If It Is Not a Gospel Issue, What about Gospelly?

The Gospel Allies are not helping to clarify what is and what is not a gospel issue. Their brand is slipping away.

Kevin DeYoung comes the closest to adding clarity when he writes:

“gospel issue” should not be shorthand for “you must be passionate about all the same things I’m passionate about.” Nor should it be synonymous with notions of “building the kingdom” or “transforming the culture.” By the same token, preachers must be careful lest they allow CNN and Fox News, not to mention Twitter and Facebook, to set the agenda for their weekly pulpit ministry. If pastors in our day let cultural concerns crowd out the preaching of new birth, repentance, and justification by faith alone, it wouldn’t be the first time in the church’s history that the “gospel” became more social than gospel.

But then he the North Carolina pastor taketh away with this:

And yet, “gospel issue” need not mean any of these things. If “gospel issue” means “a necessary concern of those who have been saved by the gospel” or “one aspect of what it means to keep in step with the gospel” or “realities without which you may not be truly believing the gospel,” then social justice is certainly a gospel issue. When biblically defined, social justice is part and parcel of loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s part of keeping the second table of the Decalogue. It’s part of doing the good works God has prepared in advance for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10).

So there is the gospel issue of preaching the new birth and justification by faith alone, which leads to the gospel issue of good works that are the fruit of saving faith, and those good works or the third use of the law bring social justice into view or the views of social justice warriors into view.

In a similar way (as Justin Taylor observes), D. A. Carson says something good:

For some Christian observers, cessationism is a gospel issue. In their perception, the charismatic movement is characteristically afflicted by one brand or another of health, wealth, and prosperity gospel that distances itself from the gospel of the cross: this makes the matter a gospel issue. Some forms of the charismatic movement so construct a two-stage view of spiritual wholeness, the second stage attested by one or more particular spiritual gifts, that the nature of what Jesus achieved on the cross is in jeopardy. Others, it is argued, adopt a view of revelation that jeopardizes the exclusive, final authority of Scripture, and this threatens the gospel that the Scripture heralds. But other Christian observers, fully aware of these dangers and no less concerned to avoid them, nevertheless remain convinced that at least some charismatics manage to display their gifts without succumbing to any of these errors, while self-consciously holding to the same gospel that the observers hold. In other words, for them the charismatic movement (or, from the obverse direction, cessationism) is not necessarily a gospel issue. They want to avoid building legalistic fences around their positions. Once again, it is difficult not to see that personal experiences and sustained habits of assessment have entered into one’s judgments. Determining whether X is a gospel issue is often more than a narrowly exegetical exercise.

To put the same matter another way, another sort of example might be introduced. We have seen how the doctrine of penal, substitutionary atonement is usefully considered a gospel issue provided (a) that we have adopted a robust definition of the gospel, such that (b) to disown that facet of the cross-work of Christ necessarily diminishes or threatens the gospel. But I have not heard anyone recently suggest that the exemplary function of the cross is a gospel issue, even though Peter unambiguously insists that Jesus died leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps. This is as much a gospel issue as is penal, substitutionary atonement, even though it is not treated in that way today, precisely because it is not one of the controverted points. In other words, the things that we debate as to whether they are gospel issues reflect the hot topics, and especially the denials or errors, of our age. That is one of the reasons why I mentioned the filioque clause and the eternal generation of the Son at the head of this editorial: at one point, they were very much considered gospel issues. The second of these two is currently making something of a comeback—but certainly if we are careless about them, our carelessness suggests how our own theological foci have shifted with time and demonstrates once again that discussions of the sort “X is a gospel issue” commonly address the errors and dangers of a particular age. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it is in any case an inevitable thing. But it should be recognized for what it is.

In other words, the nature of salvation is at stake either explicitly or implicitly in debates about the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ on the cross.

Then Carson raises matters of politics and social relations to the level of “gospelly”:

Certainly the majority of Christians in America today would happily aver that good race relations are a gospel issue. They might point out that God’s saving purpose is to draw to himself, through the cross, men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation; that the church is one new humanity, made up of Jew and Gentile; that Paul tells Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus as his brother, as the apostle himself; that this trajectory starts at creation, with all men and women being made in the image of God, and finds its anticipation in the promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Moreover, the salvation secured by Christ in the gospel is more comprehensive than justification alone: it brings repentance, wholeness, love for brothers and sisters in the Christian community.

But the sad fact remains that not all Christians have always viewed race relations within the church as a gospel issue.

More worrying, survey after survey has shown that in America today, even among those with a robust grasp of the gospel, black Christians and white Christians do not view these matters exactly the same way. Even where both sides agree, on biblical grounds, that this is a gospel issue, black Christians are far more likely to see that this is a crucial gospel issue, an issue of huge importance, one that is often ignored, while white Christians are more likely to imagine that racial issues have so largely been resolved that it is a distraction to keep bringing them up.

Carson seemed to recognized that doctrinal matters are properly theological and concern the way that man becomes right with God. But then he gives ground an allows that questions surrounding social relations, and specifically societies that are comprised not simply of Christians but of non-Christians, are “gospelly.” He does not seem to consider why should non-Christians ever consent to be governed by the “gospel issues” defined by Christians. And whatever happened to allowing those with expertise in public policy, law, governance, and electoral politics set the debates about race relations and laws about bigotry rather than thinking any Christian whose read a book by Keller or Carson think he is competent to pontificate about laws governing hatred or prejudice (which is kind of complicated in a society where freedom of thought is a long and cherished ideal).

And then, a golden oldie from Thabiti Anyabwile on how a matter of policy becomes “gospelly.” After the federal grand jury’s determination not to indict Ferguson police offer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown, Anyabwile told readers (I am assuming they are Christian because of that “gospelly” thing) that they have three options:

We may turn the television and turn our heads and continue the unusual business of business as usual. . . .

