Regarding the creator-creature distinction, there is no disagreement among Christians as to whether God knows a greater number of propositions relative to man, or whether God understands how all bits of knowledge exhaustively relate to each other in a mode or manner not available to created beings. Indeed, there is a quantitative difference between God’s knowledge and man’s. God simply knows more stuff. But as just alluded to, the mode or manner of how God knows is radically different than how man knows. We may say that God’s knowledge is original and intuitive whereas man’s knowledge is derivative and receptive. No Christian demurs.
Where things get a bit trickier is over the content of what God and man know. Does the proposition God is Spirit have the identical meaning for both God and man? If not, then how can man know God given that for true knowledge to obtain man’s thoughts must intersect the mind of God? Must man know univocally in order to know God?
Revelation, an accommodation:
The object of our knowledge is God’s revelation of himself, which is a replication (or divine interpretation) of the original, intended to accommodate finite creatures. In other words, God reveals himself to created beings through created things – for instance language, laws of inference and categories of thought. Yet the propositions of revelation pertaining to God that are processed through the human mind are not themselves God. They are suitable accommodations to our finitude. Although God knows himself originally and intuitively, he lisps his revelation of himself to us in a manner fitting to our creaturely capacities.
With respect to mode or manner, God cannot have us know him in the same way in which he knows himself. We’d have to share in the divine essence to know God that way. Accordingly, our descriptions of God will be proportional to what God desires us to know through the revelatory mode in which he has allowed us to know him. But again, must man know univocally to know God? If not, then how can man truly know God even partially?
God’s condescension and knowledge of his revelation:
Although we can apprehend God, we can never comprehend God. To comprehend God is to know God exhaustively, as God knows himself. This is why we cannot define God, although we can describe God. Being finite, there are of course limits to what we can know of God because the revelation of God is not God.
God’s revelation of himself is not himself, for God transcends his revelation. The reality behind God’s revelation is greater. Although we do not know univocally, as there is no identity between God’s self-knowledge and our knowledge of the Divine, we are not left to equivocal inferences either. We know God partially and imperfectly, yet we can know God sufficiently and truly. There is true correspondence between the mind of God and man’s, which intersects at the point of analogy (the ectypal).
Because we are limited by the manner in which we can know, we must also be limited to a content that is analogous to what God knows. And although our knowledge is analogical relative to God’s original self-knowledge (analogical to the archetypal), our knowledge in another sense corresponds to God’s, though not directly to the original of God’s knowledge but rather to God’s knowledge of the analogical icons that he has made known to us. In a word, it’s not that we know what God knows (the original), but that God knows what he has allowed us to know (the divinely revealed interpretation of the original). The point of similitude between the divine mind and the creature’s is at the point of revelation, the ectypal. Human knowledge obtains.
What should humble us should not lead us to despair:
Although God is incomprehensible, God is not “wholly hidden.” Although God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and our thoughts can never attain to the heights of God’s thoughts, the things God has revealed belong to us and to our children forever. (Isaiah 55:8,9; Deuteronomy 29:29)
We receive the eternal reality of the Son through created means:
God is knowable. If nothing else, by revelation we know God is incomprehensible(!), but by grace and pure condescension we know much more. For God has spoken to us in Christ, who is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. (Heb. 1:2,3)
Through revelation and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we receive not just the full revelation of God but the whole, undivided Christ. Through Word and sacrament we receive not just revelation, sign and symbol, but by the grace of the Spirit we receive by faith the reality conveyed by those created means, the very Son of God.
There is nothing more amazing than the grace of salvation conferred to those who are afar off. And although conversion of covenant children is no less a matter of grace, pious parents ought not to doubt the election and subsequent conversion of their children.
Because covenant children are not among those who are afar off but are holy in Christ and members of his church, they are rightful recipients of the sign and seal of engrafting into Christ. Indeed, discipleship begins at the font.
Believers who are mindful of their vows and careful to do the commandments, statutes, and rules that God commands may have confidence God will visit their seed with the grace of salvation. (Exodus 20:5-6; Deuteronomy 7:9,11; Nehemiah 1:5) These same covenant blessings may not be anticipated by believers who are not diligent to pursue Christ and his precepts. Whenever God saves out of obscurity it’s always amazing; yet when God grafts out covenant children, it’s not nearly as surprising.
