The Essence of Saving Faith: Knowledge, Assent, and Faith

There are some theological terms that developed along the way for describing the essence, or the components, of saving faith. As usual, these terms have are originally in latin and are represented in English by the title of this post. In latin, the terms are notitia, assensus, and fiducia. This post will be a sort of historical survey of the testimony to these three components in understanding salvation through the Reformed consensus. First, some definitions (without examples).

Notitia– You might see the word “notice” in that term. Notitia has to do with knowledge of the facts of the gospel. It deals with knowing that the Christian message is about a God-man slain for sinners and resurrected in defeat of death.

Assensus– In this word you probably see the word “assent.” Assensus, or assent, is affirmation that the facts of the gospel are true. It is not simply saying that the Christian message is, but that it is true.

Fiducia– Maybe (hopefully) you see the word fide buried in there (as in sola fide or Semper Fidelis). This means that the contents of the gospel are true, but it also means that I trust Christ for the salvation of my soul and that I adore him as the focal point of my heart. It is confidence and an affectional term. This should become more clear as we move on.

Calvin

Right, so lets look at Calvin (since we’re limiting ourselves to broad brush strokes in the Reformed tradition). Calvin attacks the Schoolmen for making faith implicit, for claiming that all a person must do is submit their “feeling obediently to the church.” To this, Calvin says that, “Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge” and “that it is not enough for a man implicitly to believe what he does not understand or even investigate.” (Institutes 3.2.3). Faith is grounded on knowledge rather than unthinking submission of the heart. Further, it is grounded on confidence in its veracity. He says,

Now, therefore, we hold faith to be a knowledge of God’s will toward us, perceived from his Word. But the foundation of this is a preconceived conviction of God’s truth. As for its certainty, so long as your mind is at war with itself, the Word will be of doubtful and weak authority, or rather of none. And it is not even enough to believe that God is trustworthy [cf. Rom. 3:3], who can neither deceive nor lie [cf. Titus 1:2], unless you hold to be beyond doubt that whatever proceeds from him is sacred and inviolable truth. (Institutes 3.2.6)

There is a real situation in which you can comprehend, i.e. understand, what’s be said without being confident in the veracity of the message that proceeds from God through his Word. Finally, Calvin provides a beautiful definition of faith:

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. (Institutes 3.2.7

I need to make something of a sidebar remark lest I do a disservice to Calvin’s argument. His understanding of knowledge is much closer to the understanding (indeed, the same) as what is expressed in Scripture. He calls the knowledge of faith something beyond mere rational comprehension. It is higher and much more profound (cf. Institutes 3.2.14). You would do well to read all of his Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 2.

Owen

It is a little more difficult (read time consuming) to work through Owen’s expression of these things, but I will offer just a sampling of what I found in his works. Chapter 2 of his The Doctrine of Justification by Faith includes each of the three components, just in a different order. He says in 2.4.3 that the apprehension of the gospel presupposes the preaching of the gospel, i.e. the content. Preaching is the declaration of the facts; it is where

the Lord Christ and his mediation with God, the only way and means for the justification and salvation of lost convinced sinners, as the product and effect of divine wisdom, love, grace, and righteousness, is revealed, declared, proposed, and offered unto such sinners

Just prior to this, in 2.4.2, Owen had explained that “assent [is that] which respects the promises of the gospel, not as they contain, propose, and exhibit the Lord Christ and the benefits of his mediation unto us, but as divine revelations of infallible truth.” Assent is the belief that the things preached are true and from God.

Finally, I will pull his definition of faith from his “Greater Catechism.”

Q. 2. What is a justifying faith?

A. A gracious resting upon the free promises of God in Jesus Christ for mercy, with a firm persuasion of heart that God is a reconciled Father unto us in the Son of his love.

Also (not from the Catechism, but the same volume),

This is the distinguishing property and character of saving faith—it beholds the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ;—it makes us to discern the manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, as declared in the Gospel. (Works, Vol. 1, 243)

and

This is the distinguishing property and character of saving faith—it beholds the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ;—it makes us to discern the manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, as declared in the Gospel. (Works, Vol. 1, 243)

further

Our apprehension of this glory is the spring of all our obedience, consolation, and hope in this world. Faith discovering this manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, engageth the soul unto universal obedience (Works, Vol. 1, 243)

To have faith in God is to behold the glory of Christ, which commits us to obedience to him.

Gill

I’m not going to go through Gill’s exposition of these, but if you’d like to see what he has to say, look at his section “Of Conversion” in his Body of Practical Divinity. I will include a quote from his section called “Of Justification” from the same book:

3. He works faith in convinced and enlightened persons, to look at the righteousness of Christ, and take a view of its glories and excellences; to approve of it, desire it, and to lay hold on it, and receive it as their justifying righteousness. Such a faith is of the operation of God, of the Spirit of God; it is what he works in the saints, and enables them to exercise it; hence he is called the Spirit of Faith, Col. 2:13. (Gill, 75.)

Boyce

Boyce explains that faith is “based . . . upon the knowledge of this testimony [of our sinfulness and salvation in Christ] as given by our own consciences and the Word of God. It is consequently an act of the mind.” (Abstract, 347) Further, it includes (without being limited to) belief “so far as it refers to the acceptance of facts and statements, or of the veracity of a person.” (Abstract, 346) Faith is obviously more than this. It is believing facts and trusting a person. Christians who have faith “know whom they have believed, and why they should believe him.” (Abstract, 347) A little phrase that may have shown up somewhere else, but that I noticed in Boyce, was his definition of faith as “intelligent trust.” Boyce, on pages 349-352, goes through false ways of thinking about faith that I think is really helpful. In these he follows what the others have said, but he just seems to be more concise and lucid. I recommend looking at that.