Or, we may declare the matter resolved and proclaim from the burning rooftops, “The system worked.” . . . Our civic ideals require we remain involved in an open, honest discussion about what worked and what didn’t so that what we cherish isn’t slowly eroded by our inattention. That inattention is no option for the righteous, either.

The only course forward for all of us is that active engagement that applies and seeks to live up to our highest ideals. The debate about what constitutes “justice” is part of the process. The review of our systems and the amendment of laws is part of our highest ideals. The righteous must work to keep the foundations from being destroyed. They must walk by faith and they must do the good deeds that lead to life.

Notice the move back and forth between we “the righteous” and “civic ideals.” I assume and have heard Anyabwile enough to know that he believes a person is only righteous because of faith in Christ imputes that righteousness to the Christian. So why mix a theological category with a political one — righteous with civil? This is not clear, but it does in lean in a Social Gospelly direction. The mixing of civil and theological categories becomes even more intermingly:

There is no way people of good conscience or people of Christian faith can look at the events in Ferguson and conclude there’s nothing left for us to do or nothing that can be done. No, both pure religion and good citizenship require we not settle for what’s happened in the shooting of Michael Brown and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision. The Ferguson grand jury has given us our marching orders. They have ordered us to march for a more just system of policing and the protection of all life. We are obligated–if we love Christ or love this country–to find a way forward to justice, a way suitable to the dictates of our individual consciences and the word of God.

If the United States is a Christian country, maybe this sort of co-mingling of theology and law works. But we are not in Christian America anymore.

If you listen to Anyabwile’s comments about the recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, you hear him complain about the failure of the statement to define terms like “social justice,” “intersectionality,” Marxism, and the like. It doesn’t seem particularly fair or just to be prissy about words when after four years you are not any more clear about the gospel and social justice than John MacArthur.

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Machen’s Unpardonable Sin

A tweet went out on Sunday that had quotations from a letter that J. Gresham Machen to his mother about the prospects of African-American students moving into the dormitory where he lived at Princeton Seminary. Since Machen was a Southern Democrat who believed in the separation of whites and blacks (what we call racism or white supremacy), he was not thrilled with the prospect. Here is the tweet:

Scott Clark has addressed Machen’s racism here and the way that we view the past, often times, anachronistically, here.

Without taking away from the gravity of this revelation, which I had discovered while researching Machen, which I had also known generally since racism has been so prevalent in U.S. history (why are people shocked by this when we hear constantly that most if not all white people still to this day in the United States, personally or institutionally, are racist, including orthodox believers?), it might be useful for those appalled by the news to take stock and look at the sin of racism in the light of salvation and the gospel.

Some, for instance, might say that David was a sinner whom we still regard highly as a saint. A man guilty of adultery and murder, and standing by the rape of his daughter by his son, David was no model of holiness. But he repented, so we may have reason to think he had a conscience and his spirit responded to a challenge from God (through Nathan).

Machen is different because he never repented. Had he lived until the 1970s, as some Presbyterians in the PCA have done, he might have seen the sinfulness of his ways. But in all likelihood, Machen died guilty of the sin of racism, and unrepentant to boot.

Will Machen not go to heaven for this? Does Christ’s death and resurrection not cover the penalty for sin, even heinous ones like racism? According to the Belgic Confession (Art. 24):

We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied: as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle says, that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in him. This is sufficient to cover all our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approving to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror and dread, without following the example of our first father, Adam, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig-leaves. And verily if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed. And therefore every one must pray with David: O Lord, enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.

If the Reformation got justification right, Machen’s sin should still be covered by Christ’s righteousness imputed to him by faith. Indeed, Machen received the covering of Christ’s righteousness because of his faith (assuming he had it), not because he avoided the sin of racism (which he obviously did not avoid). And the active obedience of Christ, imputed to Machen by faith, was one of his great comforts as he lay dying — “no hope without it” was his telegram to John Murray.

Now, if Machen’s critics want to allege that he is not eligible for salvation thanks to his explicit racism, it is a free country. But that will throw a wrench into the works of salvation for most of us since in 100 years or so who among us can stand on that great day of popular perceptions of justice?

From DGH on Does The Gospel Threaten Submitted on 2015 03 24 at 12:22 pm

Mark,

You have me scratching my head again. If the gospel threatens, as you say:

God, as Adam’s father, threatened Adam in the Garden. His threat was an act of love (grace?), designed to keep Adam from sinning. Adam had good reason, then, to be afraid of God when he sinned. It would have been the “essence of impiety” not to have been afraid after he rebelled against God. Adam’s first sin was unbelief. But he clearly forgot to fear God, which was a factor in his unbelief. Adam doubted God’s threat to him as well as God’s love.

then when God said to Adam, “if you eat of the tree you will surely die,” we have the first expression of the Gospel — the protoevangelion as it were. And here I had thought that Genesis 3:15 was the first instance of the gospel:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.

Silly me.

While I have you, I have to ask about your math skills. In your reflections on China (and I do wonder what the sound of 1,000,000 Chinese Christians clapping sounds like) you say that the underground church in China is the size of 100,000 OPC churches. Did you mean the OPC with its total church membership (roughly 32,000) or number of churches/congregations (roughly 300)? If the former, my math says the underground church in would reach a level of 32,000,000,000. But if it is only the size of the number of OPC congregations, then the underground church would be 300,000,000.

Is this one of those metric system differences between the U.S. and Canada?

The "Good" News of Obedient Faith

Msgr. Charles Pope (how’s that for a name?) explains:

3. The Gospel is not merely noetic (informative); it is dynamic (transformative). God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Thus when God says “Be holy,” His words contain the actual power to effect what they announce, provided we receive them in faith.

4. The Gospel is no mere written word. The Gospel is Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh. Therefore the Gospel saves all who receive it (Him) with faith and heed its warnings and teachings with the obedience of faith.