Grace begets more grace:
Believers have broken all God’s commandments. On a scale of the faithful – from the least at one end to faithful-Christ at the other – believers are compressed toward the least of the faithful relative to Christ. In that respect, all believers are indistinguishable when compared to Christ. Notwithstanding, because God causes one to differ from another, we may not deny that one indeed does differ from another! In other words, obedience wrought in faith is a peculiar grace that we may expect to culminate in everlasting reward in Christ. (Mark 10:37,40; 1 Corinthians 4:7)
Sowing and reaping and spiritual adultery:
God is not mocked and is often pleased to operate according to a sowing and reaping principle with respect to spiritual blessings. Accordingly, when God saves the children of believers, he is often pleased to grant positive spiritual influences (usually parental) resulting in the training up of covenant children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Sadly, these formative influences sometimes come by way of examples of church members denying the faith. As tragic as that is, the grafting out of the seed of believers can be the pedagogical means by which God gets our attention and teaches parents to protect their own from the harmful influences of this present age. The manifestation of Scripture’s warnings culminating in the apostasy of covenant children works for the good of those who love God, those who are called according to his purpose.
Examples and warnings of a perishing seed are replete in Israel’s history up to this present day. Yet such examples of apostasy are often needful for faithful Christian parents, for without which they can lose motivation to persevere and not be as intentional about avoiding covenant curses for their own households.
All believers will be tested for steadfastness and perseverance; yet those who seek but do not receive are valued by God as having wrong motives. Moreover, believers are regarded as spiritually adulterous when their pursuits entail friendship with the world and behavior that is becoming of the enemies of God. (James 1:3-4; 4:3-4)
God’s decree and our responsibility:
We must be careful as we reconcile God’s predestinating grace with parental responses to God’s covenant promises. God’s covenant of grace cannot fail for it is established with Christ and the elect in him. (Genesis 17; Romans 9; Galatians 3; WLC 31)
The faithful who run in the ways of the Lord can expect their children to be fed with the heritage of Jacob as they grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful parents can expect their children are indeed elect, will come to faith in Christ, and persevere until the end. Whereas those who as a manner of life seek their children’s interests more than God’s can claim no greater than God’s abandonment of their offspring.
God’s covenant blessings are often released by the means of parental faith and obedience, though they are not ultimately based upon faith and obedience. When God sets his sights on visiting the future generations of believers with salvation, he is often pleased to grant the commensurate parental responses to receive the promises and blessings that the covenant of grace contemplates. Although not a quid pro quo, wisdom is nonetheless vindicated in her children.
Calvinism, not fatalism:
Because God’s decree cannot be thwarted, only those chosen in Christ will be saved. From that premise, Calvinists often wrongly assume that the non-elect could not have been saved had other gospel influences come to bear. That’s fatalism, not Calvinism. It is to miss that God’s ends do not fall out apart from their appointed means. God, according to his own purposes and most wise and inscrutable counsel, has withheld the election of some covenant children accompanied by the ordaining of unfaithful parents (and spiritual overseers) whom God will hold accountable along with those who have fallen away.
We must not confuse God’s decree with God’s assessment of human culpability.
The apostle Paul was innocent of the blood of all because he faithfully declared the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:26-27)
Jesus warns that we can cause others to stumble into sin. And although sin will come to pass as God has determined, woes are preached to those by whom it comes. (Matthew 18:3-7; Romans 14:21; 1 Corinthians 8:9-13)
Lastly, Jesus would have gathered the children of Israel as a hen gathers her brood under her wings if not for the sins of their parents. (Matthew 23:37)
All that to say, election and the predestining of one’s sanctification presuppose how the chosen are led to Christ and further influenced.
The principle of not growing weary in well doing pertains all the more to parents who have been charged (even vowed) to lead their children to Christ.
