How Much Endeavor Is Necessary?

Mark Jones responds to the question of how many good works are necessary for salvation. He thinks the question is a tad misplaced:

Such questions (i.e., “How many?”) may actually reveal a legal spirit, not a gospel spirit, that needs mortifying. From those who should know better, to ask “How many good works?” is not evidence to me that they are trying to guard something special (i.e., justification), but rather that they are trying to ignore something glorious, namely, that God accepts the sincere obedience of his children because they are pure in heart (Matt. 5:8; Ps. 73:1; 24:4), live by faith (Gal. 2:20), and obey in the Spirit (Rom. 8:13-14). God warns, promises, and commands for our good.

Do fear of punishment and hope of rewards cause servile fear in a Christian? John Owen asserts that such a reaction is a “vain” imagination. Only the bondage of our spirits can make what we do servile. Owen says, “a due respect unto God’s promises and threatenings is a principal part of our liberty.” Returning to the Scriptures themselves, Paul says we must put to death the misdeeds of the flesh if we want to live (Rom. 8:13). This we do by the Spirit. But it isn’t an option for the Christian. If you want to ask yourself whether good works are necessary for final salvation (“life”, Rom. 8:13), ask yourself this (via Owen):

What if a professing Christian does not mortify the misdeeds of the flesh? Will he or she live or die? To argue that good works are necessary for final salvation is to answer the previous question by saying, “die”. To ask how many? Well, that, it seems to me, is to ask God a question that his word, quite rightly, does not answer.

I concede theology is above my pay grade, but I do wonder if the catechism is clearer than the conversations the Obedience Boys encourage. Notice, for instance, the two-fold distinction in the catechism:

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.

Q. 40. What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience?
A. The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience was the moral law.

Q. 41. Where is the moral law summarily comprehended?
A. The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments.

So God requires obedience. But the fall happened. Now what?

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.

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

The catechism separates the discussion of the law as a rule for God’s dealing with humans before the fall from teaching about how those fallen escape God’s wrath and curse. It does not say that new obedience is part of the means why which Christians escape damnation. It says, precisely, “endeavor after new obedience.” Part of repentance is seeking to obey.

So then how much endeavor is necessary? That is a different question from how much obedience.

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Would You Rather Be Honorable or Moral?

After reading H. L. Mencken and seeing the John Stott quote that Tim Challies turned into an infographic (yowza!), put me on the side of honor. I’ve seen too many obedience boys and girls who show not the slightest interest in being human when sanctity is the ultimate aim. But plenty of parents know they can’t apply high standards of conduct all the time. Sometimes you let the down the guard so you can win another day. Life is not a court of law. It’s a pilgrimage and honor aids dignity and relationships that may down the road help holiness prevail.

That’s why Mencken yet again shows uncanny insight:

In the face of so exalted a moral passion it would be absurd to look for that urbane habit which seeks the well—being of one’s self and the other fellow, not in exact obedience to harsh statutes, but in ease, dignity and the more delicate sort of self—respect. That is to say, it would be absurd to ask a thoroughly moral man to be also a man of honour. The two, in fact, are eternal enemies; their endless struggle achieves that happy mean of philosophies which we call civilization. The man of morals keeps order in the world, regimenting its lawless hordes and organizing its governments; the man of honour mellows and embellishes what is thus achieved, giving to duty the aspect of a privilege and making human intercourse a thing of fine faiths and understandings. We trust the former to do what is righteous; we trust the latter to do what is seemly. It is seldom that a man can do both. The man of honour inevitably exalts the punctilio above the law of God; one may trust him, if he has eaten one’s salt, to respect one’s daughter as he would his own, but if he happens to be under no such special obligation it may be hazardous to trust him with even one’s charwoman or one’s mother—in—law. And the man of morals, confronted by a moral situation, is usually wholly without honour. Put him on the stand to testify against a woman, and he will tell all he knows about her, even including what he has learned in the purple privacy of her boudoir. More, he will not tell it reluctantly, shame—facedly, apologetically, but proudly and willingly, in response to his high sense of moral duty. It is simply impossible for such a man to lie like a gentleman. He lies, of course, like all of us, and perhaps more often than most of us on the other side, but he does it, not to protect sinners from the moral law, but to make their punishment under the moral law more certain, swift, facile and spectacular.

By the way, honor is even key to the way Christians should regard the civil magistrate. Paul recommends honor in Romans 13, and Calvin agrees. But if you really want morality, say hello to the religious right and the permissive left.