Thus, the term “gospel” means more than “good news.” And given our cultural setting and its presuppositions related to the word “good,” the notion that “gospel = good news” can be downright misleading. It is better and richer to understand the term “gospel” to refer to the life-changing and transformative utterance of God, which is able to save us if we obey its demands in faith. It is in fact Jesus Himself who is the Word made Flesh. Perhaps this is less memorable, but it is more true and less misleading.

But given our historical setting post-fall, good news that promises we will be saved if we obey God’s commands doesn’t sound very good. (Why should the gospel be only “Good News” instead of like awakenings “Great News” or revolutions “Glorious News”?) That’s why the first Protestants (read Lutherans) were known as evangelicals. Obedience Boys take note.

When You Hear Covenant of Grace Do Your Thoughts Turn to "Ministry of Death"?

(Inspired by a mealtime conversation at OPC HQ.)

If a pastor or elder talked about Moses’ ministry as one of death, he might be the object of a committee investigation. If an inspired author of holy writ says it, we may want to pay heed.

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. (2 Corinthians 3:7-9 ESV)

Again, no matter what Turretin wrote, Paul’s comparison of the Mosaic Covenant to the gospel is one with which defenders of republication are trying to reckon. As Calvin explains, Paul doesn’t mean that Moses was chopped liver, but that the flattening attempt to render Mosaic administration a gracious development can significantly diminish the epoch-making work of Christ:

In the first place, he calls the law the ministry of death. Secondly, he says, that the doctrine of it was written in letters, and with ink. Thirdly, that it was engraven on stones. Fourthly, that it was not of perpetual duration; but, instead of this, its condition was temporary and fading. And, fifthly, he calls it the ministry of condemnation. To render the antitheses complete, it would have been necessary for him to employ as many corresponding clauses in reference to the gospel; but, he has merely spoken of it as being the ministry of the Spirit, and of righteousness, and as enduring for ever. If you examine the words, the correspondence is not complete, but so far as the matter itself is concerned, what is expressed is sufficient. For he had said that the Spirit giveth life, and farther, that men’s hearts served instead of stones, and disposition, in the place of ink.

Let us now briefly examine those attributes of the law and the gospel. Let us, however, bear in mind, that he is not speaking of the whole of the doctrine that is contained in the law and the Prophets; and farther, that he is not treating of what happened to the fathers under the Old Testament, but merely notices what belongs peculiarly to the ministry of Moses. The law was engraven on stones, and hence it was a literal doctrine. This defect of the law required to be corrected by the gospel, because it could not but be brittle, so long as it was merely engraven on tables of stone. The gospel, therefore, is a holy and inviolable covenant, because it was contracted by the Spirit of God, acting as security. From this, too, it follows, that the law was the ministry of condemnation and of death; for when men are instructed as to their duty, and hear it declared, that all who do not render satisfaction to the justice of God are cursed, (Deuteronomy 27:26,) they are convicted, as under sentence of sin and death. From the law, therefore, they derive nothing but a condemnation of this nature, because God there demands what is due to him, and at the same time confers no power to perform it. The gospel, on the other hand, by which men are regenerated, and are reconciled to God, through the free remission of their sins, is the ministry of righteousness, and, consequently, of life also.

Lo and behold, Calvin even seems to give room for — wait for it — a law-gospel hermeneutic:

. . . although the gospel is an occasion of condemnation to many, it is nevertheless, on good grounds, reckoned the doctrine of life, because it is the instrument of regeneration, and offers to us a free reconciliation with God. The law, on the other hand, as it simply prescribes the rule of a good life, does not renew men’s hearts to the obedience of righteousness, and denounces everlasting death upon transgressors, can do nothing but condemn. 392 Or if you prefer it in another way, the office of the law is to show us the disease, in such a way as to show us, at the same time, no hope of cure: the office of the gospel is, to bring a remedy to those that were past hope. For as the law leaves man to himself, it condemns him, of necessity, to death; while the gospel, bringing him to Christ, opens the gate of life. Thus, in one word, we find that it is an accidental property of the law, that is perpetual and inseparable, that it killeth; for as the Apostle says elsewhere, (Galatians 3:10,)

Inquiring minds are still inquiring, why is this threatening?

The Gloating Coalition?

The news of Jerry Sandusky’s conviction for child molestation has some Christians beating their breasts over their faith’s influence on western civilization. Joe Carter, one of TGC’s aggregators, has a quotation from a piece at the Catholic World Reporter that argues Sandusky would not have been found guilty in the ancient worlds of Greece or Rome:

If Sandusky would have lived 2000 years ago, he would not have been found guilty of anything. He would not even have been noticed. His actions would have been entirely unremarkable. There would have been no disgust, no anger. The verdict would have been innocent, and in fact, the notion that he was guilty of anything would have been unintelligible.

Carter jumps on the bandwagon:

For 2,000 years, the influence of Christ has had a profound—yet underestimated—influence on all aspects of Western culture. We often take for granted that without the “salt and light” of Christianity, behaviors that we consider disgusting and taboo would be accepted and commonplace. But what will happen if the influence of Christ and his followers continues to wane?

Discerning which is more remarkable here — the bad taste or the theological blunder — is difficult to say. Why would someone use this occasion to boast about the cultural effects of one’s faith? Why not show a little humility, mixed in with a dose of compassion for both Sandusky’s family, not to mention the victims (and their families), and back away from exploiting this story in the culture wars? Is this really going to persuade anyone on the other side or will it confirm the Religious Right’s reputation for self-congratulatory righteousness (and thus inspiring the faithful)?

At the same time, I thought the gospel was not about punishment for sin but forgiveness from its guilt and penalty. If the Gospel Coalition is going to stand up for the gospel, wouldn’t a fitting perspective here be to suggest that Christ might forgive even a sinner like Jerry Sandusky (if he repents and trusts in Christ)? But that kind of message doesn’t play so well in the culture wars where Christians invariably want more law and less forgiveness. Mind you, this is not a plea for anarchy or libertinism, not even a return to Rome or Athens. It is simply to show that the way of the gospel and the church’s ministry is distinct from the sword of the magistrate and the justice it wields.

