September 15, 2019 Standard Bearer preview article

The covenant and Dordt: Election, the foundation

The doctrine of election is the foundation of the Reformed truth of salvation by grace alone. The first head of the Canons of Dordt establishes the doctrine of double predestination in answer to the first point of the Remonstrants. The Arminians placed this doctrine first in their five objections (remonstrances), knowing that if they could successfully change the Reformed teaching of election to a conditional election, the rest of their teaching (errors) would follow logically. If election (and therefore, salvation) depended on man’s choosing it, then Christ died for all to make that choice a possibility, and fallen man is not dead, and grace is resistible, and perseverance unto eternal life depends on man.

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A Covenant Home: What Is It Like?

Some years ago, on a visit to the south, I found myself in front of a home, which had, hanging over the front door, a sign upon which were the words: "In This House Christ Is King." I found this intriguing and immediately thought of the firm statement of Joshua to Israel just before his death: "But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." 

It would be equally appropriate for a covenant family to have a sign hanging over the front door of its home, with the words engraved on it: "This Home is a Covenant Home." Such a family would want all who visited it to understand that the home they were about to enter was a special kind of home, a unique home, a home which differed from countless thousands of homes throughout the country or the world. 

If you saw such a sign appropriately fixed above the front door of a house, what precisely would you expect to find inside? Would you enter with some firm ideas concerning what to expect? Or would you say: "I have no idea of what a covenant home is like." 

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God's Everlasting Covenant of Grace in Spanish

Two years ago Editorial Doulos, an evangelical Spanish publisher, requested permission from the RFPA to translate Prof. Hanko’s book God’s Everlasting Covenant of Grace into Spanish.

In their request Editorial Doulos noted that Hanko’s book is “an enduring work that treats the Protestant Reformed conception of the covenant in detail, linking it to the Reformed doctrines of God’s sovereignty both in salvation and in the world. This perspective on the covenant is not currently accessible to Spanish language readers.”

The RFPA has just received two complimentary copies of the translation, and you can find it for sale online at www.spanishevangelical.com/product-page/el-eterno-pacto-de-gracia-de-dios.

Please be sure to share this post to spread the word about Editorial Doulos and their translating work!

     

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (10): In the Way of Repentance

The question of the necessity of good works and the proper and clear explanation of that necessity of good works can be seen in the saving work of repentance. Repentance is frequently described as the work in the way of which we enjoy covenantal fellowship with God. The language that in the way of repentance we enjoy God and the fellowship of God in the covenant is contrasted with repentance being a prerequisite, or a condition, of the covenant and the fellowship of God.

That the covenant is enjoyed in the way of repentance is accepted Reformed language to contrast the truth of the unconditional covenant of gracethat repentance is necessary while at the same time being a gift of God in the covenant and not that upon which the covenant dependsfrom the false doctrine of the conditional covenantthat repentance, even that worked by grace, is that upon which the covenant and the God of the covenant depend. It is true that this teaching of the conditional covenant teaches this along with the teaching of a universal offer of grace: God gives grace to every baptized child, and by that grace the child can repent. Thus the defenders of this position when pushed to the wall insist that the condition of repentance is fulfilled by grace. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the activity of the sinner by grace is that upon which the promise of God, the covenant of God by that promise, and ultimately the eternal salvation of the child depend. The decisive place in the covenant to obtain what the covenant promise is given to works performed by grace—repentance—and those works are instruments by which the covenant is fulfilled.

The purpose of the language that the believer enjoys the covenant of God in the way of repentance is precisely to deny this teaching. The language is intended to teach that the saving benefit of repentance belongs to the benefits of the covenant of grace and is not a condition unto the covenant of grace or to the experience of the covenant of grace. Another purpose of this language is to insist that repentance is necessary in the covenant of grace. The unconverted and unrepentant do not inherit the kingdom of God. Furthermore, this language teaches that God in the covenant so works that repentance in the sinner that the repentance is his real activity.

To describe repentance as that which is necessary in order to have fellowship with God or for covenantal fellowship with God corrupts the truth that covenantal fellowship with God is in the way of repentance. The language in order to have fellowship with God corrupts the truth by teaching that repentance is that upon which covenantal fellowship with God depends and of which covenantal fellowship with God is the end result. This language effectually makes repentance a condition of the covenant, for the experience of the covenant, and for fellowship with God in the covenant, although the word condition is not used. It is exactly this error that the language in the way of is intended to deny. The explanation of the precise meaning of the phrase in the way of, however, is often lacking.

