Category Archives: Covenant Theology

Faith, Kingdom, Children, Church, etc

Guest Post by John Calvin: How good works are sometimes spoken of as a reason for divine benefits

The fact that Scripture shows that the good works of believers are reasons why the Lord benefits them is to be so understood as to allow what we have set forth before to stand unshaken: that the efficient cause of our salvation consists in God the Father’s love; the material cause in God the Son’s obedience; the instrumental cause in the Spirit’s illumination, that is, faith; the final cause, in the glory of God’s great generosity. These do not prevent the Lord from embracing works as inferior causes. But how does this come about? Those whom the Lord has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life he leads into possession of it, according to his ordinary dispensation, by means of good works. What goes before in the order of dispensation he calls the cause of what comes after. In this way he sometimes derives eternal life from works, not intending it to be ascribed to them; but because he justifies those whom he has chosen in order at last to glorify them [Rom. 8:30], he makes the prior grace, which is a step to that which follows, as it were the cause. But whenever the true cause is to be assigned, he does not enjoin us to take refuge in works but keeps us solely to the contemplation of his mercy. What sort of thing is this teaching of the apostle: “The wages of sin is death; the grace of the Lord, eternal life” [Rom. 6:23]? Why does he not contrast righteousness with sin, as he contrasts life with death? Why does he not make righteousness the cause of life, as he does sin that of death? For thus an antithesis would duly have been set up that is somewhat broken by this variation. But the apostle intended by this comparison to express what was true: namely, that death is owing to men’s deserts but life rests solely upon God’s mercy.

In short, by these expressions sequence more than cause is denoted. For God, by heaping grace upon grace, from the former grace takes the cause for adding those which follow that he may overlook nothing for the enrichment of his servants. And he so extends his liberality as to have us always look to his freely given election, which is the source and beginning. For, although he loves the gifts which he daily confers upon us, seeing that they proceed from that source, still it is our part to hold to that free acceptance, which alone can support our souls; and so to subordinate to the first cause the gifts of the Holy Spirit he then bestows that they may nowise detract from it.

(Institutes, 3, 14, 21)

What is the Gospel?

  • The Gospel is the announcement, promise, and warning that God has given the world a new king and that alliance with him is the only way to life in this world and vindication at the final judgment to come.
  • The Gospel is at once both “religious” and “political” since it is about God and his work but also about a new supreme earthly authority and protector.
  • The Gospel was and is specifically Jewish in orientation since the new king is the king of and the fulfillment of the promise made through and to Israel. When the Gospel was being announced by Jesus prospectively, this was quite explicit. Now it can be presented as explanation depending on circumstances and the needs of hearers.
  • The Gospel is the announcement of the death and resurrection and enthronement of Jesus of Nazareth.
  • The Gospel does not identify the hearer, but leaves the hearer to decide whether he or she will receive the Gospel as truly “good news” or else resist and come under bad new.
  • The Gospel is generic, not specific: It declares what God has done publicly for the world, not what God has done or plans to do for specific individuals in history, beyond how they can be identified by the way they respond to the Gospel.
  • The Gospel present’s the universal king as also the pioneer of the human race: the vindication of Jesus at his resurrection in the past points to the future resurrection and judgment of every member of the human race in the future.
  • The Gospel reveals that death is an enemy, but one who has been conquered and domesticated for those who submit to King Jesus.

Calvinism is true, but it is not the Gospel.

The definition of “righteousness” is not necessarily sinless moral perfection

When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.

via Deuteronomy 6:20-25 –

So, when someone sins, were they therefore devoid of the “righteousness” that is promised “if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God as he has commanded us”?

Of course not. The testimonies, statutes, and rules contained promises of forgiveness on the basis of the understanding that God’s people are sinners who will always need forgiveness. The Law provides for all the forgiveness God’s people will need. It does not expect nor demand sinless moral perfection as a condition for possessing the righteousness promised in Deuteronomy 6.25. What it does demand is that Israelites not abandon the true god for a pagan pretend god.