This kind of historical credit-taking is downright unbecoming since it seems to attribute to Christianity (in a very whiggish way — how Roman Catholics go whiggy is another matter) all the blessings of modern society. To keep modern historical advances in perspective, a recent piece by Diedre N. McCloskey in The New Republic on happiness may bring these cultural warriors back down to a complicated earth. Here is an important excerpt that suggests Christianity did not give us all the benefits that some would have us think. The Enlightenment deserves a little credit (or blame depending on how you interpret the turn from otherworldliness to worldly preoccupations:

On a long view, understand, it is only recently that we have been guiltlessly obsessed with either pleasure or happiness. In secular traditions, such as the Greek or the Chinese, a pleasuring version of happiness is downplayed, at any rate in high theory, in favor of political or philosophical insight. The ancient Chinese sage Zhuangzi observed of some goldfish in a pond, “See how happy they are!” A companion replied, “How do you know they are happy?” Zhuangzi: “How do you know I don’t know?” In Christianity, for most of its history, the treasure, not pleasure, was to be stored up in heaven, not down here where thieves break in. After all, as a pre-eighteenth-century theologian would put it—or as a modern and mathematical economist would, too—an infinite afterlife was infinitely to be preferred to any finite pleasure attainable in earthly life.

The un-happiness doctrine made it seem pointless to attempt to abolish poverty or slavery or wife-beating. A coin given to the beggar rewarded the giver with a leg-up to heaven, a mitzvah, a hasanaat; but the ancient praise for charity implied no plan to adopt welfare programs or to grant rights of personal liberty or to favor a larger national income. A life of sitting by the West Gate with a bowl to beg was, after all, an infinitesimally small share of one’s life to come. Get used to it: For now and for the rest of your life down here, it’s your place in the great chain of being. Take up your cross, and quit whining. What does it matter how miserable you are in this life if you’ll get pie in the sky when you die? Such fatalism in many religions—“God willing,” we say, “im yirtzeh hashem,” “insh’Allah,” “deo volente”—precluded idle talk of earthly happiness.

Then, in the eighteenth century, our earthly happiness became important to us, in high intellectual fashion. By 1776, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was an unoriginal formulation of what we all, of course, now admitted that we chiefly wanted. John Locke had taught, in 1677, that “the business of men [is] to be happy in this world by the enjoyment of the things of nature subservient to life, health, ease, and pleasure”—though he added piously, “and by the comfortable [that is, comforting] hopes of another life when this is ended.” By 1738, the Comte de Mirabeau wrote to a friend, recommending simply, “[W]hat should be our only goal: happiness.”

“Our only goal.” To see how strange such a remark is, consider whether it could have been uttered by a leader of opinion in 1538. Martin Luther? Michelangelo? Charles V? No. They sought heavenly, artistic, or political glory—not something so domestic as happiness. Yet, in the late seventeenth century, even Anglican priests commenced preaching that God wanted us to be happy as much as holy. They called it “eudaemonism.” Anglicans and, astonishingly, some New England Congregationalists turned against the old, harsh, Augustinian-Calvinist line. We are not, declared the eudaemonists, mere sinners in the hands of an angry God, worms unworthy of grace. We are God’s beloved creatures, his pets.

The eudaemonistic turn was a Very Good Thing, resulting in fresh projects to better our stay here on Earth, some of them remarkably successful. Democracy was one, since, if you followed the fashion for universal happiness, it became impossible to go on insisting that what really mattered was the pleasure of the Duke or the Lord Bishop. Enlightened despots of the era claimed to seek the good of all, which paradoxically gave the populace the idea that maybe they themselves could do it.

Parallel with the stirrings of democracy and its accompanying welfarism, advocating for hospitals and free public education, was a new bourgeois dignity and liberty. Starting in Holland and England, and in the North American colonies of the English, the paired bourgeois revaluations combined to cause modern enrichment. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 that “all the English colonies [in North America] at the time of their birth … seemed destined to present the development of … the bourgeois and democratic liberty of which the history of the world did not yet offer a complete model.” Or again about the first industrial nation: “Looking at the turn given to the human spirit in England by political life; seeing the Englishman … inspired by the sense that he can do anything. … I am in no hurry to inquire whether nature has scooped out ports for him, and given him coal and iron.”

More than You Bargained For?

If a person living in the United States discovers that he prefers democracy to other forms of political governance, glaces at the major parties and discovers a Democratic Party, and decides that’s the party for him, he may have made a legitimate decision. But wouldn’t he want to find out something about the party’s past and platforms. What happens when he examines the work of Andrew Jackson, or Stephen Douglas, or Woodrow Wilson, or Bill Clinton, and finds that these figures may be Democrat but he hardly approves of their administrations? Does he then rethink his identification with the Democratic Party?

This analogy occurred to me once again when considering the arguments of John Frame against the so-called Escondido Theology. Greenbaggins has started reviewing Frame’s latest book and has come to the first chapter on the law-gospel distinction. He writes in response to one of Frame’s infelicities:

Frame goes on to say, “They are also motivated by a desire to oppose what they regard as theological corruptions of the Reformation doctrine, particularly the views of N.T. Wright, Norman Shepherd, and the movement called Federal Vision.” I would be a whole lot more comfortable with this sentence had Frame struck out the words “what they regard as.” These distancing words would seem to imply that Frame does not regard Wright, Shepherd, and the FV to be corruptions of the Reformation doctrine. Also, I would think a more charitable way of phrasing this motivation would be that the WSC theologians are motivated by a desire to defend the truth (are they really motivated by opposition, or are they motivated by the truth?).

