Gospel Truth of Justification (6): Polemical and Necessary


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Gospel Truth of Justification (5): Polemical

The apostle Paul, after addressing the churches of Galatia in verses 1-5, immediately administers a rebuke to them with the expression, “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6, 7).

John Calvin, commenting on verse six of this opening chapter of Galatians, observes that the apostle Paul’s “greatest severity of language is directed...against the false apostles.”[1] Writes Calvin,

He [Paul] charges them [false apostles] with the additional crime of doing an injury to Christ, by endeavoring to subvert his gospel. Subversion is an enormous crime. It is worse than corruption. And with good reason does he fasten on them this charge. When the glory of justification is ascribed to another, and a snare is laid for the consciences of men, the Saviour no longer occupies his place, and the doctrine of the gospel is utterly ruined (emphasis mine, AJC).[2]

In defense of the truth of justification by faith alone, the apostle Paul used polemics. In Galatians 1:8, the inspired apostle Paul pronounces a curse upon them which “preach any other gospel unto you than that which we preached unto you.” He states again emphatically in the next verse, “If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”

Polemics is the activity of identifying, opposing, fighting against, and destroying false teachings, either in doctrine or walk. It is spiritual warfare (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). The word itself comes from the Greek word polemos, meaning “war.” That the true church militant carries on war against false teachers and their teachings should not surprise or offend members of the church. God declared this war. In the garden of Eden God declared, “I will put enmity between thee [Satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). This war has been ongoing since the beginning of time. In the New Testament, Satan continues his attack upon the church, so that Peter warns, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He attacks the church, as Paul warned the elders of Ephesus upon his departure (Acts 20:28-30), by sending “grievous wolves...in among you, not sparing the flock.” Jude exhorts the beloved to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (v. 3). Why? “For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 4). The apostle Peter warns the saints that as “there were false prophets also among the people....there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies” (2 Peter 2:1).

Knowing the truth and defending it is of utmost importance to Reformed believers, especially officebearers, for as Calvin observes, “To know what are the leading points of the gospel, is a matter of unceasing importance,” for “when these are attacked, the gospel is destroyed.”[3]

(Protestant) Reformed officebearers, upon signing the Formula of Subscription, vow that they “heartily believe” the doctrines contained in the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession and Canons of Dordt to be in full agreement with the Word of God.” Further, they “promise...diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine.” Moreover, they “declare”....that they will “not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine”—particularly those doctrines condemned at the Synod of Dordt—but that they are “disposed to refute and contradict these, and...exert [them]selves in keeping the church free from such errors” (emphasis added).[4]

Equally clear is the section of the Church Order, a minor confession, dealing with the responsibilities of the officebearers of the church. Article 18 states, “The office of the professors of theology is to expound the holy scriptures and to vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors” (emphasis added).[5] Article 55 of the Church Order, following upon Articles 53 and 54, which require of professors, ministers, elders, and deacons that they subscribe to the Reformed confessions, reads, “To ward off false doctrine and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation or warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family-visiting.”[6]

The author, in penning the contents of Gospel Truth of Justification: Proclaimed, Defended, Developed, is necessarily polemical. The author, holding the office of professor emeritus of theology in the Protestant Reformed Churches, is bound by the Reformed confessions and the Church Order. To avoid polemics in writing on the truth of justification by faith alone would be a shameful dereliction of duty.

The author is also properly polemical. First, in the book he addresses particular errors which are a genuine threat to God’s people. Second, Engelsma addresses serious, confessional, and fatal errors. None of the errors are imagined or invented. Third, the author in his polemics is fair, allowing the advocates and defenders of false doctrine to speak for themselves. He does not “put words in their mouths,” nor does he take their words out of context. Their positions are given ample space and accurately cited. Finally, in refuting heresies, the author is motivated by love for God and the glory of his name. He writes,

Nothing, not even impenitent idolatry or sodomy, would so defile the heavenly choir as th[e] attribution of the glory of salvation to the saved sinner. To the redeemed in heaven forever, as to the saints now on earth, comes the effectual call, “Praise our God, all ye his servants, and ye that fear him” (Rev. 19:5). From the great multitude in heaven, as from the true church in the world today, comes back the response, “Let us...give honour to him” (v. 7) (p. 331).

Next time, a brief summary of the heresies and errors refuted and why this defense of justification by faith alone is necessary.

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[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998) 1:29.

[2] Calvin, 1: 31.

[3] Calvin, 1:31.

[4] Formula of Subscription, in Confessions and Church Order, 326.

[5] Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, in Confessions and Church Order, 386.

[6] Church Order, in ibid., 397.