20th Century

In the twentieth century there seemed to arise within the commonly used theologies (Strong and Berkhof) a reluctance to use the distinctions, even though they included them. An extremely helpful historical theology was also provided by Bavinck. He works through many of the issues in the Reformed and Lutheran communities over how many elements to include in saving faith and their relationship to one another. I will not include his points here, but draw on them at the end as I offer concluding observations. You can read the whole thing (highly recommended) in his Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, pp. 110-132.

1689 LBCF and Concluding Remarks

I thought about including some thoughts from twenty-first century works, such as Frame’s Systematic Theology or Sproul’s Everyone’s a Theologian. These are helpful, and could be consulted as well (I included the relevant page numbers in their sections of the bibliography). I also thought about working through the biblical testimony on this issue, but that would require a lot more time and any of the sources that I’ve already mentioned could be used for their footnotes to the biblical texts. Instead, let’s work through the 1689 and some conclusions.

1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 14: Of Saving Faith (I am using the text from http://www.1689.com/confession.html#Ch.%2014 though I have taken out the Bible references for the sake of space)

Paragraph 1. The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened.

In this first paragraph, we see that faith is “ordinarily wrought” through the declarative means of grace. These actions provide the content on which saving faith is based.

Paragraph 2. By this faith a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word for the authority of God himself, and also apprehends an excellency therein above all other writings and all things in the world, as it bears forth the glory of God in his attributes, the excellency of Christ in his nature and offices, and the power and fullness of the Holy Spirit in his workings and operations: and so is enabled to cast his soul upon the truth consequently believed; and also acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come; but the principle acts of saving faith have immediate relation to Christ, accepting, receiving, and resting upon him alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

Next, we see that the Christian “believes as true” the message of God contained in the Word. He recognizes its veracity, in relationship to each Person of the Holy Trinity (cf. Boyce’s Abstract on faith being in each Person). We see that it is also the ability cast the soul upon the truths believed. There is, at minimum, a twofold breakdown of this paragraph. It is 1) apprehension of truth as truth from God about God and all things, and 2) casting oneself on Christ in trust.

Paragraph 3. This faith, although it be in different stages, and may be weak or strong, yet it is in the least degree of it different in the kind or nature of it, as is all other saving grace, from the faith and common grace of temporary believers; and therefore, though it may be many times assailed and weakened, yet it gets the victory, growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

Finally, true faith is differentiated from temporary faith, which is evident in those who fall away. This is a paragraph of great hope for the believers who struggle, who cry, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

Concluding Thoughts

These three categories are helpful for thinking through elements of saving faith, and they are also helpful in thinking through elements of unbelief. We’ll take them in reverse order.

There are those who know the facts of the gospel and do not believe them to be true or relevant. We might think of atheists, agnostics, “nones,” or adherents to other damning religions. Not everyone has a knowledge of the facts of the gospel, and because of this we evangelize and send out missionaries and evangelists. But there are many, especially in the West, who do know the facts of the gospel and simply don’t believe them.

There are also those who believe the facts of the gospel in what is called by many of the writers referenced above a “historical manner.” They believe the veracity of the gospel facts, but have not trusted and loved Christ rightly. We might think of many children, who believe the facts of the gospel as true without having saving faith, or of Papists.

Finally, there are those who love God, or some version of him, but this is not based on apprehension of true facts. Boyce says, “It is as though, with our belief in the Bible, we should say that one who believes the Bible is saved, whether he knows its contents or not… But the whole hope of salvation and faith, in every other respect which is effective and operative, is in what we believe, not in the fact that it is true, but in the knowledge which the fact that it is true conveys to us. Our salvation does not rest in the belief that the books of the Bible teach truth, but in belief of the things which they teach.” (Abstract, 349) To believe a God we know nothing about is the height of idolatry.

The way that these things relate to saving faith is quite different. They are not so easily disjointed, but rather distinguished. To know the facts of the gospel in Calvin’s thought is to know them with the intimacy of the soul being connected to the Source of those facts. It is to believe them and love them and trust them and adore them. To believe them as true is to have a real knowledge of them that issues in hopeful adoration. To trust and love the God of the gospel is to know him in your soul as the most trustworthy Truth you could ever encounter. Distinction does not imply division. The task of theology is to recognize the distinctions so that our doxology might be grounded in truth. Let us proceed accordingly.


Bibliography

Bavinck, Herman, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008, 110-132.

Boyce, James P. Abstract of Systematic Theology. Louisville, KY: SBTS Press, 2013.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2013. (cf. pp. 952-54)

Gill, John. A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity: Or A System of Evangelical Truths, Deduced from the Sacred Scriptures, New Edition., vol. 2. Tegg & Company, 1839.

Owen, John The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 1. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Owen, John. The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 5. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Sproul, R. C. Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2014. (cf. pp. 238-39)

The Hidden Danger: Postliberalism

Christians have been battling against liberalism for around two hundred years, and it may just die out at some point, at least in its explicit form. Machen wrote a famous book called, Christianity and Liberalism, highlighting the fact that the liberals were holding to a different gospel, and therefore not Christian. So what happened? Well, it would take a long (boring?) time to work through the history, but I’m going to generalize and step on toes and misrepresent through simplification.

