The Bible Liberated

E. J. Hutchinson argues that sola scriptura follows directly from capacity of language to communicate and worries what a reliance on infallible interpreters does to God’s design in communicating by holy writ:

if we wish to affirm the full humanity of Scripture, we need to have a doctrine that does something like the work of sola scriptura. Why? Because, at a certain level, human communication is perspicuous, even if not exhaustively so. Every interaction we have throughout each day presumes this–and that not only for oral communication, but for written communication as well (which are only two modes of the genus “communication”). The entire edifice of contractual law, for instance, is built upon this presumption, and, if one violates his contract, he is accountable to the law for it, for he should have known–and did know–better.

The same is true of written literature. Take Homer’s Odyssey as an example. If one wishes to know what the Odyssey is about–what it means–one reads the Odyssey. In neither instance, that of contractual law or that of ancient literature, is there a need for an infallible umpire to secure understanding. If such were the case–which is to say, if human communication were deeply opaque by nature–we would need such an umpire for everything (though he could still only use human communication to grant us understanding, and so still and all we would be likewise befettered). 1 In other words, the assumption that we cannot understand each other, even in writing, requires a nihilistic and despairing view of an animal that is social by nature, and neither nihilism nor despair are Christian virtues.

Indeed, it is in principle possible to understand something of a text with no help at all from others, though it is also possible (and perhaps likely) to misunderstand a great deal more. For that reason, it is profoundly unwise to ignore all of the assistance that is available. With respect to the example of contract law, that is why we have lawyers (I knew I would find a reason eventually). With respect to the example of the Odyssey, that is why we have people who specialize in Homer and the reading of archaic Greek poetry. As Solomon says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Eric Parker helpfully explicated this principle yesterday via Zanchi. Expertise in exegesis is a great good, whether it is the exegesis of a contract, a poem, or the Bible, and in the case of the latter it is perhaps an even greater good, because the stakes are so much higher. None of this, however, requires infallibility, as we see if we are being honest and reasonable: these are, rather, questions of prudence. All three kinds of texts are instances of human communication, and in that respect there is no reason in principle why their reading should be generically different–and, again, the understanding of an interpretation, or of an interpretation of an interpretation, presumes the basic communicativeness of human language in any case. Perhaps paradoxically, then, Scripture’s humanity requires perspicuity (in the sense used above), which is ingredient in and fundamental to any construal of sola scriptura. If perspicuity exists, then sola scriptura is perfectly reasonable.

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


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?

Did He Say Moses Is Opposed to Christ?!?

Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat.

But that is a plausible reading of the Bible according to Calvin who was reading Paul (not Turretin):

. . . as evangelic promises are only found scattered in the writings of Moses, and these also somewhat obscure, and as the precepts and rewards, allotted to the observers of the law, frequently occur, it rightly appertained to Moses as his own and peculiar office, to teach what is the real righteousness of works, and then to show what remuneration awaits the observance of it, and what punishment awaits those who come short of it. For this reason Moses is by John compared with Christ, when it is said, “That the law was given by Moses, but that grace and truth came by Christ.” (John 1:17.)

And whenever the word law is thus strictly taken, Moses is by implication opposed to Christ: and then we must consider what the law contains, as separate from the gospel. Hence what is said here of the righteousness of the law, must be applied, not to the whole office of Moses, but to that part which was in a manner peculiarly committed to him.

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?

Why Republication Matters

What exactly is so threatening about this?

Every Reformed minister loves preaching from Romans and Galatians. Presenting the Mosaic law as teaching a works principle really helps in explaining Paul’s doctrine of justification: what sin is all about, why people can’t rely on their own law-keeping, how faith is radically different from works, how Christ fulfilled the terms of the law so that we may be justified. That’s the gospel as I see it, but you can’t explain the gospel without understanding the law. Or take all of those Old Testament passages that call for Israel’s obedience and promise blessing and threaten curse in the land depending on their response. For example, the beginning of Deuteronomy 4, which tells Israel to follow the law so that they may live and take possession of the land. Or Deuteronomy 28, which recounts all sorts of earthly blessings in the land if the Israelites are careful to obey and all sorts of earthly curses if they aren’t. I don’t want a congregation to think that God was holding out a works-based way of salvation here, and I also can’t tell the congregation that this is the same way that God deals with the New Testament church when he calls her to obedience, for there’s nothing equivalent in the New Testament, no promise of earthly blessing for the church today if we meet a standard of obedience. Saying either of those things might by simple, but of course they’d be misleading, and damaging for the church to hear. (The Law is Not of Faith, 5)

Could it be that this view seems to allow Christians to think that law-keeping does not contribute to their salvation? Well, if the law requires “personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body, and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he owes to God and man: promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it,” who is up to that challenge? Don’t be bashful.