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This article was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (1): Timely

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (2): Comforting

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (3): Comforting and Confessional

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (4): Instructive

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Gospel Truth of Justification (4): Instructive

Good sermons edify. That is, they are instructive and spiritually build up the hearers. When, according to their professors, students in the Protestant Reformed Theological School are deemed ready, they are licensed to speak a word of edification in the churches. When sermon critic committees bring their reports to synod regarding the sermons given by seminarians at their synodical exams, a judgment is made whether or not the sermons are edifying. A primary responsibility of elders in their oversight of the minister is ensuring that his preaching is edifying. The congregation must be built up, grow in their understanding of the Reformed faith and be encouraged in a godly and antithetical walk.

This attribute of edification is a must in theological writing as well. And the believing reader of Gospel Truth of Justification will be edified! If the material in this book was the subject matter of a seminary course, I doubt that the material could properly be treated in one semester. The author treats the truth of justification from every possible angle and leaves no stone unturned. The wise reader, willing to receive instruction, “will be yet wiser” and the “just” reader, willing to learn, “will increase in learning” (Prov. 9:9).

Limiting myself, there are three particular aspects of justification covered in this book, that I would like to highlight in this post. The first is that, as the Reformed confessions clearly teach, justification is a legal act of God whereby the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the account of the elect sinner (p. 93). That justification is “strictly a legal act of God” that dramatically changes “the justified sinner’s standing before God the just judge,” (p. 94) makes plain what justification is not. “Justification is not the infusion of righteousness into the sinner” (p. 94).

That justification is not the act of God that makes the sinner holy is important to maintain. Why? “Basic to the heresy of justification by works as proclaimed both by the Roman Catholic Church and by the federal vision is the teaching that justification is, at least partly, the infusion of righteousness. This doctrine of justification enables both Rome and the federal vision to conclude that God justifies sinners partly by their own good works, which they perform by virtue of the infusion, and that the righteousness of justified sinners…is at least in part the sinners’ own good works” (pp. 94, 95).

Further, it is important to maintain that justification is not the infusion of righteousness into the sinner because this is to confuse justification and sanctification. Sanctification is the distinct “saving work of God within sinners that makes them obedient, that imparts the obedience of Jesus Christ to them so that they begin to be good and to do good, that infuses obedience into them” (p. 111). Confusing justification and sanctification has the harmful effect of robbing the people of God of their joy and peace. It detracts from the obedience of Jesus Christ as the complete righteousness of the believing sinner, as though the obedience of the sinner must be added to the obedience of Jesus for the sinner’s righteousness with God” (pp. 112, 113). Always the sinner will ask himself, “Have I done enough, have I worked hard enough to please God?”

A second aspect of justification worthy of highlighting is the connection between advocating a conditional covenant and a denial of justification by faith alone, without works. In the chapter entitled “Paul and James,” Engelsma explains that in “conservative” Reformed and Presbyterian churches the root of the denial of justification by faith alone is “their emphatic teaching of a conditional covenant” (p. 432). Their claim is that proclaiming justification by faith alone will make men “careless and profane,” will lead to “antinomianism” and threaten “a responsible, zealous, holy life” among members of the churches (pp. 432-435). Therefore, in order to combat this “alleged fear,” a conditional covenant must be preached. The conditions of faith and faith’s good works must be met, motivating (scaring) the believer to obedience.

This reasoning is warned against in Article 24 of the Belgic Confession, which reads in part, “Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary, without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.” The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 24, Q & A 64 states, “But doth not this doctrine make men careless and profane?” “By no means; for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.”

Engelsma leads the reader to the one reason the justified Christian brings forth good works and leads a holy life: “love for God.”

Love for [Christ], and for the God who gave him as our redeemer (as we realize in the gift of justification by faith alone), motivates us to serve him and God—gladly, willingly, freely, wholeheartedly, sacrificially—in thankfulness. Only this motivation of the Christian life is pleasing and acceptable to God. This motivation of the truly Christian life is worked and secured only by the gospel truth of justification by faith alone (p. 441).

Finally, the relationship between justification and election is worthy of highlighting. Engelsma calls this a “close, necessary, and significant” relationship (p. 455). “Election,” according to Canons 1.7 includes the bestowal upon the elect of “true faith, justification, and sanctification.” Canons 1.9 teaches that “election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation.” The author points out that among those saving goods is justification. And the “faith” mentioned is the instrument of justification. “That some receive the gift of faith from God” teaches Canons 1.6, “proceeds from God’s eternal decree [of election].” To deny that justification by faith alone has its source in God’s eternal election is gross heresy.

This is the doctrinal sin of federal vision theology which denies that election is the “fountain of every saving good,” including justification, in the covenant (p. 469, author’s emphasis).  The federal vision denies that election governs the covenant and, consequently, teaches that “the will of the baptized child does govern the covenant. Hence justification is by faith as a condition and by works!” (pp. 469, 470).