The Reformed confessions help in understanding this language. The Reformed faith teaches in Lord’s Day 32 that good works are necessary because Christ renews his people by his Holy Spirit according to his image. The Catechism intends by this renewal to describe both the implanting of the new life of Christ Jesus in God’s work of regeneration and the fruit of regeneration in the conversion of the sinner. In God’s work of conversion the sinner becomes active. That the Catechism has conversion in view is clear when it asks in the same Lord’s Day: “Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?” Further, the Catechism asks in Lord’s Day 33, “Of how many parts doth the true conversion of man consist?” The point, then, is that the renewal of the sinner issues in his conversion. Conversion is the only fruit of regeneration.

Lord’s Day 33 describes conversion as “the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.” The mortification of the old is “a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them.” The quickening of the new man is “a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to life according to the will of God in all good works.” Both of these may be summarized by the word repentance. Repentance is a one-word summary for the conversion of the sinner, in which is implied not only his turning from sin, but also his whole life of holiness with God.

In the Hebrew language this is made clear by the word for repentance, which means, to turn. It describes the spiritual activity of the sinner whereby he turns from sin and turns to the living God. This spiritual activity is the fruit of God’s conversion of the sinner and ultimately of his regenerating and calling the sinner. The prophet Jeremiah makes the relationship between God’s work of converting the sinner and the sinner’s own activity of converting himself plain: “Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth” (Jer. 31:19). The sinner repents after God has turned him. The sinner smites upon his thigh in deep sorrow over his sin, after God has instructed him.

Repentance is shorthand for true conversion. True conversion summarizes the whole testimony of gratitude that God requires of his people. The whole testimony of gratitude that God requires of his redeemed and delivered people can be summarized by the word repentance. Repentance is to turn from sin and to turn to the living God every day. Repentance consists of hating sin and living according to the will of God in all good works. Repentance is the word that summarizes the whole life of gratitude that God requires of the redeemed and delivered sinner. By this life of repentance he gives a testimony of gratitude to God for his redemption and deliverance. By this life of repentance he praises God as his God. Daily, weekly, yearly, and all his life the word of God to the redeemed and delivered believer is “Repent!”

That the life of the God-delivered and God-renewed sinner consists of repentance was Luther’s first hammer blow in his ninety-five theses against Roman Catholic false doctrine: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther taught this over against the Roman Catholic doctrine that repentance is the work of the sinner by which he merits with God. Rather, the whole life of the child of God who is redeemed and delivered is to be repentance. This necessary repentance is the work of God and the gift of his grace to the sinner. To this life the believer must be called. In this life he must be instructed. This is not because he gains anything from God by it, but because God works it in him by the Spirit and requires it of him in gratitude for his deliverance.

This repentance, being the one-word summary both of the believer’s whole life of turning from sin and turning to God to live with God in all good works, is also the necessary way of life in the covenant. Without it none shall inherit the kingdom of God. This is because those whom God redeems and delivers he also renews by the Holy Spirit. Repentance, then, describes the whole life of the child of God in the covenant of God. The Catechism says that it is turning from sin, hating and fleeing from sin, a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works. What more is necessary for the life of the redeemed, justified, and renewed believer?

Repentance is also the child of God’s experience of the covenant. What deeper experience does he have of God and covenantal fellowship with God than what is described as belonging to repentance in Lord’s Day 33?

That life of repentance is rightly and properly called the necessary way of fellowship with God in the covenant, the necessary way of life in the covenant, or the necessary way of the experience of fellowship with God in the covenant. In short, the experience of fellowship with God is repentance. Or fellowship with God is in way of repentance because it consists in that activity.

This is also how Canons of Dordt 5.7 describe the restoration of the backslidden sinner: “certainly and effectually renews them to repentance.” The same article describes that renewal by its fivefold effect:

In order that they should sincerely sorrow after God over the sins committed, that they should through faith, with a contrite heart, desire and obtain forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator, that they should again feel God’s favor, having been reconciled, that they should through faith adore his mercies, and that henceforth they should more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

The life of repentance consists in all these things, all of which also constitute the conversion described by the Catechism. Life with God for the sinner is the life of repentance. Covenant with God is repentance. Experience of fellowship with God is repentance. This is true now and in eternity, where, though sin will be forever banished, the positive side will remain: turning to God, an eternal turning to God in perfection.

To say that repentance is the necessary way of the covenant means, first, that God himself grants, gives, and works that repentance in the believer as a gracious gift of the covenant of grace. The sinner repents, both sorrowing for sin and living in good works, because God grants it. Second, the necessary way means that the very experience of the covenant of God consists in the benefit of his grace called repentance. In repentance the believer has a deep and intimate experience with God. He experiences God as the one who confronts him in his sin. In his sin the hand of God is heavy on him. He experiences God as the one who arrests him in his sin with his own hand and Spirit. He experiences God as the one who instructs him about his sin and makes him sorrow over it. He experiences God as the one who calls him personally and individually out of his sin. He experiences God as the one who turns him from that sin and leads him out of that sin. He experiences God as the one who in all of that work draws near in love to a perfectly unworthy sinner, so that he experiences God as the God of all grace. He experiences his God as the one who forgives his sins, original and actual, for Christ’s sake alone. He experiences God as the one who teaches him the way of everlasting life and leads him by his Spirit in that way. He experiences God as the one who empowers him to live in that way in love toward God and love toward the neighbor and who actually works that in him so that he walks in it. In that way of repentance he draws near to God and God draws near to him.

