11; Eph. 2:10; Rom. 6:22)

These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith. The Confession prefaces that these good works are fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith, only if in obedience to God’s commandments. The appositive phrase “done in obedience to God’s commandments,” harkens back to the prior paragraph in which good works are defined as that only prescribed in the Word of God.  Thus the things men determine to be good works, not in the Word of God, are not good works in God’s eyes and cannot be seen as fruit or evidence of true faith.  What is a true and lively faith?  “True faith” means a genuine a faith.  A “lively faith” means a faith that is active.  The Confession echoes James 2.  “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22 ESV).  James is not speaking of justification by works.  Sproul helpfully states: “When we say that justification is by faith alone, we really mean that it is by Christ alone.  The only works that count towards justification are those that Christ performed in his lifetime.  Luther defined saving faith as fides viva.  Viva is the Latin words for “living,” and so fides via refers to a faith that is vital or alive, lively faith.  Luther said that the faith that justifies is never a dead faith.”[4]  Thus, the Confession is simply linking the fruit of a good tree (good works) to the root of a good tree (a true and lively faith).  Jesus said: “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Matt. 7:17-20 ESV).  Obedience to God’s commands is evidence of a genuine and active faith.  John makes this point very clear: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:3-6 ESV).

In addition to good works showing a genuine and healthy faith, by them [good works] believers manifest their thankfulness. In our gratitude to God, we ought to show forth good works.    “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:12-13 ESV). We show our thankfulness to God by giving him, in a manner of speaking, a good return of good works.  We might think of the parable of the barren fig tree, and how the vinedresser did not get a good return for his planting and husbandry of the fig tree: 6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9 ESV).  Or, we might think of King Hezekiah: “But Hezekiah did not make return according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud. Therefore wrath came upon him and Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 32:25 ESV).  Let us show our thankfulness to God for all his benefits by good works unto God by faith through Christ.

Good works strengthen their assurance. Because good works are evidence of a genuine and active faith, as a result, good works can strengthen one’s assurance that they truly have been born from above.  The evidence supports it!  Scripture is clear on this point: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11 ESV).  Sproul states: “That is why theology is important for our assurance.  If I am not sure about the doctrine of election, I am not sure that regeneration precedes faith.  I can say I have love for Jesus now, but I could lose it tomorrow.  Then everything depends upon what I do.  Instead of having the tulip as the sweetest flower in God’s garden, I will be picking daises and pulling the pedals out, saying, “He loves me, he loves me not.”  There is no assurance that way.  The Westminster divines say that obedience in my life helps my assurance because they understand the role of works in the whole order of salvation.”[5]

As well, good works edify their brethren. Our good works encourage and build up our brothers and sisters in Christ, just as our bad works can discourage and tear down our brethren.  The good works of faith listed of those in Hebrews 11 allow the writer of Hebrews to say: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1 ESV).  In addition to those in Hebrews 11, we might consider those more recent saints of the Lord who have gone before us—Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, and so the list continues.  They all edify us, even today, by their good works, even though they are dead (“And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Heb. 11:4b).

Good works also adorn the profession of the gospel. Scripture says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16 ESV).  “Showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10 ESV). By our good works, we show our profession to be genuine and the gospel to be effective in our life.  Our good works add to our profession a reality and beauty.

Further, good works stop the mouths of the adversaries. The Confession seems to be referring directly to Peter’s word: For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15 ESV).  And, If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rm. 12:18-21).

And lastly, and most significantly, good works glorify God. Again Jesus said: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16 ESV).  We are told in Scripture, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31 ESV). As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.  If glorifying God is our main purpose, and good works glorify God, then good works ought to be a huge focus in our lives.  We ought not to simply wait for that sense of the Spirit moving us to good works, but since it is our duty and privilege we ought to be deliberate about doing good works.

It is God whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto. This is a citation from Ephesians 2:10 from the King James Version.  In the English Revised Version, it reads: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10 ESV).  The elect are made or created in Christ for good works.  It is the purpose for which God, the ultimate master craftsman, has for us: to walk in good works.

The Confession continues: that having their fruit unto holiness they may have the end eternal life. This is a citation from Romans 6:22, in the King James Version: “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life (Romans 6:22 KJV).  In a more readable version for us today, the English Standard Version states: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22 ESV).  The passage from Scripture cited by the Confession means that since we have been set free from slavery to sin, and are now instead slaves of God, the result is the fruit of holiness, and that fruit of holiness leads in the end to eternal life.  When we are “in Christ,” that is, united to Christ as Romans 6:1-10 illustrates, the result is the practical fruit of holiness.  Jesus said as much: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 ESV).

Morris helpfully points out that several errors paragraph 2 opposes:

  • It will be seen at a glance that such an interpretation shuts out at once the kind of works, ceremonial and ecclesiastical, which the Council of Trent had prescribed, and on the other hand proves the falsity of the papal charge that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith was injurious to practical religion, inasmuch as it tended to turn the thoughts of men away from those duties God had enjoined in his holy law. It was a decisive answer also to that Antinomianism which affirmed that good works have no relation to salvation, and to that still more dangerous opinion developed during the Majoristic controversy, that such works may even be detrimental to salvation.  It was also an answer equally decisive to the notion developed during the same controversy and afterward, that good works are in some degree a coordinate or at least a subsidiary ground of acceptance with God, since none can in fact perform such works excepting those who are already accepted by him.”[6]

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  1. Their ability to do good works, is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ; and that they may be enabled thereunto, besides the graces they have already received, there is necessary an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will, and to do, of his good pleasure; yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty, unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the Grace of God that is in them. (John 15:4, 5; 2 Corinthians 3:5; Philippians 2:13; Philippians 2:12; Hebrews 6:11, 12; Isaiah 64:7)

Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ; and that they may be enabled thereunto. You may recall from chapter 9, paragraph 3, which spoke of the loss of the ability of man to do spiritually good, resulting from the fall. You also may recall that the only thing that changes that inability is God converting a sinner to the state of grace (9:4).  When God transfers a sinner to the state of grace, “he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good” (9:4). Sproul states that: “even the Christian’s ability to do good works is not at all of ourselves, but completely and wholly from the Spirit of God.  What is behind this somewhat radical statement is the Reformed doctrine of the moral inability of fallen man.”[7]   Again, Jesus said: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5 ESV).

The Confession continues this point: besides the graces they have already received, there is necessary an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will and to do of his good pleasure. While regeneration occurs in the believer’s effectual calling, whereby they are enabled to will and to do spiritual good, yet in addition to that the Spirit of God must exert an actual present influence for them to do good works.  Regeneration is one of the graces given them, but God also gives other graces to the believer, such the grace of faith, repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, and then there are gifts of the Spirit which he distributes as he wills to his people.  These and more are the “besides other graces” the Confession speaks of.  Because of our remaining corruption, we need the graces and the very actual influence of the Spirit which causes us to will to do God’s good pleasure and causes us to do his good pleasure.  Paul speaks of this: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13 ESV).  This is a very important point, and probably most Christians grasp that need for the Spirit’s continued work, because we see how prone we are to drift.

We are so wayward that no sooner than we read of the necessary of work of the Spirit for us to continue and excel in good works, we may conclude that therefore we are not required to please God unless we sense that stir of the Spirit of Christ in us to do so. Thus, the Confession states: yet they are not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty, unless upon a special motion of the Spirit, but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.  Therefore, we are not to “wait for lightning,” as they say, before we act.  No, obeying God’s command is our duty.  We are not to neglect obeying God just because we do not feel like it, as if we are excused because we do not “feel” the Spirit moving us.  Instead, we are to be diligent, and stir up the grace of God that is in us.  Paul told Timothy: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6 ESV).  And Paul told the Philippian church: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling(Phil. 2:12 ESV).  And the writer of Hebrews said: “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:11-12 ESV).  We are to stir up the grace of God within us; rouse ourselves.  We are to actively carry out our duty while depending upon the Spirit, and asking for the Spirit’s enablement.

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  1. They who in their obedience attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more then God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do. (Job 9:2-3; Gal. 5:17; Luke 17:10)

The believer who may attain to a high degree of good works, even to the highest possible in this life (which seems to be almost a theoretical), still cannot attain to the requirements of God’s law. Supererogate, means “to do more than is commanded, or required.”[8]  Letham states: “Works of supererogation, as taught by Rome, are out of court—to do more than God requires is impossible.”[9]  The Roman Church taught, and still does, that the works of supererogation done by the saints is deposited into an account by which the church may draw and provide positive credit to a sinner.  The indulgence system was based on the principle that from the works of supererogation, the sinner could bypass penitent acts which they would normally have to perform according to Roman Church requirements.  Clearly, this is something the Reformation rejected, and was at the core one of the reason for the Reformation.  In contradiction to this supererogation false doctrine, Jesus’ words aptly apply: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty‘ ” (Luke 17:10 ESV).

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  1. We cannot by our best works merit pardon of Sin or Eternal Life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom by them we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins; but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants; and because as they are good they proceed from his Spirit, and as they are wrought by us they are defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment. (Romans 3:20; Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 4:6; Galatians 5:22, 23; Isaiah 64:6; Psalms 143:2)

We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come, and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom by them we can neither profit nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins. The Confession provides us with a reality check of our good works in relation to God and his requirements. Our best good works cannot earn eternal life.  We will recall that the requirements of the covenant of works (which remains in force for those under Adam’s headship), is perfect obedience.  Thus, if we are trying to earn the reward of life under those terms—perfect obedience—it is a fool’s errand; it is impossible since the fall.  And if we think we can atone for our sin by good works, we are quite mistaken; there is simply no provision for that in the covenant of works.  The only provision, now for pardon of sin and the reward of life is found in the covenant of grace, not works (Eph. 2:8-9).  Scripture says: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20 ESV).  God is the one we must deal with for pardon and eternal life, and his justice will not be compromised by accepting our imperfect deeds.  The great disproportion between our present condition, compared with glory of the coming age, puts our works in a very unfavorable light on their own merits.  Add to that the infinite distance between us and God, and we find ourselves not only with no positive credit to offset our former debt of sin.  Let’s just say our credit score is a problem in the eyes of God, and no amount of good works will offset what God requires.

In the end, when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants. Again, Scripture says: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’ “ (Luke 17:10 ESV).  So the believer’s good works have no meritorious value to offer to God for pardon of sin or eternal life.  Our perspective on our good works ought to be there discharge of duty, not merit.  Any “good” in our works is not from us; because as they are good they proceed from his Spirit. The goodness proceeds from the Spirit, not from us. As they [i.e. the works] are wrought by us they are defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s punishment. Any good found in our works is from the work of the Spirit, as has been said, but anything that proceeds from us with our remaining corruption is mixed with defiling corruption and with weakness and imperfection.  This mixture of defiling, weakness and imperfection could never stand up to God’s accounting practices, and would only be met with severe judgment.  Scripture states: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6 ESV).  And, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps. 143:2 ESV).  This perspective is meant to cause us to see the reality of our good works in relation to God’s standard, and it humbles our pride.  But it is meant to humble our pride so as to exalt the grace of God, which will be richly brought to light in the next paragraph.

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  1. Yet notwithstanding the persons of Believers being accepted through Christ their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he looking upon them in his Son is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. (Ephesians 1:6; 1 Peter 2:5; Matthew 25:21, 23; Hebrews 6:10)

The Confession now resolves our distress from the last paragraph: Yet notwithstanding the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him. Thus because the “persons of believers are accepted in Christ, so also are their good works, despite their pitiful character (16:5).  Oh what joy, comfort and peace we find through the grace of Christ, “to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6 ESV).  Scripture declares: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ: (1 Peter 2:5 ESV). It is not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight, but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. It is the merit of Christ offered to the Father on our behalf (in our stead) that is the basis for the Father accepting our personhood, and then our works.  Our works are all deficient, but Christ is all sufficient.   On that final judgment day, it will not be our good works we hope in, but in the crown of Christ.  On the basis of Christ’s work, our work our good works receive praise: “’Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master’” (Matt 25:21-23 ESV).   And because our works are seen by God in Christ, the writer of Hebrews can say: “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do” (Heb. 6:10 ESV).  This section then addressed the good works of the regenerate saints.  The next chapter deals with the works of the unregenerate.

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  1. Works done by unregenerate men although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use, both to themselves and others; yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner according to the Word, nor to a right end the glory of God; they are therefore sinful and cannot please God; nor make a man meet to receive grace from God; and yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God. (2 Kings 10:30; 1 Kings 21:27, 29; Genesis 4:5; Hebrews 11:4, 6; 1 Corinthians 13:1; Matthew 6:2, 5; Amos 5:21, 22; Romans 9:16; Titus 3:5; Job 21:14, 15; Matthew 25:41-43)

As for the works of the unregenerate, the Confession states: Works done by unregenerate men although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others. Even though mankind in their unregenerate state are completely averse to any spiritual good, it does not mean that they cannot do good at all.  The Calvinist beliefs in total depravity, not that man is as depraved as he could be.  The good the unregenerate does, even if it is one of God’s commands, it is not anything God accepts. God does at times acknowledge the work of the unregenerate and even sometimes rewards them, showing that God’s commands are good for all mankind.  For example, in the Old Testament: “And the Lord said to Jehu, “Because you have done well in carrying out what is right in my eyes, and have done to the house of Ahab according to all that was in my heart, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel(2 Kings 10:30 ESV).

Yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner according to the Word, nor to a right end the glory of God; they are therefore sinful and cannot please God. But the unregenerate works are not from a heart that has been purified by faith, and thus are not accepted in light of Christ’s merits. We see in Genesis that God did not regard Cain’s offering: “but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell” (Gen. 4:5 ESV).  We know that God did accept Abel’s offering.  Why?  Because, Scripture states: “by faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts” (Heb. 11:4a ESV).  Good works must proceed from a heart that is purified by faith.  The unregenerate do not bring to God their works in the right way (right manner).  There reasons are all wrong, and if the believer’s work is defiled, weak and imperfect, what of the unregenerate whose heart is not right before God.  It reminds us of Peter’s citation of the Old Testament: “And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner’“(1 Peter 4:18 ESV)? In addition to work of the unregenerate being of the wrong manner, it is not brought to God for the right reasons (“right end”).  Jesus said: “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matt 6:2 ESV). This one example a good work being for the wrong ends.  For all these reasons, a lack of faith, wrong way, and wrong reason, the works of the unregenerate “are therefore sinful, and cannot please God.”

It is not just that the unregenerate works cannot please God, but that the works cannot even make a man meet to receive grace from God. Man can do no act which will make him or her worthy to receive the grace of God in the gospel, nor can he do any work which will prompt God to effectually call a person.  Why? Because the unregenerate are odious to God, for their sin and unbelief, and he will not even listen to their prayers.  God said to the Jews in Amos: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them(Amos 5:21-22 ESV).  And Paul writes: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16 ESV).  And the following passage is no doubt especially in the mind of the framers of the Confession: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 ESV).  Thus works do not saved us, or even make us prepared to receive grace.

Despite God’s rejection of the works of the unregenerate, yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God. It is not as though the unregenerate are excused from presenting good works simply because they are unacceptable to God, because in fact his law still requires perfect obedience.  Thus, to neglect the commands of God only accelerates the sin of the unregenerate and is displeasing to God.  We see this neglect characterized in the book of Job: “They say to God, ‘Depart from us! We do not desire the knowledge of your ways. What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him’” (Job 21:14-15 ESV)?  And Jesus “will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me’ (Matt 25:41-43 ESV).  As the believer is not excused from neglecting duties to God’s commands, so the unregenerate are not excused.  “He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2:6-8 ESV).

Chapter 2, Of Good Works, proves to be a very key doctrinal chapter for the Christian life. We have been well-instructed: Good works are not what any man or church declares, but only that which is prescribed in Scripture, and only biblical good works show genuine fruit and evidence a genuine and lively faith.  But while fruit is evidence of a true lively faith, good works do not proceed inherently from the believer himself, but from the work and influence of the Spirit.  The believer is duty bound to obey God’s commands even when it is hard, and cannot be neglected because he or she does not sense the Spirit influencing them to obey; duty is duty.  Even when the believer is diligent and attains to a high level of good works, he is still far from meeting God’s holy requirements, and so also the ability to exceed God’s requirements is a false doctrine, and cannot be used by the Roman Church, or anyone else to teach supererogation.  We cannot merit God acceptance by our works, and our best is but that of an unprofitable servant—our works being mixed with good (the good proceeding from the Spirit’s help), and yet weak and imperfect proceeding from us.  God accepts the works of the believer, since salvation is through Christ alone, so also are good works accepted only through Christ’s merit.  The works of the unregenerate, proceeding not out of faith, are unacceptable to God and displeasing, and yet they are still bound by the terms of the covenant of works to all God has commanded his creatures.

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[1] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009), 281-2.

[2] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 489.

[3] The author, having come out of the Holiness Movement tradition is not trying to be unfair in this assessment.  I recognize that there are other nuances involved.  But the statement is, however, I think true.  If God has not forbidden the drinking of alcohol, how can a denomination or a local church require of its members that they do not do so?  It becomes rather problematic for such rules when our sinless Lord himself not only drank wine, but miraculously made good wine at the wedding in Cana, thus by implication encouraging others to drink wine.  Clearly, drunkenness is forbidden, but it does not follow that therefore one cannot drink wine, or other alcoholic beverages.  The stance very much becomes something akin to the Pharisee problem: teaching as doctrine, the traditions of man.

[4] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 173.

[5] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 178.

[6] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 491.

[7] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 182.

[8] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[9] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009), 282.

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Chapter 15, Of Repentance unto Life and Salvation

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  1. Such of the Elect as are converted at riper years, having sometimes lived in the state of nature, and therein served divers lusts and pleasures, God in their Effectual Calling giveth them Repentance unto Life. (Titus 3:2-5)

Repentance and faith are like two sides of a coin, and we notice the Confession places the chapter on repentance immediately following faith; the two are inseparably connected. John Murray puts it this way: “The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance.”[1]  Saving faith receives and rests on Christ for salvation from God’s wrath for sin; thus saving faith by its very nature it oriented around the problem of sin. And true repentance unto life and salvation is sorrowful for sin, while at the same time full of faith that forgiveness will come through the gospel. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10 ESV). And so we understand faith and repentance go together like a hand in a glove.

This chapter should clear up several common misconceptions about repentance, and brings about a sound biblical understanding of it. Sadly, there is a lot of confusion and ignorance in the church in general about repentance. The word itself sometimes carries unbiblical baggage in the minds of many, coming from various sources, such as: characterizations from the world, abuses by the Roman Church, or Perfectionism from the cultic Mormons or holiness sects. Repentance is very much central to the gospel since it is tied closely to faith, and is very much a part of biblical gospel preaching, and so it is essential we have a biblical view and perspective of repentance.

The 1689 Confession breaks from the Westminster Confession of Faith to a large extent, though not entirely, and adopts wording from the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration. In addition, the wording of the first paragraph is not the easiest to immediately grasp. So we will take it slowly and get some help. The 1689 Confession begins: Such of the elect as are converted at riper years. By this, we know that the Confession is speaking of a particular category of the elect, not all of the elect: only those who are converted when they are older. But why the limited focus on those converted at riper years?  Is not repentance equally applicable to all conversions?  The Confession immediately notes that these riper converts [have] sometimes lived in the state of nature and therein served divers lusts and pleasures. Thus, the later in life one is converted, the longer one has to serve various lusts and pleasures. In contrast, those who are converted at a young age have had less time to serve their lusts.  Let’s continue: God in their effectual calling giveth them repentance unto life. At first, by itself, this seems odd since surely all God’s elect are given repentance unto life in effectual calling. In other words, it is not just the older that need repentance unto life—all the elect need it. That is not in dispute by the Confession. When we consider the whole context, this paragraph is focused on the unique situation of the older convert, which generally speaking, has more to repent of. This weight of sin may result in what Waldron calls “a crisis experience” of repentance—a crisis experience less likely to occur in the younger convert, say, the young person raised in a Christian home. To be clear, all converts—young and old—are effectually called and given repentance unto life. Repentance will not be experienced at the same crisis level for every convert. Presumably, the crisis of repentance will be greater in those who have committed more actual sin. And certainly, the older convert who had been indulging on various lusts and pleasures of sin will exude a more drastic lifestyle or behavioral change in their repentance.

Scripture states: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:3-5 ESV). The Scripture here certainly speaks ultimately of all elect sinners, but it is especially applicable to those who are converted when older. The young person raised in a Christian home who is converted at a young age is less likely to identify with this to the same extent as the older sinner. Outwardly, the change in lifestyle of the young converts will not presumably be as drastic as the one who has developed more sinful behaviors over the course of their riper life. Okay, so hopefully we have not belabored this older versus younger convert distinction. Let’s reach out for some additional insight into this paragraph. Samuel Waldron states in his, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, the following:

“The Confession makes this distinction out of a desire to distinguish repentance as a crisis experience from repentance as an ordinary grace. All believers are marked by ordinary grace, but not all believers will know, or need to know, repentance as a crisis experience.

I believe our Baptist forefathers had several practical concerns in making this distinction. Chiefly, they wanted to make sure that no one could accuse them of believing that that all Christians must have a crisis conversion like that of the Philippian jailor. They were saying, “Though we insist emphatically on personal conversion, we understand that the experience of a child raised in a Christian home may be quite different from that of one who is converted without the benefit of Christian nurture as a child.” Both converts will experience repentance, but both may not have a crisis conversion experience.

The practical applications of this are various and important. Do not doubt your salvation merely because you lack a crisis experience like that of some respected brother or sister in the Lord. Do not demand of others a certain type of conversion experience as a necessary mark of true grace. An emotional earthquake, radical, external changes in one’s life-style, knowing the exact time of one’s rebirth, an extended work of conviction by the law, immediate sudden joy—all of these may accompany conversion, but none are necessary marks of true repentance.” [2]

In the end, this paragraph is not establishing a doctrinal or theological distinction between repentance in the young and old, rather it makes an experiential distinction—an experiential distinction which is likely to lead to a misunderstanding of the nature of repentance. Thus, the riper convert’s experience, even if it is a grand testimony of God’s grace, does not set the bar for what repentance looks like experientially in all converts. This clarification regarding repentance will serve us well as we seek to understand the nature of repentance, and as we disciple converts of all ages and experience.

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  1. Whereas there is none that doth good, and sinneth not; and the best of men may through the power, and deceitfulness of their corruption dwelling in them, with the prevalency of temptation, fall into great sins, and provocations; God hath, in the Covenant of Grace, mercifully, provided that Believers so sinning, and falling, be renewed through Repentance unto Salvation. (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Luke 22:31, 32)

The Confession states: Whereas there is none that doth good and sinneth not. This is is from two biblical passages: “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not (Ecclesiastes 7:20 KJV).  As well: “They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3:12 KJV). This establishes the baseline or universal reality of all mankind. From this point, the Confession continues: and the best of men may, through the power and deceitfulness of their corruption dwelling in them, with the prevalency of temptation, fall into great sins and provocations. Thus, since no one does only good and never sins, it follows that this sinful reality applies even to the best of men. We know from chapters 6, 9, and 13 that even in the regenerate there remains corruption from the fall. That corruption holds a powerful sway and is deceitful. It makes things seem good and desirable that is evil and harmful. It deceives us by making sin attractive, when beneath its thin veneer is hideous. But we do not see it because we are deceived by remaining corruption. Thus, even the best of godly men and women may be deceived and fall into great sin, and this situation is aggravated by the temptation so prevalent or common place in the world. The resulting sin may be great (serious). Provocations means ‘provoking of God’ in the plural (more than once). Scripture is clear that evil actions provoke God to wrath.[3] This is what Moses says of the people of Israel: “For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way that I have commanded you. And in the days to come evil will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands” (Deut. 31:29 ESV).

Regarding these great sins and provocations, the Confession adds: God hath, in the Covenant of Grace, mercifully, provided that believers so sinning, and falling, be renewed through repentance unto salvation. We see that the covenant of grace mercifully provides for the renewal of believers who greatly sin in Jeremiah 32:40: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me” (ESV).  The covenant is also mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31-34. In Jeremiah 32:40, we see God putting his fear in them “that they may not turn from God.”  We do not see a promise in the covenant that these will not sin.  So assuming that these in the everlasting covenant may sin greatly, yet still they will be renewed through repentance, and will not permanently turn away from God.  We also see the provision for renewal in the New Testament: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV).

The fact that renewal is needed for sin, implies that sin does something damaging which requires renewal. Thus there is no license to sin just because there is provided renewal through repentance. No, there are serious consequences for sin (17:3b). Those who continue in sin, never to be renewed through repentance show themselves to be outside of the covenant of grace (18:1). “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21 ESV). “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27 ESV). Thus, it is gravely dangerous to continue in sin and provocations with the assumption that you will eventually repent. The warning for those who continue in sin without repenting have a grave warning from Hebrews: “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned” (Hebrews 6:4-8 ESV). Thus, the temporary believer who backslides cannot be renewed through repentance. We can hardly over emphasize the importance that believers repent of their backsliding sin today—now! Sin is deceitful, and the longer one remains in it, the more danger and peril there is for that soul.

A true believer, who is in the covenant of grace, may not repent immediately; he or she may go through an extensive period of backsliding, but eventually their repentance will come, and they will be renewed through repentance. We see this reflected in Jesus’ words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32 ESV). We are unable to judge the backslider’s true state, whether in Christ or not; but given the provision in the covenant of grace, we are assured true believers will be renewed through repentance eventually; we hope sooner than later. As an aside, this provision of future renewal does not exclude church discipline for sin, and in fact, church discipline may be the very means God uses to bring them to repentance again. Restoration through repentance is the primary goal of church discipline.

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  1. This saving Repentance is an evangelical Grace, whereby a person being by the Holy Spirit made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin, doth, by Faith in Christ, humble himself for it, with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrency; praying for pardon, and strength of grace, with a purpose and endeavour by supplies of the Spirit, to walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things. (Zechariah 12:10; Acts 11:18; Ezekiel 36:31; 2 Corinthians 7:11; Psalms 119:6; Psalms 119:128)

This saving repentance is an evangelical grace, whereby a person being by the Holy Spirit made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin. Samuel Waldron helpfully states: “What error is being refuted when it is asserted that repentance is an evangelical grace?”  Berkhof remarks, ‘Lutheran’s are wont to stress the fact that repentance is wrought by the law and faith by the gospel.’ Repentance, according to the Confession, is not a natural fear produced on fallen human nature, by the law. It is a gift in demand of gospel grace.”[4]  It is called an evangelical grace because it has to do with the preaching of the gospel, that is, evangelism.  Repentance is a necessary part of the external gospel call (repent and believe). When the evangelistic call of the gospel goes out, and the elect person is effectually called by it, the Holy Spirit causes him or her to be made aware (sensible) of their multitude of various sins (manifold evils of his [or her] sin). Repentance is constantly connected to the preaching of the gospel, and is very much a commandment to the hearers. John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles preached repentance and faith as a gospel command. Sometimes only repentance is mentioned (Matt. 3:2; Acts 5:31), sometimes only faith (John 3:16; Acts 16:31), sometimes both (Mark 1:15), but implied within faith is repentance, and implied in repentance is faith. Notice in Peter’s sermon the emphasis on repentance bringing forgiveness of sins: “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31 ESV). Implied within the call to repent, is faith—that penitent faith.

What does this saving repentance look like? The Confession states that when the Spirit makes the sinner aware of his or her many evils of the sin, that he or she doth, by faith in Christ, humble himself for it, with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrency; praying for pardon, and strength of grace, with a purpose and endeavour by supplies of the Spirit, to walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things. This describes the character or nature of saving repentance; that supernatural grace that cannot be genuinely replicated by the mere will of man. Saving repentance is not merely a turning from, say, the sin of drunkenness, out of a desire for a better life. That change may nothing to do with repentance and faith in Christ. There are plenty of unconverted drunkards coming out of treatment centers who remain sober. We are always happy for such changes in a person overcome such sin by common grace, but that is not the same thing as the special grace or evangelical grace of saving repentance.

Notice that this repentance is done by faith in Christ. This repentance has as its object, faith in Christ, and so the repentance occurs “by faith.”  Faith is very much present and acting in this saving repentance. Regarding faith and repentance, John Murray states: “The question has been discussed: which is prior, faith or repentance?  It is an unnecessary question and the insistence that one is prior to the other is futile. There is no priority. The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance.”[5]  Thus we need not spending time looking for the order in salvation of faith and repentance, but nonetheless, the link of the evangelical grace of saving repentance to faith is critical. Murray adds: “But if faith is directed to salvation from sin, there must be hatred of sin and the desire to be saved from it. Such hatred of sin involves repentance which essentially consists in turning from sin unto God.”[6]  The connection then of faith and repentance is unbreakable and must be present in preaching the only biblical gospel.

Let’s explore briefly each aspect of repentance described here in the Confession. In repentance, the sinner humbles himself for it. The pronoun “it” refers back tothe manifold evils of sin.”  We see Christ speaking of the humbled sinner on the street corner, who could not even lift his face to heaven for his shame. He had a clear sense of his sin, and he humbled himself for it (Luke 18:9-14). This humility is accompanied with godly sorrow. The sorrow has a faith-filled hope in the promise of forgiveness in Christ. The sinner also has a detestation of it (sin), and self-abhorrency for his or her sin. The converted sinner detests and despises his sin; it is loathsome, and thus the sinner even abhors himself for his sin. This self-abhorrence is not nihilistic and destructive worldly sorrow. It does not lead one to suicide, or mental instability, for it is a godly sorrow, which looks to Christ for forgiveness in the midst of self-abhorrence; it contains hope and brings life. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10 ESV). The Confession continues: praying for pardon. Because of the hope of pardon, the repentant sinner full of faith asks for pardon.

Repentance is not merely looking for pardon, but it also seeks to cease the manifold evils of sin, and thus the repentant sinner also prays for strength of grace to turn from and cease practicing his or her sin. The sought for strength of grace is with a purpose and endeavour by supplies of the Spirit, to walk before God unto all well-pleasing in all things. A godly, sorrowful repentance not only looks to Christ in faith for forgiveness, but also looks for his help, by the supplies of grace given by the Spirit to cease sinning. Repentance is not to be merely an emotional sense of sorrow for sin, but a repentance which endeavors to obey God looking forward. We are told in Scripture that repentance should bear fruit: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8 ESV). And, “that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20b ESV).

It is important that while we endeavor to no longer practice sin that we do so with a sincere desire and genuine purpose to endeavor to bear fruit. We must not miss this important part of genuine repentance. However, we may not meet with the success we would like to see. This “purpose and endeavor…to walk before God” in a pleasing manner should not be confused with perfectionism in repentance. It is true that repentance is a call to endeavor to take practical and diligent steps to avoid the same sin and all sin in the future, yet a biblical repentance is not one that is seen as perfect. We are responsible for our sin, and there is no license for sin implied, at all. But until all corruption is taken out of us in glory, we will still struggle with sin in general, and may even fall into particular sins—sins which easily ensnare us often—habitual sins we had repented of, and hoped we would never repeat. But a struggle against sin is just that; we continually fight against sin even when we at times lose battles with it. We do not give up just because we will not have a full success here and now.  No. We continually wage that war against sin which wages war against us. This war is not fought in our own strength, but with the supplies given to us by the Spirit. The Perfectionism refuted by the Confession in 13:2, tends to view repentance as one time thing—sin is never to be repeated from that time forward, but that is not the biblical teaching. Yes, we should be adding moral excellence and making progress, and if we are not there may be issues that need addressed. But how miserable are those who think that perfectionism is possible in this life, especially since they never attain to it (and never will). The ongoing struggle against sin, and failures, require that we continually repent, and that moves us nicely into to the next paragraph.

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  1. As Repentance is to be continued through the whole course of our lives, upon the account of the body of death, and the motions thereof; so it is every man’s duty, to repent of his particular known sins, particularly. (Luke 19:8; 1 Timothy 1:13, 15)

The Confession begins this paragraph by stating: As repentance is to be continued through the whole course of our lives, upon the account of the body of death, and the motions thereof. The Confession first states what is required: repentance during our entire lives on earth, and then it states the reason. The reason is due to the remaining corruption which manifests itself in our body of death. Thus, the Confession rejects the idea of a perfect, one time repentance of the sinner. In other words, since perfection will never come in this life, we will continually sin, and thus we must continually repent. The “body of death” is a phrase used by Paul in Romans 6:6; we previously spoke about this phrase; it refers to the remaining corruption which is throughout our entire faculties, but that corruption particularly manifests itself through our bodies and the parts or members (see commentary of Chapter 13:2). By “the motions therof,” the Confession means that the remaining corruption is the motion or the impetus behind and underlying the sinful actions expressed through our bodies.

On the basis of this remaining corruption and the actions of it in our body of death, so it is every man’s duty to repent of his particular known sins particularly. We do not generally speak of repenting of our imputed guilt and corruption (6:2); rather, we repent of our actual sins which flow from our imputed corruption (6:2). In other words, we cannot repent of our imputed guilt and conveyed corruption, for it is with us until death. But we it is our duty to repent of our actual sins. The Confession implies here that we ought to confess our general sinfulness to God—those sins which we commit on a daily basis, including sins we are unaware that we commit. In the words of a Puritan prayer: “Thou…seest more defilement in my duties than I ever saw in any of my sins.”[7] But we are particularly, that is, we are especially to repent of the specific sins we knowingly commit. This phrase, “repent of particular sins particularly” has the feel of an idiom, but regardless, the meaning is plain: general confession of sin is needed for our unknown sins, and especially for specific sins we knowingly and willfully commit. The Confession lists as a proof-text 1 Timothy 1:13-15. “Though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (ESV). We can see Paul’s acknowledgement in the passage that he sinned in ignorance, and God had mercy on Paul for that. But the Confession points particularly to repentance for sin for which we are not ignorant.

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  1. Such is the provision which God hath made through Christ in the Covenant of Grace, for the preservation of Believers unto Salvation, that although there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; yet there is no sin so great, that it shall bring damnation on them that repent; which makes the constant preaching of Repentance necessary. (Romans 6:23; Isaiah 1:16-18; Isaiah 55:7)

Such is the provision which God hath made through Christ in the covenant of grace for the preservation of believers unto salvation. The Confession has already stated in paragraph 2 that God as mercifully provided in the covenant of grace that believer’s be renewed through repentance unto salvation. That is the means for renewal: repentance. But here the Confession explicitly points out that this provision is not merely a means for renewal, but an assured means for preservation unto salvation. In other words, the believer will be renewed through repentance, ensuring their preservation unto salvation (See Jer. 32:40; 1689, 172b). We could perhaps have inferred that from paragraph 2, but here it is said directly.

We will remember that the covenant of works has no such provision for repentance; rather only perfect obedience or damnation. In that light, the provision in the covenant of grace which permits repentance for grace shines forth gloriously. But to add to that the promise that the believer will indeed make use of the provision unto his eternal salvation again highlights the wonderful nature of the covenant of grace. Thus the covenant of grace ensures the preservation of the believer unto salvation until they safely arrive in that heavenly kingdom.

As if to emphasize the high degree of grace in that covenant, the Confession indicates that although there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; yet there is no sin so great, that it shall bring damnation on them that repent. This statement emphasizes both the seriousness of sin (i.e. small or great sin deserves damnation), and the contrasting (“yet”) provision for the preservation of believers unto salvation (despite deserved damnation). The provision for the preservation of the believer unto salvation is repentance. Or stated differently, the means of the preservation is repentance. Thus, by the provision in the covenant of grace, which God has provided in Christ, salvation from small or great sins is secured through repentance. Scripture tells us:  “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7 ESV). If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV). God has promised to forgive us if we “confess” our sins—another way of saying if we “repent” of our sins (repentance as defined in paragraph 3).

Now, the fact that this preserving unto salvation is framed in terms of repenting, not faith, may bring about some conflict in our minds. But we will recall from paragraph 3 that the person made sensible of their sin “doth by faith in Christ” humble, detest sin, endeavor to walk pleasingly to God, etc. Thus, repentance is essentially a “penitent faith,” to borrow John Murray’s phrase. A thorough-going statement on the topic of the believer’s preservation or perseverance is found in chapter 17, “Of the Perseverance of the Saints,” and there one will find also the presence of faith, but also repentance in the persevering of the saint unto salvation.

Given the critical role of repentance, it makes the constant preaching of repentance necessary. Just as David did not repent until confronted by the prophet, so also the believer may need to be called to repent. Preaching of repentance is the primary means God uses to bring repentance. One will observe the emphasis on repentance in Reformed church liturgy and preaching; that is because theology drives methodology.

We have been taught in this chapter that a faith-filled repentance is necessary for salvation, and that through the special grace of effectual calling, repentance is granted to all God’s elect. And whether that repentance is a crisis experience in those of riper years due to compounded actual sins, or whether the repentance is more subdued in those who are perhaps younger—having practiced actual sin to a lesser degree; nonetheless, genuine repentance will occur in all those effectually called. Repentance is a sorrowful hatred of sin, and repentance intentionally purposes and endeavors after new obedience by the Spirit’s help, so that we may walk before God in a pleasing manner. Repentance is not a one-time action at conversion, but continues throughout the whole life due to the remaining corruption which manifests itself in the body of sin. And we see that the elect shall never be lost due to backsliding, because of the provision in the covenant of grace which assures God will renew the believer through repentance unto salvation. And finally, because repentance is so essential to renewal in our life with God—given the prevalence of sin in our lives—the church must constantly preach it.