Law Enforcement: More Art than Sanctification

Mencken finds wisdom from the mayor of Toledo:

There are, to be sure, on the scrolls of the State, and on the books of the city, statutes and ordinances which forbid the commission of certain sins, and even enlarge venial offenses to the proportions of crimes for the sake of prohibiting them; and, having enacted this legislation, society seems to be content, because the theoretical remedy has been provided against evil. All that remains, according to the theory, is to “enforce” these statutes and ordinances, and the evils will vanish, the sins cease. But these remedies are theoretical only. They do not search out the mysterious and obscure causes of crime; they are concerned solely with the symptoms or surface indications of those deeply hidden causes. But, however that may be, these statutes and ordinances can be administered only by human agencies, and in their administration are encountered human obstacles. (VIRTUE BY STATUTE. From “The Enforcement of Law in Cities,” by Brand Whitlock)

If John Piper’s preaching can’t transform the human heart (without the Holy Spirit), how are Barney Fife and Andy Griffith?

Machen Helps Keep Law and Gospel Straight

If he were living, he’d also straighten out the obedience boys:

But what ought to be clearly observed is that that Covenant of Works or Covenant of Life did not offer “salvation.” The word “salvation” implies something from which one is saved. Adam was not lost when that Covenant of Life was given him. On the contrary he had knowledge, righteousness and holiness. The Covenant of Works was not given as a way by which a sinner might get rid of his sin and merit eternal life.

Neither was the Mosaic Law given for any such purpose. It was not given to present, even hypothetically, a way by which a sinner, already eternally under the condemnation of sin, could by future perfect obedience merit the favor of God. And Dr. Charles Hodge surely does not regard it as given for any such purpose.

The root error, or one of the many root errors of the Dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible seems to me to be the utter failure to recognize and make central the fact of the Fall of man. I know that there are salutary inconsistencies in the Scofield Bible. I know that in the notes on the fifth chapter of Romans there is taught, not indeed the orthodox doctrine of imputation, but still some recognition of the universal corruption that has come from Adam’s sin. But by what a back-door even that much of the central Biblical teaching is brought in! As one reads Dr. Scofield’s notes one does not for the most part get the slightest inkling of the fact that anything irrevocable took place when Adam fell. After his Fall man continued to be tested in successive dispensations. See for example the definition of a dispensation which Dr. Scofield gives at the beginning. That is one of the things that seems to me to be so profoundly heretical in this commentary.

It is contrary to the very heart of the Augustinian and Calvinistic view of sin. According to that view — and surely according to the Bible — the guilt of Adam’s first sin was imputed to his posterity. Adam being by divine appointment the representative or federal head of the race. Thus all descended from Adam by ordinary generation are guilty. They are guilty before they individually have done anything either good or bad. They are under the penalty of sin when they are born. Part of that penalty of sin is hopeless corruption, from which, if there is growth to years of discretion, individual transgressions spring. How utterly absurd would it have been therefore for God to offer the Mosaic Law, to such an already condemned and fallen race, as something which, if only obeyed by that already condemned and fallen race, would bring salvation and eternal life!

Hard to love the law when it doesn’t do all that faith in Christ does.

Obedience Girl

Wesleyans aren’t the only ones to promote perfectionism:

Following Jesus is a serious task, and, at the same time, one filled with joy; it takes a certain daring and courage to recognize the divine Master in the poorest of the poor and those who are cast aside, and to give oneself in their service. In order to do so, volunteers, who out of love of Jesus serve the poor and the needy, do not expect any thanks or recompense; rather they renounce all this because they have discovered true love. And each one of us can say: “Just as the Lord has come to meet me and has stooped down to my level in my hour of need, so too do I go to meet him, bending low before those who have lost faith or who live as though God did not exist, before young people without values or ideals, before families in crisis, before the ill and the imprisoned, before refugees and immigrants, before the weak and defenceless in body and spirit, before abandoned children, before the elderly who are on their own. Wherever someone is reaching out, asking for a helping hand in order to get up, this is where our presence – and the presence of the Church which sustains and offers hope – must be”. And I do this, keeping alive the memory of those times when the Lord’s hand reached out to me when I was in need.

Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defence of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded. She was committed to defending life, ceaselessly proclaiming that “the unborn are the weakest, the smallest, the most vulnerable”. She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity; she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime – the crimes! – of poverty they created. For Mother Teresa, mercy was the “salt” which gave flavour to her work, it was the “light” which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.

