Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity (3): "Can and Must Do"
Reformed Free Publishing Association
What follows is from Martyn McGeown's article "Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity, but Not a Condition for Salvation," published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, April 2019, Vo. 52, No. 2. The article will be serialized on the RFPA blog. The previous entry is Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity (2): Faith and Justification.
What a Regenerate Sinner Can and Must Do
In any discussion about salvation, justification, and faith, we must differentiate between a regenerate person and an unregenerate person. The latter cannot believe, although he is commanded to do so; the denial of the truth that the unregenerate man is commanded to believe is classic hyper-Calvinism. The regenerate person can and must believe.
The distinction between an unregenerate and a regenerate per- son is very significant. An unregenerate person is totally depraved. Therefore, he cannot perform any obedience pleasing to God, although God still requires obedience (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 4, Q.&A.9). The same is not true, however, of a child of God. While an elect, regenerated believer has a totally depraved flesh, which is never improved, he is more than the totally depraved flesh, for he has the new man: “Christ having redeemed and delivered us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit” (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 86). The result—the inevitable fruit—of that renewal is “that so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God” (A. 86). Therefore, insists the Catechism, “it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (A. 64), or as Paul puts it, “we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) and we are “a new creation” (II Cor. 5:17). Therefore, it is perfectly legitimate, indeed, necessary, to call a child of God to obedience.
A preacher can—and must—call his audience to believe in Christ. And a fellow believer can—and must—call an erring saint (brother) to repentance. Such an erring saint must not retort, “I am totally depraved; I cannot obey. You cannot require obedience of me. That’s works righteousness.” A Christian parent can—and must—require obedience and a walk in good works from a rebellious child or teenager. Such a disobedient child must not reply: “I am totally depraved; I cannot obey. You are trying to teach works-righteousness. I know that I am saved by grace.” An elder can—and must—require repentance and obedience of a church member under discipline. Such a member must not object: “I am totally depraved; I cannot obey, and you must not require obedience of me. That would be works righteousness, and we are saved by grace alone.”
If the professing Christian, whether adult or child, whether under discipline or not, is a true child of God, he not only must believe, but he also can believe; he not only must repent, but he also can repent; he not only must obey, but he also can obey. The Holy Spirit, who has regenerated and renewed him after the image of Christ, enables him to repent and obey, albeit imperfectly. Let not the reality of imperfection be an excuse for disobedience, for the Heidelberg Catechism teaches, “With a sincere resolution they [true believers] begin to live not only according to some, but all the commandments of God” (A. 114). Moreover, in the quickening of the new man we live “with love and delight according to the will of God in all good works” (A. 90).
The Form for the Administration of Baptism states, “Whereas in all covenants there are contained two parts, therefore are we by God, through baptism, admonished of and obliged unto new obedience, namely, that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; that we trust in Him, and love Him, with all our hearts, with all ours souls, with all our mind, and with all our strength; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.” To cleave, to trust, to love, to forsake, to crucify, and to walk are activities of faith, which the Form calls “new obedience.” Nevertheless, the Form does not teach that “the new obedience” (including faith), of which we are admonished and to which we are obliged, is a condition that we fulfill on which God’s promise of salvation depends. Moreover, the Form does not teach that the promise of the covenant extends also to the reprobate children of believers or to reprobates in the sphere of the covenant (Rom. 9:6). The promise is to the elect, redeemed children who have “the washing away of [their] sins through Jesus Christ” (preceding paragraph in the Form).
The fathers at the Synod of Dordt made a special point of emphasizing the activity of the regenerate person. They did so because the Remonstrants alleged perversely that Reformed theology makes man a stock or a block, that God believes for us or in us, as if we do not believe at all. That would make us puppets: God would simply cause us to move, to repent, to believe, to do good works, and the like, without our conscious activity or participation: the divine hand in
the human puppet! Scripture teaches in Philippians 1:29: “It is given to you not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” It is given—that’s God’s grace. “To believe and to suffer”—that’s our activity. God does not suffer in us; we suffer. God does not believe in us; we believe. Similar is Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:13. We work because “it is God that worketh in [us] both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” God works—that’s God’s grace. We will and we do—that’s our activity. That constitutes our working out (not our working for) our own salvation.