Do the Obedience Boys Know Their Catechism?

Amid the flurry of posts about justification, sanctification, and antinomianism, attention to the Shorter Catechism has been missing. When you look there, you receive a very different impression of the law and good works than the obedience boys, Mark Jones and Rick Phillips, give.

At the birds-eye-view level, the Catechism teaches twice that God requires something from us. The first comes with the introduction to the Decalogue:

Q. 39. What is the duty which God requireth of man?
A. The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will.

For neo-nomians or the antinomianphobes, this looks encouraging. (It also seems to make the theonomists and neo-Calvinists’ hearts swell since it would seem to encourage efforts to implement God’s revealed will in all walks of every square inch.) See, God requires obedience from us and teaching the import of law and good works is only going along with what God requires.

But then comes the kicker. After discussing the requirements and prohibitions of each and every commandment — this is the catechetical speed bump that poses a barrier to covenant children ever learning the sacraments — the catechism soberly reminds where these requirements end: the wrath and curse of God.

Q. 82. Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?
A. No mere man since the fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word and deed.

Q. 83. Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?
A. Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

Q. 84. What doth every sin deserve?
A. Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.

This depressing experience with the law is why some of us lean on the grace side of things. Sure, the law is good and important and it reveals God’s holiness and our own standard for holiness. But any attempt to keep it post-fall will result in God’s wrath and curse (which is also kind of a downer for thinking about implementing God’s revealed will in politics, the cinema, or plumbing).

But then the catechism goes on to talk about the remedy to our misery:

Q. 85. What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?
A. To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

I have always found it remarkable that these Puritans did not include the law or good works in this answer. This doesn’t mean that they did not affirm the third use of the law. Nor does this answer say that “faith and repentance are necessary for salvation” (even though that’s basically what Paul told a certain jailer). But for the basic problem of sin and its consequences, the remedy for the human predicament (we are talking salvation, here) is faith, repentance, and attending the means of grace. In other words, to escape God’s wrath and curse, our obedience — in terms of obeying the law — is not going to count for much anything. Instead, what we need to do is trust in Christ, grieve over and turn from our sins, and continue to sit under the Christian ministry to have our faith strengthened and to prevent self-righteousness.

The Real Issue is Hetero Marriage

At least, so says Andrew Bacevich over at Front Porch Republic. In expressing relief that Romney did not win and chiding Republicans for being faux conservatives, the Boston College professor writes:

Second, conservatives should lead the way in protecting the family from the hostile assault mounted by modernity. The principal threat to the family is not gay marriage. The principal threats are illegitimacy, divorce, and absent fathers. Making matters worse still is a consumer culture that destroys intimate relationships, persuading children that acquiring stuff holds the key to happiness and persuading parents that their job is to give children what the market has persuaded them to want.

Third, when it comes to economics, conservatives should lead the fight against the grotesque inequality that has become such a hallmark of present-day America.

Call me old fashioned, but I believe that having a parent at home holds one of the keys to nurturing young children and creating strong families. That becomes exceedingly difficult in an economy where both parents must work just to make ends meet.

Flattening the distribution of wealth and ensuring the widest possible the ownership of property can give more parents the choice of raising their own youngsters rather than farming the kids out to care providers. If you hear hints of the old Catholic notion of distributism there, you are correct.

This sure makes more sense than the w-w folks who go on and on about God’s law and proceed to make opposition to gay marriage the test of culture warrior bona fides. If the Bible truly speaks to all of life, then perhaps it might say something about the economic conditions that produce middle-class families. That w-w types rarely extend their gaze beyond the blacks and whites of biblical law must be an indication that the Bible is limited in what it reveals.

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.