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“Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc?” Non!, or, “Don’t Kill the Rooster!”

“Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc?” Non!, or, “Don’t Kill the Rooster!”

by David J. Engelsma

For the benefit of most of the readers, the first part of my title is Latin, meaning, “After this, therefore, on account of this?” This is the question. I use the Latin, not to impress anyone, but because this is a saying that is so familiar in the Latin for the thought it expresses as virtually to demand this foreign language.

The saying, or proverb, refers to a common, serious error in thinking. The error is to suppose that because one thing follows another thing (Latin: “post hoc”), the thing that precedes is the cause of the thing that follows (Latin: “ergo, propter hoc”). The classic example of the saying is that of the lusty rooster whose crowing early every morning is immediately followed by the rising of the sun. Therefore, the rooster concludes that the rising of the sun is caused by his crowing.

Non” in the title answers the question in the (Latin) negative, “no!”—“no,” because that something (in this case, justification) follows something else (in this case, faith) does not imply that that something, that is, justification, is caused by that which precedes it, that is, faith. Because the rising of the sun follows the crowing of the rooster, it is not the case that the crowing of the rooster is the cause of the rising of the sun.

This proverbial mistake, namely, supposing that because one thing follows another it is caused by that which precedes, is being made by the ministers who have recently left the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). They charge that because the PRC teach that forgiveness of sins follows repentance, as God’s way of forgiving sins, and because the PRC teach that justification follows believing, as God’s way of justifying the elect sinner, the ministers in the PRC are teaching conditional salvation. “Post hoc,” that is, “after believing,” “ergo, propter hoc,” “therefore because of believing.” This is the misunderstanding and charge.

The misunderstanding and charge are false. Confessing that justification follows faith, or believing, does not imply that justification is caused by faith. The response of the PRC to the misunderstanding, or charge, is “non!,” “no!” Because the sun comes up immediately after the rooster crows does not mean that the rising of the sun is caused by the crowing of the rooster.

Justification, or forgiveness, follows faith, as the end follows the means. Faith precedes justification. Repentance precedes remission of sins. But because it pleases God to justify by means of faith (believing), and to forgive in the way of the sinner’s repenting, justification is not caused by faith. Neither is repentance the cause of forgiveness. Faith is the (God-worked) means. It is not the cause.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc?” “Non!”

Everyone grasps the reality that a means precedes its end. A child does. Leaving aside for the moment that in these earthly illustrations the means is also in a way the cause, and concentrating only on the truth that a means precedes its end, eating is the means to perpetuate earthly life; rain is a means unto the healthy growth of plants; and sexual intercourse is the means to the conception of children.

Does anyone, even theologians in the Reformed Protestant Churches (RPC), deny that the means precedes the end, and that even in natural life the end follows the means? God works this way in everyday, earthly life. He works life, nourishes crops, and produces offspring by means that precede. And even in natural life, this does not detract from His glory, at least, on the part of the Christian, for the Christian acknowledges that God works the means as well as the end.

All illustrations limp and are, therefore, subject to criticism. Let us now address the issue of “post hoc, ergo propter hoc? Non!” directly with regard to the spiritual realities of God’s work of salvation. The PRC teach that repentance is the (God-given and God-worked) means unto the remission of sins. As means, repentance precedes remission of sins; as end, remission of sins follows repentance. Similarly, believing is the (God-given and God-worked) means unto justification; as end, justification follows faith.

Do the theologians of the RPC deny this? Do they deny that the end follows the means? Do they deny that the (God-worked) repentance of the sinner precedes forgiveness? Do they deny that an active faith precedes justification? Do they deny the teaching of James 4:8 that an important aspect of salvation has God’s causing us to draw nigh to Him precede His drawing nigh to us. Is this now the rock-bottom, doctrinal validation of their separate existence? Is this in the end their “here we stand”?

This denial puts them in a hard place practically. Let us suppose that these churches too have a member living impenitently in sin. The minister and an elder make a disciplinary call on the sinning member. What do they say to him? In their mistaken fear of “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” do they say nothing at all, governed by their theology that to call for (preceding) repentance leading to (following) forgiveness would be the heresy of conditions? Then, their theology prohibits their carrying out a fundamental aspect of the ministry of the gospel: calling sinners to repentance. Or, true to their misunderstanding of “after something, therefore, on account of it” do they first declare, “God forgives you,” and only then call for repentance, if they dare to call for repentance at all? Then, their theology demands that they reverse the biblical order of repenting and being forgiven.

But matters are yet worse for the theologians of the RPC. With their mistaken notion of “post hoc, etc., they contradict the explicit teaching of the Bible—the explicit teaching. Having seen his faith, Jesus then declared to the man sick of palsy, “thy sins be forgiven thee” (Matthew 9:2). Believing preceded remission. Peter preached, “Repent…for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). In his gospel, remission followed repenting. Likewise, in Acts 10:43, the apostle proclaimed as Christian orthodoxy, and as the urgent way of salvation, “whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.” The present tense, “believeth,” precedes a future tense, “shall receive.” God works (preceding) faith as the means to receive remission of sins that follows. The Scripture of James 4:8, in an exhortation to the regenerated human’s activity, has the believer’s drawing nigh to God precede God’s drawing nigh to him or her. One can, indeed must, explain this truth of salvation, but he may not explain it away.

So as not to become tedious, I refer only to one other passage, Galatians 2:16, a grand passage on justification: “We have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Jesus Christ.” The Greek original has “in order that” we might be justified. The text states—states!—that believing (faith) precedes the gracious gift of justification, as the means (faith) precedes the end (being justified).