Basically, Liberals realized that their syncretism with Enlightenment philosophy was a failure (particularly in light of the world wars) and their distorted post-millennial hopes were dashed (I’m not bashing post-millennialism at this point, just its distortion). But, praise be to imagined providence (I’m not bashing providence, just its distortion), a new philosophy came along called Postmodernism. What’s Postmodernism? It’s the belief that we are all held to a received text, that we interpret the world according to our cultural traditions and so

What’s Postmodernism? It’s the belief that we are all held to a received text, that we interpret the world according to our cultural traditions and so truth is somewhat, and ultimately, relative. What happened? Well, this meant that Liberals could have their language back (which they had given up to philosophy and humanistic science), and they could just focus on the love of being Christian. No need to have debates over propositions anymore, over truth claims and intellectual coherency. That’s “so Enlightenment.” Instead, we just need to feel God. You see, the new liberalism isn’t the old liberalism, but it is.

So, why have I titled this post with so ominous a statement as, “The Hidden Danger”? Because Liberals, in their modified (though not new) clothes are able to use language and reasoning now that sounds like orthodox Christianity. We read words like “Reformed” and “providence” and see references to men like Calvin and Augustine, we see theologians and philosophers despising the Enlightenment, and our little, often naïve, heart flutter with joy. We say, “These are our people.” But they’re not. They’ve gone off the rails of liberalism in some sense, but they have not converted. They’re still running around with the same beliefs, despising the same gospel, one that is preached and taught, one that makes assertions and claims ultimate allegiance. Christianity is not merely shared practices; it is shared beliefs, shared doctrine. That doctrine, those words, mean something eternal. They mean something that they meant to the Lord, and to the Apostles, and to the Fathers, and to the Reformers, and to the Puritans. They mean the same thing that they mean to the faithful reformed today. We don’t need to re-think our Christianity; they need to come to Christ. That looks like something, absolutely, but it also means something. Be careful of those who sound like us, but are simply hijacking Christian language.

Bible Reading Plan 2017

I worked out a Bible reading plan that I’m gonna try this year. As with most “Bible-in-a-year” plans, it’s 4 chapters per day (with a few that are less and a few that are more). This plan is designed to take you straight through the Bible once, through Psalms twice, and through Proverbs four times. What that means is that January 1st, you read Genesis 1-2, Psalm 1, and Proverbs 1. Proverbs is read in January, March, July, and October (31-day months matching the 31 chapters). Psalm 119 is by itself (no other reading for the day), and you finish with the Psalms (the first time) on May 30th. You pick it up again on August 4th, which is 150 days from the end of the year. You’ll notice that Obadiah and 2-3 John each have their own days and that the scheduled reading essentially stops at Christmas Eve (except Psalms). This means that you have at least 11 “catch up” days during the year. Some caveats: 1) I simply went through and put in a certain number of chapters per day, so this doesn’t account for chapter length (except Psalm 119) and it doesn’t account for natural breaks in the book (except Romans). Some days you’ll read the end of a book and the first chapter(s) of another book (e.g. April 28th), but this only happens when the books were meant to be read together (1 Samuel-2 Kings, Ezrah-Nehemiah). 2) I didn’t try to get it nicely formatted. I just created an Excel document and put books/chapters in the days and messed around with it a little. If you try to print it out, you may find yourself needing to adjust it to fit the pages better. If you have any questions or find something that needs to be fixed, let me know. Here it is: Bible Reading Plan 2017

Is it a 6 or a 9? Basics of the Christian Claim

Is it all about perspective? In some sense. Are we being arrogant when we make claims from the Bible? No.

Maybe you’ve seen the images above on Facebook, or somewhere else, as I have a few times recently, and you’ve wondered how to respond? Usually, there’s a caption with something like, “Just because you’re right, doesn’t mean they’re wrong,” or “It’s all about perspective.”  These are, in many ways, a new take on an old story about an elephant. The story goes that a group of blind men all came across an elephant and touched a different part of it. One felt the leg and said that it was a tree, another the side and said it was a wall, and so on. The moral of the story is similar to (though slightly different than) these: there’s now way to grasp truth from a single perspective. These are even more subversive because they claim that there is no complete meaning, just perspectival truth.

So what do we make of these? When we see them on the internet, or when we hear similar claims in conversation? Is it all about perspective? Well, first I want to say that there are times when various perspectives are the key to growth, such as when approaching a work or school project or facing a difficult decision. Still, I think that what we’ll find in these situations is not that the presence of multiple perspectives itself is what was helpful, but the presence of a particular perspective, one based on knowledge or experience, that was otherwise absent. So, what does this have to do with Christianity? Everything.

When we look at the pictures above, there is something (someone) missing. There was someone who drew the 6 (or 9) and there was someone who laid the lumber. This person would be the ultimate determiner of truth. He could say, “No, when I was drawing it, I was facing this way and so it is a 9. It is there so that you know that the address is ‘9 Main St., Normaltown, USA.’ not ‘6 Main St.'” When we approach ambiguous things in context, the ambiguity often vanishes. 6’s and 9’s lying in the presence of nothing are ambiguous, but as soon as they are placed in a context, such as a sentence or an address or a string of numbers (except when the other numbers are 0’s), we know that it would be wrong to maintain that they are ambiguous. Even when they do lay alone, there is an individual that has determined what the number is.

So, is it right that people would claim we can’t know absolute truth, particularly since we are equals (i.e. humans), and none of us “drew” truth? Sure. None of us can claim to know absolutely on our own. We are dependent on deduction, induction, and collaboration. We look at things and say, “well, from my vantage point, it looks like that act was evil (or righteous)” and we continue in conversation with others for input. Problem? We all know that we are 1) fallible (able to make mistakes) and 2) sinful. Our fallibility means that however sure we are of something we figured out ourselves, we may be corrected by further information. Our sinfulness means that however pious we claim to be as we make assertions, we know that they are at least sprinkled with (if not completely soaked in) self-serving motives.