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD (Leviticus 18.5)

Don’t entrust yourself to the gods of Egypt nor to the gods of Canaan, but rather trust the Lord.

A word about discussions about sanctification

Continuing to pursue sanctification is a lot more important than figuring out the proper motivation for it.

It is can be good to try to make helpful suggestions from time to time, in the pulpit and in writing, about what might help people better and more consistently pursue sanctification without growing weary. But it is important to do so without making people feeling guilty about their motivations. What if you undercut their sanctification because you kick out a support that has been useful to them? Why make them feel guilty about their motives in sanctification when, frankly, the Bible indicates that the lack of sanctification is what we should devote more time and energy feeling guilty about.

And, I don’t understand why I’ve never noticed Presbyterians mention that the Westminster Confession explicitly affirms a variety of motivations are to be used, according to the diversity of motivations presented in Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes saving faith as both justifying and sanctifying. In chapter 14, “Of Saving Faith,” the document describes the “grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls” in this way:

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

So while this faith relies on Christ alone for both justification and sanctification, no one sees this as inconsistent with “trembling at the threatenings,” when such trembling is appropriate.

And, while it is possible to help someone you know with his motivations, which may be frustrating him in his progress, and it is good to present suggestions that you think are being neglected, we should also remember how much God hates it when we judge other people. What is it to you if someone is being sanctified because he fears God’s chastisement or wants to avoid the shame (yes, shame) of falling short of the ideals presented for Christians in Scripture?

If you think grace-driven, gospel-centered Pharisaism is an impossibility, you are walking next to a ditch without a safety rail. Looking down on others for not “doing it right” is always a dangerous trip, though it feels empowering.

Means v. Merit

What kind of moron would take a map that was given to him and claim that, by following the directions, he had earned or merited the honor of arriving at the destination?

Thus Turretin:

Are good works necessary to salvation? We affirm.

II. There are three principal opinions about the necessity of good works…; The third is that of those who (holding the middle ground between these two extremes) neither simply deny, nor simply assert; yet they recognize a certain necessity for them against the Libertines, but uniformly reject the necessity of merit against the Romanists. This is the opinion of the orthodox.

III. Hence it is evident that the question here does not concern the necessity of merit, causality, and efficiency—whether good works are necessary to effect salvation or to acquire it by right. (For this belongs to another controversy, of which hereafter). Rather the question concerns the necessity of means, of presence and of connection or order—Are they required as the means and way for possessing salvation? This we hold.

IV. Although the proposition concerning the necessity of good works to salvation (which was thrust forward in a former century by the Romanists under the show of a reconciliation in the Intermistic formula, but really that imperceptibly the purity of the doctrine concerning justification might be corrupted) was rejected by various Lutheran theologians as less suitable and dangerous; nay, even by some of our theologians; still we think with others that it can be retained without danger if properly explained. We also hold that it should be pressed against the license of the Epicureans so that although works may be said to contribute nothing to the acquisition of our salvation, still they should be considered necessary to the obtainment of it, so that no one can be saved without them–that thus our religion may be freed from those most foul calumnies everywhere cast mot unjustly upon it by the Romanists (as if it were the mistress of impiety and the cushion of carnal licentiousness and security)…

VII. And as to the covenant, everyone knows that it consists of two parts: on the one hand the promise on the part of God; on the other the stipulation of obedience on the part of man… [emphasis added].

Likewise we find in Benedict Pictet the same point:

As to the necessity of good works, it is clearly established from the express commands of God–from the necessity of our worshipping and serving God–from the nature of the covenant of grace, in which God promises every kind of blessing, but at the same time requires obedience–from the favors received at his hands, which are so many motives to good works–from the future glory which is promised, and to which good works stand related, as the means to the end, as the road to the goal, as seed-time to the harvest, as first-fruits to the whole gathering, and as the contest to the victory

This sounds quite like what we find in the Westminster Confession on good works, as well as in Scripture.

