Grace, by definition, is unjust. It is not giving us what we deserve, but giving us the opposite. It is why just grace is an oxymoron. If God puts his grace upon us justly then he is giving us what we deserve. But we do not deserve God’s good favour, that is what grace is!
I wonder if you have ever thought about the opposite of grace? We all know (I suspect) that grace is unmerited favour despite what we deserve. It is more than just unmerited favour because you can put your favour on someone who hasn’t done anything warranting your ire. Grace is unmerited favour in the face of what we deserve. God shows his grace towards us by showing us unmerited favour in the face of the wrath and judgement we deserve by nature.
What, then, is the opposite of grace? Some would argue it is judgement. After all, if we don’t have God’s grace on us, we stand under his wrath. We will face his condemnation. But that is really the result of not receiving God’s grace. Or, more accurately, the result of our own sin. It isn’t the opposite of grace, just what results if we don’t receive God’s grace.
Look again at our definition above. God’s grace is his unmerited favour in the face of what we actually deserve. If we do not have God’s unmerited favour in the face of what we deserve, we must have God’s wrath in line with what we do deserve. Grace is undeserved so what happens apart from grace is entirely and properly deserved.
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By Ron DiGiacomo — 7 months ago
We are to reckon ourselves as dead to the penalty and power of sin because we are dead to the penalty and power of sin. We are not to obey the lusts of sin because sin is no longer our master. For we have not just died with Christ but by the Holy Spirt been raised with him, even seated with him in heavenly places, so that we might walk in newness of life. God would have us delight in the realities of our adoption as sons, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and our definitive break with sin. Taking pleasure in all the entailments of our hope of glory is what it is to walk in newness of life.
We live in a day in which personal testimony is considered more powerful than the ordinary means of grace. Many young men who are believed by profession to have entered through the narrow gate that leads to life have become indistinguishable from those that remain on the broad road to destruction. Because succumbing to internet temptation is now considered normative, the church has adopted a false view of the means and fruit of sanctification. Belief in a transformative gospel has given way to salvation by confession of guilt alone. Ungrounded accountability groups coupled with unbiblical candor about one’s darkest sins has replaced the biblical measure for salvation, which is non-delinquency in doctrine and lifestyle.
Perhaps more than ever since the time of the Protestant Reformation, the church needs to recapture a biblical understanding of salvation, and quit letting willful transgressors shape our soteriology. More than ever, the reality of our standing in Christ, along with God’s covenant promises and warnings, must be understood, believed and relied upon, but first they must be articulated.
The ordinary means of grace:
Growing in the knowledge of our union with Christ’s vicarious work on our behalf is no mere theological exercise for the mind. Indeed, when true theology penetrates the mind and is touched by the Holy Spirit, it is the very fountain of spiritual transformation. In the context of Word, sacrament and prayer, we are transformed only through the renewing of our minds after Christ, without which we do not, nor cannot, offer our bodies a living sacrifice in any way that is holy and acceptable to God. Apart from the transformative power of the ordinary means of grace released by faith alone, we forever remain conformed to this world and a stranger to biblical sanctification. The Bible is clear, “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Galatians 6:8
Realities, promises and warnings:
Any attempt at personal holiness that is not according to faith in the realities, promises and warnings contained in Scripture is not transformative. For what is not of faith is sin. (Romans 12:1-2; 14:23) Conversely, our growth in holiness will be proportional to (a) believing on the authority of Scripture who we are in Christ, (b) trusting in the covenant promises of Christ and (c) heeding Christ’s warnings. These objects of faith are made real to us as we prayerfully receive the whole Christ in Word and sacrament by faith alone. It’s only through even a minimally conscious realization of our union with Christ that we begin to lay hold of God’s covenant promises and heed its warnings. That is what it is to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.We must believe who we are in Christ as we make conscious of God’s covenant blessings and cursings.
First and foremost, the realities (or indicatives):
What is often absent in a “preach yourself the gospel” approach to sanctification is the full orbed ordo salutis. Believers aren’t merely to remind themselves that they are constituted and declared righteous for the sake of Christ. Although that is a precious reality, there is more sanctifying truth to embrace. We are to apprehend that our judicial pardon comes with spiritual adoption and definitive sanctification in Christ. Even allowing for an understanding of our having been buried, baptized or hidden in Christ, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and our pardon in him is not without our having been definitively sanctified and declared sons in the Son. Victory over sin entails a heartfelt conviction of the forgiveness of sins, but there are still other gospel realties to receive by faith. These realities are not an addendum to faith but at the very heart of true Christian piety. When we see ourselves as God sees us, we begin to behave more as we truly are in Christ. This is why the apostle can say, “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1)
The incongruity of not living according to a contextual biblical reality:
Effectual calling does not merely result in gifts of repentance and faith that lead to justification but is accompanied by all other saving graces. Through faith in Christ we have not just died to the penalty of sins in Christ, but to sin itself. Contrary to common evangelical thought, the old man is crucified with Christ once and for all, definitively releasing him from the power of sin in his life. Because we are justified and definitively sanctified, there is an incongruity of yielding our members to ungodliness. Christians are recreated with a position of dignity that makes sin not just incongruous but unsuitable because of our royal standing in Christ.
