Showing posts with label Romans. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Romans. Show all posts

Monday, January 12, 2015

More thoughts from morning prayer: Psalm 34:8-16

As the title suggests, this is part two of a series on Psalm 34. My thoughts continue from a previous post, starting at verse 8.

8. O taste and see that Yahweh is good; happy are those who take refuge in Him.
9. O fear Yahweh, you His holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
10. The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek Yahweh lack no good thing.
11. Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of Yahweh.
12. Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?
13. Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.
14. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
15. The eyes of Yahweh are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry.
16. The face of Yahweh is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the land.

This section also seems to stand out on its own within the Psalm, being entirely proverbial and didactic in its presentation, unlike the first seven verses. Interestingly, verses 17 through 22 mirror much of the first section's themes, so I suspect that because verses 8-16 are central to the structure of the Psalm, they might also be of central importance for understanding David's theology of praise.

The opening words of this section are interesting. "Taste and see" Yahweh's goodness, David says. Much can be said about experiencing God's goodness in such practical ways as tasting and seeing, but this phrase especially reminds me of Israelites literally tasting and seeing Yahweh's goodness (although, admittedly, there are other ways of viewing such metaphors). This reminds me of Israelites tasting the peace offerings and seeing the ministry of God's servants within the courtyard of His House. There, in the midst of Israel, the people of Israel could flee for refuge and literally taste and see Yahweh's goodness. If such a regular and personal encounter with God in His Tabernacle is in the background of David's metaphor, this adds another dimension to the Psalm.

David wrote this Psalm with the events of Achish in mind, yet David was not in Moses' tabernacle at that time (David is describing past events which took place in a Philistine territory named Gath), nor was Moses' tabernacle a central place of worship after David returned to Israel with the Ark. As David reminisces upon that past, his theology of drawing near to God is apparently not limited to a physical building or sanctuary. There in the city of Gath David "took refuge" in Yahweh himself as though the physical, earthly tabernacle was symbolic of a much more real place. Refuge could be found in that tabernacle--the true tabernacle where Yahweh dwells--regardless of the physical, earthly structure's condition (which was in disrepair since the Philistines took the Ark).

David also makes some remarkable promises in this Psalm. David says that "those who fear him have no want," and "those who seek Yahweh lack no good thing." He also says that "The eyes of Yahweh are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry... [but] The face of Yahweh is against evildoers...." To be sure, I think it's important to receive great comfort and assurance from passages such as these; however, I suspect that many people who read these passages overlook David's point. Many people might skip over what David meant by "fearing" Yahweh and merely find comfort by applying such promises to those who are "righteous" and who "seek" Him. In other words, it might be a mistaken presumption to pair together those who "seek" God with those who are constituted "righteous" (likewise, those who are constituted "righteous" might be mistaken for those who "seek" God). But it seems to me that, in this context, fearing Yahweh and seeking Yahweh go hand in hand just as much, especially if one is to receive personal comfort and assurance that is not in vain. Notice the qualification David himself provides about those whose cries are actually heard and accepted by Yahweh (and not just prayed at Yahweh, and rejected by Him): those people are seen by God as "righteous," and such "righteousness" is not at all described as "imputation" of a legal verdict (as those in Reformed theological circles might suggest). Those who are "righteous" are those who fear (not just those who seek) Yahweh.

What then does it mean to fear Yahweh?

David goes on to explain this in the following verses. David says he will teach what the fear of Yahweh looks like. He begins by asking the question, "Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?" This is obviously a rhetorical question designed to teach what the fear of Yahweh is supposed to look like. Everyone wants to enjoy life, and the whole notion of enjoying peace, freedom, security, and the other good blessings of life are coveted by all people. Such were the particular promises given to Israel too. If they loved and obeyed Yahweh, His covenant blessings, such as "many good days" to enjoy, would attend their life. But David follows through with this additional note of clarification: 
"[Then] keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it."

Here the "fear" of Yahweh looks like something particular, something Godly. Fearing Yahweh means desiring the life He wants us to live, the life which keeps its speech away from evil and deceit, and pursues good, seeking peace (presumably in both word and action). Fearing Yahweh means respecting God's desire for our lives, and respecting His authority over our lives. If He loves us, He will chasten us for our sins of speaking evil and deceit, the kind of hateful and foolish behavior which harms our neighbor's reputation and livelihood. The eyes and ears of Yahweh are on the righteous because the righteous are fearing Yahweh in these ways. Those who seek Yahweh lack no good thing because because they are seen by Yahweh as those who fear Him, those who seek peace and pursue it because they know that pleases Him, and they also know that life under his love is a life of many good days. But the face of Yahweh is against those who devise evil in their heart, those who speak deceit and promote evil; those who sow seeds of strife and cultivate enmity.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, the Greater David, teaches against this sort of thing too. "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder', and yet whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother without cause will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the fiery Gehenna."

