Machen Death Day 2023

A little tide me over for post-Christmas blues:

Would our knowledge of our Saviour be essentially complete if the New Testament did not contain the passages which narrate the virgin birth?

That question, we think, should be answered with an emphatic negative; without the story of the virgin birth our knowledge of our Saviour would be impoverished in a very serious way. Exaggerations, indeed, should be avoided at this point. Even without the infancy narratives we should have much upon which to rest our faith. Christ would still be presented in the New Testament as both God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever; the significance of His Cross would still stand out in all its glorious clearness; He would still be offered to us in the gospel as our Saviour.

Yet there would be a serious gap in our knowledge of Him, and questions would arise which would be full of menace for the souls of men. How did this eternal Son of God enter into the world? Did the Son of God unite with the man Jesus at the baptism as the Gnostics supposed; was the man Jesus received up gradually into union with the eternal Son? Erroneous answers to such questions would, without the story of the virgin birth, be all too ready to hand. No doubt those erroneous answers would still be capable of refutation to a mind ideally logical and really filled with the convictions which all the Gospels and Epistles would provide. Yet they would be only too natural to the minds of men as they actually are. Without the story of the virgin birth we should be living constantly in a region of surmises like the errors of the heresiarchs in the ancient Church.

Such surmises would deprive us of the full doctrine of the incarnation upon which our souls can rest. To that doctrine it is essential that the Son of God should live a complete human life upon this earth. But the human life would not be complete unless it began in the mother’s womb. At no later time, therefore, should the incarnation be put, but at that moment when the babe was conceived. There, then, should be found the stupendous event when the eternal Son of God assumed our nature, so that from then on He was both God and man. Our knowledge of the virgin birth, therefore, is important because it fixes for us the time of the incarnation. And what comfort that gives to our souls! Marcion, the second-century dualist, was very severe upon those who thought that the Son of God was born as a man; he poured out the vials of his scorn upon those who brought Christ into connection with the birth-pangs and the nine months’ time. But we, unlike Marcion and his modern disciples, glory just in the story of those things. The eternal Son of God, He through whom the universe was made, did not despise the virgin’s womb! What a wonder is there! It is not strange that it has always given offence to the natural man. But in that wonder we find God’s redeeming love, and in that babe who lay in Mary’s womb we find our Saviour who thus became man to die for our sins and bring us into peace with God.

Moreover, the knowledge of the virgin birth is important because of its bearing upon our view of the solidarity of the race in the guilt and power of sin. If we hold a Pelagian view of sin, we shall be little interested in the virgin birth of our Lord; we shall have little difficulty in understanding how a sinless One could be born as other men are horn. But if we believe, as the Bible teaches, that all mankind are under an awful curse, then we shall rejoice in knowing that there entered into the sinful race from the outside One upon whom the curse did not rest save as He bore it for those whom He redeemed by His blood.

How, except by the virgin birth, could our Saviour have lived a complete human life from the mother’s womb, and yet have been from the very beginning no product of what had gone before, but a supernatural Person come into the world from the outside to redeem the sinful race? We may not, indeed, set limits to the power of God; we cannot say what God might or might not have done. Yet we can say at least that no other way can be conceived by us. Deny or give up the story of the virgin birth, and inevitably you are led to evade either the high Biblical doctrine of sin or else the full Biblical presentation of the supernatural Person of our Lord. A noble man in whom the divine life merely pulsated in greater power than in other men would have been born by ordinary generation from a human pair; the eternal Son of God, come by a voluntary act to redeem us from the guilt and power of sin, was conceived in the virgin’s womb by the Holy Ghost. (The Virgin Birth of Christ [1930], 394-395)

Are Some Sins Easier to Condemn, Easier to Erase?

What if bigotry were as hard to discern and remedy as same-sex attraction and concupiscence?

Think about the categories used in the PCA report on Human Sexuality:

Second, according to the system of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we should not be surprised, but rather expect that concupiscence in general, and specific instances like homosexual attraction bigotry, would continue in the life of a believer. The Confession is clear; corruption remains “in every part” (13.2). We would never say to a new believer who has a history of destructive anger, “Now that you are a Christian, you will never again feel a rush of anger rise up within you at the wrong time, for a selfish reason, out of proportion to the situation, or in any other way that contradicts God’s law.” Neither should we communicate to a believer with a history of homosexual attraction bigotry the expectation that this will simply disappear.