After the work of the cross, sin no longer had dominion over Christ. The penalty of sin, even the pangs of hell, awaited Christ until his earthly mission was finished. Having entered into Christ’s rest through the great exchange, sin no longer has dominion over the believer. In Christ we’re not merely free from sin’s penalty but from its power in our lives. Because sin no longer has dominion over us, it’s incongruous to live in it any longer.
It makes no sense to tell an imprisoned man to live as a free man. Yet it is most sensible to tell a free man to live as a free man. Similarly, the reason we are commanded not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies is because we are dead to sin’s penalty and power. Having been made alive in Christ, we can willfully yield ourselves to God and our members as instruments of righteousness. Such works of righteousness begin with believing the reality of what Christ has accomplished, and reckoning ourselves as we truly are in him.
We are to reckon ourselves as dead to the penalty and power of sin because we are dead to the penalty and power of sin. We are not to obey the lusts of sin because sin is no longer our master. For we have not just died with Christ but by the Holy Spirt been raised with him, even seated with him in heavenly places, so that we might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6; Ephesians 1) God would have us delight in the realities of our adoption as sons, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and our definitive break with sin. Taking pleasure in all the entailments of our hope of glory is what it is to walk in newness of life.
Our tendency toward legalism in sanctification:
The Scriptures do not teach we are justified through faith alone so that we might be perfected by works. There is far more good news for the poor in spirit, which crushes our self-righteousness even more than when we first believed. We are not just justified through faith alone but also progressively sanctified by the grace of faith. Our salvation is faith unto faith, for the righteous shall live by faith. (Romans 1:16-17)
Our sin of forgetting that we are pure in Christ will lead to immorality. If we live immorally, our election will justifiably become suspect. Without justifiable confidence in our union with Christ, we will become increasingly immoral. We can safely say, God has built into his system of sanctification a symbiotic relationship between assurance, faith and the practice of personal holiness. Similarly, if we confess our sins we will know God’s forgiveness and be cleansed anew. When we receive God’s cleansing, we walk as children of light and our sin will be increasingly abhorred. In that orbit we are more sensitive to our sin, quicker to confess, and more desirous to be cleansed. In the light we see more light, and we loathe the darkness. (2 Peter 1: 1 John 1)
The faith by which we live is not just a matter of believing God’s covenant promises and availing ourselves to the third use of the law, though those spiritual disciplines are essential to Christian living. Indeed, we are to be normed by the commandments of God as we embrace the promises in Christ. Surely, a proper use of the law when wrought by the Spirit can save us from the slavery of antinomianism and the bondage of legalism! Faith in the promises of God and love for the law of God will guide and shape the believer in the beauty of holiness, even as the Christian grows responsibly in liberty of conscience. Notwithstanding, the gospel of the cross must have preeminence in the life of the believer as he endeavors by grace to assimilate the whole counsel of God as he grows in Godliness, perfecting holiness.
Faith, a manner of life:
The conduit for our justification is the same for our sanctification. Again, the righteous shall live by faith. Accordingly, saving faith extends beyond justifying faith unto sanctifying faith. Faith envelops the entirety of the Christian life. We aren’t to receive Christ by faith alone only so that we might live our lives by sight. The Christ whom we have not yet seen is our sanctification. If we have received Christ by faith, it oughtn’t surprise that we are to walk in him by this very faith! “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” (Colossians 2:6) Simply stated, we were saved, are being saved, and will be saved by faith.
The Christian life is to be offensively marshalled according to deep meditation that gives way to conviction over the already implications of the reality of the Christ event. It is through embracing the indicatives, (in particular our having died, been raised and seated with the ascended Christ), that the holy commandments of God become a lamp of light rather than a source of discouragement and condemnation. In the hands of the Holy Spirt, the law is good, for it brought us death, but God does not leave his adopted children there. God is not our accuser but our liberator. By reckoning ourselves as having been united to Christ in his sin-bearing life-giving work, as justified sinners we can participate in Christ’s resurrected life in our union with him.
Our position in Christ is a reality whether we’ve begun to understand it or not! But it is only by understanding it more fully that we walk in true holiness, more powerfully and victoriously. Gethsemane and the cross no longer yawn before Christ and, therefore, neither does condemnation await the believer in Christ. Because of that reality, sin is contrary to who we are, for we are not under the judgement of guilt and shame in our union with Christ. Because we are holy and without blemish in Christ, it’s incongruous to live as we too often would.