But did she trust Jesus as her savior from sin?

Publishing Is Not Good for the Soul

Just ask Jonathan Edwards (via Jonathan Yeager):

Edwards vocalized his disgust with the way that his book Religious Affections was published in 1746, probably because it was concisely printed, with tightly cropped margins and line spacing. Despite his complaints, the printer for this book feared that he had not printed enough copies to meet public demand. In an advertisement at the end of the book, the Boston printer Samuel Kneeland remarked that some 1,300 subscriptions had been taken for Religious Affections, at a time when a colonial author would have rejoiced if 500 copies of a book sold.

Edwards was also not happy with the editorial work that the ministers Benjamin Colman, John Guyse, and Isaac Watts did when publishing his revival account A Faithful Narrative in London. After its publication in 1737, none of the first editions of Edwards’s book would be published again from London. Partially because of Edwards’s desire to exercise more control in how his future books would be edited and published, he preferred to have them printed from Boston, where his trustworthy friend Thomas Foxcroft could oversee the presswork. Here again is more irony. A Faithful Narrative was one of Edwards’s best-selling books, and led to his international recognition as a revivalist. Yet if this book had been published in Boston, he might not have achieved international fame within his lifetime.

Personally, I don’t think Edwards was wrong to be particular about the way his books looked, nor do I think he should have thought his own book sense better than someone in the business. But is this the kind of reaction you’d expect from a man so earnest for holiness? Sure, he was a regenerate sinner like the rest of us. But the New Calvinists (and their Obedience Boys siblings) keep marveling at former New Calvinists’ sanctity. Can’t we de-escalate the piousity syndrome and relate like real human beings?

Lord, I Know Already, Help Me Do

What is the purpose of preaching? Is it to increase knowledge or provoke akSHUN? Randy Nabors thinks the latter:

We don’t need more didactic moments that simply tickle the minds of those who thirst for more information; we need the forming of the heart though great sermons powerfully delivered. People need truth that shapes hearts into the obedience that comes through faith so people can be doers of the Word and not just hearers of it.

But what if the average Christian believer is someone who is prone to think either that sin, temptation, the devil, and the flesh have overwhelmed him the previous week? What sort of sermon does that person need? A call to obedience? Maybe. But can such a call make sense to someone who knows how sinful and weak he is? Might the person in the pew need to hear about God’s work in sanctification even if it is a tad didactic?

Or what about the average believer who lives life like a pilgrim, someone in exile, hardly in command of his affairs, but weak, frail, and in need of a reminder that God has saved him and controls all things?

In other words, Nabors seems to think of Christians as people who are in control of life and need simply to be hectored into living Christian lives. He doesn’t seem to allow that Christians come to church thinking that they believe, but are tempted to unbelief precisely when they take life and its duties into their own hands.

Without Sabbath Observance We Could Not Identify Christians

How do you spot a Christian? That may be easy compared to defining religion. Damon Linker had a go at religion recently:

Religion is any set of norms, practices, and beliefs that establishes a comprehensive way of life that is held out as the right or best way of life for those who adhere to it.

Noah Millman agreed but wanted to amend the definition:

. . . religion is a comprehensive set of normative practices that reflect or imply a set of beliefs about the nature of life and the right way to live it. Those beliefs may or may not be conscious, and may or may not be articulated and taught, in the way that the practices are.

I wonder why both Linker and Millman are so hung up on comprehensive. They don’t seem to understand a two-kingdom (read Augustinian) presentation of Christianity, one that recognizes some aspects of a believers life are religious, some are common or creational. It’s the hyphenation thing. But it’s especially a worry about “all of me” or comprehensive accounts of Christianity when in fact the Bible or bishops haven’t weighed in on everything and Christians have some liberty to figure it out themselves (rue the uncertainty).

In which case, the recent story about the decline of Sabbath observance may be a better indication of how to define religion and spot Christianity, as in Christians are people who take worship seriously and set aside a day for it. But that is changing in the South:

Signs are beginning to emerge suggesting that role of religion in the Bible Belt may be declining, at least to some degree.

The shift is increasingly apparent in local cafes and restaurants in towns across the South, particularly on Sundays. The sale of alcohol on Sundays has long been prohibited in many traditionally religious conservative communities. But recently, more and more of those communities are repealing so-called Blue Laws.

