Afraid of the Gospel (5)

God cannot be mocked.

He may not be mocked; but he cannot be mocked either.

And when one departs from the straight line of the truth, he must come back to the point of depar­ture or else continue still further away from the truth.

That is not only a fundamental principle taught us in the scriptures, it is also the testimony of church history and even of our everyday life.

It makes no difference how little the departure may be, one must come back from it all the way, or else he will go still further in his way of error and of a sinful walk.

And so it is that today things have come to a head; a crisis has been reached in our churches; congrega­tions have split; individuals show by their absence from God’s house on the Sabbath that they have made up their minds to go even farther away from the truth and from the upright walk than they did before.

No longer do they manifest themselves as being afraid of the gospel. They DARE to show you that they despise it, do not want to hear it and go where they may hear that which is more palatable to their tastes. They may, perhaps, tell you that they are sick and tired of always hearing in the preaching that there are no conditions unto salvation and that man has no prerequisites to fulfill before God gives the next installment of salvation. But they then go and sit back with joy and complete satisfaction in the pews of a church that as vehemently or even more vehe­mently brands as heresy an unconditional promise of God to the elect that he will give them salvation thru faith. They may tell you that they are full to their chins of conditions, but that is not so. Their behavior shows that this is not so. For they run as fast as they can to go where they will be filled even more with conditional theology. After all that theology has something for man, flatters him and does not put him in such a hopeless and helpless light as the truth of an unconditional election to an unconditional promise of an unconditional salvation!

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Remember Me!

“And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” Luke 23:42

Everyone mocked the Christ when he hung on the cross.

The people stood beholding.

The rulers derided him, but also with them, that is, the people.

The soldiers mocked him.

Even the written word meant to deride him. The superscription on the cross was meant as a taunt of the ruler, the governor: This is the King of the Jews! Imagine: a King on a cross??!!

Yes, and even a man who was in the same judg­ment with Jesus mocked him, saying, If thou be the Christ, save thyself and us!

Everyone derided and mocked Jesus.

But wait! There is one solitary exception: the other murderer.

He turns his tortured body toward the other mur­derer and after chiding him for mocking Jesus, he turns to Jesus and says: Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom!

Marvel of marvels!

There is one in the whole universe that believes in the crucified one!

And he is a murderer.

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August 2019 Standard Bearer preview article

“As to our good works” (2): The nature of good works as works

Works occupy a prominent place in Scripture; in fact, Scripture is from beginning to end a book of works. Scripture attributes works to the triune God, Christ, angels—wicked and holy, and men—wicked and holy. We begin our examination of the good works of the believer by considering the nature of good works and noting five general characteristics of our good works as works.

A conscious, acting subject

First, works are those deeds consciously and volitionally performed by rational, moral beings. Strictly speaking, a creature like the sky is not capable of performing works. Psalm 19:1 teaches, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” The visible expanse of the heavens above us gives glory to God; however, it is not an intelligent creature consciously and willingly producing “works” of praise unto God as holy men and holy angels can do. We men are different than the creatures in the heavens above and in the earth beneath and in the waters under the earth, for God created us as personal beings with an intellect and will so that we are able to live consciously before His face performing works of service in love for Him and our neighbor. In marriage, a husband and wife are called to love each other and show it in word and deed, but if a whole week has gone by and they have not consciously performed even one considerate act towards each other, living as intimately as two stars twinkling side by side in the heavens, something is dreadfully amiss. God created us, and in Jesus Christ has recreated us, as new creatures able to do good. Consciously! Willingly! Cheerfully! Lovingly!

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June Standard Bearer preview: Response to ‘Agreement and objections re faith and works’

Rev. Lanning:

I am glad to read that you find between us areas of agreement. Especially important is that you can accept calling faith a ‘doing,’ though only “as long as calling faith a ‘doing’ only means that faith is an activity, but in no way, shape, or form means that faith is a work.”

You should have no fear of that. In no place have I called or labeled our faith a work. To do so, would create a confusion of categories. They are to be distinguished.

You write that we are in agreement that faith is an activity. I am happy to hear that.

You indicate that we can agree that the regenerated child of God is able to believe and that faith is the necessary means of salvation. That is encouraging.

You also indicate (in your third paragraph from the end) that faith is obedience to the gospel’s call.

Thus, in sum, we may say that you teach that 1) faith is an activity, 2) faith is obedience to the gospel call, 3) faith is a ‘doing’ (carefully defined), and 4) man actually does believe. It means we have a common basis for discussion.

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June Standard Bearer preview: Agreement and objections re faith and works

Agreement and objections re faith and works

Thank you for publishing my letter and revised letter in the March 1 and March 15, 2019 issues of the Standard Bearer, even though the letter exceeded the length allowed by SB policy. (As for your apology for publishing the wrong letter originally, apology accepted—no harm done and no hard feelings.) Thank you as well for your thorough response to my letter in two installments in those same issues. We are agreed that these matters are of greatest importance and are worthy of the space devoted to them in the pages of the SB. I ask for your indulgence in allowing me to respond once more, since this letter again goes beyond policy.