To say that it is necessary to repent in order to have fellowship with God or as necessary for fellowship with God is, then, a corruption of the truth of repentance—both its negative side of sorrow for sin and its positive side of joy in God and good works—as the description of the covenantal life of the believer with God. Such a view places repentance outside of that fellowship as something that must be accomplished for the fellowship. Fellowship, then, is not constituted in that gracious gift of repentance, both the turning from sin and the turning to God in all good works, but fellowship is its result. One can say that we do it all by grace, but that does not change the fact that repentance is not that wherein the believer fellowships with his God, but that which he must do in order in the end to have the fellowship of his God. Fellowship with God is the end result of repentance.

That language also redefines both fellowship with God and the experience of salvation and of the covenant. The experience of salvation for the believing sinner is his repentance. In that gracious gift of repentance, he experiences deliverance from both the damning power and the polluting dominion of sin. In repentance the believer experiences God as his justifier and sanctifier. In repentance he both sorrows over sin and delights in the good. This is also how he fellowships with his God. It is the necessary way in which he fellowships with God, not that after which he has fellowship with God. The covenant of God is in the way of repentance, then, but repentance is never a condition or that because of which fellowship with God comes to the believer.

Such an understanding of repentance as constituting the fellowship of the elect sinner with God also does justice to the Reformed doctrine of the covenant that the law is the guide to the believer’s thankful life with God in the covenant. The law demands perfection. In the covenant, that law as the law of liberty cannot demand that perfection of the believer in order to live, to remain in the covenant, to stand with God, or to enter heaven. It cannot because by faith the believer is righteous in Christ, lives, and is worthy of eternal life. But the law’s demand of perfection remains.

No one may ever teach without becoming a rank antinomian that the law does not demand perfection. This is the teaching of James to the justified believer:

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10–11).

As James points out, if the law no longer demands perfection, God is no longer God. The issue is not so much the law, but the ONE who said in the law. Saying that the law does not demand perfection is a denial of God and opens the possibility that the sinner is saved by law. The worst form of the error that James exposes is the idea that a man can be righteous before God or obtain from God because of his works.

Because the law demands perfection and the believer’s life in the covenant is according to the law, his life in the covenant must be repentance, namely the abiding and deep sorrow over and hatred for his sins, both original and actual. Because the law demands perfection and his life in the covenant is governed by the law that demands repentance of the believer, so that he constantly seeks and finds remission for those sins in the blood of Jesus Christ, the mediator. Because the law demands perfection, the believer can only stand in that covenant and before the face of God in that covenant on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. Because he is renewed and his life in the covenant is according to the law, he already has a small beginning of the new obedience according to that law and does with love and delight live according to the will of God in that law in all good works. Because the law is the guide of life in the covenant—perfection—he must constantly seek God’s grace and Holy Spirit to live that way and to be more and more conformable to God’s image in Jesus Christ, until he arrives in perfection in heaven.

It is with this life of repentance that the Catechism also ends its treatment of the law and effectively opens its section on prayer as the chief part of the thankfulness—repentance—that God requires:

Q. 115. Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?

A. First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we constantly endeavor, and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at that perfection proposed to us in a life to come.”

The purpose of God in the preaching of the law is to increase the life of repentance as the very experience of the covenant for the child of God.

Repentance is not necessary in order to have fellowship with God. Repentance is the necessary way of fellowship with God because that repentance is the experience of fellowship with God. This understanding of in the way of does justice both to the phrase and to its intended purpose both to teach the necessity of repentance—and good works—and to deny that these are ever a condition or prerequisite of the covenant, of the experience of the covenant, or of salvation. The covenant of grace is unconditional. Repentance and good works are necessary. The phrase in the way of properly explained and understood guards both of these truths.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God's Favor

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (9): Clear Explanations

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (9): Clear Explanations

Because the proper answer to the question of the necessity of good works is so closely connected with the church’s confession of the truth of the believers’ gracious salvation, and because wrong answers to this question end up denying this truth, there is no room for ambiguous language in answering this question. Especially is this ambiguous language to be deplored in a misguided and ill-informed attempt to impress upon the people of God the necessity of doing good works. This necessity, a real and compelling necessity, must be pressed, pressed urgently and diligently, on the church as it is explained in the Reformed creeds, especially in Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism, in which the minister has an opportunity every year to explain this to his congregation. Works are necessary because of God’s renewing work by which he intends a testimony of gratitude and praise to himself for his grace, and also for the other reasons given by the Catechism. In all of his teaching regarding this the minister makes plain that works are not necessary to obtain salvation or the experience of salvation, because God’s people receive the Spirit by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2). By the Spirit so received they have salvation and the experience of salvation.