Jesus even endorses the kind of ethos which David seems to be describing in this Psalm. Again, Jesus said "first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (to God). Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge...". In other words, fear God. Seek peace and pursue it. Depart from evil and do good. If you are angry with your brother without a just cause, yet you are pleading to God for deliverance from trials and afflictions, don't be surprised if your cries to Yahweh for deliverance are not heard. Learn that God sets his face against evildoers; so don't pursue evil; flee from it. Don't sow presumptuous seeds of strife, and don't use your knowledge of God's commandments (i.e. "Thou shalt not murder") as an excuse to sow discord among brethren, even if your brother appears to be guilty of a lawless deed (like rumors of murder). You should seek peace and pursue it. As saint Paul says in Romans 12:18, "so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Feasting vs Fasting

In 9:9-17, Matthew contrasts two types of disciples who are given a choice to follow Jesus, except this time they’re not known merely by their “denomination.” Rather, they’re known by whom they’re willing to eat with.   
First, Matthew writes that Jesus was “reclining at table” (ἀνακειμένου). Then he continues, saying that “many tax collectors and sinners” sat and ate next to him, and that Pharisees didn’t like this. After that, the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus, asking why his disciples don’t fast as the Pharisees and themselves do. This is especially obvious when compared with Mark and Luke. Through all of this, we aren’t told about any trouble that was raised, but we are told how Jesus responded, and the impression left is that the disciples of John and the Pharisees had come to disrupt table fellowship. They're in Matthew's home not to feast, but to fast, and to question the appropriateness of this great feast. A sign of those who wish to follow Jesus is that they recline at table with him (a theme that returns in chapters 14—16).  
According to Matthew, feasting and table-fellowship provides a framework for partnership that promotes peace among “denominational” lines and party lines. If attempts of table fellowship across denominational lines don’t produce peace, then the root of remaining disunity and factions runs much deeper than mere denominational distinctives. A sign of those who don’t wish to follow Jesus is that they disrupt table fellowship and sow seeds of discord among brethren (Prov. 6:19; Rom. 16:17-18). Those who recline at table with Jesus are the peacemakers, and it is they who shall be called sons of God (Matt. 5:9).

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

William Tyndale: "He is the satisfaction for our sins" (I John 2:2)

Commenting on I John 2:2, William Tyndale (Tyndall) writes: 

And he is the satisfaction for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for all the world’s. (1 John 2:2)

   That I call satisfaction, the Greek calleth Ilasmos, and the Hebrew Copar: and it is first taken for the suaging of wounds, sores, and swellings, and the taking away of pain and smart of them; and thence is borrowed for the pacifying and suaging of wrath and anger, and for an amends-making, a contenting, satisfaction, a ransom, and making at one, as it is to see abundantly in the bible. So that Christ is a full contenting, satisfaction and ransom for our sins: and not for ours only, which are apostles and disciples of Christ while he was yet here; or for ours which are Jews, or Israelites, and the seed of Abraham; or for ours that now believe at this present time, but for all men’s sins, both for their sins which went before and believed the promises to come, and for ours which have seen them fulfilled, and also for all them which shall afterward believe unto the world’s end, of whatsoever nation or degree they be. For Paul commandeth, 1 Tim. 2 “to pray for all men and all degrees,” saying that to be “acceptable unto our Saviour God, which will have all men saved and come to the knowledge of the truth;” that is, some of all nations and all degrees, and not the Jews only. “For,” saith he, “there is one God, and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, which gave himself a redemption” and full satisfaction “for all men.” David also said in the eighteenth Psalm: “Their sound is gone throughout all the earth, so that the benefit stretched on all men.”
   Let this therefore be an undoubted article of thy faith: not of a history faith, as thou believest a gest of Alexander, or of the old Romans, but of a lively faith and belief, to put thy trust and confidence in, and to buy and sell thereon, as we say; and to have thy sins taken away, and thy soul saved thereby, if thou hold it fast; and to continue ever in sin, and to have thy soul damned, if thou let it slip; that our Jesus, our Saviour, that saveth his people from their sins, and our Christ, that is our king over all sin, death and hell, anointed with fulness of all grace and with the Spirit of God, to distribute unto all men, hath, according unto the epistle to the Hebrews and all the scripture, in the days of his mortal flesh, with fasting, praying, suffering, and crying to God mightily for us, and with shedding his blood, made full satisfaction both a pœna et a culpa1 (with our holy father’s leave) for all the sins of the world; both of theirs that went before, and of theirs that come after in the faith; whether it be original sin or actual: and not only the sins committed with consent to evil in time of ignorance, before the knowledge of the truth, but also the sins done of frailty after we have forsaken evil and consented to the laws of God in our hearts, promising to follow Christ and walk in the light of his doctrine.
   He saveth his people from their sins, Matth. 1, and that he only: so that there is no other name to be saved by. Acts 4. And “unto him bear all the prophets record, that all that believe in him shall receive remission of their sins in his name.” Acts 10. And by him only we have an entering in unto the Father, and unto all grace. Eph. 2 and 3 and Rom. 5. And as many as come before him are thieves and murderers, John 10; that is, whosoever preacheth any other forgiveness of sin than through faith in his name, the same slayeth the soul.
   This to be true, not only of original but also of actual [sin], and as well of that we commit after our profession as before, mayest thou evidently see by the ensamples of the scripture. Christ forgave the woman taken in adultery, John 8 and another whom he healed, John 5. And he forgave publicans and open sinners, and put none to do penance, as they call it, for to make satisfaction for the sin which he forgave through repentance and faith; but enjoined them the life of penance, the profession of their baptism, to tame the flesh in keeping the commandments, and that they should sin no more. And those sinners were for the most part Jews, and had their original sin forgiven them before through faith in the testament of God. Christ forgave his apostles their actual sins after their profession, which they committed in denying him, and put none to do penance for satisfaction. Peter (Acts 2) absolveth the Jews, through repentance and faith, from their actual sins, which they did in consenting unto Christ’s death; and enjoined them no penance to make satisfaction. Paul also had his actual sins forgiven him freely, through repentance and faith, without mention of satisfaction. Acts 9. So that, according unto this present text of John, if it chance us to sin of frailty, let us not despair; for we have an advocate and intercessor, a true attorney with the Father, Jesus Christ, righteous towards God and man, and [he] is the reconciling and satisfaction for our sins.
   For Christ’s works are perfect; so that he hath obtained us all mercy, and hath set us in the full state of grace and favour of God, and hath made us as well beloved as the angels of heaven, though we be yet weak: as the young children, though they can do no good at all, are yet as tenderly beloved as the old. And God, for Christ’s sake, hath promised that whatsoever evil we shall do, yet if we turn and repent, he will never more think on our sins.2