Repentance has never been a doctrine well-received by sinners, and sometime by the saints, but it is an essential doctrine that deserves serious attention. Thomas Watson penned these comforting words to remind us of the need for repentance:

REPENTANCE seems to be a bitter pill to take, but it is to purge out the bad humour of sin. By some Antinomian spirits it is cried down as a legal doctrine; but Christ himself preached it. `From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent,’ &c. Matt iv I7. In his last farewell, when he was ascending to heaven, he commanded that `Repentance should be preached in his name.’ Luke xxiv 47. Repentance is a pure gospel grace. The covenant of works would not admit of repentance; it cursed all that could not perform perfect and personal obedience. Gal iii 10. Repentance comes in by the gospel; it is the fruit of Christ’s purchase that repenting sinners shall be saved. It is wrought by the ministry of the gospel, while it sets before our eyes Christ crucified. It is not arbitrary, but necessary; there is no being saved without it. `Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.’ Luke xiii 3. We may be thankful to God that he has left us this plank after shipwreck.[8]

We end this chapter with a wonderful example of repentance. This Puritan prayer is from The Valley of Vision:

PENITENCE[9]

O LORD OF GRACE,

  • I have been hasty and short in private prayer,
  • 0 quicken my conscience to feel this folly,
  • To bewail this ingratitude;
  • My first sin of the day leads into others,
  • And it is just that thou shouldst withdraw
  • Thy presence
  • From one who waited carelessly on thee.
  • Keep me at all times from robbing thee,
  • And from depriving my soul of thy due worship;
  • Let me never forget
  • That I have an eternal duty to love, honour
  • And obey thee,
  • That thou art infinitely worthy of such;
  • That if I fail to glorify thee
  • I am guilty of infinite evil that merits infinite punishment,
  • For sin is the violation of an infinite obligation.
  • O forgive me if I have dishonoured thee,
  • Melt my heart, heal my backslidings,
  • And open an intercourse of love.
  • When the fire of thy compassion warms my
  • Inward man,
  • And the outpourings of thy Spirit fill my soul,
  • Then I feelingly wonder, at my own depravity,
  • And deeply abhor myself;
  •  Then thy grace is a powerful incentive
  • To repentance,
  • And an irresistible motive to inward holiness.
  • May I never forget that thou hast my heart
  • In thy hands.
  • Apply to it the merits of Christ’s atoning blood
  • Whenever I sin.
  • Let thy mercies draw me to thyself.
  • Wean me from all evil, mortify me to the world,
  • And make me ready for my departure hence
  • Animated by the humiliations of penitential love.
  • My soul is often a chariot without wheels,
  • Clogged and hindered in sin’s miry clay;
  • Mount it on eagle’s wings
  • And cause it to soar upward to thyself.[10]  Amen.

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[1] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955), 113.

[2] Samuel Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press: 1989), 196-7.

[3] We need to understand the language there in light of God’s impassibility; it is an anthropopathism; God is not literally moved from one emotive state to another for God is immutable and without passions (See 2:1 “without…passions”).

[4] Samuel Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press: 1989), 198.

[5] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955), 113.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, edited by Arthur Bennett, (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 38.

[8] T Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 205.

[9] Penitence means ‘regret or sorrow for sin.’

[10] Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, edited by Arthur Bennett, (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 164-5.

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Chapter 14, Of Saving Faith

Luther Worms

  1. The Grace of Faith, whereby the Elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts; and is ordinarily wrought by the Ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Prayer, and other Means appointed of God, It is increased, and strengthened. (2 Corinthians 4:13; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 10:14, 17; Luke 17:5; 1 Peter 2:2; Acts 20:32)

The Confession opens up with this phrase: the grace of faith.  Without God giving us the grace to exercise faith, we would be unable and unwilling to believe in Christ, given our averseness to spiritual good (9:3).   By this grace the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls.   The grace of faith is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the Ministry of the Word. As we know from chapter 10, Of Effectual Calling, it is the work of the Spirit that inwardly regenerates the elect; however, the Spirit makes use of the ministry of the word to effectively outwardly call the elect to repent and believe.  Scripture tells us: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17 ESV).  Note the word “ordinarily.” It seems to point us back to that one small exception stated in chapter 10, paragraph 3, regarding the salvation of elect infants who die in infancy and other elect persons incapable of receiving the outward ministry of the Word.  Thus, for those, the Spirit regenerates through Christ by the Spirit without the ministry of the word.  The ability to believe comes with the work of the Spirit in effectual calling—that particular special grace from God (10:2).

The last clause ended with the Spirit’s use of the means of the Word. Keeping that in mind, the Confession goes on to state: by which also, and by the administration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Prayer, and other Means appointed of God, it is increased, and strengthened. By which also, and by” refer back to the ministry of the Word, and brings it forward along with other means listed which increase and strengthen faith.  Thus, we have a list of several means of grace which the Spirit uses to increase and strengthen our faith: 1) the ministry of the Word; 2) the administration of baptism; 3) the Lord’s Supper; 4) prayer; 5) other means appointed by God.  The faith that is increased and strengthened is the same faith which enabled us to believe.  There is not one kind of faith that is saving, and another kind of faith that is sanctifying.  It is one and the same faith.  Of the listed means used to grow our faith, each is addressed in the Confession by either its own dedicated chapter, or in various paragraphs: the ministry of the Word regarding effectual calling is in chapters 10, 20:2, and 26:5, and of growing and strengthening our faith in chapters 12:1, 3; 14:1,2; 16:1; 21:2; 22:5-7; 23:2,3; 25:4; 26:5,7; 26:10,11.  The administration of baptism is addressed in chapters 22:5; 28:1, and the entirety of chapter 29.  The administration of the Lord’s Supper is found in chapters 22:5; 28:1, and the entirety of chapter 30.  The means of prayer is located in chapters 22:3-4, 6; 24:3 and 26:9-10.  The other means God has appointed for strengthening our faith may be such things that fall under providence, such as those things he brings into our life whether by trial or by other graces.  The list is not exhaustive, but it specifically mentions the ordinances of the New Covenant, and prayer and the Word.  These are probably the most prominent means spoken of in Scripture which increase and strengthen faith.

It is interesting to note the words: increased and strengthened. The faith given to the elect is indeed saving faith, but it is not equally strong among each of God’s elect.  But whatever strength we find our faith at, it can always increase and grow stronger by those means of grace God as provided for his people.  The following passages provide incentive for us to pray for our faith to increase. “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith’” (Luke 17:5 ESV). “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 ESV). “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32 ESV).

 

Luther Worms

 

  1. By this Faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself; and also apprehendeth an excellency therein, above all other Writings; and all things in the world: as it bears forth the Glory of God in his Attributes, the excellency of Christ in his Nature and Offices; and the Power and Fullness of the Holy Spirit in his Workings, and Operations; and so is enabled to cast his Soul upon the truth thus believed; and also acteth differently, upon that which each particular, passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God, for this life, and that which is to come: But the principal acts of Saving Faith, have immediate relation to Christ, accepting, receiving, and resting upon him alone for Justification, Sanctification, and Eternal Life, by virtue of the Covenant of Grace. (Acts 24:14; Psalms 27:7-10; Psalms 119:72; 2 Timothy 1:12; John 15:14; Isaiah 66:2; Hebrews 11:13; John 1:12; Acts 16:31; Galatians 2:20; Acts 15:11 )

This paragraph indicates that those with the faith spoken of in paragraph 1 also believe the Bible to God’s authoritative word. By this Faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself. The faith that enables the elect to believe unto salvation, also enables him or her to believe the Bible is the Word of God—the very authority of God himself.  John MacArthur has noted that in all his years as a minister of the Word of God, he has never had to convince a Christian to believe the Bible to be the Word of God.  This is an astute observation.  We read of Paul’s belief in the Scriptures: “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14 ESV).  Here we have a creedal statement by Paul about the Scripture.  As well, our Confession previously states in chapter 1 paragraph 5 the following: “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

By this faith, the Christian not only believes the Bible to be true, but also apprehendeth an excellency therein above all other writings; and all things in the world This harkens back to chapter 1, paragraph 5, where the Word of God is spoken of as “having many incomparable excellencies, and perfections….”  The non-Christian may read the Bible, and have no apprehension of its excellencies.  To him or her, it may seem to be simply ancient literature.  But the spiritual man grasps in his innermost being that the Bible is breathed out of the very mouth of God, and as such he apprehends that it is of excellent value beyond all other human writings.  Chapter 1, paragraph 5 adds that all these excellencies “are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God.”  

Scripture exclaims its own excellency and worth to be far above all things in this world: “In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches” (Psalm 119:14 ESV). “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding,14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Prov. 3:13-15 ESV).  Job said: “I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food” (Job 23:12b ESV).   Jesus said: “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Mat. 4:4 ESV).  The value of God’s word can hardly be overestimated in a world that is so corrupt everywhere we look.  How precious a commodity is the word of God to our souls; it is good when our souls sense its worth and value.  Our appreciation of God’s Word often ebbs and flows, but often those seasons that are the hardest cause us to hang onto God’s Word as if our life depended on it.  Indeed, in those times we best grasp how truly our lives do depend on the Scriptures.  An easy life often overshadows the true value of Scripture.

“By this Faith…a Christian apprehendeth an excellency therein, above all other Writings; and all things in the world: as it [Scripture] bears forth the glory of God in his attributes.” As we know from chapter 2, Of the Holy Trinity, Scripture shows us (bears forth) God’s glory.  The study of God (theology proper) is the most blessed study in Scripture, and raises our faith to great heights and our minds apprehend the very lofty things of God.  Further, Scripture shows forth the excellency of Christ in his nature and offices. As we know from our study of chapter 8, Of Christ the Mediator, Scripture reveals most excellent and wondrous things about Christ’s nature, and his offices: Prophet, Priest, and King.  Further, Scripture bears forth the power and fullness of the Holy Spirit in his workings and operations. Scripture shows us the amazing power of the Spirit : how he works in bringing salvation causing sanctification to excel in the life of the Christian.  Notice how Trinitarian this portion is: Scripture bears forth God’s attributes, Christ’s nature and offices, and the Spirit’s workings and operations.  There is no human writing capable of such things.  There is nothing in this world, even creation, which can bear forth or reveal such glorious things.

By all these wondrous things the elect person is enabled to cast his soul upon the truth thus believed. This faith to believe the Bible is true in all it says, becomes the ground by which believers fully entrust their souls to those truths.  We think of Hebrews 11 and those whose faith enabled them to believe in a promised city whose foundations are made by God.  They sought something invisible which the world could never understand, but to the believer these things are as sure God himself.  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV).  The entire chapter 11 of Hebrews is a testimony to the faith spoken of in this clause of the Confession.  By this faith, which apprehends the truth of Scripture, the Christian also acteth differently, upon that which each particular, passage thereof containeth. In other words, by this faith the Christian acts upon the various types of instructions found in Scripture.  By this faith the Christian yields obedience to the commands. By faith the believer trembles at the threatenings. By faith the elect embraces the promises of God. The Scripture tells us of the different types of instructions in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (ESV).  These categories in the Confession also reflects other passages such as: “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2b ESV).  We seek to act according to the different parts of Scripture which provide us with a multitude of things the Lord expects of his people.  All these things are beneficial for this life, and that which is to come. The Confession may have in mind 1 Timothy 4:8b: “Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (KJV).  And, perhaps Hebrews 11:13: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (ESV).

 

But the principal acts of Saving Faith, have immediate relation to Christ, accepting, receiving, and resting upon him alone for Justification, Sanctification, and Eternal Life, by virtue of the Covenant of Grace. The word “but” seems to serve here as a clarification of sorts.  What is being clarified?  While faith acts differently depending on the different passage in Scripture, yet the main (principal) acts of saving faith relate directly to Christ.  How do the acts of saving faith relate directly to Christ?  By accepting, receiving, and resting on Christ alone.  What is the saving faith looking to Christ for?  What is it looking for Christ to do for them?  It looks to Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life.  The Puritan George Swinnock wrote: “First Faith must look out for Christ; secondly, Faith must look up to Christ for grace; thirdly, Faith must take Christ down, or receive him and grace.[1]  Thus faith’s object is Christ alone in all its saving aspects.  Puritan John Flavel wrote: “The soul is the life of the body, faith is the life of the soul, and Christ is the life of the faith.”[2]  When we speak of saving faith, the object of saving faith is Christ, or in the words of the Confession here, faith has “immediate relation to Christ.” Scripture states of saving faith: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 ESV).  “And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31 ESV).  “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 ESV).  “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:11 ESV).  Faith thus has the Lord Jesus as its object, and this faith has immediate relation to Christ.  All these benefits are received by faith, yes, but they are ours by virtue the covenant of grace.  That covenant is rooted in the covenant of redemption with the Father and the Son, and Christ fulfilled the terms of the covenant of works on our behalf, so that we may be partaker of the covenant of grace and all the benefits which flow from it.  We are reminded of chapter 7, paragraph 2:“Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.

 

Luther Worms

  1. This Faith although it be different in degrees, and may be weak, or strong; yet it is in the least degree of it, different in the kind, or nature of it (as is all other saving Grace), from the Faith, and common grace of temporary believers; and therefore though it may be many times assailed, and weakened; yet it gets the victory; growing up in many, to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the Author and finisher of our Faith. (Hebrews 5:13, 14; Matthew 6:30; Romans 4:19, 20; 2 Peter 1:1; Ephesians 6:16; 1 John 5:4, 5; Hebrews 6:11, 12; Colossians 2:2; Hebrews 12:2)

The Confession now clarifies the difference between true saving faith, and the apparent so-called faith of those who only temporarily believe. It begins: This Faith although it be different in degrees, and may be weak, or strong. We need to determine what “this faith” refers to.  It refers back to the faith spoken of in paragraph 1 and 2.  We note that paragraph 1 begins with the phrase: “The grace of faith,” and paragraph 2 begins with the phrase: “By this faith.” And so also, this paragraph states “this faith.” Thus, “this faith” is the faith that has been discusses up to this point.  The Confession indicates that “this faith” has various degrees of weakness and strength.  We can see degrees of faith spoken of in Scripture. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith (Matthew 6:30 NASB)! Or, Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20  yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God (Romans 4:19-20 NASB). And so, we gather that faith can be weak or strong or anywhere in between.

So while “this faith” may be strong or weak, yet it is in the least degree of it different in the kind or nature of it, as is all other saving grace, from the faith and common grace of temporary believers. The Confession indicates that though this faith is sometimes weak, nonetheless, it is still saving faith.  Further, even if it is a weak saving faith, it is completely different from the so-called faith of those who appear to have saving faith, but in fact do not—termed “temporary believers.” We are reminded that God graciously gives his elect saving faith, and that faith given enables them to believe unto salvation (14:1).  Peter indicates that the faith given to the apostles is the same kind of faith as is given to all the elect; that is, it is a saving faith: Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1 NASB). This saving faith is not of the same kind as those who only believe only for a time and then renounce their faith—the “temporary believer.”

What is the character of the temporary believer’s faith? Well, for one, it does not endure; that is why it is called “temporary.”  Faith must endure to the end to be saving faith (Matt. 24:13).  Secondly, the temporary believer’s apparent faith merely comes from common grace, not the special grace of effectual calling (10:2).   Unless God sovereignly applies redemption to a person, beginning with effectual calling and regeneration, there is no grace of faith given to them, and thus they are not enabled to truly believe to the saving of their souls (14:1).  We recall from chapter 10, paragraph 4: “Others not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet not being effectually drawn by the Father, they neither will nor can truly come to Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: much less can men that receive not the Christian religion be saved; be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature and the law of that religion they do profess.”  Hebrews 6:4-8, also seems to address what amounts to a temporary believer:

  • “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned” (Heb. 6:4-8 ESV).

While the temporary believer does indeed have some belief in Christ, it is not the kind or nature of faith that brings them to “accept, receive, and rest on Christ alone for justification” (14:2).

The Confession adds that all other saving grace” is also of an entirely different ilk from what the temporary believer possesses. To best understand what is meant, we need to look back at chapter 11:2, and 13.1. Chapter 13, Of Sanctification.  There the Confession states, “They more and more quickened, and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” Thus these are not graces that save, but graces which flow from salvation, leading to the practice of holiness. So also, the Confession states in chapter 11, Of Justification, in paragraph 2: Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”  So here in 14:3, these graces flow out of and follow salvation. Thus, even though the temporary believer seems to believe and bear some fruit, these are not the graces of true salvation; these are merely the result of common grace, or the common operations of the Spirit; they are not to be confused with true saving graces.

God gives special grace to his elect enabling them to believe savingly, and he gives the graces which enable them to endure in faith; therefore, though it may be many times assailed and weakened, yet it gets the victory. Despite many assaults on saving faith, even though faith at times is weakened and doubts, the grace given enables them to believe savingly and victoriously unto glorification.  True faith will get the victory.  This is speaking of the perseverance of the saints (see chapter 17).  Scripture states, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world— our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 5:4-5 ESV)?  Even if we are assailed, “faith gets the victory.”  How very encouraging in a world where our faith can seem to fail at times.  We may be down, as they say, but we won’t be out!

This true and enduring faith will grow up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ. A growing faith will bring full assurance of salvation in many of God’s elect, but the fact the Confession uses the word “many” tells us this will not be the case in all of God’s elect.  While all true faith is saving, that faith may never grow to full assurance of salvation.  A lack of assurance is a sure sign of a weak faith, but nonetheless, weak faith is not indicative of a non-saving faith.  This truth is of critical importance to the comfort of those who struggle with a lack of assurance.  Assurance of salvation is such an important topic that the Confession has an entire chapter on the subject (chapter 18).  Ideally, those with weak faith will grow to have a stronger faith, so as to attain a full assurance of salvation, but for various reasons that may not happen to every single elect person.

This has practical implications. For one, we cannot know for certain whether someone merely has a weak saving faith or a temporary non-saving faith, merely on the basis of a lack of assurance.  Even as the author writes this, he has in mind one person who has professed Christ for about 4-5 years, yet still from time to time he calls with doubts and struggles of the most basic kind.  It may be that he is a temporary believer, as the author has suspected.  But the fact that he has still has not abandoned his faith, may very well mean that perhaps he has a weak, saving faith that simply lacks assurance.  Thus, we have to be careful how we handle people like this; we must be very gentle and ever so patient.  It is the hope that most will grow to have an assured faith, but if it does not happen we must be careful not to further undermine their assurance of salvation by questioning their faith.  The writer of Hebrews desired his readers to have assurance of their salvation: “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:11-12 ESV).  We note not only the desire by the writer of Hebrews for their assurance of salvation, but their “earnestness” or diligence, which affects full assurance of hope.  Notice as well that full assurance of our salvation also affects our spiritual zeal.  If we lack assurance we will be sluggish.  Paul wrote similarly: “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (Col 2:2 ESV).

Full assurance of salvation comes through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of faith. We have this incredible encouragement in Scripture, which the Confession cites: “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2a KJV).  Our faith was authored by Christ, and just as he authored our faith he will finish it.  That is our great hope for our weak faith.  Puritan, Thomas Watson states:

  •  “He is a pillar in the temple of God, ‘Rooted and built up in him; and stablished in the faith’ Col. ii:7. Unbelievers are skeptics in religion; they are unsettled; they question every truth; but when faith is on the increasing hand, it doth stabilire animum [strengthen the spirit], it corroborates [confirms] a Christian.  He is able to prove his principles; he holds no more than he will die for; as a martyr women said, ‘I cannot dispute for Christ, but I can burn for him.’  An increasing faith is not like a ship in the midst of the sea, that fluctuates, and is tossed upon the waves; but like a ship at anchor, which is firm and steadfast.”[3]

The Confession has addressed the grace of saving faith which ought to continue to grow and bring sanctification by faith-full use of the means of graces God has given us; these consist of the ministry of the Word of God, prayer, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and other means. By faith we apprehend the truth of Scripture and all that it says about what we are to believe about God, and what he requires of us.  Saving faith is that faith which accepts, receives, and rests upon Christ alone, who alone saves, sanctifies and gives eternal life.  Even if this faith is very weak, it is nonetheless saving, unlike those who may appear strong in faith, but are mere temporary believers.  True faith endures to the end, and while most will attain a full assurance of salvation, some may not; a lack of assurance is not necessarily to be equated with a faith which does not save.  Faith rests on Christ alone for salvation, not on an assurance of salvation; we must keep this important distinction in mind for ourselves, and those to whom we minister.

——————————

[1] George Swinnock, The Christian Man’s Calling, in The Works of George Swinnock (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 1:203.  As cited by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Kindle location 20280.

[2] John Flavel, The Method of Grace, in The Works of John Flavel (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), 2:104.  As cited by Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Kindle location 20025.

[3] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 204.

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Chapter 13, Of, Sanctification

sanct

1.  They who are united to Christ, Effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new Spirit created in them, through the virtue of Christ’s death and Resurrection; are also further sanctified, really, and personally, through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof, are more and more weakened, and mortified; and they more and more quickened, and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. (Acts 20:32; Romans 6:5, 6; John 17:17; Ephesians 3:16-19; 1 Thessalonians 5:21-23; Romans 6:14; Galatians 5:24; Colossians 1:11; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 12:14)

So far in the Confession we have looked at the actions of God in the ordo salutis: effectual calling (10), justification (11), adoption (12), and now sanctification (13). The Confession begins chapter 13, Of Sanctification, with these words: They who are united to Christ. The doctrine of union with Christ is crucial to the Christian life. It undergirds the whole order of salvation, and is highly pertinent to the doctrine of sanctification. Jesus spoke of our union with him: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 ESV; see also John 17:2-23). Paul spoke of our union with Christ in the oft used phrase “in Christ.” And, further Paul said: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5 ESV; see 6:2-10). John Owen states, union with Christ is “the greatest, most honorable and glorious graces that we are made partakers of.”[2] Puritan Thomas Goodwin states: “being in Christ and united to him, is the fundamental constitution of the Christian.”[3] Our union with Christ is a fundamental doctrine in the New Testament.

Our union in Christ can be broadly understood in a three-fold manner: 1) Union in Christ ideally realized in the eternal decree of election and the eternal covenant of redemption; 2) Union with Christ objectively realized in history by virtue of Christ’s meritorious work, and 3) Union with Christ subjectively applied by the Spirit of Christ, and received by faith in a mystical union.[4]

First, union with Christ is ideally realized by the Father’s eternal decree of election in Christ. By ideal, we mean “conceptually” or “in God’s mind and plan.” Thus by the very action of the Father electing us “in Christ,” we are united to Christ in the very decree of election. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:3-4a ESV). In addition, since the Father elected us in Christ, election is inextricably linked with the covenant of redemption, that is, the Son’s agreement with the Father to redeem the elect by becoming their representative and federal head in his life, death and resurrection as their substitute. Louis Berkhof explains it this way:

In the case of the first Adam there was not only a federal, but also a natural and organic union between him and his descendants. There was the tie of a common life between him and all his progeny, and this made it possible that the blessings of the covenant of works, if they had been eventuated, could have been passed onto the whole organism of mankind in an organic way. A somewhat similar situation obtained in the case of the last Adam. He did not represent a conglomeration of disjointed individuals, but a body of men and women who were to derive their life from Him, to be united by spiritual ties, and thus to form a spiritual organism. Ideally this body, which is the Church, was already formed in the covenant of redemption, and formed in union with Christ, and this union made it possible that all the blessings merited by Christ could be passed onto those whom He represented in an organic way. They were conceived of as a glorious body, a new humanity, sharing the life of Jesus Christ. It was in virtue of that union, as it was realized in the course of history, that Christ could say, ‘Behold, I and the children whom God hath given me,’ Heb. 2:13.”[5]

Secondly, the union became objectively realized by his death, resurrection, and ascension. We were spiritually and by his representation of us in Christ when he died, rose, and ascended the right hand of the Father. Since Christ was our representative we were in him as he accomplished redemption. As such, the elect so united to him were set free from their union with Adam—a union that brought all humanity under the reign of sin.  But now the elect are united to Christ under the reign of grace (Rm. 5:12-21). Thus by the eternal ideal union with Christ in eternity, they become in time objectively united to Christ in his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. However, this ideal and objective union is not yet an applied union. Murray states: “We do not become actual partakers of Christ until redemption is effectively applied.”[6]

This moves us to that third aspect: the subjective application of our union to Christ.   You may recall from chapter 8, Of Christ the Mediator, paragraph 8: “To all those for whom Christ hath obtained eternal redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same… uniting them to himself by his Spirit.   Thus by Christ’s objective purchase of redemption in history, Christ will with certainty and in actuality unite himself to each elect person in time. The Confession shows us in chapter 13:1, the basis our union with Christ to be founded on the objective historical work of Christ when it states that they who are united to Christ are so through the virtue of Christ’s death and Resurrection. In an effort to take the Confession phrase by phrase, we are skipping for a moment the phrase and clause “Effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new Spirit created in them.” Our ideal, objective, and subjective union all rest on the work of Christ on behalf of the elect.

By subjective, we mean ‘personal’ or ‘individual’ realization. The ideal union is conceptual; the objective union is obtained by Christ’s purchase of redemption; and the subjective union is applied when the Spirit bonds us to Christ spiritually. Murray states: “the bond of our union is the Holy Spirit himself.”[8] It is by the Spirit that this union becomes personal—not merely conceptual or objective. This subjective or personal union with Christ is sometimes referred to as a mystical union.[9]  Our union with Christ is applied by the Spirit at the same time he regenerates us, although union with Christ logically precedes it. In the book, Puritan Theology, we read: “In response [to regeneration], the sinner exercises faith, as an effect of regeneration. With the union complete, the sinner receives from Christ everything that Christ merited, including justification, adoption, and sanctification.”[10] And so, union with Christ is not merely an aspect of the order of salvation, but it is prior to it, undergirds, and encompasses it.

Union with Christ is connected with sanctification in two senses: 1) Those who are united to Christ are set apart by God as his own consecrated people—sometimes referred to as definite sanctification. 2) Those united to Christ are also further sanctified, really, and personally. In other words, those united to Christ are not merely objectively or definitively sanctified, but also progressively (more and more) sanctified: really and personally (that is, made actually holy in practice). But how does union with Christ lead to progressive sanctification? Scripture states: “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4 ESV). Their election in Christ was that they would be holy and blameless; therefore, they can be certain that God will carry out his purpose for those united to Christ. As well, in Romans chapter 6:2-10 Paul tells us that those united to Christ died a death like his, were buried like him, and were raised like him. They were of course not physically with him in his death, burial, and resurrection, but spiritually; that is why Paul said their death, burial and resurrection was “like” his. As a result of having died, having been buried, and having been raised like Christ, they are thus free from the reign of sin under Adam, and now united to Christ (under his reign of grace) are enabled to practically defeat sin progressively in their body of sin—that last remaining hold out where sin still battles against them. (Rm. 6:6; 7:22-25). [11]  In other words, because of their union with Christ positionally, they “are also practically “further sanctified, really and personally.” It will not be possible to fully reign over sin perfectly in practice while we remain in our body of sin; for that we await our final consummate union with Christ in glory.

As we leave behind the topic of union with Christ—which the Confession intentionally links to the topic of sanctification—let’s reflect on the fact that our union with Christ is a remarkable grace. John Murray states: “As far back as we can go in tracing salvation to its fountain we find ‘union with Christ’; it is not something tacked on; it is there from the outset.”[12] This is a union most radical, and of inestimable comfort and strength to God’s people. Murray also states: “Apart from union with Christ we cannot view past, present, or future with anything but dismay and Christless dread. By union with Christ the whole complexion of time and eternity is changed and the people may rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”[13] There is a mystery to our union with Christ—a certain intangibility to it. Ultimately, it is a truth grasped only by the revelation of Scripture—a reality we understand only by faith. But it warrants our fullest attention, and ought to be reflected upon often. All the benefits of our salvation flow from this fount of blessing in Christ, including our progress in sanctification, and our eventual consummation in glory when sanctification will be entire and perfectly complete. Then, we shall be not only be forever in Christ, but also forever with him.

Those who are…effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new Spirit[14] created in them, through the virtue of Christ’s death and Resurrection; as with our union with Christ so also effectual calling and regeneration are through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection. To say it in reverse, Christ’s purchase of redemption (his death and resurrection) is applied to the elect by effectual calling and regeneration. In other words, effectual calling and regeneration of the elect come about because of Christ’s death and resurrection. The result of effectual calling and particularly regeneration is a new heart and a new spirit created in them.

Those effectually called and regenerated with new hearts and spirits are also further sanctified, really, and personally. We have already discussed the meaning of this section in relation to being united to Christ. The same meaning is, of course, applicable here in terms of its reference to progressive sanctification. The Confession shows us that the ultimate cause of this further sanctification is through the same virtue, that is, “Christ’s death and resurrection” mentioned prior. But while that is the ultimate cause, the proximate cause of their “further sanctification” is the new heart and spirit created in them, which desires to please God. This new nature, then, pursues “the holiness” or “the sanctification” mentioned in Hebrew 12:14. Paul states: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22 ESV). The Confession adds to the virtue of Christ’s death: by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them. A.A. Hodge helpfully guides us here: “God, having implanted in regeneration a new spiritual nature in the subject of his grace, always continues to foster and develop that principle, by the indwelling of his Word and Spirit, until it attains full perfection.”[15]   Just as the means of effectual calling is by the ministry of the Word and Spirit (10.1), so also by the same ministry of the Word and Spirit we continue to grow in sanctification. Jesus said: “As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23 ESV). Paul said to the elders he left at Ephesus: “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32 ESV).

By all these things: union with Christ, effectual calling, regeneration (with the new nature), God’s Word and Spirit indwelling in the elect, the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed. This phrase is from Romans 6:6: “that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (KJV). The body of sin refers to that remaining realm of sin which still affects us, and to this remaining area the efforts of sanctification are aimed so that sin may be destroyed. So also by union with Christ, effectual calling, regeneration (with the new nature), God’s Word and Spirit dwelling in the elect, the several lusts thereof, are more and more weakened, and mortified; and they more and more quickened, and strengthened in all saving graces. The several lusts “thereof,” points back to “the body of sin.” This is where the lusts manifest themselves: in that realm of the body where the remaining corruption fights against us. We are not to understand that sin is materially present in our material body, in a kind of Gnosticism which view the body as innately evil, but rather that our remaining corruption is fought in the realm of our body, for our body is where the battle of sin is fought. These lusts are more and more weakened. In other words, their intensity and frequency and power become weaker and are put to death (i.e. mortified). The words “and they” after the word “mortified”—following the semi-colon, do not refer back to the word “lusts,” but to the first word in this paragraph “they.” It is not only that the desires of the flesh or the “lusts” are weakened and mortified, but the elect (they) are more and more quickened and strengthened. In what are they quickened and strengthened? They are quickened and strengthened “in all saving graces.” These are the graces that bring about further sanctification. Why are they called “saving?” It is because God not only saves us from sin in justification, but from sin by sanctification; thus saving us from the remaining corruption of sin which remains in us (13:2-3). These graces God gives us, union with Christ, effectual calling, regeneration, and the Word and the Spirit, ensure that sanctification progresses (13:3).

The Confession indicates the fruit of these saving graces: to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. These graces lead to the practice of all true holiness. Notice the action these graces lead to: the practice of holiness; and notice the character of the holiness: all true holiness. And as if to clarify what “all true holiness” means the Confession states it is the kind of holiness “without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14 KJV). That rules out man-made standards of so-called holiness: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings” (Col. 2:21-22 ESV). Those who consider themselves to be united Christ cannot expect that they are truly united to him or that will see the Lord if they do not practice all true holiness or sanctification. Jesus said: “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 (ESV). The Confession is not, of course, speaking of perfectionism in our practice of true holiness or sanctification, as will be clarified in the next paragraph. At the root of the practice of true holiness lies the work of God himself uniting his people to himself, effectually calling them, and regenerating them. If the practice is not there, that is, the fruit of that work of God, it may be that the root of God’s work is not there either.

The practice of all true holiness flows out of the graces God gives us, and thus we do not pursue holiness or sanctification in our own strength, however, the practice is ours; we must do it. God does not practice holiness for us. We must engage with God and his means and practice holiness. Scripture has no shortage of statements in regard to our action of pursuing sanctification. For example, Paul exhorted: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1 ESV). And, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12 KJV). Or, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (Rev. 22:14 ESV). We could go on and on with such passages that tell us to practice true holiness.

sanct

  1. This Sanctification is throughout, in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life; there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual, and irreconcilable war; the Flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the Flesh.  (1 Thessalonians 5:23; Romans 7:18, 23; Galatians 5:17; 1 Peter 2:11)

The Confession declares that this sanctification is throughout, the whole man. We learned in chapter 6:2 of the Confession that by Adam’s sin man became “wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.” But in Christ, sanctification reverses these effects throughout the whole man. Paul said: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:23-24 ESV). Sanctification in is consummation will ultimately undo total depravity in glory, but as the Confession adds, this whole-man sanctification is yet imperfect in this life. If we lose sight of this truth, we may become vulnerable to all kinds imbalanced views of sanctification, and there is no shortage. The Confession states that this sanctification is imperfect because there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part. Our defilement is so deep and so extensive that even in those regenerated there remains some corruption found in every part of the redeemed this side of glory. Even the apostle Paul said of himself: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Rom. 7:18 ESV).

From the remaining corruption whence ariseth a continual, and irreconcilable war. Paul continues in Romans 7: “But I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my member” (Rom. 7:23 ESV). Thus we understand from Scripture that this war is continual as long as their remains in us some corruption. There will be no full and final relief from this war until we find ourselves in glory, and are made perfect in holiness (31:1). As the hymn says:

  •  “Christians seek not thy repose; Cast thy dreams of ease away.
  • Thou art in the midst of foes: watch and pray.”[16]

The battle consists of the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. This is nearly an exact citation from Galatians: “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Gal. 5:17 KJV). The English Standard Version states in modern English: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Thus we find ourselves in an ongoing battle against sin. Peter wrote: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11 ESV).

Those who have come out of the churches which teach perfectionism know that the Confession is not merely making an obvious point by stating that sanctification is not perfect in this life, but is actually confronting a false doctrine called perfectionism. Perfectionism is that belief that God graciously acts to give the Christian a second experience subsequent to conversion, which frees the believer entirely from original sin in this life, thus making “entire sanctification” possible, that is, if they appropriately nurture this grace which may be lost.[17] To seek this experience of grace is to embrace a grace which is not offered, and despite the claims of well-meaning Christians who claim to have experienced “entire sanctification,” the corresponding reality is simply absent in their life. The promise of perfectionism becomes an allusive pursuit of that proverbial “pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow.” Unfortunately, perfectionism can lead to self-righteous pride, or the sensitive conscience into self-condemnation as he or she still observes sin in their life.[18] R.C. Sproul says of the doctrine of perfectionism: “We want the future promise now.  The doctrine of perfectionism is a premature grasping for the eschatological gift.  That does not mean that we should not want to be as sanctified as we can be.  But be warned about people who promise a transcendent dimension of sanctification and holiness in three easy lessons.  It does not work like that; it is a life-long battle.  It takes determination to lay hold of the riches of God’s grace.  It takes diligent discipline, devotion to prayer, and a serious reading of Scripture.  Nobody gets sanctified with five minutes of Bible reading a day.”[19]  As we continue on to the next paragraph, we will discover the Confession does not take a defeatist approach to sanctification, merely because it denies perfectionism in this life.

sanct

  1. In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail; yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ the regenerate part doth overcome; and so the Saints grow in Grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God, pressing after an heavenly life, in Evangelical Obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in His Word hath prescribed to them. (Romans 7:23; Romans 6:14; Ephesians 4:15, 16; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Corinthians 7:1)

The Confession continues in this paragraph to speak of this war: In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail; yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ the regenerate part doth overcome. Even though the war wages between the desires of the flesh and Spirit, and the remaining corruption at times seems to get the upper hand in our lives, yet those who are united to Christ, effectually called and regenerated (13:1) will overcome. We will overcome by the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, which causes the regenerate nature to overcome the remaining corruption in our nature. It is not an admission of defeat to say the battle against sin rages our entire life, because ultimately the Spirit causes our regenerate nature to overcome—though not perfectly. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17-18 ESV).

The Confession describes what it looks like when the regenerate part overcomes. And so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God, pressing after an heavenly life, in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in His Word hath prescribed to them. To grow in grace means to gain more grace (i.e. gain the supplies) which are given to us by the Spirit (“all saving graces” 13:1). The fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-24 is an example of the fruit of those graces. We grow in holiness by these graces. Scripture states: “We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ(Eph. 4:15a ESV). Perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord, means that our holiness becomes more complete (not perfect, per se, but we become more holy in a practical way). The Confession reflects the Scripture here: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1 ESV). Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit transforms us to be more and more like Christ: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18 ESV). By the power of the Spirit, the regenerate is pressing after a heavenly life. That is, we are to actively seeking the things above where Christ is. Since we are united to Christ, and that is where Christ is, so also positionally that is where we are; therefore, by our union with Christ our citizenship is in heaven with him. “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1 ESV). Or, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33 ESV). Or, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14 ESV). We do this in evangelical obedience, meaning obedience to all the commands of Christ, since he is our Head and King. The commands of Christ are written in his Word where they are prescribed (set forth) for us to obey.

God has united us to Christ, effectually called us and regenerating us, and thus we are positionally or definitely sanctified in Christ, but in addition to that we are further or progressively sanctified, really and personally, throughout the whole man; that which God has begun in us, he will complete (Phil 1:6). But while this will produce in us the practice of holiness, we will not perfectly practice holiness in this life because of remaining corruption in us. This remaining corruption brings about a continual and perpetual war against sin, which will not stop until we arrive in glory. However, the regenerate part of us will grow in grace, and will press after a heavenly life—a life lived according to Christ’s commands which are found in Scripture. Thus practical sanctification will be progressive in this life, but it will not be without conflicts with sin and setbacks. Progress for many of us may be compared to the slow progress of “two steps forward and one back,” but over the long haul there will be progress. Thus the Confession describes the act of sanctification, the progress of sanctification—its territory and limitations in this life—and what that progress will look like in our lives.