Greenbaggins contends that the law-gospel distinction has a long pedigree in Reformed circles. It is not merely a Lutheran way of interpreting the Bible, even if Reformed Protestants are not of one mind in distinguishing law and gospel.

Frame notes what he thinks are two failures of the WSC theologians: 1. They fail to notice the problems with the law-gospel distinction. 2. They “fail to understand that the law is not only a terrifying set of commands to drive us to Christ, but is also the gentle voice of the Lord, showing his people that the best blessings of this life come from following his will” (p. 2). WSC theologians fail to notice the problems that Frame points out because they are not problems for the law-gospel distinction. Advocates have noted these objections before and answered them. As to the second point, Frame seems to be accusing the WSC theologians of denying the third use of the law. Whether this is an accurate assessment of Frame’s charge here or not, Frame is off the mark. WSC theologians do not deny the third use of the law any more than Lutherans do (there is an entire section in the Augsburg Confession devoted to the third use of the law).

Greenbaggins’ critique of Frame has not prevented his readers from wondering whether something is still suspect about Westminster California. Some continue to think that the law-gospel distinction has no standing in the Reformed creeds. Others seem to think it may be there but the Southern Californians use it in a radical way. So I’m to imagine that using the law-gospel distinction in opposition to Shepherd, Wright, and the Federal Vision is extreme?

Once again, what seems to happen is that Reformed Protestants understand the Reformed tradition to be as old either as the founding of the Free University or the creation of Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia). These folks continue to be surprised that older members of the Reformed tradition, some of those who defined it, spoke about doctrines like jure divino presbyterianism, or exclusive psalmody, or the priority of justification, or the law-gospel distinction. I too was surprised to learn these doctrines back when my exposure to the Reformed faith came mainly from the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and Francis Schaeffer. But, you know, I soon discovered that the Reformed faith preceded Princeton Seminary and Jonathan Edwards and went all the way back to the sixteenth century where Protestants talked about law-gospel distinctions. Unlike the democrat who did not like what he found among the Democratic Party, I had no problem trying to take instruction from Reformed Protestants older than Abraham Kuyper and Cornelius Van Til (both of whom Frame claims to follow).

Speaking of following Kuyper and Van Til, these Dutch Protestants were members of a church that confessed the Heidelberg Catechism. And lo and behold, the Heidelberg Catechism makes a distinction between law and gospel.

Question 3. Whence knowest thou thy misery?
Answer: Out of the law of God.

Question 4. What does the law of God require of us?
Answer: Christ teaches us that briefly, Matt. 22:37-40, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment; and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Question 18. Who then is that Mediator, who is in one person both very God, and a real righteous man?
Answer: Our Lord Jesus Christ: “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.”

Question 19. Whence knowest thou this?
Answer: From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise; and afterwards published by the patriarchs and prophets, and represented by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and lastly, has fulfilled it by his only begotten Son.

Some may wonder if this really is a law-gospel distinction (by the way, you can see a similar distinction between Q. 39 in the Shorter Catechism — “The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will” and Q. 85 “To escape the wrath and curse of sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby he communicates the benefits of redemption.” The section on the law is distinct from the means of grace.). But if you go to Zacharias Ursinus’ commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, it sure looks like he thinks Heidelberg rests upon this basic distinction:

The gospel and the law agree in this, that they are both from God, and that there is something revealed in each concerning the nature, will, and works of God. There is, however, a very great difference between them:

1. In the revelations which they contain; or, as it respects the manner in which the revelation peculiar to each is made known. The law was engraven upon the heart of man in his creation, and is therefore known to all naturally, although no other revelation were given. “The Gentiles have the work of the law written in their hearts.” (Rom. 2: 15.) The gospel is not known naturally, but is divinely revealed to the Church alone through Christ, the Mediator. For no creature could have seen or hoped for that mitigation of the law concerning satisfaction for our sins through another, if the Son of God had not revealed it. “No man knoweth the Father, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him.” “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee.” “The Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” (Matt. 11: 27; 16: 17.)

2. In the kind of doctrine, or subject peculiar to each. The law teaches us what we ought to be, and what God requires of us, but it does not give us the ability to perform it, nor does it point out the way by which we may avoid what is forbidden. But the gospel teaches us in what manner we may be made such as the law requires: for it offers unto us the promise of grace, by having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through faith, and that in such a way as if it were properly ours, teaching us that we are just before God, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The law says, “Pay what thou owest.” “Do this, and live.” (Matt. 18: 28. Luke 10: 28.) The gospel says, “Only believe.” (Mark 5: 36.)

3. A the promises. The law promises life to those who are righteous in themselves, or on the condition of righteousness, and perfect obedience. “He that doeth them, shall live in them.” “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Lev. 18: 5. Matt. 19: 17.) The gospel, on the other hand, promises life to those who are justified by faith in Christ, or on the condition of the righteousness of Christ, applied unto us by faith. The law and gospel are, however, not opposed to each other in these respects: for although the law requires us to keep the commandments if we would enter into life, yet it does not exclude us from life if another perform these things for us. It does indeed propose a way of satisfaction, 105which is through ourselves, but it does not forbid the other, as has been shown.

4. They differ in their effects. The law, without the gospel, is the letter which killeth, and is the ministration of death: “For by the law is the knowledge of sin.” “The law worketh wrath; and the letter killeth.” (Rom. 3: 20; 4: 15. 2 Cor. 3: 6.) The outward preaching, and simple knowledge of what ought to be done, is known through the letter: for it declares our duty, and that righteousness which God requires; and, whilst it neither gives us the ability to perform it, nor points out the way through which it may be attained, it finds fault with, and condemns our righteousness. But the gospel is the ministration of life, and of the Spirit, that is, it has the operations of the Spirit united with it, and quickens those that are dead in sin, because it is through the gospel that the Holy Spirit works faith and life in the elect. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation,” etc. (Rom. 1: 16.)