Chapter 16:

These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.

The Confession is translating the contemporary English translation of Romans 6.22. Here it is in context:

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So the way is not a method of meriting, but a means of coming into possession.

How baptism is God’s election

In Acts 15 Peter speaks to an assembly about God’s election of him,

Men, brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.

The passage could be just as easily translated from the Greek: “in the early days God elected among you.”

This is obviously not referring to an eternal decree (though I don’t doubt that God’s choosing Peter was part of God’s plan going back to eternity) but to an action God had taken in time (“in the early days’). Specifically, God chose Paul by calling him to go preach the Gospel to Cornelius and his household (Acts 10-11).

If I hold out a platter of cookies to you and say, “Choose one,” I’m not asking for a secret mental operation on your part. I’m asking you to take a cookie and eat it.

Likewise, Peter remembers God sending him the vision and commanding him to go to Cornelius’ house as God electing or choosing him to preach to the Gentiles.

With that in mind, how is God choosing his disciples?

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

While it is true that the God’s present activity is done according to his plan going back to eternity, we can still say truly that God chooses or picks his people by acting through agents. He takes them out of their surrounding generation.

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

God intervenes in history in the lives of people to choose them. He does this by His Spirit, by human agents, and by rites of intervention in the world. When God providentially arranges the baptism of a person, he has, in that act, “made a choice among” us, that he or she should bear his name and be separated to him from their generation.

Adam should have lived by faith alone

I have stated with other pastors:

We affirm that Adam was in a covenant of life with the triune God in the Garden of Eden, in which arrangement Adam was required to obey God completely, from the heart. We hold further that all such obedience, had it occurred, would have been rendered from a heart of faith alone, in a spirit of loving trust. Adam was created to progress from immature glory to mature glory, but that glorification too would have been a gift of grace, received by faith alone.

I stated this because the Fall of Adam was based on a lie that claimed God was unfaithful to his promises:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (from Genesis 3)

So Adam’s obedience depended on faith–trust in God’s promises. Only God’s gracious promise to Adam could be the basis for Adam claiming anything from God as he continued to obey God about the prohibition on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Since God created Adam ex nihilo it would be a violation of the creator/creature distinction to pretend that Adam by his obedience could have intrinsically merited anything from God. His obedience could have only been from faith alone.

There is no other way to relate to the true God except by trusting in his grace. Paul witnessed to the pagan Athenians what it would mean to repent of false finite gods and acknowledge the true God:

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

Some people think that, before sin entered the world, man was in a position to earn or merit blessing from God. But, while it is true that sin corrupts everything we do now, even apart from sin our works could never put God in our debt. The older Protestant theologians knew this. One of them, James Fisher, authored a “catechism”–a series of question and answers for the purpose of teaching children Christian doctrine–which included a question about the first human being: “Was there any proportion between Adam’s obedience, though sinless, and the life that was promised?” The answer is: “There can be no proportion between the obedience of a finite creature, however perfect, and the enjoyment of the infinite God.”

The catechism goes on: “Why could not Adam’s perfect obedience be meritorious of eternal life?” and answers, “Because perfect obedience was no more than what he was bound to, by virtue of his natural dependence on God, as a reasonable creature made after his image.” Finally, the questions is asked: “Could he have claimed the reward as a debt, in case he had continued in his obedience?” The answer is that all rewards are of God’s grace, his unmerited favor: “He could have claimed it only as a pactional debt, in virtue of the covenant promise, by which God became debtor to his own faithfulness, but not in virtue of any intrinsic merit of his obedience, Luke 17:10.” By “pactional” the author means that it was a only by an gracious decision to bind himself to a promise that God could be obligated in the first place.