——————————————————–

[2] John Owen, Epistle to the Hebrews, in Works, 20:148. Cited from Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 18477.

[3] Thomas Goodwin, Of Christ the Mediator, in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, ed. Thomas Smith (1861-1866; repr., Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 5:350. Cited from Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 5422.

[4] The categories: ideal, objective, and subjective, are borrowed from Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Containing the full text of Systematic theology (1932) and the original Introductory volume to systematic theology (1938), and new preface by Richard a. Muller (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), 447-53.

[5] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Containing the full text of Systematic theology (1932) and the original Introductory volume to systematic theology (1938), and new preface by Richard a. Muller (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), 448.

[6] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955), 165.

[7] The Savoy Declaration deliberately relocated the phrase “by virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection” found originally in the Westminster Confession after: “further sanctification, really and personally.”   By relocating it the Savoy made it clear that “those who are united to Christ, effectual calling and regenerated” are so specifically “by virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection.” But they also left the phrase in condensed form where the Westminster Confession originally placed it: “are also further sanctified, really and personally, by the same virtue.” In addition, the Westminster Confession did not open the chapter with the topic of sanctification with the union with Christ, but effectual calling and regeneration; thus the Savoy also improved the coverage of sanctification by adding that important doctrine. The 1689 Confession followed the 1658 Savoy Declaration in this revision.

[8] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955), 166.

[9] John Murray states: “Union with Christ is mystical because it is a mystery. The fact that it is a mystery underlines the preciousness [high value] of it and the intimacy of the relation it entails.” John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955), 167. Brackets mine.

[10] Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 18617 (brackets mine).

[11] Martin Lloyd Jones brilliantly explains this in Romans 6 in his series through Romans consisting of 366 lessons, recorded and available here at no cost: http://www.mljtrust.org/collections/book-of-romans/6/.

[12] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955), 162.

[13] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955), 165.

[14] This one of those times where the original 1689 Confession puts a word in upper case (‘Spirit’) and the significance is uncertain. The wording is from Ezekiel 36:26, and even in the KJV ‘spirit’ it is not in upper case, as if to refer to the Spirit of God.

[15] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 195.

[16] Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: Great Commissions Publishing, 1961), Hymn 471.

[17] The author was raised in the Church of the Nazarene—my grandfather being a Nazarene pastor in that church. The Church of the Nazarene articles state: “We believe that entire sanctification is that act of God, subsequent to regeneration, by which believers are made free from original sin, or depravity, and brought into a state of entire devotement to God, and the holy obedience of love made perfect.” The Church of the Nazarene, Article 10.

[18] Sproul states: “Luther said that the justified person is a sinner who is truly justified. He now possesses the righteousness of Christ, though he remains a sinner. Luther gave the illustration of a man who has been raised from the dead, but is still weak, still mortal, and remains so until the resurrection. Similarly, God will not make the justified sinner completely holy until the resurrection. Until then, he must undergo the lifelong process of sanctification, by which he is being conformed to the image of Christ. I stress this because the church has been assaulted in every generation by the heresy of perfectionism. It has appeared in different guises. When I lived in Holland, I met an American exchange student. He was seventeen years old and belonged to a church that taught the doctrine of perfectionism. They taught that there was a second work of grace (beyond the work of regeneration)) by which the Holy Spirit perfects and completely sanctifies a person immediately. This student was convinced that he had the second work of grace, and that he was a sinless believer in Christ. As I tried to show him that this was not the biblical doctrine of sanctification, I cited chapter 7 of Romans, where the apostle Paul speaks of his horrible struggle: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice….O wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:19, 24). I asked this young fellow, “Do you think that right now, at age seventeen, you, as a young Christian, have achieved a higher state of holiness and sanctification than the apostle Paul had when he wrote to the Romans?” He did not blink an eye. He looked at me and said, ‘Yes.’” R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P & R Publishing, 2007), 79-80.

[19] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P & R Publishing, 2007), 83.

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Chapter 12, Of Adoption

adoption

  1. All those that are justified, God vouchsafed, in and for the sake of his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have his name put upon them, receive the spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him as by a Father; yet never cast off; but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises as heirs, of everlasting salvation. (Ephesians 1:5; Galatians 4:4, 5; John 1:12; Romans 8:17; 2 Corinthians 6:18; Revelation 3:12; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 2:18; Psalms 103:13; Proverbs 14:26; 1 Peter 5:7; Hebrews 12:6; Isaiah 54:8, 9; Lamentations 3:31; Ephesians 4:30; Hebrews 1:14; Hebrews 6:12 )

 All those that are justified, God vouchsafed, in and for the sake of his only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption. The Confession continues its course through the order of salvation, and following justification God acts to adopt his elect. In this regard, A.A. Hodge states: “Upon the exercise of faith by the regenerated soul, justification is an instant act of God, on the ground that perfect righteousness which the sinner’s faith has apprehended, declaring him to be free from all condemnation, and to have a legal right to the relations and benefits secured by the covenant which Christ has fulfilled in his behalf.”[1]  Thus following that instrument of justification, faith, the elect are also adopted. We see the connection of faith and adoption in Galatians 3:26: “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (ESV). Those who are justified, God vouchsafed, meaning “to confer or bestow (some thing, favour, or benefit) on someone.”[2] We see this bestowal or vouchsafing in 1 John 3:1a: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (KJV). This bestowal of adoption is “in and for the sake of his only Son Jesus Christ.” God bestows adoption only “in” Christ; it is only given to those in Christ, that is, in union with him. And, adoption is for the sake of Christ. This is seen in Scripture: “In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4-6 ESV). And, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5 ESV).

All those that are justified God vouchsafed…to make partakers of the grace of adoption. Scripture states: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13 ESV). What an amazing thing to partake of this “grace of adoption.” Sam Waldron states: “It is an act of God’s free grace flowing from the electing love of God and Father in eternity and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit in time, and immediately confers the Spirit of adoption and the privilege of being one of God’s heirs, as well as other privileges, obligations and liabilities.”[3] The Baptist Catechism, question 34 indicates: “What is adoption? Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the Sons of God.” Thomas Watson states of God’s grace in adoption: “He adopted us from slavery: it is a mercy to redeem a slave, but it is more to adopt him.”[4] From yet another perspective, Watson says of God’s grace in adoption:We were very deformed; and a man will scarce adopt him for his heir that is crooked and ill-favoured, but rather him that has some beauty.”[5] God was pleased in his Son to adopt the elect despite these things to be his very own possession. Adoption is all of God’s grace.

The Confession now provides a series of phrases and clauses which explain the benefits of adoption. By the grace of adoption, they are taken into the number. The number refers to the number of the elect. The Confession, states in Chapter 3, Of God’s Decree, paragraph 4: “These angels and men thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.” To be taken into the number, means that we are taken into God’s family which has a specified number of elect.

Further, these adopted ones enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God. What are these liberties and privileges? The Confession now enumerates several of these. First, these have his name put upon them. “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me” (Isaiah 49:16 ESV). “The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (Rev. 3:12 ESV). Second, they receive the spirit of adoption. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:15-17 ESV). Thirdly, these have access to the throne of grace with boldness. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:18 ESV). “In Christ Jesus our Lord…we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him” (Eph. 3:11-12 ESV). “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16 ESV). Fourthly, they are enabled to cry Abba Father “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15-17 ESV). Fifthly, they are pitied. “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13 ESV). They are protected. “In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge” (Prov. 14:26 ESV). Sixthly, they are provided for.And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Phil. 4:19-20 ESV). Seventh, they are chastened by him as by a Father, yet never cast off. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:6 ESV). “For the LORD will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage” (Ps. 94:14 ESV). “For the Lord will not cast off forever” (Lam 3:31 ESV). Eighth, they are sealed to the day of redemption. “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30 ESV). And ninth, they inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:15-17 ESV). What can we say to all these things? Adoption brings us into those remarkable liberties and privileges that only sons and daughters of the Father can enjoy.

We will conclude this chapter with a citation from the Puritan Thomas Watson regarding adoption:

“To make us thankful, consider, in civil adoption there is some worth or excellence in the person to be adopted; but there was no worth in us, neither in beauty, nor parentage, nor virtue; nothing in us to move God to bestow the prerogative of sonship upon us.  We have enough to move God to correct us, but nothing to move him to adopt us, therefore exalt free grace; begin the work of angels here; bless him with your praises who has blessed you in making you his sons and daughters.”[6]

———————-

[1]  A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 191.

[2] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[3] Samuel Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition (Evangelical Press: Faverdale North, Darlington, England), 170.

[4] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 233.

[5] Ibid., 235.

[6] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 234.

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Chapter 11, Of Justification

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  1. Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness, they receiving, and resting on him, and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is a gift of God. (Romans 3:24;Romans 8:30; Romans 4:5-8; Ephesians 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:30, 31; Romans 5:17-19; Philippians 3:8, 9; Ephesians 2:8-10; John 1:12; Romans 5:17)

The doctrine of justification is one for which we can hardly overestimate. R.C. Sproul states: “Luther declared in the sixteenth century that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article upon which the church stands or falls.  Calvin used a different metaphor; he said it is the hinge upon which everything turns.”[1] And so it will do us well to slow down and make sure we are giving this doctrine the proper attention it deserves.

The Confession begins: Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth. When God effectually calls the elect, he also will justify them. Romans 8:30b states: “And those whom he called he also justified” (ESV). The first act, calling leads without fail to the second act: justification—forming an unbroken chain. God freely justifies. The Confession speaks here of God’s freedom or sovereignty to justify. Just as in effectual calling God sovereignly gives his grace, so also in justification; it is freely given by his sovereign action. This reflects the Scriptures: “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24 ESV). Grace is a gift; and gifts by nature are not obligatory or contingent upon the receiver, but freely given by the Giver.

What is the nature of justification? The Confession first indicates what justification is not. It is “not by infusing righteousness into them. Infusing means “the action of infusing some principle, quality or idea, into the mind, soul or heart.”[2]  The Roman Church views justification as a process whereby righteousness is actually infused into a person. The Roman Church’s catechism states: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.”[3] Justification for the Roman Catholic Church is not a legal pronouncement by God that we are righteous, but an actual implantation of righteousness into our nature which results in the actual practice of righteousness. David Dickson, in his 1684 commentary on the Westminster Confession, uses the word ‘inherent” to refer to infusion. I find this a helpful synonym. Dickson states that if inherent righteousness did justify us, then good works would justify us; but the Scripture denies that.”[4] Thus justification is not implanting a righteous nature into us which then acts perfectly righteous. If that were so, then the moment we acted unrighteous, then we would become unjustified, and have to be re-justified all over again.

The Confession now gives us an affirmative statement about the nature of justification: but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous.[5] So justification is the forgiveness of sins, and the accounting and accepting us as though we were actually righteous. This is commonly referred to as imputed righteousness. God accounts and accepts us as righteous. A.A. Hodge states: “This justification is a purely judicial act of God as judge, whereby he pardons all the sins of a believer, and accounts, accepts, and treats him as a person righteous in the eye of the divine law.”[6] This does not involve the infusion of righteousness into their nature; in fact, it does not involve a change in their nature at all. It is strictly forensic or legal. John Murray writes:

  •  “That justification does not mean to make holy or upright should be apparent from common use.  When we justify a person we do not make a person good or upright.  When a judge justifies an accused person he does not make that person an upright person.  He simply declares that in his judgment the person is not guilty of the accusation but is upright in terms of the law relevant to the case.  In a word, justification is simply a declaration or pronouncement respecting the relation of the person to the law which he, the judge, is required to administer.  It might be, of course, that our common use would not be the same as the use of the term in Scripture.  Scripture must be its own interpreter.  And the question is: does Scripture usage accord with common use?  This question is very easily answered.  The answer is that Scripture uses the term in the same way.” [7]

So if justification is a forensic declaration bringing no change of nature, then what does bring about a change in our nature—a desire to actually do righteousness? In our effectual call, the Spirit regenerates us, and brings about a change in our nature from the old to new. Regeneration creates that longing in us to obey God and pursue it. John Murray states: “Regeneration is an act in us; justification is a judgment of God with respect to us.” [8]

At this point it would be natural to discuss sanctification, which results from the regenerated nature not justification, but we will save that for chapter 13, Of Santification. Suffice it to say, in looking at salvation as a whole, God does not only justify a person, but he also causes them to progress in the practice of holiness or practical righteousness, but that work of God in us distinct from justification. In the Baptist Catechism, a helpful distinction is made between an act of God and a work of God: justification is an act of God (question 36), whereas sanctification is a work of God (question 38).

What is the significance of accounted or imputed righteousness? It is one thing to be pardoned for sin—and it is an amazingly gracious thing—but justification is not merely pardon for sin; it is much more. James White helpfully states: “If the righteousness that is imputed to the believer were a bare pardon or forgiveness, then he would be left at a neutral point, having no active obedience to the law of God to plead before the holy judge.  But since the elect are joined with Christ, their Head, His active, positive obedience to the Father is imputed to them as part of His righteousness just as His suffering in their stead provides them with redemption and release.” [9]

 What does the Word of God say about us about the accounting of righteousness? Here are a few references:

  •  And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin” (Romans 4:5-8 ESV).
  • He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:30-31 ESV).
  •  If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:17-19 ESV).  
  •  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Phil. 3:8-9 ESV).

The Confession has given us a negative and a positive statement regarding the nature of justification in relation to righteousness. Now it proceeds to the basis of justification, also in the form of a series of contrasting negative and positive statements. The basis for God’s accounting and acceptance of their persons as righteous is: not for anything wrought in them, or done by them. And put positively: but for Christ’s sake alone. The Roman Church holds to a synergistic system of faith and works, and even though the works are alleged to come from God’s work of grace in the person, nonetheless works are required along with faith. The Confession rejects even that kind contribution to one’s justification. The Roman view is a subtle and insidious encroachment upon Christ’s righteousness—the sole basis for justification. God accepts us as righteous on account of Christ’s righteousness alone—not even a small part of our so-called righteousness. The reality is that we have no righteousness to add in the first place for “none is righteous, no, not one” (Rm. 3:10).

The Confession continues to issue denials: Not by imputing faith itself…as their righteousness. While faith is the sole instrument by which we are justified, yet it is not faith that is imputed or deposited into our account, but rather Christ’s righteousness. The second denial is: Not by imputing…the act of believing…as their righteousness. Just as faith itself is not imputed into our account as righteousness, so also the “act” of faith is not imputed or deposited into our account as our righteousness. If it were, then the act of believing—a work of our own action—would be credited into our account. Our account would not be full of righteousness then, but only full of our own act of believing. The point is that God cannot accept us a righteous in his sight based on anything but Christ’s perfect righteousness. No other work will do, but Christ’s righteousness alone. The third denial is: not by imputing…any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness. So as if to leave no possible loop-hole, all the remaining bases are covered. What is meant by evangelical obedience? It means any obedience related to God’s gospel call to repent and believe. Our obedience to the gospel call is merely a response to God’s work in us, and not even a single aspect of our obedient response to the effectual call is credited to us as righteousness. No, it is solely and only Christ’s righteousness that is deposited into our account, as it is only his righteousness that can satisfy God’s righteous demands. Only when God’s righteous standards are met, will God accept us in his sight. A. A. Hodge states of evangelical obedience: “Arminians hold that for Christ’s sake the demands of the law are graciously lowered, and faith and evangelical obedience accepted in the place of perfect obedience as the ground of justification.  Our Standards and all the Reformed and Lutheran Confessions teach that the true ground for justification is the perfect righteousness (active and passive) of Christ, imputed to the believer, and received by faith alone.” [10]

The Confession now moves from what is not imputed (the prior “not by” denials), to show what is imputed: but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith. Imputation Justification is based upon another’s righteousness (an alien righteousness) imputed to us. It is wholly not of us, and is wholly of Christ. It is one hundred percent Christ’s righteousness, and zero percent our substandard righteousness; we have no righteousness to bring to the table. The righteousness imputed is Christ’s righteousness alone! But this righteousness is not simply the attribute of righteousness found in the divine Logos, rather it is the righteousness of Christ’s actual obedience, as the second Adam. This is seen in two ways: active obedience and passive obedience. Christ’s active obedience refers to his “obedience to the whole law”—from birth to death. His passive obedience refers to his receiving the penalty of breaking the law as if he had himself broken the law, and that penalty was death. By these two acts of obedience, Christ paid the debt we could not pay, and lived the perfect life we could not live, so that he is our whole and sole righteousness.

Thus they receiving, and resting on him, and his righteousness, by faith. Justification is receiving Christ and his righteousness by faith. It is resting on Christ and his righteousness by faith. It is not doing anything that counts toward our righteousness; rather it is receiving and resting on Christ’s righteousness alone, by faith alone. In fact, even faith is from God, not from us. The Confession adds: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God. This statement is a reflection of Ephesians 2:8-9 which states: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (ESV). This passage indicates that faith is not of one’s own doing, but it is a gift of God. Just because we exercise faith (God does not exercise it for us), does not mean that the ability to believe originated within us. Faith is a gift from God, therefore, “no one may boast.”

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  1. Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love. (Romans 3:28; Galatians 5:6; James 2:17, 22, 26 )

The Confession advances the prior point made about faith by stating that the nature of faith is its action of receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness. The Westminster Divines put much discussion in the issue of the action of faith,[11] and we are the beneficiaries of their carefully worded statement in the 1689 Confession. This God given faith receives Christ and his righteousness. Faith is not a passive reception of Christ and his righteousness, or a mere intellectual assent to the fact of Christ’s work; rather, it is an active receiving and resting on him. We see this reflected in John’s Gospel: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13 ESV). We see in this passage that those who receive (an action) and believe (an action) were adopted as God’s children. Faith does not rest on itself, as if faith was doing the justifying. Faith is not its own object, rather faith has an object. The object of faith is Christ, and it should not in any way rest upon anything but him and his righteousness. Biblical faith is not like the Disney version of faith that says, “Just believe.” Believe in what? That is like saying, “Just buy.” Well, buy what? An object is required. The object of faith is Christ and his righteousness.

The Confession then states this faith is the alone instrument of justification. So while faith is not the substance, basis, or contributing merit towards justification, yet it is the instrument of justification. But what is meant by “instrument,” and why is it important?

In paragraph one, the Confession has taken great effort to explain what faith is not in justification, but now it clarifies the role faith actually has in justification. Its role in justification is that it is the instrument of justification. R.C. Sproul states:  “The instrumental cause of our justification is faith, but when we say that we are justified by faith alone, we do not mean that faith is a meritorious work that adds anything to the ground of our justification. What difference does that make practically?  There are people who say they believe in justification by faith alone, but who rely on their faith as if it were meritorious or a good work that will satisfy the demands of God’s justice.  The fact that a person possesses faith adds no merit to his account.  It adds infinite merit to his account by imputation, but it is the merit of Christ that is imputed to him.  We can receive Christ’s merit only by faith, and there is no merit in that.  The only one who can save us is Christ, and the only way we can get access to him is through faith.  Do not rest upon anything else in your life except Christ and his righteousness for your salvation.” [12]

The Confession states, yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love. While faith alone justifies, that faith is not alone, it will have other graces with it. God does not only grace people with faith; if he gives them faith, he also gives them other graces. Notice that the Confession calls them “saving graces.” Thus these graces are not merely optional “cherry-on-the-top” of faith, kind of graces. They are graces by which you can observe whether or not someone has saving faith. “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17 ESV). Or, “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22 ESV). And, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26 ESV). Works do not precede faith, but they certainly will follow it. The Confession recognizes that though works follow faith, even those works are graces!  The works that follow faith flow from a renewed heart, and are worked by love. This Confessional wording is an allusion to Galatians 5:6:  “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (ESV).

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  1. Christ by his obedience, and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified; and did, by the sacrifice of himself in the blood of his cross, undergoing in their stead the penalty due unto them, make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in their behalf: yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them, and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners. (Hebrews 10:14; 1 Peter 1:18, 19; Isaiah 53:5, 6; Romans 8:32; 2 Corinthians 5:21;Romans 3:26; Ephesians 1:6,7;Ephesians 2:7)

The Confession says: Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified; and did, by the sacrifice of himself in the blood of his cross. Christ’s obedience and death was said in paragraph 1 to be the “whole and sole righteousness” of the justified, but here it is stated in terms of a full discharge of the debt of those justified. Paul said in Colossians 2:14: “By canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (ESV). This passage indicates that God nailed the Certificate of Debt to the cross. A Certificate of Debt was a legal document in the New Testament time which officially declared one’s legal financial obligation to pay a debt. That obligation of debt was paid in full by Christ’s obedience to the law and penalty of it in his death, and the Certificate of Debt has stamped in blood red ink, “Paid in Full!” Hallelujah, what a Savior! You will notice that it discharged the debt, not for all, but only for those justified. Until God’s act of justification has occurred, the elect remain in debt for their sin. Christ’s death was not a natural death; rather it was a cruel, bloody atonement on a cross. Scripture states: “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.(Colossians 1:20b ESV)

 The Confession continues: undergoing in their stead the penalty due unto them, make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in their behalf. By use of the words, “in their stead,” and then, “in their behalf,” we see the teaching of substitutionary atonement. Jesus received God’s punishment instead of the elect receiving it. The penalty Jesus paid for our sin was an atonement that was: proper, real, and full, in relation to satisfying God’s justice. The word proper means “fit, apt… what is required”[13] Christ’s sacrifice was indeed “what is required.” It was the required atonement to satisfaction God’s justice in behalf of the elect.   Real means, “that which is actually truly such as its name implies; pertaining to the essential qualities denoted by its name; hence genuine, undoubted.”[14] Christ’s sacrifice of himself was of such a substance or quality that it actually satisfied the justice of God. It was a tangible atonement of substance offered to the Father, and it satisfied his divine justice. Full means, “having within its limits all it will hold; having no space, empty; replete.”[15] Christ’s atonement fulfilled God’s requirement for justice. The required justice had reached its capacity, and there was no space left for more satisfaction. Thus God’s justice was fully and exactly met; God required no more satisfaction of justice, since the legal requirement was complete, finished and full. Together, these three words paint a picture of the perfect work of Christ. Scripture says: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14 ESV). And, “…you were ransomed… with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19 ESV).

The remaining half of paragraph 3 states: yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them, and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners. We have so focused upon the perfection of Christ’s work that one might think the Father had no choice but to accept such a perfect work on our behalf. But Christ’s “obedience and satisfaction were both “freely accepted in our stead by the Father. R.C. Sproul states: “The Father is not bound by justice to accept that payment. But, in his grace, he willingly accepts the payment that has been made in our behalf, the vicarious satisfaction of his justice by Christ.”[16] As a result of God freedom, “justification is only of free grace.” It is a grace the Father sovereignly gives of his own pleasure and purpose. The result of sovereign grace in justification is: that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners. It is by the justification of the sinner that God glorifies both his perfect justice and rich grace. “So that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26b ESV).
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  1. God did from all eternity decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did in the fullness of time die for their sins, and rise again for their justification; nevertheless, they are not justified personally, until the Holy Spirit doth in time due actually apply Christ unto them. (Galatians 3:8; 1 Peter 1:2; 1 Timothy 2:6; Romans 4:25; Colossians 1:21,22;Titus 3:4-7)

While 1) God did from all eternity decree to justify all the elect, and 2) Christ did in the fullness of time die for their sins, and 3) did rise again for their justification, yet the Confession declares they are not justified personally, until the Holy Spirit doth in time due actually apply Christ unto them. Points 1 to 3, speak of redemption accomplished, but redemption accomplished must also be personally applied.[17] Thus election occurs in eternity, Christ’s atonement in time, in the first century, but it is not until the due time of God’s appointing that the Holy Spirit will actually apply that redemption to each elect, personally and individually. This is important lest it be concluded that the elect are justified in eternity along with the eternal decree of election.[18] Or, lest one think that that by Christ’s atonement the elect are automatically each personally actually justified.[19] The elect are justified in the time of God’s appointing, just as they are effectually called in the time of God’s appointing (10:1).

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  1. God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified, and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure; and in that condition they have not usually the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance. (Matthew 6:12; 1 John 1:7, 9; John 10:28; Psalms 89:31-33; Psalms 32:5; Psalms 51; Matthew 26:75)

 God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified. This is great news, in fact, the good news. In what state would we be if through the gospel we were forgiven our past sins, but there was no provision of forgiveness for our present and future sins? Justification, a legal declaration that we are accepted by God (because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us) is not a temporal declaration by God. It is a permanent, non-rescinding declaration. And this is where the error of the Romanist view of an infused righteousness in justification is highlighted, because sinners do not stop sinning when justified. A forensic, declared righteousness is not affected by the failure to remain perfectly righteous as one continues to grow in the Christian walk. Is it any wonder the Roman Catholic has no assurance of salvation—there is no hope of remaining justified before God?

But, although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure. Thus, the justified can never justify sinning. The justified person, already having been regenerated (made into a new creation) cannot sin freely without falling under God’s fatherly displeasure, and knowing it. The justified do not want to sin because they do not want to displease the Father. If they do, in that condition they have not usually the light of his countenance restored unto them until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance. We see in Scripture David’s misery while under the Father’s displeasure in Psalm 51. But we also see in that Psalm David humbling himself, confessing his sin, begging pardon, and for the joy of salvation to be returned.

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  1. The justification of believers under the Old Testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the New Testament. (Galatians 3:9; Romans 4:22-24)

All this talk about Christ’s perfect obedience and his sacrifice which satisfied God’s justice, may lead one to ask, “What about people before Christ’s life, death, and resurrection? Justification is not restricted to the New Testament. We find references to justification in the Old Testament, and the New Testament confirms the justification of many in the Old Testament. We see in Genesis 15: 6 that Abraham believed and God accounted to him as righteousness. The Apostle Paul says Romans of Abraham: “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:19-25 ESV). Also in Galatians, “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith(Gal 3:9 ESV). These passages very clearly support the justification of believers in the Old Testament. The fact that they are called “believers” indicates the presence of justification by faith.

The Confession states regarding the justification of Old Testament believers that it was in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the New Testament. This is referring us back to all that has been said in this chapter regarding justification. When we reflect back on this entire chapter, all of it was just as true for the Old Testament believers as it is for the New Testament believer. When one grasps this truth, one realizes that among other things, the Old Testament has much to offer the New Testament believer since we have much in common with the writings of those old saints.

One can hardly overestimate the importance of the doctrine of justification, and the doctrine summarized in the Confession is vitally important to the Christian walk, and to the church as a whole. We have covered a lot of ground, and may we often reflect on these glorious truths, and most of all may our faith receive and rest on Christ and his righteousness alone for justification.

—————–

[1] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. 2, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006 ), 37.

[2] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: First Image Books, 1995), catechism No. 1989. See also Council of Trent, “Canons Concerning Justification,” Canons 1-33.

[4] David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (1684; reprint, Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 69.

[5] Baptist Catechism 36: Q. What is justification? A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

[6] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 179.

[7] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955), 119.

[8] Ibid., 121. Underline mine.

[9] James White, The God Who Justifies: A Comprehensive Study, The doctrine of Justification (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2001), pg. 95. I highly recommend this book.

[10] Ibid., 182-183.

[11] See Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009), 265-266.

[12] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. 2, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006 ), 50-51.

[13] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. 2, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006), 60.

[17] One such error is ‘eternal justification.’ This is the belief that the elect were justified immediately upon the decree of election. One problem with that is that it minimizes or excludes the requirement of faith.

[18] For New Testament believers that is. Old Testament believers looked forward to the cross. None look to the decree of election for salvation, rather to the work of Christ.

[19] Baptist Catechism 32: Q. How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ? A. We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.

Baptist Catechism 33. Q. How doth the spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ? A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ, in our effectual calling.

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Chapter 10, Of Effectual Calling

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  1. Those whom God hath predestinated unto life, he is pleased in his appointed, and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace. (Romans 8:30;Romans 11:7; Ephesians 1:10, 11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 14; Ephesians 2:1-6; Acts 26:18; Ephesians 1:17, 18; Ezekiel 36:26; Deuteronomy 30:6; Ezekiel 36:27; Ephesians 1:19; Psalm 110:3; Song of Solomon 1:4)

In chapters 10 to 18, the Confession focuses on the application of Christ’s redemption to the elect. Scripture shows us that salvation consists of a series of distinct acts. For example, Romans 8:30: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (ESV). This passage is about three acts in salvation: calling, justification and glorification; but there are more. John Murray states: “When we think of the application of redemption we must not think of it as one simple and indivisible act. It comprises a series of acts and processes. To mention some, we have calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification. These are all distinct, and not one of these can be defined in terms of the other. Each has its own distinct meaning, function, and purpose in the action and grace of God.”[1]

The series of acts in salvation observed in Romans 8:30 are not merely listed in random order, but they have a logical sequence: first predestination, second calling, which leads to the third justification; and these ultimately lead fourth to glorification—each act performing its function in a logical order. We see a similar pattern in John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (ESV). The Father’s drawing (i.e. effectual calling) occurs first before the “coming to me” in faith; the result is being “raised up on the last day” (glorification). Even if a biblical passage only mentions one of these acts or processes, we can still detect a logical order based on the function of that act. To illustrate, faith is required for adoption, and justification is required for adoption—for God cannot accept as his own one who is not righteous in Christ; therefore, we can see just in these three that the logical order is: faith, justification, adoption. We refer to these acts and processes as having a logical order, rather than a chronological order with possible time gaps, because most of these acts are applied simultaneously. Ultimately, we only know of this “order of salvation” (i.e. in Latin ordo salutis) only by the special revelation of Scripture.

The first act in the order of salvation is effectual calling, but it is rooted in election. As such, the Confession begins at predestination: Those whom God hath predestinated unto life, he is pleased in his appointed, and accepted time, effectually to call.” This follows Romans 8:30, already mentioned, which begins at predestination. We may recall chapter 3:3a: By the decree of God…some men …are predestinated, or foreordained to eternal life through Jesus Christ.”  Since God predestines some to life, and what God predetermines always comes to fruition, then it follows that God will in his time and way effectual call his elect to salvation. Thus the elect will each be effectually called at the “appointed time” (i.e. God’s decreed time), and at a time that is “acceptable” time (i.e. a time pleasing to him). Again, we cite Romans 8:30a: “those whom he predestined he also called” (ESV). This predestined-effectual calling connection has been previously stated in two places:

Chapter 3:6: “As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so he hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto; wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ, by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation; neither are any other redeemed by Christ, or effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

Chapter 8:8a: “To all those for whom Christ hath obtained eternal redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same.”

God, the Father, effectually calls the elect. The Spirit and the Son are certainly involved in effectual calling, but it is the Father who initiates it. The Father’s role is reflected in passages such as John 6:44a: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him(ESV). And 1 Corinthians 1:9: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (ESV). And, 2 Timothy 1:8b-9a: “Share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling” (ESV). The Lord Jesus himself always gave the Father credit for things attributed to him, and so should we.

The Father effectually calls by his Word and Spirit.[2] The “Word” refers to the gospel message to repent and believe in Christ. That gospel call, which comes externally or outwardly, is made effective by the work of the “Spirit” internally or inwardly in the heart of the elect. Berkhof states: “The calling of God may be said to be one, and the distinction between an external call and an internal or effectual calling merely calls attention to the fact that this one calling has two aspects.”[3] The Word is the gospel message, and without it there is no salvation. This is so because, as Chapter 1 established, general revelation is insufficient to explain God’s will for our salvation. Paul wrote: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching” (Romans 10:14 ESV)? Thus the gospel message is essential to salvation. There is no other message which reveals the way to salvation, thus without the Word, there can be no effectual call.[4] The Spirit works through the gospel call, and inwardly changes the heart of the elect person, enabling and persuading him or her to obey the gospel call, and thus they repent and believe on Christ. This inward work may be referred to as regeneration, and without it, the gospel call remains ineffective in the sinner. We can see then how both the “Word and the Spirit” are essential to effectual calling.

What does effectual calling accomplish in the elect? The Confession explains this in several phrases. First, effectual calling brings the elect sinner out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ. Notice the contrast: “out of” and “to.” We will recall from chapter 9:3 that in the state of sin and death man is averse to salvation, and incapable of embracing Christ. But by effectual calling, the elect person is transferred out of that disabled state, into a state of “grace and salvation.” As indicated in 9:4, the state of grace is when God “freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good.” Scripture speaks of this act of God in Ephesians: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5 ESV). We see it in John 3:5: “Jesus answered,Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’ (ESV). Thus, effectual calling is an act of God by which he enables the elect to freely embrace Christ and receive salvation.

Secondly, effectual calling results in the enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God. Again, because of our state of sin and deadness (9:3), our darkened minds must be “enlightened” if we are to understand the gospel, and the things of God in a saving way. The Confession echoes several Scripture passages here, such as Acts 26:18a. There we see Christ commissioning Paul to preach the gospel so as “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light” (ESV). Or, 1 Corinthians 2:13-14: “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned(ESV). Our mind must be enlightened “spiritually,” if we are to understand the things of the Spirit. This enlightening is not an existential experience devoid of content, but the enlightenment comes from the content of the gospel, which the Spirit causes the darkened mind—dead in sin—to understand in a saving way.

Thirdly, the Confession states that effectual calling is the taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh. This wording is from Ezekiel 36:26 which predicts and describes the work of the Spirit in the New Covenant: A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh” (KJV). In effectual calling, God gives his people a new heart—one that is soft like flesh, not hard like stone.

Fourthly, effectual calling includes the renewing their wills. This builds on chapter 9, Of Free Will. Until the Spirit works in us by effectual calling, regenerating us, the will of man is unable to choose to do any spiritual good leading to salvation. This makes the renewing of the will absolutely essential to salvation. This renewal of the will is done by his [God’s] almighty power. It is a supernatural act of God which renews the will. The result of this renewed will is that it is determining them to that which is good. In other words, the renewed will causes the person to choose (i.e. determine to act) according to that which is good. A.A. Hodge states “That this change is radical is proved from the fact that… it consists in the implantation of a new governing principle of life; from the fact that it is a ‘new birth,’ a ‘new creation,’ wrought by the mighty power of God in the execution of his eternal purpose of salvation; and that it is necessary for the most moral and amiable as for the morally abandoned.”[5]

And so, by the changes described in these four phrases, God is effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ.  John Murray states: “God’s call, since it is effectual, carries with it the operative grace whereby the person called is enabled to answer the call and to embrace Jesus Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. God’s grace reaches down to the lowest depths of our need and meets all exigencies of the moral and spiritual impossibility which inheres in our depravity and inability. And that grace is the grace of regeneration.”[6]   The Confession does not have a separate chapter addressing regeneration, because it falls under the general heading of “effectual call.”[7]

The Confession states: yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace. Effectual calling is that act whereby God imparts effectual grace—commonly called “irresistible grace” in the Calvinistic system of salvation. Some charge that “irresistible grace” denies man’s free-will. As such, the Confession wisely clarifies that this is in fact not the case. The Spirit works in such a way so as to make the elect willing. To be “made willing” is not an oxymoron. By effectual grace, the Spirit changes the nature of the elect person; that new nature desires to embrace Christ, and so being desirous and enabled this new nature comes freely to Christ without any coercion whatsoever. In Psalms, we can see this work of the Spirit which enables his people to freely offer themselves to God: “Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours” (Ps. 110:3 ESV). It is a grace that God changes the elect so that they come freely to Christ. It is grace because it is undeserved, and it is grace because without it we would never be able or desire to embrace Christ and receive salvation.

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2. This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, nor from any power, or agency in the Creature, co-working with his special Grace, the Creature being wholly passive therein, being dead in sins and trespasses, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit; he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it, and that by no less power, than that which raised up Christ from the dead. (2 Timothy 1:9; Ephesians 2:8; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:5; John 5:25; Ephesians 1:19, 20)

This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone. The word “alone” at the end of this clause indicates the only reason for effectual calling is God’s particular gracious act, a gracious act which has two aspects: free and special. God’s free… grace means he is free to give this grace or not. We could say instead of “God’s free grace,” “God’s sovereign grace.” It is “free” in that it is given at God’s sole initiative without regard to any condition or action in the creature. Thus it is a sovereign grace. God’s…special grace is a specific or particular grace given only to the elect, a grace which acts to regenerate. It differs from common grace, which God gives in varying degrees to all his creatures, to the wicked and just—despite the fact that they deserve immediate judgment (Mt. 5:45). Common grace is not a grace which saves. It is not the so-called prevenient grace that the Arminian believes God gives equally to all men, but which is not effective to salvation unless man co-operates with it by his faith. But instead, special grace is that grace which is effective to salvation given particularly to the elect alone, and it enables the elect to come to Christ. It is effectual grace. Thus, without God’s “free and special grace” there would be no such thing as the effective call.

God’s free (i.e. sovereign) and special (i.e. particular) grace in effectual calling is monergistic. This is the view that God alone acts to regenerate the elect bringing them to faith. The elect person has no co-operative role whatsoever. We can see this in Scripture: “[God] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ(Eph. 2:5a ESV). In contrast to this, Synergism is the view that man must co-operate with God’s grace, by their faith, in order for God to regenerate them. Thus in Monergism, God regenerates the elect to create faith, while in Synergism man must act in faith to be regenerated. It is not hard to see that Synergism is man-centered, whereas Monergism is a God-centered.