Is it hopeless then? Should we just give up on making claims of absolutes? Should we proceed with the motto “live and let live” since everyone is just doing this whole life thing from their personal vantage point? In a word, no. You see, the Christian claim is that there is a person who “drew” truth and “laid” the foundations of the world. Further, he is not some absent artist or careless carpenter. No, he is a fully (i.e. omni-) present Father who has made himself known. No one can claim ignorance of this fact (just read Romans 1 or Acts 17 or Psalm 19). When we make truth claims from the Bible, we are making truth claims from the Source of truth, from God himself. Jesus claims to be the truth (John 14:6) and the Bible claims to be the sufficient Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). In fact, the Bible even understands that man can’t give this truth, since only the source of truth has that ability, and so God himself must be the one who wrote it (2 Peter 1:20-21).

Are we being arrogant when we make claims from the Bible? No. We are not saying, “I have the truth” (in the sense that it originates with me, or even with the church). We are instead saying that God has the truth and has made it known here (in the Bible) for everyone to know, and that is why we proclaim it. It’s easy to mix logical thinking with biblical claims (maybe in the realm of economics and public policy), but we must admit what the absolute truth is and what we think is necessary based on that truth. We might say, “Absolute truth is that we work to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10) and so we think that means we should not provide food stamps.” Someone might claim that this goes against the absolute truth teaching on caring for the poor and destitute (read the whole Bible), and so we think that we should just put everyone but the 1% on welfare. Of course, these are hyperbolic (though, unfortunately, not always) examples, but I hope they strengthen the point. There is absolute truth (only Jesus is Lord, salvation is not for non-Christians, church is necessary, God is Trinity, etc.) and these are claims made by God himself. That means they are not open to any perception but his own. Using his revealed truth, we think deeply about how to apply it in a way that reflects his teaching.

To read more about this, look at Acts 17:10-34 (Paul goes to Berea and they compare his teaching to what has already been revealed by God; he goes to Athens and explains the absolute revealed will of God). Also, look Romans 1:18-32 (everyone knows about God, but they revolt). Look at the texts in 2 Timothy 3 and 2 Peter 1 that I referenced above. Check out, and think deeply, about the opening to Hebrews (1:1-3). Meditate on Deuteronomy 29:29 and 30:11-14. These are all basic texts, which is another way of saying foundational texts, for our thinking and stance as Christians.

Finally, I am going to recommend a book that I haven’t actually read. I have the book Naming the Elephant by James Sire, and I intend to read it in about a month. I’ve read his Universe Next Door, and this book is intended to be a follow-up volume to that. It’s not available on Westminster Books, but you can get it on Amazon here. This should help you think about how to respond to non-Christian truth claims.

Christianity is an Educated Faith

It’s an interesting situation that exists in the Christian religion today. We have an abundance of individuals with undergraduate certificates to Doctorates in biblical, theological, and church history degrees. On the other end, we have those who “just believe” and decide to pay no attention to the thinking portion of their faith. Some are locked away in Bible colleges and seminaries debating the nuanced definitions of theological terms as used in various periods of church history, and others attend church on occasion when they need an uplifting word or counsel on a specific area of life. In this short post, I want to explain just why we must consider the Christian faith as one that we think through.

Let’s think about the Great Commission. The Lord is preparing to ascend to his Father’s right hand, and he tells the disciples something. He tells them to make more disciples. It might be easy if we just think about what it means to be a “disciple.” It means, simply, to be the student at the feet of a teacher. We are to learn something and, as Christians, we are to teach something. What are we to teach? Well, while the simple gospel call is definitely part of it (turn from your sin and place your trust in Christ), he says that we are to teach “all” that Jesus has commanded. Whether we’re in an educational silo (only me and my student peers) or a lifestyle silo (I think about Jesus occasionally, but it’s not part of my life), we are abandoning this command. We who are called to teach are not obeying, and we who are called to learn (which is everyone) are not obeying.

What about the connection between thinking deeply about the Bible and what it says and our living? We can think about the Great Commission for that as well, and we can also look at Romans 12:1-2. Making disciples has an initial action on the part of the new believer: baptism. Our thinking (and feeling) leads to the act of baptism (cf. Romans 10:9 where it is knowledge and heart transformation). But it doesn’t end there. They are told to teach commands. Commands demand action. Sometimes, the action is worship or a new (proper) way of thinking about God. Sometimes, the action is confession of particular sins or being a better father/mother/spouse/child. These actions aren’t always easily separated, and the former (worship/thinking about God) should always be present.

Next, let’s think about Romans 12:1-2. The Word says that readers are to offer their blood-bought lives as sacrifices of worship. What does this look like? It looks like verse 2. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” So it means thinking differently, differently than you used to and differently than the world. God’s mind is given in his Word, and as our minds are changed by it, we are transformed from conformity to the world to conformity to Christ. It is neither simply thinking through doctrine intellectually, nor blind behavior modification. Instead, our minds manifest themselves in our living. Our minds must be saturated with the Word, transformed by the Word, tested by the Word, and the consequence will be living in accord with the Word. We must examine our lives and examine our thinking.

Christianity is an educated faith, that is, it is a faith built around teaching. We go to church on Sundays to be taught the Word in Sunday School and sermons and through spiritual conversation with our believing brothers and sisters. We wake up in the morning and devote our time to reading and understanding the Word and the demands (commands) of God on our life. We gather our families around the table and teach our wives and children about our God. We look at the news and the media and consider (think about) how their message aligns with the message of the Bible. This is not solely the job of pastors. This is not only a way of thinking found in Bible colleges and seminaries. This should be the way of thinking (and living) for every believer. Let us be those who are serious enough to think about what we say we believe.