1.  Latin for "from guilt and punishment"
2.  Tyndale, W. (1849). Expositions and Notes on Sundry Portions of the Holy Scriptures, Together with the Practice of Prelates. (H. Walter, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 153–156). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Moses and those on the outside

  The fact that Paul does not write about the law in all his letters to Gentile Christians indicates that circumcision and law became topics for discussion only when there was an external stimulus to do so. Thus the topic is discussed at length in only two letters--Galatians and Romans. On the basis of these two letters the incorrect impression later emerged that liberation from the curse of the law is at the center of Paul's gospel. But we must realize that the law was for the readers of these letters a topic they looked at from some distance. They had never lived under the law and were at most familiar with the special traditions the Jews observed on the basis of their Holy Scriptures. But Jewish traditions were not their traditions!
  It was radically different for the Jews: for them living according to the law was the natural expression of belonging to God's people. This people was characterized by a number of customs, of which circumcision, sabbath observance, and dietary laws are best known. When we read Josephus we do not get the impression that these customs were viewed as a means to justification; rather, they were understood as the hallmark and virtues of the people. Whoever wanted to belong to the God of Israel had to live as a fellow-citizen of Moses and the prophets. 
  It is important to note that the law looks very different from the Jewish than from the Gentile perspective. What for the Jews is self evident tradition, handed down from the forefathers, would be a new duty for Gentiles when they become Jews. In a sense the law of Moses is for outsiders primarily a law, for the Jews themselves a custom, a way of life. The law as obligation is not a theme because the law is so demanding and coercive, but rather because to every non-Jew the law looks like a precondition.
  At issue were not the monotheistic faith and its moral and ethical values that many God-fearing people admired and adopted. Rather, it was about the law as a closed system that included rites of passage, sacrificial customs, and dietary laws that often made it difficult for God-fearing non-Jews to become Jews. Viewed from the outside, it was possible to make a distinction between, on the one hand, beliefs and values that could easily be adopted and, on the other hand, specific customs that permeated daily life. From the inside no such distinction existed--the whole system of laws and customs was of one piece. That is why only the circumcised Gentile can be considered a believer, since the requirement of circumcision cannot be separated from the law as a whole. 
  In the letters to the Galatians and Romans Paul is forced to go into detail about the law as a whole because of the presence of the synagogue (in Rome) and the arrival of Jewish Christians (in Galatia). Thus the immediate cause for dealing with the topic is Jewish, but he does not write from a Jewish perspective. Rather, he writes from the context of those outside Judaism.1

1.  Jakob Van Bruggen, Paul: Pioneer for Israel's Messiah [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005], pp. 200-01  

Friday, May 24, 2013

Fallen from God's favor, part 4

I'm sure the photo above looks very confusing to you, so don't try to interpret what it all means just yet. I promise that it will make a lot more sense by the end of this post.

In three previous posts I covered the essentials of what Calvin taught concerning the biblical warning of "falling away." Now what I would like to do next is summarize all of the information contained in this series of posts (see parts onetwo, and three). But in order to piece all of Calvin's technical theological jargon together, it will help us to go back first and restate what was fundamental to Calvin's soteriology;that way, if we have any misunderstandings of our own, we can identify and reassess them along the way. But remember, we must ultimately commit to what God's Word says, not John Calvin. Yet this series of posts is primarily focused upon what John Calvin understood God's Word to teach. Let's now try to summarize what we've learned so far.

What was absolutely fundamental for Calvin was his belief that the Scriptures  speak clearly of God's unchangeable plan for the entire world and course of all history (not merely human history). That unchangeable plan includes his secret will to select whomever he wanted for himself, according to a decree which he (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) made from eternity past. Calvin described these as God's eternally elect. 

However, Calvin did not believe that salvation was described merely in terms of an unchangeable, predestined plan. He also firmly believed that the Scriptures everywhere describe mankind as having a free will according to their spiritual nature. That is to say, Calvin did not see a logical contradiction between God's eternal, predestinating plan and that plan including the free, natural ability for men to make choices. The only thing which man could not do, according to Calvin, was make choices contrary to their spiritual nature; which is to say that spiritually dead men could only make spiritually dead choices, and without the Holy Spirit's work of regeneration, there could be no ultimate salvation for anyone born in sin.