This last answer is accompanied by a Scripture text, Luke 17.10: “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

James Fisher was only one of many who understood the true God and therefore rejected all human merit. Reformed theologian John Ball writes the common consensus, appealing to the same text that Fisher uses:

In this state and condition Adam’s obedience should have been rewarded in justice, but he could not have merited that reward. Happiness should have been conferred upon him, or continued unto him for his works, but they had not deserved the continuance thereof: for it is impossible the creature should merit of the Creator, because when he hath done all that he can, he is an unprofitable servant, he hath done but his duty (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace).

Unworthy servants are what we are, even when we have done all our duty! How much less can we ever rightfully claim to obligate God to reward us when we both fail to do our duty and actively violate God’s commands every day?

The fact is, when human beings are attracted to the idea of dealing with God on the basis of their merits, they are not only denying their own sinfulness before a Holy God, but they are denying who God is. Make no mistake, the issue here is not merely the sinfulness of sin but the deity of God. As the Westminster Confession states in chapter 2, paragraph 2:

God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himself pleaseth.

For Adam to claim that he could earn glory from God, that he could intrinsically merit from him some reward, would be truly insane–an exchanging of the creature for the Creator. We might as well worship beasts as pretend that we could ever, under any circumstances, offer God works that are truly meritorious before him when he himself has enabled and ordained for us to do every good deed we produce.

Thus, our the Westminster Confession goes on to affirm that we can never merit anything from God, not only because of our sinfulness in comparison to God’s holiness, but also because of our finitude in comparison to God’s transcendance:

We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment (16.5; emphasis added).

Happily, God is gracious. Before sin entered the world, God established a gracious relationship with humanity in Adam whereby he would inherit eternal glory if he persevered in faith and obedience.

But Adam did not remain in the vine (John 15.1ff). In the words of the sixteenth-century Protestant French Confession of Faith, “by his own guilt he fell from the grace which he received.” Rather than destroying Adam and Eve in condemnation, God gave exponentially greater grace to deal with sin and restore man to the glory that he had failed to inherit. He sent His own Son to die in our condemnation on the cross in order to give Jesus the exaltation for us that Adam had failed to trust Him to give him.

There have been recently some attempts to deny this basic aspect of creaturely existence and the true God, as if a creature could hypothetically keep a covenant with God by trusting in his own merits rather than in God’s grace and faithfulness to His graciously-given promises. Furthermore, this false teaching is specifically claimed to be some special insight of Reformed Theology.

The French Confession, quoted above, was approved by John Calvin who himself taught the same thing. In 1536 he wrote in his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion,

In order for us to come to a sure knowledge of ourselves, we must first grasp that Adam, parent of us all, was created in the image and likeness of God. That is, he was endowed with wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and was so clinging by these gifts of grace to God that he could have lived forever in Him, if he had stood fast in the uprightness God had given him. But when Adam slipped into sin, this image and likeness of God was cancelled and effaced, that is, he lost all the benefits of divine grace, by which he could have been led back into the way of life (emphasis added).

Twenty-four years later, Calvin still taught the same thing in his final version of the Institutes,

If man had no title to glory in himself, when, by the kindness of his Maker, he was distinguished by the noblest ornaments, how much ought he to be humbled now, when his ingratitude has thrust him down from the highest glory to extreme ignominy? At the time when he was raised to the highest pinnacle of honor, all which Scripture attributes to him is, that he was created in the image of God, thereby intimating that the blessings in which his happiness consisted were not his own, but derived by divine communication. What remains, therefore, now that man is stripped of all his glory, than to acknowledge the God for whose kindness he failed to be grateful, when he was loaded with the riches of his grace? Not having glorified him by the acknowledgment of his blessings, now, at least, he ought to glorify him by the confession of his poverty (2.2.1; italics added).

Indeed, it is a matter of Confessional orthodoxy for those in the continental Reformed tradition to affirm that upright, sinless creatures only live by the grace of God:

He also created the angels good, to be His messengers and to serve His elect; some of whom are fallen from that excellency in which God created them into everlasting perdition, and the others have by the grace of God remained steadfast and continued in their first state (The Belgic Confession, Article 12).