This “alleged fear” of election by contemporary foes of election is exposed by the Bible and the Reformed creeds. Writes Engelsma, “In reality, what troubles the foes of election, particularly as the fountain of justification, is that election leaves no place for their determination that the will of the sinner himself shall be the source of all his salvation....Heretics desire that justification be by the works of the sinner” (p. 473).

Again, as is the case throughout the book, the author is bold to identify heresy that contradicts the Reformed confessions, tear it up by the root, and positively set forth the truth according to the Reformed confessions.

That the contents of Gospel Truth of Justification are polemical, that is, hostile to heresy, will be the subject of the next post.

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This article was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (1): Timely

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (2): Comforting

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (3): Comforting and Confessional

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Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (3): Comforting and Confessional

Last time we ended intending to take up the matter of assurance of justification. To doubt whether one is justified is to doubt whether one is saved. In the name of a “quest for full assurance,” reputedly Reformed theologians promote a doctrine of doubt.[i] These reputedly Reformed theologians promote the Puritan and nadere reformatie (further reformation) theology of doubt. They deny that faith is, essentially, assurance.

I quote again from Mark Jones' book, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest, on the topic of assurance. He writes,

Following the outline of questions provided by Joel Beeke, there are a number of areas in the doctrine of assurance where the Puritans recognized the need to be specific. The first question considers whether the seed of assurance is embedded in faith. Faith and full assurance of faith are not strictly synonymous. Our faith does not save; only Christ saves, who is the object of faith. Of course, there is always some degree of assurance in faith, but the main issue is whether full assurance is of the essence of faith. As Beeke notes, “They differentiate between the faith of adherence to Christ and the faith of assurance (or evidence) in Christ, whereby the believer knows that Christ has died specifically for him.”[ii]

Mark Jones is a disciple of influential Puritan theologian Dr. Joel R. Beeke.[iii] Beeke is a proponent of the Puritan—not Reformed—doctrine of assurance, that is, assurance by quest. The word “quest” in the title of Beeke's book on assurance, The Quest for Full Assurance, is telling. A quest, according to the dictionary, is a “long or arduous search for something.” To embark on a quest for assurance, is to work for assurance, making the Puritan doctrine of assurance a form of salvation by works.

Both Beeke and Jones appeal to a conditional covenant in defense of their doctrine of assurance. Writes Jones in his chapter on assurance, “The antinomians could not give a role to good works in assurance, other than to say that they are frequently dangerous signs, because of their denial of conditions in the covenant of grace, their view that Christ repented, believed, etc., for his people, and their view that God sees no sin in his people” (emphasis mine, AJC).[iv]

Beeke states,

From the believer's side, however, there is in Puritan thought also a conditional dimension of the covenant which plays a critical role in assurance. “The absolute promises are laid before us as the foundation of our salvation....and the conditional as the foundation of our assurance.” The conditional promises are inseparable from the believer's daily renewal of the covenant by means of prayer, meditation, and worship. Particularly the sacraments serve as important seasons for covenant-renewal. “To gather up assurance from the conditions of the covenant,” wrote Thomas Blake, “is the highest pitch of Christianity.”[v]

In the Beeke-Jones schema of assurance, flowing from a belief in a conditional covenant, the decisive factor in the believer obtaining assurance is the working (questing) of the believer to gather up assurance.

In comforting contrast to the Puritan doctrine of assurance is chapter twelve, Assurance of Justification, in David Engelsma's Gospel Truth of Justification. In the first paragraph of that chapter, he writes,

An aspect of justification that is often overlooked is the assurance of its righteousness and therefore of salvation. The reality of justification includes that the Spirit of the justifying Father of Jesus Christ assures everyone whom the Spirit justifies that he is justified. This assurance is an essential element of the act of justification itself. Not only is the elect, believing sinner justified, but he also knows that he is justified. In fact, the conjunction “but” in the preceding sentence is misleading. It can leave the impression that justification is one thing and assurance of justification another. The truth is that justification is, essentially is, the assurance of justification by faith alone. If the believing sinner is not sure of his righteousness with God, he has not been justified by faith.

Throughout this chapter the author, in response to the “Puritan theology of doubt” (p. 213), demonstrates how the “Reformed confessions....plainly teach justification as the assurance—the personal assurance—of forgiveness and righteousness” (p. 217). Answer 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, for example, in defining faith, “the faith by which one is justified, makes the personal assurance of justification an element of faith's essence” (p. 217). In part Answer 21 states, “True faith is....an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are, freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits.” Engelsma also brings Q&A 59 and A 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism along with Article 23 of the Belgic Confession to bear on the topic of assurance.