Although one cannot lose his salvation, the branch of future generations is often cut off and thrown into the fire because of spiritual neglect, over confidence, and even willful disobedience. (John 15:5-6; Romans 11:19-22)
Because being careful to keep God’s commandments is the way of grace, parents play a prominent role in leading their children to close with Christ. That God is pleased to save the children of Godly parents should induce parents unto Godliness, not complacency. Conversely, it is God’s prerogative to graft out those born of believing parents whom God has not seen fit to ordain unto the grace of parental diligence and fidelity.
Practice to reflect reality:
Scripture and life-experiences teach that God delights in saving the children of faithful parents who strive to live out the reality of their children’s positional holiness in Christ. Because covenant children are set-apart in Christ and members of the visible church, faithful parents seek to nurture a home-life that’s commensurate to the spiritual reality that covenant children are born into.
Because Christian parents are to protect the deposit of faith, parents who believe their children are set-apart can have that gospel conviction vindicated by providing a well guarded home suitable for spiritual flourishing. Parents who recognize that a child’s heart is soil for the word of God will treat it ever so tenderly and do all within their earthly power to make it fertile. This includes vigilant prayer and helping to keep one’s child unspotted from the world with all appropriateness.
Faithful Christian parents have a sanctified vision for their children and strive by grace to raise them according to their biblical convictions. The pious parent loves his children by loving God more than them. He is single-minded, and sometimes the object of extended family and Christian ridicule. (Such a parent’s reward is great!)
The prophet Malachi proclaimed that God had cursed the offspring of the priests for not honoring his name. Judah profaned God’s covenant, yet wonders in tears and groaning as to why they have fallen out of favor with God. They had fallen out of favor with God because parents did not pursue the one thing God was seeking,a Godly offspring. (Malachi 2)
Eli honored his sons above God, which resulted in his household being cut off. His failure as a father was that he esteemed his sons more than God. This resulted in Eli’s sons being counted as worthless men for they did not know the Lord. (1 Samuel 2)
Jesus taught that anyone who loves their child more than him is not worthy of him and his inheritance. (Matthew 10:37)
Among what these principles teach is that when a parent loves his family first and foremost, he neither loves God nor his family aright. One loves his children above God by pursuing their happiness rather than their Godliness, their respectability rather than their need for righteousness in Christ. Even to seek equally both happiness and Godliness is to deny God. It is to deny the primacy of a biblical pursuit of God, and that all blessings beyond knowing Christ are incidental to seeking first the kingdom of God. It’s to pursue God’s favor apart from thirsting after Christ. What can be more subtly idolatrous for the Christian than pursuing the gifts more than him, the giver?
A parent’s vision is sometimes a big pill to swallow:
Children are neither here to make their parents proud nor to pursue their personal pleasures. Children are here for God’s service and none other.To find that burdensome is to disbelievethat Jesus’ yoke is easy and burden is light. It’s to miss out on the abundant life that Christ offers! (Matthew 11:28-30; John 10:10)
Children are on loan to their parents from God. Because parents are the stewards of God’s heritage, they must instruct their children to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, (and that the additional abundant-blessings of life, which God promises to bestow, are to be received with thanksgiving as a kindness from the Lord).
Only by glorifying God will children enjoy him now and forever. Pursuing the good gifts of God apart from enjoying God himself will result neither in enjoying his good gifts nor enjoying God. Both the gifts and the giver will become empty idols that will ultimately disappoint and eventually get discarded.
A parent will always weigh decisions for their children’s future against either future Godliness or temporal bliss. Yet a parent who self-consciously desires the blessings of God to a thousand generations hammers the stake out on the horizon and measures life’s decisions against it. Consequently, earnest desires for our children’s future must result in corresponding parental decisions for them now. In essence, for the faithful parent all else pales insignificant to Christ being formed in their children. (Galatians 4:19) Accordingly, the prize of a Godly seed will dictate the types of decisions a parent makes on behalf of his household.
Faith that pleases God is a faith that works. It always results in action:
When God grants heart felt conviction over biblical truth, the believer does not merely assent to God’s precepts but instead obediently lives out what he knows is true. He can do no other than live by his convictions! Biblical conviction sacrifices sight for faith and the world for Christ.
Theology put into practice produces disciples by grace. With that in mind, below are a smattering of verses accompanied by some diagnostic questions.