This truth may not be obscured by ambiguous language. The language that works are necessary for salvation, for some benefit of salvation, for covenantal fellowship with God, for the experience of the covenant, or for eternal life is ambiguous language. To say that works are necessary in order to have salvation, in order to have some benefit of salvation, or in order to have fellowship with God is equally ambiguous and amounts to the same thing. To say that an obedient faith is necessary to have fellowship with God is also, at the very least, ambiguous because it leaves open the question of whether faith alone obtains that fellowship because of Christ, or whether faith and faith’s works obtain that fellowship, which is nothing different than what the federal vision intends to express by the term obedient faith: faith and the obedience of faith are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, so that faith and the obedience of faith obtain that fellowship.

Such language powerfully implies, if it does not explicitly teach, that works are the instrument and thus the condition of the kingdom, the covenant, the experience of the covenant, and eternal life in the covenant. Whatever is necessary for or in order to have does not belong to the end or goal to which it is necessary. If works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, they do not belong to that gift of his fellowship, but fellowship follows on and is obtained by those works.

Such language that the sinner performs works in order to have fellowship with God denies the purpose of good works as taught in Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Catechism teaches that we do good works, so that God is thanked and glorified by us. So that intends to express the purpose of God’s renewal and thus the purpose for which the believer performs his good works. It is a renewal in order that we are thankful and praise him. The believer also, then, performs his good works to give that God-glorifying testimony of gratitude.

The believer who performs the work in order to have a fellowship with God that he otherwise does not have without that work and which he obtains by means of that work does not perform good works in order to thank God and to praise him with that testimony of gratitude. The believer who performs good works in order to have fellowship with God, does not perform good works because he has fellowship with God, for which he is thankful and in which he lives with his God in all good works, but to attain fellowship with God, which he does not have without the works and upon which that fellowship depends. To say that good works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, then, gives to the work of the sinner the power to obtain the fellowship.

God is not glorified and thanked by a work that is done in order to have his fellowship. He hates such works because such works are a denial of the work of Christ at the cross that God worked, in order that the elect sinner may have fellowship with God and on the basis of which he does have fellowship with God.

The cross of Christ obtained the fellowship. That fellowship is realized in the gracious operation of God to justify the sinner, so that he has a right to that fellowship and actually has peace with God in his own conscience. That fellowship is also realized in the gracious operation of God to renew the sinner and to consecrate the justified sinner to God in love. That fellowship is lived in by the sinner in a life of good works as the certain effect of the gracious renewal of the sinner by the Holy Spirit. The justified sinner performs his good works to thank his God and to praise his God for his gift. The fellowship—the experience of the fellowship—is a gracious gift.

Recognizing that the believer experiences fellowship with God along the way of works is wholly different than giving to those works the power to obtain the experience of the fellowship, which is nothing different than the federal vision’s conception of an obedient faith with its language that works are necessary for or in order to have salvation, righteousness, and eternal life.

The life of good works, the good works themselves, are not necessary in order to have, but are the effects of God’s gracious work to realize his covenant with the sinner whom he chose. Works are the manifestation of what the justified believer already possesses by faith and through grace. Works are the testimony of gratitude for and the enjoyment of that gift.

The concept that an obedient faith obtains—with its language that works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God and for fellowship with God—so that faith and the obedience of faith are instruments to obtain and to maintain fellowship with God is not equivalent and may not be taught as though it were equivalent to what has become accepted language about works performed by the sinner: in the way of.

It is certainly truth and Reformed that in the covenant the justified sinner receives blessings from God in the way of works. Whenever that language is used it must be explained in such a way that makes crystal clear to every hearer that the blessing does not depend upon that act of the sinner. However important the truth is that works are the God-ordained way of fellowship in the covenant and that the sinner enjoys God and Christ in that way, however important it is that the minister urges this on the congregation; it is equally true that those works never obtain from God, and those works may never be taught in such a way that implies or teaches that they obtain something from God.