The Confession adds two denials which remove any loophole which might allow man to interpolate himself into God’s sovereign and monergistic grace. The first denial: Effectual calling is not from anything at all foreseen in man. The Confession denies that the cause of this free and special grace is rooted in man. Scripture affirms: “[God] who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim 1:9 ESV). It is by God’s own purpose that he effectually calls, a purpose rooted in his decree of election. There is nothing in man that causes God to effectual call someone. “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV; see also Duet. 7:7).

The second denial: effectual calling is not from any power or agency in the creature, co-working with his special Grace, the Creature being wholly passive therein, being dead in sins and trespasses, until being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit.   It is best to keep this whole section together since it forms one thought unit. This portion is about man’s free agency as it relates to effectual calling. We know from chapter 9:1 that while man does indeed have free agency and maintains it even after the fall, yet as to salvation “man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation” (9:3a). Thus as it relates to salvation, man has no power or agency (i.e. free will) to co-work with God in effectual calling. John Murray states: “It has often been said that we are passive in regeneration. This is a true and proper statement…. But blessed be God that the gospel of Christ is one of sovereign, efficacious, irresistible regeneration. If it were not the case that in regeneration we are passive, the subjects of the action of which God alone is the agent, there would be no gospel at all.”[8] It is not until man is “quickened [i.e. made alive] and renewed [i.e. regenerated] by the Holy Spirit” that he is no longer remains “dead in sins and trespasses.”

By being “quickened and renewed” by the Holy Spirit—thus no longer being dead in sin and trespasses, man is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it, and that by no less power than that which raised up Christ from the dead. By this inward work of the Spirit, man’s nature is so changed that he is able to answer the gospel call. His will is empowered by the desire to embrace the grace “offered” in the gospel. In effectual calling, grace is not merely “offered” in the gospel call, but it is actually conveyed. This happens by the supernatural power of God; the very same resurrection power that raised Christ up from the dead (see Eph. 1:19).

To conclude this paragraph, effectual calling is a free and a special grace. Man is powerless to respond to the gospel call in his state of sin. By the Spirit’s work, the gospel call is made effectual; by it the elect are translated into the state of grace, and by that new nature and renewed will they embrace Christ. It is supernatural, resurrection power which enables the elect person to answer the gospel call. Thus that sovereign, monergistic grace is truly effective unto salvation.

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  1. Elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit; who worketh when, and where, and how he pleases; so also are all elect persons, who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word. (John 3:3, 5, 6; John 3:8)

Paragraph 3 is critically important for chapter 10, because paragraphs 1 and 2 show that effectual calling is by means of “his Word and Spirit.” It would follow, then, since both are necessary to effectual calling that only those elect who are capable of the outward call of the Word—could be saved. This would exclude the possibility of salvation for all infants who die in infancy[9] and all severely mentally disabled persons incapable of the gospel call from salvation. And so, this paragraph provides a needed solution to that implausible scenario that is biblically responsible, pastorally helpful, and theologically satisfying: the elect who are incapable of the outward call of the gospel may still be regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit without that outward call of the Word.

What Scriptural support exists for such an exception clause? In John 3:5, “Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (ESV). Jesus indicates that regeneration (i.e. “born of the Spirit”) is universally necessary for salvation. Therefore, several key inferences follow: 1) No infant may go to heaven unless he or she is first regenerated, and 2) no infant dying in infancy is regenerated, unless he or she is elect. 3) It then also follows that any other elect person, incapable of being outwardly called, will also be regenerated and thus saved. With these three biblically oriented inferences in mind, let’s explore the confessional wording of this paragraph phrase by phrase.

The Confession begins by stating: Elect infants dying in infancy. The paragraph restricts the topic to a particular group of people: “elect infants.” Of this group of elect infants, there is a further restriction: those who die in the state of infancy. Thus we are restricted from applying this paragraph to anyone else. For example, we cannot apply it to infants who do not die in infancy (i.e. those infants who grow up and reach an age where they can grasp the gospel content), and so use this paragraph to say that an infant can be regenerated in infancy, and then later in life respond in faith to the gospel. That is denied in paragraphs 1 and 2 which indicates that both the “Word and Spirit” are part of effectual calling. And so we must pay close attention to the parameters of this paragraph, lest we make unwarranted inferences and application.

The Confession indicates that elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit. Since 1) all mankind from conception (ordinary generation, 6:3) are guilty before God due to our first parent’s sin imputed to us, and 2) their corruption is conveyed to all mankind from conception, then the doctrine of original sin applies even to infants. Just because infants have not yet committed actual sins, does not mean they are guiltless before God. Infants must be not only “innocent” of “actual sins,” but also innocent of legal guilt, and corruption. And so, because all infants are guilty and corrupt before God, as members of Adam’s race, under Adam’s headship, then even infants must be “born of the Spirit” in order to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5). While elect infants who die in infancy are regenerated and saved, nonetheless, this regeneration and salvation is only “by Christ.” Christ’s atoning work is applied to these elect infants “through the Spirit.”

The Confession states: who worketh when, and where, and how he pleases. God’s sovereignty in salvation extends to all the elect, and this is powerfully and gloriously observed by the fact that God will even save those elect incapable of the outward call. In this context, the Confession points out that God can work, when…he pleases even if an elect infant is dying, or even if the elect person of any age is incapable of being outwardly called by severe mental disability. He can save the elect infant or any elect person incapable of the outward call wherehe pleases since God has no geographical limitations—within or outside the womb. And God will regenerate and save the elect how he pleases. This reminds us of God’s sovereign “free and special grace” mentioned in 10:2. Again, these phrases apply specifically to elect persons incapable of the outward calling.

As with infants dying in infancy, so also are all elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word. “Incapable” refers to those who are so disabled physically or mentally as to be unable to comprehend the gospel message. This category includes those “incapable” presumably from birth, but who grow up even into old age, but who remain mentally incapacitated their whole life.[10] This is a very limited category of people. It does not include those capable of the ministry of the Word, but who merely lack the opportunity to hear it. Those who seek to include in this clause those in dark, evangelized lands, or persons who never hear the gospel are applying this beyond the limited focus of this paragraph. Only the elect who are in anyway incapable, as defined above, fall into this category.

Paragraph 3 is biblically and theologically responsible, making reasonable inferences based on the whole of Scripture. If this paragraph is rejected and exempted from full subscription to the Confession, and some do exempt this paragraph, it leaves a theological and pastoral gap in the doctrine of effectual calling. As such, paragraph 3 ought not to be quickly rejected, especially if there is no other responsible doctrine to take its place.

And finally, the Confession offers here great help in a multitude of ways. It offers tremendous comfort to the parents of those incapable of the outward call of the gospel. It is a helpful tool for the pastor who assists those grieving the loss of an infant or mentally disabled person. It is also an encouragement to those who presently care for the severely mentally disabled. That can be a difficult ministry, but the Confession reminds us that these may be the very elect of God, “the least of these.” And if properly understood and presented, this paragraph can be useful to the pastor at funeral services, since it can publically encourage those grieving the loss of an infant or mentally disabled person—providing words of hope that are doctrinally sound, biblically realistic, and pastorally responsible.

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  1. Others not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet not being effectually drawn by the Father, they neither will nor can truly come to Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: much less can men that receive not the Christian religion be saved; be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature and the law of that religion they do profess. (Matthew 22:14; Matthew 13:20, 21; Hebrews 6:4, 5; John 6:44, 45, 65; 1 John 2:24, 25; Acts 4:12; John 4:22; John 17:3)

The Confession states: Others not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit…. This paragraph contrasts the prior paragraph with just the opposite situation: those who are not elected, and yet are outwardly called by the ministry of the Word. These “others” are: 1) not-elected, 2) receive the ministry of the word, and 3) have some common operations of the Spirit. Let’s break these down.

The first is easy to understand; these are not among the elect, and so will never be saved. The second are people who hear the gospel message, but are not effectually called by it. Jesus said, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Mat. 22:14 ESV). They are generally called, thus are still accountable, but they are not effectually called. And in John 6:65: “And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father’” (ESV). These Jesus speaks of may be outwardly called, are being not effectually called, it is not granted to them by the Father’s special grace to come to Christ. Thirdly, these have some common operations of the Spirit. What does this mean? The phrase “common operations of the Spirit” mean the general working of the Spirit; it is that work which is attributed to the non-saving work of the Spirit, but nonetheless, a preserving work of restraining evil even in the non-elect. Louis Berkhof explains it this way:

“There is a certain similarity between the general and the special operations of the Holy Spirit. By His general operations He originates, maintains, strengthens, and guides all life, organic, intellectual, and moral. He does this in different ways and in harmony with the objects concerned. Something similar may be said of his special operation. In the redemptive sphere He also originates the new life, fructifies it, guides it in its development, and leads it to its destiny. But in spite of the similarity, there is nevertheless an essential difference between the operations of the Holy Spirit in the sphere of creation and those in the sphere of redemption or re-creation.”[11]

And so, some people who have been called by the gospel may exhibit attributes which appear to come from regeneration, but rather come only from the common graces of the Spirit given in varying degrees to mankind. And so a person may seem to have responded to the gospel with faith and repentance, showing fruit: attending church, behaving morally, and in other ways fitting into the life of the church. But in this case the “fruit” is not the result of effectual calling; rather, merely the general non-saving work of the Spirit in those who are outside of Christ.

Many of us know those who responded to the gospel, and even stopped practicing former sins, and certainly appeared to be true followers of Christ. But as time went on, they left the church and denied the faith they once professed. We might find ourselves genuinely confused by such things, if we do not understand such potential situations. Jesus explained: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 Yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matthew 13:20-21 ESV). Or, in Hebrews 6:4-5 we read: “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (ESV). Or, John said: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19 ESV).

And so, not being effectually drawn by the Father, they neither will nor can truly come to Christ, and therefore cannot be saved. These seeming saints, who are not effectually drawn or called by the Father, are still in the state of sin. And so they do not come to Christ, for they are unable to do so, and remain unsaved. It is important to understand this important truth, so that in our personal ministry to others and in our churches, we keep the gospel front- and-center, knowing that the mere appearance of calling and fruit is not the same as true effectual calling, and true gospel fruit. It may be that some in our churches have not truly embraced Christ through the gospel, and so we must constantly preach the gospel from the pulpit. And we must constantly center on the gospel in our own lives that we may be certain we are constantly resting and receiving Christ in the gospel.

The Confession adds to this: much less can men that receive not the Christian religion be saved; be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature and the law of that religion they do profess. Hodge understands this portion of the Confession this way: “That the non-elect will certainly fail of salvation, not because a free salvation is not made available to them if they accept Christ, but because they never accept Christ; and they all refuse to accept him, because, although they may be persuaded by some common influences of the Holy Ghost, their radical aversion to God is never overcome by effectual calling. It has already been proved under sections 1 and 2 that the grace of effectual calling extends to all the elect, and only to the elect; hence the truth of this proposition follows.”[12] And so, mankind is never so diligent as to live their lives according to that general revelation which God has placed in the heart of man: the existence of God, and his law written on their heart. And not only that, but man does not even live up the law of his professed religion, which presumably reflects God’s law to some degree. Thus, without the grace of God offered alone in the gospel of Christ, these are unable to justify themselves by their pitiful attempts to obey the law.

We have now completed our study of chapter 10, Of Effectual Calling: God’s free and special grace—we might say his sovereign grace—whereby God calls his elect to himself by his Word and Spirit. It is the first of God’s mighty acts in the logical order of salvation.   From the effectual calling of God, then follows more of God’s acts in salvation—the very next act being justification. Following the Romans 8:30 golden chain of redemption, we now turn from calling to that tremendously important doctrine of justification in the next chapter.

————————

[1] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955), 89-90.

[2] Baptist Catechism 27: Q. How doth Christ execute the office of a prophet? A. Christ executeth the office of prophet in revealing to us, by his word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation.

[3] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Containing the full text of Systematic theology (1932) and the original Introductory volume to systematic theology (1938), and new preface by Richard a. Muller (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), 469.

[4] The exception is those elect incapable of being externally called by the gospel, which is addressed later in paragraph 3 of this chapter.

[5] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 173.

[6] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955), 96.

[7] Berkhof indicates that the old Reformed confessions took a broad view of effectual calling, included regeneration within it; whereas, modern Reformed Theology regards regeneration as a separate action related to effectual calling. See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Containing the full text of Systematic theology (1932) and the original Introductory volume to systematic theology (1938), and new preface by Richard a. Muller (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), 465-479.

[8] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955), 99-100.

[9] In the seventeenth century, when the Confession was framed, infant mortality was quite high.

[10] We may be able to think of other very unique situations, such as child who was very capable in childhood, but who received a brain injury in childhood and remained incapacitated mentally the rest of their life. The general point is simply stated in the Confession, and it may become unhelpful to propose theoretical “what if” scenarios.

[11] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Containing the full text of Systematic theology (1932) and the original Introductory volume to systematic theology (1938), and new preface by Richard a. Muller (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), 426.

[12] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 175.

 

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Chapter 9: Of Free Will

FreeWill

  1. God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil. (Matthew 17:12; James 1:14; Deuteronomy 30:19 )

Chapter 9 will address the nature of the will of man, and how man’s state of innocency, sin, grace, and glory affect the will of man.  It does not address man’s free will in relation to God’s decree; that was touched on within chapter 3 and 5.  You may notice that “God” is the first word of this chapter, and that is for good reason.  Any sound doctrine about mankind’s will must start with God.  Since God is sovereign and mankind’s Creator where else would one start?  To seek to understand the nature of man’s will by starting with man himself—as some do—is like looking through a pair of binoculars the wrong way; our view of God ends up very small, and thus our view of man too large.

The Confession explains that God hath endued the will of man.  Endued is not a word often used today, but it means “to give a quality or characteristic.”  A modern synonym is “endow.”[1]  What quality or property did God endow man’s will with?  God endowed the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice.  Sproul states: “Here the confession speaks of natural liberty, a liberty that is part and parcel of our nature as human beings.”[2]  Man’s will is also endued with natural… power.  The word “natural” also applies to the word “power,” and so should read: “natural liberty and [natural] power.” The will of man has the natural power or ability to act upon choice; that power is “part and parcel” of what it means to be a human being. Thus, God made man with free agency, that is, the natural liberty and power of the will to make choices.  Reformed theology does not deny man’s free agency; it thoroughly embraces it.  Man’s free agency is not a defeater of God’s sovereign decree, but is compatible with it.  God often uses man’s free agency to bring about his decree (see 5:2 the nature of second causes, particularly “freely”), and yet without coercing man’s will.

The will of man, so endowed with natural liberty and power to choose, is neither forced… to do good or evil.  The will of man is not “forced” (i.e. coerced) to choose good or evil.  If the will was forced, it would not be at liberty or have power to act upon choice.  Adam and Eve were not forced to obey or disobey God’s special command in the garden.  Rather, Adam and Eve freely chose to disobey.  The disobedience was their choice, and they chose based on their desire: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6 ESV).  There is no hint in the text that the will was forced; rather, we see the natural liberty and power of the will freely acting upon that choice they desired.  Man chooses good or evil according to that which he desires.  Scripture says: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire (James 1:14 ESV; see also Gen. 3:6; Matt. 17:12; James 1:14).  No one can say, “The devil made me do it.”  The devil may tempt, and sinful desires may overcome us, but each person choses to sin because that is what he or she desires to do.  Man freely chooses sin because that is what he wants.  Thus, mankind is responsible for his choices, whether good or evil (1 Cor. 5:10).

As well, the will of man is not by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.  Sproul states: “Here the Confession distances itself from every form of moral determinism, which would subject human choices to fixed, mechanical, or physical forces, or even to arbitrary influences of fate. In a word, Reformed theology categorically rejects fatalism and any determinism based upon the forces of nature. We are not coerced or forced by natural causes, or by our environment, either to do good or to do evil.”[3]    On the contrary, the Confession teaches that man as a free agent chooses as each person’s nature inclines them to choose.  A.A. Hodge states:

“A man freely chooses what he wants to choose. He would not choose freely if he chose in any other way. But his desire in the premises is determined by his whole intellectual and emotional state at the time…. It is plain that if the human will is decided in any given case in opposition to all the views of the reason and all the desires of the heart, however free the will might be, the man would be a most pitiful slave to a mere irrational and immoral power of willing…. All men judge that the rational and moral character of any act results from the purpose or desire, the internal state of mind or heart, which prompted the act. If man wills in any given case in opposition to all his judgments and to all his inclinations of every kind, his act in that case would obviously be neither rational nor moral; and the man himself, in respect to that act, would be neither free nor responsible…. “Christ taught…that human action is determined by the character of the agent as certainly as the nature of the fruit is determined by the nature of the tree from which it springs; and that the only way to change the character of the action is to change the permanent character or moral tendency and habit of the heart of the agent. Matt. Vii. 16-20; xii. 33-35.”[4]

In the remaining paragraphs, the Confession will address the various “states” of mankind which affect his will.   First, the Confession will address man’s “state of innocency” before the fall.  Secondly, it will show man’s “state in sin” after the fall.  Thirdly, it will explain man’s “state of grace” after conversion, and lastly, it will address the converted man’s “state in glory.”  Let’s end with two more citations from Hodge to ensure we have grasped the material as we head into these four states: “In all these estates man is unchangeably a free, responsible agent, and in all these cases choosing or refusing as, upon the whole, he prefers to do. A man’s volition is as his desires are in any given case. His desires in any given case are as they are determined to be by the general or permanent tastes, tendencies, and habitudes of his character. He is responsible for his desires, because they are determined by the nature and permanent characteristics of his own soul. He is responsible for these, because they are the tendencies and qualities of his own nature. If these are immoral, he and his actions are immoral. If these are holy, he and his actions are holy.”[5] Or simply put, as Hodge states a few pages later: “The moral condition of the heart determines the act of the will, but the act of the will cannot change the moral condition of the heart.”[6]  With this in mind, we now turn to these “states.”

FreeWill

  1. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which was good and well-pleasing to God, but yet was mutable, so that he might fall from it. (Ecclesiastes 7:29; Genesis 3:6)

The Confession now addresses man, in his state of innocency.  This state refers to the time before the fall; that is, before our first parent’s became guilty and corrupt as a result of their disobedience.  Prior to the fall, in that state of innocency man had freedom and power to will and to do that which was good and well-pleasing to God (see 4:2).  They had the freedom and ability to will to do good and please God.  This was true spiritual freedom, and real genuine power of will to act.  Yet…that state was… mutable, so that he might fall from it.  Adam and Eve were placed in their estate “under the possibility of transgressing” (see 4:2).  Sproul tells us that “Saint Augustine stated that in creation we had both the posse peccare (the ability to sin) and the posse non peccare (the ability not to sin).  After all, we continue to have the ability to sin, the posse peccare, but we lost the power or ability not to sin, the posse non peccare.  We were left in what Augustine called a state of moral inability.”[7]  That will be the next state we address.

Adam and Eve were in a wonderful state indeed, but this state was a trial period whereby disobedience was possible, and under the penalty of death.  As we will see, in the state of glory, that change is not a possibility.  That state of glory is not based on our perfect obedience, but upon Christ’s.  The terms of the covenant of grace are unconditional, for Christ is our surety, and since he purchased that eternal inheritance for us, the state of glory is not mutable.  So the state of glory is better than the state of innocence.

FreeWill

  1. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto. (Romans 5:6;Romans 8:7; Ephesians 2:1, 5; Titus 3:3-5; John 6:44)

The Confession begins: Man, by his fall into a state of sin. That possible loss of the state of innocency became a reality and mankind fell into a state of sin.  It was lost by the will acting upon the choice to eat the forbidden fruit.  In their state of sin, Adam and Eve became “wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body,” and that same corruption was conveyed to all mankind by ordinary generation (6:2).  Consequently, they and their posterity wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation.  Notice the words wholly and all.  They wholly lost all ability.  What ability was entirely lost? It was the ability to will to do any (i.e. all) spiritual good.  Man’s fall radically changed mankind’s state.  Mankind in the state of sin can no longer will to do any spiritual good whatsoever.  The soul’s faculties were entirely corrupted, and this included the nature of man and his will.  The loss of ability to will to do “spiritual goodis specifically related to the spiritual good that is accompanying salvation.  The Confession will clarify this spiritual good in relation to salvation in the next phrase.  But before we move to that, we should note again that the Confession does not say the natural freedom and power of the will to act upon choice is wholly lost (9:1) in the state of sin; rather, the loss is the ability to will any spiritual good regarding salvation.  Hodge states: “By ability we mean the capacity either to will in opposition to the desires and affections of the soul at the time, or by a bare exercise of volition to make oneself desire and love that which one does not spontaneously desire or love.”[8]  That ability which existed in the state of innocency is lost in the state of sin.

We now move to an explanation of this lost ability to do spiritual good accompanying salvation.  The Confession states: so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good. The natural man, or woman who is in an unregenerate fallen state is called in Scripture a “natural man” (KJV) or “natural person” in the ESV[9]:   “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14 ESV).  The Confession states that the natural man: being altogether averse from that good.  The word “that” (before the word “good”) refers us back, not to doing good in general, but to the spiritual good that accompanies or leads to salvation.  The word “averse” speaks of antagonism toward that spiritual good leading to salvation.  That “averseness” is why Jesus speaks of the need for the Father’s powerful and effective drawing: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44 ESV).[10]  Without the Father’s drawing, the averseness to “that good” which accompanies salvation would forever keep the sinner from salvation.

The Confession continues: The natural man…beingdead in sin.  Here is what that deadness looks like: And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1-3) ESV).  Notice that the natural man lives of his own free agency according to the passions of his flesh (i.e. sinful desires).  These desires are the guiding inclinations of his will; he is a slave to his sinful nature. Thus, the natural man (in his deadness to sin) is not able by his own strength to convert himself or to prepare himself thereunto.  To convert means “to change from one nature to another.” Because mankind is completely averse to spiritual good for salvation, and since he is dead to sin, he cannot change his nature so that he desires salvation.  Conversion is a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit that converts a person’s nature, enabling him to embrace the gospel of Christ; without that effectual grace a person remains unconverted—averse, unable and unwilling to obey the gospel command to repent and believe.  Since man is not forced to do either good or evil, freely choosing according to his nature, he is accountable to God for his deliberate act of refusing to obey the gospel.

Not only is the natural man unable to convert himself, but the Confession adds that he cannot even prepare himself thereunto.  In other words, he cannot even prepare himself for conversion (8:8).  Samuel Waldron makes this point in relation to this phrase:

“Preparationism is any teaching or tendency that tells men that they must do something before they believe in Christ and repent for their sin. This has seemed the natural inference to be drawn from total inability by some. Since men cannot come to Christ and God must give the grace, they have concluded that men ought to be told to do something else first. Such people often tell men, for instance, to pray for a new heart. Not only are such conclusions illogical, they undermine the gospel. If men can do nothing spiritually good before they are saved, then anything they do beside complying with the initial demands of the gospel is not good. The first spiritually good thing which God ever enables any man to do is to repent and believe in the gospel. Therefore, that is the first thing they must be told to do. Furthermore, to tell men to do anything unto their salvation besides, “Repent and believe the gospel!” is not the biblical gospel, but a counterfeit.”[11]

Even though man still has free agency as defined in paragraph 1, yet paragraph 3 has taught us that the fall so corrupted the nature of mankind that the will of man lost its ability to act in any way spiritually good as it relates to salvation.  One might ask—with a sense of hopelessness—what the disciples asked: “Then who can be saved?”  But as Jesus said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God’” (Luke 18:26-27 ESV).  This paragraph sets the stage for the next chapter, Of Effectual Calling, where the very thing the natural man is unable to do, that is, convert himself, God does by his effective call—by the power of the Holy Spirit making the natural man alive unto God. Scripture states of this work of conversion: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5 ESV).  This work is also spoken of in Titus:But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”(Titus 3:4-5 ESV).   God’s effective grace converts us that we may obey the gospel command to repent and believe.

 FreeWill

  1. When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he doth not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil. (Colossians 1:13; John 8:36; Philippians 2:13; Romans 7:15, 18, 19, 21, 23)

We now move from the state of sin, covered in the last paragraph, to the state of grace.  The Confession begins: When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace.  Scripture says God “hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Col. 1:13 KJV).  This passage speaks of God’s converting power.  When God converts, God frees him [a sinner] from his natural bondage under sin.  The phrase: “natural bondage under sin,” refers to the natural man’s state of sin.  Scripture states of conversion: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness(Romans 6:17-18 ESV).  By God’s effective grace, the natural man is transformed from his natural bondage in sin to a free spiritual man (1 Cor. 2:14-15). Since God translates into a new state by his grace, it is called the “state of grace.”  It is a state only possible by God’s effectual grace.

By this conversion of sovereign effective grace, man’s state, nature, inclination and character are changed—and that affects the will.   How so?  The Confession states: by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good.  Notice the contrast; in paragraph 3, man “hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation.” But here in the state of grace one is enabled “to freely will and do spiritually good.”  There is a substantial change of nature here.  The Bible states: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 ESV).  And, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure(Phil 2:12-13 ESV).  God’s work of translating the natural man to the state of grace is remarkable, and literally life changing.  We find our soul soaring as we marvel at this transformation from the bondage of the will, to the freedom of the will.  We have moved towards a freedom and power to will and to do good that was lost in the fall.  But, the Confession is as realistic as the Bible about this state of grace; it does not bring us all the way back to that state of innocency.

The Confession adds: yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he doth not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.  The reality is that the remaining corruption, previously spoken of in chapter 6:5, still exists in our nature, and that affects our desires and choices.  A.A. Hodge states: “And yet, because of lingering remains of his old corrupt moral habit of the soul, there remains a conflict of tendencies, so that the Christian does not perfectly nor only will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.”[12]  The Apostle Paul, speaking of this remaining corruption in his own life, states: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:15-23 ESV).[13]  All believers are familiar with this struggle, but we should take heart because even the Apostle Paul had to deal with that remaining corruption.

FreeWill

  1. This will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone in the state of glory only. (Ephesians 4:13)

What happens to the will of man in the state of glory?   1) This will of man is made perfectly…free to good alone.  2) The will of man is made… immutably free to good alone.  What a wondrous state that will be; there our will is to be made perfectly free from corruption that we may to good alone.  R.C. Sproul states:  “In heaven, when we are in glory, we are free only to obey. That is what we call royal freedom, the most wonderful freedom, where our choices will only be good. We will have no inclination whatsoever to do anything wicked or evil.”[14] As if that were not glorious enough, in addition our will is made immutable in that corruption-free state.

In chapter nine, we have covered:

  1. Man’s free agency described (endued with natural liberty and power to act upon choice)
  2. The state of man’s will before the fall (state of innocence)
  3. The state of man’s will after the fall (state of sin)
  4. The state of man’s will after conversion/regeneration (state of grace)
  5. The state of man’s will in glorification (state of glory)

With this biblical foundation, we are well-prepared to study the application of redemption, that is, the logical order in which God applies the various aspects of salvation to his elect (i.e. the ordo salutis).

———————

[1]  See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[2] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 3. Bold type is original.

[3] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 3.

[4] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 160-161.

[5] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 162.

[6] Ibid., 164.

[7] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 3-4.

[8] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 164.

[9] Since the passage is not referring only to males, it is appropriate to update the language to reflect both genders.

[10] R.C. Sproul relates a story regarding an incident where he was debating John 6:44: “I was asked to debate this question at an Arminian school several years ago with the head of the New Testament department. When he quoted John 6:44, I mentioned to him that the Greek verb translated “draw” in this verse is the same verb that is used in the book of Acts when some men dragged Paul and Silas before the authorities for casting an evil spirit out of their slave girl (Acts 16:19). Those men did not try to entice them to come before the magistrates; they compelled them to come. The professor interrupted: “But there are references in the Greek poet Euripides (or somebody) where this same verb refers to drawing water out of a well.” Smiling to the audience, he asked, “And Dr. Sproul, does anybody compel the water to come out of the well?” Everybody laughed, and I responded, “How do you get water from a well? Do you stand at the top of the well and call, “Here, water, water, water”? Or is that water dead in the pit and absolutely inert unless you lower the bucket into the water and you drag it up to the surface?” R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 9.

[11] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 145.

 

[12] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 165.

[13] John Murray indicates that in Romans 7:7-13 Paul speaks of his pre-regenerate state, but that in verses 7:14- 25 he speaks of regenerate state with its remaining corruption.  John Murray, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. In one edition (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1968), 255-273.

[14] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. II, Salvation and the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2007), 10-11.

 

 

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Chapter 8: Of Christ the Mediator

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Chapter 7: Of God’s Covenant

arbitation11. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of Life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. (Luke 17:10; Job 35:7, 8)

As we begin to look at this chapter, we realize that chapter 7 is not a survey of the Biblical covenants, but instead deals specifically with three covenants: the covenant of works (sometimes called the covenant of life), the covenant of redemption (between the Father and Son), and the covenant of grace. This paragraph begins with a foundational point about covenant: The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator. This great distance is indisputable—the creator versus the created. A.A. Hodge wrote: “The very act of creation brings the creature under obligation (owed obedience) to the Creator, but it cannot bring the Creator into obligation to the creature.”[1] The creator created reasonable creatures—humans. Thus on the basis that God is our Creator, and that God made man a reasonable creature, mankind owes God his obedience.

 Yet they could never have attained the reward of life. Since man owes God obedience, that obedience in and of itself is not the basis for attaining the reward of life. Hodge states, “Creation itself, being a signal act of grace, cannot endow the beneficiary with a claim to more grace.”[2] Thus the Confession continues: but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part. So the reward of life was attainable because God voluntarily stooped down to offer it. The Confession concludes this paragraph by saying: which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. The reward of life was offered by way of covenant. Thus obedience only brought the reward of life because God was willing to offer it by covenant, not because obedience deserved a reward. But what is a covenant? Michael Kruger states, “Simply put, a covenant is an arrangement or contract between two parties that includes the terms of their relationship, covenant obligations (stipulations), and blessings and curses.”[3] This reward of life was offered by way of a structured agreement (covenant) that was contingent upon certain terms and conditions. R.C. Sproul states: “God’s willingness to enter into a covenant (that is, an agreement, contract, or pact) with us is itself a matter of grace…any covenant into which God enters with us is an act of condescension. Because he is not obligated to be in a covenant relationship with us, even the covenant of works is founded on God’s grace.”[4]

 We now know what a covenant is, but what was this particular covenant? The terms of this covenant were expressed in chapter 4, Of Creation, but as a reminder let’s look at these terms in God’s word found in Genesis 2:16-17 (ESV): “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” God gave them a command that required perfect obedience. The command was: “you shall not eat from the tree.” If this command was broken, God said, “You shall surely die.” So we see the statement contains explicit terms and conditions: eat equals death. Are there any other terms and conditions we can gather from this? It is also implied that if they obeyed then they would live. So while obedience meant that they would live, does this necessarily imply a reward? No it does not if we are confined to Genesis 2:16-17. But we are not confined; we also have Genesis 2:9 and Genesis 3:22-24 where we see another tree mentioned—the tree of life. After the fall, Genesis 3:22-24 states: “Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23  therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24  He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (ESV). The Lord took strong steps to ensure that after the fall Adam and Eve did not eat of the tree of life lest they live forever. It seems that this tree was to be partaken of had Adam and Eve obeyed for an unknown period of probation. It is this tree of life which implies a reward for perfect obedience. I recently watched a conference question and answer session where Lane Tipton made this statement:

“If you think about the way the image of the tree of life is utilized.   In the garden you have a tree of life given to somebody who is already alive. And so that tree cannot be a bare symbol of the continuation of life unless you want to believe that the highest good for Adam and Eve is a losable, mutable communion with God, with the perpetual possibility of sinning against God, the perpetual presence of the dragon (serpent) seeking to devour them and destroy them, and a constant state of death from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So when you look at that situation in Eden it is not as romantic as some would like to think in broader Evangelicalism. It is actually a place that threatens death for disobedience; the serpent is prowling around seeking to destroy the people of God at that time, and Adam and Eve are subject to sin and death and loss of the communion bond with God, the wrath of God and the pains of hell forever. And as long as Adam has not passed probation as a federal head that condition continues perennially.”[5]

So the partaking of the tree of life, it seems, was to occur after the fulfillment of perfect obedience at the end of the probationary period. Once they partook of the tree of life they would live forever in a state where disobedience would no longer be an option. Many believe, and I tend to agree, that the reward of life would also usher in a higher state of the life. The 1689 Confession seems to imply this by referring to the “reward of life,” though opinions differed among the Westminster divines.[6]

The covenant in this paragraph is sometimes called the Adamic covenant, the covenant of life, or the covenant of works. The terminology is not in the Scriptures, but the concepts are. It is called the Adamic covenant because it was made with Adam as the federal head[7] of all mankind. It is called the covenant of life for in the covenant God made with Adam in Genesis 2:16-17 the same terms that threatened death for disobedience implied life for obedience. It is also called the covenant of works because in order to have life, perfect obedience (works) was required. The Confession does not use the phrase “covenant of works” in this chapter, however, the framers have made use of it elsewhere (see 19:6; 20:1), and the concept is implied throughout the chapter. The commentary will further explain the covenant of works as we proceed.

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  1. 2. Moreover, Man having brought himself under the curse of the Law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto Sinners Life and Salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal Life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. (Genesis 2:17; Galatians 3:10; Romans 3:20, 21; Romans 8:3; Mark 16:15, 16; John 3:16; Ezekiel 36:26, 27; John 6:44, 45; Psalms 110:3 )

The 1689 Confession states: Moreover, Man having brought himself under the curse of the Law by his fall. [8] As we discussed at the end of the last paragraph, it is important to recognize that Adam is the head of all mankind (i.e. federal head); the Confession implies that by referring to Adam as if he represented all of mankind. As a result, Man brought himself—in Adam—under the curse. God cursed man for his disobedience under the terms of the covenant of works (‘terms’ that were/are legal; therefore Law).

So while it is true that man brought himself under a curse by breaking the covenant of works, nonetheless, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace. The Baptist Catechism 23 asks: “Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?” The answer is: “God having out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.” Man failed to obtain the reward of life under the terms of the covenant of works, but it pleased the Lord to make another covenant as a means to deliver them to a state of eternal life. Rather than a covenant conditional upon perfect obedience, God makes an unconditional covenant, a covenant of grace, with his elect.

This covenant he freely offereth unto Sinners Life and Salvation by Jesus Christ. Just as in the Adamic covenant God condescended and promised the reward of life conditioned upon perfect obedience, so God condescends and freely offers the covenant of grace which brings Life and Salvation to the sinner. This covenant of grace is freely offered to all, yet in order to receive its benefits it does require of them faith in him, that they may be saved. This covenant brings eternal life by grace, not by perfect obedience. But while the covenant is unconditional (i.e. without the condition of perfect obedience from the elect), yet the covenant did still require Christ’s perfect obedience and his atonement for their sin, which is credited to them by faith. Pascal Denault writes: “The Baptists considered that the Covenant of Grace started immediately after the Fall, and that the substance of this covenant, even under the Old Testament, was salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”[9] The covenant of grace was revealed and promised immediately after the fall. The Confession will be more specific about the making of that covenant in paragraph three.

There are a couple issues here. First, the covenant of grace is not to be confused with universal reconciliation, as if God entered into this covenant with each of Adam’s race simply because he offers it. He freely offers it, but he requires faith. So the offer of the covenant is not to be confused with the entering into the covenant. Second, the faith required by the covenant of grace contrasts the perfect obedience required by the covenant of works. The danger is that one will think of this required faith merely a different kind of work required, but the required faith is not a work, rather it is a gift freely given to those with whom the covenant of grace is made. Thus faith is not a work; it is simply a receiving and resting action which serves as the instrument by which this unconditional covenant of grace is received. This particular issue (faith is not a work) is dealt with in more detail in Chapter 11, Of Justification, paragraph 1 and 3.

The Confession states: and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal Life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. The covenant of grace is freely offered to all with the requirement of faith for salvation; however, without the work of God in a sinner’s heart, the sinner remains unwilling and unable to believe. Until God supernaturally intervenes and fulfills his promise to give the elect the Spirit, they too remain in a state sin and are unwilling and unable to believe unto salvation. The promise of the Spirit here is seen in places like Ezekiel 36:26-27: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (KJV). God will, in his time, sovereignly give his promised Spirit to the person ordained to eternal life; as a result, the Spirit himself will cause and enable them to believe in Christ unto salvation. If God offered eternal life through the covenant of grace, but he did not intervene on behalf of those ordained to receive it by giving enabling them to believe, the covenant of grace would remain something forever averse to them. We cannot help but see God’s faithfulness here in that those ordained to eternal life also receive the means by which to obtain it. Chapter 9, Of Man’s Free Will, Chapter 10, Of Effectual Calling, and Chapter 14, Of Saving Faith will deal with these in detail.

Man failed to meet the terms of the first covenant of works (and so failed to obtain the reward of life), but God determined by his grace to freely offer another covenant by which his elect will receive the reward of eternal life. This reward of life is not based upon their works, but upon another’s, namely, Christ’s. Christ was perfectly obedient to the terms of the covenant of works, and by faith his obedience is credited to the elect as if it were their own. This is the glorious wonder of that most superior and excellent covenant of grace!

 

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  1. 3. This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect; and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency. (Genesis 3:15; Hebrews 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 11;6, 13; Romans 4:1, 2, &c.; Acts 4:12; John 8:56 )

It will be helpful to look at the structure of this paragraph (using the exact words):

  1. This covenant [covenant of grace] is revealed in the gospel;
    1. first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and
    2. afterwards by farther steps,
    3. until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament;
  2. and it [covenant of grace] is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect;
  3. and it is alone by the grace of this covenant [covenant of grace] that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality,
    1. man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.