The Bible has hard hitting words for believers who do not make it a priority to love the Lord and despise evil by growing in the grace and knowledge of God:
Jesus commands his disciples to love God with the totality of their being, including their minds. We are to offer ourselves a living sacrifices to God by diligently renewing our minds so that we might present ourselves approved to God. (Matthew 5:22:37; Romans 12:1; 2 Timothy 2:15)
Needless to say, to pit a tenacious pursuit of theology against Christian living, even against the salvation of our children, is to put asunder faith and practice.
What is it to separate knowledge of God from sanctification? How is it not to trade the spirit for the flesh?
We are masters of many things. The modern day knowledge of sports, science, finance, technology, politics, culture, music – you name it – is astounding. But are the people of God nearly as diligent in the study of God and his ways? If not, then how does that not presume upon grace for ourselves and our children, if not even put God to the test?
How is it possible not to become ensnared in our faith and family life if we aren’t weaned off spiritual milk and growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord? If a parent who lives on milk is a spiritual child, then how aren’t spiritual children raising their children?
If parents cannot defend the faith against the attacks of this world, how will they not be duped by the world or be able to help their children to discern the light of God from Satan’s deceptive light?
Does the ability to leave for dead the philosophies and ideologies of this world count for anything? Does it have anything to do with our obedience to Christ and the spiritual safety of our families?
Can we say with the apostle with the same exuberance:
Sunday discipline and our choice of church:
Do we come to God with our non-negotiable will-worship already in place and expect (even require!) God’s approval? Or do we humbly seek God’s will for our worship and Sunday practice, and then submit our wills to God’s commands, believing he loves us and wants the best for us?
Is our number one priority for our children their discipline in the Lord, or do we exasperate them by prematurely exposing them to the world while expecting them to live as children of light?
Parents must make it a priority that their children honor them for their children’s sake and God’s glory. How is that charge not made even more difficult, resulting in provoking children to anger, if parents enable early worldly indoctrination from outside the home?
Parents hate their children by not training them to see the sin of dishonoring their parents. It is to drive their children from the kingdom of God by withholding correction and the gospel of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation for all sins and particularly the first commandment with a promise.
In a word, parenting is gospel ministry to our children. It can seem laborious at times but it’s the way of life. The reward is Christ and life everlasting. It’s what it is to love our children!
Back to basics:
How will children ever move toward the light of spiritual maturity if they’re not also protected from the darkness of the present evil age?
Parents who do not believe that children from non-Christian households and unbelieving school teachers are the devil’s mignons have been deceived. Without a healthy fear of the world, how can parents avoid exasperating their children when they tacitly invite antithetical influences upon their children prior to them having developed a more mature Christian worldview? And how might children develop such a worldview by which they can learn to “hate every false way” if their parents haven’t first studied to present themselves approved for Christ’s sake? (Psalm 119:104; 2 Timothy 2:15)
Because God is not interested in converts but in making disciples, the conversion of covenant children apart from God ordaining the parental means by which they’ll become true followers of Christ ought not to be seen as normative. Parents who aren’t diligent in nurturing and protecting their children from the world may expect their children to be devoured.
Child rearing entails much more than learning “the elementary doctrine of Christ.” We are to “go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.” Christians are to mature in the faith, which is a divine charge to strive for completeness, even perfection. (Matthew 5:48; Hebrews 6:1) This goes beyond merely being trained to regurgitate the shorter catechism. We are to grow in understanding spiritual things for which we would otherwise have no appetite in the flesh – points of doctrine we haven’t yet imagined because of weakness, ignorance and our own deliberate fault. “And this we will do if God permits.” (Hebrews 6:3)
What might child nurturing look like when the results are little ones who grieve over displeasing God and their parents, and desire nothing more than parental closeness and peace with the Lord? Add to that parents who are broken over being severe with their children. Such other-worldly tenderness can only be the result of biblical, Spirit-filled means. It is attainable but only by the grace of God, and must be pursued God’s way. The narrow way that leads to life is not hidden but there are many alluring paths that cross it, which lead only to death.
These thoughts will undoubtedly be received by some and not by others. On that front, I’ll say just a few things.