“…according to the doctrinal system of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we should not rule out, but rather expect that concupiscence in general antipathy to others, and specific instances like homosexual attraction bigotry, would be areas in which the believer would see some progress toward truly righteous feelings and actions. Our previous point had to do with the danger of creating the expectation that our experience of corruption will entirely disappear in this life if we are regenerate. This point addresses what might be considered an error on the other end of the spectrum, the error of asserting that change is not possible or not to be sought. But just as the Confession is clear that corruption remains in every part, it is also clear that the sanctifying work of the Spirit is felt in the “whole man.” Someone with homosexual attraction who hates other groups ought not close himself or herself off to the pursuit of, and hope of, real change in those attractions inclinations, even if that change is incomplete and mixed. …

Finally, we can discern a very practical value to the distinction between the sin that is constituted by our “corruption of nature…and all the motions thereof” and the “actual transgressions” that proceed from it. Even where original sin is manifested in the form of sinfully disordered desires or feelings inclinations, including homosexual attraction bigotry, there is significant moral difference between that initial “motion” of corruption and the decision to cultivate or act on it. To feel a sinfully disordered sexual attraction hatred (of any kind) is properly to be called sin—and all sin, “both original and actual” earns God’s wrath (WCF 6.6)—but it is significantly less heinous (using the language of the WLC 151) than any level of acting upon it in thought or deed. The point here is not to encourage those with homosexual attraction who are bigoted to become comfortable with or accepting of it. Rather, it is to counter the undue heaping of shame upon them as if the presence of homosexual attraction bigotry itself makes them the most heinous of sinners. On the contrary, their experience is representative of the present life of all Christians. John Owen has said, “…yet sin doth so remain, so act and work in the best of believers, whilst they live in this world, that the constant daily mortification of it is all their days incumbent upon them.” Our brothers and sisters who resist and repent of enduring feelings of same-sex attraction bigotry are powerful examples to us all of what this “daily mortification” looks like in “the best of believers.” We should be encouraged and challenged by their example and eager to join in fellowship with them for the mutual strengthening of our faith, hope, and love.

Is it possible to think about tribalism, bigotry, undue attachment to groups, or racial supremacy the way the PCA instructs officers and members to think about same sex attraction? Both are disordered inclinations. But when people condemn bigotry between racial groups, they tend not to see it as something that lurks in a fallen human being, even in a regenerate soul:

​Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do.

Would the authors and signers of this statement ever add, “there go I but for the grace of God”? Or is such a condemnation an indication to others that you do not approve of racism in those who are. As such, a statement is mainly a way to avoid confusion. By signing or issuing a statement, I too show that I am not a racist and detest those who are.

Wait. What about hate the sin, love the sinner?

Even more difficult – what if the sins of the sixth and seventh commandments — heck the whole darned Decalogue — reside in each and every Christian’s heart? That might produce statements that are less finger wagging, and more understanding like the PCA’s report.

It might also indicate that human beings are not Pelagian when it comes to racial bigotry. That is, the soul does not have a racist switch that you flick on after coming into the world loving and kind, and then flick off when you repent and condemn racism in yourself and others.

In fact, if sin can be systemic, no better place to look than not in bureaucracy but in the human heart.

Forensic Friday: Dominie Clark on Semi-Pelagianism

One of the great misconceptions about the Western church before the Reformation and therefore about the Reformation reaction to it is that the medieval church taught “salvation by works” or, more precisely, “justification by works” whereas the Reformation taught “salvation by grace” or, more precisely, “justification by grace.” There are a couple of reasons why this way of speaking is misleading or problematic.

First, the claim that the medieval and the Tridentine (and post-Tridentine) Roman Church (even today) teaches justification by works is a true conclusion and a powerful but misleading slogan because one will not find many medieval or counter-Reformation or post-Reformation Roman theologians or Councils or Papal decrees saying “justified by works.” Because the debate was (and is) rather more nuanced, sometimes Protestants are surprised to read the medieval and Roman theologians speaking so often and so effusively about grace.
Indeed, the Roman system of salvation (and justification) is positively infused (pun intended) with grace. Remember through the course of medieval history the Western church developed an elaborate sacramental system designed to impart grace to the sinner at every turn. So, a medieval or Roman theologian, when accused baldly of teaching justification by works could quite rightly reply, “What do you mean? There has never been such a gracious system of salvation!”