If even sinless angels are preserved by the grace of God for eternal life, why should Adam be any different? It is one thing to disagree with the Belgic Confession here, but it is altogether different to claim that it is a heretical compromise of the Gospel. Nor is this a simply a pragmatic matter of how we speak theologically. Luke 2.52 explicitly says that the grace of God was upon Jesus. Any claim that grace only refers to blessing shown to a sinner is an attack on the holiness of our Lord.

But there is more: William Ames writes in his Marrow of Theology of God’s covenant with Adam that, “In this covenant the moral deed of the intelligent creature lead either to happiness as a reward or to unhappiness as a punishment. The latter is deserved; the former is not” (1.10.11).

Likewise, Zacharias Ursinus teaches in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechismthat,

even if our works were perfectly good, yet they could not merit eternal life, inasmuch as they are due from us. A reward is due to evil works according to the order of justice; but not unto good works, because we are bound to do them as the creatures of God; but no one can bind God, on the other hand, by any works or means to confer any benefit upon him. Evil works, again, in their very design oppose and injure God, whilst good works add nothing to his felicity (p. 335).

Francis Turretin agrees with this overwhelming testimony. In the first place he defines “merit” in a way that rules out the possibility that a creature could merit anything from the Creator:

To be true merit, then, these five conditions are demanded: (1) that the “work be undue”–for no one merits by paying what he owes (Luke 17.10), he only satisfies; (2) that it be ours–for no one can be said to merit from another; (3) that it be absolutely perfect and free from all taint–for where sin is there merit cannot be; (4) that it be equal and proportioned to the reward and pay; otherwise it would be a gift, not merit. (5) that the reward be due to such a work from justice—whence an “undue work” is commonly defined to be one that “makes a reward due in the order of justice.” (17.5.4; p. 712).

This would lead one to expect that Turretin would deny that sinless “legal obedience” could ever be meritorious in God’s sight. Turretin explicitly meets this expectation. Even if sinless, “there is no merit properly so called of man before God” (Ibid). “Thus, Adam himself, if he had persevered, would not have merited life in strict justice” (Ibid). And, for a sinless being “the legal condition has the relation of a meritorious cause (at least congruously and improperly)” (12.3.6; p. 186; emphasis added). In other words it was emphatically not “merit properly so called.” Joel Garver summarizes:

Having been educated at several prominent Reformed institutions on the Continent, Turretin returned to Geneva where he remained a professor of theology from 1653 onward. While there he published his greatest work, Institutio theologiae elenctiae from 1679-1685. Regarding prelapsarian grace in general, he writes that Adam’s “original righteousness can properly be called ‘grace’ or a ‘gratuitous gift’ (and so not due on the part of God, just as the nature itself also, created by him)” (Institutes 5.11.16).

Regarding the gratuitous promise of life held forth in the prelapsarian covenant of nature, Turretin argues that God promises not only bodily immortality, but also a transformed heavenly life. Had Adam persevered in obedience, the immortality of his body would only have been “through the dignity of original righteousness and the power of God’s special grace” (5.12.9). Moreover, Adam’s elevation to heavenly life would not have been a matter of mere justice, but also “the goodness of God” who is “plenteous in mercy” and by whom Adam would “be gifted” with heavenly life (8.6.6, 8).

For Turretin, not only was grace involved in Adam’s creation, in God’s promise, and in its reward, but Adam was also given “sufficient grace” by which to remain obedient to that first covenant, a grace that Turretin describes as “habitual and internal” (9.7.14-17).