The question is always, are the works of faith necessary as instruments to obtain or as that upon which salvation, the covenant, the experience of fellowship, or some benefit of salvation depends? The answer of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is that this is impossible. It is impossible because by faith alone we rely on Christ and his perfect righteousness and all his holy works as that which obtains all of salvation, gives access to God, and brings the sinner who relies on Christ by faith into blessed fellowship with God. We receive the Spirit by faith not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2). The Spirit—and with him salvation, fellowship with God, and the experience of fellowship with God—is received by the hearing of faith. This faith that justifies also sanctifies, but that sanctification of the believer does not obtain with God.

A denial of the erroneous explanation of the necessity of good works in the covenant cannot be smeared with the term antinomian. The Reformed faith with its doctrine of the covenant teaches the necessity of good works. It is the believers’ part in God’s covenant. But never does the covenant, fellowship in the covenant, or the experience of that fellowship depend on the works.

If teaching that is antinomianism, the Heidelberg Catechism can be smeared with that charge when it insists that the deliverance of the sinner, which certainly includes fellowship with the living God, is without the merit of works. We are delivered from sin, both legally and really, and delivered into covenantal fellowship with God, legally and really, without the merit of works. The works do not obtain any aspect of salvation. Those works are not necessary in order to have any part of salvation. They are the fruits of God’s saving work in his people. More specifically they are the fruits of faith, fruits of election, fruits of grace. They are the inevitable and infallible fruit of God’s gracious renewal and the cross of Christ. They are the manifestations and fruits of what the believer already has—fellowship and the experience of fellowship with the living God—and not that by which he obtains from God.

Maintaining the truth regarding the necessity of the works in the covenant of grace is necessary in order that the truth of the covenant of grace as an unconditional covenant—unconditional in its establishment, maintenance, perfection, and experience—be maintained. Maintaining this truth maintains the Reformed confession of the graciousness of the sinner’s salvation.

It is not enough, however, merely to repeat ad nauseam, that the phrase in the way of is different from in order to, or for, and that it is intended to deny that some aspect of salvation and the covenant is not a condition of or a prerequisite to salvation and the covenant. It has become evident that this phrase must be more thoroughly explained. What does it mean, for instance, that repentance is not a condition of the covenant, but that the believer does have the covenant and the experience of the covenant in the way of repentance?

To this I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God's Favor

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (10): In The Way of Repentance

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy

The Reformed faith teaches that the sinner is saved and delivered from his misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of the sinner. The Reformed faith also insists that the same sinner who is delivered from his misery without his works—so that his salvation is not by works—must do good works.

Two things must be noted here. First, the believing sinner is saved, saved unto eternal life, without ever performing a single good work. His salvation consists in his justification in his conscience by faith alone, both the remission of his sins, original and actual, and the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness to him. Second, the justified sinner is also renewed by the grace of God. It is inconceivable that one whom Christ has redeemed and delivered remains in his sins; he must be renewed. The very righteousness of Christ imputed to the redeemed sinner demands this renewal. This renewal by the grace of God is the necessity of good works. From this follow other considerations regarding the necessity of good works: a testimony of gratitude and praise to God, assurance of faith by its fruits, and to win the neighbor to Christ.

The Reformed answer to the question of the necessity of good work harmonizes with the Reformed teaching of the doctrines of grace. The truth of the Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works and the doctrines of grace of which it is part must be applied to the doctrine of the covenant. The application of the doctrine that salvation is by grace alone and not by works to the doctrine of the covenant demands a simple equation in order to protect that doctrine of the covenant from heresy. That harmonization involves this simple equation: the covenant is salvation. Whatever is true of God’s gracious salvation of the sinner is true of God’s covenant. So if God in salvation only gives grace to the elect, so also in the covenant. If God in salvation says not by works, but by grace alone, so also in the covenant. Also, nothing may be taught regarding God’s work of salvation in the covenant without harmonizing that doctrine with the Reformed doctrine of salvation.

To that simple equation that the covenant is salvation must be added another: the covenant is fellowship with God. The covenant is not unto fellowship, unto salvation, or unto the experience of salvation, for that makes the covenant a means to an end. The covenant is fellowship with God. Thus the experience of the child of God in the covenant is fellowship with God. Having the covenant, he has fellowship with God. The nature of that fellowship with God is intimacy. The covenantal fellowship with God is an intimate covenantal fellowship. Having the covenant, then, the child of God also has intimacy with God. Having the covenant and covenantal fellowship with God is the experience of his salvation.

This covenant with God is an unconditional covenant. This means that fellowship and intimacy with God in the covenant are not dependent upon some work of the sinner. They are not “contingent” upon something the sinner does. That is always what a condition is. A condition is some work, or act, of the sinner upon which God, the gifts of God, or the covenant of God depends.

