Friday, December 01, 2017

The Westminster Standard - I

In a radio discussion some time ago with William Lane Craig (A transcript can be found in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry (Spring 2014, pp.62-78)), regarding the   Arminianism espoused by Craig,  and the Reformed faith,  we came to the differences between effectual calling, and the sense of calling defended by Craig. I believe he thought they were incidental. But there are big differences. Craig’s understanding of divine calling is only saving, that is, it only is able to bring new life to the sinner, if it is received by the human free will. As Craig puts it, ‘grace is not irresistible; it becomes efficacious only when it meets with an affirmative response from the human agent’.

He later stated about the Westminster Confession that ‘ I find that when I read the Westminster Confession, I resonate with virtually everything it…..’ These words may suggestive mere stylistic differences, nothing substantial. But  in fact the Confession places an insuperable barrier between Craig’s view of calling, which requires the cooperation for its efficacy of the human free will, and the effectual calling which was first articulated clearly by Augustine, and maintained by the Westminster divines.  The second paragraph of Chapter X of the Confession is as follows.

II. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

The italicized words (my emphasis) make a crucial difference between the two views. Men and women who are in need of God’s grace are altogether passive in first receiving that grace,  in being regenerated. That is, they are completely passive. Each power of the soul is similarly dead. Their souls as souls are spiritually dead, with no appetite or force for the terms of the Gospel. The passivity is a death. How can a person receive the grace of God? What they need – is what the WCF calls the quickening – making alive – and renewing by the Holy Spirit. The making alive is the renewing.

These expressions take seriously the various biblical language of regeneration as indicating this spiritual death. So when Christ told Nicodemus that he must be born again, the rebirth is like natural birth, a unilateral action that the one born benefits from but which he or she does not first contribute to. It makes no sense to say that a person could  have contributed, or could contribute,  to  their own birth. The  ‘must’ in ‘you must be born again’ is thus not the ‘must’ of a command that we have the power to comply with, but the ‘must’ of necessity: 2+3 must equal 5, and a molecules of water must contain hydrogen, and a cook must have eggs in order to make an omelette. In the same way, it is required of us, if we are to enjoy the privilege of spiritual life, to undergo  a new birth. The work of the Spirit, as Christ told Nicodemus. Paul adds to the figurative language that in the NT characterises it, by writing of regeneration as a new creation.’  ‘For God, who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of  in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (1 Cor. 4.6) And John adds another figure, ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God’. Luke commented on the behavior of Lydia that ‘The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul’. (Acts 16.15) John has a different figure: ‘No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God’. (I Jn. 3.9) And writing to Titus Paul referred to the ‘washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit’. (3.5)) Sacramentalists may move to the baptismal font at that point, but though baptism is a washing, Paul’s washing here signifies a washing that water cannot give, the cleansing and renewal of the Holy Spirit.

Lydia’s experience, as commented on by Luke,  shows that in regeneration there is a conjunction  of word and Spirit. Does this view of the deadness of the soul and the role of the Spirit in regeneration Spirit squeeze out the role of the word of the Gospel? Not at all. The Spirit’s action is the infusion of new appetites, central to which are a desire for the words of the Gospel,  ‘what was said by Paul’, in Lydia’s case. As we shall  see regeneration leads to conversion.

The Puritan Stephen Charnock is best-known for his tome The Existence and Attributes of God, but he also wrote four smaller treatments of regeneration, to be found in volume III of his writings. In The Nature of Regeneration he follows Paul in stressing the soul’s passivity in regeneration, and contrasts it with  conversion.

In regeneration, man is wholly passive ; in conversion, he is active as a child in its first formation in the womb, contributes nothing to the first infusion of life ; but after it hath life, it is active, and its motions natural. The first reviving of us is wholly the act of God, without any concurrence of the creature ; but after we are revived, we do actively and voluntarily live in his sight : Hosea vi. 2, ' He will revive us, he will raise us up, and we shall live in him ; then we shall walk before him, then shall we follow on to know the Lord.'

Charnock goes on

Regeneration is the motion of God in the creature ; conversion is the motion of the creature to God, by virtue of that first principle ; from this principle all the acts of believing, repenting, mortifying, quickening, do spring. In all these a man is active ; in the other merely passive ; all these are the acts of the will, by the assisting grace of God, after the infusion of the first grace. Conversion is a giving ourselves to the Lord, 2 Cor. viii. 5 ; giving our own selves to the Lord is a voluntary act, but the power whereby we are enabled thus to give ourselves, is wholly and purely, in every part of it, from the Lord himself. A renewed man is said to be led by the Spirit, Rom. viii. 14, not dragged, not forced ; the putting a bias and aptitude in the will, is the work of the Spirit quickening it ; but the moving the will to God by the strength of this bias, is voluntary, and the act of the creature. (III 88-9)

Well said. The coming of this new phase, conversion, is what the Confession at this point is referring to when it refers to a person  who is regenerated:  he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it’. Not that God’s part is now at an end. More generally, ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (Phil.2.13)

Once regenerate, always regenerate. Seeded for ever? Regeneration takes place in the secret of the  heart. Who can know it? Conversion is its chief test.



Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Something else that Martin said

Luther and the 95 theses?

Last time we saw how Martin Luther taught that self-knowledge is essential to the proper worship of God. He then went on to show that we need to know about God’s ‘character’ in order to sustain the life of faith.

I would also point out not only how these things are true…..but also how godly, reverent and necessary it is to know them. For where they are not known, there can be no faith, nor any worship of God. To lack this knowledge is really to be ignorant of God  – and salvation is notoriously incompatible with such ignorance. For if you hesitate to believe, or are too proud to acknowledge, that God foreknows and wills all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe, trust and rely on His promises? When He makes promises, you ought be out of doubt that He knows, and can and will perform what He promises; otherwise, you will be accounting Him neither true nor faithful, which is unbelief, and the height of irreverence, and a denial of the most high God! And how can you be thus sure and certain, unless you know that certainly, infallibly, immutably and necessarily, He knows, wills and will perform what he promises? Not only should we be sure that God wills, and will execute His will, necessarily and immutably ; we should glory in the fact, as Paul does in Romans 3 – ‘Let God be true, but every man a liar (v.4) and again, Not that the word of God has failed (Rom. 9.6),  and in another place, ‘The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, the Lord knoweth them that are his’. (2 Tim.2.19) In Tit.1 he says: ‘Which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began’ (v.2) And  Heb. 11 says ‘He that cometh, must believe that God is, and that he is a rewarder of them that hope in him (v.6). (83-4) 

The phrase ‘knowing God’ is currently used glibly and sentimentally, as if God is a creation of imaginations.  We can rely on God’s promises because God is immutable, unchanging. And not otherwise.  If we know God, this is the God we know.If God is changeful as we are, he cannot function as the ‘rock’, and we would be in the business of anticipating what mood he will be in tomorrow, and what his plans are for the day. That God foreknows all things;  that he is omniscient,  and is immutable, are fundamental features, of who God is, features without which he could not be God.

We may knowing that knowing God is having  the sort of relationship with him that we may have with some other people. We know some people who, perhaps, we would prefer not to know. Is God like this? Or is he a projection of our fantasies, like something out of Tolkein or J.K.Rowling? Luther is telling us that the character of God is fixed, and that this character should control our worship, our hopes and fears and our obedience.  Fundamental to our religion is not whether  we know God but  whether  this God knows us.  And whether or not  we enjoy the fruits of his promises of grace and salvation.

We are often told that God’s love is unconditional, but what Luther tells us means that we should be careful on that point. If we are not careful the attractions of unconditionality will sweep us away. If no conditions, anything goes. You can see that unconditionality appeals to the temper of the ages. Unconditionality, no responsibility? If anything goes, then anything goes with regard to God. But knowledge inevitably conditions.  Luther  insists that our relationship with God is shot through with conditions. There are conditions in our relationship with him. For example, if we are ignorant of who God is and what he does and has done then our condition will be that we shall not begin to know how to approach him.

The doctrine of God is often rubbished as being abstract and ‘theological’ (as it is, naturally.) Whereas our knowing him is personal and intimate. Well, we must be careful. His omniscience or his immutability are not to be thought of as abstractions, the playthings of theologians,  but as divine powers or perfections. Of course he has these powers necessarily or essentially. If he lacked any of them he would not be God. It is to be hoped that it is this God we know when we affirm that we know God.

And so we ask the same question as in the earlier post. Do our preachers tell us such things? . Or are all sorts of other things more ‘relevant’? To neglect such things is not to teach them or to take them for granted. It is to bless our ignorance.

Luther again…….

If, then, we are taught and believe that we ought to be ignorant of the necessary foreknowledge of God and the necessity of events, Christian faith is utterly destroyed, and the promises of God and the whole gospel fall to the ground completely; for the Christian’s chief and only comfort in every adversity lies in knowing that God does not lie, but brings all things to pass immutably, and that His will cannot be resisted, altered or impeded.  (84)

Heard any sermons on these themes, on the object of Christian faith, and how that who God is the solution of many of the  setbacks we have as a Christian? Heard one sermon in 2018 on such a theme? Without the knowledge of God our heads will be filled with the character and goals of our culture, and be filled with fear and stress?