Turretin’s nephew, Benedict Pictet, reiterated this Reformed Orthodox position. His Christian Theology was translated by Frederick Reyroux and it was published by the Presbyterian Board of Publication in Philadelphia before January of 1846. At that time, the issue of the Princeton Review announced the publication and declared,

In this small but compact volume, we have a comprehensive epitome of Theology; from the pen of one of the most distinguished theologians of Geneva. The great excellence of Pictet, is simplicity and perspicuity. He is, even in his large work, much less scholastic, than his predecessors, and less disposed perhaps to press his statements beyond the limits of certain knowledge. We are glad to see so sound and readable a book placed within the reach of all classes of readers (vol 18, issue 1, “Short Notices,” p. 180).

Pictet wrote regarding God’s covenant with Adam that it involved both promise and warning. The warning involves a rather straightforward exposition of the text of Genesis. Proving that a promise was also involved, however, requires some extrapolation, because the future reward is not stated in the text. Pictet reasons from God’s character saying:

With regard to the promise of the covenant, though it is not expressly laid down, it is sufficiently clear from the threatening of death, which is opposed to it; for although God owes nothing to his creature, yet as the whole scripture sets him forth to us as slow to anger and abundant in mercy, it is not at all probable, that God denounced upon man the threat of eternal punishment, and at the same time gave him no promise (p. 141).

Pictet also deals with the principle of the possibility of meritorious works later in his book. In dealing with the good works of a believer, and proving “the necessity of good works,” he goes on to point out that such necessary good works are not meritorious before God. In doing so he gives four reasons (pp 332, 333). At least two of these would apply to all creatures regardless of sin or innocence. First “a meritorious work must be one that is not due, for no one can have any merit in paying what he owes; but good works are due; ‘When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which it was out duty to do’ (Luke 17.10).” Second, there must be a “proportion” between “the good work and the promised reward; but there is no proportion between the two in the present case; not even when the good work is martyrdom, the most excellent of all. For (all) ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed,’ (Romans 8.18).”

But Pictet not only speaks of good works in general, but specifically addresses the issue of how good works would have related to Adam’s vindication and glorification if he had continued in faith and obedience rather than falling into unbelief and disobedience. He writes that “if the first man had persevered in innocence, he would have been justified by the fulfillment of the natural law which God had engraven on his heart, and of the other commandments which God might have enjoined on him; in short, by perfectly loving God and his neighbor” (p. 312). Thus, if Adam had persevered he would have been declared righteous and “acquired a right to eternal glory, not indeed as if he had properly merited it, for the creature can merit nothing from the Creator, but according to the free promise and Covenant of God” (Ibid.).

As can be seen by the fact that Pictet was translated, American theologians did not reject Turrettin’s faithful summary of the Reformed heritage; far less did they condemn it as a subversion of the Gospel.  A. A. Hodge’s Outlines of Theology, published in 1860, say of the covenant of works: “It was also essentially a gracious covenant, because although every creature is, as such, bound to serve the Creator to the full extent of his powers, the Creator cannot be bound as a mere matter of justice to grace the creature fellowship with himself.” Also in his Evangelical Theology: A Course of Popular Lectures (1890), he writes, “God offered to man in this gracious Covenant of Works the opportunity of accepting his grace and receiving his covenant gift of a confirmed holy character” (167).

How does one receive a gift and accept grace? Only by faith.

It is true that faith is more emphasized in the New Covenant for good reason. There is more to trust God for, just as the Covenant of Grace is a good names since there is more grace involved. Not only does God give apart from merit but he gives in the presence of, and to eradicated, positive demerit, after the fall. Also, the content of the faith is different, involving now the work of a mediator, in whom we must believe and trust.

Finally, it is sophistry to claim that because the Westminster Confession states that the Covenant of Works made promises “upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” that this obedience could therefore be meritorious. The same language of “condition” is used to refer to faith in the Covenant of Grace in the Westminster Larger Catechism

Q. 32. How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?
A. The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.

Faith is not meritorious but it is a condition of the covenant. As mentioned before, here the content of the faith is different than Adam’s, so naturally it is emphasized. But that doesn’t mean that unfallen men and angels are supposed to imagine they can earn or merit blessing from God. They can only live by his gifts and promises, trusting in his faithfulness.