The orthodox doctrine of the necessity of good works harmonizes with the truth of the unconditional covenant. That orthodox explanation of the necessity of good works gives all the glory to God for the works of the sinner and properly places those works in the sinner’s salvation as the fruits of faith and not as an instrument, or a means, to obtain salvation or any benefit of the covenant. As a consequence, this explanation of the necessity of good works does not view good works as means to obtain the fellowship of God but as the way of life in which the justified and renewed sinner enjoys his life of fellowship with God.

In the way of sin there is no enjoyment of fellowship, or intimate fellowship, with God. The reason is not because by his works the believer obtains the fellowship or because those works are necessary in order to have or to lay hold on that fellowship, but because in that life of sin the believer interrupts the exercise of faith and loses the sense of God’s favor that he has by faith and the operation of the Spirit (Canons 5.5).

The fellowship is enjoyed again when God renews the believer to repentance, faith, and the favor of God in his conscience and experience based on the perfect work of Christ, and the believer again works out his salvation with fear and trembling by that faith (Canons 5.7).

The believer’s works of faith are the fruits of God’s saving work in the believer in the covenant that God establishes with him. In that life of good works the believer enjoys fellowship with God as the consequence and effect of that saving work in him, both to justify the believer and to renew him to that life of good works, that is, to work in him both to will and to do of God’s good pleasure, and as a consequence of which the believer works out his own salvation with fear and trembling. Those works are not instruments, or means, to obtain the fellowship, but they are the way along which the believer enjoys God as his God.

The believer has the covenant by faith, by faith alone. The believer has the experience of covenantal fellowship with God by faith, by faith alone. He does not have them by means of a working, obedient faith, so that faith and the works of faith obtain with God. Rather, the faith by which he has the covenant is also the faith that in the covenant works by love and is the way in which the believer enjoys God as his God.

The doctrine of the covenant has been plagued by the heresy of the conditional covenant for hundreds of years in Reformed churches. This heretical doctrine of the covenant was rejected by the Synod of Dordt in its rejection of Arminianism. The Arminians had a covenantal doctrine. The fathers of Dordt defined and rejected this doctrine when they wrote,

The Synod rejects the errors of those…who teach that the new covenant of grace, which God the Father, through the mediation of the death of Christ, made with man, does not herein consist that we by faith, inasmuch as it accepts the merits of Christ, are justified before God and saved, but in the fact that God, having revoked the demand of perfect obedience of the law, regards faith itself and the obedience of faith, although imperfect, as the perfect obedience of the law, and does esteem it worthy of the reward of eternal life through grace. (Canons 2.error 4)

Basic then to the Arminian conception of the covenant is that works are necessary to obtain the fellowship of God in the covenant of grace. Works obtain that in this life and in eternity. Works are no longer fruits of the faith that keeps in communion with Christ in all the blessings of the covenant earned by Christ, but works are instruments along with faith.

The doctrine of the covenant does not give the Reformed believer the right suddenly to become Arminian in his theology. This is what the federal vision is presently doing with the doctrine of the covenant. It is using the doctrine of the conditional covenant to overthrow the whole Reformed confession of the believer’s gracious salvation: grace to elect and reprobate, a universal atonement, works for justification, a conditional promise, an offer of grace, and the falling away of saints.

The theological instrument by which the federal vision is accomplishing this is the concept of an obedient faith. Taking the insistence of the apostle Paul in Galatians 5:6, that “in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love,” the federal vision is teaching that what obtains, or avails, for salvation now and in eternity is faith and the works of faith. The believer maintains and perfects the covenant of grace by his faith and the works of faith. He has fellowship with God in the covenant now and in eternity by a working faith, so that both faith and the works of faith maintain and ultimately perfect that covenant. For the federal vision it is not faith that avails for the covenant, salvation, and eternal life—a faith that is not dead but works by love, but which avails apart from those works. But faith and the works of faith are what avails for the covenant, fellowship with God, and eternal life. The availing faith is a working faith, a sanctifying faith, an obedient faith that avails by its working sanctification and obedience, in order that the believer has God in the covenant as his God and receives the perfection of that covenant in heaven. Thus salvation—which is the covenant and the experience of fellowship with God in the covenant—is by a working, obedient faith, so that faith and the works of faith obtain for the believer.

Salvation, the experience of salvation, the covenant, the fellowship of God in the covenant, the experience of that fellowship—all of which are the same thing—are not by an obedient faith. They are by faith. Faith avails. Faith avails because faith rests and relies upon Christ crucified alone, faith keeps in communion with Christ in all his benefits. And faith avails because the righteousness of faith is the perfect righteousness of Christ that avails for eternal life. Because Christ obtained all of salvation by his death, there is nothing left for works to obtain. The faith that avails is a faith that works by love. But the working of faith by love is not that which avails or obtains. We have the Spirit by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2).