If all the members of one’s household are walking with the Lord, the parents have been blessed either in spite of, or to some degree in accordance with, their faithfulness, which is all of grace. Be encouraged and give all glory to God.
If one has lost a child to the world yet claims surprise, then seek God’s face on how tenderly and protectively you shepherded your child’s heart and receive God’s forgiveness. Also, consider seeking your grown child’s forgiveness.
To those of us who understand to some degree our parental failures or have even lost a child to the world, I offer these words from our Lord:
To those with young children, or hoping to one day raise up a Godly seed, I offer these words from our Lord:
When it comes to the question of whether Reformed theology entails a principle of determinism, either disagreement abounds among Reformed theologians or else many within the tradition are talking by each other.
Perhaps some are in theological agreement over this essential aspect of Reformed theology while expressing themselves in conflicting ways. Perhaps. Regardless, there is no less a need to adopt a uniform theological taxonomy by which such theological ideas and concepts can be articulated and evaluated.
Semantics or substantive disagreement?
R.C. Sproul denied determinism yet affirmed “self-determination.” Sproul also rejected spontaneity of choice, whereas Douglas Kelly has favored it. Tom Nettles favors determinism whereas Burk Parsons was relieved to learn it is not an entailment of Reformed Theology. Richard Muller has claimed that Reformed theology does not entail a form of determinism. D.A. Carson and Muller disagree on the freedom to do otherwise. John Frame, James Anderson, and Paul Manata recognize that Reformed theology operates under a robust principle of determinism.
Either we are in need of tightening up our theology within the Reformed tradition or else we need to get a better handle on our terminology. (With the exception of one from above, I am hopeful that there might be general theological agreement yet without clarity of articulation.)
Back to the 1800s:
19th century Princeton Theological Seminary theologian A.A. Hodge rightly taught that Arminians deny that God determines free willed actions whereas “Calvinists affirm that [God] foresees them to be certainly future because he has determined them to be so.” For Hodge, “the plan which determines general ends must also determine even the minutest element comprehended in the system of which those ends are parts.” (WCF 3.1.2)
Reformed theology entails not merely a doctrine of determinism but a principle of exhaustive determinism. Specifically, causal divine determinism is at the heart of Reformed theology.
As the label “causal divine determinism” suggests, adherence to a Reformed understanding of determinism does not consign one to a secular view of bare causal determinism let alone fatalism. Causal divine determinism does not contemplate impersonal laws of nature or relations of cause and effect that are intrinsically necessary. Nor does causal divine determinism mean that God always acts directly. Rather, “God…makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.” (WCF 5.2) Indeed, “second causes [aren’t] taken away, but rather established.” (WCF 3.1)
How exhaustively detailed is causal divine determinism?
The decree of God is so exceedingly all-encompassing that for Hodge God “determines the nature of events, and their mutual relations.” In other words, impersonal laws of cause and effect do not impinge upon God, for there are none! Rather, God gives all facts their meaning and in doing so determines how A would effect B. Surely God could have actualized a world in which the boiling point of water is other than it is!
Common examples – physical and metaphysical causal relationships:
If causal divine determinism is true, then God is not confined to work from mysteriously scripted means of possibility imposed by necessary conditional relationships that are intrinsically causal without reference to God’s free determinate counsel. No, God’s creativity is independent. God is the ultimate source of possibility.
Consider that liquid water freezes at 0 degrees C. (No need to get into pressure, additives, purity and nucleation centers etc.) Does God know this fact of nature according to his natural knowledge or his free knowledge? In other words, is this a necessary truth or could it have been different? What grounds such truth – God’s nature, his determinative will, or something external to God? From whence does God source the objects of his knowledge?
What do fish and ponds have to do with this?
Water at 4 degrees C is at its highest density, which means that at that precise point it will expand whether it is heated or cooled. Must that causal relationship necessarily hold true under identical circumstances? Or, could God have determined that water continue to become increasingly dense as it is cooled below 4 degrees C? Hopefully we recognize that God was not constrained to provide fish a safe haven in winter. God could have determined that the density of water continue to increase upon cooling it below 4 degrees C, in which case ice would not rise to the top.