The Confession begins this paragraph by stating: This covenant is revealed in the gospel. “This covenant” refers back to paragraph two which spoke about the covenant of grace.  What does it mean that the covenant of grace (“this covenant”) is revealed in the gospel? It means that the covenant of grace is not separate from the gospel. As well, the sentence “this covenant is revealed in the gospel” is not a stand-alone sentence, rather it serves as a lead in to sections a to c (section I), thus it is saying that the covenant of grace which was revealed in the gospel was revealed first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman. We may notice as stated in paragraph two that it was only after the fall and the breaking of the covenant of works that the covenant of grace was revealed. It was revealed in the form of a promise of something to come: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15 ESV). God is speaking to the serpent, ironically. It is a judgment upon the serpent, but for Adam and Eve it is a promise of salvation.   So the covenant of grace is revealed, via the words to the serpent, to Adam by the promise that Eve’s offspring will bruise or crush the devil, which implies salvation from the sin that the serpent’s deceit brought into creation. The revealed covenant of grace is only completed (concluded or ratified) when the promised One actually fulfills the prophecy. We also notice that it was revealed, in part to Adam. What was said? 1) There would be hostility between Eve’s seed and Satan, and 2) Satan would bruise Eve’s offspring, and 3) Eve’s offspring would more severely bruise Satan’s head. Perhaps there are other implications, but from Adam’s perspective and Satan’s not much more detail is given. What is revealed is a promise without its fulfillment then and there.

The Confession continues: and afterward by farther steps. This means that after the revelation to Adam that was only partial continued after him. Not only did it continue afterward, but it was revealed by farther steps (i.e. increasing steps). While the promise of Genesis 3:15 was real, it was also hazy. Thus God graciously continued to progressively add light to this dim revelation. These further steps are found throughout the Old Testament in various ways and various times (1689 1:1).

The Confession now comes to the last of the three points: until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament. The revealing started with Adam; the revelation continued after Adam, with farther steps, but it was fully revealed (i.e. full discovery) until it was completed (fulfilled) in the New Testament. The full discovery (i.e. the full and completed revelation) of the promised covenant of grace was only completed by and in Christ. When the fullness of time came, the mystery hidden was revealed; then we knew who Eve’s offspring was, how Satan bruised Jesus’ heal (Jesus’ death), and how Jesus destroyed the work of Satan. These details were given in shadows and types, and while the revelation given after Adam became more detailed as time went on, yet it was not until this revelation was completed in the New Testament (i.e. the canon of the New Covenant) that the revelation was complete.   But it was not just that the revelation was complete, but that Christ’s work spoken of in Genesis 3:15 and throughout the Old Testament was completed. There are several New Testament passages about this completed revelation and work. “As a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10 ESV). And, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5 ESV). And “In hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior” (Titus 1:2-3 ESV).

The section we just covered in paragraph two is a key section where Particular Baptists and Presbyterians disagree. In order to stay within the scope of this layman’s commentary, those details will not be covered, but there are some very good books that go into that important topic.[10] I will say that there is a marked contrast between the Particular Baptists and Presbyterian covenant theology, though there are areas of commonality. These differences are very relevant to the position of baptism by Particular Baptists (credo-baptism) and the Presbyterians (paedobaptism), and there are other important and relevant ramifications.

The Confession continues: and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect. “And it” refers to the covenant of grace. Before the covenant of grace there was another covenant made in eternity. The Confession refers to it as that “eternal covenant transaction” between the Father and Son. Theologians often term it the covenant of redemption, or the counsel of redemption. Berkhof defines this covenant transaction as “the agreement between the Father, giving the Son as Head and Redeemer of the elect, and the Son, voluntarily taking the place of those who whom the Father had given Him.”[11] The Confession includes four aspects of this covenant transaction: 1) It is the foundation to the covenant of grace. 2) It is a covenant made in eternity. 3) It is a transaction between the Father and the Son, and 4) It was an agreement about the redemption of the elect. Shedd makes an important point: “The covenant of grace and redemption are two modes or phases of the one evangelical covenant of mercy.”[12] The covenant of redemption logically comes before the covenant of grace, for it is the prior arrangement, but they both together accomplish the redemption of the elect. The covenant of redemption is between the Father and the Son, while the covenant of grace is between the Father and the elect. From Christ’s perspective the covenant of redemption was the voluntary transaction, arrangement or contract with the Father by which Christ would fulfill the terms of the covenant of works on behalf of the elect. The elect would then be credited Christ’s perfect obedience by and through the covenant of grace.

The 1689 Confession states: and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality. “This covenant” refers to the covenant of grace and not to the eternal covenant transaction. The point here is very strong. Adam and Eve and their posterity could not be saved by any other covenant. This brings us full circle for the reward of life was offered by the covenant of works, but since Adam failed to obtain the reward of life by that covenant, another was needed, and thus God freely and graciously provided another covenant—one that guaranteed Adam and the rest of the elect that reward of life (life and blessed immortality).

Why is it though that Adam and Eve could only be saved, given life and blessed immortality by the covenant of grace? Because man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency. The incapability is man’s inability to fulfill the terms of the covenant of works. After the fall, man was left in a pitiful state. Man lost his original righteousness (his state of innocency), and instead received an unrighteous nature. The Confession recognizes that we would be doomed if not for the covenant of grace. This leads us quite nicely to the next chapter—to the only hope for the sinner, Christ, the Mediator of a better covenant, the covenant of grace! Hebrews tells us: “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.” Indeed, we look are grateful for the second covenant, the New Covenant, the completed covenant of grace revealed in the gospel.

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[1] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 121

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, Crossway: 2012), 163.

[4] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess, Vol. 1, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P & R Publishing), 205. As a reminder, this commentary by R.C. Sproul is written on the Westminster Confession, not the 1689 Confession. Sproul’s excellent work is useful in the study of the Baptist Confession where the 1689 Confession and the Westminster Confession parallel each other. The 1689 deleted the WCF section two and the Savoy section two. This is what the WCF and the Savoy state in their section II: “The first covenant made with man, was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.”

[5] Lane Tipton, Reformed Forum Conference: Theology 2014, Pre-Conference Discussion. I transcribed this statement, however, there are some slight adjustments made for the sake of better readability.

[6] Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Kindle location 8903. For a full discussion read location 8840-8903.

[7] The phrase “Federal head” means that someone, in this case Adam, represents all mankind. Thus the covenant of works was made not only with Adam, but with all his posterity. The terms given to Adam in that covenant were also given to all mankind in Adam (see Romans 5:12-21). Those in the covenant of grace have for their federal head Christ, not Adam.

[8] Paragraph two of the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration is removed entirely from the 1689 Confession. This likely has to do with a combination of the economy of words, and the re-organizing of this chapter to adapt it to the Particular Baptist’s perspective of covenant theology. Some have speculated that the removal of the wording “the covenant of works” represents the Baptist rejection of it, but that is not correct for it is mentioned elsewhere in the 1689, and is still implied and assumed here in chapter 7. The concept is still present in chapter 7 even if the precise terminology is not. It is an important aspect of Particular Baptist covenant theology, though there are some differences in how the Presbyterians and Particular Baptists approach it in some areas.

[9] Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison Between Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist Federalism (Birmingham, Al.: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), pg. 56.

[10] I think an excellent starter is Pascal Denault’s, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison Between Seventeenth-century Particular Baptist and Paedobaptist Federalism (Birmingham, Al.: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013).

[11] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Containing the full text of Systematic theology (1932) and the original Introductory volume to systematic theology (1938), and new preface by Richard a. Muller (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), 271.

[12] Shed, Dogmatic Theology II, 360. Cited by Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Containing the full text of Systematic theology (1932) and the original Introductory volume to systematic theology (1938), and new preface by Richard a. Muller (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), 265.

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Chapter 6: Of the Fall of Man, Of Sin, and Of the Punishment Thereof

dore-garden-expulsion1.  Although God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof, yet he did not long abide in this honour; Satan using the subtlety of the serpent to subdue Eve, then by her seducing Adam, who, without any compulsion, did willfully transgress the law of their creation, and the command given unto them, in eating the forbidden fruit, which God was pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel to permit, having purposed to order it to his own glory. (Genesis 2:16, 17; Genesis 3:12, 13; 2 Corinthians 11:3)

This chapter will address Adam and Eve’s disobedience and the drastic change it brought to them and their posterity. The paragraph begins by reviewing the state of mankind prior to the fall, as stated in chapter 4, Of Creation. God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law (i.e. the moral law) written upon his heart and a particular law to not eat the forbidden fruit, which was unto life had he kept it and threatening death upon the breach of it. This is the setting in which the fall occurred. Despite the seeming best of circumstances, and the clearest of instruction, Adam did not long abide in this honour. We do not know how long Adam and Eve remained obedient, but the sense from the Genesis narrative is that it was not a long time.

What precipitated this fall? Satan [used] the subtlety of the serpent to subdue Eve, then by her seducing Adam. Notice the links: Satan deceived Eve, then, Eve seduced Adam. We know from Genesis 3:1-6 that Satan used, in the words of the Confession, subtlety to subdue Eve. Subtlety means to be crafty using fine arguments.[1] Paul referred to this subtlety of Satan with Eve when he told the Corinthians: “that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:11 ESV). Paul again refers to Satan’s craftiness with Eve: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3 ESV). Satan, through his crafty use of fine argumentation, subdued Eve. She was deceived by these crafty arguments, submitting to them, leading to her disobedience. Eve then seduced Adam. How did she do that? Let’s look at the narrative: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:6 ESV). It does not specify Eve’s actions or words to Adam. It does say that she gave the fruit to her husband who was with her.[2] Does the biblical text mean Adam was present when Satan was deceiving Eve? Calvin argues that this is not likely since Paul says that “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived” (1 Tim. 2:14 ESV).[3]  It is more likely that Adam was close by, and Eve relayed the conversation she had with the serpent—relaying it from her deceived and skewed point of view.

Regarding Adam, the Confession indicates that he without any compulsion, did willfully transgress the law of their creation, and the command given unto them, in eating the forbidden fruit. Adam was not under any compulsion or power that would move Adam to sin. In other words, Adam still had the ability to perfectly obey God’s law; he had the “power to fulfill it” (see 1689 4:2). But despite that “power to fulfill” the command of God, Adam willfully transgressed the law of their creation. To transgress means to positively act against something forbidden by law.  Adam willfully transgressed the law of their creation.[4]  I understand this to reference the ‘law’ of God written on our first parent’s heart at their creation. Thus, by eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve also violated the law written on their heart at their creation. Calvin states that based on the “reproof which soon afterwards follows, ‘Behold, Adam is as one of us,’ clearly proves that [Adam] also foolishly coveted more than was lawful, and gave greater credit to the flatteries of the devil than to the sacred word of God.”[5]  Thomas Vincent declared: “This sin of eating the forbidden fruit was such sin as included many other sins, as it was circumstantiated.”[6] Watson wrote: “One sin may have many sins in it. We are apt to have slight thoughts of sin, and say it is but a little one. How many sins were in Adam’s sin! Oh, take heed of any sin! As in one volume there may be many works bound up, so there may be many sins in one sin.”[7] Adam willfully transgressed the ‘law of their creation,’ and the command given unto them. Adam was expressly forbidden from eating the forbidden fruit. But the command to not eat the forbidden fruit is the exact thing Adam did, and there was no question as to Adam’s guilt in this regard.

We come to a real difficulty here, for mankind was made righteous and holy and yet they have now sinned. What happened within our first parents? R.C. Sproul states: “If Adam and Eve chose according to their desires, and if they chose an evil action, then they must first have had an evil desire. Where did it come from? Were they born with evil desires? Did God make them with evil desires? If so, then God is the author of evil. If an evil desire rises spontaneously within the soul of a righteous creature, we have an inexplicable quantum jump, what Karl Barth calls, die unmogliche Moglichkeit, “the impossible possibility.” That is why I throw up my hands. I have no idea what motivated Adam and Eve. Somehow good desire got twisted into a bad result.” [8] We ought to notice of this quantum jump, even if we cannot explain it fully, for it is a major turn of events.

Given the devastating judgment of God upon Adam and Eve and all their posterity, it is important for us to see the preponderance of evidence against Adam. Moses lays out the evidence in Genesis in such a way that there is no question that Adam was fully culpable for his disobedience. The New Testament confirms Adam’s willful transgression. The weight of evidence against Adam only makes Adam’s attempts to defer the fault foolish. First, he tried to blame Eve (i.e. “she gave me the fruit and I ate it”), and secondly, to blame God (i.e. “the woman you gave me”). God gave a clear command that was fully understood. Adam’s disobedience was not a mere matter of deception by Satan. It was a willful transgression, and as such God, who is just in all his judgments (Rev. 19:2), sent his judgment upon our first parents, and in them, all their posterity.

In the midst of the drama, we are likely to think all is lost by the fall. It is indeed a devastating situation; however, the Confession reminds us that even in the fall: God was pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel to permit, having purposed to order it to his own glory. God’s epic story has design; God has a plan in this tragedy—one that involves a greater good. God will show forth his glorious justice and mercy, bringing glory to the Triune Godhead by redeeming God’s elect in the midst of this devastation to the praise of his glorious grace.

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  1. 2. Our first Parents, by this Sin, fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them whereby death came upon all: all becoming dead in Sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. (Romans 3:23; Romans 5:12, etc; Titus 1:15; Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:10-19 )

Our first parents, by this sin, fell. They were in a lofty position of perfection, being holy, righteous, with knowledge and fellowship with God. All of which only heightens the tragedy of the fall for all of that was lost. We can hardly over-estimate the loss which occurred as a result of their sin. The extent of this loss is the topic of the rest of this chapter, and as we continue, we will learn that their fallen state has been imputed and conveyed to all their posterity. As a result, we have a vested interest in understanding the fall and its consequences—not merely as a historical fact about Adam and Eve—but as a present reality for all mankind. If we understand the degree to which Adam’s race fell, then we will understand the need for radical redemption. Many Christians today do not grasp the magnitude of mankind’s corruption—treating it as if it were a mere superficial wound. And while all true Christians will understand that sin is the problem, many do not understand the extent and depth of it. But to not grasp the scope of the fall unwittingly leads to the glossing over the depth and breadth of the gospel—the becoming merely the gateway to Christianity, rather the substance of it.

The Confession declares that our first parents fell from their original righteousness. We know from chapter 4 that our first parents were created in righteousness. Their righteousness was inherent; it was not merely that they were considered righteous by God, but they were fully and actually righteous in word, thought, and deed. That kind of righteousness is so foreign to us that we can hardly grasp it. But our first parents had it, and to fall from it meant that they no longer had that original righteousness. As a result, our first parents fell from their original… communion with God. This is certainly the most devastating loss of all. That loss is observed in the Genesis narrative: “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God (Gen. 3:8 ESV). The fellowship had been broken, and they were now alienated from God.

The 1689 Confession now shows that the threat of death was not an empty threat; indeed it came, but not just to Adam and Eve: and we in them whereby death came upon all. God had threatened death upon disobedience, but Satan lied to Eve, saying: “You shall not surely die.” Eve should have recognized this direct contradiction. And now the realization of God’s words set in—death indeed came. Did this death apply only to Adam and Eve? No, it came to all their posterity as well. Scripture declares: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12 ESV). Our fall in them (i.e. we in them), means that death came upon all: all becoming dead in Sin. Paragraph 3 will discuss the imputation of sin to our first parent’s posterity, and so we discuss that important topic more specifically then. The death God threatened was specifically the dissolution of the soul from body. This dissolution (i.e. separation) of soul and body was not the state God intended for mankind. Because of sin, at death of a person the soul and body will be torn apart, but this dissolution will only be temporary, for Scripture tells us that there will be a final resurrection for all: “there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15b ESV; see also John 5:28-29). This resurrection will reunite the soul and body separated at death; the just will be raised in honor (Phil 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:43), and the wicked to judgment (Jn. 5:28-29). Chapter 31, deals with the resurrection of the dead, if you are interested in looking ahead, but for now I simply want to point out that the dissolution of body and soul would never have come about, but by sin, and even in God’s permitting the fall, and subsequently death, he will yet resolve this unnatural state of dissolution. For the righteous it will be in glorification, but for the wicked it will be the final stage of judgment—both body and soul being cast into hell (Luke 12:5). By the phrase in the Confession: all becoming dead in Sin, we also understand that all have died spiritually—even before physical death.

In addition to both spiritual and eventual physical death, all are wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. With the loss of original righteousness, all the faculties and parts of soul and body became wholly defiled. Facilities and parts refer to the various aspects of body and soul: mind, emotions, the will, and so forth. There is no part of man, and no facility, unaffected by the fall. This is the doctrine of total depravity. Scripture says of all those now converted: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins(Eph. 2:2 ESV). Until converted, we are dead in our sins. As well, in Titus: “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:15-16 ESV). Scripture points out that there is no exception—all are totally depraved: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one”” (Rm. 3:10-12 ESV). More will be said about the ramifications of deadness in sin, and of total depravity in paragraphs 3, 4 and 5, so we will expand upon these further as we continue.

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  1. 3. They being the root, and by God’s appointment, standing in the room and stead ofall mankind, the guilt of the Sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of sin, the subjects of death, and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free. (Romans 5:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:21, 22, 45, 49; Psalms 51:5; Job 14:4; Ephesians 2:3; Romans 6:20 Romans 5:12; Hebrews 2:14, 15; 1 Thessalonians 1:10 )

Paragraph 2 indicated that by our first parents sin all mankind sinned, but it did not explain why that is the case. This paragraph explains why, and give us further details about the impact of that on their posterity. The Confession indicates: They being the root and by God’s appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind. “They”, of course, refers to our first parents.  It’s not just that Adam and Eve were parents, it’s that they were the first parents, and as such, they are literally the ultimate parents of all mankind—the root of all humanity. No other parents can claim that standing. The fact that they were the first parents placed them in a unique standing, a standing that was specifically by God’s appointment. The relationship of these first parents to their posterity was not merely natural, but it was also legal. It was legal because God appointed our first parents to represent all mankind by way of covenant—a legal agreement. Formally, this standing in the stead of all mankind is referred to as federal headship. Baker’s Dictionary of Theology states: “As the natural head, he [Adam] stood in a federal (foedus, Latin “covenant”) relationship to all posterity. His obedience, had it been maintained, would have transmitted an entail of blessedness to them; his disobedience involved them with him in the curse which God pronounced upon the transgressors of his law.”[9] A.W. Pink said it well: “Adam acted not simply as a private person, the results of whose conduct affected none but himself, but rather that he transacted as a public person, so that what he did directly concerned and judicially involved others. Adam was very much more than the father of the human race: he was also their legal agent, standing in their stead. His descendants were not only in him seminally as their natural head, but were in him also morally and legally as their moral and forensic head. In other words, by Divine constitution and covenant arrangement, Adam acted as the federal representative of all his children. By an act of His sovereign will, it pleased God to ordain that Adam’s relation to his natural seed should be like unto that which Christ sustained to His spiritual seed—the one acting on the behalf of many.”[10]

Because our first parents are the federal head of all mankind, the guilt of the Sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. The guilt of sin refers to the legal declaration that Adam had transgressed by eating the forbidden fruit. A.A. Hodge affirms: “By the word “guilt” is meant, not the personal disposition which prompted the act, nor the personal moral pollution which resulted from it, but simply the just liability to the punishment which that sin deserved.”[11] Imputation means to have something judicially declared and accounted to one. Such a judicial pronouncement may have nothing to do with the actual actions of the person so declared guilty. Adam’s posterity did not actually sin as he did, but nonetheless Adam’s guilt was imputed to them as if they had sinned. Thus at birth, or more precisely at conception, each of Adam’s posterity is considered guilty of Adam’s first sin.[12]

While our first parent’s guilt was imputed to all their posterity, our first parent’s corrupt nature was not imputed, for imputation does not change one’s disposition. Rather that corrupt nature was conveyed (i.e. transmitted) to their posterity. This transmission of a corrupt nature is based on the standing of our first parents in our stead. Thus their wholly being defiled is transmitted or conveyed to their posterity. It is conveyed by ordinary generation, in other words at conception, or as is more commonly said, at birth. The implications of this conveyed corruption to all Adam and Eve’s posterity can hardly be over-estimated. All we have to do is look at the Book of Genesis; once our first parent’s posterity arrived immediately sin was present: Cain killed Abel, entire corrupt civilizations developed, and by Chapter 6, God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the land—every intention of the thought of the heart was only evil continually (Gen. 6:5). There is an exception implied by the wording: descending from them by ordinary generation. All of Adam’s posterity naturally generated (i.e. naturally produced), are imputed with guilt and receive that corrupt nature. But the Lord Jesus Christ did not descend from Adam and Eve by ordinary generation. True Jesus is the Seed of the woman, but he is not of the seed of man. Since Jesus was born of a virgin, he was not of Adam, and did not fall under his federal headship; as such, Jesus did not inherit Adam’s guilt or receive his sinful nature. More will be covered on this topic when we arrive at chapter 8, Of Christ the Mediator.

The result of the imputation of guilt and conveyance of corruption to all our first parent’s posterity means that they are now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of sin, the subjects of death, and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free. The consequence then to Adam’s race is quite extensive. Let’s briefly cover each of these. Adam’s posterity is now conceived in sin. David said: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalms 51:5 (ESV). Each and every person after Adam and Eve, except Christ, is born into Adam’s original sin. As a result, they are by nature children of wrath. This does not mean they are by nature angry children, of course. It means that their very nature is at enmity with God, and as such God’s wrath abides upon them. Scripture states: “Among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3 ESV). The corruption conveyed to our first parent’s posterity at birth, means that they are servants of sin. Since this corruption effects every faculty and part, they cannot free themselves from the bondage to sin, and thus they are slaves of sin. Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34 ESV). As slaves to sin, they are the subjects of death. In other words, they will each receive death. Presumably, Confession is specifically speaking of the dissolution of body and soul by death of the body. They are also subject to all other miseries. These miseries fall into the three categories: spiritual, temporal, and eternal. Spiritual refers to those miseries inflicted on the soul, and even miseries of the body that result from spiritual matters. Temporal miseries are those in this in this temporal life. Of the greatest miseries are those miseries that are eternal, because they shall never end and will be experienced in the eternal flames of hell. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift, because all these miseries would be inescapable curses for Adam’s posterity, unless the Lord Jesus set them free. The sum of all these things remind us that the hope of the gospel is indeed good news. We are looking at the bad news of sin in this chapter, but by the end of the chapter we will, by God’s grace, be ready to flee afresh to the hope of the gospel freely offered.

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  1. 4. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions. (Romans 8:7; Colossians 1:21; James 1:14, 15; Matthew 15:19 )

We now focus upon the cause of actual sin (i.e. sinful actions) in mankind. The core meaning of this paragraph is best seen by looking at the first and last phrase: “From this original corruption…do proceed all actual transgressions.” The clause in between these phrases explains the characteristics of original corruption, and by use of the plural pronoun “we,” explains that the corruption is in all Adam and Eve’s posterity. In other words, the “we” is talking about us. The phrase “original corruption” refers to the corruption that came to Adam and Eve when they first sinned. We will recall from paragraph 2 that by our first parents sin, they fell from their original righteousness and we in them became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. Thus this paragraph explains what complete defilement looks like in their posterity; in particular, it shows that this corruption leads to all actual sin.

We are utterly indisposed…to all good. What does indisposed mean? It means to be “unwilling, disinclined, or averse to do something.”[13] We are not inclined to good, or to put it in the positive: we are averse to doing good. We are not just indisposed, but utterly indisposed. This means that we are completely, fully and totally disinclined to do any good. But that begs the question: if mankind is indisposed to do good, why do we see people doing “good” in this world? We need to define what is meant by “good” in order to answer that question. The Confession means here the kind of “good” that meets the standard of a holy God—which include the motivation. This “good” is not defined by human standards. Before the fall, Adam and Eve were able to meet that standard of a holy God, but after the fall original corruption made meeting that standard impossible. Scripture makes it plain: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12 ESV). To be indisposed is to not “seek good” and to “turn aside” from it.

It is not just we are averse to good, but we are disabled to all good. We are completely and fully unable to do good. Paul in Romans declares: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8 ESV). It not just that the flesh (i.e. the sinful nature) is not interested in submitting to God’s law, it is that it literally cannot. Not only is Adam’s corrupt race utterly indisposed, and disabled to do good, but worse, they are utterly opposite to doing good. The Confession adds to this—as if in the same breath—that we are wholly inclined to all evil. What does it mean to be inclined? To be inclined is to be angled toward something. We might think of an inclined plane—a flat object often used as a ramp (a simple machine). If one were to place a round marble on an inclined plane, which direction do you think it will roll? It will, of course, roll towards the lower part of the inclined plane. In the same way, we are inclined in the direction of evil. To be inclined has to do with desire. Human nature is such that we make choices based upon what we desire. If we reflect upon the reason we choose one thing over another, we must conclude that it is based on desire. Perhaps, we might object to this by indicating that several times this week we got up early to go to work. “Surely,” we say, “that was contrary to my desire?” No, because even though we chose contrary to that desire, still the reason was that we desired a paycheck more than to sleep in. There is no escaping the desire-choice connection. Our nature is sinful is a factory of sinful desire, and it is open 24 hour, 7 days a week, and all year.

Why is it that after conversion, we were no longer wholly desirous of sin, but began to experience a new desire to do God’s will? It is because God changed our nature: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV). As a result, our inclinations (i.e. our desires) change which leads us to choose obedience. This is the sole work of the Spirit upon the nature of a person; regeneration changes our disposition and our inclination. When unregenerate people do “good” we do not it. If an unbeliever feeds the hungry, they do good, and there is no rational reason to deny that is a god thing. But their desire to act in a good way, nonetheless, comes from an unregenerate sinful nature; one wholly inclined to all evil, and as such, whatever motivates them to this good deed is was ultimately evil. Grant it, it is offensive to tell an unconverted person that their good deed is ultimately sinful, but if they were to weigh their “good deed” in light of a holy God to which they are in rebellion to, they might see things different. Isaiah 64:6b declares: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (ESV). The unrighteous cannot produce righteousness, any more than a bad tree can produce good fruit. As we will see in the next paragraph, even the regenerate have remaining corruption, and so their good works are also mixed and tainted with sinful desires, but in Christ and by Christ, God accepts our good works.

The Confession concludes that from original corruption proceed all actual transgressions. Actual sin is the action of individually, voluntarily and personally violating God’s law.   There is a difference between imputed guilt and actual sin. Imputed guilt does not strictly result in actual action; however, conveyed corruption always results in actual sin. Original corruption has so penetrated every aspect of human nature, producing evil desire, and evil desire leads to willfully choosing evil. The will of man is so connected to it sinful desires that it is in bondage. The will of man cannot freely choose against its nature; it has no interest, ability or conception of doing so. It is this bondage of the will to sinful nature desires that is at the center of the Arminian Controversy. The Reformed claim that Scripture shows the will of man in such bondage to its sinful nature that it cannot freely choose to do good unless God supernaturally intervenes. The Arminian claims the will is not so severely enslaved to sinful nature desires, and that it can freely choose to do good and embrace Christ without the intervention of regeneration.

To be fair, the Arminian does not deny that the will is in bondage from the fall; rather, it claims that God equally gives to all mankind prevenient grace which then frees the will so that it can then freely embrace Christ in the gospel. Passages such as John 1:9; 6:8; 12:32 and even 6:44 are wrongly interpreted to support this view. This prevenient grace still does not explain why some people come to Christ and some do not—despite each receiving this grace equally. I can only conclude that ultimately those who come to Christ must still yet have something in them better than those who do not come. Prevenient grace, then, is a co-operation between God and man in salvation (i.e. synergistic). Ultimately, then, this view is man-centered in salvation, for salvation is given not as the result of the decree of election and effectual calling following that decree, but the free-willed choice of salvation by man.

We will save this topic for further discussion in chapter 9, Of Free Will, and chapter 10, Of Effectual Calling.

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  1. 5. This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be through Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself, and the first motions thereof, are truly and properly sin. (Romans 7:18,23; Ecclesiastes 7:20; 1 John 1:8; Romans 7:23-25; Galatians 5:17)

The corruption of nature just spoken of in paragraph 4—utterly indisposed, disabled, made opposite to all good, being wholly inclined to all evil—remains in those that are regenerated. Does this corruption remain exactly the same as it was prior to regeneration, or is it that only some of it remains? In light of chapter 9 and 10 to come, we know the Confession does not teach that the corruption is unchanged by regeneration, so then we understand that only some of the corruption remains after regeneration. The question, then, is: “How much of it remains? This is a vitally important question to answer for it relates very critical areas of our life, such as: conversion, repentance, sanctification and assurance. Perhaps we can best grasp how much corruption remains by reading the Apostle Paul’s own words which describe his struggle against remaining corruption: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:21-25 ESV).[14] I think we can conclude that the degree of remaining corruption is significant based on Paul’s experience. Paul is not using hyperbole; rather, he is sincerely and honestly expressing the very real struggle he, and all the regenerate, have with the remaining corruption.

We see other passages in Scripture which confirm the existence of remaining corruption: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV). “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8 ESV). “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17 ESV). We cannot determine the mathematical percentage of remaining corruption, but we can see that it impacts our ability and consistency of fully obey God’s law. This knowledge does not provide an excuse to disobey God (1 John 2:1a), but it is the reason we often fail, and it is critical that we understand that. This ought to bring comfort in our struggle against sin, knowing that we do not need to question our conversion every time we sin.[15] Paul concludes after Romans 7: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 ESV). It is the hope of Christ in the gospel that saves us from despair as we remember that: “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1b ESV).

It may be helpful to look ahead briefly at Chapter 9, paragraph, lest we underestimate the change wrought by regeneration: “When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he doth not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.” Regeneration does indeed change us! We do not want to overlook that, but back in our present paragraph 5, the point is that as transforming as regeneration is, yet it does not eliminate original corruption entirely. If we hold out hope that our struggle against sin will be eliminated in this life, we will be sorely disappointed. It is better to face the fact that original corruption remains in this life. This means that until we die, or the Lord comes, this corruption will remain in us. Later, we will see that even in the work of sanctification, which causes us to live more and more in righteousness, this corruption is not entirely removed (see 1689 13:1). The fact of remaining corruption throughout this life may seem obvious, but some come from churches where the doctrine of entire sanctification (perfectionism) in this life is taught. Today, churches associated with the holiness movement tend to embrace or have sympathies, to varying degrees, with this unbiblical teaching. The Confession guards against this view in its own time, for the view of perfectionism has existed in one form or another throughout church history.[16]

The Confession states of this corrupt nature that it [is] through Christ pardoned and mortified. In Christ, this remaining corruption is pardoned. Christ died for all the sin of the elect; therefore, even remaining corruption is pardoned by his perfect work. Through Christ’s death and resurrection (our union with him in these) we are empowered to mortify the remaining corruption (see Rm. 6). But even though it is pardoned and mortified in Christ, the remaining corruption yet both itself, and the first motions thereof, are truly and properly sin. This means that the remaining corruption itself is truly and properly sin. As well, the first motions are truly and properly sin. What is meant by “first motions?” Since original corruption is the cause of actual sin, the Confession calls that primary cause the first motion of sin.  So not only is actual sin sinful, but the corruption which leads to it is also sinful. A modern version of the 1689 Confession, A Faith to Confess, states: “the corruption itself and all that issues from it are truly and properly sin. This is a helpful updated clarification. It is truly sinful, not just theoretically sinful. And it is properly called sin, for it is actually sin. Samuel Waldron affirms: “The specific point of the paragraph is…that the corruptions of the believers are sinful. This is probably asserted as over against those known in Puritan times as ‘antinomians’. One of their traits was to so emphasize grace and so to interpret the doctrine of justification as to deny that Christians sinned or had a sinful nature.”[17]

As we come to the end of this chapter, we should now grasp more fully the magnitude of the fall. We can see that the fall has left mankind guilty before God and wholly corrupt. Our corrupt nature is why we sin, and even the regenerate retains a degree of this corruption which will never be fully eradicated until death or the Lord returns. To grasp the degree of depravity from the fall is causes us to say with the disciples: “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:25-26 ESV). The truths in this chapter provide a critical foundation for the next several chapters. As with each chapter, it is necessary that we take all we have learned, and bring it with us into the next.

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[1] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[2] Calvin indicates: “Others refer the particle (immah,) “with her” to the conjugal bond, which may be received.” John Calvin, Commentaries on The First Book of Moses called Genesis. Translated from the Original Latin, and Compared with the French Edition, by Rev. John King, M.A., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), pg. 152. I am not persuaded the Confession means to infer that Eve seduced Adam by “conjugal bond,” though that is a possible interpretation of the biblical text. But that it is a possible meaning of the biblical text does not mean that it is the meaning. I take the Confession here to mean that Eve persuaded Adam by alluring argumentation—likely the same arguments Satan used to deceive her. Adam was, however, not deceived like Eve, and as such his disobedience was more culpable than Eve’s.

[3] John Calvin, Commentaries on The First Book of Moses called Genesis. Translated from the Original Latin, and Compared with the French Edition, by Rev. John King, M.A., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), pg. 152.

[4] The phrase ‘law of their creation’ is not present in the Westminster Confession. It is present in the Savoy Declaration, and thus the framers of the Baptist confession appear to have adopted it from there; but they also added to the ‘law of creation’ the phrase: “and the command given unto them.”

[5] John Calvin, Commentaries on The First Book of Moses called Genesis. Translated from the Original Latin, and Compared with the French Edition, by Rev. John King, M.A., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), pg. 152.

[6] Thomas Vincent, The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly Explained from Scripture (1674; reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 58.

[7] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 142.

[8]R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. I, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006), 182.

[9] Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 217-18.

[10] A. W. Pink, Doctrine of Human Depravity (Pensacola, Fl.: Chapel Library), 15.

[11] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 112.

[12] Baptist Catechism 21 states: “The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.”

[13] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971). See sense 5.

[14] Paul is speaking of his own experience as a regenerate person, for how could Paul in his unregenerate state claim to “delight in the law of God, in my inner being?” I found John Murray’s commentary especially helpful on this passage. John Murray, New International Commentary on the New Testament: Romans, one-volume edition (Grand Rapids, 1968), 239-273.

[15] This does not rule out the apostle’s inspired counsel for believers to examine themselves (2 Cor. 13:5; 2 Pt. 1:10-11, etc.). Along the lines of mortifying remaining corruption, I recommend reading J.C. Ryle’s, Holiness, and John Owen’s, Mortification of sin.

[16] See Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 520-41.

[17] Samuel Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 103.

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Chapter 5: Of Divine Providence

Corny%20Point%20Lighthouse%20bl%2021. God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were Created; according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will; to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy. (Hebrews 1:3; Job 38:11; Isaiah 46:10, 11; Psalms 135:6; Matthew 10:29-31; Ephesians 1:11

We now move to the second way God executes his decree—the works of providence.  God’s providence is a topic of deep theological significance that can bring great comfort. This chapter explains how God carries out his decrees in the world and in our lives.  Many perplexing issues are wonderfully resolved in this chapter as the consistency and depth of Scripture is explained. Edward Morris affirms of this chapter: “No definition of providence so exact and so comprehensive as this can be found elsewhere in Protestant symbolism.” [1]  We will be studying, then, the subject of God’s providence under the tutelage of a thorough and thoughtful body of doctrine—one of the best in all of Christendom.

What is providence?  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: 1) the action of providing; provision, preparation, arrangement; chiefly in the phrase to make providence; to make provision. 2) Foresight, prevision; anticipation of and preparation for the future; timely care; hence prudent or wise arrangement, management government or guidance.  In these definitions, the key concepts are: supervision, prevision and provision. While the dictionary provides us with a general meaning of providence, it is not necessarily theological.  The Baptist Catechism question 14 provides a succinct theological definition.  Providence is “[God’s] most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”  John Calvin said in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “At the outset, then, let my readers grasp that providence means not that by which God idly observes from heaven what takes place on earth, but that by which, as keeper of the keys, he governs all events.”[2]  A. A. Hodge declares: “His providential control is in all respects the consistent execution of his eternal, immutable and sovereign purpose.”[3]  Thomas Watson states: “God’s decree ordains things that shall fall out, God’s providence orders them.”[4]  There are essentially two complimentary perspectives to be seen in these statements about providence.  Providence is the way God carries out his decrees,[5] and providence is God’s provision and care for creation; these are two sides of the same coin.

From these above definitions we also observe that God is personally involved in providence.  God does not issue decrees and carry them out by some cold, metallic, mechanical process. No, by providence God himself orders the way his decrees are carried out. Ephesians 1:11b declares of God’s decree that it is “him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (ESV).[6]  Providence is personal!  Watson said: “Of the work of God’s providence Christ says, “My Father worketh hitherto and I work.”  John v 17.  God rested from works of creation, he does not create any new species of things.  “He rested from all His works;” Gen ii 2; and therefore it must needs be meant of his works of providence: “My Father worketh and I work.”  The Triune Godhead is personally working by providence.  What wonder and comfort this brings to those who belong to God.

Let’s now begin to look at the full theological definition of providence found in paragraph 1.  It begins: God the good Creator of all things.  Since God is good, it follows that both his creation and providence are also good.  If God was not “good” we would find ourselves in the same situation as the ancient Grecians whose gods— likened to men — were wickedly self-serving, unreliably changeable—according to their whims.  To live under the so-called providence of the Grecian gods, as they imagined them, would be a fearful thing.  But our good God is the good Creator of all things, and as such we find he is loving, just and merciful.  A.A. Hodge says: “Since God’s eternal purpose relates to and determines all that comes to pass, and since it is immutable, his providential control of all things must be in execution of his purpose.  And since his purpose is infinitely wise, righteous, and benevolent, and absolutely sovereign…, his providential execution of the decree must possess the same characteristics.”[7]  The doctrine of providence is a reflection of God’s character.