But the comprehensive scope of salvation went far beyond that for Calvin. Not only was salvation according to God's eternal decree and plan, and not only was man accountable for the free choices he makes according to his nature, but Calvin also understood salvation in terms of a gracious eternal covenant. And that eternal covenant has always been the same in substance, even though it differed in its administration before and after the cross of Christ. Without this gracious covenant, there could be no union between God and man in any sense or at any time, even before humanity fell into sin through Adam.2

Moreover, Calvin noticed that in numerous places of the Biblical narrative, this gracious covenant of God was always bilateral. And because it was bilateral, the biblical language of God's unconditional faithfulness and man's conditional faithfulness was reconciled. That is to say, this gracious bilateral covenant is unconditional from God's vantage point, but conditional from man's vantage point. (We learned this in the second part of this series.) And so, from God's own vantage point, God will always be faithful to the terms of his covenant. It would be impossible for God to be unfaithful. However, with those whom God has placed in a covenant relationship with him, the covenant can be broken, violated, and blasphemed by man. 

Furthermore, according to Calvin, all those graciously placed within God's covenant have really been adopted into God's family, being cared for by him in a manner which receives more favor and blessing than those whom he denies entrance. Calvin calls this gracious placement into God's covenant a "common covenant," a "common adoption," and God's "general election." And so, for those in this general election, all of God's promised blessings and curses are promised, and from man's vantage point, they can indeed fall away from God's favor by their own covenant infidelity, or they can persevere in faithful obedience to the Lord who bought them. But from God's vantage point, there is a "secret" eternal election known only to God himself -- an election which God has not revealed to anyone, nor has he even promised to ever disclose at any time to anyone. Far too often we, in our sin, presume that God ought not to keep his eternally elect a secret from us, so that we can understand why he works salvation a certain way. However, what is worse is that by doing so, we presume that we, in our finite minds, could understand why an infinite God works salvation that way, when in fact we have no other reason (other than sinful pride) to believe we could. This he does to humble our sinful minds and persuade us that salvation flows from the wellspring of his free mercy.

From this commitment to Scriptural language, Calvin was also comfortable declaring God's promises to Christians, even though he didn't personally know which of them were eternally elect. Calvin thought that man could definitely know who was generally elect, just not eternally elect. And so, he declared all the promised blessings of God to the generally elect, even though he understood that not all Christians would embrace God's promises in faith. Such embracing would necessitate more than outward grace and mercy; something more than the general blessings attendant to living within God's covenant household. For Calvin, what men need to embrace God's promises in faith (without hypocrisy) is a working of inner grace, given by God's Spirit of regeneration. And for those who are regenerate, there is an indissoluble bond between Christ which will enable them to persevere to the end of their covenant relationship with God, even if they sometimes lack personal assurance because of their sins.

For those who are not regenerate and do not receive this inner grace, there is indeed a dissoluble bond; but there is a real covenantal bond nonetheless. Those whom God has graciously placed in covenant with him can really fall away from that covenant, thereby falling away from God's favor and all the blessings attendant to it as promised. And again, for those who are regenerate (and God only knows), God's favor preserves them until the end. They persevere because God preserves them. But concerning those within the Church who are truly unregenerate (and God only knows), there was no question in Calvin's mind that people in the New Covenant era can, by their ingratitude, fail to persevere in God's favor. Commenting on Romans 11:22, Calvin writes:
They indeed who have been illuminated by the Lord ought always to think of perseverance; for they continue not in the goodness of God, who having for a time responded to the call of God, do at length begin to loathe the kingdom of heaven, and thus by their ingratitude justly deserve to be blinded again.3

Again, keep in mind that Calvin believed there were general blessings attendant to being placed within this covenant of grace and adopted into God's family in this general sense. And so, when Calvin saw the Scriptures teaching that man can fall away from God's favor in some sense, as in Romans 11:22, he deduced that it must not be referring to the eternally elect. Rather, it is a real warning given to all who are generally elect, in a common adoption and covenant. Calvin comments further in this regard:
...But as he [Paul] speaks not of the elect individually, but of the whole body, a condition is added, if they continued in his kindness. I indeed allow, that as soon as any one abuses God's goodness, he deserves to be deprived of the offered favor; but it would be improper to say of any one of the godly particularly, that God had mercy on him when he chose him, provided he would continue in his mercy; for the perseverance of faith, which completes in us the effect of God's grace, flows from election itself. Paul then teaches us, that the Gentiles were admitted into the hope of eternal life on the condition, that they by their gratitude retained possession of it.4 

Notice that Calvin considers it "improper" to tell any particular "godly" person that God chose to show mercy in choosing him (or her) on the condition that he (or she) would continue in his mercy, i.e. continually please him by not abusing his goodness in any way. Calvin says it's improper to think this way because the "godly" persevere in faith according to God's election. Whenever a covenant member abuses God's goodness, he deserves to be deprived of the offered favor. However, according to Calvin, God's mercy endures upon that "godly" person according to God's election. For the eternally elect, God's mercy endures forever. For others among the generally elect, they receive God's mercy for a time, but are justly deprived of it according to their ingratitude.

Now, I realize that all of this might a little overwhelming, and may even take a while to process. You might even have a few serious questions lingering in the back of your mind, waiting for some kind of clear resolution. For example, you might be wondering, "Why would God place someone in a covenant with Him, with all of its attendant blessings and curses, yet not work a special inner grace with them all?" I know that's a question which lingered in my mind when I first studied these views of Calvin. My own thoughts on this matter are that because we are sinful, it's healthier for us to wonder why God would show mercy upon sinners at all. The fact that man is sinful and that God does indeed show mercy toward sinners is sufficient for us to give him all the glory and praise and adoration humanly possible. 