Objection: There is no precept, or commandment belonging to the gospel, but to the law. The preaching of repentance is a precept. Therefore the preaching of repentance does not belong to the gospel. but to the law. Answer: We deny the major, if it is taken generally; for this precept is peculiar to the gospel, which commands us to believe, to embrace the benefits of Christ, and to commence new obedience, or that righteousness which the law requires. If it be objected that the law also commands us to believe in God, we reply that it does this only in general, by requiring us to give credit to all the divine promises, precepts and denunciations, and that with a threatening of punishment, unless we do it. But the gospel commands us expressly and particularly to embrace, by faith, the promise of grace; and also exhorts us by the Holy Spirit, and by the Word, to walk worthy of our heavenly calling. This however it does only in general, not specifying any duty in particular, saying thou shalt do this, or that, but it leaves this to the law; as, on the contrary, it does not say in general, believe all the promises of God, leaving this to the law; but it says in particular, Believe this promise; fly to Christ, and thy sins shall be forgiven thee.

Now since several of Westminster California’s faculty are ministers in a communion that confesses Heidelberg, should it really be that surprising they follow Van Til and Kuyper all the way back to Ursinus and affirm a distinction that the historically challenged consider to be sub-Reformed? Or might it be more plausible to recognize that since members of Westminster California’s faculty work within the Continental Reformed tradition, their appeal to the law-gospel distinction entirely compatible with earlier generations of Reformed Protestants?

This doesn’t settle, of course, whether the law-gospel distinction is correct. But given Frame’s endorsement of a pro-Shepherd account of the Shepherd controversy, I am reserving the right to question what he believes to be at stake in contemporary debates over justification, not to mention other matters of Reformed Protestant conviction.

Where's Waldo Wednesday: Dazed and Confused

Why is it that discussions of the law and sanctification invariably circle back to union with Christ? My own hunch, expressed several times, is that union becomes the way to cement sanctification to justification, especially if neither is prior to the other but union precedes both. This way, supposedly, Protestants can look Roman Catholics straight in the eye and to the charge that justification by faith alone is antinomian reply, “pound sand.”

Bill Evans stirred up the hornet’s nest with some contested hypotheses about the different emphases in Reformed circles as demonstrated in an exchange between Kevin DeYoung and the grandson of Billy Graham whose name I cannot pronounce or spell without buying a couple more vowels. Evans appealed to union to once again cut the Gordian knot between the forensic and moral renovation, but that did not satisfy Sean Lucas or Rick Philips. (Jared Oliphint has a good list of the various iterations of this discussion.)

Since so many have weighed in on Evans’ provocations, I will only make one brief comment about his initial post. He wrote this, which I believe to be typical of the kind of confusion that comes when asserting the simultaneity and denying the priority of justification and sanctification:

. . . it is unconvincing to suggest that Paul does not use the expectations and sanctions of the law as a motive for sanctification. More than once the Apostle provides extensive vice lists of behavior forbidden by the law of God, adding that those who behave thus “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-5). That sounds like motivation to me!

Well, a quick check of Calvin’s commentary on that passage in Galatians (recently preached by my pastor) shows that the Geneva pastor did not interpret Paul to be motivating believers to obey God’s law “or else.” On Calvin Galatians 5:21, Calvin writes:

Paul does not threaten that all who have sinned, but that all who remain impenitent, shall be excluded from the kingdom of God. The saints themselves often fall into grievous sins, but they return to the path of righteousness, “that which they do they allow not,” (Rom. vii. 15) and therefore they are not included in this catalogue.

In fact, gratitude, not fear of punishment, is the chief motivation for the Christian life throughout the most influential Reformed creeds.

I will also express some bafflement at Rick Phillips denial of any legitimacy to the idea that justification “causes” sanctification when he can assert that union “causes” justification and sanctification. If causal language is a problem for justification priority folks, why can causal language (which justification prioritoryists seldom use crudely) be applied to union?

Jared Oliphint tries to bring the whole question of the relation between justification and sanctification or between the indicative and the imperative back to the historia salutis.

Eschatology. Eschatology. Eschatology. It may initially sound foreign, but eschatology is the background of and essential to the gospel. What sets the stage for how we are justified, how we are sanctified, and what’s called the “order of salvation” is what was accomplished in history by Christ to make possible those benefits you receive by being in Christ; the history of salvation is the context for the gospel and your own personal salvation.

But the appeal to the historia soon swerves back to micromanaging the ordo salutis:

Because of the already/not yet aspect to all of reality now, that reality must inform discussions regarding the gospel, salvation, what Christ has done, what he will do, etc. There is a sense (already) in which we are no more justified or sanctified now than we ever will be, even in the new heavens and the new earth. But there is another (not yet) sense where there is still work to be done in us and with God’s unredeemed, temporary creation. While this already/not yet tension is still a reality here while our Lord tarries, the indicative of who we are as believers united with Christ and receiving every spiritual blessing (Eph 1:3) as a result is never in tension with what God calls us to do here as his sons and daughters in Christ.

As an aside, do unionists ever talk about union being already/not yet? If eschatology goes all the way down and colors all the benefits of redemption, then the answer would appear to be “yes.” But the permanence and necessity of union never seems to allow for a concession that union also partakes of the two-age construction.

Yet, when Oliphint tries to clarify the relationship between justification and sanctification from the perspective of union and the historia salutis, he winds up with an explanation that adds very little to or resolves the recent discussions.

When sanctification is defined as “getting used to your justification” or “forgetting about yourself” and the law and the gospel/grace are in a tug of war of emphasis, do you not see that the entire crucial context and substructure of what Christ accomplished and how he applies it in your life is missing? Sanctification is a dying to sin and rising with Christ and has so much more to do with what Christ did for you than in your disposition of just letting the reality of the benefit of judicially being declared righteous sink in; not to mention the need to distinguish for clarity’s sake the difference between being definitively sanctified (1 Cor 1:2; 6:11; Heb 10:10,14) through our union with Christ and progressively sanctified (Rom 12:2) over time in the life of believers.