“The will,” says Dordt, “becomes itself active. Wherefore, also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received” (Canons 3-4, 12). Homer Hoeksema comments on that article:
All of this, however, does in no wise abrogate the responsibility of the Christian. God does not repent and believe for him, but the Christian himself believes and repents, by virtue of that grace received… [God] never interferes between the heart and will and the mind of a man, on the one hand, and the actions of that man, on the other hand. On the contrary, the act of faith and repentance proceeds from the will of the man; that man believes, that man repents. But he believes and repents only by virtue of the grace received. God renews him. God actuates and influences that renewed will. And in consequence of that influence (infallible and effectual), the renewed will also acts. Hence, man is rightly said to believe and repent.
Some well-meaning Christians appeal to Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20, where Paul writes of his Christian life and experience: “Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Clearly, Paul does not refer to the replacement of the human person, as if Paul’s ego is no longer present, or as if Christ’s person has replaced Paul’s person. That is impossible! Then Paul would be assimilated into Christ; then Paul would no longer exist. If that were the case, Paul would not be the subject of his thinking, willing, and acting. Paul would simply be an empty shell in which Christ performs the activity, and in no sense could it be called Paul’s activity. Then that would be true for all Chris- tians—Christ’s person (his ego) would replace the individual persons (or egos) of millions of Christians; that is impossible and absurd.
Paul makes similar statements elsewhere. In I Corinthians 15:10 he writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain: but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
In that verse Paul does not deny that he worked diligently, but he ascribes the praise to God. God’s grace worked in him; God’s grace was the source of his strength. Yet God did not work in him in such a way that he did not also work. God did not bless Paul’s sloth, but God blessed Paul’s diligent efforts. Yet, God’s grace was first. Paul depended on God’s grace for his work; God did not depend on Paul.
Similarly, then, Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “Nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Christ is the source of Paul’s life; Christ dwells in Paul by the Holy Spirit; Christ gives Paul the grace to live, to fight sin, to follow after holiness, to bring forth good works of obedience, and to endure affliction by the power of faith. Yet Christ does not fight sin—Paul does by the power of Christ; Christ does not follow after holiness—Paul does by the power of Christ; Christ does not obey—Paul does by the power of Christ; Christ does not endure affliction—Paul does by the power of Christ.
Believers must not fall into mysticism by confusing their persons with Christ. We must not imagine that we are assimilated into Christ so that we no longer do anything. We do not sit idly and expect without any effort on our part to walk in God’s commandments and to serve him. That is not how it works—and that is not what Paul means.
The Canons of Dordt address this also, and in so doing they refute the “Let go, and let God” error of some professing Christians. Some Christians, in an attempt to elevate the grace of God, teach passivity in the life of a Christian. “Let go—make no effort. Let God—God will save you while you are unconscious, and he will do so without your activity.” That sounds pious, but that is not how the Bible describes the Christian life: the Bible describes the Christian life as a battle, a struggle, a fight, and an agonizing race (I Cor. 9:24-27; II Tim. 4:7; Heb. 12:1-2). God works in us in such a way that we work, something emphasized in the Canons: “Grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more eminent usually is this blessing of God working in us, and the more directly is his work advanced” (Canons 3-4, 17).
That this is the correct meaning of Paul ought to be obvious when we read the rest of the verse. Paul very definitely refutes the view of the mystics on this verse when he writes, “And the life which I now live in the flesh” (v. 20).
So Paul does, in fact, live after all—he lives in the flesh. The word flesh is a reference to Paul’s human nature or his human existence: it is human nature from the perspective of its weakness and even its sinfulness. When Paul writes Galatians 2:20, he has not yet reached the perfection to which he aspires.
But notice what Paul does not say, “The life that I now live according to the flesh.” Paul lives in the flesh, because he cannot (until Christ releases him in death) escape from the flesh. Nevertheless, Paul does not live according to the flesh, or in harmony with the flesh, for he does not serve the flesh; he does not serve sin.
 Form for the Adminstration of Baptism in Confessions and Church Order, 258 (My italics).
 Hoeksema, Voice of Our Fathers, 523-4. (Hoeksema’s italics).