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The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (3): Canons 1:16 (b)

The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (3): Canons 1:16 (b)

By Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: The Creeds, Assurance, and Good Works (3): Canons 1:16 (a).

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The second kind of person who has “much less cause to be terrified by the doctrine of reprobation” (Canons 1:16) is the sincere Christian who is imperfectly sanctified and is not satisfied with the degree of sanctification in his life, so that he has a holy desire to be more sanctified. That, of course, is the description of every believer in a spiritually healthy condition. It is the description of the apostle Paul in Romans 7:22-23: “I delight in the law of God after the inward man, but I see another law in my members, warring (waging war) against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”

Listen to the description of this person in Canons 1:16: “[he seriously desires] to be turned to God, to please him only.” Moreover, he “seriously desires… to be delivered from the body of death” (see Romans 7:24), but “cannot yet reach that measure of holiness and faith to which [he aspires].” He has “much less cause to be terrified by the doctrine of reprobation,” and the first kind of person had no cause to be alarmed. Much less cause!

He is the same person as the one described in Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 81, “For whom is the Lord’s Supper instituted?” Among other things (faith, sorrow for sin, trust in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross) they “earnestly desire to have their faith more and more strengthened, and their lives more holy.” It is also the description of the believer who takes seriously the Law of God in Heidelberg Catechism, A 115: “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.” It is also the description of the child of God who prays the first and second petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: “Grant…that we may so order and direct our whole lives... that Thy name may never be blasphemed, but rather honored and praised on our account” and “Rule us… that we may submit ourselves more and more to Thee” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 122, 123).

In other words, the description is of the normal Christian! Shall the normal Christian, the ordinary child of God, be terrified of the doctrine of reprobation? Shall he not rather find consolation in the doctrine of election?

In support of this, our Reformed fathers appeal to Isaiah 42:3, “A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth,” which the evangelist applies to Jesus Christ in Matthew 12:20. “The merciful God,” the Canons remind us, “has promised” a certain treatment of the bruised reed and the smoking flax.

First, there is the bruised reed, which is a stalk of grass growing near or in the river, a weak, fragile plant. A reed has very limited uses because of its weakness: a long, straight reed might be used as a measuring rod, but it is certainly too weak for a man to lean upon. A bruised reed, however, is even worse than a normal reed: it is such a stalk that has been damaged, so that it is now utterly worthless. Second, there is the flax, which is the wick of a candle. A flax is lit, so that the candle gives forth bright light to light up a room. A smoking flax, however, is one that, instead of emitting clear, bright candlelight, smolders, gives off smoke, and has almost, although not quite, gone out. It is worthless, worse than useless, because it irritates the eyes, rather than providing light.

Spiritually, a bruised reed is a sinner who has been bruised by God’s Law, so that his sin has been exposed and he lies bloodied and beaten by the lashes of God’s Law. He is not the proud, haughty Pharisee who refuses to acknowledge his sin, but the regenerate child of God who longs for deliverance from the guilt, shame, pollution, and power of sin. A smoking flax is a sinner who has begun to emit some light by God’s grace but who, because of indwelling sin and his own weaknesses and infirmities, gives off more smoke than light. There is under that smoke a lingering ember of true faith, of holiness, and of love for God, but everything is clouded with sin and unbelief. Again, I say, that is a description of the ordinary child of God.

We would break the bruised reed: we would trample it underfoot as something worthless; yet, our merciful God has promised never to do that. Instead, gently, kindly, in great compassion he preserves the bruised reed, and even heals it by the power of his grace. We would quench the smoking flax: we would snuff it out as something that irritates more than illumines; yet, our merciful God has promised never to do that. Instead, he gently blows on the dying embers so that we shine more brightly to his glory. 

Are you a bruised reed or a smoking flax? Are you unable “to reach that measure of holiness and faith to which [you] aspire”? Fear not, God is merciful: cast yourself upon his mercy; he will heal you, he will sanctify you, and he will never snuff you out. “He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).

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