What Now? Some Post-Election Counsel

If you followed the election last night you found out that things were different than anyone had assumed. Most people were thinking that it was virtually impossible for Donald Trump to win the election, but as the numbers came in and the battleground states were called in his favor things changed quickly. There is some counsel that I would like to give following this election cycle, counsel that’s as much for myself as others.

Remember Who’s King

You may have seen this many times, and it can become trite after a while, but we must guard ourselves against seeing it as anything less than a bold declaration from Scripture. There have been and will be many kings (and presidents) over the course of history, but there is only one who is King of kings and Lord of lords. When we look to Christ and remember that we are in his kingdom, we are sure to find ultimate comfort, even in the midst of earthly tumult.

Remember the Rulers

We are called in Scripture to honor those who rule over us, and the overall tenor of Scripture is that we seek always to be faithful to them. It is easier when they are ruling according to our ideals, but when we remember the first point we can follow this one more faithfully. God is in charge of history and ensures that his choices for leaders end up where they do. We must pray, then, that those rulers will rule well according to his standard. We must pray, also, that they have the strength to do the task set before them. Remember that the rulers are Donald Trump and the various Senators that were elected. When we pray, we ought to do so with the real individual in mind and guard against generic statements. 

Remember Your Souls

It is easy to think that when laws and leaders change our circumstance will change. We buy into the assumption that because our circumstances are materially better, our lives will be spiritually better. We must not think this way. No matter who is in office, we are called to love our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We get before him in prayer and Bible reading and meditation. We gather with the people of God for corporate worship of the Triune God of the universe. We seek to admonish and help one another in living a life of pleasant fragrance before him. Circumstances can make some of these things more difficult, but they can not stop them. Circumstances can make these things easier, but they cannot cause them. We must seek, in whatever circumstance we are in, to live unto the Lord.

Remember Your Neighbor

Over the entire election cycle, we have seen just how strained our relationships are with one another, and we saw last night just how people are feeling. Some of our neighbors are scared of what awaits. Others are angry and bloodthirsty for the changes that have been promised. Others are sad, disappointed, confused, and hopeless. These are our neighbors, family members, coworkers, and friends. These are people that need love from Christians. These are people that need to know about the sure foundation of Christ, the hope-giving Spirit, and the sovereign God. We must seek to walk beside those around us, caring for their souls and showing them Christ. Invite them to church, where songs are sung of the reigning Savior. Invite them to your home, where gentle assurance is displayed. Invite them to eat, where holy conversation is maintained. We know that our country is divided, at war with itself ideologically, and Christians ought to be the first people to demonstrate a peacemaking attitude. Our hope is sure, our foundation unshakeable, our Example humble, our Father loving, and our Seal secured. Our God we proclaim in this age and forever. Amen.

Continuity and Discontinuity, or What was the Reformation?

The term “continuity and discontinuity” is one that refers to the Old and New Testaments, or covenants, and is often a subject of major discussion, debate, and disagreement. There is a steady spectrum of theological thought that ranges from extreme continuity in the Roman and Eastern Churches and many “messianic” groups to extreme discontinuity in Dispensationalism, New Covenant Theology, and heresies that deny the Old Testament. For all that could be said about these things, and this is an important issue, I am actually going to spend this post talking about a different kind of continuity and discontinuity.

All over the world, as people send their children out dressed as princesses or superheroes in search of sugar highs and thrills, excitement amongst many Protestants will be focused somewhere else: the Reformation of the 16th century. So that you may know what the fuss is about, and hopefully join in the celebration, I would like to give you a short history lesson. This will take place by means of a brief explanation, followed by an outline of what we (Protestants) perceive as continuity, and what we perceive as discontinuity associated with the event.

The Short of It

In the year 1516, 500 years ago this year, the humanist Erasmus published a version of the Greek New Testament. An Augustinian monk named Martin Luther got his hands on it and began to work through it, while at the same time he was working through his theology (he was a professor as well). The following year, in 1517, he posted a series of theses regarding the sale of indulgences on the church door there in Wittenberg (the church door functioned as a sort of community bulletin board at the time). While he had written it in Latin so that it could be a matter of academic theological discussion and debate, some of his students translated it into German and passed it around to the world. Over the course of the next few decades there arose three major versions what was called “Protestant” Christianity (they were protesting the Roman Church). These three theological groups were called “Reformed” (often referred to as Calvinist after the teacher that is associated with that group, John Calvin), “Radical” (most notably the Anabaptists who are seen in Mennonite and Amish groups today), and “Lutheran.” Two quick things should be noted immediately in order to avoid confusion. 1) “Radical” is not meant the same was as it is today. It comes from the Latin radix which means root. That group wanted to start Christianity afresh, from the root as it were, and essentially ditch the 1500 year Christian tradition that had been passed down. 2) “Anabaptist” should not be directly associated with current Baptists. The current Baptists actually arise out of the Puritan movement, which were English Calvinists. This is seen most obviously in the fact that the most influential confession of faith for Baptists, the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, was modeled directly (and often without any modification) on the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, a document prepared by the Puritans.

In short, the churches across Europe, and particularly in Germany, Switzerland, and England, moved away from the control of Rome and committed to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. This doctrine, which means “Scripture Alone,” means that the people were committed to reforming the church in accordance with the Scripture. While some, like the Radicals, attempted to start from scratch, most compared the traditions that had been passed down to the teaching of Scripture and consequently abandoned many of them and re-formed the others to the commands of God.