At the end of the chapter Engelsma issues a sharp warning.

Whoever charges Calvin and the Reformation with error on this doctrine [that justification by faith alone is assurance of righteousness with God, p. 222], taking his stand with Puritanism and the further reformation, finds himself in agreement with Rome on one of the most fundamental issues of the sixteenth-century Reformation of the church, as this issue is authoritatively settled in all the Reformed, indeed Protestant, creeds. His error is nothing less than a denial of justification by faith alone, the very heart of the gospel of grace (p. 223).

Not only in the chapter about assurance of justification, but throughout the book, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is defended by examining the Reformed confessions. This is important because the fiercest opponents of justification by faith alone arise from within Reformed and Presbyterian churches. And these opponents are Reformed officebearers who are bound to the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dordt by virtue of signing the Formula of Subscription, just as Presbyterian churches have a similar document binding their officebearers to the Westminster standards.

Engelsma copiously uses the Reformed confessions, in fact he begins with the confessions, in defense of justification by faith alone, in chapters 5-7 especially. This is commendable. Constantly, the Reformed believer must be reminded of the contents and value of these confessions. And, “with the confessions, the Reformed laity are able to discern and withstand heretical teachings” (p. 71).

Next time, Lord willing, I hope to look at the instructive value of the book.

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[i] Jones, Mark. Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2013), 106. 

[ii] Ibid., 101, 102.

[iii] Dr. Joel R. Beeke is pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation of Grand Rapids, MI, founder and president of the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids and author of The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors (Banner of Truth, 1999). In that book Beeke argues that "full assurance of personal salvation constitutes the well-being or fruit of faith rather than the essence of faith" (p. 276).

[iv] Jones, 109.

[v] Joel Beeke, in an address entitled "Assurance of Faith," given to the Student Society and found on the website of the Free Reformed Churches of North America. http://frcna.org/resources/student-society-speeches.

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This article was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (1): Timely

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (2): Comforting

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Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (2): Comforting

Another aspect of the truth of justification by faith alone as proclaimed, defended, and developed in this book, is the comfort that it brings to the believing child of God. Corruptions of justification by faith alone make light of man's sinfulness and “the awesome holiness of God” (p. 489). Engelsma paints a vivid picture of “standing before the holy God in judgment according to divine justice” (p. 489).

One who contemplates standing before the holy God in judgment according to divine justice, all his life opened up, all his motives exposed, all his secret thoughts and desires made known, all the spoiling of his best works by a grievous coming short of perfect love for God and the neighbor, to say nothing of the words and deeds spoken or done in secret in outright violation of the law of God—such a man or woman makes up his or her sanctified, wise mind that on that great day and in that awesome courtroom he or she will raise one plea, and one only: “God be merciful to me the sinner!” That is, “Forgive me, and declare me righteous for the sake, only for the sake, of the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ, whom thou thyself hast given to be my righteousness, especially in his suffering and death.”

One who has even the slightest knowledge of the holiness of God has his mind made up, in all sincerity, that he will bring in the final judgment absolutely nothing of his own obedience and no work of his own as his righteousness upon which the verdict of the Judge must depend (pp. 489-490).

As the author repeatedly points out throughout the book, the believer standing daily in the courtroom of God and entering the judgment at the moment of death “plead[s] the merits of Jesus Christ, and those only” (p. 405). “The idea of marching into the courtroom of the final judgment waving these little, defiled things [the believer's good works—AJC] as deserving what awaits him is to him (and this also is grace) not only the height of wickedness, but also the height of absurdity” (p. 402).

Comforting to the Reformed believer are three truths concerning justification by faith alone that are clearly set forth in the Reformed confessions. In fact, the confessions so clearly set forth the “gospel truth of justification” that, writes Engelsma, “No Reformed teacher has any excuse for deviating from the right doctrine of justification. No Reformed church member has any excuse for being misled by heretical teachers. No Reformed church has any excuse for approving or even tolerating a false doctrine of justification” (p. 92).

First, justification is the legal act of God whereby the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the account of the elect sinner (p. 93). Abhorring all of his own good works, the believer boldly stands in God's divine courtroom and hears the declaration, “Not guilty, for the sake of Jesus Christ and him crucified! Righteous, with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, which by this declaration I impute to you!” (p. 116).

It cannot be emphasized enough that the righteousness of justification is “wholly and exclusively the doing and dying of Jesus Christ outside the justified sinner....it is a righteousness accomplished for us by another, not at all a righteousness worked within us, taking form as our own efforts” (p. 118). The author reminds the reader that Luther described this as an “alien” righteousness (p. 119).

