Grace Conferred (5): The Admonitions of the Gospel: An Important Grammatical Point
Reformed Free Publishing Association
The following is Part Five in the series "Grace Conferred by Means of Admonitions" by Martyn McGeown. Read Part Four here.
In the last blog post, I made a distinction, following Ursinus, between the bare law without the gospel (which is the killing letter of 2 Corinthians 3:6) and the law with the gospel, which is effectual by the work of the Spirit in the heart of the child of God, so that he, by the grace of God conferred to him, begins to obey the law.
The admonitions, specifically the admonitions of the gospel, are those admonitions which flow from the gospel. God does not confer grace by means of admonitions devoid of the gospel. The bare “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” of the law confers no grace, but where admonitions flows from the gospel, God is pleased to confer grace by means of such admonitions. That is why invariably the New Testament grounds its exhortations in the gospel itself. God commands us to new obedience because of what Jesus Christ has done by his death and resurrection; and since the fruit of Christ’s work is our sanctification, the apostles address those who have been transformed by the grace of God in the gospel. The epistles are not addressed to the spiritually dead, but to the spiritually alive.
In other words, according to the Canons the gospel has sacred precepts (Canons 3-4.17) and the gospel has exhortations, threats, and promises (Canons 5:14). But if the gospel is simply the good news concerning Jesus Christ, how can it also have precepts/admonitions (Latin: monitus), exhortations (Latin: adhortatio), and even threats (Latin: mina)?
In answer to that question, we must remember the multifaceted meaning of that little word “of.” In English the word “of” expresses the relationship between words; in other languages, such as Latin and Greek (and even German), there is no word for “of” as such, but “of” is expressed by means of different cases in grammar. I can well remember first learning Biblical Greek and its many uses of the word “of.” The technical term is the genitive case.
As a case in point, consider the phrase, “by (per) the sacred (sanctis) precepts/admonitions (monitis) of the gospel (Evangelii). What does that mean? The only way to determine that is from the context. Does it mean the precepts and admonitions which are the gospel? In English, if I wrote, “The city of New York is called the Big Apple,” I mean the city which is New York. That is clearly not the meaning. The gospel is not precepts and admonitions. Does it mean the precepts and admonitions which belong to the gospel? In English, if I wrote, “Many firefighters of New York City died on 9-11,” I mean firefighters who belong to New York City. That could possibly be the meaning, for precepts and admonitions belong to the gospel, although strictly speaking, they are not part of the gospel, but often accompany it. Does it mean precepts and admonitions which flow from, or come from, the gospel? In English, if I wrote, “The fashion of New York is sold across the country,” I mean the fashion which comes from New York.” That seems the most suitable, for precepts and admonitions do indeed flow from the gospel, although they themselves do not constitute the gospel. In case you were not aware, we have just looked at three uses of the genitive case: the genitive of apposition (“The city of New York”), the genitive of possession (“Firefighters of New York”), and the genitive of source (“The fashion of New York”), and those are only three of many other possible uses of the genitive case! In English we rarely think of the uses of the genitive—we naturally and instinctively know the meaning—but in Greek and Latin these things require careful study. Yes, this blogger is a grammar nerd, but grammar was very important in the Reformation. When Luther realized that “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 does not mean the righteousness that belongs to God or his attribute according to which he punishes sin (a genitive of possession), but the righteousness which comes from God, that is, his righteousness that he gives to poor sinners in justification (Rom. 3:21-22), or a genitive of source, paradise, he says, was opened to him. Light and joy filled Luther’s soul and sparked the Reformation of the church at his discovery of a genitive of source! Gospel grammar indeed!
What about the hearing and reading of the gospel of Canons 5.14? Surely, the meaning there is that the gospel is what we hear and read, that is, the gospel is the object of our hearing and reading. And what about the exhortations, threats, and promises of the gospel of Canons 5.14? Similarly, they are the exhortations, threats, and promises which flow from the gospel.
What, then, are the admonitions of the gospel? Are they only this: “Believe,” and maybe even, “Repent”? Is that the only admonition which flows from the gospel? Is that the only thing—the call to believe, and possibly, repent—that God uses to “keep [the people] … in the exercise of the Word, sacraments, and discipline” (Canons 3-4.17)? For do not miss the truth that the same precepts or admonitions (monitis) that God uses to keep us in the exercise of his Word, that is, in obedience, are the admonitions (monita) by which he confers grace. Is that the only thing—the call to believe, and possibly, repent—that God uses to preserve, continue, and perfect his work of grace in us (Canons 5.14)? To that question we turn next time, DV.