I have read your responses repeatedly and carefully, and I believe that I understand what you are saying. I am in complete agreement with much of what you write, and I think it would be beneficial in this discussion to highlight precisely where we are of one mind.

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Baptism Now Saves Us: An Assured Conscience

So what is the status of a baptized person in the Roman Catholic Church? His sins have been removed, but “concupiscence” remains. In Roman Catholicism, concupiscence is a moral weakness, a tendency toward sin, which is itself not sin and which can be resisted by grace (grace that God gives to everyone through the sacraments and through the good works of piety of a faithful church member). But the Bible teaches that all sinners (even believers) have a sinful flesh, a totally depraved and corrupted nature, which is not only inclined to all evil, but is itself evil, and which can do nothing good. This sinful nature exists in all sinners, although in believers it has been dethroned. Nevertheless, even in believers the flesh is still very active and produces in us all kinds of evil. Without a biblical understanding of sin, the Roman Catholic will lack a proper understanding of salvation: neither water baptism nor the power of free will (even when coupled with God’s grace) can deliver us from the “filth of the flesh.”

Why then does the Bible speak this way, linking the reality of salvation to the sign of baptism? Reformed theologians speak of the sacramental union, for in the Bible there is a close connection between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (the washing away of sin in the blood of Christ). The Heidelberg Catechism asks about this sacramental union, “Why then doth the Holy Ghost call baptism ‘the washing of regeneration,’ and the ‘washing away of sins’? God speaks thus not without great cause, to wit, not only thereby to teach us that, as the filth of the body is purged away by water, so our sins are removed by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ; but especially that by this divine pledge and sign he may assure us that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water” (Q&A 73).

The relationship between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (salvation) is not one of identity. They are not the same, nor does the sign become the reality. A sign cannot be the reality; otherwise, it is not a sign. A sign cannot become the reality, otherwise it ceases to be a sign. Nevertheless, sometimes the Bible gives the name of the thing signified to the sign itself, because God would have us associate the reality with the sign.

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Baptism Now Saves Us: A Spiritual Cleansing

There are therefore, two figures in 1 Peter 3:21: the flood, which is an Old Testament type of baptism; and water baptism, which is the New Testament picture (or the sign and seal) of salvation in the blood and Holy Spirit of Christ. The reality is salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Heidelberg Catechism elucidates: “Is then the external baptism with water the washing away of sin itself? Not at all; for the blood of Jesus Christ only, and the Holy Ghost, cleanse us from all sin” (Q&A 72). Water baptism, and its type, the flood, point to one great reality: the washing away of our sins by the blood and in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Peter teaches this when he writes: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us…by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (v. 21). Peter connects salvation not to water baptism, but to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and therefore also to the cross. There is no resurrection without the cross, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is his bodily resurrection from the grave three days after his death.

Peter has already explained the death of Christ in verse 18: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” Christ’s death was a substitutionary death, an atoning sacrifice to satisfy God’s justice. We are unjust or unrighteous, and Christ, the just one, paid for our sins. Thus Christ died both for our benefit and in our place, and by his resurrection God proves that he is perfectly satisfied with his Son’s work of atonement.

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Baptism Now Saves Us

The apostle Peter writes certain words about baptism that are strange to our ears and that we might be reluctant to say. Some quote these words in defense of their doctrine of baptism, for they believe that baptism saves. The Reformed must not be shy about this text, for, it too, is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable—when properly understood, of course! Peter writes, “Baptism doth also now save us” (1 Peter 3:21). Salvation in baptism! By carefully studying the text, we ward off wrong notions, but we also derive the meaning that the Holy Spirit would give.

And in so doing we shall have a better understanding of baptism and appreciation for baptism.

In 1 Peter 3 the apostle makes a comparison between the flood of Noah and baptism: “the like figure whereunto baptism doth also now save us” (v. 21). The antecedent of “whereunto” is the water of the flood in verse 20. The flood, therefore, was a type for the word “figure” in verse 21 is the Greek word “antitype.” Since the flood was the type, there is also an antitype or corresponding reality, for an antitype is the New Testament fulfillment of an Old Testament type. Already we should see that a bald reading of the text, “Baptism saves us,” will lead us astray. To understand the Spirit’s meaning here, we need to examine the relationship between the type and the antitype.

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Synod 2018: Obedience and covenant fellowship

The editorial in this special Synod issue focuses on one particular issue faced by Synod 2018, namely, the place of obedience (good works) in the believer’s experience of covenant fellowship.

The issue of the place of good works in the covenant life is important because the covenant and salvation are inseparable. A Reformed man will confess concerning salvation that 1) it is all of God; 2) salvation is found in Christ alone; 3) God sovereignly saves His elect through faith in Christ alone. Likewise a Reformed man will say that 1) the covenant is all of God; 2) the covenant is established with Christ and therefore with those chosen in Him; 3) God effectually brings His elect into the covenant and gives access to fellowship with Him through faith in Christ.

—Read more in Synod 2018: Obedience and covenant fellowship by Prof. Russell Dykstra in the upcoming July 2018 issue of the Standard Bearer.

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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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