The 1689 Confession continues: in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern.  God’s execution of his decree through providence flows from his infinite power.  In the book of Job, the question is asked: “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? 8 It is higher than heaven —what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know? 9 Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea” (Job 11:7-9 ESV).  We see the answer to these two questions is a definitive, no!  There is no limit to the almighty; he is infinite in power and wisdom.   God’s effects his decree by providence through his infinite wisdom.  Scripture states: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28 ESV).  God’s understanding (i.e. wisdom) is unsearchable (i.e. infinite).  God, by his providence, orders all things by his infinite power and wisdom.  But what specifically does God do by providence?  He upholds, directs, disposes and governs all things.  We will look individually at each of these actions.

God upholds all things.  Scripture declares: “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together(Col. 1:17 ESV).  Also, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power(Heb. 1:3 ESV).  God directs all things.  Scripture declares:Daniel answered and said:  “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. 21  He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding”” (Daniel 2:20-21 ESV).  Here we see God as the director of time and seasons, and the one who removes those in political power and/or replaces them.  God does this by his power and wisdom. God as director is not running around reacting to events as they occur—as the open-theist asserts; rather God is directing; everything else responds.   God disposes all things.  This does not mean God “throws away,” but that he carries out.  God accomplishes all things—things he has ordained.  God governs all things.  The Bible indicates: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place(Acts 17:24-26 ESV).  Also, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Is. 9:6-7 ESV).  These passages demonstrate God’s sovereign rule and government over creation.  These four words: uphold, direct, dispose, and govern cover the entire scope of God’s providence.

The Confession indicates that these actions are directed towards: all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least.  We ought to notice that there is a range of classification: greatest and least.  This is a ranking of all creatures and all things.  For example, we might see this greatest to least of creatures as: archangels, angels, mankind, animals, and plants, down to the smallest micro-organism.  If we look at the realm of things (i.e. non-living matter), we might see the greatest to the least: the universe, solar systems, stars, planets, oceans, mountains, rocks, all the way down to atoms.  We could also understand things to be providence’s ordering the big events in world history, such as the world wide flood, world wars, all the way down to the most minuscule of things in life.  As cited in an earlier chapter, R.C. Sproul rightly observes that there are no maverick molecules roaming the universe.  Each and every one is under the providence of God.  Ezekiel Hopkins, a Puritan, writes: “Hence we can learn that God governs the meanest, the most inconsiderable, and contemptible occurrences in the world by an exact and particular providence.  Do you see [a] thousand little motes and atoms wandering up and down in a sun-beam?  It is God that so peoples [populates] it; and he guides their innumerable and irregular strayings.”[8]  Jesus said that the Father’s providential care extends from mankind, the greatest earthly creature, down to the lowliest of creatures (birds): “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26  Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt. 6:25-26 ESV). As well, Jesus said: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father(Mt. 10:29 ESV).

We know from earlier statements in the Confession that God governs by his infinite power and wisdom, but in what way does he do it? The Confession affirms: “by his most wise and holy providence.”  God’s wisdom is far higher than any wisdom his creatures might possess, and thus God’s wisdom applied to providence is most wise.  We can be certain that the most difficult things in our lives are under his most wise providence.  Consider the incomprehensible details involved in directing creation (all creatures and things).  Clearly, God’s infinite wisdom is required.  Can you imagine what the divine providence flow-chart might look like?  Further, his providence is most holy. God’s providence is holy in an ethical and moral sense.  God does not violate his holy character in any of the ways he executes his decrees.  Thus, even in very dark providences, God is holy—morally perfect.  He cannot be rightly accused of being unholy in any providence.

God’s providence works to the end for the[9] which they were Created. God’s providential dealing with all created things is according to their design, purpose and nature.  Both Scripture and observation demonstrate this to be true.  “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Prov. 16:4 ESV).  God has made things in a certain way, and he has done so that they may carry out his purposes.  God has a purpose and order for the hierarchy of creation and its creatures, and by his ordinary providence all these things function within that design.  The moon has its multipurpose function of reflecting light onto the earth, keeping the earth in its designated orbit, and creating marine tides.  We observe in ecosystems that each species has its designed function within that system so as to bring about its designed environment.  Each creature has its unique function and purposes.  Ordinarily, God’s providence uses all things within that order, and he does not cause creation to function outside of its design and nature.  If God has decreed A, then he will use creatures or things that can carry out A within their created design and function.  There are exceptions, however, such as the time Balaam’s donkey spoke to him.  In that case, the donkey functioned in a supernatural mode (i.e. supra-natural; above nature).  It was outside of, and above, the donkey’s nature to do so.  Ordinarily, we would expect God send a human prophet or an angel with the natural ability to speak words.  We will touch on this topic again in Paragraph 3 when the Confession addresses exceptions to God’s ordinary providence.

The Confession testifies that God’s providence is according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will.  God’s providence (his upholding, directing, disposing, and governing creation) works according to (or by) God’s infallible foreknowledge.  God does not look into the future in order to make plans and anticipate the need; rather, God fore-orders (foreordains) the future and providence assures the decree comes about.  Foreknowledge means God’s foreordaining, as discussed in chapter 3.  Providence is also according to the free and immutable counsel of his own will.  God’s providence is the outflow of God’s unchangeable will.  All of this is to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy.  The result is that God’s providence shows forth God’s glory, specifically through the display of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy.  Specifically these listed attributes of God are displayed through God’s providence.

This paragraph has indeed provided us with a comprehensive definition of providence, and the remaining paragraphs will serve to clarify and expand it.

Corny%20Point%20Lighthouse%20bl%2022. Although in relation to the foreknowledge and Decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence; yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. (Acts 2:23; Proverbs 16:33; Genesis 8:22)

The Confession declares: Although in relation to the foreknowledge and Decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence.  This teaches, in the words of A. A. Hodge, “that as the execution of an eternal and sovereign purpose, God’s providential control is in the case of every being and event certainly efficacious.”[10]  It is not only that the decree of God causes all things, but that through providence they come to pass unchangeably and unfailingly;  God’s decree never alters course (i.e. immutable), and is always fulfilled the way God determines  without fail (i.e. infallibly).

What is meant by the first cause?  In order to answer that question satisfactorily, we will need to do some grammatical analysis.  First, let’s evaluate the context. The phrase ‘first cause’ is best understood in the context of the phrase ‘second causes’ used later in the same paragraph.  The ‘first cause’ is distinct from second causes—one is first, and the other after it—second.  As we will see, God’s decrees are the first cause, and the means God orders to execute those decrees are ‘second causes.’  We will discuss that momentarily.  The phrase ‘first cause’ functions in its sentence as an appositive phrase.  An appositive phrase—often separated in a sentence by commas—follows either a noun or phrase, providing additional information about the noun or phrase.  By this grammatical rule, the appositive phrase (e.g. ‘first cause’) refers either to the preceding noun ‘God,’ or to the larger phrase the ‘Decrees of God.’[11]  Do we need to decide between the two—‘God’ and the ‘Decree of God?’  The two are so closely related that such a strict distinction is unnecessary; however, looking at the overall context, it is reasonable for clarity sake to infer that the ‘first cause’ specifically refers to God’s decree.

We still have not exactly explained what is meant by the phrase ‘first cause.’ The cause of all that happens is God’s decree, and for that reason the decree of God is called the first cause.  It is the first cause in the sense that it is the ultimate cause coming first chronologically.  Since God’s decree is the ultimate cause of all that happens, and since there is nothing behind or before it in terms of contributory causes it is the first and ultimate cause.  But there are also other causes (i.e. secondary causes) after it which execute that decree.  God’s decree is not ordinarily executed by simple cause and effect.  Ordinarily, God’s decree comes to pass by means.  These means are referred to as second causes; they are the means or causes that  execute the decree, but they are not the ultimate cause.  The ultimate cause belongs to God’s decree which not only determines the end, but also ordains the means (secondary causes) to get there.  In some ways, we are getting ahead of ourselves, but it is difficult to explain the ‘first cause’ without at least introducing ‘second causes.’

In the graphic below (Figure 1), we see a model representing what we have covered thus far, though for the moment second causes are excluded.  I will seek to show the Confession’s model of God’s decrees and their execution using a graphic model; this model will expand as we continue through paragraph 2.  Figure 1 represents God’s decree (the first cause) executed or carried out by God’s providence.

Decrees providence PNG                                                                                                                                                     Figure 1

As a result of the foreknowledge of God (foreordination) and decree of God, the Confession says there is not anything [that] befalls any by chance, or without his providence.  The Confession covers all of creation—everything and everyone.  Providence ruling over all things excludes chance.  What is chance?  It is something that happens which has no reason, design, and order—something outside or without God.  Chance is an atheist.[12]  The Christian, however, is not an atheist and God truly rules every part of the universe.  As such, the Christian should be thoughtful about their use of words like “chance,” “fate,” and “fortune” in a world that uses such words to suppress the truth.[13]  Since God’s providence orders all things, chance has no place in God’s cosmos.

The Confession then adds:  yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes.  By, or through, providence God himself orders the way his decrees fall out, and they usually fall out according to the nature of second causes.  As previously mentioned, a second cause refers to the way or the means by which God’s decree is fulfilled (i.e. falls out).  In Figure 2 then, we add the concept of ‘second causes.’  Looking at the first box in our model (i.e. God’s decrees) and moving to the right, we see that each component is moving towards the completion of the decree.

Decrees (first cause)providence second causes only

                                                                                                                                                     Figure 2

Perhaps a practical example of this model will serve us well at this juncture.  Let’s say that God decreed in eternity that on May 12, 2015, John Smith was to die.  And, as expected, when May 12, 2015 arrived John Smith died.  This is simple enough and very plain: God decreed it and it happened—simple cause and effect. But this does not deal with any of the details which brought about this decree.  John Smith did not just die; there were causes that led to his death—causes secondary to the decree.  These causes follow the decree logically and chronologically (secondarily), being themselves ordered (foreordained) by God.   Here are the causes of Smith’s death—causes that fell out secondarily to God’s decree: On May 12, 2015, John Smith was driving his vehicle down highway 87 at 2:07pm, when a tree fell on the roadway, and his vehicle struck it; John was killed instantly.  As it turns out, the tree fell on the roadway because three years earlier there was a thunderstorm; lightning struck the tree causing the tree to die.  The tree then naturally started to rot until it finally—three years later—fell over onto the roadway exactly on May 12, 2015, at 2:07pm.  Upon learning the causes which led to John’s death, his loved ones were overcome with a sense that John’s death was the result of meaningless fate and random chance.

Theologically, however, these events are explained as follows: by God’s decree in eternity John Smith was to die May 12, 2015, at 2:07pm; that decree was carried out by God’s providence (Figure 1).  By that same providence, God had ordered the second causes (Figure 2) which began three years earlier.  Figure 3 shows how each aspect of John Smith’s death lines up with our model.

Decrees providence second causes with illustration PNG

                                                                                                                                                         Figure 3

If one were to look at the facts of John Smith’s death, it might indeed appear as though a series of chance events led to his death, but the Bible instructs John’s family to see that there is nothing random, fatalistic or impersonal regarding what happened. Whether this is a comfort to John’s family or not, depends upon whether they have the faith to see these truths.

As a point of clarification, it might seem logical to consider that the thunderstorm which led to the lightning was a second cause, the lightning that led to the death of the tree as the third cause, the tree’s death that led to the its rotting as a fourth cause, and the rot that led to the tree falling as the fifth cause, but the Confession refers to all of these by the category called ‘second causes.’  Regardless of how far each cause is from the beginning second cause, each is called a second cause.  And so, whether by providence God orders just one second cause which brings about God’s decree, or whether God orders a whole series of second causes to bring about the decree, each individual cause is classified as a second cause.  Each second cause is by providence God-ordered, even if the second cause is contingent upon many that precede it.

Our model is not yet complete, and so we press on.  God ordinarily uses means (i.e. second causes) to bring about his decrees, but these second causes have certain characteristics.  The Confession asserts that by providence God orders all things to fall out according to the nature of second causes.  This means that second causes are used in a way that is consistent with its nature or characteristic.  A second cause will fall into three possible categories depending on it nature or character.  Edward Morris writes: “This divine activity in and through such second causes is described as working necessarily, freely, or contingently; in other words, in full accordance with the nature of these causes respectively.”[14]   A.A. Hodge states of this paragraph: “The manner in which [God] controls his creatures and their actions, and effects his purposes through them, is in every case perfectly consistent with the nature of the creature and of his action.”[15]  In God’s infinite wisdom and power he made creation and its creatures for the very purpose of carrying out his decree, and thus it is consistent that God uses them according to the way he designed them. We can see this in two ways.  One, God will not use a second cause to do something beyond its design.  A dog will not function as only a human being can, and a human will not do, say, what only a volcano can do.  All causes function within their design.  Two, of all the various ways to classify the natures of second causes, whether that is something in nature, a complex free-agent human, or causes which rely upon others, all causes have a nature that can be classified into three categories.  Morris affirms: “And the Symbols teach that in each of these three spheres providence works equally, though by diversified methods and agencies, but always works supremely, and in perfect wisdom and righteousness as well as with an infinite potency.”[16] Let’s then discuss each nature of second causes.

The nature of second causes classified as necessarily has to do with the fixed laws of nature.  Robert Shaw writes:  “Every part of the material world has an immediate dependence on the will and power of God, in respect of every motion and operation, as well as in respect of continued existence; but he governs the material world by certain physical laws,—commonly called the laws of nature, and in Scripture the ordinances of Heaven,—and agreeably to these laws, so far as relates to second causes, certain effects uniformly and necessarily follow certain causes.”[17]  Morris says: “The active agencies of nature, for example, work under necessity,—without intelligence or volition of their own, and without choice or even knowledge of the results toward which they are working. The entire sphere and operations of physical creation come under this law of material necessity; in other words, that creation is a vast mechanism, moving on by forces above itself toward issues not chosen by itself, under the irresistible guidance of him who made it.”[18]

Part of Morris’ point here is that second causes that fall out necessarily are not to be seen in a deistic way, as if nature were some mechanical devise that had no need of God to direct it.  The fixity in nature is established by God himself, and he intentionally designed it as a means to bring about his decrees, yet this does not infer deism; God is not absent from his creation; just because he uses it according to its design, does not mean he is not personally directing it.  It may appear to us that fixity in design is mechanical and impersonal, but in fact it is not.  By personal providence God causes all things to fall out. [19] In Puritan Theology, Beeke and Jones write:  “How does God’s providence relate to the laws of nature?  According to Ames, the order we observe in the world, “the law of nature,” is evidence of the continuing power of God’s Word over creation (Jer. 31:35-36; 33:20).  God’s active presence is also required to sustain the world and its inhabitants.  Sedgwick noted that the Bible specifically speaks of Christ’s “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3).  God works through ordinary means such as provision of food, rain, and clothing (Pss. 136:25; 147:8-9; Matt. 6:30, 32).  But He is the one whose work it is, however it is accomplished.”[20]  In our above example, the thunderstorm necessarily led to the lightning; the lightning strike necessarily led to the tree dying; the tree dying necessarily led to the tree rotting.

Freely is the classification that has to do with second causes involving free agency.  Shaw writes: “The providence of God is also concerned about the volitions and actions of intelligent creatures; but his providential influence is not destructive of their rational liberty, for they are under no compulsion, but act freely; and all the liberty which can belong to rational creatures is that of acting according to their inclinations.”[21] Morris affirms: “But in the sphere and realm of humanity, God causeth things to fall out freely rather than necessarily, —according, in other words, to the constitution of the human will viewed as a second cause, having an inherent capacity for free action, and according to the principles incorporated in his moral as distinct from the material system of things. While the will of man is itself not a first but a second cause, and as such must be empowered even in its freest or wildest activities by God himself as the first cause, yet he hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty (IX: i) that it is neither forced nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined to good or evil. Here a clear distinction is made between second causes working necessarily in nature, and the will as a second cause of a peculiar class, working freely in a region above nature—the region of moral life and action.”[22]

How does God direct men or women according to his providence without violating their free agency?  John Owen indicates that “testimonies are everywhere obvious in Scripture, of the stirring up of men’s wills and minds, of bending and inclining them to divers things, of the governing of the secret thoughts and motions of the heart, as cannot by any means be referred to as a naked permission, with a government of external actions, or to general influence, whereby they should have the power to do this or that, or anything else; wherein as some suppose, his whole providence consisteth.[23]  In our example of John Smith’s death, he freely determined to get in his vehicle and drive down highway 87 at that precise time.  God’s providence was directing and governing John to take the action he did, but John still acted freely.  While John acted freely, John was not an autonomous free-agent (i.e. free agency undeterred or influenced by God).  We recognize God has given free agency to man, but God still governs “the secret thoughts and motions of the heart,” and thus the claim by Arminianism that man is a free-autonomous creature is greatly over stated and in error.  We will address free agency in more detail in chapter 9, Of Free Will.

Contingently is that nature of second causes dependent upon other cause.[24]  Shaw helpfully writes: “Though there is no event contingent with respect to God, “who declareth the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things which are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure;” yet many events are contingent or accidental with regard to us, and also with respect to second causes.”[25]  It is self-evident that many causes of the secondary class depend upon other second causes in order to come about.  But even with contingent second causes—each dependent upon each other—each is ordered by God’s providence.  Providence is not absent even in this category.

Morris mentions another aspect to consider regarding this class: “those (really belonging to the second class) which induce results such as God could have chosen only in the way of permission, and such as he must powerfully bound if he does not altogether prevent them.”[26]  In other words, those free agents which typically belong to the ‘freely’ class are often used as sinful second causes—sinful actions which God did not author or approve but permitted for his own purpose.  These second causes are contingent upon the sinful actions of his creatures.  Consider the sinful action of Joseph’s brothers—an action which God did not author or approve, but second causes nonetheless—used to bring about his decree.  In the words of Joseph: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20 ESV).  Consider also this passage: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23 ESV).  Clearly, lawless men were the contingent cause of Christ’s crucifixion—a second cause of a contingent nature—but God’s predetermined plan (his decree) and his foreknowledge (foreordination) was the first cause.  Men are still responsible since they freely chose to act sinfully; just because God makes use of sinful actions does not mean the sinful actions go unpunished.

Morris brings further clarity to contingent classed causes: “The conception of second causes working neither necessarily nor freely, but contingently, is doubtless brought in to provide for an explanation of the introduction and permission of sin.  While nothing can be viewed as accidental in the divine administration,—while even sin is said to be on the one side permitted by God, but on the other side powerfully bounded and held in check by him, yet the Symbols carefully deny that God either is or can be the author or approver of sin; the incoming of that dire calamity being in some true sense contingent in his scheme —contingent, but not fortuitous or irresistible in his sight. It is said with justice, that there is no contingent event or issue with God; yet in his Word he often seems to make events turn on specified contingencies, and even his decree respecting the irruption of sin into our world must be viewed as dependent upon an abuse of human liberty and choice which he neither ordained nor approved, in any full sense of these words. Contingency clearly implies something more than possibility: it implies both a foreknowledge of the event contingently introduced, and a certain measure of causal force with respect to it. But this causal force differs radically from that which regulates the procession of the seasons, and also from that which directs and aids a soul in the pathway of holiness,—God seeming in his sovereignty to stand aside and suffer the human will as a second cause to work out results which he never created it to produce, and for whose production he holds it to a strict accountability before him.”[27]

Paragraph 4 further addresses God’s providence over the fall and the sinful actions of his creatures, and so I will not comment further here.  Our model then, in its complete form, looks like Figure 4:

Decrees providence second causes with illustration with necessary, freely, cont

                                                                                                                                       Figure 4

In our illustration of John Smith’s death, the tree falling was contingent upon the tree rotting, and the rotting was contingent upon the tree’s death by lightning, and the lightning was contingent upon the thunderstorm.  Each second cause strung together by providence brought about God’s decree.

Morris sums up all three classes this way: “Providence is thus presented as one vast scheme in which a multitude of subordinate forces and activities are apparent, each working out its specific class of results in harmony with its own nature, while all combine in the furtherance of the one comprehensive issue preconceived.”[28]  The Confession does not provide a simplistic cause and effect model rather it provides a biblically complete answer—one that is sophisticated.  This biblical model provides a great deal of comfort, particularly when things happen that seem random—a matter of chance.  Sometimes the cause that leads to a tragic accident seems so miniscule or even incidental.  God might even seem absent because it is so small.  Maybe the airline mechanic forgot to tighten a bolt exactly as specified which led to a fatal airplane crash.  We can recite and imagine a thousand examples of seemingly insignificant second causes which lead to very significant events.  These things can lead to a crisis of faith, but if our theology is biblical, we can see that there are no miniscule incidentals with God.  His  providence is over even the least second cause, and is even over the most sinful action of man—things which meant for evil, but God meant for good (Gen. 50:20; Rm. 8:28).  The holy and just God orders it all by his good and loving providence; both happy providence and dark.

Corny%20Point%20Lighthouse%20bl%2023. God, in his ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at his pleasure.  (Acts 27:31, 44; Isaiah 55:10, 11; Hosea 1:7; Romans 4:19-21; Daniel 3:27)

It is fitting that this paragraph follows the preceding one.  It serves to show that while it is true that the usual workings of God are by his ordinary providence—God ordering second causes to bring about his decretal will—there are nonetheless exceptions.  Those exceptions are described as without means, above means, or against means.  A.A. Hodge declares, “That God possesses the power of effecting his end immediately, without the intervention of second causes, is self evident; and that he at times at his sovereign pleasure exercises this power, is a matter of clear and satisfactory evidence.”[29]  Further, Hodge indicates that: “The power of God does indeed work in all ordinary processes of nature, and his will is expressed in what is called natural law; but it does not follow that whole power is exhausted in those processes, nor his whole will expressed in those laws.  God remains infinitely greater that his works, in the execution of his eternal, immutable purposes, using the system of second causes as his constant instrument after it kind, and meanwhile manifesting his transcendent prerogatives and powers by the free exercise of his energies and utterances of his will.”[30]

There are many examples of exceptions to ordinary providence found in Scripture.  The virgin birth of Christ is an example of without means.  God worked without means of sexual relations as the means of conception.  “And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy— the Son of God” (Luke 1:35 ESV).  God uses the supernatural to by pass ordinary means.  Above means refers to God’s use of the  supernatural (i.e. supra-natural) to go above or beyond the nature of a second cause.  For example, the miraculous birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham.  Here God does still uses means, but he goes above the ordinary means.  Sarah still conceived through sexual relations with Abraham, but God supernaturally caused her to conceive despite her barren state and age.  “And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac” (Gen 17:15-19 ESV).  Against means refers to God’s working against the designed function of a second cause.  For example, God went against his ordinary means of gravity and caused an axe head to float on water.  “But as one was felling a log, his axe head fell into the water, and he cried out, “Alas, my master! It was borrowed.” 6 Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick and threw it in there and made the iron float. 7 And he said, “Take it up.” So he reached out his hand and took It” (2 Kings 6:5-7 ESV).[31]

Ordinary providence makes use of means (i.e. second causes), but if God should choose to work without, above or against those ordinary providential means, he is free to do so.  This paragraph shows that the Reformed model of providence is not anti-supernatural, nor deistic.  God is still most free to work supernaturally beyond ordinary providence, and he has not walked away leaving creation to function purely by the laws of nature.  His providence is everywhere, it is personal, and it is not bound by the fixed laws of nature.  God freely presides over creation holding all things together by the word of his power.

Corny%20Point%20Lighthouse%20bl%2024. The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that his determinate Counsel extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, which also he most wisely and powerfully boundeth, and otherwise ordereth and governeth, in a manifold dispensation to his most holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness of their actsproceedeth only from the Creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.  (Romans 11:32-34; 2 Samuel 24:1, 1 Chronicles 21:1; 2 Kings 19:28; Psalms 76;10; Genesis 1:20; Isaiah 10:6, 7, 12; Psalms 1:21; 1 John 2:16)

The Confession affirms: The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence,  that his determinate Counsel extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men.  As we may recall, the Confession said in paragraph 1 that “God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things.”  We see much of paragraph 1 reiterated here, but it is now applied even to the fall and to all sinful actions of angels and men.  God’s determinate counsel extends that far—providence executing that counsel—even over such sinful actions.  This is quite a statement—one likely to invoke strong opposition by many.  However, what are the alternatives?  Either God is sovereign over all things, including the fall and the sinful actions of angels and men, or he is not at all.

God’s sovereignty and providence over the sinful actions of creatures is not by a bare permission.  In other words, God’s rule over the sinful actions of angels and men does not permit them to act sinfully in an unrestricted or completely open-ended manner (i.e. by bare permission), as if God had given angels and men autonomous free agency.  It is true God has given free agency to angels and men, but it is not autonomous.  Even the sinful actions of free agent creatures are subject to God’s decree and providence.  Thus those who believe that God has given his free agents bare permission—unrestricted free-will to do as they like—fail to recognize that God’s sovereign decree and providence rules even over sinful actions.  The fact that sin does happen means God has permitted it—though not a bare permission, but then what kind of permission is it?

Providence over sinful actions most wisely and powerfully boundeth, and otherwise ordereth and governeth in a manifold dispensation to his most holy ends.  His wisdom and power characterize the way he goes about bounding, ordering, and governing.  This permission varies in degree according to God’s purposes.  Perhaps it goes without saying, but the permission God gives is not to be understood as permission for a creature to sin without culpability, rather it refers to God’s purpose allowing the creature to sin.  Later we will see that God is in no way authoring, that is, creating sin or making someone sin.  Providence gives permission for sinful actions, but places bounds (limits) on them.  The permission of sin is ordered, meaning it has structure and direction regarding the actions of sinful men and angels.  Providence permits sinful actions, but they are governed, meaning, this permission has a rule over this permission.  Sinful actions belong to the creature alone, but at the same God bounds, orders and governs it.  This limited permission is applicable to angels and men.  Satan had to get permission before he could touch Job. Satan did not have bare permission? No, he was given certain bounds he could not cross. Balaam was restricted in the sinful purpose for which was determined. “But God’s anger was kindled because he [Balaam] went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary” (Num. 22:22 ESV).   A.A. Hodge affirms: “God not only permits sinful acts, but he directs and controls them to the determination of his own purposes.”[32] Providence is perhaps more active in restraining sin than permitting it.  Providence restrains sin even in its permission—all for his glory and a greater good!

God bounds, orders, and governs the sinful actions of free agents in a manifold dispensation. God’s permission is given in various ways at different times.  What permits one place he restrains in another.  What restrains are increased in one period, may be permitted in another.  All of this, God does to his most holy ends.  R.C. Sproul writes: “Yet the fact that evil exists in a universe governed by a perfectly holy God must mean that he has good purpose in mind. We see this in God’s answer to the wickedness of Joseph’s brothers: the brothers meant their deed for evil, and it was terribly evil, but God meant it for good and brought much good out of it.”[33]  Thomas Watson said it well: “God permitted their sin, which he never would, if he could not bring good out of it.”[34]  Paul Helm maintains: “God could have created men and women who freely…did only what was morally right,” God did not for an important reason: “that out of evil a greater good would come, a good that could not have come, or could not have been as great, if there had not been evil.”[35] Thus, we again see the greater good argument.[36]  God’s ends are holy; God remains holy even in the means he uses to his ends.

This brings us to our next portion of the Confession: yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceedeth only from the Creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.  This was already hinted at in the first part of the paragraph where it indicated the sinful actions were of angels and men. Here it is stated plainly.  In God’s providence over sin, the sinfulness proceeds only from the creature (see Rm. 9:14; Jm. 1:13-15, 17; 1 Jn. 2:16).  God’s providence has no limits, thus all things happen exactly as he has ordained, and yet without sin on God’s part.  I will again cite Stephen Charnock:

“God never willed sin by his preceptive will. It was never founded upon or produced by any word of his, as the creation was. He never said, ‘Let there be sin under the heavens,’ as he said, ‘Let there be water under the heavens.’ Nor does he will it by infusing any habit of it, or stirring up inclinations to it; no, ‘God tempts no man’ (James 1:13). Nor does he will it by his approving will; it is detestable to him, nor ever can he be otherwise. [Yet] the will of God is in some sort concurrent with sin. He does not properly will it, but he wills not to hinder it. To will sin as sin would be an unanswerable blemish on God. But to will to permit it in order for good is the glory of his wisdom. [sin] would never have peeped up its head, unless there had been some decree of God concerning it. And there would have been no decree concerning it had not God intended to bring good and glory out of it. God wills the permission of sin. He does not positively will sin, but he positively wills to permit it. And though he does not approve of sin, yet he approves of that act of his will whereby he permits it. Though God hated sin, as being against his holiness, yet he did not hate the permission of sin, as being subservient by the immensity of his wisdom to his own glory.”[37]

Corny%20Point%20Lighthouse%20bl%2025. The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself; and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for other just and holy ends. So that whatsoever befalls any of his elect is by his appointment, for his glory, and their good. (2 Chronicles 32:25, 26, 31; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9; Romans 8:28)

The last paragraph spoke of God’s providence over the sinful actions of angels and men, and here we see God’s providence over seasons of temptation in his people that God permits in his providence to produce the fruit of holiness in their lives. The Confession first affirms that God is most wise, righteous, and gracious in this providence.  God is wise in the way he allows his people to be tempted and he knows exactly what how to go about this work in our hearts. He remains perfectly righteous in that he does not unjustly allow temptation. He is gracious because he uses such seasons mercifully by his grace for our good not for the purpose of judging us according to his justice.

God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts. This particular way of God’s dealing is oftentimes how he works. He does not always work in this particular way, but “oftentimes” he does. Such temptation is only for a season. This give us hope when in midst of such a dreadful seasons; it is not forever. It also reminds us that it is a season in God’s hands, and this is helpful to know since when we struggling with sin, we often feel far from God, and may struggle with feelings of condemnation, especially if we are not exactly winning the fight. These temptations may be manifold, meaning varied and perhaps many. Probably what is in mind here is that each believer is tempted in various ways; the same thing does not tempt everyone. But it is also possible the meaning includes seasons when multiple temptations are experienced at the same time.

What is meant by the corruptions of their own hearts? It refers generally to the remaining corruption in the regenerate (believers). We may recall from chapter 9, paragraph 4: When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so as that by reason of his remaining corruptions, he doth not perfectly, nor only will, that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.” And so this corruption is what remains from our old nature. If we are not aware of this remaining corruption, we will be caught off guard in such seasons. Unfortunately, those who follow the doctrine of Perfectionism are particular vulnerable to surprise from such seasons.  But it seems the phrase “the corruptions of their own hearts” refers more specifically to a deep struggle with those remaining corruptions, or as John Owen puts it (see below), it is the “perplexing power of lust or sin” which is manifesting itself forcefully during this season.

Why does God leave his people in such seasons? The Confession indicates several reasons.  1) to chastise them for their former sins, or 2) to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts that they may be humbled; and 2) to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself; and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and 3) for other just and holy ends.

“God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts to chastise them for their former sins.” We see in Scripture that God’s discipline comes about “so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32 ESV).  God disciplines us so that “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11 ESV). For God’s people, chastisement (or discipline), is not God’s judgment of condemnation, based on former sin as he judges the wicked, but is for the chastisement for the purpose of training us to be holy. The Puritan John Owen writes along these lines: “That God doth sometimes leave even those of his own under the perplexing power of at least some lust or sin, to correct them for former sins, negligence, and folly, I no way doubt.”[38] This is found in his, Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers (published in 1656), and is nearly word for word that found in the Westminster Confession of 1646, and the two daughter confessions which both followed the Westminster Confession exactly in this section: the Savoy Declaration of 1658 (of which John Owen was a framer) and the 1677 London Baptist Confession. From Owen, then, we perhaps gain some insight into what the Puritan divines thought about God’s leaving his children to season of temptation as a chastening for former sin. The former sin is then likely not only about breaking commandments, but also former sins of neglecting the means of grace and not watching one’s paths carefully; no doubt that such things expose believers into temptation and incite the corruptions of their hearts (i.e. the “perplexing power of…lust or sin).

“God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts… to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts that they may be humbled.” As believers we can be ignorant of the extent that corruption remains in us. This ignorance is not bliss, for by this ignorance we may find ourselves surprised by sudden and vehement temptation. We sometimes assume that since we had not been tempted for some time in a particular area that the corruption in that are no longer existed. Or perhaps we find ourselves in a season of being tempted in ways we never had been before. This can disturb our peace in Christ and leave us shaken. But God often leaves us to such a season so that we grasp the strength of the remaining corruption is in us, and that we may be humbled. It was hidden to us prior to this season god permitted, but now we perceive with glaring clarity. There is in the heart of man, even in the regenerate a wicked heart that no one can understand (Jer. 17:9). Our heart can so easily deceive us, and God will use these seasons of temptation and the raging of the corruption of our hearts to show us our wicked and deceitful hearts. Scripture warns us, “let him who thinks he stand take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).  Part of the process of sanctification requires us to better understand the remaining corruption in our hearts, and to understand the labyrinths of deceit that weave their way in our hearts. We need to understand ourselves as much as possible so that we can discern the paths and hiding places of sin that we may effectively mortify sin. When we discover these corruptions and deceits of our heart we are humbled, and that is often the aim of such a season. The proof text which follows this section is 2 Chronicles 32:25, 26, and 31: “But Hezekiah rendered not again according to the benefit done unto him; for his heart was lifted up: therefore there was wrath upon him, and upon Judah and Jerusalem. 26 Notwithstanding Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the LORD came not upon them in the days of Hezekiah. 31  Howbeit in the business of the ambassadors of the princes of Babylon, who sent unto him to enquire of the wonder that was done in the land, God left him, to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart” (KJV).

The other proof text provided here 2 Corinthians 12:7-9: “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (KJV). God humbles us that we may see his sufficiency for us.  By this humbling, God wills to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon himself; and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin. When manifold temptations and desires for sin come our way, we only have one place to flee and that is to the Lord; we run to him for he alone is our shelter. We recognize that we can only endure temptation if we constantly depend upon him for our support (strength). It may be that we had become slack with our time in the Word and relaxed the time we spent in prayer. But when temptation comes, we are reminded of the cost of slackness, unwatchfulness, and prayerlessness costs us dearly: our corruption hearts take advantage of our lethargy. Sometimes we just want to take our ease, but just as the soldier in the live battlefield wants ease, he must never let his guard down for the enemy is always at hand. We must never fail to watch and pray. “Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure” (Proverbs 4:26 ESV). “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17 ESV). The Valley of Vision has a helpful prayer which is very applicable here. “Teach me to believe that if ever I would have any sin subdued I must not only labour to overcome it, but must invite Christ to abide in the place of it, and he must become to me more than vile lust had been; that his sweetness, power and life may be there. Thus I must seek a grace from him contrary to sin, but not claim it apart from himself.”[39] These are the hard lessons we learn in those difficult seasons of temptation.

God also uses those seasons of temptation for other just and holy ends. This is a catch- all of sorts. It reminds us that the things the Confession has states here is not meant to be an exhaustive list. God is wise, righteous and gracious by bringing about the greatest economy from those difficult seasons. The Confession adds: So that whatsoever befalls any of his elect is by his appointment, for his glory, and their good. God is personally in the midst of those dark providences of temptation. Surely those are some of the hardest seasons we go through, but it is a great comfort to know those seasons are by his appointment, for his glory, and for our good. God has promised us that we are free from the evil of affliction (1689, 21:1). “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28 ESV).

  • “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:16-18 ESV).

 

 

Corny%20Point%20Lighthouse%20bl%2026. As for those wicked and ungodly men whom God, as the righteous judge, for former sin doth blind and harden; from them he not only withholdeth his grace, whereby they might have been enlightened in their understanding, and wrought upon their hearts; but sometimes also withdraweth the gifts which they had, and exposeth them to such objects as their corruptions makes occasion of sin; and withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world, and the power of Satan, whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, under those means which God useth for the softening of others. (Romans 1:24-26, 28; Romans 11:7, 8; Deuteronomy 29:4; Matthew 13:12; Deuteronomy 2:30; 2 Kings 8:12, 13; Psalms 81:11, 12; 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12; Exodus 8:15, 32; Isaiah 6:9, 10; 1 Peter 2:7, 8)

The last paragraph had focused upon God’s providence regarding sin in his children, but here the Confession addresses God’s providence regarding sin in those who are not his children—referred to as the wicked and ungodly.  For his own children, we see God’s attributes of wisdom, righteousness and grace highlighted, but here we see only God as the righteous judge.  The word righteousness here has to do with God’s justice.  When Scripture says that God is a righteous judge, it means that he is not partial or unjust, but a just judge.  God deals with the wicked and ungodly with equity according to his perfect righteousness.  God chastises the elect for former sin according to his righteousness, but included is grace.  The wicked and ungodly are judged for their former sin according to justice, but grace and mercy are excluded.  The apostle Paul said: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!  For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:14-15 ESV).  God shows mercy and compassion to his elect, but grace passes over the reprobate.  This free and discriminating choice demonstrates God’s glorious mercy and justice (1689 3:3). Those God does not show mercy to receive his justice; a fearful thing to receive for the ungodly and wicked.

God, for former sin does blind and harden the wicked and ungodly. This is a righteous (just) judgment for their former sin.  What is meant by blind?  It means one is unable to understand spiritual truth. What does it mean that God hardens? It means the spiritual heart is not pliable, sensitive or inclined towards God, his law, or to the gospel. It is to have a heart of stone, which is hard, rather than a heart of flesh which is soft. To be blinded and hardened by God is a very fearful thing. We see multiple passages which speak of God’s blinding and hardening—some were touched on in chapter 3.  In Romans 1, Paul talks about how men and women’s rejection of God led to God giving them over to futility and darkness of mind (Rm. 1:24-28).  We also see that God explicitly says he will blind and harden people.  I will harden his [Pharaoh’s] heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Ex 4:21 ESV).  Or, “But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut. 29:4 ESV).  And, “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” 9 And David says, ” Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; 10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever” (Romans 11:7-10 ESV).  That God does this is without dispute; how he does it is important to understand, for God is not the author of evil (see 1689 3:3).