Another question which might be raised is how one enters into this covenant of grace with God. Calvin speaks as though he has a clear-cut idea about how to identify covenant members. And to answer that, Calvin offers his own thoughts on the matter. He appeals to Romans 11:22 and Paul's language of being "cut off" from Christ and "grafted in" to covenant with him:  
But if it be asked respecting individuals, "How any one could be cut off from the grafting, and how after excision, he could be grafted again," bear in mind, that there are three modes of insition,5 and and two modes of excision. For instance, the children of the faithful are ingrafted, to whom the promise belongs according to the covenant made with the fathers; ingrafted are also they who  indeed receive the seed of the gospel, but it strikes no root, or it is choked before it brings any fruit; and thirdly the [eternally] elect are ingrafted, who are illuminated unto eternal life according to the immutable purpose of God.6
The first [i.e. born into the covenant through believing parents, having their membership ratified through baptism] are cut off, when they refuse the promise given to their fathers, or do not receive it on account of their ingratitude; the second [i.e. those former strangers of the covenant who later attach themselves to the Christian church with hypocritical faith] are cut off, when the seed is withered and destroyed; and as the danger of this impends over all, with regard to their own nature, it must be allowed that this warning which Paul gives belongs in a certain way to the faithful [among the generally elect], lest they indulge themselves in the sloth of the flesh. But with regard to the present passage, it is enough for us to know that the vengeance which God has executed on the jews is pronounced on the Gentiles, in case they become like them.7

And so, in Calvin's assessment of the Scriptural language, there are those who are grafted into Christ through birth under believing parents because God's promise is to those believing parents and to their children after them. Such grafting into Christ is covenantal in the general or "common" sense (not necessarily granting regeneration to the child). And so, because all such children are truly grafted in, as ratified through their baptism, the warning is given to all that they could truly be cut off. Likewise, Calvin describes those who are grafted in through a profession of faith. (Based upon other comments from Calvin, he believed that such outsiders of the covenant should receive baptism once they professed faith in Christ.) And if their faith is hypocritical, they too can be cut off because they were truly in covenant with Christ. And finally, Calvin mentions those who are grafted in---using the Scriptural language of election according to God's unchangeable purpose---who still need to heed God's warnings and persevere in faithful obedience to him, "lest they indulge themselves in the sloth of the flesh," as Calvin says, thereby displeasing God and incurring his covenantal curses for a time. 

What I find most refreshing about these views of Calvin is that he never tries to pry into the secret will of God. Nor did he jump on the bandwagon of Christian tradition. Instead, Calvin labored diligently in the Word of God, wrestling with it's difficult doctrines and ultimately reaching the conclusion that Christians, because they are in covenant with God, can fall away from God's favor. Strangers to God's covenant receive no promise of such favor, and consequently can have no hope of salvation. Far too often, modern day Calvinists are quick to presume that being grafted into God's covenant of grace necessitates God's regenerating grace as well. Many of them even speak as though "election" and "adoption" can only refer to those included in God's eternal, predestinating, regenerating favor. But from the looks of John Calvin's own words, he would have definitely disagreed. Calvin took the warning of falling away from the covenant of grace seriously.  Lord willing, may we also learn to do the same. 

Finally, a few closing thoughts for my "Reformed" or Calvinist friends: 

  • In what ways do Calvin's views differ from yours?
  • In what senses do you see the Scriptures using terms like covenant, elect, regenerate, saved, adopted, and Christian? 
  • How does salvation in terms of a covenant make you feel? 
    • Does a conditional covenant challenge your willingness to obey God?
    • Does God's promise of unconditional faithfulness to his covenant, including both blessings and curses, worry you?
  • Do Calvin's views of Scripture affect the way you think of the "elect"?
    • How does this affect the way you view those who have been baptized into the Body of Christ?
    • Are they Christians?
    • Are they among God's elect in your eyes?
    • Does God view baptized children of believers the same way as he does the children of your anti-Christian, atheist neighbors?
  • Do Calvin's views affect the way you view ungrateful members of the Christian Church?
    • Do you treat them as "elect"? 
    • Do you think of them as family members of God's household?
    • Should they be taught to trust and obey God in order to please Him?
    • Should they be taught to "continue in God's kindness," to "continue in the faith"?
    • Should they be warned about "losing their own stability" (II Peter. 3:17) and "falling away from grace" (Gal. 5:4) if they don't "continue in God's kindness" (Rom. 11:21)?  

1.  Soteriology is doctrine concerning entire scope of salvation
2.  Even in heaven, God's elect will be united to him in this covenant. However, in heaven, man will be fully redeemed, justified, sanctified, and glorified; and so he will not be able to sin, even though he will be completely free according to that spiritual nature of his. The same is true concerning Adam and Eve before the Fall. Before the fall, man was created righteous, but with the ability to resist sinful temptations or make sinful choices. After the fall, all men are born in sin and left with the ability to only make sinful choices. Their choices, nevertheless, are genuine choices according to their nature. Likewise, the redeemed in this life (prior to heaven) are given a regenerate heart, and thereby are given a renewed ability to resist sinful temptations and make choices which actually please God. 
3.  Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the Development of Covenant Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001] p. 220   
4.  Ibid. Italics mine.
5.  Insition means the taking in or adding through grafting.
6.  Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the Development of Covenant Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001] p. 221  Brackets mine.
7.  Ibid. p. 222

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Fallen from God's favor, part 3