Continuity

At this point, I would like to explain what I am calling “Continuity.” Both the Protestants and the Roman Catholics claimed continuity, but their claims were different. The Protestants attempted to remain faithful to the Scripture and, thus, continuous with the people of God from righteous Abel to Apostles. They also wanted to remain continuous with the early church, which took as its authority the Scripture. Rome attempted to maintain continuity by virtue of the office of the Pope, who is seen as the continuation of the apostolic office from Peter to today. The church, it was claimed, could not err, and so the traditions of the church were every bit as authoritative as the Scripture. While Scripture is infallible and inerrant, according to Protestant doctrine the past gives wisdom and strength for helping us understand the Scripture and the faith. According to the Roman faith, however, the past gives infallible and inerrant instruction on par with the Scripture. This means that tradition was (is) often the basis for mandating things that were not mandated by the Word, and withholding from the people the surety of their faith. We (Protestants), like our brothers in the faith before us for the past 2,000 years, look to the Scripture for the doctrines we must believe and the behaviors we must practice. We ask our brothers from previous centuries, by reading their works, to help us interpret what the Word is saying. At no point do they become the magisterial authority on it. This means that they are only correct insofar as they are conveying the true meaning of Scripture (called ministerial). In this way, our continuity is one of brotherhood.

Discontinuity

Any study of the Christian church’s history will also contain elements of discontinuity, and this is especially evident in the case of the Reformation. When Rome was falling and the Western Church was in danger, the Bishop of Rome acquired a higher level of authority than he had previously. That bishop has always been seen as something important because of its relationship to the founding of the faith (both Peter and Paul were martyred there and it played a special part in the opening of the Christian age). However, as time progressed, twists and turns in Western history occurred, the Roman bishop gained more authority until it became the papacy we see today. The intermingling of church and political affairs also lead to tensions in the social and ecclesiastical spheres. Eventually, you ended up with undeniable moral bankruptcy in the church and oppression of the people. Reform was needed.

As reformation broke out and people began to assert that the Bible’s authority is above any pope or council, and that the Bible’s teaching is clearly that salvation is the free grace of God through faith alone in Christ alone, those making such claims were labeled heretics and excommunicated from the church. They were often burned for their beliefs and (because of the ties between church and state) wars broke out between Papist and Protestant countries. There was a clear discontinuity between what had developed from the medieval age and the church of the reformers.

Take Aways

The Roman Church has held people in bondage even to this day. It continues to maintain the doctrines that undermine Scripture that it did 499 years ago, and the idolatry has only gotten worse. You see it in the way that the Virgin Mary is worshiped (whatever they officially say that they are doing), as well as the saints, the Pope, and the Eucharist. They have diminished the gospel by denying justification by faith alone (they collapse what we refer to as justification and sanctification), believing that you can lose what Christ accomplished. More recently (at the Second Vatican Council), they have expanded the attainment of salvation to all the ends of the earth, to every good heathen that exists, at which point it is unnecessary to call people to an exclusive faith in Christ. They may stand beside our brothers and sisters in courtrooms and at murder mills (abortion clinics), but they are not our friends in the gospel. They need to hear of the saving grace of Christ. They need to know that salvation is sure for all who cast themselves upon the Rock. They need to be called to repent from their idolatry and trust in the only Mediator between God and Man. They need to be told that the cross of Calvary accomplished our redemption and that it is not necessary to be re-presented, but remembered and rejoiced in, and the communal meal taken with Christ and his people. They need to be converted.

As we approach the anniversary of this great event of history, when the chains that held back the light of the gospel from the people of God were broken, I remind you to rejoice for the boldness of the men who went before us. I call you to walk in their footsteps, standing strong for the gospel in a world of hurt feelings and safe spaces. There is no safe space in this universe for the sinner who has not been covered by the blood of Christ. There is no dangerous place in this universe for the one who has been born again. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

Books by Douglas Bond

This post is going to be sort of a book review, sort of an author recommendation. Douglas Bond is a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA, a conservative Presbyterian denomination, not to be confused with the liberal PCUSA). For my Baptist readers, Presbyterian Elders (the whole group of which is called a “session”) are classified as “Teaching Elders” and “Ruling Elders,” the former usually holding a permanent teaching office in the church and the latter concerned more with the oversight and care for the church. Bond is a high school teacher at a Christian school in Washington (the state), teaches writing seminars, and, obviously, an author. He also leads historical tours in Europe, both the continent and Britain.

My introduction to Douglas Bond was his book in the Long Line of Godly Men series, edited by Steven Lawson, on John Knox. In reading that book, I was convicted by the Scottish Reformers willingness to stand strong for the truth of the Word. Even though he isn’t usually set up next to Luther, Calvin, and Beza as the great intellectuals of the Reformation, he was nevertheless a stalwart in the faith whose commitment to the Word has extended his influence across generations and national boundaries. When I got done reading that book, I looked up Douglas Bond and found out that he had written a novel on Knox.

The novel that Bond wrote on Knox is called The Thunder, and it traces out the life of Knox from the vantage point of one of Knox’s students. In “real life,” Knox had tutored a man’s sons going into the battle that marks the beginning of our knowledge of his life. What Bond does is take these boys with Knox onto the ship where he was a slave, to England, Geneva, Frankfurt, and back to Scotland, telling the whole story in the first person from one his students.

Next, I read Bond’s book on John Calvin, The Betrayal, which begins differently. In that book, Bond begins in France during WWI. Then he goes back in time to Calvin’s Noyon and tells the story of Calvin’s life from the point of view of a man who grew up jealous of Calvin that nevertheless stuck with him on into Geneva. One of the spectacular parts of this book is that whenever large portions of speech by Calvin are included, a page in the back shows that Bond got the words from specific works by the Reformer.