The Confession explains four ways that God blinds and hardens.  Notice the oppostite parallel in paragraph 5 related to sin in God’s people.  We will take these one at a time.  First, from them he not only withholdeth his grace, whereby they might have been enlightened in their understanding, and wrought upon their hearts.  We will remember from the commentary of chapter 3, paragraph 3, that God does not actively create evil in a heart in order to blind or harden, rather he does so passively by removing common grace which restrains sin, and without it they freely (of their own unregenerate free-will) become blinded and hardened by their own sin.   Sproul expresses: “It is not that God puts His hand on them [the reprobate] to create fresh evil in their hearts; He merely removes His holy hand of restraint from them and lets them do their own will.”[40] The wickedness and ungodliness which results, is from the creature alone.  God does not escape culpability by a mere technicality.  No, sinners genuinely love evil and freely pursue it; it is only by God’s active restraint—through common grace—that they do not sin more.  God is most just if he chooses to remove such common grace; they never deserved that grace in the first place, and since they did not use that grace to repent (Rm. 2:4), then, God is perfectly just to remove it and give them over to sin.

Here the Confession seems to only be speaking of ‘grace’ in general terms, but specifically the hardening and blinding is a result of the removal of common grace in conjunction with the sinner’s pursuit of sin; it is special grace which would have enlightened their understanding, and worked positively in their heart bringing them to repentance and faith.  This special grace will be discussed in chapter 10, Of Effectual Calling.  This grace would have wrought upon their hearts.  In other words, it would have opened their eyes and softened their heart.  We are reminded here that unless God intervenes by his grace to initiate salvation, no sinner would ever repent and come to Christ (Jn. 6:44).   God freely gives this grace or withholds it.  He will give it to his elect in his time, but will never give it to the reprobate whom he passes over (1689 3:3).

The second way God blinds and hardens the wicked and godly for former sin is that he sometimes also withdraweth the gifts which they had.  Scripture declares: “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Mt. 13:12-13). Jesus indicates here that those whom he gives his special grace to will receive an abundance of graces.  But those to whom God does not extend his special grace to, God will sometimes take away even the common graces they had.  The common graces given to them—so that they would repent—are justly removed because they did not repent.  The Confession prefaces this by saying sometimes—meaning God does not always withdraw these gifts of common grace.  God does so or does not do so according to his own purposes.

Third, God blinds and hardens by exposeth them to such objects as their corruptions makes occasion of sin and withal, gives them over to their own lusts.  This seems difficult at first because it may appear that God is tempting them by exposing them to objects which lead to sin.  We need to recognize that God’s common grace often serves the purpose of restraining people from being as evil as they could be.  The doctrine of total depravity does not teach that each sinner is as wicked as they could be; rather that sin has invaded every portion of their being.  God’s restraining common grace is a grace; it is not deserved.  Thus if God removes that undeserved grace, he is perfectly just to do so.  And thus by God not exposing them to things which lead to sin he is giving common grace, and so by withholding it he remains just. When God withholds restraining grace it may mean that the wicked and ungodly will no longer be protected, and thus they are exposed to things of which their sinful nature will take advantage.  Remember, this is for former sins; thus it is, in part, a judgment.  We are reminded from paragraph 5 that when God “leaves for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts” he does so ultimately for their good, but here, that aim does not exist—only further judgment.

God, for former sins, will give the wicked and ungodly over to a reprobate mind (Rm. 1:28).  But what we do not want to miss is that their corruptions make occasion of sin.  It is not God who implants corruption in the sinner’s heart causing them to sin; they do so freely and abundantly of their own volition.  They see the occasion (i.e. opportunity) to sin and run headlong into it.  As a result, God withal, gives them over to their own lusts, the temptations of the world.  God had graciously restrained them, but now removes restraint. This reminds us: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed” (Jm. 1:14 KJV).  “But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels” (Psalms 81:11-12 ESV). And, “Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness”(2 Thess. 2:11-12 ESV).  There is a serious warning that sin, and a lack of repentance of it, comes with a heavy price.  We could say that sin makes occasion for more sin, and one sin leads to another, unless the redemptive power of God, through the gospel of Christ, intervenes to regenerate and sanctify.

Fourth, God also gives them over to… the power of Satan.  This is perhaps the most sobering judgment for former sins.  In Scripture we see this passage:among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20 ESV).   This is a most severe judgment.  No doubt the Confession is echoing, in part, Ephesians 2:2: Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: 3 Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (KJV).

The Confession states: whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves, under those means which God useth for the softening of others.  As the saying goes, “The same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay.” The means God uses to soften his own, hardens the wicked and ungodly.  Paragraph 5 stated: “God doth oftentimes leave for a season his own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins.”  There the result is for their good, but here in paragraph 6, the chastisement for former sins is not for the good of the wicked and ungodly.

Corny%20Point%20Lighthouse%20bl%2027. As the providence of God doth in general reach to all Creatures, so after a more special manner it taketh care of his church, and disposeth of all things to the good thereof. (1 Timothy 4:10; Amos 9:8, 9; Isaiah 43:3-5)

The Confession has already made the point that providence extends to all creatures, but a further point is being made here. Providence reaches all creatures, but it is applied in a special way to the church. How does this special providence show itself to the church?  By making sure that the disposing, meaning the carrying out of all things is for the good of the church.  God takes care of his church in a special manner! This applies to the whole church and each member of the church.  Romans 8:28 says: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 KJV).  The phrase, all things, in the Confession echoes the ‘all things’ in Romans 8:28. In addition, we see other important passages: “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe (1 Timothy 4:10 ESV).  And, “For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. 4  Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. 5 Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you” (Is. 43:3-5 ESV).

Thomas Watson wonderfully said: “See here, that which may make us long for the time when the great mystery of God’s providence shall be fully unfolded to us.  Now we scarce know what to make of God’s providence, and are ready to censure what we do not understand; but in heaven we shall see how all his providences (sickness, losses, suffering) contributed to our salvation.  Here we see but some dark pieces of God’s providence, and it is impossible to judge of his works by pieces; but when we come to heaven, and see the full body and portrait of his providence drawn out into its lively colours, it will be glorious to behold.  Then we shall see how all God’s providences helped to fulfill his promises.  There is no providence but we shall see a wonder or a mercy in it.”[41]   And Thomas Boston said: “God has straight purposes for crooked providences.”[42] Since in a special way “God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern” [43]  the church, it is , then, the most blessed institution and family to belong to.

We have made our way through another long chapter, but the riches we have gained will greatly assist us in our Christian pilgrimage—giving us great comfort and confidence in our God.  This chapter has shown us the workings of God in this world, the church, and our own lives.  It has not glossed over the topic, but addressed even the most difficult aspect of providence regarding sin.  What we have learned about God’s providence—how it extends even to the fall and all sinful actions of free agent creatures—will be especially important as we head into the next chapter dealing with the fall of mankind.  The Confession builds precept upon precept, and so all we have learned so far is necessary in order to understand the following chapters.  I think it appropriate to end this chapter with a precious hymn about providence.

God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill;

He treasures up his bright designs, and works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace;

Behind every frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain;

God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain. Amen! [44]

_______________

Endnotes

[1] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 216.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1960) book II, Ch. II, section 16, 201-202.

[3] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 91. Likewise Hodge states: “Since the eternal and immutable purpose of God has certainly predetermined whatsoever comes to pass, it follows that he must execute his own purpose not only in works of creation, but likewise in his continual control of all his creatures and all their actions.”  See A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 91.

[4] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 119.

[5] In Isaiah 46:9-11, we see a clear link with the issuing of a decree and the execution of it.  I will cite just verse 11b: “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (ESV). Decrees are issued, and providence carries them out.

[6] Ephesians 1:11 appears to be an allusion or echo of Isaiah 46:9-11.

[7] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), pg. 95.

[8] Ezekiel Hopkins, An Exposition on the Lord’s Prayer…[and] Sermons on Providence, and the Excellent Advantages of Reading and Studying Holy Scriptures (London: for Nathanael Ranew, 1692), 267 as cited from Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 6559.

[9] The definite article “the” seems out of place here, at least according to modern English usage.  I note that the entire section “to the end for the which they were Created” is not present in either the Westminster Confession or the Savoy Declaration.  The framers of the 1689 Confession added this from the 1646 First London Confession, but interestingly, the definite article is absent there.  Presumably, there was purpose the 1689 framers added the definite article.  My critical text source for the Confession is James Renihan’s True Confessions.  I also checked three other printed sources I have, and all of them have the definite article present.  Interestingly, I checked my printed edition of The Charleston Confession (a version of the 1689 Confession used in the Southern United States), and the definite article is absent.  In the end, I presume that the usage was appropriate three hundred years ago, and I am not prepared to say that it matters doctrinally.  But it is important to at least investigate such matters as far as we are able since sometimes doctrinal meaning can change by the usage of just one key word.

[10] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 95.

[11] It could also be argued that ‘first cause’ refers to the preceding phrase which includes “foreknowledge.”  We will recall from chapter 3, foreknowledge means essentially foreordination in Scripture (see Acts 2:23).  I will for simplicity sake, I will refer to the ‘first cause’ as the Decree of God, rather than treating foreknowledge and God’s decree as separate distinct terms.

[12] Chance has a relative named ‘Fate.”  Of Fate Calvin says: “Even though we are unwilling to quarrel over words, yet we do not admit the word “fate,” both because it is one of the words whose profane novelties Paul teaches us to avoid [1 Tim. 6:20], and because men try by the odium it incurs to oppress God’s truth.”  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1960) book I, Ch. XVI, section 8, 207.  Calvin also says: “What then? You ask.  Does nothing happen by chance, nothing by contingency? I reply: Basil the Great has truly said that “fortune” and “chance’ are pagan terms, with whose significance the minds of the godly ought not to be occupied.” Basil, Homilies on the Psalms, Ps. 32:4 (MPG 29. 329 f.).  Cited by John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1960) book I, Ch. XVI, section 8, 207.

[13] I do not mean to say that the believer should never use such words, but that such words may communicate unbiblical concepts.  Calvin mentions Augustine’s sorrow over his use of the word ‘fortunate’ in Augustine’s, Against Academics—even though Augustine’s use was proper.  See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1960) book I, Ch. XVI, section 8, 207.

[14] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 191.

[15] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 95.

[16] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 221.

[17] Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1845; http://www.reformed.org/documents/shaw/), chapter 5.

[18] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 191.

[19] Calvin states: “Then when we read that at Joshua’s prayers the sun stood still in one degree for two days [Josh. 10:13], and that its shadow went back ten degrees for the sake of King Hezekiah [II Kings 20:11 or Isa. 38:8], God has witnessed by those few miracles that the sun does not daily rise and set by a blind instinct of nature but that he himself, to renew our remembrance of his fatherly favor toward us, governs its course.  Nothing is more natural than for spring to follow winter; summer spring; and fall, summer—each in turn.  Yet in this series one sees such great and uneven diversity that it readily appears each year, month, and day is governed by a new, special, providence of God.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XX (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1960) book I, Ch. XVI, section 2, 199.

[20] Ames, Marrow, 1.9.10.  Sedgwick, Providence Handled Practically, 11.  Cited from Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 6556.

[21] Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1845; http://www.reformed.org/documents/shaw/), chapter 5.

[22] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 191.  The italics are original.  The Roman numerals refer to the chapters and paragraphs of the Westminster Confession.

[23] John Owen, A Display of Arminianism, in Works, 10:36 as cited from Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Loc. 6637.

[24] The word ‘Contingent’ is used in chapter 2, paragraph 2, to show that God is not dependent upon anything to bring about his purpose.   In chapter 3, paragraph 1, the Confession states: “God hath decreed in himself…all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”  In both places, it is related to God’s decree, and one to second causes. In both places, it has to do with things which are dependent upon another in order to happen.

[25] Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1845; http://www.reformed.org/documents/shaw/), chapter 5.

[26] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 221.

[27] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 191-192.

[28] Edward D. Morris, Theology of The Westminster Symbols: A Commentary Historical, Doctrinal, Practical (Columbus, Oh.: The Champlin Press, 1900), 221.

[29] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 98.

[30] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 98.

[31] These Scriptural examples I credit to Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 91.

[32] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 100.

[33] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. I, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006), 157.

[34] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 122.

[35] Paul Helm, The Providence of God, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity, 1993), 67.  Cited from Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 295.

[36] See commentary on 1689 4:2 regarding the greater good argument.

[37] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, vol. II (1853; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 147-149. Brackets mine.

[38] John Owen, Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers; The Necessity, Nature and Means of it, with A resolution of Sundry Cases of Conscience Thereunto Belonging: The Works of John Owen. Edited by Wm. H. Goold. 16 vols. (1850-3; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 48.

[39] Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, edited by Arthur Bennett, (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 295.

[40] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. I, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006), 145.

[41] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692, reprinted, Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 127.

[42] Thomas Boston, The Crook in Lot, in Works, 3:511-16. Cited in Beeke and Jones, Puritan Theology (Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), Providence, Kindle, location 7136.

[43] 1689 Chapter 5, Paragraph 1.

[44] Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: Great Commissions Publishing, 1961), hymn 21.  “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”

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Chapter 4: Of Creation

Nature%202_jpg1. In the beginning it pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, to create or make the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good. (John 1:2, 3; Hebrews 1:2; Job 26:13; Romans 1:20; Colossians 1:16; Genesis 1:31)

This chapter is theologically connected to God’s decree because creation was the first of God’s decrees to be executed.[1] The Baptist Catechism serves as a summary of the Confession.  Question 10 of this catechism defines God’s decrees as: “The decrees of God are his eternal purpose according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.”  Logically following that, question 11 asks: “How doth God execute his decrees?” The answer is: “God executeth his decrees in the works of creation and providence.”  And so we see that the Catechism is simply reflecting the logical order of the Confession: chapter 3 is about God’s decrees, and chapter 4 and 5 are about the execution of those decrees, and so chapters 3 through 5 essentially deal with God’s decree; this entire chapter is devoted to the work of creation.

In the Confession, we see: it pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to make creation.  The only reason God does anything is because it pleases him.  Notice the Trinitarian focus in the work of creation.  We see this Trinitarian focus right at the beginning of Genesis: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2 ESV).  And in Genesis 1:26, notice the plural pronoun ‘Us’: “Then God said, “Let Us make man in our image, after Our likeness” (ESV). [2]   Further, the New Testament explicitly speaks of the Son making creation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made  (John 1:1-3 ESV).  And, “But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world(Heb. 1:2 ESV).  By looking at the whole of Scripture we understand that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were each involved in the work of creation.  This work of creation is the first thing God did, and thus it was in the beginning.  As Scripture states: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1 ESV).

It pleased God to make creation for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness to create or make the world.  Indeed God’s work of creation does show forth the glory of these three attributes.  In chapter 1, paragraph 1, the Confession told us that the works of creation “manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God.”  Now that we have arrived at the chapter designated to address the works of creation this is reiterated.   Romans 1:20 states: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (ESV). Thus by God making the world, he reveals invisible attributes to all.  Not all his attributes are seen in creation, the others are only known through special revelation found in the Scriptures alone.  To see the manifestation of his glory, and specifically these three attributes, all we have to do is step outside and see his creation. While God made creation for his pleasure, part of his pleasure was to manifest himself to his creatures by creation.

The Confession continues: and all things therein, whether visible or invisible.  There is nothing in this world that did not come from God.  This is exactly what the Bible says: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16 ESV).  Also, as cited above: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3 ESV).  God is the creator of everything we see and do not see—and there is much in creation that is invisible. Even the invisible things—once discovered or known—manifest his glory.  Whether angelic beings or things our modern age has discovered, such as atoms and other microscopic life.  Such things also manifest God’s glory and character.  The discovery of things previously unknown to prior ages holds modern man that much more accountable to acknowledge their Creator.  The fact that more evidence of God does not bring about more acknowledgement and worship of God only goes to show that the more unregenerate man knows of God, the harder he works to suppress the knowledge of him.  God has blessed modern man with more knowledge of his glory so that they might have that much more reason to repent: “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rm. 2:4 ESV)?

The Confession continues: in the space of six days.  If we interpret the Confession in its historical setting, there is little doubt the authors had in mind that Genesis was referring to six, literal, twenty-four hour days.[3]  The Confession was written before modern theories of earth dating.  While all believers should reject the theory of evolution which denies God as Creator, there are faithful believers who do not think the Bible is literally referring to six, twenty-four hour periods.  We must always be faithful to Scripture before science, but it is possible for a believer to hold that those six days were not meant literately, rather representing periods of time.  We must show grace in this area.  I believe that the Bible is indeed referring to six, literal, twenty-four hour periods, but I will not break fellowship over the issue.

The Confession concludes by stating: and all very good.  Each day after God completed his work, God “saw it was good.”  But notice what it says of the last day of creation: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Gen 1:31 ESV). At the end of the sixth day, God observed the completion of all, and God saw that it was very good.  God is perfect and all his works are perfect.  We see in Deuteronomy 32:4a: “The Rock, his work is perfect” (ESV).   God himself pronounced the perfection of creation as he surveyed the whole of it.  Each day’s work was perfect, and together the whole sum of creation was perfect in its existence, its function, and its harmony.

It is important that we recognize that the creation we see now is a post-fall creation; no doubt it is still very good, but we recognize that the fall tainted creation, particularly mankind.  When man seeks to impugn God with evil due to the imperfection and evil man sees in creation, he fails to recognize that it is sin which has made creation imperfect and evil, not God.  It is not that imperfection and evil are outside of God’s decree or providence, but God is not the author of the sin and corruption we see in creation.  Our starting point for understanding reality must be that God is good, and a good God decreed to make a good creation, and thus in carrying out that decree, God carried it out very well.  God’s works are a reflection of who he is, and thus we must understand that creation was originally made perfect and very good.

Nature%202_jpg

  1.  2. After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, rendering them fit unto that life to God; for which they were Created; being made after the image of God, inknowledge, righteousness, and true holiness; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfil it, and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject to change. (Genesis 1:27; Genesis 2:7; Ecclesiastes 7:29; Genesis 1:26; Romans 2:14, 15; Genesis 3:6)

In this paragraph the Confession addresses the creation of man on the sixth day, and the nature of that creature.  This is strictly speaking of man before the fall.  The Confession will deal with the fall of man in Chapter 6.  The Confession begins: after God had made all other creatures.  As we will see in paragraph 3, man was made after the other creatures to rule over them; God saved the best creature for last; man was the crown of all creation.  God made man (i.e. mankind) male and female.  Scripture states: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them(Gen. 1:27 ESV).  God created human-kind in two distinct categories: male and female.  Each gender is unique and comes with its own unique blessings.  To be a woman is to have unique blessings which are not given to a man, and so also, to be a man comes with certain blessings which are not given to a woman.  This, of course, does not deny that male and female have also much in common in terms of blessing, but in our age it seems necessary to point out that gender differences are very real and should not be minimized.  But, no one gender is better or has more blessing than the other gender; the greatest evidence of this is that both are made in the image of God—the greatest blessing that they both share. It is important to recognize that regardless of whether a male and female ever join in marriage or ever have children, to be male or to be female is a great blessing given by God.  We will leave the subject of marriage between one man and one woman for chapter 25, Of Marriage.  God made human beings male and female, and to deny that uniqueness is ultimately to deny God the glory due him and reject the blessings he gave in those differences.  It is interesting to note that even in the modern heated issues related to gender, sexuality, and marriage, the Confession provides the relevant Biblical parameters to help us understand and articulate God’s order and blessing to a lost world, and in some cases to communicate that to an apostate church.  This credit, however, is not due to the Confession as much as it is to the relevance of Scripture.

The Confession states that male and female were created with reasonable and immortal souls.  God made mankind with a reasonable soul, meaning with the ability to think (i.e. to reason).  Animals seem to have a certain degree of intelligence, but their intelligence is related to instinct more than reason.  A few years ago, I watched a tiger trainer demonstrate how he was not in danger of attack as long as he was facing the tiger, but every time he would turn his back on the animal it would go into hunt and kill mode.  The trainer could not reason with the tiger on this point.  Animal training is not done by reasoning with animals, but by conditioning instincts.  Mankind can learn, make deductions and decisions based upon reason, and this distinguishes him from the other creatures of earth.

Another distinguishing feature of mankind is that he has been made with an immortal soul.  In order to consider the immortality of the soul, we need to think a moment about the creation of a soul.  There have been various positions held throughout church history as to when God creates a soul.  The three viable options are: 1) it begins at conception or 2) after conception, but before birth, or 3) at the time of birth.  Clearly the soul is not created before conception since the pre-existence of the soul is unbiblical, and similarly, the soul is not eternal—eternally existing before birth.  What we are certain about is that a soul has a beginning—whether that is at conception or by the time of birth. Scripture does not seem to indicate; it seems reasonable to believe that body and soul both begin at conception.  This view would promote the highest view of life, and there may be some hint of this when we look at passages like Psalm 139:13-16.   Once a soul has been created by God, however, it never ceases to exist from that point forward; it is in this sense that a soul is immortal.  The nature of this soul is that it will never cease to exist; it is immortal.  The Confession’s affirmation about the nature of the soul, as immortal, implies a denial of the doctrine of annihilationism.  Annihilationism has to do with the ceasing of the soul to exist.  There are variations of this view.  The naturalistic and atheistic view of annihilationism is that all human souls, if there is such a thing, cease to exist at death.  Another variation, which purports to be Christian, teaches that God’s judgment of the reprobate sinner is not eternal, but instead is a judgment of annihilation—the reprobate soul is annihilated and no longer exists.  For an annihilationist, the souls of the reprobate are mortal souls.  While this has a certain attraction, the fact is eternal judgment is clearly taught in Scripture; Jesus himself made explicit statements about hell being eternal, and thus all souls are immortal; it is a matter of where that immortal soul will spend eternity—in heaven or in hell.  The doctrine of the immortality of the soul makes evangelism important, and should drive us to gospel preaching.  To know the soul is immortal places a great value upon each soul, and with that great value comes a great responsibility for each soul to care of itself and others.

The 1689 Confession continues: rendering them fit unto that life to God; for which they were created.  This male and female with a reasonable soul and an immortal soul were rendered (i.e. equipped or made fit) for the blessings of the Garden (i.e. that life to God).  This rendered fit came about by being made after the image of God, [4]  in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfil it. They were fit by being made after the image of God.  Being made after the image of God means that there are things about mankind which reflect what God is like.  I say ‘reflect’ for they were not the thing itself, that is, divinity; but they were made after the mold of or in a way similar to this divine Being.  As we discussed in chapter 2, the attributes of God which he communicated or gave to mankind are called God’s communicable attributes.  Mankind, in their state before the fall, reflected God’s communicable attributes.  We see some of these communicable attributes listed in the next phrase of the Confession: knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.  Thus part of being rendered fit for life to God was being made in God’s image.  The plants and animals were not fit for life to God; only mankind was made in God’s image; only they were made fit for communion with God.  Again, in terms of being made fit for life to God, the Confession is strictly speaking of mankind before the fall; later we will see the effects of the fall on mankind.  Of mankind after the fall, John Calvin says: “But now, although some obscure lineaments of that image are found remaining is us; yet are they so vitiated and maimed, that they may truly be said to be destroyed.”[5]  The glory of the gospel is that it by it, God restores the destroyed image of God in the elect: “and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator(Col. 3:10 ESV).

God created our first parents in knowledge, righteousness and true holiness.  This entire phrase seems to be taken directly from Colossians 3:10 (just cited above) and Ephesians 4:24: “And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (KJV).  Both passages speak of the image God as being “in knowledge” (Col. 3:10) and “in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:24).  Since God does not change, then his image does not change, and thus the image of God being renewed and created in the elect is the same image that once existed in our first parents before the fall.  They had knowledge of all that God required of them and of all they needed to know.  They were not all-knowing (omniscient) as God was, but merely reflected the image of God in their knowledge.  They were placed in the Garden with a ‘fit’ knowledge of their estate (i.e. situation or circumstance).  They understood their situation, their relation to God and to the rest of creation.  This phrase in righteousness means our first parents were perfectly righteous—inherently and actually righteous through and through.  This original state of righteousness will later be referred to as original righteousness (1689 6:2).  True holiness means actual holiness. It is not that they were merely righteous in a forensic or positional state before God, but they were also inherently righteous and actually practiced that righteousness, thus they were truly (or actually) holy in thought, word and deed.   When we think of the image of God in relation to true holiness, we think of God’s command in Leviticus 11:44a:  “Be holy, for I am holy” (ESV).

We cannot talk about righteousness and holiness without the law being close at hand.  On what basis is something holy or righteous?  It must be in relation to and compared with law (a standard).  The Confession indicates that in addition to the image of God, righteousness, and true holiness, they were also fit for their life unto God because they had the law of God written in their hearts.  The phrase “written in their hearts” is, of course, metaphorical language used to make a literal point.  God did not physically inscribe the law of God on Adam and Eve’s physical heart.  But God did literally place into the very nature of Adam and Eve God’s moral law (i.e. God’s standards of what is right and wrong).  This topic will be further developed in chapter 19, Of the Law of God.

How do we know that there was the moral law in our first parent’s heart?  There are biblical passages which speak of the universal law being present in the heart all mankind after the fall.  And if this universal moral law was present after the fall, it was certainly present in our first parent’s before the fall. Here are some of those passages: Romans 1:32: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (ESV).  “They” in the passage refers to all the nations, and thus all the nations know God decree or law.  How did the nations acquire this knowledge of God’s decree or law? It is written on their heart.  Romans 2:14-16 brings further clarification: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (ESV).  Paul explicitly indicates the moral law is on all hearts—even those without the Mosaic Law.  And so, based upon the above passages, we can imply that the law of God was also written on our first parent’s heart.  Since our first parents were created in righteousness and true holiness (Eph. 4:24; 1689 4:2), this implies that a standard or law of what constituted righteousness and holiness existed before the fall.

Along with this law in their heart, Adam and Eve had the power to fulfill it.  We know all too well that there is a difference between knowing God’s law and doing it.  The law was written on their heart; they knew it, loved it and had the ability to fulfill it—and to do so perfectly.  After the fall, our first parents lost that ability to fulfill the law of God; by their loss, all their posterity also lost that ability.  This will be discussed more in chapter 6, but we must recognize that when God created his “very good” creation, he created his human creatures “good” also.  In other words, he created their nature to function in perfect harmony with the state into which they were placed in the Garden.  God made the covenant of works with them, and gave them the ability to fulfill that covenant; they were fully rendered fit unto life to God; they lacked nothing whatsoever.

But even though they had this power or ability to fulfill it, they were yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject to change.”  Here we see the reality of our first parent’s situation, perhaps it was not as ideal as we tend to think.  However, we do not want to think that God set them up for failure, for in fact the point of this portion of the Confession is that God set them up for success.  But the possibility of transgressing indicates our first parents were being tested, and failure would have tragic consequences.  As long as this period of testing lasted, our parents could disobey God’s command.  The possibility of transgressing existed because they were left to the liberty of their own will to obey God. Again, God had empowered them to fulfill the command of God, meaning that since their will was not in bondage to sin like those after the fall; they were truly able to fully and perfectly obey God.  Chapter 9, of Free Will addresses the condition of man’s free-will in four states: the will in innocency (pre-fall), the will after the fall, will of the regenerate, and the will of the regenerate in glory.  We will not further explore the issue of free will here, but will wait until chapter 9.  In our current portion, the Confession speaks of the will of man in innocency.  The liberty to obey God also implies the liberty to disobey, and thus the Confession states that their will was subject to change.

One of the foremost difficulties in theology is understanding how our first parents could have been tempted in the first place since they were in the state of innocence with having been created in righteousness, holiness, and with the power to obey God.  Where did that seed of desire to sin spring from? Scripture does not seem to give us an answer.  We do know is that ultimately it was part of God’s plan: for a greater good.  The Puritan Stephen Charnock has some helpful things to say along these lines:

  • “God never willed sin by his preceptive will. It was never founded upon or produced by any word of his, as the creation was [made by his word]. He never said, ‘Let there be sin under the heavens,’ as he said, ‘Let there be water under the heavens.’ Nor does he will it by infusing any habit of it, or stirring up inclinations to it; no, ‘God tempts no man’ (James 1:13). Nor does he will it by his approving will; it is detestable to him, nor ever can he be otherwise. [Yet] the will of God is in some sort concurrent with sin. He does not properly will it, but he wills not to hinder it. To will sin as sin would be an unanswerable blemish on God. But to will to permit it in order for good is the glory of his wisdom. [sin] would never have peeped up its head, unless there had been some decree of God concerning it. And there would have been no decree concerning it had not God intended to bring good and glory out of it. God wills the permission of sin. He does not positively will sin, but he positively wills to permit it. And though he does not approve of sin, yet he approves of that act of his will whereby he permits it. Though God hated sin, as being against his holiness, yet he did not hate the permission of sin, as being subservient by the immensity of his wisdom to his own glory.”[6]

This may not give us the ultimate answer we are looking for, but it does remind us 1) the fall did not come about because God is the author of sin or has fellowship with it in anyway, and 2) the reason it occurred was his will to permit it.  Scripture does not fully resolve the mystery of the origin of sin, but it does give us enough revelation to understand that God remains the one who foreordains all that comes to pass, and sin is not exempt from that decree, even if it be by God’s passive decree.[7]  Ultimately, we know the fall came about only because of a greater good; this is referred to as the ‘greater good’ argument.  In Gregg Allison’s book, Historical Theology, writes, “Helm also addressed the problem of evil, proposing that though ‘God could have created men and women who freely (in a sense compatible with determinism) did only what was morally right,’ God did not for an important reason: ‘that out of evil a greater good would come, a good that could not have come, or could not have been as great, if there had not been evil.’”  [8]

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  1. 3. Besides the law written in their hearts, they received a command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which whilst they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures. (Genesis 2:17; Genesis 1:26, 28)

The Confession states: Besides the law written in their hearts, they received a command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  We have already discussed the law written on their heart, and in addition to that moral law, our first parents received the command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.   A.A. Hodge summarizes this portion of the Confession as follows: “God furnished Adam with sufficient knowledge for his guidance—a law written on his heart, and a special external revelation of His will.”[9]  The law written on our first parent’s heart was internal; but the command to not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an external law; it was particular and specific.  There is no question that God’s prohibition against eating the fruit was made very plain to our first parents.  Eve’s own words to the Serpent confirm that clarity: “And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,

but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Genesis 3:2-3 ESV).  This special revelation of God’s will also included a revelation of the consequence for disobedience.  Thus, the judgment of death given to our first parents, and all their posterity, was perfectly just.

The 1689 Confession states: which whilst they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures.”  In that pre-fall state they were happy; to be more precise, they were happy in their communion with God.  The only truly happy estate for our first parents—and their posterity—was and remains communion with God.  This points us to the ideal for Adam’s race: communion with God.  When we reflect on their estate before the fall, we are saddened that such paradise was lost.  But, how encouraging it is to know that, in Christ, we shall find ourselves in paradise again.  Think of Jesus’ word to the thief on the cross: “Today, you shall be with me in paradise.”  What does this paradise consist of?  Jesus does not describe it to the thief, but all that the thief needed to know was that Jesus would be there with him.  All of Scripture points to the future paradise as a place where God dwells with his people—by the work of Christ and the transforming power of the Spirit God’s elect are rendered fit for their life unto God there.  How wonderful it is to realize God through Christ is regaining for his elect that which was lost in the fall—communion with God.  We shall be securely placed—not back in the Garden—but in the New Jerusalem where God will dwell with us.  There communion with God will not be limited to the ‘cool of the day,’ but continually; for God dwells there in that city of light—the Lamb is its light!  And presently, through Christ, that communion with God is a reality by the Spirit who is our pledge of the life to come.

The chapter ends by stating that our first parents had dominion over the creatures.”  Genesis tells us that God gave mankind dominion over all other creatures: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:27-28 ESV).  Psalm 8 alludes to the Genesis account: “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.  You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (Psalm 8:5-8 ESV). We see Adam fulfilling that role as he names each beast (Gen. 2:20a).  Adam’s posterity was also to subdue the earth, and even to this day we see mankind is fulfilling this role—sometimes well, and sometimes not so well.

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[1] Following the completion of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster divines wrote the Westminster Shorter Catechism for use in private and family instruction; it is in a question and answer format (similar to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) format popularly used today).  It is shorter because it is a summary of the Westminster Confession.  The Baptist Catechism, which I use throughout this commentary, is an adaptation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and it serves the same purpose: to summarize the 1689 Baptist Confession. William Collins, one of the framers of the 1689 Confession, adapted the Westminster Shorter Catechism. See “Forward to Baptist Catechism” by James Renihan, The Baptist Confession of Faith & The Baptist Catechism (Birmingham, Al.: Solid Ground Christian Books, and Carlisle, Pa.: Reformed Baptist Publications, 2010), 89-91.

[2] John Calvin states regarding Gen. 1:26 and the plural ‘Us’: “Christians, therefore, properly contend, from this testimony, that there exists a plurality of Persons in the Godhead.” John Calvin.  Commentaries on The First Book of Moses called Genesis. Translated from the Original Latin, and Compared with the French Edition, by Rev. John King, M.A., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 92.

[3] John Calvin says of the six days: “The creation of the world was distributed over six days, for our sake, to the end that our minds might more easily be retained in the meditation of God’s works.” John Calvin.  Commentaries on The First Book of Moses called Genesis. Translated from the Original Latin, and Compared with the French Edition, by Rev. John King, M.A., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 92.

[4] The 1689 Confession has added “rendering them fit unto that life to God; for which they were Created; being made after the image of God” to the wording of the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession.  This nicely rounds out the paragraph over the prior two confessions.

[5] John Calvin.  Commentaries on The First Book of Moses called Genesis. Translated from the Original Latin, and Compared with the French Edition, by Rev. John King, M.A., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 94.

[6] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (1853; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), brackets mine.

[7] See my commentary of chapter 3, paragraph 3.

[8] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 295.  Allison cites Paul Helm’s, The Providence of God, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove Il.: InterVarsity, 1993), 67.

[9] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 85.

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Chapter 3: Of God’s Decrees

The Decrees (2)

1. God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree. (Isaiah 46:10; Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 6:17; Romans 9:15, 18; James 1:13; 1 John 1:5; Acts 4:27, 28; John 19:11; Numbers 23:19; Ephesians 1:3-5)

It is important to keep the historical setting of the Confession in mind.  When the Westminster Divines began their work on the Westminster Confession in 1643, it was only 24 years after the Synod of Dort (1618 to 1619), which met to address the Arminian controversy.  This Arminian controversy brought forward the issue of God’s decree; this may be in part why we see the placement of it here in the Confession—at chapter 3.  It is also logically placed before God’s works of creation and providence for everything that is flows from God’s decree.  God’s decree is a foundational doctrine, especially to the doctrine of soteriology (i.e. the study of salvation).

The Confession states: God hath decreed in himself.  First, we should answer the question, “What is a decree?”  The Oxford English Dictionary defines a decree as: “To command (something) by decree; to order, appoint or assign authoritatively, ordain.”[1]  This is the general use of the word, but what is a good theological definition?  The Baptist Catechism, question 10, provides a solid theological definition: “The decrees of God are his eternal purpose according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” For God to issue decrees in himself, means that God’s decrees are determined by him alone and without reference to anyone or anything else.  And thus even though the execution of his decree is related to creation, yet God does not base his determination of those decrees on anything he foresees in and of that creation.  When we get to paragraph 2, this will be further expanded, but here the point is simply that God’s decree originates only within the Triune God.

God issues his decree from all eternity.  Berkhof states: “The divine decree is eternal in the sense that it lies entirely in eternity.”[2]  This is foundational to a Biblical approach of God’s decree, and its ramifications can hardly be over-emphasized.  In Scripture we see such statements: “Who has announced this from of old? Who has long since declared it? Is it not I, the LORD? (Isaiah 45:21b NASB). Or “Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will accomplish all my purpose,’ (Isaiah 46:10 ESV).  God does not make impromptu decrees or decrees which are dependent upon the free agency of mankind; rather, God’s decrees are predetermined in eternity (i.e. “from ancient times”).

Further, God issues his decrees by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably.  The confessional wording, counsel of his own will, is directly from Scripture: “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11 KJV).  Berkhof states: “The word ‘counsel,’ which is one of the terms by which the decree is designated, suggests careful deliberation and consultation.  It may contain a suggestion of an intercommunion between the three persons of the Godhead.”[3]  Letham states: “The phrase “counsel of his own will” implies that in all God’s plans all three persons of the Trinity are integrally and invisibly involved.  Moreover, God’s decrees are “for his own glory”; viewed in a Trinitarian light, these are not the designs of a celestial megalomaniac insistent on imposing himself, but are the wise and holy plans of the God who is indivisible in communion and love.”[4]

God’s counsels or decrees are most wise and holy.  God’s wisdom is not simply his all-knowing, but it is ethical (morally pure) and practical in nature.  It is God doing all things well.  Creation is the perfect object lesson of the wisdom of God’s decree.   All things in creation are interrelated in such a way that if just one thing were different the whole of creation would not function.  For example, if the sun were just slightly closer to the earth, the earth would be too hot to sustain life, or if it were slightly further away, the earth would be too cold.  The mass of the earth and its speed are exactly what they need to be in order to bring about the right amount of gravitational pull for life to function.  There are many such things that all work together in perfect harmony in order to sustain life on this planet.  Whether we move to the outer reaches of space, or to the inner reaches of microbiology, we see that it is God’s wisdom that has assembled all these inter-related things to work in perfect harmony with each other.  This shows God’s wisdom in the physical dimension of creation, but so also in all the other various aspects of creation.  God’s counsel is also holy.  This means that God’s decrees are morally perfect.  In all God’s decrees he is not the author of sin, nor has fellowship with it.  God does not create (author) sin, and so all God’s counsels or decrees are in harmony with his holiness.