Continuing where we left this discussion a couple weeks ago (part one and two), John Calvin did not believe that the Scriptures described "election" and "adoption" in only one sense, even though many modern Calvinists use those terms in only one strict sense: the sense of God's eternal, predestined will for those who would be "regenerated" throughout history. Instead, John Calvin believed that in various places within Scripture we find a more "general election," a "common adoption," all of which fall under the rubric of a "common covenant" of grace. In this "common covenant" God makes people outwardly equal in receiving His mercy, favor, and status as His children. Commenting on Romans 9, Calvin writes:
There is no doubt that he has taken this from Moses, who declares that God would be merciful to whom he willed [Exodus 33:19], even though the statement concerned the chosen people, whose condition was outwardly equal, as if he had said that in common adoption is included in his presence a special grace toward some, like a more holy treasure; and that the common covenant does not prevent that small number from being set apart from the rank and file. Therefore Paul skillfully argues from the passage of Malachi that I have just cited that where God has made a covenant of eternal life and calls any people to himself, a special mode of election is employed for a part of them, so that he does not with indiscriminate grace effectually elect all [Romans 9:13].1

In other words, God "elects" or discriminately selects people out of the general world that stands condemned by their sin, and He graciously shows them favor by bringing them into a common covenant with Him, which can also be viewed as a common adoption into His family. This, according to Calvin, is how Paul sometimes speaks when discussing election. As I'll show in a moment, Calvin calls this general election. But Calvin contends that, according to Paul, this general election (i.e. this common covenant and adoption) does not automatically impart the Holy Spirit's work of regeneration, giving them the ability to please God in the things they do. Calvin continues:
It is easy to explain why the general election of a people is not always firm and effectual: to those with whom God makes a covenant, he does not at once give the spirit of regeneration that would enable them to persevere in the covenant to the very end. Rather, the outward change, without the working of inner grace, which might have availed to keep them, is intermediate between the rejection of mankind and the election of a meager number of the godly. The whole people of Israel has been called the "inheritance of God" yet many of them were foreigners. But because God has not pointlessly covenanted that he would become their Father and Redeemer, he sees to his freely given favor rather than to the many who treacherously desert him.2 

From this we can deduce that Calvin did not view the community of God's covenant people as elect and non-elect. Calvin viewed the covenant community as generally elect and specially elect.3 Actually to be more specific, Calvin explicitly calls this special mode of election, employed for a part of the generally elect, a "secret election." This he also describes as a "more limited degree" of general election. Calvin writes:
We must now add a second, more limited degree of election, or one in which God's more special grace was evidence, that is, when from the same race of Abraham God rejected some but showed that he kept others among his sons by cherishing them in the church. Ishmael had at first obtained equal rank with his brother Isaac, for in him the spiritual covenant had been equally sealed by the sign of circumcision, Ishmael is cut off; then Esau; afterward, a countless multitude, and well-nigh all Israel....By their own defect and guilt, I admit, Ishmael, Esau, and the like were cut off from adoption. For the condition had been laid down that they should faithfully keep God's covenant, which they faithlessly violated. So the answer may be divided into two parts --that God has by no means cast away the whole race of Abraham contrary to the tenor of his own covenant-- and that yet the fruit of adoption does not exist in all the children of the flesh, for secret election precedes.4
Elsewhere Calvin describes this "secret election" as eternal election:
We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God's free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illumines God's grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others. ...Ignorance of this principle greatly detracts from the glory of God, and diminishes true humility.5 

In other words, Calvin viewed secret election, the more limited degree of general election, as though it flowed from God's free election made from eternity past. Commenting elsewhere with regards to God's eternal and unchangeable plan, Calvin writes:
For the fact that God was continually gathering his Church from Abraham's children rather than from profane nations had its reason in his covenant, which, when violated by that multitude, he confined to a few that it might not utterly cease. In short, that adoption of Abraham's seed in common was a visible image of the greater benefit that God bestowed on some out of the many. That is why Paul so carefully distinguishes the children of Abraham according to the flesh from the spiritual children who have been called after the example of Isaac [Galatians 4:28]. Not that it was a vain and unprofitable thing simply to be a child of Abraham; such could not be said without dishonoring the covenant! No, God's unchangeable plan, by which he predestined for himself those whom he willed, was in fact intrinsically effectual unto salvation for these spiritual offspring alone.6 

And let's not forget that Calvin saw all of this as manifesting the gracious character of God. This view of Calvin couldn't be more clear than when he speaks as though all men are born sinful and in need of God's mercy and favor. Calvin comments:
What fellowship have we with God, when we are born and come out of the womb, except he graciously adopts us? For we bring nothing, we know, with us but a curse: this is the heritage of all mankind. Since it is so, all our salvation must necessarily have its foundation in the goodness and mercies of God.7

In the next (and final) post of this series, I will summarize all of these thoughts together. Stay tuned for the final part -- part 4.

1.  Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the Development of Covenant Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001] p. 216  Italics mine. 
2.  Ibid. pp. 216-7  Italics mine.
3.  Calvin distinguishes general and special election in numerous places in his commentaries, a few of which are his commentaries on Genesis 17:7, Deuteronomy 10:15-17, Ezekiel 16:21, and Matthew 15:24.
4.  Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the Development of Covenant Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001] p. 215  Italics mine.
5.  Ibid. p. 214  Italics mine. John Calvin, Institutes, Book 3, Chap. 21, sec. 1
6.  Ibid. p. 217  Italics mine.
7.  Ibid. p. 222

Friday, May 10, 2013

Fallen from God's favor

Last night I had a conversation with some good friends about meriting God's favor. In the end we all agreed that the language of "meriting" God's favor, even if it's being used in the narrow sense of pleasing God, is not wise in our current christian climate because it gives the impression that salvation can be earned. However, for those who know me personally, it probably won't come as a surprise that I had some lingering concerns about our current christian climate, and in particular the concern that christians shouldn't talk or think as though doing things -- literally any things -- could either decrease or increase God's favor upon an individual, especially christian individuals. This whole conversation arose from a study in Galatians chapter five. 