God’s freedom relates to our freedom:
We can apply God’s creative decree to the analysis of human freedom as well. With respect to our doctrine of concurrence we can employ the same concepts of contingency, possibility, necessity and causality when considering how God knows the free choices of men. Indeed we should.
Given an identical state of affairs, God is free to determine that a fragrance or song from yesteryear causally produces a particular disposition to act freely. Yet the precise disposition of the will that would obtain is ultimately determined by God alone.
Under the same conditions (or relevant states of affairs) God can ensure any number of free choices. In the context of hearing a song, God can actualize that one causally, yet freely, looks at an old photo album, picks up the phone to call someone or something else. These alternative possibilities are not contingent upon libertarian creaturely freedom for their actualization, but rather they are true possibilities that God is free to determine as he purposes. Free moral agents participate with God’s purpose by divine decree and meticulous providence, and not by autonomous spontaneity of choice. The unhappy alternative is God’s foreknowledge is impinged upon by uninstantiated essences, making his sovereign purpose eternally reactive and opportunistic.
In short, God determines the free choices of men. Indeed he can do no other! Consequently, God’s exhaustive divine foreknowledge is based upon his having exhaustively determined whatsoever comes to past including the causes that incline the human will. For God to foreknow choices presupposes his determination of their antecedent causes. Yet no violation to the creature is entailed by God’s determination of antecedent causes. God’s determination of our choices is compatible with our freedom and responsibility. Notwithstanding, God must casually ensure the outcome in order to foreknow the outcome. Yet the outcome is consistent with the person, for God is good.
The current Reformed landscape:
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, a growing number of Calvinists are unwittingly libertarian Calvinists. Many affirm the “five points” yet believe that in other instances we are free to choose otherwise. The logical trajectory of such a philosophical-theology denies (a) the determinative basis for God’s exhaustive omniscience, (b) the future surety of his decree, and (c) God’s independence and unique eternality.
If Christians are not affirming causal divine determinism, they are implicitly denying Reformed theology’s coherent and explanatory grounding of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge of contingent free choices. Consequently, whether self-consciously or not, they are implicitly affirming a form of incompatibilism, which in the context of moral responsibility entails libertarian freedom. With libertarian freedom comes a theology proper that is highly improper, and a theory of responsibility that lacks moral grounding.
Let’s address some common misunderstandings along with some implications entailed by the denial of causal divine determinism:
1. Free Will:
Can’t we choose otherwise, surely Adam could have!
How many times have we heard it? Maybe we’ve even said it!
To illustrate the disagreement on matters of the determinative decree as it relates to free will, consider the two quotes below.
Kevin DeYoung is correct here, “Arminians argue that we have a libertarian free will, which simply put means that we have the power of contrary choice…” So, whether the other Keister understands this or not, he has asserted that before the fall Adam had freedom in the libertarian sense. Therefore, Frame or Keister is incorrect, and it’s not Frame.*
Although those two opposing views might appear inconsequential because the prelapsarian state has expired, it’s worth addressing because the first quote is a common sentiment among theologically trained (as Frame notes) and has far reaching metaphysical and theological implications with respect to possibility, responsibility, truth-makers and truth-bearers, God’s exhaustive omniscience and more.
Regarding the view of Keister- his point has significant consequences that transcend pre and post fall ontology. In other words, if Adam had libertarian freedom while in a state of innocence (as the pastor wrongly asserts), then there’s no reason to believe we don’t have such freedom today given that libertarian freedom is by definition not nature dependent. (That’s hardly controversial among philosophical theologians whether Reformed or not.) Needless to say, clarity within the Reformed tradition is needed and overdue.
Let’s be clear, if Adam could have freely chosen not to eat of the forbidden fruit, then God’s decree could have failed. God’s decree could not have failed. Therefore, Adam could not have freely chosen not to eat of the forbidden fruit. Modus Tollens**
Regardless of the lapsarian state under consideration, even though free moral agents would never choose contrary to God’s foreknowledge and decree, anability to do so would undermine moral responsibility and betray orthodox theology proper.
If we can’t choose otherwise, how can we be free and responsible?