The second comforting truth regarding justification is that justification is by faith only, completely excluding the sinner's works (p. 95). “The works of the justified sinner that are excluded in justification, the Reformed confessions identify as all the sinner's works, especially the good works that proceed from a truth faith by the operation of the indwelling Spirit of Christ” (p. 98). Again, what believer dares even to contemplate coming into God's courtroom waving “little, defiled things” as deserving the Judges' pronouncement, “righteous!”

A third comforting truth of the gospel truth of justification properly understood is that faith is the “means, or instrument, by which the justified sinner receives the righteousness of another” (p. 100). In other words, justification is unconditional. “The confessions deny that the sinner's activity of believing is itself his righteousness with God, is regarded by God as the sinner's righteousness, or functions as a condition that the sinner performs to make himself worthy of justification” (p. 101). As Engelsma is at pains to point out, the Reformed confessions thoroughly condemn justification “on the condition of faith” as the heresy of Arminianism (p. 101). The Reformed believer confesses the obedience of Jesus Christ as the sole ground of his justification. Nothing else.

That faith is a condition the sinner performs in order to receive the saving benefits of Christ's works is a grievous error. Yet some, under the banner of Reformed, promote this error. Take, for example, Mark Jones, who writes, “The Reformed held firmly to the view that the elect have no role in impetrating their salvation. That honor belongs exclusively to Christ. But in the application of salvation, man plays a role. Thus, the application of justification depends on faith. Faith is an antecedent condition to receiving the blessings of justification, adoption, and sanctification” (p. 63). Further, Jones writes, “The covenant of grace may be unconditional in its origin, but ultimately it requires that conditions be met on man's part because Christ's death was a moral cause” (p. 63). Later, on page 64, Jones identifies “faith” as one of the conditions.[1]

Along with this error is joined the comfort-robbing false doctrine, characteristic of Puritanism, that those who are justified by faith alone doubt their justification and “remain in doubt whether they are saved” (p. 210). This will have to wait for next time.

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[1] Jones, Mark. Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest?, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2013. Those who have read the Acts of Synod & Yearbook of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (2017) will be aware of Mark Jones' book.

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This post was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (1): Timely

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Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (1): Timely

With the recent publication of Gospel Truth of Justification: Proclaimed, Defended, Developed by David J. Engelsma, the Reformed Free Publishing Association has sent a bold witness of the truth of justification by faith alone into the world. This witness comes particularly to the Reformed church world, both to true and apostatizing churches. God will always have witness to his truth, even to the very end of the world. As apostasy in the church world increases, the witness of the true church and God's servants must become bolder. This book serves the witness of the church regarding the heart of the gospel: justification by faith alone.

That we are justified by faith alone is of great comfort to the believer. Knowing this Satan and his minions, throughout the history of the church, have attempted to make this doctrine odious to God's people. The enemies of the church know very well that if they corrupt the heart of the gospel—the doctrine of justification by faith alone—by adding the works of the law, they have succeeded in corrupting all of Christian doctrine. Hence the importance of maintaining this truth.

After reading this book, there are six adjectives that I jotted down that express why I think this book is a must read for all those who love the Reformed faith. First, the contents of this book are timely. The year 2017 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It certainly is appropriate that a book be published explaining the heart of the divide between the Roman Catholic Church and the true churches of the Reformation.

Making the contents of the book even more timely is the fact that many reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches, claiming for themselves to be the disciples of John Calvin and Martin Luther, have travelled far down the road back to Rome by embracing the Romish corruption of the doctrine of justification, that is, justification by faith and works. This contemporary corruption of justification is known as the federal vision. Anyone who has read Engelsma’s writings knows that he is probably this heresies fiercest opponent. He continues and develops his bold unmasking of this heresy in Gospel Truth of Justification.

Perhaps the Protestant Reformed readers of this blog would be tempted to dismiss the timeliness and worthiness of such a lengthy book (528 pages) on the subject of justification. While we may acknowledge threats to the doctrine of justification by faith alone "out there" and lament what we see happening in other denominations, certainly we are in no danger of losing the truth of justification by faith alone within the PRC, or so we may naively think. To adopt this complacent attitude would be to ignore recent history within the PRC. The doctrines of justification and sanctification (and their relationship), election, conditions, and the place of good works in the lives of God’s people were all discussed at the 2017 Synod of the PRC. And weighty decisions were taken. The Protestant Reformed believer has a solemn duty to understand the doctrine of justification by faith alone thoroughly. In the providence of God, this book, addressing all of the aforementioned subjects, has come to publication in the year 2017. Timely!

If you have not already picked up this book and worked your way through it, do so now. Your efforts will be greatly rewarded. Next time, I hope to address the comforting aspects of this publication.