God decrees freely, meaning that the Lord decrees as he pleases without any constraints.  “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3 ESV). God’s decrees are the first cause of everything that happens.  There is nothing behind, before or alongside of God’s decrees other than the counsel of God’s own will.  Further, God’s decrees are unchangeably determined. We see in Scripture direct statements along this line: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19 ESV; see also 1 Samuel 15:29).  And, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath” (Heb. 6:17 (ESV).    God’s purpose is unchangeable.  And, since all his decrees are issued by his most wise and holy determinate counsel, there would be no reason to change course midstream; his decrees are issued perfectly the first time, and so they never need to be changed.  As well, there is an obvious connection between God’s unchanging essence and God’s unchangeable decree.  As we learned from chapter 2, God is simple, and therefore everything he is and does is perfectly consistent with all his attributes.

By these decrees all things, whatsoever come to pass.  The phrase, all things, literally means everything, and if that was not clear, whatsoever is added.  As R.C. Sproul states, “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.”[5]  And while God decrees all things, it is important to note, as the Confession states: yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein.  In Chapter 5, we will go into a further explanation of this topic, but for we simply need to understand that God’s determined will (i.e. predestined, or decreed will) extends even to Adam and Eve’s disobedience and to all other sinful actions.  God wisely puts limits on sin, orders sin, and governs sin in various ways for his own holy ends, but in a way that God is not creating sin, or has anything in common with sin; sin comes only from the creature.

If God decrees all things, then how does God pre-determine events without violating the free agency or will of mankind?  The Confession adds: nor is violence offered to the will of the creature.  While God decrees all things, including the actions of men, he does so without violating man’s will.    When we hear that God is free to do whatever he wants, in any way, to whomever and whenever, we tend to cringe.  We think that if God is that free in his will, then we are not so free in ours.  It is true that men’s wills can never override God’s, but that does not mean that God violates the will of man.  The issue of free-will is a primary objection that the Arminian raises to Reformed Theology.  But in fact, Reformed Theology does not deny free agency or believe that God violates man’s will to bring about God’s decree.  Certainly, God may circumstantially stop a person from doing something, or he may influence their desire in such a way that they freely choose one thing over another, but God never forces or does violence to a person’s will so that he or she chooses contrary to what which he or she desires.  We must remember that when God decreed to make mankind, he also decreed to give them free agency, and so it is not a defeater to God’s will; rather it is part of God’s will, and so there is actually no contradiction or difficulty.  God does not decree one thing that is contrary to another, for God decreed all things by his most wise counsel.  And as we will see in chapter 5, God uses his free agent creatures to carry out his decrees in creation; he does so according to the nature of his creatures (i.e. the way he made them).  In Chapter 9, Of Free Will the nature of free-will is covered in detail.

The Confession continues: nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away but rather establishedWhile God issues decrees (‘the first cause’), the execution or carrying out those decrees is usually accomplished by God using various means (‘second causes’).  God ordains the end, as well as the means to the end.  God is free to make use of various means or ways to carry out his decrees if he so choses, and in fact, that is how he ordinarily works.  God’s use of second causes does not in any way indicate that God’s decree is not the first cause of all that happens.  In fact, the way in which God’s providence makes use of second causes only proves or establishes that there is a design—a decree—which is orchestrating the second causes.  Sproul states: “What scientists call the laws of nature we call the normal operations of the sovereign God.  They are His laws; they are not independent in nature.  They simply describe the regular, normal way in which God manages or governs His universe.  He is the primary cause of everything that comes to pass, the power supply for all force; secondary causes are always dependent for their power on the primary source of power.”[6]  The execution of God’s decree by the use of various means may appear quite ordinary, but that does change the fact that God is quite involved in carrying out his decrees.  In these means that God uses appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree.  In other words, when we observe how God makes use of these means we see God’s wisdom.  And we observe God’s power and faithfulness at work to accomplish his decrees.  Sproul again states: “The more we reflect on this and work through some of the apparent difficulties, the more we realize that our destinies, our lives, and our children’s lives, in the final analysis, are not exposed to the blind forces of chance or fate.  This is our Father’s world, and our lives are in His hands.  His purpose and will are being brought to pass.”[7] This portion of the Confession has discussed providence.  Again, this will be the subject of that all important chapter 5, Of Divine Providence.

The Decrees (2)

2. Although God knoweth whatsoever may or can come to pass, upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything, because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. (Acts 15:18; Romans 9:11, 13, 16, 18)

God knoweth whatsoever may or can come to pass, upon all supposed conditions.  Looking at God’s decrees from the perspective of eternity, when he issued them, God knew all the possibilities of his decrees.  The first statement is an acknowledgment that God knows the future, including what could have happened if he had determined differently.  But while God had access to that knowledge in eternity, when the decrees were issued, yet, hath he not decreed anything, because he foresaw it as future.  Thus given the knowledge God has of that decreed future, of all possible (or supposed) conditions, yet God did not require, need, or make use of that knowledge to make his decrees.  The Confession adds: or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.  This serves to clarify that God does not depend on any future conditions.  To say it differently, there is no condition or situation in the future upon which God’s decrees are contingent upon.  God’s decrees are self-contained.

Arminian theology implies that God took note of future conditions—conditions which apparently exist external to, and outside of God or his decree.  Based upon that foreseen condition (whatever its particulars may be), God then made his decree.  But where would such a future condition or circumstance come from if not from God or his decree?   According to the Arminian model, in eternity God looked down the corridors of time at conditions or situations apparently outside of God or his decree?  In reality, this model indicates that God gazes down a corridor of time that is not ordered by God, but is ordered by the autonomous free-will of man.  In this model, man determines God’s eternal decree because God must get permission, as it were, from man’s free-will before he determines his decrees.  So then God is not issuing decrees freely or independently, but rather in subjection to and contingent upon a future created by man’s own free-will.  God has to work around what man has already willed.  When one applies this model to election, one must redefine ‘election’ to mean ‘self-election,’ to which God responds by basically back-dating our self-election and calling it eternal divine election.  One can see that there are some real problems here.

In contrast to this Arminian quagmire, the Confession indicates that there is no future without God having decreed it.  Thus the only corridor of time is the one God decreed; the end comes from its beginning.  Berkhof states of God’s decree: “It is unconditional or absolute.  This means that it is not dependent in any of its particulars on anything that is not part and parcel of the decree itself.  The various elements in the decree are indeed mutually dependent but nothing in the plan is conditioned by anything that is not in the decree.  The execution of the plan may require means or be dependent on certain conditions, but then these means or conditions have also been determined in the decree.”[8]  In this way, we see that God’s decrees are not conditional upon anything, period!  All the necessary elements required to perfectly execute his decree are very much part of the decree.  Thus God’s decree is not dependent upon a knowledge or condition of the future to determine his decree or to carry it out; he orders that future!  A.A. Hodge nicely summarizes this paragraph as follows: “This all-comprehensive purpose is not, as a whole nor in any of its conditional elements, conditional.  It in no respect depends upon the foresight of events not embraced in and determined by his purpose.  It is absolutely sovereign purpose depending only on “the wise and holy counsel of his will.”[9]

Some people assume that the use of foreknew or foreknowledge in Scripture refers to God’s knowledge of the future.  For example, Romans 8:29 states: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (ESV).  Samuel Waldron writes: “The word in the Scriptures Foreknowledge some say shows God’s decrees are based upon foreseen events.  But “Foreknowledge means foreordination.  The Standard Greek Lexicon, of Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich asserts that the word “foreknowledge”, means foreordination in those passages most frequently used to prove that election is on the basis of foreseen qualifications.  This Lexicon asserts that the meaning of this word in Romans 8:29 and Romans [Chapters] 9-11 is “choose beforehand” and in 1 Peter 1:2 “predestination”.  It is crucial to note that in these passages it is not something about the elect which is foreknown, but they themselves who are foreknown.  Here we remember that the term “know” in the Bible frequently carries with it the idea of love.  Thus foreknowledge in these passages contains the idea of distinguishing love.”[10]

Where is the Scriptural evidence that God’s decrees do not depend upon knowledge of the future?  In part, it is based on passages that show God’s essence: his self-sufficiency (independence), his eternality, and his immutability.  If God is independent, then he is not in need of anything to issue his decrees.  If God is eternal, then his decrees are made within God’s eternality and independent of time.  If God is immutable, he does not base his decrees on the mutable nature of man.  But, also we see biblical passages that tell us God’s purposes are prior to creation (Job 38:4-7).  In Isaiah 40:14, we see: “Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?”  Based upon these passages (and others) which relate to the eternality of God’s decrees, we then understand future knowledge or conditions are not the basis of God’s decrees.  As we head to paragraph 3, we move from decrees in general to the decree of election specifically.

The Decrees (2)

3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated, or foreordained to eternal life through Jesus Christ, to the praise of his glorious grace; others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of his glorious justice. (1 Timothy 5:21; Matthew 25:34; Ephesians 1:5, 6; Romans 9:22, 23; Jude 4)

The very first point here is that predestination or foreordination is by the decree of God.  Whether one is predestined to eternal life, or one is left to act in their sin, it is by the decree of God.  Just as those appointed to eternal life are part of God’s eternal plan, so the reprobate (i.e. the non-elect left in their sin) are part of God’s plan; both are inside the decree of God for all things are within God’s decree.  But while that is true, yet the Confession delineates between predestination to eternal life and being left to act in sin, leading to a just condemnation; these two different destinies are not executed in the same way.  We will get to this distinction shortly.

  • That God has elected and predestined a people for eternal life is both explicit and implicit in Scripture:
  • “But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)”  John 6:64 (ESV)
  • “The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” John 10:25-26 (ESV)
  • “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.John 17:9 (ESV)
  • “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”   1 Thess. 1:4-5 (ESV)
  • He predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” Eph 1:5 (ESV)
  • “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6  But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.  Romans 11:5-6 (ESV)

God by showing grace to some and justice to the rest he manifests his glory.  How so?  It brings to the forefront both God’s glorious grace and God’s glorious justice.  It has been said God had three choices: 1) He could have saved all mankind and shown only his glorious grace.  2) He could have saved none and shown only his glorious justice.  And 3) He could have done both: saving some and thus showing His glorious mercy and passing over others showing His glorious justice.  We know, of course, that God determined to do number three; thus both attributes are gloriously shown forth.  As it states in Ephesians 1:5-6: “He predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:5-6 ESV).  In this passage we see 1) God’s predestination of the elect (i.e. ‘us’) to adoption, 2) God’s decree (i.e. the purpose of his will), and that 3) it is ‘to the praise of his glorious grace.’

This predestination or foreordaining has to do with men, and interestingly, also of angels.  We perhaps do not think of angels as predestined, but it is what Scripture reveals.  “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality” (1 Tim 5:21 ESV).  Thus we are reminded that even the elect angels of God are predestined.  Election is another word which refers to God’s choice of someone.  If they are elected they are predestined; if they are predestined they are elected.  Predestinated means that God determined one’s destiny to eternal life ahead of time (i.e. a person’s pre-destiny).  It is their sure destiny, and it is guaranteed by God’s own decree.  There is no question as to whether God’s decree will be executed, and thus one’s destiny of eternal life is as good as done.  Foreordained is basically the same meaning.  For God to ‘ordain’ is to determine what will happen; the prefix ‘fore’ simply means the ‘ordaining’ is done before it happens.  Both predestinated and foreordained here are related to the destiny of men and angels who will receive eternal life.  One question we face right away is whether the Confession intends to include elect angels as part of eternal life through Jesus Christ, or only men?   No doubt one could make a case that even the decree of election of angels is through Christ, but I doubt that is the point.   The eternal life through Jesus Christ is probably related to men only, since angels are not in need of redemption.  The Confession’s main point is that whether we are talking about the election of men or angels, both are by God’s decree, but of course, for mankind eternal life is through Christ alone.

The Confession first addresses the predestination or foreordination to eternal life.    We have an abundance of Scriptural evidence that God does indeed predestine men to eternal life.  For example, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48 ESV).  We see it in the golden chain of redemption in Romans 8:30: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (ESV).  We could site many such passages.  There is no question that the Bible teaches that God elects men.  Even Arminians do not deny election; they just deny that election is unconditional.  They teach election is conditional upon God’s knowledge of their future faith (i.e. conditional election).  We will discuss this more in paragraph 5 of this chapter. This predestination or foreordination to eternal life is 1) through Christ Jesus, and 2) it is to the praise of his glorious grace.  He predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:5-6 ESV).

The Confession then states: others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation to the praise of his glorious justice.  We now move to the topic of those who are not predestined to eternal life.  While the Confession began this paragraph by establishing that the destiny of both men and angels are equally by the decree of God, here it clarifies that the predestination to life and the leaving of the others to their sin is not equivalent.    The Confession does not say: “By the decree of God, some men and angels are predestinated to eternal life and the others are predestined to eternal damnation,[11] thus making the two completely equivalent.  Why does it not make them equal?  First, to answer this question let’s look at several Scripture passages regarding the non-elect:

  • What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” Romans 9:22 (ESV). 
  • “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” Jude 1:4 (ESV)
  • The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come” Rev. 17:8 (ESV).
  • “At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.Matt. 11:25-26 (ESV)
  • “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” Romans 9:17-18 (ESV).
  • “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”  Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?” Romans 9:20-21 (ESV)
  • A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.”  They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 1 Peter 2:8 (ESV)

These passages make it abundantly clear that even the non-elect fall under God’s decree.  It might be good to pause a moment and let that sink into our mind: these people are by God’s decree destined to destruction.  But does it necessarily follow then that these non-elect are mere innocent victims of God’s will—pawns in the hands of a cruel and heartless God?  Of course, it does not follow.  But how are we to make our way through these passages without reaching the conclusion that God violates the will of the non-elect and creates evil in their heart in order to destroy them.  This is the accusation that many level at Reformed Theology regarding its model of God’s sovereignty.  If we are to understand the Word of God on this point, we will need to listen carefully to the nuances of Scripture which resolve these seeming difficulties in perfect harmony with God’s holy nature and the nature of his free-will creatures.  One has to deal with the above passages somehow, and simply ignoring them and calling it a “mystery” is not a good interpretive method to deal with what God has clearly revealed.  By using sound interpretive methods, such as comparing Scripture with Scripture—theology with theology—we see God’s wondrous ways.

The tendency is to see no distinction between predestination to life and judgment, but we must resist this; like two magnets that want to be pulled together, we have to use a little force to keep them separate.  In terms of God’s decree in predestination two terms are sometimes used: positive decrees and negative decrees.  In God’s positive decree of election, he actively intervenes by creating faith in their heart.  Thus with the elect God changes their heart, which results in a reorientation so that they both desire and are enabled to come to Christ; this does not do violence to their will for they freely choose that which their new heart desires.  In God’s negative decree, he passes over the non-elect (i.e. the reprobate) and does not intervene and does not actively create faith in them.  In the reprobate, God does not change their heart, and thus there is no reorientation of their heart and mind; they are left to their own sinful desires—the very things they love.  They do not desire to choose Christ and are unable to do so, for it is contrary to their sinful nature.  God, by his glorious grace, shows mercy and changes the heart of the elect, and God, by his glorious justice, leaves the reprobate person alone to indulge in their sin, as they desire, and thus they receive that which they justly deserve.  In this way, God is neither the author of sin, nor does violence to the will of his creatures.  Those who are not elect do not want to leave their sin for they love it more than God.  God does not need to do anything to the reprobate in order for them to receive judgment; he justly leaves them alone, or passes over them.  Where doctrinal mistakes are made is when one fails to see a distinction between God’s positive or negative decree.

I might point out that we are talking about a doctrine sometimes called double predestination.  The problem with the phrase ‘double-predestination’ is that there is nothing built into it which indicates a distinction in the predestination of the elect and reprobate which clearly exists.  But, if rightly understood the phrase double predestination is perfectly valid.  There are two terms which highlight the distinction of God’s decree in predestination: equal ultimacy and unequal ultimacy.

Equal ultimacy means that God equally intervenes to create faith in the elect and unbelief in the reprobate.  While this view is symmetrically pleasing, symmetry is not always biblical.  This symmetrical view of God’s decree in predestination is a positive-positive decree.  This is the position of hyper-Calvinism (which is really not Calvinism at all).  It is an unbiblical view, and is not the position of Reformed Theology.  But while it is easy for us to dismiss such a view as indeed ‘hyper’, yet one has to admit that at first glance this is what some passages of Scripture seem to imply.  For example, Exodus 4:21: “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (ESV). Or, Exodus 7:3: “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt” (ESV).  Such passages indeed seem to indicate that God actively creates hardness in Pharaoh.  But by comparing Scripture with Scripture, we know that this passage cannot mean that God creates evil in Pharaoh’s heart for God is not the author of sin nor does he have fellowship with it.  Then how do we resolve this in light of the whole of Scripture?

God is active in the affairs of men in many ways, and one of those ways is that he gives differing levels of common grace to his creatures.  Common grace is evidenced in many ways: from the blessings of rain, food, clothes, shelter and so on, to the grace of restraining evil in this world.  At any given time, if God were to remove his grace which restrains evil in this world, it would become a very wicked place—more wicked and very quickly.  God does not owe this blessing of restraining evil to the world; as such it is grace.  God is perfectly just when he removes this blessing of grace from sinners, and he does remove this grace in varying degrees according to his own free purposes.  All God has to do to “harden” Pharaoh’s heart, is to remove some of his common grace which restrains sin, and Pharaoh’s heart will become harder than he was before.  Pharaoh is acting freely in his own sin; God does not need to create evil for him to become more evil; Pharaoh was quite capable of that by himself.  In this way, God does not actively harden Pharaoh’s heart, but passively hardens it.  This does not deny that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, for that is exactly what the passage says.  This view is faithful to the passage for it does not specify how God would harden it.  And so by the means of passively hardening (the removal of a degree of common grace’s restraining evil), God governs and directs even sin to be his servant without violating the free-will of his creatures and without being the author of evil.  And so these passages in Exodus 4 and 7 do not necessitate the doctrine of equal ultimacy.

Unequal ultimacy means that God intervenes to create faith in the elect, but does not create faith in the reprobate.  In this God leaves the non-elect to their own sin—to the sin they love and freely pursue.  God does not create evil in them for it is already there.  As a result of their pursuit of sin, they receive the just consequence—condemnation.  This is the position of Calvinism.  This view of God’s decree of predestination is a positive-negative decree. Thus while it is not a symmetrical view of predestination, it is the biblical view which harmonizes God’s active decree for the elect, and his passive decree in the reprobate.  In this view, God is not the author of evil, yet he still directs it for his purposes without violence to the will of his creatures.

God’s decree glorifies him.  His decree to save the elect glorifies himself.  His decree to pass over (i.e. leave in sin) the non-elect glorifies himself.  God is free to show grace to some, and justice to the rest.  IT is remarkable that God shows grace to any, for all deserve eternal judgment.  We have no right to protest God’s way or his decree; we can only stand back in awe and terror at his wondrous ways.  Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Rev 4:11 (ESV)

The Decrees (2)

4. These angels and men thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.  (2 Timothy 2:19; John 13:18)

Here the Confession expounds the unchangeableness and the exactness of God’s eternal decree in predestination (or foreordination).  The exactness is seen in the word particularly and the unchangeableness is seen in its unchanging design.  Of course, we already know that God is unchanging and that his decrees are also unchanging, and so we would not expect this number to be flexible.  The number cannot be increased or diminished because God’s decree is eternal and unchanging.

What do the Scriptures state along these lines?  “I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled” (John 13:18 ESV).  “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” ( John 10:29 ESV).  “When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him”  (John 17:1-2 ESV).  “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37 ESV).  “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity” (2 Tim 2:19 ESV).  These passages encourage us that even in those times we lack assurance, doubt, or are fearful of leaving our God, if we are part of that number, we cannot be deducted, as it were, from that number of God’s elect.

The Confession leaves no wiggle room; there is no room for openness views of God.  God is not open in his plan and decree; it has all been laid out from eternity by God.  He is not open to changing his plans; he has foreordained the beginning from the end.  Do not fight God on this; rather, be still and know that He is God.  In our evangelism, let us be confident that God will save all his elect through the preaching of the gospel, and even when we suffer for the gospel, we can say with Paul, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10 ESV).   This doctrine is of great comfort to God’s people.

The Decrees (2)

5. Those of mankind that are predestinated tolife, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving him thereunto. (Ephesians 1:4, 9, 11; Romans 8:30; 2 Timothy 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:9; Romans 9:13, 16; Ephesians 2:5, 12)

As we begin this paragraph with the words, those of mankind, we are certain that it speaks only of men, and not of angels.  We are also certain by the words predestinated to life, it is speaking of the elect and not the reprobate.  In Scripture we see regarding those men predestined to life: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9 ESV).  The Confession states: God before the foundation of the world was laid.  The point is made here first in terms of time.  God’s choice of his elect was before creation.  Scripture states: “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:4-6 ESV).  Then the Confession states that God made his election according to his eternal and immutable purpose.  Before creation means in eternity—before time itself.  It was made according to his unchangeable purpose.  Scripture states: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11 ESV).

When one considers the decree of God and that it extends even to the Fall (1689, 5:4) one may ask whether God’s decree of election was made before the fall or after the fall?  To answer this question, we first need to recognize that God’s decree, all of them, were made in eternity, and thus we are unable to determine a time order, but we can deduce the logical order.  There are various opinions on this matter, but the Reformed Confessions take the view that God logically first decreed the Fall, and then the elect.  This position is termed infralapsarianism.  In contrast, Supralapsarianism is the view that God first decreed the elect, and then the Fall.   It is outside the scope of this commentary to discuss the ramifications of the various positions, but the Westminster Confession (see 3:7), the Savoy Declaration (see 3:7) and the 1689 Confession (see 3:3, 6) take an infralapsarian position.  For example, in paragraph 6 of this chapter we see this statement: “wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ.”  This implies the decree of election logically follows the decree of the Fall.  Again, we are not speaking of an order that can be made chronologically, but logically.  The time-logic distinction may seem artificial, but such categorization is helpful in the field of theology.

The Confession adds that God elected according to his secret counsel.  God has not revealed to us who the elect are, but they are no less elect in his secret counsel.  God predestined according to the good pleasure of his will.  The Confession echoes the Scripture: “Who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began (2 Tim 1:9 ESV).  Calvinism has a high view of God’s sovereignty, and part of that is recognizing God’s freedom to do as He pleases, but we also recognize the comfort this doctrine brings to the elect because God did not begrudgingly choose us, but he was pleased to do so.

The prior statements of the Confession leave no room for boasting by the person who comes to Christ, but as if to make the point quite clear, the Confession states predestination is “out of his mere free grace and love, without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving him thereunto.”  God’s choice to predestine to life is unrelated to anything that a person can do, will do, or anything else in them.  There was no condition in the elect person that caused God to choose them; there was no cause at all in the person that moved God to choose them.  Election is not based on events from the future, but only upon God’s free choice, for His own purpose and for His own glory.  This is the ‘U’ in TULIP (the oft used acrostic of the five points of Calvinism), that is, unconditional election.  God is not moved by anyone but himself.  When one claims the credit for choosing Christ, one underestimates one’s deadness in sin, and takes credit for something that the Father initiated himself.  To take credit for the choosing is in a sense conceptually taking away God’s freedom in election, and taking glory that belongs only to God; one should not take credit for being the initiator, when that belongs to God alone. God is free to show his love to those he chooses.

The Decrees (2)

6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so he hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto; wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ, by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation; neither are any other redeemed by Christ, oreffectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only. (1 Peter 1:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:9, 10; Romans 8:30; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:5; John 10:26; John 17:9; John 6:64)

For sake of clarity, let’s break this paragraph down into the following topical outline:

  1. The elect are appointed to glory: “As God hath appointed the elect unto glory,”
  2. The decree of election is executed by foreordained means: “so he hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto;
  3. It is Christ who redeems elect: “wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ,”
  4. It is the Spirit who applies Christ’s redemption through effectual calling: “are effectually called unto faith in Christ, by his Spirit working in due season,”
  5. The benefits of effectual calling (ordo salutis): “are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation;”
  6. The exclusive recipients of Christ’s redemption and effectual calling with its benefits: “neither are any other redeemed by Christ, or effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.”

The Elect are Appointed to Glory

 God hath appointed the elect unto glory. The end (or accomplishment) of God’s decree of election is glorification, and there are foreordained means (or ways) to that end.  The Confession has already established that God has appointed the elect to eternal life, but here the term glory is used instead.  This word has various usages, but here glory is used in reference to the full accomplishment of God’s decree of election.  Glory (or glorification) is not merely the state of an elect soul when they die and enter into heaven—being made perfect in holiness,[12] but more than that, it is when at the Last Resurrection the elect are reunited to their bodies (which are raised incorruptible), and will be in that state in heaven forever in God’s presence (see Chapter 31).[13]

 The Decree of Election is Executed by Foreordained Means

 The Confession states: so he hath by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. God’s will is eternal and most free.  This is true of both his decrees and of the way he carries them out.  God’s will in carrying out his decrees is just as eternal as the decree itself, and God is just as free in determining the means as he is in determining the ends.  God executes or carries out his decrees using foreordained means.  It is important that we understand that God does not merely decree or foreordain without also including a foreordained plan of carrying it out.[14]

The specific means (or ways) to the end (or accomplishment) of glorification is Christ’s work of redemption and the application of it by: effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, and perseverance of the saints.  These are the foreordained means of bringing the elect to their appointed state of glory.  There is a logical order to these means, and this order is referred to as the order of salvation (also known as the ordo salutis in Latin).[15]  There is much to address regarding the order of salvation, but will save that for the later chapters: chapters: 3 (election: paragraphs 3-7), 8 (Christ’s redemption), 10 (effectual calling), 11 (justification), 12 (adoption), 13 (sanctification), 14 (faith), 15 (repentance), 17 (perseverance), and 31 (glorification).  Our current paragraph in the Confession mentions each of these.[16]

 It is Christ Who Redeems the Elect

 The 1689 Confession states: wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ.  The first foreordained means was Christ’s purchase of the elect; without Christ’s redemptive work the decree of election could not be carried out.  It is important to realize that both the elect and the non-elect alike are fallen in Adam, but only the elect are redeemed by Christ.  Christ’s redeeming work (his life of obedience and his atoning death) actually accomplished redemption for the elect, though that purchase is not applied until God’s foreordained time.  Notice that the elect are fallen in Adam, but redeemed by Christ.  We see a hint here of that transfer of the elect from fallen Adam’s federal headship, to Christ’s headship; they are no longer in Adam, but in Christ. Chapter 8 explains the redemption purchased by Christ.

It is the Spirit Who Applies Christ’s Redemption through Effectual Calling

 The accomplishment of redemption for the elect is not the same thing as its application.  First redemption is accomplished by Christ’s work.  But how is it applied?  It is applied by the Holy Spirit.[17]  But how does the Holy Spirit apply redemption?[18]  It is applied through effectual calling.[19]  Thus the Confession states that the elect are effectually called unto faith in Christ, by his Spirit working in due season.  Chapter 10, Of God’s Effectual Call, will deal with this in detail, but for now the subject is merely introduced.  Thus far in our progression the means of bringing the decree of election to pass are: 1) Christ’s redemption, and 2), the Spirit’s application of that redemption by effectual calling.   This work of the Spirit comes about in due season.  The timing is foreordained just as the means.   God does all things well, and so it up him when redemption is applied to the each of the elect.

The Benefits of Effectual Calling

 The Confession states that the effectually called : are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation.    The foreordained means then are: Christ’s work, the Spirit’s application of it to the elect through effectual calling, and here we see the results or benefits[20] of effectual calling: justification,[21] adoption,[22] sanctification,[23] and perseverance of the saints[24] (i.e. kept by his power).  Notice that all of these benefits are through faith unto salvation.  Faith is not restricted to the prior phrase ‘kept by his power,’ but rather faith is the instrument by which all the benefits of effectual calling are received.  And so it is by all of these foreordained means that God executes the decree of election in bringing the elect to glory.  I have not explained the character of these means and benefits other than providing the explanations from the Baptist Catechism in the footnotes.  I hope these explanations will assist the reader until we get to the detailed explanation in their respective chapters.

The Exclusive Recipients of Redemption and Effectual Calling with its Benefits

 As if to leave no room for misinterpretation, the Confession adds: neither are any other redeemed by Christ, or effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.  As Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”  The general call of the gospel comes to many, yet only those effectively called will actually come for only the elect are effectively called.  The rest are passed over and left in the sin they love so much, and thus they justly receive their condemnation.  Thus only the elect receive Christ’s redemption in their effectual calling, and from that come all its benefits.  God’s decree of election is accomplished by these foreordained means; by these, God infallibly and perfectly executes his decree of election by bringing many sons to glory.

The Decrees (2)

7. The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election; so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel. (1 Thessalonians 1:4, 5; 2 Peter 1:10; Ephesians 1:6; Romans 11:33; Romans 11:5, 6, 20; Luke 10:20)

The Confession calls predestination a doctrine of high mystery.   Scripture states: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33 ESV).    God has been pleased to reveal much of the nature of his decrees—indeed a high mystery, but on the other hand there are limitations to what is revealed.  A.A. Hodge states: “The philosophy of the relation of his [God’s] sovereign purpose to the free agency of the creature, and to the permission of moral evil, is not revealed in the Scriptures, and cannot be discovered by human reason, and therefore ought not to be rashly meddled with.  This truth ought not, moreover, to be obtruded out of its due place in the system, which includes the equally certain truths of the freedom of man and the free offers of the gospel to all.”[25]  Thus predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care.  There are many ways to go astray with this doctrine, and those who believe it ought to careful in their own understanding and in the articulation of it to others.  A.A. Hodge states: “This section teaches that the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care.  This necessity arises from the fact that it is often abused, and that its proper use is of the highest degree important.”[26]

Why is this doctrine of predestination so important?  That men attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election.  Let’s break this down.  There are two things here in the Confession which ought to lead the true Christian to the assurance they were effectually called.  First, men attending the will of God revealed in his Word.  That is, the Christian, man or woman, who is attentive to the will of God as revealed in Scripture.  Secondly, it addresses the person who is yielding obedience thereunto.  That is, the Christian who is obeying the Word of God.  In contrast to this last one, we know that there are professing Christians who know the Word of God, and yet are not yielding obedience to it.  And so by these two mutually inclusive things, one may be certain of their effectual vocation (vocation is a synonym for ‘calling’).  It is not that obedience to the Word of God is the basis of effectual calling, but that it is the evidence of it.   If one is effectually called, they may be assured of their eternal election because those elected in eternity are always effectually called.  We have only to look at Romans 8:30 to see this: And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30 ESV).  The Confession is promoting assurance of one’s election and effectual call, but it is being careful to avoid promoting false assurance in those who are acting in ways contrary to those who are called.

The 1689 Confession ends this paragraph by stating: so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.  The doctrine of predestination should cause us to praise him, for our sovereign God has a people that he has predestined to glory by his grace from start to finish. Jesus said, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20 ESV).  This doctrine causes us to revere God because he is wondrous in his grace and fearsome in his judgments.  Paul said to the Gentile Christians regarding the Jew, “That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe“(Romans 11:20 ESV).  We stand in admiration of God for his sovereign grace and justice.  We bow in humility because God elected us in eternity.  We are to be diligent to make our calling and election sure.  “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:10 ESV).  By this doctrine, the elect derive much comfort, if the elect are sincerely obeying the gospel.  But such comfort cannot be derived by the disobedient and hypocrite, who do not obey the gospel.  R.C. Sproul states: “When we see the depths to which God goes to bring His people to the fullness of salvation, we stand in awe before His grace.  Is there anything more amazing than that we should be called children of God?  The apostle John writes to his flock: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1).  This helps us see the excellence and sweetness of grace, and it moves us to praise, reverence, and admiration.” [27]

As we move to chapter 4, Of Creation, there is no question that chapters 1 to 3 have been very strenuous.  Chapter 1, Of Scripture, established our authority for truth and reality, and called us to full submission to the Word of God.  In Chapter 2, we discovered things about God only found in the Holy Scriptures, and we were strained as we sought to apprehend what God is like; we were humbled and awed by his majesty, his eternity and infinitude.  And in Chapter 3, were challenged and prodded to grasp and accept the decree of this sovereign God, much to the dislike of our sinful tendency to think of ourselves as completely autonomous.  The first three strenuous chapters have resolved matters of authority: God’s sovereignty (chapter 3), the Godhead (chapter 2), and Scripture (chapter 1).  These truths guide us as we further explore what God has revealed of himself and of his will to the church.

_______________________

[1] The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Containing the full text of Systematic theology (1932) and the original Introductory volume to systematic theology (1938), and new preface by Richard a. Muller (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), 104.

[3] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Containing the full text of Systematic theology (1932) and the original Introductory volume to systematic theology (1938), and new preface by Richard a. Muller (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), 103, 4.

[4]Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2009), 182.

[5] R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Carol Stream, Il: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 186) , 26-7.

[6] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. I, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006), 81.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Containing the full text of Systematic theology (1932) and the original Introductory volume to systematic theology (1938), and new preface by Richard a. Muller (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), 105.

[9]A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 63.

[10] Samuel E. Waldron, 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: A Modern Exposition, 3rd ed. (Webster, Ny.: Evangelical Press, 1999), 69-70.

[11] The Westminster Confession of Faith states: “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.”  The Westminster Confession gives the impression in paragraph 3 that both groups are equivalent, however, later in paragraph 7 the Westminster Confession clarifies that these two are not equivalent.  The 1689 Confession indicates the lack of equivalency right up front.

[12] Baptist Catechism 40: Q. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at their death?  A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness (Heb. 12:23), and do immediately pass into glory (2 Cor. 5:1, 6, 8; Phil. 1:23; Luke 23:43); and their bodies being still united to Christ (1 Thess. 4:14), do rest in their graves (Is. 57:2) till the resurrection (Job 19:26, 27).

[13] Baptist Catechism 41: Q. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?  A. At the resurrection believers, being raised up in glory (1 Cor. 15:43), shall be openly acknowledged, and acquitted in the day of judgment (Mt. 25:23; Mt. 10:32), and made perfectly blessed, both in soul and body, in the full enjoyment of God (1 John 3:2; 1 Cor. 13:12) to all eternity (1 Thess. 4:17, 18).

[14] Again, as cited above Berkhof states of God’s decree that: “It is unconditional or absolute.  This means that it is not dependent in any of its particulars on anything that is not part and parcel of the decree itself.  The various elements in the decree are indeed mutually dependent but nothing in the plan is conditioned by anything that is not in the decree.  The execution of the plan may require means or be dependent on certain conditions, but then these means or conditions have also been determined in the decree.”  Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Containing the full text of Systematic theology (1932) and the original Introductory volume to systematic theology (1938), and new preface by Richard a. Muller (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1996), 105.

[15] I would recommend as an excellent book on this subject, John Murray’s book entitled, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955).

[16] Repentance is not mentioned in this paragraph of the Confession, but is inseparable from faith and thus implied.

[17] Baptist Catechism 32: Q. How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?  A. We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us (John 1:11-12) by his Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5,6).

[18] Q. Baptist Catechism 33: Q. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?  A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us (Eph. 1:13, 14; John 6:37, 39; Eph. 2:8), and thereby uniting us to Christ, in our effectual calling (Eph. 3:17; 1 Cor. 1:9).

[19] Baptist Catechism 34: Q. What is effectual calling?  A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit (2 Tim. 1:9; 2 Thess. 2:13, 14), whereby convincing us of our sin and misery (Acts 2:37), enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ (Acts 26:18), and renewing our wills (Ez. 36:26, 27), he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to us in the gospel (John 6:44, 45; Phil. 2:13).

[20] Baptist Catechism 35: Q. What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life?

  1. They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification (Rom. 8:30), adoption (Eph. 1:5), sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them (1 Cor. 1:30).

[21] Baptist Catechism 36: Q. What is justification? A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins (Rom. 3:24, 25; and 4:6, 7, 8), and accepteth us as righteous in his sight (2 Cor. 5:19, 21), only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us (Rom. 5:17-19), and received by faith alone (Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9).

[22] Baptist Catechism 37: Q. What is adoption? A. Adoption is an act of God’s free grace (1 John 3:1), whereby we are received into the number and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God (John 1:12; Rom. 8:14-17).

[23] Baptist Catechism 38: Q. What is sanctification?  A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace (2 Thess. 2:13), whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God (Eph. 4:23, 24), and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness (Rom. 6:4,6; 8:1).

[24] Perseverance of the saints accompanies and flows from justification, adoption and sanctification; nonetheless, it is part of the order of salvation.   Baptist Catechism 39: Q. What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification?  A. The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification, are assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience (Rom. 5:1, 2, 5), joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5, 17), increase of grace (Pr. 4:18), and perseverance therein to the end (1 John 5:13; 1 Pet. 1:5).

[25] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 76-7.

[26] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (1869; reprinted, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 76.

[27] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. I, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, Nj.: P&R Publishing, 2006), 107.

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Chapter 2, Of the Holy Trinity

trinity5

1. The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perf