This truth regarding how believers have the covenant, the fellowship of God in the covenant, and the experience of fellowship with God in the covenant may not be obscured by ambiguous language. Especially this ambiguous language may not be used in a misguided and ill-informed attempt to impress the necessity of good works in the covenant, so that by means of it the impression is left, if the doctrine is not explicitly taught, that works are in fact necessary for salvation.

To this I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God's Favor

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (9): Clear Explanations

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Election GOVERNS Sanctification and...the Covenant?

Christopher Gordon believes that the “sanctification debate” within Reformed circles may have become Arminian (for his article click here). He explains that this move towards an Arminian view of sanctification is a response to what some in Reformed circles believe is “an over emphasis on justification and a narrow definition of the gospel” that leads to “antinomianism.” Gordon writes, “Many explicitly fear that the word gospel is being defined too narrowly. So when people communicate that all they need is the gospel, worry is expressed that maybe this does not include sanctification too.” This had led some to re-emphasize sanctification and “the necessity of good works for salvation.” In today’s climate of tolerance Gordon’s response to the emphasis on “the necessity of good works for salvation” is bold.

In the first place Gordon has the audacity to suggest some in the Reformed camp are guilty of Arminianism! He writes, “I question…how Arminian our current debate has become in the Reformed world with regard to sanctification.” Arminianism is a heresy that was excommunicated from the Reformed camp in 1618-1619 by the Great Synod of Dordt. By raising the specter of Arminianism Gordon is suggesting that there are people within the Reformed camp who need to repent or be excommunicated from the camp. Maybe in time Gordon will have the audacity to move from suggesting to actually charging people with Arminianism.

In the second place Gordon’s response is bold because he responds to those who are worried that an “overemphasis on grace” will lead to antinomianism by appealing to the doctrine of election! Gordon quotes Canons 1.9 in full and parts of 1.7 and 1.8. These articles in the Canons explain that God’s decree of election “was before any of the fruits we experience, including sanctification, both in order and in time.” So Gordon argues it is not a question for Reformed people whether those who are justified by grace alone will also be sanctified. He writes, “The Lord remains Lord even over our sanctification, its degrees, measures, and our ‘good works’ that he prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10). The intended end was always determined before the means were given! We should be clear in this sanctification debate, Christ completes the work he began in us (Phil. 1:6).”

Gordon knows that this appeal to the doctrine of election will likely lead some in the Reformed camp to cry those dreaded words, “hyper-Calvinism.” Twice he speaks of the fact some fear that that pointing to election as the fountain of all the benefits of salvation will lead to “hyper-Calvinism.” Gordon does not define what he means by hyper-Calvinism, but he seems to have in mind the belief that salvation by grace alone means that justified sinners are free to live careless lives. In other words hyper-Calvinism is the same as antinomianism. To his credit Gordon does not retreat in the face of the charge of hyper-Calvinism. He maintains that salvation is all God’s gift of grace that has its source in eternal election and is therefore not dependent on man in any way. (He even makes mention of the Canons teaching on reprobation in 1.16, although he does not really explain the doctrine and its relevance to the “sanctification debate”).

If Gordon thinks he has effectively explained his position so that he will not be charged with hyper-Calvinism he is mistaken. Just as teaching that salvation is by God’s grace alone inevitably attracts the charge of antinomianism, so also, teaching that election is the source of all the benefits of salvation inevitably will lead to the charge of hyper-Calvinism. There may have been a time in the history of Reformed churches when the charge of hyper-Calvinism was legitimately applied to those who abused the doctrines of grace—to those who abused the doctrine of election, for example, to teach that the gospel is to be preached only to the elect. But now the charge of hyper-Calvinism is made against those who merely teach the doctrine of election, not because they abuse it. Gordon may soon be charged by men within the Reformed camp with allowing election to govern, yea even dominate, sanctification. He may even face the absurd charge that because he has allowed election to govern sanctification that he has virtually made election and sanctification synonymous! In the face of such charges will Gordon maintain his position that election governs sanctification?

Here are some other important questions for Gordon. Does he recognize that the so-called “sanctification debate” is intimately connected to the current debate about the doctrine of the covenant of grace swirling in Reformed Churches? Does he recognize that Arminianism is not only being injected into the doctrines of justification and sanctification but also into the doctrine of the covenant? He writes, “Maybe what this sanctification debate needs to recover is a robust appreciation again for the Reformed doctrine of Predestination.” Would he agree that this statement would be equally true if the word “sanctification” were replaced with the word “covenant”? Would he agree that the Canons teach that the decree of election is also the source of the covenant of grace (if you connect 1.9 to 2.8)? Would he agree that just as it is wrong to charge those who teach that election governs sanctification with hyper-Calvinism that it is equally wrong to make that charge against those who teach that election governs the covenant?

