Our Rejection of Conditions (6): Critiquing a Novel Definition
Reformed Free Publishing Association
By Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: Our Rejection of Conditions (5): Conditional Grammar in the Bible
A new definition of condition has been coined recently, a definition which to my knowledge was never used by theologians of the Protestant Reformed Churches before. In earlier blog posts I provided abundant evidence from our literature to demonstrate what a “condition” is. The new definition is this: “A condition is any activity of man which must precede the reception of a blessing from God.” Therefore, if faith must precede justification, faith is a condition; if repentance must precede the forgiveness of sins, repentance is a condition; if prayer must precede the reception of blessings from God, prayer is a condition. These things are, according to the novel definition of condition, conditions even if they are worked in God’s children by the Holy Spirit, even if they are God-given or God-worked.
First, the fact of the matter is that faith does precede justification, repentance does precede the forgiveness of sins, and prayer does precede the reception of blessings from God. If we are afraid to say that, write that, confess that, and preach that, we are afraid of what the Bible plainly teaches. In other words, the Bible presents a certain relationship between activities of men and the blessings of God, a relationship that God himself in perfect wisdom has ordained. If we do not like that relationship, God will not change it to accommodate us. “We have believed in Jesus Christ that we might be justified” (Gal. 2:16), not “We were justified before we believed.” “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31), not “You were already saved before you believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Yes, the Philippian jailor was regenerated—in that sense he was saved—but he was not saved in the sense of justified, consciously enjoying the forgiveness of sins, etc.). “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5), not “Ye shall be saved even without repentance.” “Let [the wicked] return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7), not “You have mercy and abundant pardon already, even if you do not turn from your sins.” “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matt. 7:7-8), not “You shall receive, find, and have opened to you, even if you do not ask, seek, and knock.” Could God give to the non-asker, non-seeker, and non-knocker? Yes, absolutely, and he gives us exceedingly abundantly above what we can ask or think (Eph. 3:20), but ordinarily he is pleased to give when we ask: “Ye have not, because ye ask not; ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” (James 4:2b-3). “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). Or, to quote from the creeds: “God will give his grace and Holy Spirit to those only who with sincere desires continually ask them of him, and are thankful for them” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 116). But why multiply examples when the Word of God is so clear?
Second, as I indicated earlier, God is sovereign even with respect to our believing, our repenting, and our praying. God is not sitting in heaven fretting, “I have blessings for my people—justification, forgiveness of sins, grace, and the Holy Spirit—but I am waiting for them to believe, to repent, and to pray; and until they do, my hands are tied.” What an absurd, and utterly dishonorable, portrayal of God that would be! Whom God plans to justify he calls, and he gives to him (the elect, regenerated, called sinner) the gift of faith so that he believes and is justified. God does not leave it up to his children to decide whether to believe or not, as it pleases them. Whom God plans to forgive, he grants the gift of repentance, so that the elect, regenerated sinner changes his mind, and turns in true sorrow of heart, with hope in God’s mercy, toward the God of grace revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. To the one whom God plans to bless with a particular blessing, he grants the gift of prayer, so that he brings the petitions that God himself has ordained, and in that way God gives the blessing that he has prepared.
God does not wait for us to do something as if his work depended on us, or as if his work were contingent on us. God does not give us the grace to believe, repent, pray, forgive our neighbor, and then leave it up to us whether we will do those things or not, which would be resistible grace. God’s grace is never resistible, ineffectual, or impotent. Instead, God has decreed to deal with us as rational, moral creatures and to bestow his gifts in a certain orderly fashion.
Take the much-debated James 4:8a: “Draw nigh unto God, and he will draw nigh unto you.” The grammar of the text is this: first, “Draw nigh” is in the imperative mood, which is the grammar of a command or an admonition; second, “he will draw nigh” is in the future tense, which is the grammar of a promise. Apply our understanding of Reformed theology to the text. God is always near his people, but clearly James’ readers were living sinfully and God had withdrawn from them. He calls them “sinners” and “double-minded” and calls them to “cleanse [their] hands” and “purify [their] hearts” (v. 8b). Therefore, God draws nigh to them in the preaching (or, in this case, in the inspired epistle) and commands them, “Draw nigh.” Does God then wait passively until these people stir up something in their hearts to draw near to God? Of course not. By means of the word, “Draw nigh,” he causes them by his sweetly irresistible grace to draw nigh, he causes them to believe, he causes them to repent and turn from sin, and in that way he draws nigh to them. God does not even work in their hearts by his grace and then leaves it up to them whether they will draw nigh or not, but he works irresistibly to draw them to himself, and they come. No other exegesis of the text does justice to the words that the Spirit inspires. To say that God draws nigh to us whether we draw nigh or not, is absurd. Then James had no good reason to write what he did. Rather, we believe that an exhortation such as this is a means that God uses to bring us closer to himself. Just as, when a husband says to his wife, “Come near,” in order that he might embrace her, or when a mother says to her daughter, “Come near,” in order that she might hug her, so God says to us, “Draw nigh.” The effect is that the wife comes, the child comes; and certainly, since God’s call to his elect is irresistible, the elect believer comes. That is not a condition that we must fulfill for fellowship with our God: God draws us so that we come.
Herman Hoeksema says it well: “Through the work of grace man becomes responsible in the highest sense of the word. Not, indeed, responsible for what God does, but freely responsible for the new obedience unto which he is called. Just because God works within him to will and to do of His good pleasure, he heeds the admonition to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13). Just because he has the glorious promises of God that He will dwell in them and walk in them and will be their God and they shall be His people, they cleanse themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1). God regenerates them, and they live. God calls them, and they come. God gives them faith, and they believe. God justifies them, and they are righteous. God sanctifies them, and they walk in a new and holy life. God preserves them, and they persevere even unto the end. And all this work of God is without condition. That is the relation between the work of God and our work, as it is expressed in Canons 3-4.12, the end of which we quote once more: ‘Whereupon the will thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence, becomes itself active. Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.’ By faith, through faith, and in the way of faith we are saved, but never on condition of faith” (Herman Hoeksema, “As to Conditions,” Standard Bearer, vol. 26, issue 14 [April 15, 1950], 317-318).
In conclusion, the Protestant Reformed Churches and her sisters still reject conditions in salvation and in the covenant. We insist that faith is not a condition so that the believer makes himself to differ from the unbeliever, but it is the gift of God. We insist that grace is not wider than election, not on the mission field, and not in the covenant community, but God has grace, effectual, sovereign grace, only for his elect. We insist that God’s promise never fails because everything that God promises surely comes to pass. This is always how we have understood “conditions:” an activity of man on which salvation depends or on which it is contingent.
At the same time, we do not deny the clear word of God which teaches that God ordains certain activities of men before he grants certain blessings of salvation. To deny that is to seek to be wiser than God and to deny the explicit teaching of Holy Scripture.