That sounds awfully antinomian. Sanctification has to do with what Christ did. So my imaginary Roman Catholic interlocutor is now wondering why the Reformed doctrine of sanctification or union does not lead to complacency? After all, Christ did it all.

To avoid that charge, Oliphint resorts to a legal “must”:

As redeemed believers we must do good works “for Jesus” as God works in us progressively to sanctify and we must do so as good and faithful servants of the Savior who requires that of us, but not do them from a false motivation to earn our salvation already achieved for us by Christ. We obey as God’s new creatures, groaning with creation for our Savior to come and complete his work in us.

This attempted resolution is not necessarily wrong. Neither is it particularly different, despite all the gloss of Vos, from what Reformed theologians have tried to say about God at work in the believer as the believer works. Another way of saying this is the third use of the law. We needed the historia salutis for that?

From my blinkered theological mind, the big question seems to be how the law functions in the life of the believer and in what way it is necessary. Here the Shorter Catechism appears to be remarkably helpful. It distinguishes two sets of requirements.

The first is what are the duties God requires of man (39)? This is the lead question for the explanation of the Decalogue. And second, after the law is parsed, the catechism asks another “require” question: What does God require of us that we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin (85)? (Notice the difference between the law required of all men and the requirements associated with the “us” of the redeemed.) From here the catechism goes on to discuss the means of grace.

A recognition of these distinct requirements and their stated audiences plausibly leads to the conclusion that the law is not a means of grace. Clearly, the law is not in view when the catechism explicitly addresses the means of grace – that is, word, sacrament, and prayer. This doesn’t mean that the law is bad, not to be followed, or not a standard of conduct. But following the law as a requirement does not contribute to justification – or to sanctification, for that matter. Attending to the means of grace, however, does contribute to salvation as a way of reassuring believers that God has promised to save them from their sins.

In other words, following the law is only the fruit of salvation, not the means of salvation (which includes justification and sanctification).

One last thought: since starting this post I see that Evans cannot let Oliphint or others have the last word, and so he writes this:

I firmly believe that balance in the Christian life is possible and that our people see the glory of God not only in the grace of justification but also in the demands of God’s law and in the way that the whole of Scripture marvelously fits together–what WCF 1.5 calls “the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, and the entire perfection thereof.” And to this end we must proclaim the whole counsel of God. This means that we proclaim the imperatives of transformation as well as the gratuity of justification. Furthermore, we must do this without separating them, for both are found in Christ. Law without grace and mercy is just as unbalanced as grace and mercy without law.

As mechanical and confusing as “the imperatives of transformation” and the “gratuity of justification” as a formulation is, I don’t understand how Evans is not attaching an “or else” to “do this.” And I don’t for the life of me understand how this is a comfort, or how it does not undermine the assurance of the gospel. After all, everyone has a sense of justice and the idea that no matter what I do I belong to God because of Christ’s work on my behalf does not seem to be fair. Surely, I can prove my worth if I obey God’s law. But this is precisely what is so marvelous about the gospel, and why the law should send shivers down the spine of all people. No one can keep the law, not even the saints. That’s why good works are filthy rags. The only bleach available to make us presentable at the day of judgment is not the white hot flame of the law but the blood of Christ. Like the gospel, using a red fluid that will only stain to make ourselves clean makes no sense. But it’s the only hope for those who know that the law will always show the filth of human depravity and the dirt of good works.

Hard or Soft, The Anti-2K Position Displays the Judaic Folly

(Or, how to blow Dr. Ortlund’s mind.)

The hits keep coming. The line grows of people wanting to take a swipe at the two kingdom doctrine (while the silence on Lillback’s strange fire of Sacred Fire is deafening).

A while back, Comment magazine published a piece by David Koyzis that critiques the 2k position, and is now available online. (Koyzis also refers to Wedgeworth’s essay on VanDrunen’s new book as “trenchant.”)

As Koyzis has it, the 2k position is not faithful because of its defective view of creation. He writes:

There are, finally, good reasons why we cannot join the cause of the two-kingdoms Calvinists. Most basically, creation is much more than a provisional, probationary order with no enduring significance, as they appear to believe. It is rather God’s good handiwork (Genesis 1), which has fallen into sin through man’s disobedience, but that God has promised not to abandon but to restore and redeem through Jesus Christ in the new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65, Revelation 21). An implication of this creation is that God has shaped human beings to shape culture. With every breath we take and with everything we do, we cannot avoid fashioning culture, as Andy Crouch has perceptively recognized in his recent book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Far from being extinguished at the Second Advent, the works of culture will eventually be redeemed and brought into the service of God (Isaiah 60).

Of course, this creation has been marred by the fall into sin of our first parents (Genesis 3), which inevitably affects the exercise even of human reason in the nonecclesiastical spheres. It is naïve to assume that we are capable of reasoning in the various social and cultural fields free from the destructive impact of the fall. If the effects of the fall are complete, then in principle the whole of life, including the cultural pursuits for which we were created, are included in redemption as well. As Paul puts it, the whole creation groans in anticipation of what is to come, but it will one day “be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21-22). In the meantime, however, this groaning is accompanied by an awareness that the kingdom is, in some measure, a present reality, even if its final consummation lies ahead. Thus, as agents of this kingdom, we must continually test the spirits in every field of endeavour. How much simpler it would be if vigilance were required only in matters of church and liturgy and we could safely ignore everything else! But God has hard words for those who think that proper cultic observance alone will substitute for a lack of obedience in the rest of life (Isaiah 1:11-17, 10:1-4; Amos 5:21-4).