Boots on the ground, the battle ahead:
The gospel reality that we are to behold and receive by faith alone is the very foundation for the incongruity of walking in the paths of sin and death. It is in the context of all the entailments of our position in Christ that we seek to obey our Lord and Savior. We are to become who we are in Christ. It is only by faith in the contextual biblical reality that we can delight in the law of the Lord, even meditate on it day and night. With that, we turn to God’s instructions.
By Tom Hervey — 8 months ago
No matter how that question is answered, someone who favors regarding Scripture and tradition as being our proper rule of faith (regula fidei) over Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is channeling the beliefs of Rome rather than the Reformation, and may not be justly termed either evangelical or Reformed – or for that matter, Protestant, his formal church affiliations (the Anglican Church in North America) notwithstanding.
It is curious to find an outsider discussing one’s group and its tenets. The thing is often helpful, since the outsider brings a different perspective that can help those within a given group realize where their beliefs are lacking in consistency or clarity, or where they have too much exaggerated their presumed strengths or understated or ignored their weaknesses. It is not particularly curious to find an outsider defining the nature of one’s beliefs or purporting to determine who is and is not a part of one’s group, however. When someone who is not a Presbyterian says that we are too prone to squabbling amongst ourselves, mere justice to the truth often compels one to grimace in pained agreement. But when a member of another tradition or an unbeliever comes along and tells you what you believe or includes within your communion someone you consider an outsider, the result is not amusement or begrudging agreement.
So it is with some annoyance that we find a Lutheran interim pastor and former professor at two Baptist institutions (Eastern University and Gateway Seminary), Carl Mosser, discussing what he calls the Reformed reception of the beatific vision in Credo. Of particular interest are the following statements:
Convinced departure from traditional Christian teaching about humanity’s chief end is adverse to healthy spirituality, Boersma and Allen seek to retrieve the doctrine for the sake of renewal. They are especially concerned for its recovery within the Reformed tradition.
When theologians like Hans Boersma and Michael Horton unpack humanity’s chief end in terms of the beatific vision and deification, they are not importing exotic doctrines into the garden of Reformed theology.
Michael Horton and Michael Allen are professors at Reformed institutions, but Hans Boersma is not Reformed in any meaningful sense of the term, contrary to what these statements seem to imply, and contrary to what is implied yet more strongly in one of the footnotes:
Though historically a minority position within the Reformed tradition, Allen and Boersma both incline toward a Christological understanding of the beatific vision indebted to John Owen and Jonathan Edwards.
Boersma holds the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Chair in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House, works especially in “patristic theology, twentieth-century Catholic thought, and spiritual interpretation of Scripture,” is motivated by his interest in what he calls “sacramental ontology,” and has published books like Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery about major trends in the Roman communion. He also quotes Pope Francis approvingly, refers to himself as a Christian Platonist, and is on record saying that the Reformation was a tragedy that should be lamented.
And while such things ought to suffice to dispel the mistaken notion that Boersma is somehow Reformed, the same issue affords material evidence that makes that fact yet more painfully obvious. Asked “who have been your most formative influences in theology and ministry?” Boersma replied:
I would say Henri de Lubac, the twentieth-century Jesuit patristic scholar, has been the most formative for me. His understanding of participation, his reading of the church fathers, and especially his reappropriation of spiritual exegesis is profound, and has deeply shaped my reading of Scripture and my entire metaphysical outlook. Beyond de Lubac, Yves Congar’s view of tradition (and its relation to Scripture) has also been important to me. It helped me leave behind a sola scriptura view and acknowledge the inescapable intertwining of Scripture and tradition—and as a result, I’ve come to have a much more receptive, appreciative attitude toward the Christian past.
Most Reformed people would answer that question with Calvin, Martyr, Bucer, Flavel, Sibbes, Watson, Rutherford, Owen, Chalmers, M’Cheyne, Hodge, Warfield, Lloyd Jones, Sproul, or some other reformer, Puritan, or later Reformed minister or theologian. With Boersma we get a Jesuit (!) and Yves Congar, a major and deeply controversial figure in the Roman communion who was heavily involved in Vatican II, as well as an unabashed admission that Boersma has abandoned sola scriptura because of what he regards as the “inescapable intertwining of Scripture and tradition.”
Now lay aside the thorny taxonomic question of the precise relationship of the Reformed and evangelical traditions of the Reformation, and whether they are utterly distinct (as R. Scott Clark would argue) or fundamentally intertwined, as many others would suggest (especially on the Presbyterian side of the wider Reformed tradition). No matter how that question is answered, someone who favors regarding Scripture and tradition as being our proper rule of faith (regula fidei) over Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is channeling the beliefs of Rome rather than the Reformation, and may not be justly termed either evangelical or Reformed – or for that matter, Protestant, his formal church affiliations (the Anglican Church in North America) notwithstanding.