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This post was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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Marital Antinomianism (Lawlessness)

As promised in an earlier post on believing sound doctrine, I wanted to write on doctrines which the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) hold dear and which give us the right of separate existence within the Reformed church world. One of those doctrines is the doctrine of marriage, the biblical view of marriage which we maintain in the PRC. I begin with the doctrine of marriage because of an article a reader sent me—a very sad article—from The Banner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, which illustrates what inevitably comes to pass within churches that refuse to submit to, or abandon, what the Bible clearly teaches about marriage, divorce, and remarriage. I will quote from that article later in the post.

When world conformity gets a foothold in a denomination of churches, one manifestation of that worldliness is a corruption of and departure from the scripture’s teaching of marriage. First, the church begins to allow divorce for reasons other than fornication. Along with this, those who are biblically divorced (because of fornication) and are the “innocent party” are allowed to remarry. And, as inevitably follows, because divorce breaks (they erroneously argue) the first marriage bond, the “guilty party” is allowed to remarry as well. This follows logically.

Because God's Word is clear the churches allowing this behavior and the individuals in the churches divorcing and remarrying with the approval of the officebearers know very well that marriage is a lifelong bond and that divorce for reasons other than fornication is sin (Matt. 19:9; Romans 7:1-3). But, there is a way around these plain teachings of scripture. Those who are unbiblically divorced and want to remarry must confess their wrongdoing to the church. And after this confession of wrongdoing, which the church gladly accepts, they are free to enter into an adulterous marriage and live as members in good standing in their churches as open adulterers—maybe even alongside the spouse from their first marriage whom they cruelly abandoned.

Confession of wrongdoing, not repentance (a turning from sin), is all that is necessary. And they say, the "grace" of God allows for this. One can ask these adulterers, as did the prophet Jeremiah (7:8-10), "Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery....and come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?" And their answer as practicing antinomians is "Yes!"

As mentioned earlier, Judy Cook, author of the article "Divorce Care" in the March 17, 2017 issue of The Banner, accurately represents the reigning view of divorce and remarriage that has taken hold in the Reformed church world. In the name of "love" she promotes blatant disobedience to the will of God regarding marriage. She writes:

The heartache of a broken marriage should not prevent individuals from being able to move forward into a new beginning with a slate cleansed by God and affirmed by their brothers and sisters. Divorce, after all, is not the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit.

Going through a crisis is an opportunity for change, but only those in the crisis are in a position to define what that change needs to be and how it can happen. Every marriage is complex, and mistakes will be made—sometimes with drastic consequences. But couples have the right and responsibility to make decisions about their marriage from their own perspectives, based on their own beliefs and values, their upbringing and experiences, and their faith in God.

As the body of Christ, we are called on to bless each other and not to condemn; to love extravagantly, and to build up rather than tear down. Prone to sin, we bless, love, and build up imperfectly, creating pain in each other we don't intend—also with respect to our divorced brothers and sisters. Let's remember that the ability to forgive is the central command that lets us experience a life of peace, even in the midst of our sins and sorrows.

Ms. Cook is advocating marital lawlessness, that is, marital antinomianism within her denomination, the CRC. Having abandoned the doctrine of the authority of scripture, having perverted the gospel of grace and having flatly disobeyed the Bible's clear teaching on marriage, the CRC and other Reformed churches find themselves drowning in the sins of fornication and adultery and their dreadful consequences. And Ms. Cook's solution to the scourge of divorce, broken homes, and damaged children in her denomination? "Couples have the right and responsibility to make decisions about their marriage from their own perspectives, based on their own beliefs and values, their upbringing and experiences" (emphasis mine—AJC). Further, those in the church who are witnesses to these sins "are called to bless each other and not to condemn; to love extravagantly"....and "forgive." There is no mention of the authority of God's Word, the clear teaching of God's Word concerning marriage, or the power of God's grace to forgive those who repent of their sin of adultery.

That the Protestant Reformed Churches exist as a separate denomination within the Reformed church world is justified, in part, by our confession that marriage is a lifelong bond, broken only by death, that is a reflection of God's everlasting covenant of grace. This bold confession we will address in the next post, Lord willing.

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For those interested in reading how departure from the scripture's teaching on marriage developed within the mother church of the PRC, the CRC, read the 1956 Acts of Synod of the CRC which can be found at this link: http://www.calvin.edu/library/database/crcnasynod/1956agendaacts.pdf. The inquisitive reader should go to pages 15-17; 55-59; 117-119; 285-327; 379-80.

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This post was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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Book(let) Alert! - 'The Necessity of Membership in a True Church' by David J. Engelsma

Most readers of the RFPA blog are familiar with Prof. David Engelsma. For sixteen years he was editor of the Standard Bearer and he has written numerous books which the RFPA has published, including two which treat the topic of church membership: Bound to Join and A Defense of the Church Institute.