By these questions I do not mean to antagonize Rev. Gordon. I appreciate his article. My only criticism is that he should be less hesitant to identify and condemn the Arminianism that has spread as a leaven throughout the Reformed lump. But if Gordon wants to get at the source of the Arminian infection he will have to examine how Arminianism has latched on to the doctrine of the covenant within Reformed circles.

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Our blog writer is Rev. Clayton Spronk, pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, MI. If there is a topic you'd like Rev. Spronk to address, please contact us

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My Boring Christian Testimony

My Boring Christian Testimony: How I know It’s Real 

In this article Megan Hill explains that she was reared in a Christian home and “practically born with “Jesus Loves Me” on my lips and in my heart.” Hill’s Presbyterian parents gave her godly instruction in their home, brought her to church, and sent her to a Christian school. As a child Hill professes that she had true faith in Jesus Christ, and she cannot remember a time when she did not know or believe in him. Hill’s article is a wonderful reminder of how God’s salvation of the children of believers at a young age is both ordinary and extraordinary.

Why is it important to be reminded that the salvation of the children of believers at a young age is the ordinary way God works? Hill explains that in Christian circles too much focus is sometimes put on “extraordinary” conversion experiences. This happened in the Christian school Hill attended. Hill writes, “In fifth grade, I began to attend a school where dramatic testimonies were a regular part of morning chapel. Week after week, speakers—a drug addict, a party girl, an atheist—told of God’s rescue.”

This focus on dramatic conversions caused serious spiritual hardship for Hill. She writes, “And so I began to fear that I hadn’t really been saved—or, at least, that my story of being saved wasn’t quite legitimate.” The danger of spotlighting dramatic conversions is that it can lead those who have not had such an experience to conclude either that they are not saved at all or that their salvation is, to use a word that Hill also uses, “inferior.” Hill understands now that there is nothing inferior about the way God saved her. She considers her upbringing by Christian parents a great blessing and is rearing her children the same way she was reared by her parents. She understands that it is a wonderful thing that God is pleased to save many children in the “ordinary” way that he saved her.

One weakness of Hill’s article is that she never uses the word covenant. So it is unclear whether she understands the biblical teaching that God is pleased to save his people by bringing them into his covenant and by gathering their elect children also into that covenant. And it is unclear whether she understands that in the sphere of the covenant. God ordinarily saves the elect children of believers at a young age so that they never have a dramatic conversion experience. Yes, God saves people suddenly and dramatically by means of missions and evangelism. And even within the sphere of the covenant God may bring someone to salvation later in life. But the ordinary experience of the children of believers is that they are not conscious of a time in their lives when they did not believe in Jesus. This is a wonderful aspect of God’s covenant!

But one strength of Hill’s article is that she explains that God’s salvation of the children of believers, while it may be the ordinary way he saves them, is also extraordinary. She writes, “There is no dull salvation. The Son of God took on flesh to suffer and die, purchasing a people for his glory. As Gloria Furman writes, ‘The idea that anyone’s testimony of blood-bought salvation could be uninteresting or unspectacular is a defamation of the work of Christ.’” And in every instance in which God’s saving children has she explains, “all the elements of God’s amazing grace—beginning, middle, and end.” This is a good reminder to us that the salvation of children in the covenant is not an automatic thing. Nor is the salvation of our children due in any way to who their parents are or what they have done. The salvation of our children is the extraordinary work of God’s grace alone through Jesus Christ alone.  

For further reading on the covenant of God with believers and their children read these RFPA books:

Believers and Their Seed

The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers

We and Our Children

 

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Covenant, Antithesis and the Secession: A Response to Rev. Nathan Langerak

We thought this response to a recent Standard Bearer article written by Rev. Nathan Langerak, "The Juggernaut of Apostasy" (December 1, 2013 SB issue) would be of interest to our readers.
Click on the link below to read the response written by Wes Bredenhof:

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Battle for Sovereign Grace...

Next month marks the 60th anniversary of the schism of 1953 within the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC), the culmination of the hard fought battle for sovereign grace in the covenant. Delve into this history with David J. Engelsma's new book, slated for release next month!

The Battle for Sovereign Grace in the Covenant recounts much of the gripping history of the schism, including new, important details that have not been previously published. The book also provides the history of the controversial adoption by the PRCA of the Declaration of Principles, the document that in some ways occasioned the schism of 1953. In the appendices of the book, Engelsma gives a brief, valuable commentary on the Declaration, the first commentary to be written.

Look for this new book in June 2013! And in case you haven't heard, this book will be available not only in print but also as an eBook. Click here for more details on the new great benefits to Book Club members.

**UPDATE** Battle for Sovereign Grace in the Covenant is now available for purchase in both print and eBook formats!

 

 


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