In Galatians chapter five, Paul speaks adamantly toward those Gentile christians within the Galatian church who are considering to accept the rite of circumcision on the terms of the "Juidaizers" who "wanted to distort the gospel of Christ" (Gal. 1:7) by teaching that God only justifies sinners in virtue of the Mosaic Covenant with Israel, through "works of the (Mosaic) Law." This first century controversy, in effect, convinced the Christian Gentiles of Galatia to voluntarily place themselves under the Old Covenant, thereby identifying themselves with the covenant-people of Israel, in order to receive a righteous standing before God; and that is patently false and contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and justification through faith in him alone (Gal. 2:15-21; Eph. 2:1-10). Paul even describes this particular worldview of judaism with which he was personally familiar as though it were a pagan and idolatrous system of worship that enslaved the human heart instead of freeing it (Gal. 4:8-11, 21-31; 5:1). And yet, after all of this contention with insidious Judaizers and the proselytes to Judaism which they nurtured and developed in Galatia, Paul declares emphatically that those Gentiles who have become tangled within this controversy and honestly think they are being justified by the Mosaic Law and its stipulated works "have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:4).

Now, in our current Christian climate, it is presumed that Paul did not truly believe that a Christian could fall away from God's grace, because that would imply a loss of salvation -- a salvation which was granted unconditionally. In other words, it is presumed that Paul was serious in the tone of his warning but not in the actual content of his warning. That is to say, Paul is speaking rhetorically for the effect of appearing threatening, but the propositional threat itself was not true. That, to me, seems more like an idle threat than good rhetoric. And under such urgent circumstances like the situation in Galatia, an idle threat would not only be foolish, it would also be useless. These Christian Gentiles cannot have possibly fallen away from something that they did not have. In this case, it's God's favor

The most logical inference of this allegedly "idle" threat is that previously these Gentiles had been viewed as having obtained God's favor. In other words, they had been viewed as Christians by the Apostle Paul, and other Christians within the church of Galatia believed they were Christians too. And one of the benefits of that Christian faith is they had received God's favor. Paul thought they had received God's favor. They thought they did too.  If they didn't think that, Paul's warning would be absolutely meaningless. And it is that position of favor from which Paul says they "have fallen away from" (aorist active indicative of ekpipto) God's favor or "grace."

The apostle Peter speaks this way also in one of his letters. He says, "You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose (ekpipto) your own stability" (2 Pet. 3:17). The author of Hebrews is even more explicit in his language: 
Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:28-29) 

It seems to me that the apostles of our Lord Jesus christ were not speaking hypothetically when they described the certainty of God's promised, decreasing favor upon those who had been sanctified by the blood of His covenant and had outraged the Spirit of grace (i.e. the Spirit of favor).  Similarly, Paul speaks to the Colossian Christians as though they too could fall away from some kind of relationship with Jesus Christ. In Colossians 1:21-23, he writes:
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
In Paul's letter to the Gentile congregation in Rome, he writes concerning the covenant-body of Israel:
They [the covenant body of Israel] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. (Rom. 11:20-21)

The very clear inference of these statements by Paul is that the Gentiles who once were alienated and hostile in their minds toward God have now been graciously brought into a relationship with God where they (perceivably) are no longer hostile to God in their minds and are no longer alienated from God. Yet, Paul still speaks as though they were able, in some sense, to become lax, unstable, and irresolute in their faith, shifting away from the hope of the gospel that they heard and (apparently) received with favor. A few verses later (Col. 1:28) Paul states that all men need to heed this "warning" of God's gospel: "Him [that is, Jesus] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ." The obvious implication of this "warning" is that these identifiable Christians could "shift from" the hope of the gospel, at which time God's warning would be appropriately given to them -- that warning being the promise of God's hostility toward them, the deliverance from which they did not deserve in the first place. And if the sovereign kindness of God placed the people of Israel into a covenant relationship with Him, and He eventually did not spare them, allowing them to "fall" because of their unbelief and pride, how much more is God's warning appropriate for Gentiles who receive God's kindness and yet are tempted to do the same?

It seems to me that in some sense, God's kindness can be diminished with those who are in covenant with Him. If this is true, one logical implication would be that God's kindness could also increase with those who are in covenant with Him. 

Now, I realize that in our current Christian climate, especially among "Baptistic" and "Calvinistic" circles of Christianity, it is likely that I will be accused of being Arminian, Palagian, semi-Palagian, and possibly even a total pagan for believing that Christians in covenant with God can do things which increase or decrease God's favor. That would mean, or so they might think, that Jesus does not cover all of their sins, or that Christ only covers their sins intermittently (covering them and uncovering them, and covering them back up again, etc.). But is that really true? Must we deny substitutionary atonement by affirming that God's favor upon His covenant people can increase or decrease depending on their faithfulness? It seems to me that no matter which Christian tradition we come from, both substitutionary atonement for Christians and the ability of Christians to fall away from God's favor are part of the clear language of God's Word; and first and foremost, as Christians, we ought to commit ourselves to the Word of God above all traditions. But does this mean that by accepting this peculiar biblical language about "falling away from grace" that other biblical doctrines are being compromised, even the doctrines of sovereign grace? Does this diminish God's sovereignty over all? Does this diminish the sinner's accountability to God one bit? Does this even imply that God is not worthy of our love, adoration, and respect? I don't believe so, and I'll tell you why. 