The triune God is the archetype of all covenantal relations

As I state with others:

We affirm that the triune God is the archetype of all covenantal relations. All faithful theology and life is conducted in union with and imitation of the way God eternally is, and so we seek to understand all that the Bible teaches—on covenant, on law, on gospel, on predestination, on sacraments, on the Church—in the light of an explicit Trinitarian understanding.

This is, of course, the understanding of Reformed Covenant theology. Dr. Ligon Duncan, for example, teaches:

Covenant theology flows from the trinitarian life and work of God. God’s covenant communion with us is modeled on and a reflection of the intra-trinitarian relationships. The shared life, the fellowship of the persons of the Holy Trinity, what theologians call perichoresis or circumincessio, is the archetype of the relationship the gracious covenant God shares with His elect and redeemed people. God’s commitments in the eternal covenant of redemptive find space-time realization in the covenant of grace.

Dr. Duncan is restating the common Reformed truth articulated by Dr. Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology (p. 263):

The covenant idea developed in history before God made any formal use of the concept in the revelation of redemption. Covenants among men had been made long before God established His covenant with Noah and with Abraham, and this prepared men to understand the significance of a covenant in a world divided by sin, and helped them to understand the divine relation, when it presented man’s relation to God as a covenant relation. This does not mean, however, that the covenant idea originated with man and was then borrowed by God as an appropriate form for the description of the mutual relationship between between Himself and man. Quite the opposite is true; the archetype of all covenant life is found in the trinitarian being of God, and what is seen among men is but a faint copy (ectype) of this. God so ordered the life of man that the covenant idea should develop there as one of the pillars of social life, and after it had so developed, He formally introduced it as an expression of the existing relation between Himself and man.

So in Reformed Covenant Theology: God’s very being, as trinity, is covenantal.

We see this is true from several passages, not least the creation of humanity in the first chapter of the Bible:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them (Genesis 1.27).

Marriage is not explicitly called a covenant until Malachi, but it is implied in Genesis. And we see here that marriage, as a covenantal relationship, reflects the image of God. God is a community. God is a covenant relationship between persons.

Likewise the Church reflects the unity of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. As Jesus prays:

Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one… I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

This unity is a unity in covenant. Thus, the Trinity is the foundational source and the church covenant reflects the Trinitarian unity in diversity.

Thus we see the concrete reality behind the affirmation “God is love” (First John 4.8, 16).

In the world today, embrace by Darwinian materialism, the most fundamental reality is violence. According to Christianity, the most fundamental reality is love in community. Unlike what is the case in unitarian religions, God was in loving relationship as an essential part of his nature. He did not need to create in order to have community and love. He created as an overflowing expression of community and love–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Related: Affirming Justification by Faith Alone According to the Westminster Standards.

John Calvin and Peter Leithart take on Trent on Baptism

Trent states: “Whosoever affirms that new-born infants are not to be baptized, even though they are the children of baptized parents, or says that they are indeed baptized for the remission of sins, but derive no original sin from Adam, which requires to be expiated by the laver of regeneration in order to obtain eternal life — whence it follows, that in them the form of baptism for the remission of sins is not true but false, let him be anathema; seeing that the words of the Apostle, ‘By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, inasmuch as all have sinned,’ cannot be understood in any other sense than that in which the Church everywhere diffused has always understood them. By reason of this rule of faith, according to the tradition of the Apostles, even infants who of themselves could not have committed sin, are truly baptized for the remission of sins, in order that what they have contracted by generation may be cleansed by regeneration. For ‘unless a man be born of water and of the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’”

Calvin responds: “As to these there will be no dispute, and therefore it was obviously malicious in them to premise that their object was to settle the dissensions which have arisen at this time,” and adds: “We assert that the whole guilt of sin is taken away in baptism, so that the remains of sin still existing are not imputed. That this may be more clear, let my readers call to mind that there is a twofold grace in baptism, for therein both remission of sins and regeneration are offered to us. We teach that full remission is made, but that regeneration is only begun and goes on making progress during the whole of life. Accordingly, sin truly remains in us, and is not instantly in one day extinguished by baptism, but as the guilt is effaced it is null in regard to imputation.”