‘Whoever draws near to God must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who seek him’ (Heb. 11.6) 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Going to church with Martin

Martin Luther (1483- 1548) 

I came across this passage from Luther not long ago:

So it is not irreligious, idle, or superfluous, but in the highest degree  wholesome and necessary, for a Christian to know whether or not his will has anything to do in matters  pertaining to salvation. `Indeed, let me tell you, this is the hinge on which our discussion turns, the crucial issue between us; our aim is, simply, to investigate what ability ‘free will’ has, in what respect it is the subject of Divine action and how it stands related to the grace of God.…..For if I am ignorant of the nature, extent and limits of what I can and must do with reference to God, I shall be equally ignorant and uncertain of the nature, extent and limits what God can and will do in me…

By free will here is not included the question of whether we are robots or puppets . Luther and Erasmus agree at least in this: neither thinks we are robots or puppets. Rather, it is about the moral and spiritual condition of our wills, and  about  the rather different attitude to the human will disclosed in Scripture than we entertain of our own wills.  [Since being brought up short by this passage I have idly wondered if in churches of the Reformation in these days, in preaching and in the construction of services of worship, this theme is given its due, or whether it is covered up. When did you last hear a sermon on the human will? Me? The same.]

Luther’s response to Erasmus is to argue that, if we cover up the questions,  in what respect our wills are subject  of divine action and  stand related to the grace of God,  we shall go radically astray. In fact if we cover these matters up it is rather more serious than that: he says that we shall be ‘no Christian and the Christian’s chief foe'. We need proper biblical statements (‘assertions’ is Luther's word) about ourselves, and then we shall have appropriate expectations of ourselves, and of God. Like Calvin, Luther believed that the knowledge of God and ourselves are interrelated.


Are we going to  the supermarket? Cash? A card? Good. Thus armed, we toddle off. What was it for? Soapflakes? Ham? Eggs? Not a problem, as they say at the till. Perfect. Let’s say that that in these circumstances we are fitted to go to the premarket.

What corresponds to being fitted when we go to church to hear the gospel?  What fits us? When are we ready? We know where to go. We don’t need any  money. What else? Luther would ask us, have you forgotten something? What about yourself?

In some  respects church  is a deceptive.  An ordinary  building, ordinary people. In these respects, like the supermarket, the holiday venue, the concert, the school. But God is present in his church. Does that make a difference? Certainly. As we enter church, we are in a uniquely serious place. Are we ready for what can follow?

We are used these days to coming to church just as we are. We are casual, relaxed. It’s like visiting the places we have already mentioned. We take our seats, see our friends, and so on. But as we wait for the service to begin, are we fitted for what is to come?


That sort of question, 'Are we fitted?' is scary for some, unsettling. Fitted for what is to follow? Don’t we come just as we are to a Christian church? Isn’t this sort of question legalistic? Isn’t everything unconditional here?

In the passage from Luther that we had to start with, he continues:

….[I}f I am ignorant of God’s works and power, I am ignorant of God himself; and if I do not know God, I cannot worship, praise, give thanks or serve Him, for I do not know how much I should attribute to myself and how much to God .  We need, therefore, to  have in mind a clear-cut distinction between God’s power and ours, and his work and ours, if we would live a godly life. (78)

Knowing God is first of all knowing what his power is.

For Luther grace is unconditional, but coming to church isn’t a matter of being relaxed and easy. Coming to church is a matter of first getting prepared and then of being prepared. Not of course by doing things that undermine receiving  the grace of God, but by doing things – specifically, by knowing things – that prepare us for receiving his grace.

For there are barriers in the way of such preparation,  barriers kept up by the working of own sinful nature. So Luther’s concern is to know about free will, or rather about our lack of free will. Otherwise if we are blithely ignorant we shall not know what we need and how to receive it.

Have you usually come to church  thinking that things are OK? Or that they can soon be OK once I have sung a hymn or two? Have you forgotten, or perhaps have never realised,  that we  ourselves resist and distort the offer of God’s free grace? And that we can’t get ourselves right, because our wills are in bondage to sin, and that we cannot get right automatically,  just by coming to church. The grace God  which frees  us to come to Christ, must come from God.  And that our innate self-righteousness that has erected barriers to  this  only God can deal with? We must prepare ourselves for the necessary changes - our feeling of helplessness and the need for repentance - will to begin with be decidedly uncomfortable. Church is unique because there and only there we need strength that we do not have. When we realise this we are on the way to being fitted.

So it is also a fallacy to think that because grace is free, not earned but given, everything about our relation to  the Lord God of all grace is free and easy as well. Is God so good that his goodness may be taken for granted?


Luther’s differences with Erasmus’s view, that it is safe to be ignorant of the spiritual bondage of our wills and how it leaves us,  is not just an academic matter. Christianity is not simply a religion of maintaining a cultural tradition, of reciting general facts about  Jesus and the resurrection. Or about attending church to listen and to sing ‘in community’.  If we are not fitted it is a personal, existential, factor. How otherwise than by coming to know God and ourselves can a person, coming into church, be ‘convicted by all…called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you’. (1 Cor. 14. 24-5)

*The passage from Luther is on p.78 of the Packer and Johnston edition of his The Bondage of the Will.
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