The language of God's Word also, and just as clearly, affirms that all men are completely dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1) and by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:2-3) and enemies of God by their very nature (Rom. 5:10) through their legal covenantal union with the first Adam who fell into sin in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3; Hosea 6:7; Rom. 5:12-19). Because of their union with the first Adam they are by nature slaves of sin (Rom. 6:20). God's Word is also very clear that no man who is dead in his sins is righteous in himself (Rom. 3:9-20), or can do things in himself which merit God's favor, thereby causing or stimulate God to make him righteous or even to give him an alien righteousness. All men have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and there is no one righteous, not so much as one (Rom. 3:10). Therefore the natural man, if he is to be righteous in God's sight at all, must be elected by God to partake of, and be covered by, His righteousness--the righteousness of the Righteous One (Rom. 3:19-26; 4:7; 5:1-21). 

Moreover, God does not base the foundation of His election on anything inherent within the individual sinner. God chooses to save sinners based on the gracious and kind intention of His own will (Eph. 1:4-8; Rom. 9:11). God's electing love, though sufficient for all and for all time, is for those whom God alone wills, and only for those whom He wills (John 6:37; 17:9). And because God has sovereignly, powerfully, and graciously saved a people for Himself, they have eternal security in Him (Rom. 8:1; John 10:27; I Cor. 10:13; Philip. 1:6).

And so, how does all of this fit together? How is the language of falling away from God's favor to be understood in light of God's favor originating and continuing from His completely sovereign grace?  

Are we to believe that God's favor is unlimited and static no matter what (that is to say, it doesn't move up or down or increase or decrease at all in time and history) for those who are in a covenant relationship with in Him? 

Are Christians, graciously placed within a covenant relationship with God, held to certain conditions which necessitate their faithful obedience, lest they fall away from God's favor?

I will gladly confess that it is a tremendous error to believe that spiritually dead men and enemies of God can do something to earn or "merit" God's favor in any sense. But is that true for those who are no longer spiritually dead and have been graciously placed within a covenant relationship with God? Is that true of people who are no longer considered God's enemies?  I get the funny feeling that Christians in our current climate get all flustered by this language because they equate a covenant relationship with God (something which contains blessings and curses and is objectively verifiable) as God's eternally electing, predestinating decree of salvation itself (something which man, in and of himself, could not possibly know because it's hidden within God's knowledge alone, Deut. 29:29). I also suspect that because such Christians don't want to attribute human perceptions of immorality to God (and His holy character), they don't like the thought of a God who would do such things as blessing them for obedience/faithfulness and cursing them for disobedience/faithlessness. They might think it's not "good" or "loving" or "gracious" for God to do that, especially if their righteous standing before God is because of the righteousness of another man who stands in their place (i.e. Jesus). 

But perhaps the most serious concern which stems from this apparent paradox is the thought that one could lose their regenerate or eternally elect status in God's sight if such things as covenant conditions (i.e. blessings and curses) were indeed true (and not just idle, hypothetical threats displayed for purely rhetorical purposes). The thought might be (i'm imagining) that no one can rest in any absolute assurance of salvation because God's covenant, through which he saves sinners, is conditional in some sense. And if it's conditional, after having already begun a work of regeneration, then one can lose his or her regeneration. Moreover, if it's conditional, God could not possibly predestine my eternal destiny, because it would change depending on something I do. 

Obviously, these apparent paradoxes are all serious concerns. And they all need to be addressed.

There is one thing Christians can be sure of, even when they are wrestling with this apparent paradox of "falling away from grace"; and that is the covenant faithfulness of God. God will always be faithful to the terms of His covenant with his people (Psa. 33:4; 36:5; 86:15; 89:1, 8; 115:1; Lam. 3:22-23; Rom. 3:3-4; I Cor. 1:9; 10:13; II Cor. 1:18; I John 1:9). But (and this is a big "but") if the terms of His covenant do include conditions, why would any professing "Christian" pretend as though His or her faithfulness will result in an eternal life in God's comfortable presence? In other words, why would a professing Christian presume that God's gracious covenant with them continues so that they could live sinfully? As the apostle Paul says, "Should we continue1in sin, that grace may abound?" (Rom. 6:1)?

In one of the following posts, I would like to offer a solution to this apparent paradox, but I can promise you that the solution won't be my own. In the following posts I would like to offer the solution presented by John Calvin, which was based upon his own study of God's Word. Now, I realize that our current climate of Christianity has many views, both pros and cons, concerning John Calvin the person and "Calvinism" as a theological think-tank, but I'm not going to offer a solution to this apparent paradox from our current "Calvinistic" climate. I'm going to offer John Calvin's own solution, which, as we'll see, is different from modern mainstream "Calvinistic" solutions. Stay tuned for those upcoming posts.

1.  The verb for "continue" in Rom. 6:1 is stated in the subjunctive mood, signifying possibility and potentiality. I prefer the HCSB translation which reads, "Should we continue...".  Other translations say "Are we to continue in sin?" (ESV), or "Shall we go on sinning..." (NIV).