That we are responsible is indubitable. Therefore, if libertarian freedom is a philosophical surd, then from a Christian perspective free will is compatible with the determinative causal nature of God’s decree. In other words, our freedom is of another kind than the freedom to choose otherwise.
Without an intention to act there is no act of the will. When an act of the will occurs, the intentional choice is consummated. Both components of the choice obtain. An intention to act gives way to the actual act the intention contemplates. We may say the intention of the moral agent is the immediate orproximatecause of the act. The act is effected by the agent’s intention.
Now then, what causes an intention to act? If it’s a chosen intention, then what causes the intention to choose the intention to act? (Regress)
Here’s a libertarian solution to the regress conundrum. It’s called agent causation. Rather than choosing our intentions, the agent simply causes it.
The ability to choose otherwise would destroy moral accountability, for how can the pure spontaneity of agent causation produce morally relevant choices? With agent causation comes a break in the causal nexus whereby the agent becomes the ultimate source of his intention to act. Such autonomous independence and regulative control would detach influence, reason, and relevant history from intentions and willed actions. By implication the agent rises above all influences, where-from a posture of dispositional equilibrium forms intentions from a functionally blank past. In other words, given the liberty of indifference that agent causation contemplates, choices would be unmapped to personal history, entailing a radical break from the person doing the choosing.
Nobody rationally determines intentions in a libertarian construct. There’d be no reason to guard the heart for we’d be able to kick inconvenient habits spontaneously according to a will that’s impervious to causal influences. Such radical spontaneity would result in pure randomness of choice, destroying moral relevance by detaching choice from person. In a split moment we should expect to see saints behaving like devils, and devils like saints. The implications of non-decretive metaphysical contingency of choice demand it! Any libertarian appeal to will formation does not comport with libertarian freedom. Libertarians may not have their cake and eat it too. Autonomous freedom precludes moral responsibility.
2. Doctrine of God:
As a point of orthodoxy, does God know how we will choose because he knows us inside and out? And besides, doesn’t God’s transcendence enable his infallible foreknowledge?Doesn’t God know the future because the future is all before him?
If God knows how we would freely choose in certain circumstances because of his intimate insight into our make-up or vis-a-vis his transcendent relation to time, then in both cases God would be eternally informed by uninstantiated essences or timeless beings. God’s knowledge of possible metaphysical (actualizeable) counterfactuals of creaturely freedom would not be according to his natural knowledge. Accordingly, God’s knowledge of what he could freely actualize would be eternally sourced from outside himself. Such knowledge of possibilities would not be natural (i.e., based upon what God knows he can do). Nor would God’s knowledge of how we would choose be solely based upon his free determinative will in the context of what he intuitively knows are possibilities of actualization. Rather, how we would choose would be an object of God’s middle knowledge – knowledge obtained from something other than God himself. There would be no grounding of the eternal truth bearing proposition that God knows. Counterfactuals of creaturely freedom would assume the divine property of self-existence!The eternal truth that you would freely read this article exists without any beginning, source or truth maker.
In simpler terms, if God’s determinate counsel does not eternally ground his foreknowledge of free choices, what eternal (God-like) entity does? (Implicit heresy)
3. Special pleading that certain sufficient conditions are not to be considered causes when prior to freely willed acts:
Molinists like to point to Jesus’ rebuke of the inhabitants of Chorazin and Bethsaida as proof of God’s Middle Knowledge – for had Jesus performed the same miracles in Tyre and Sidon that he had performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida, Tyre and Sidon would have repented. The prima facie interpretation of the text is not that Jesus was revealing how others would have responded to those same miracles. Rather, the immediate inference is that inhabitants of Israel were even more hardened to revelatory truth than pagans (and will accordingly be counted more culpable on the day of judgment). It was a rebuke, not a nod toward Middle Knowledge!
Yet aside from the obvious, let’s run with the Molinist interpretation and see where it gets us. Consider possible world Wp with the exact same relevant state of affairs as actual world Wa up to time t. At t in Wp, Jesus performs in Tyre and Sidon the same exact miracles from Wa that he performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida at t. The result in Tyre and Sidon is repentance. If that is not causality, what is? Remove the miracles, no repentance. Introduce the miracles, repentance. Remove the miracles, no repentance. Introduce the miracles, repentance… Like a light being switched on and off, the miracles would have causally triggered repentance. If not, then what? Would the miracles have triggered (inexplicable) agent causation? Even if so, how would that not cash out as causal divine determinism given exhaustive omniscience and purpose? The only escape hatch is that the miracles trigger nothing in Wp, but that would prove too much, as it would highlight the randomness and, consequently, moral irrelevance of libertarian freedom.