And yet notwithstanding such a painfully obvious display of Romanist inclinations as I have quoted above, Mosser on three occasions implies that Boersma is Reformed. You might be forgiven, dear reader, for thinking that such a blunder on his part and the part of Credo’s editors justifies being rather skeptical of everything else that Mosser writes when he purports to present the Reformed acceptance of the beatific vision. We shall consider that important matter in a subsequent article, but for now let it be noted that by such sloppiness in presentation Credo is unhelpfully skewing the lines of what qualifies as Reformed; and almost I begin to think that people who purport to “retrieve classical Christianity” from the medieval and early church, but who cannot accurately classify theologians in the here and now, are perhaps not fully to be trusted in the former endeavor either.
Tom Hervey is a member, Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Simpsonville, SC. The statements made in this article are the personal opinions of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of his church or its leadership or other members.
 My use of Romanist rather than Catholic when referring to the beliefs of the papal communion is not intended as an epithet, but arises because on a consistent Protestant view Rome is a false church and therefore has no right to present itself as catholic, inherent in which is the suggestion that we, who are outside her communion, are therefore severed from the true church of Christ. We would say that we are the true heirs of the catholic faith, and that Rome’s peculiar doctrines are later accretions that frequently undermine the true faith. Hence in Animadversions Upon Fiat Lux Owen speaks of affairs “when once Romanism began to be enthroned, and had driven Catholicism out of the world” (p. 260). Again, the term is used for reasons of conscience, not to promote hatred.
By Patrick OBanion — 2 years ago
Few of us will ever be in a position where we’ll need to lay out the details of an entire theological system. Most of the time, we’ll be content to rely on our confessions and the work of good theologians past and present.
Where do we begin in our theology? The answer may seem obvious: We begin with God. Theology, after all, is talking about God; that’s literally what the word means. But things get a little more complicated when we get around to developing a formal theological system.
Let me illustrate. We recently had a new driveway poured at our house. But, of course, this meant that we first had to get rid of the old one. We assumed this would be something of an ordeal, but it turns out that a mini-forklift made short work of it. In a matter of minutes, great chunks of cement had been levered out, removed, and piled up for disposal.
God forbid we ever have to remove the new driveway laid in place of that old one. If we do, the job won’t be nearly as easy. This time, workers laid down steel rebar before they poured concrete, to reinforce the slab and increase its tensile strength. Any attempt to move (or remove) it will meet with stiff resistance.
As in driveways, so in theology, not all foundations are equal. (I know, a driveway slab isn’t really a foundation but work with me here.) When we preach we begin where our passage begins and point to Christ as we expound the Scriptures. When we evangelize we may start with someone’s felt needs in order to expose their heart’s deep longing for fellowship with God. When answering theological questions informally we will probably connect the question asked with the bigger picture of who God is and what he’s doing. But when we lay out a system of theology, whether in print or in the classroom, where and how we begin affects everything else that we say. First words call for care and precision.
And if we want care and precision, we do well to listen to the Reformed scholastics. During the era of Protestant orthodoxy (1560 to 1725 or thereabouts), Reformation theology underwent a process of translation. The message that had been preached in pulpits and debated both in public and in print now had to be formalized and organized in such a way that it could be confessed by congregations and taught in classrooms. As theologians took up this gargantuan task, they had to make sure that a well-laid foundation was in place before they tried to build anything on it. (If you want the details, read Richard Muller’s four-volume magnum opus Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.)
So, when Reformed scholastic theologians taught and wrote about theology, how did they lay the foundation? More specifically, how did they formulate their first words in such a way that the project didn’t collapse under its own weight? The answer is, they started with Scripture… and with God.
Calvin, from whom the Reformed orthodox inherited a great deal, famously began his Institutes by discussing the relationship between knowledge of God and of humanity. “No one,” he suggests, “can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he ‘lives and moves.’” It is impossible, however, for anyone to achieve “a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face.” Only then can he “descend from contemplating God to scrutinize himself.” But here’s the trick: because of human finitude and fallenness, we need Scripture to arrive at true knowledge of God. (We also need the Spirit, of course, but let’s stay focused.)
The scholastics followed Calvin’s lead as they developed the notion of the dual foundation of our theology—God and Scripture. It was standard fare (for example, in the Leiden Synopsis , Turretin’s Institutes [1679-85], and van Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology [1698-99]) to begin with Scripture before discussing God. Let’s take Girolamo Zanchi (1516-1590) as an example of these Reformed orthodox thinkers.