Forgiveness and justification are “post” (after) faith. Are these gifts of salvation therefore “on account of” (“propter”) faith? “Non !” (No!) The cause of forgiveness and justification is not the believer’s faith. But the cause is the grace of God the Holy Ghost, on the basis of the cross and from eternal election as the source. “Post hoc?” Yes. “Ergo propter hoc?” No!

The appeal by the men of the RPC to the Reformed controversy at the Synod of Dordt and to the Protestant Reformed controversy with conditional theology in the 1940s and 1950s, therefore, is wholly mistaken, illegitimate, misleading, and unjust. The issue in these controversies was not at all whether justification and remission of sins follow faith and repentance (“post hoc”). The issue was whether, therefore, justification and remission are on account of faith and repentance (“ergo propter hoc”). To the doctrine that justification is caused by faith, and then faith as the act of man, rather than as the gracious work and gift of God, Dordt in the 16th century and the PRC in 1953 said, “non!” These defenses of the gospel did not at all intend to deny that justification follows faith as the end follows the means.

Regarding the issue at the Synod of Dordt, since it is a creed, I appeal only to the Canons of Dordt, 5/7. God renews elect sinners to “repentance…[so] that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” According to the creed, which came out of the fires of a conflict with the false doctrine, that because faith precedes justification, faith is the cause of justification, the truth is that remission of sins, the experience of God’s favor, and the adoration of God’s mercies follow faith and repentance. But the entirety of the creed rejects as false doctrine the teaching that faith and repentance are conditions of justification, that is, that justification is “propter” (on account of) faith.

Much as it was concerned to deny that faith is the cause of justification, the Canons does not deny that faith precedes justification, as the means precedes the end.  I dare say that the thought of this denial never entered the orthodox mind of any delegate to the synod. None of them even entertained the idea of denying that the way to remission of sins is repentance; or that the way to justification is believing; or that a means precedes the end; or that Acts 10:43, Galatians 2:16, and James 4:8 are in the Bible.

As for the doctrinal issue in the controversy of the PRC with a theology of conditions in the early 1950s, we learn what that issue was, and what it was not, not from the writings of individual ministers, no matter how respectable, but from the official document that decided the issue, the “Declaration of Principles.” According to the synodically adopted “Declaration,” the issue was whether God makes a gracious, conditional promise to all baptized children that He will save them, which promise is dependent upon a child’s fulfillment of the condition of faith.  To this conditional theology, the PRC said “non!

According to this same “Declaration,” the issue was not that a preceding faith is the God-worked means in the elect unto a justification that follows. The issue was not whether God draws nigh to those who draw night to Him. “We maintain (declares the ‘Declaration’)…that the preaching comes to all; and that God seriously commands to faith and repentance; and that to all those who come and believe He promises life and peace.” Coming to Christ by faith and repentance is the (preceding) means to the (following) end that consists of life and peace. To this basic Christian truth the PRC said “yes” in 1953, and hope to say “yes” until the coming of Jesus. 

Out of a misguided fear of the error of “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” we will not, therefore, kill the rooster. I refer, of course, back to the classic example of the error of thinking that if something (in this case, remission of sins and justification) follows something else, it must be on account of that something else (in this case, faith). So opposed is the farmer to the error of the thought that, because the rising of the sun follows the crowing of his rooster, the crowing of the rooster is the cause of the rising of the sun, that the farmer kills his rooster. Now no one, including the rooster, can make the mistake of supposing that the rooster’s crowing is the cause of the rising of the sun.

This is the error of which the RPC are guilty, or to which they are tending. So opposed are they, commendably, to the heresy that justification is caused by faith, which is the false doctrine of justification by works, and committed as they are, mistakenly, to the notion that, if justification follows faith, justification must be caused by faith, they deny that faith precedes justification. They kill the crowing rooster. Declare the men of the RPC, “we will have no more crowing by the rooster.” That is, “we will not countenance the teaching that repentance precedes remission, or that faith precedes justification, or that our drawing nigh to God precedes His drawing nigh to us. From henceforth, we judge that all who teach that faith precedes justification, that is, that faith is the means to justification, and all who teach that God will draw nigh to those who draw nigh to Him are Pelagian, Roman Catholic, Arminian, federal vision, conditional theology, viperish, and what not more heretics.”

One can only hope that it is out of ignorance that they overlook that their novel, searing judgment in the sphere of Reformed, indeed, Christian, theology, falls also upon Paul, Peter, James, and our blessed Savior.

They kill the rooster, because, in addition to contradicting the fundamental, and plain, teaching of Scripture that God justifies the elect sinner by means of His (preceding) work of faith, and draws nigh to those who draw nigh to Him, they are guilty of that error of thinking exposed in Logic 101: “post hoc, ergo propter hoc.”

That a simple farmer kills his rooster to avoid the error of supposing that its crowing brings up the sun is not serious (except for the rooster).

But to deny the preceding faith in God’s grand work of justification and to negate the preceding repentance in His gracious work of remission of sins are serious indeed. Such is the necessary relation in these two-fold works of God that without preceding repentance there is no remission, and without preceding faith there is no justification. Remission is by means of (preceding) repentance; justification is by means of (preceding) faith; God’s drawing nigh to us is by means of our (preceding) drawing nigh to Him. Jesus said so. Peter taught so. Paul proclaimed so. James declared so. The Canons of Dordt and the “Declaration of Principles” confess so.

With genuine love for the men of the RPC (which among other things avoids name-calling), I would warn them: Do not allow your developing hatred of the PRC to kill the theological and gospel rooster.

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