Those who read and profited from these two books will be interested in knowing that the Reformed Witness Committee (RWC) of Hope Protestant Reformed Church of Walker, Michigan has recently published The Necessity of Membership in a True Church, written by Engelsma. The booklet contains two parts: the text of Engelsma's public lecture sponsored by the RWC at Hope Church on the evening of November 11, 2016 and the questions of the audience and the answers of Prof. Engelsma that followed the lecture.

Having been present on that evening and hearing the lecture and the questions and answers, I can assure you that your effort of listening to the lecture online or reading this booklet will be greatly rewarded. While church membership is not a popular topic to speak on and write about in these days of the great "falling away", and while many a churchman dare not touch the topic with a ten foot pole, Prof. Engelsma addresses the "life-or-death matter" of church membership head-on (pg. 9).

The first part of the booklet, the text of the lecture, is divided into five parts: The Necessary Membership, The Marks of a True Church, The Marks of a False Church, The Nature of the Necessary Membership in a True Church, and The Believer's Calling. The booklet is thoroughly scriptural and confessional throughout. To disagree with the author's assessment of membership in a true church and the believer's calling as a vigilant church member is to disagree with scripture and the Reformed Confessions.

The second part of the booklet contains twenty-five pages of penetrating questions and fearless answers that followed the lecture. In the words of the author, some of the questions were "provocative" (pg. 10). One of the questions was, "What do you see as the most pressing, or dangerous, or most likely route of apostasy in the Protestant Reformed Churches?" (pg. 43).  Another, "If one leaves a true church and joins a church that is becoming false, can it be said that, insofar as they have left the truth, they have left Christ?" (pg. 53).

I encourage you to take the time to read the author's answers. Learn about the "ja broer" or uncritical "yes, brother" ..."who affirms everything that goes on and every sermon simply because the elders arrange the service as they do and simply because the minister says whatever he says" (p. 52). Read the author’s fearless and pointed answer to a question regarding NAPARC, which reads in part: "...the liberated Reformed churches make no secret of their judgment of the Protestant Reformed Churches as false churches inasmuch as they confess the unconditional covenant of grace. To these influential churches in NAPARC, the Protestant Reformed Churches are the one, anomalous, 'conservative' false church. Because the Protestant Reformed Churches confess the gospel of salvation by sovereign, particular grace in the preaching of the gospel and in the covenant of grace!" (p. 57).

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To obtain a copy of this booklet, one can contact the RWC by email at hoperwc@gmail.com. An audio recording of the lecture is available at www.hopeprchurch.org.

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This post was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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Hitting Close to Home

 

Many readers of the RFPA blog live in West Michigan. What follows is a news item from the Grand Rapids area that illustrates the growing anti-Christian spirit of the world in which we live and how believing a basic biblical truth can quickly get one in trouble with the federal government of the United States. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Donald and Ellen Vander Boon own West Michigan Beef Company Co., LLC , a meatpacking plant in Hudsonville, Michigan. They employ forty-five people. As their website states, "West Michigan Beef seeks to glorify and honor God in all that we do." It is the religious convictions of the Vander Boons that has them in trouble with the United States Department of Agriculture. Yes, you read it right, the USDA.

The story begins in 2015 when Don placed an article defending marriage as between one man and one woman on the break room table of his facility. The article was set on a table that was already cluttered with mainstream media news stories reporting on the recent Supreme Court decision allowing "gay marriage." A USDA public health veterinarian and inspector in charge on-site at the facility noticed the article, read it, and had it removed. Further, he reported the incident to a USDA Frontline Supervisor. This resulted in a meeting with Mr. Vander Boon, the supervisor and the on-site inspector. Mr. Vander Boon was threatened that unless he refrained from putting literature on the break room table supporting marriage between one man and one woman, USDA inspectors would be removed from his plant, effectively putting him out of business and leaving his forty-five employees without work.

The natural question is: "What do USDA inspectors inspect?" Reading material on the break room table would not be the first thing that comes to my mind. I would hope that a USDA inspector would be concerned with the health and safety of the meat the facility is processing. But in the world in which we now live, this is no longer the case. Notice, Mr. Vander Boon did not distribute the article to all or some of his employees. He did not ask them to read it, much less ask if they agreed with it. He merely added it to the stack of reading material already on the table.

USDA managers and supervisors have, per a recent "Anti-Harassment Policy Statement", been instructed to monitor for "intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment[s]". "Prohibited conduct includes, but is not limited to, bullying, slurs, negative stereotyping, threats, intimidation, written or verbal disrespectful comments, and graphic material that insults an individual or protected group." Yes, USDA inspectors now have the authority to inspect far more than meat. They are on the lookout for "hostile work environments", likely those of the Christian variety. The full policy statement can be read here.