Here is the problem, and it is a very important problem touching the New Perspective(s) on Paul, the Federal Vision, and other sorts of covenantal moralists. It is too often assumed that the only categories by which these problems, e.g., Paul and Second Temple Judaism, the Reformation reaction to the medieval church, may be analyzed are the categories “Pelagian” or “Anti-Pelagian.” This is a mistake. Though the Reformation often used the adjective “Pelagian” to describe the Roman soteriology, and there were some late medieval theologians who advocated a doctrine of salvation that came perilously close to genuine Pelagianism, in the main, the medieval and Roman soteriology was not actually Pelagian any more than most Second Temple rabbis were baldly Pelagian (i.e. teaching that we are not sinners until we sin and therefore do not necessarily need grace). The Rabbis recognized that we are sinful, but they held we are not so sinful that we cannot keep the law. They had at least some of them a doctrine of sin and grace and so did most medieval theologians and so did Trent and so does Vatican II and the Roman catechism.

Failure to recognize that, in each of these cases, the opponents of either Paul or Luther, had a doctrine of depravity and grace, has led too many to think that so long as they acknowledge sin and grace and especially in Calvinist circles, so long as they say “sovereign grace” that everything else they say is “covered” as it were. As a matter of fact, just as there were late medieval theologians who verged on Pelagianism, so too there were late medieval theologians who had a high view of divine sovereignty. Those late medieval, neo-Augustinian theologians who taught a high doctrine of sin and a high doctrine of grace also taught that we are justified because we are sanctified. They taught that God sovereignly works sanctity within us. To be sure a recovery of the doctrines of depravity and sovereign grace were essential to the Reformation but they alone were not sufficient. . . .

Augustine not only rejected Pelagianism but also semi-Pelagianism (grace and cooperation with grace). The Reformation rejected both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. For the Protestant Reformers, to say “and cooperation with grace” is to deny the material doctrine of the Reformation, justification by unmerited divine favor alone, through faith resting on and receiving Christ’s finished work alone. The doctrine of justification by grace and cooperation with grace attempts to synthesize two contrary principles: grace and works. When it comes to justification there is no synthesizing grace and works. Either we stand before the perfectly holy God on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to us sinners and received by unmerited divine favor alone through faith (defined as a certain knowledge and a hearty trust or leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified alone) or we do not. It is not possible for a Reformed Christian to speak of justification “by grace and works.” If it is by grace, then it is not by works and if it is in the tiniest bit by our works, even if that work is described as Spirit-wrought sanctity by which we are empowered to cooperate with grace, then justification is no longer by grace. This is what Paul says in Romans 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” or in 2 Timothy 1:9, “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began….”

The medieval church taught (and the Roman church today teaches) that God the Spirit sovereignly works grace within the sinner creating sanctity (holiness). They called this Spirit-wrought sanctity “condign merit.” It is condign or worthy of divine acceptance because it is perfect and it is said to be perfect because it is Spirit-wrought. Nevertheless, the sinner is obligated to cooperate with grace or there can be no merit.

Remarkably, the covenantal moralists of our day are arguing a very similar program. There are two outstanding cases that come to mind. A few years ago, in our own federation (the United Reformed Churches in North America), a minister preached a notorious sermon in which it was argued that, at the judgment, we shall stand before God not on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ but on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity by virtue of our union with Christ. This sermon caused a complaint to the minister’s consistory and the matter eventually came to Synod where our churches responded by affirming our belief in the imputation of the active obedience of Christ as the sole ground of our justification.

There is no doubt that the Reformed churches confess the necessity of Spirit-wrought sanctity and even grace and cooperation with grace but not for justification. The fundamental distinction that Paul made, and that the Reformation recovered, is the distinction between justification as the divine declaration of righteousness and the sanctification as the progressive out working of that righteousness in our lives as a consequence of justification. This is why our catechism is in three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude. The last section flows from the second. It is the result, the consequence of it, not the basis or even the instrument by which we stand before God now or ever. (“Examining the Nine Points,” The Outlook, Dec. 2008)