In Sylacauga, Alabama, a small town of just 12,700 people that hosts 78 churches, after-church lunch-goers are now bumping into craft beer drinking sports fans at local restaurants, following a September vote to do away with the Sunday exclusion. Similar initiatives are also underway in parts of Georgia and Mississippi.

A Pew Research Center survey showed 19 percent of Southerners do not identify with any organized religion, a 6 percent rise since 2007 and a number that more closely matches that of the rest of the country.

In another Pew study, 35 percent of Millennials surveyed self-identified as atheist or agnostic. The tendencies appear to be consistent across races.

“We’ve seen this sort of broader shift throughout the country as a whole with fewer people identifying as being part of the religious base,” Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher in religion and public life at Pew told the Associated Press. “In the South you see a pattern very similar to what we are seeing in other regions.”

Maybe sanctification of the Lord’s Day is something that “obedience boys” and Old Lifers could both get behind.

Is "Made Under Law" Gracious?

So my catechetical thought for the day is to wonder why those who insist that the Covenant of Works with Adam was a gracious arrangement don’t extend the logic to Christ’s humiliation and regard his submission to the law also as gracious. Sure, the overarching purpose of the incarnation was gracious. But was Christ’s being “made under the law” specifically a gracious reality? Or was it humiliating, as the Larger and Shorter Catechisms classify it?

Q. 27. Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist?
A. Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.

For those, again, who want to say that the Covenant of Works was gracious in character, why is it uplifting and such a swell deal for Adam to follow God’s law but for Christ it was a burden and a form of humiliation? I don’t think that simply distinguishing between Christ’s divine and human natures will resolve this.

Here is how Calvin renders Galatians 4:4 (“But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,”):

God sent forth his Son. These few words contain much instruction. The Son, who was sent, must have existed before he was sent; and this proves his eternal Godhead. Christ therefore is the Son of God, sent from heaven. Yet this same person was made of a woman, because he assumed our nature, which shews that he has two natures. Some copies read natum instead of filium; but the latter reading is more generally followed, and, in my opinion, is preferable. But the language was also expressly intended to distinguish Christ from other men, as having been formed of the substance of his mother, and not by ordinary generation. In any other sense, it would have been trifling, and foreign to the subject. The word woman is here put generally for the female sex.

Subjected under the law. The literal rendering is, Made under the law; but in my version I have preferred another word, which expresses more plainly the fact that he was placed in subjection to the law. Christ the Son of God, who might have claimed to be exempt from every kind of subjection, became subject to the law. Why? He did so in our room, that he might obtain freedom for us. A man who was free, by constituting himself a surety, redeems a slave: by putting on himself the chains, he takes them off from the other. So Christ chose to become liable to keep the law, that exemption from it might be obtained for us; otherwise it would have been to no purpose that he should come under the yoke of the law, for it certainly was not on his own account that he did so.

If the covenant with Adam was a covenant of works whereby “life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (Confession 7.2), it makes sense to describe Christ’s submission to the law as a form of humiliation. But if the covenant with Adam was gracious, as in God offering freely “salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe” (7.3) then how was Christ “made low” by submitting to it?

The Sinner's Prayer

I worshiped at Christ Reformed Church, Washington, DC on Sunday and this was our corporate confession of sin:

Our Father, we are sinful and you are holy. We recognize that we have heard in your Law difficult words, knowing how often we have offended you in thought, word and deed, not only by obvious violations, but by failing to conform to its perfect commands, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. There is nothing in us that gives us reason for hope, for where we thought we were well, we are sick in soul.

Where we thought we were holy, we are in truth unholy and ungrateful. Our hearts are filled with the love of the world; our minds are dark and are assailed by doubts; our wills are too often given to selfishness and our bodies to laziness and unrighteousness. By sinning against our neighbors, we have also sinned against you, in whose image they were created. In this time of silent confession we bring you our particular sins.

Depressing? Yes.

Accurate? Yes.

But if sanctification and obedience are as much a part of the Christian life as the Obedience Boys and the Anti-Antinomians say, then isn’t this more like the prayer of a convert than a believer?

On the other hand, if this is a legitimate ordinary prayer for a believer — and I think it is — what ever are the critics of a justification-centric understanding of salvation talking about? If sin persists in the believer’s life to such an extent that she needs to pray prayers like this routinely, maybe the calls for obedience come across as more oppressive than inspiring.