2k advocates fail, then, to manifest a “ whole-hearted devotion to God in Christ.” This devotion, according to Koyzis:

can be pursued only in the context of the church, understood as corpus Christi, the body of Christ. The corpus Christi certainly manifests itself in the institutional church, but also in marriages, families, schools, universities, labour unions and businesses, in so far as they are directed towards the glory of God and service of neighbour. In this respect, the body of Christ is not undertaking to bring heaven to earth, but is merely seeking to fulfill the central command to love God and neighbour in all of life’s activities. This is a vision worth giving up one’s life for—as numerous martyrs have done through the ages—but in the meantime, it is definitely worth living for as well. May God prosper the work of our hands and use it for his glory (Psalm 90:17).

Then comes Rabbi Bret’s response to the recent post here about the collision of worldviews at the worldview weary Christian Reformed Church Synod. According to Bret:

It is only Darryl’s strange worldview that is pushing him to say that “worldviewism” cost the church its heritage of Reformed confessionalism. . . . By Darryl’s own words it is not worldviewism that is costing the CRC its heritage. By his own admission it is the worldview of progressivism that is costing it, its heritage. This progressivism will not be turned back by a worldview (R2Kt) that can’t authoritatively say that progressivism is un-biblical. This worldview progressivism can only be turned back by a Christian worldview that recognizes the progressivism for what it is and offers Biblical answers. Darryl wants to damn the night but refuse to light a candle.

Bret concludes:

Look … in the end you can ride the rails to destruction on the train of progressivism or you can ride the rails to destruction on the train of R2Kt Gnosticism / Dualism. No matter which ride you choose you’re going to have to eventually pay the conductor. There is, after all, a thousand different ways to achieve destruction.

Not to be missed at Bret’s site is the comment from one Mark Chambers – women hide the children; you may want to hide yourselves while you’re at it. In response to Bret’s point that Hart’s problem with the CRC is “the disagreement that occurs between those who will transform culture actively in a liberal direction and those who will transform culture passively in a liberal direction by allowing the anti-Christ theology that informs the culture to go unaddressed,” Chambers writes:

Well I’d rather describe it a bit more graphically. Both the agressive and passive methods end in cultural rape. The liberal is an agressive rapist. The passive R2Kers on the other hand, like Hart and his ilk, strip naked, lay on their backs and say “take me”.

Kowabunga, dude! I’m assuming if Bret’s earthly kingdom will not do movie ratings.

Let me see if I can briefly identify the major difference between the 2kers and the anti-2kers, and why the anti-2k theonomic leaning position distorts the gospel of Jesus Christ. The bone of contention is the kingdom of heaven. What Prof. Koyzis and Pastor Bret fail to recognize is a teaching that they themselves profess when the subscribe the Heidelberg Catechism. According to Heidelberg, the keys of the kingdom are preaching and discipline:

83. Q. What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?

A. The preaching of the holy gospel and church discipline. By these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers.

84. Q. How is the kingdom of heaven opened and closed by the preaching of the gospel?

A. According to the command of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is opened when it is proclaimed and publicly testified to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ’s merits, as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel. The kingdom of heaven is closed when it is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them as long as they do not repent. According to this testimony of the gospel, God will judge both in this life and in the life to come.

85 Q. How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by church discipline?

A. According to the command of Christ, people who call themselves Christians but show themselves to be unchristian in doctrine or life are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner. If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders. If they do not heed also their admonitions, they are forbidden the use of the sacraments, and they are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ. They are again received as members of Christ and of the church when they promise and show real amendment.

Since Koyzis likes to talk about implications of biblical teaching, the implication of this doctrine is that the church has the keys of the kingdom, and it is the work of the church, not schools, hospitals, economic associations, labor unions, or political parties, to open and close the kingdom of heaven because the church alone has the keys.

A further implication is what possible redemption do schools, hospitals, economic associations, labor unions, or political parties minister? Yes, I understand that they are fruitful for loving God and neighbor. But the last I checked, loving God and neighbor are the law, not the gospel. (Is it just me, or does the phrase, “cultural obedience” connote law more than gospel?) And it is only the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ’s righteousness, freely given to those who trust on him, that gets anything or anyone into the kingdom of heaven or heaven itself. What exactly am I missing here?

At the same time, to suggest that the work of schools, hospitals, economic associations, labor unions, or political parties is kingdom work is to distort the gospel of Jesus Christ. The reason, as Koyzis well explains it, is that the works of the law (love of God and neighbor) become synonymous with redemption. In other words, to expand the heavenly kingdom by blurring the two kingdoms is to add a works righteousness to Christ’s righteousness.

So, to respond to Rabbi Bret, my beef with the CRC and its worldview is not only that it is progressive. I also object to worldviews like Rabbi Bret’s that are politically or culturally conservative because opposing abortion, if done for the wrong reasons, is as much a form of works righteousness as is adopting a mandate on global warming. If Rabbi Bret wants evidence of the way that a right-wing worldviewitis leads to churches fudging the gospel, he only needs to say, “Federal Vision.” Can he do that? Sure he can.

Forensic Friday: Murray on the Gospel


“Him who knew no sin he made to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). This clearly points us to the vicarious sin bearing of Christ as that which brought the reconciliation into being. This forensic character of the reconciliation is also borne out in verse 19 where “not reckoning to them their trespasses” is related to the reconciling of the world as the explantion of that in which the reconciliation consists or as that consequence in which it issues. In either case, reconciliation has its affinities with the non-imputation of trespases rather than with any subjective operation.

(d) This accomplished work of reconciliation is the message committed to the messengers of the gospel (ver. 19). It constitutes the content of the message. But the mesage is that which is declared to be a fact. Conversion, it ought to be remembered, is not the gospel. It is the demand of the gospel message and the proper response to it. Any transformation which occurs in us is the effect in us of that which is proclaimed to have been accomplished by God. The change in our hearts and minds presupposes the reconciliation. (Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, p. 41)