“Nothing,” Calvin further asserts, “is plainer than this doctrine.”

via Peter J. Leithart » Blog Archive » Baptism for remission.

And yes, I just re-posted the entire thing. Not even ashamed about it.

Does God still speak? Does God still act?

Evangelicalism is roughly (very roughly) divided into two camps: those who believe in “continuing revelation” in the form of supernatural prophecies, utterances, and divinely-given knowledge. Others insist that, since “the canon is closed,”  all prophecy must have ceased.

Personally, I believe that all prophecy, utterances, and divinely-given knowledge of the self-attesting type is now over. My main reason for this belief is what I think is the obvious fact that it does not happen anymore. I don’t see any direct instruction in the Bible that explains that it was all going to cease at a certain point in time, but it did (again, I take this as obvious). Given that the kind of stuff we read about in Acts and First Corinthians doesn’t happen anymore, I have deduced that once the canon of the Word of God, the Bible, was complete, that God wanted us to make our way in the world without such specific communications from Him.

So doe this mean God never speaks anymore?

I don’t think so.

The Reformation tradition gives us a way that God continues to communicate in specific ways to his Church in specific times and places. While this communication is not an addition to the inerrant word of God, it is nevertheless truly a communication from God. It is best set out in the Second Helvetic Confession:

THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.

Neither do we think that therefore the outward preaching is to be thought as fruitless because the instruction in true religion depends on the inward illumination of the Spirit, or because it is written “And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor…, for they shall all know me” (Jer. 31:34), And “Neither he who plants nor he that waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (I Cor. 3:7). For although “No one can come to Christ unless he be drawn by the Father” (John 6:44), And unless the Holy Spirit inwardly illumines him, yet we know that it is surely the will of God that his Word should be preached outwardly also. God could indeed, by his Holy Spirit, or by the ministry of an angel, without the ministry of St. Peter, have taught Cornelius in the Acts; but, nevertheless, he refers him to Peter, of whom the angel speaking says, “He shall tell you what you ought to do.”

So notice the identity. The preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word. Is there Biblical backing for this? I believe so. In Ephesians 2 Paul writes that,

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off [Gentiles] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.

So Christ not only died and rose again but he then went and preached to the Ephesians. How did he do this since we know he ascended into Heaven and never traveled to Ephesus? The answer seems to be that he preached through authorized intermediaries. Paul later elaborates on his list so that it includes more than just “apostles and prophets.” In Ephesians 4 we read that, as a result of Jesus’ ascension

he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [pastors] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

Through these people, Jesus preaches peace in this age. Thus Paul goes on to write

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Notice that I have re-literalized the ESV. It does not say we have heard about Christ but that we have heard Christ ourselves. We learned Christ this way. How? By the preaching of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Christ Himself speaks for them.

And if this is so, we must also recognize that God himself acts through his servants. Jesus gave the Great Commission which not only commanded that He be taught (“to observe all that I have commanded you”) but that he induct disciples (“baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”). When a pastor fulfills the Great Commission by baptizing a person, he is not acting on his own. He is acting as an authorized and empowered agent of Jesus Christ. Christ himself is publicly and officially receiving the person baptized into his own household and kingdom. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (First Corinthians 12.13).

So when we are tempted to doubt that God has named and claimed us as his own, we need to remember the act in which He did so. A mere mortal may have baptized you, perhaps one who has subsequently fallen from the faith. It does not matter. He was acting as God’s agent at the time under the direction of God’s providence and God’s Spirit. You were not merely baptized by man but by God.

Does God still speak? Does God still act?

God has received you into His Son and, has thus declared over you, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3.21). As it is written:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s family, heirs according to promise. I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.