Finally, I picked up The Revolt on August 24th, about John Wycliffe. The reason I include the date is because the book begins on August 26, 1346, in Crécy, France, 670 years before the day that I decided to start the book (I held off the two days). On that day, a massive battle took place between the French and English armies as a part of the Hundred Years War that you can read about here. A scribe in the battle, who then granted the opportunity to go and study at Oxford, is the main character of this book. But there is a secondary character, told in the third person, who is a peasant and serves as an illustration of the type of lifestyle that so plagued England during that era. This book is less biographical, probably due to the scant amounts of information that come down from those times (before the printing press), and more historiographical, demonstrating the living conditions and thinking of the day. 

Bond has said that he is currently working on a book on Luther, which I’m hoping will be finished and released in time for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (October 31, 2017). Other books that he has written are on the Huguenots (think French version of the Puritans, only they generally faced even harsher persecution), the Covenanters (Scottish believers), and Americans in the Revolution. He recently released a book on grace, which was well spoken of. In addition to the book on Knox, he has written the Isaac Watts biography in the Long Line series.

One interesting thing that you can look at in the back of the novels that I summarized are the timelines, especially in The Revolt, which shows that during Wycliffe’s time, tennis was invented, the legend of Robin Hood shows up, the plague struck, the Peasant’s Revolt breaks out, and, three years after he died, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was written. Some of these things show up in the novel itself. Perhaps the best thing that I enjoy about reading these is that they help to give real  context to the writings of these men and those like them. When I read Calvin, I feel like I have a better understanding of what he’s addressing specifically. When I think about Wycliffe, or my English Bible for that matter, I will no doubt consider the great misery that comes from the Bible’s absence in the lives of God’s people. It’s one thing when you read about the conditions of time and the contexts in which certain people lived, but fiction has a way of helping you to know the circumstances and Bond leverages this well for Christians. Read his books, and then go and read the authors themselves and tell me you did not come away more connected to what you read.

Visit Bond’s website here and his blog here.

Jesus Teaches Hermeneutics: Reflection on Matthew 7:12

This past Lord’s Day, our Sunday School class looked at the “Golden Rule” in Matthew 7:12 (for my use of this verse on debate/critique, view my previous post). The text was dealt with well, and there were great points made, but my mind was caught in the final phrase of the verse:

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

This post will be broken down into three parts. First, I will give some of the application that the teacher this week, Andrew Lindsey, gave to help clarify what is not being said in the passage (our class rotates through teachers each week as we move through books consecutively). Then I will give what I believe to be the relationship of the Sermon on the Mount to the Old Testament. Finally, I will explain why I think that Jesus is teaching us hermeneutics. (Hermeneutics is the art-science of interpretation)

What It’s Not

Andrew Lindsey, drawing on an earlier sermon by our pastor (Mitch Chase), explained that there are three things that this command is not saying. It is not saying: 1) Give people whatever they want, 2) Give people what they have given to you, and 3) Give people what you think they deserve.

If we give whatever someone wants, we may be assisting them in sin or something of that sort. When we think that we should only give people what they have given to us, we are in direct violation of Christ’s commands earlier in the Sermon (love your enemy set of passages) and Paul’s in Romans 12. Finally, if we are only giving people what they “deserve,” we may be acting as though we are in the position to sit in judgment over them.

Sermon on the Mount and the OT

Many have said that Jesus does away with the Old Testament way of doing things in the Sermon on the Mount. You hear it in remarks about the Beatitudes being a new Decalogue (Ten Commandments), his statement that he fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, and his “you’ve heard…, but I say…” statements. The problem with viewing it as an entirely new thing is that immediately after saying “I have not come to abolish them [the Law and the Prophets] but to fulfill them” he says, “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (5:17-18). You can try to twist what he’s saying there, but the plain meaning of the words is that “God’s Word abides forever.” 

Something needs to be said shortly. The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” may mistakenly be taken to mean “the Ten Commandments and the prophecies.” In the Hebrew Bible, the books are divided into three sections, the Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy) the Prophets (Joshua-2 Kings, Isaiah-Malachi, excepting Ruth and Daniel) and the Writings (all of the other books, sometimes called the Psalms because it makes up such a big part of it and begins the section). In the New Testament, it is referred to in the shorthand form of “the Law and the Prophets.”

After slowly making our way through the Sermon on the Mount, I am convinced that one of the main things that Jesus is addressing is personal spirituality. While the Law is most definitely given for our instruction, I think Jesus is saying that the instruction is not for you to take community functions into your own hands. We may read our Old Testament and think, “Well, my brother sinned against me, so I am going to stone him,” or, “my wife has displeased me, so I am going to divorce her,” or, “I want to assure everyone that everything I say is true, so I will swear all the time.” So when we see that Jesus is saying not to retaliate, he is not taking the right of people to implore the magistrate to exercise judgment. Rather, he is saying that when we read the Law and the Prophets, we must be careful about making one-to-one connections between the duties and responsibilities given to the community leaders (ecclesiastical/civil) and those given to individuals.