Mr. Vander Boon has acquiesced to the request of the USDA to remove the "offensive" article from the break room table. Refusal could result in the closing down of his business and the loss of jobs for his forty-five employees. He has, however, filed a complaint with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Since filing his complaint he has heard nothing from the USDA other than that his complaint has been received and forwarded to the USDA Civil Rights Division. Lawyers for Mr. Vander Boon have written a letter to newly elected President Trump asking the he "direct the Department of Agriculture to rescind its unlawful harassment policy and lift the restriction on Don's speech."

While the Trump administration may rescind some Obama era anti-harassment policies, we know very well that the days are increasingly evil and the place of the Christian becomes smaller and smaller in this world. What about the Protestant Reformed professional or business owner who has copies of the Standard Bearer lying on the table in his waiting room or lobby? Or what if a RFPA book makes its way on to the break room table of a Protestant Reformed shop owner? Can a government inspector responsible for the oversight of his business demand the removal of that "offensive" religious literature, or risk being shut down, because its presence creates a "hostile environment" for employees and customers? The possibility is not far-fetched.

That events like this are taking place should not surprise us. Our Lord, in his Word, tells us that we should expect these things. "Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you" (I John 3:13). "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you" (John 15:18). "Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (II Timothy 3:12).

Knowing that the world will hate us and that our place in this world becomes smaller, we more eagerly look for the return of Christ our King, who will say to us at his return, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34).

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This post was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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The Puritans and the Theater


I recently read a fascinating book on the decline of western civilization entitled Apostate: The Men Who Destroyed the Christian West by Kevin Swanson. In discussing William Shakespeare's contribution to the decline of Christianity in the west the author mentions the Puritan's opposition to the work of the Globe Theater, under Shakespeare's watch, in the early 1600s in England.

I quote from page 204 of Apostate, stating the Puritan's objections to the theater,

For at least sixty years, the Puritans opposed the work of the Globe Theater until it was demolished in 1644. In an article entitled "Puritan Hostility to the Theatre," eminent historian Edmund Morgan summarized the Puritan concerns with the theater.

  1. It provided a poor form of recreation (it was exhausting, dissipating, and rendered the spectators 'effete and effeminate'). ("dissipating" carries with it the idea of squandering, frittering away, wasting; "effete" means weak and enfeebled—AJC)
  2. It was foreign and degenerate.
  3. It was a non-productive form of labor especially for the actors.
  4. It attracted homosexuals and prostitutes.
  5. Its subject matter often addressed adultery and fornication that inspired imitation.
  6. It promoted hypocrisy and deceit.
  7. It competed with the true church.
  8. It brought the saved into the company of the damned.
  9. It would stir up the emotions and cloud the reason.

This was the judgment of the Puritans on theatrical productions four hundred years ago, in England. Four hundred years ago, one had to go to the theater to see live performances. Today, we live in a world awash with the drama of the film and television industries and today’s Hollywood productions are accessible to us and our children in our homes by means of a variety of devices—televisions, computers, tablets, and smartphones to name a few.

The Puritans took a hostile stance in opposition to the productions of the Globe Theater. This stance ought to pale in comparison to our condemnation of Hollywood’s productions. Hollywood is a powerful enemy of the Christian faith. Her productions, in the spirit of Antichrist, promote blasphemy, lawlessness, violence, disobedience, covetousness, murder, theft, fornication, adultery, sodomy, lying, deceit, and every other sin that is contrary to a godly walk. It is no coincidence that, during the last election cycle in the United States and marches after the election, lawless Hollywood actors and actresses were among the most outspoken supporters of the candidates who advocated for “women’s rights” (a euphemism for the murder of unborn babies) and “LGBTQ rights” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning their sexual identity). Hollywood is a mighty engine of propaganda for these sins and perversions as her productions prove.

Hollywood productions (in movie theaters, television, and online) have no place in the life of the child of God and the Christian home. Participation in her dramas, by watching them, is to join the spirit that will bring about the Antichrist, the spirit “that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). By watching the smut of Hollywood, one dulls himself to the antithesis that God has established between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. One becomes numb to the horrors and consequences of sin. Not harmless entertainment, the viewer begins to take on the thinking, speech and behavior of the performers he sees on the screen. If one is not already living in the sins portrayed, the power to resist these sins becomes progressively weaker.

Putting Hollywood dramas out of our homes and lives is the only solution. Compromise is unacceptable. We read in Ephesians 5:3-7, 11-12:

  1. But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints;
  2. Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.
  3. For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
  4. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.
  5. Be not ye therefore partakers with them.
  6. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.
  7. For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.

Click to listen to an audio clip from Prof. Hanko entitled: The Threat of Worldly Entertainment to Building a Home.

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This post was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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