What Jesus Teaches us About Hermeneutics

The last paragraph began moving into this, but we see specifically in 7:12 that Jesus teaches us to read the Old Testament with an eye to the love of neighbor. It would be easy to look at all of the commands, especially in Leviticus, and come away saying, “If my neighbor sins, I need to drag him to court!” We might think, “Well, since he didn’t build a parapet (a little wall around the top of your roof to stop people from falling off), I need to beat him.” What Jesus is carefully doing in the Sermon is drawing the distinct way that believers ought to act in the world, as individuals in community, with humility, love and gentleness. May we alert someone to their wrong? Absolutely! (cf. 7:5) But this is to be done with concern for them and with awareness of your own spiritual state, not nonchalantly and judgmentally. When we go back through the Old Testament, we notice Abraham’s (Abram at the time) love for his nephew Lot, Jacob’s lack of love for his wife Leah, Joseph’s love for his brothers (even when they had sinned against him), Samuel’s love for the people, and David’s love for everyone he came into contact with. David is one of the greatest examples of this. If you have a moment, just spend some time in 1-2 Samuel and mark down all the moments when David shows considerable love for his neighbor. Paul seemed to understand things this way. He recognized that the Lord exercises his vengeance through the magistrate in Romans 13, but on either end of that passage (Romans 12 and 13:8ff) he explains that the behavior of individual believers is to be marked by love and concern for others.

Concluding Remarks

The Sermon on the Mount has been, rightfully, a beloved set of chapters in the church. Many have written and preached from it, even when they don’t normally preach through sections of the Bible. While some have come away saying that the Sermon marks a departure from the Old Testament, we must not allow them to do so. We must read the Lord’s words and recognize the way that he understood what he was doing, namely, faithfully proclaiming the faith of Scripture. In reading what he has to say, his authoritative interpretation ought to instruct us in rightly interpreting the Old Testament. When we do, we will find it to be a lot less esoteric, meant only for those who lived before the cross. We will, in short, be strengthened and blessed (cf. 2 Tim 3:15-17). 

Avoid Unfair Simplicity: Entering arugment with fairness

I recently heard someone make this statement (paraphrase): “Calvin didn’t think we should use instruments because he didn’t see them in the New Testament.” While this is one aspect of the argument against using instruments in corporate worship, presenting the argument this way mistakenly makes it seem like there was no more substance to the position than “If it’s not in the New Testament, I’m not doing it.” Moreover, this could further mislead some into believing that Calvin held to what is currently called New Covenant Theology, where there is a hard break (or discontinuity) between the Old and New Covenants, where he would normally be accused by Baptists as having too much continuity (because of the form of Covenant Theology that he held to). This post is not to argue for Calvin’s form of Covenant Theology, or his view of instruments, but to explain the importance of representing the arguments of others fairly. First, I want to give the biblical principles behind this, then I would like to reason further for fair representation.

Biblical Principles

The ninth commandment says, “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). This is usually simplified in teaching to two words: don’t lie. When we represent the arguments of others unfairly, when we say that they are saying something that they are not from a system that they do not hold to, we are in violation of this command. It’s not only when we say that our neighbor has done something that they have not, but also when we say that they believe something that they do not.

Ask anyone what the “golden rule” is and they can probably tell you (though, for whatever reason, it is often placed in terms of Karma now). Jesus says, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). It’s interesting to think/notice the way that this connects directly to his summary of the Scriptures in Matthew 22. There, in the Temple during Passion Week, our Lord is confronted by a lawyer who tries to test him, asking, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40). In doing for others what we wish done to us, we are not primarily acting in a “what comes around goes around” frame of mind. Rather, we are operating as people in love with the Scriptures and in love with God. We love our neighbors as ourselves because our Lord tells us to and because he loves them as well.

The Apostle Paul continues along these lines by saying, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10). When we love our neighbors, we are also going to represent them fairly as we would wish to be represented. We are going to be careful not to say something that makes it seem like they believe something that they do not so that it is easier to defeat their arguments. Rather, out of obedience and love, our witness against and for them will be true.

Further Thoughts

There are at least three things that we can say further about this. First, we can say that this does not mean that we make something that is a horrible belief look good. Second, there is great benefit in representing our neighbors fairly. Finally, this doesn’t mean that we can’t simplify someone’s belief at all.

This doesn’t mean that we make the horrible look good

If our neighbor (the person we disagree with) believes something that is wicked, or that we simply think is false, we are not obligated by love for them to make it seem good or neutral. As a matter of fact, if we believe that it is wrong we are obligated out of love for them to (after examining ourselves) help them to get the speck out of their eyes and avoid falling into pits. To act indifferent, or to see ‘niceness’ as the only behavior in relationships, is to allow our neighbors to walk the pathway of folly. If it is wicked, say so. If it seems to have bad consequences, say so. Just because we are obligated to represent one another fairly, this does not mean that we must make their views seem right.

Benefits of Fair Representation

When we represent each other’s views fairly, we are in a better position to gain a hearing. As a Baptist, I am much more willing to listen to someone who sprinkles children of believers if they don’t begin with assuming that my view has no foundation. As a political conservative, consideration will be given to those who disagree with me if their underlying assumption isn’t that hatred for poor minorities drives my political views. When we understand that beliefs occur in the context of worldviews, that they are often (though admittedly not always) the result of thinking through more things than that specific issue, we are better prepared to deal with the debated issues on their own terms. Arguments that deal with whole systems are more convincing and conversions (transferring from one belief to another) more lasting.

Finally, We Are Able to Simplify

When we understand the system that the other person is operating on, we may simplify. It is when we try to simplify by ignoring the system that we run into the issue of speaking past one another and representing our neighbors falsely. The gentleman that said, “Calvin didn’t see them in the New Testament” may have better simplified, “Calvin believed that they were part of the cultic life and distinguishing mark of the Old Covenant people.” Simplification is fine so long as it doesn’t devolve into misrepresentation. If we could not simplify, we would never finish conversations because everything we said would have to be exhaustive, we just have to be honest and careful as we do.