4. The two-fold ambition of radical freedom and exhaustive omniscience:
Open Theists deny God’s exhaustive omniscience because they rightly grasp (along with robust Calvinists) that the freedom to do otherwise is not compatible with it. Sadly, their consistency leads to confessional heresy, whereas libertarian Calvinists and Molinists are happily inconsistent and only doctrinally heretical by way of theological implication, not confession of faith. (Open Theists are quick to point out that God’s foreknowledge is not lacking; it’s just that in eternity there’s nothing yet to know about certain future occurrences.)
Let’s see how Molinism and libertarian Calvinism leads to heresy:
In order to lay claim on the doctrine of God’s exhaustive omniscience there must be a surety to future choices. Yet in order to maintain that free choices are not causally determined by God, it must also be considered true that free choices can be otherwise. The question is, how can both be true? How can God know a future choice that truly might be otherwise? The simple answer is he cannot. Mystery cannot solve true contradiction.
An undetermined libertarian free choice implies that what would occur under certain circumstances might not occur under those exact same circumstances. So, although it can be true that Jones would freely choose the taco if offered it under a specific set of circumstances, it is supposedly true that Jones might not freely choose the taco if offered it in those identical circumstances. (In passing we might simply observe that <Jones might not freely choose the taco> is a contrary truth relative to <Jones would freely choose the taco>. Since both can’t be true, at least one must be false and both can’t be known. [The critique readily applies to Adam prior to the fall.])
This is where Molinism becomes most creative.
Only God can possibly define the limits of possibility. Therefore, in Reformed theology all possible worlds are actualizable worlds. They are consistent realities that truly might have been (had God so-willed). Within a Reformed compatibilist framework, a reality that is consistent is, therefore, both possible and metaphysically actualizable. In other words, being a possible world is a sufficient condition for God’s ability to make it actual. Not so with Molinism!
Within Molinism the set of possible worlds cannot all be actualized by God. Those possible yet unactualizable worlds are called infeasible worlds. Molonist William Lane Craig explains.
Possibility of actualization for God is creature-dependent within Molinism. Consequently, Molinism allows for some narrowly-logical possibilities that are purely theoretical – so much so that God cannot know them as actualized realities. These alleged possibilities could be actualized a whopping zero number of times, even though there are an “infinite number” of these possibilities. This statistic is all the more striking when we consider the spontaneity of purely random libertarian freedom! At the very least, if we could freely choose contrary to how God knows we would choose, wouldn’t somebody have done it by now? (Complete the reductio.) The philosophical conundrum is apparent. In what meaningful sense are such possibilities possible?
Because Molinismdenies that God determines the free choices of his creatures, free choices are beyond God’s control. Such free choices, being beyond God’s control, cannot be causally ensured by God’s decree. Therefore, within a Molinism framework certain possible worlds cannot be actualized by God, yet they are consistent and complete worlds that supposedly might have been. The consistency of such conceptual realities keeps them possible, whereas ungrounded counterfactuals of creaturely freedom determine whether such worlds can be made actual (are feasible). Astonishing? Well, that’s where libertarian Calvinism takes us but without the sophistication of Molinism.
A delicious irony according to the two-fold ambition:
It was noted earlier that from a Reformed perspective a possible world is a sufficient condition for God’s ability to actualize it. In other words, all possible worlds are feasible worlds. So, although Molinism parks certain consistent realities “that might have been” in the semantic land of possible-infeasible worlds, if we treat their actualizable worlds like Reformed ones (as the only metaphysically relevant ones that are within Divine reach) we can see that all Molinist would-counterfactuals functionally reduce to necessary truths. That’s because states of affairs are sufficient conditions for actualizable choices (from point 3 above), which is not the case in Reformed philosophical theology.
In Reformed philosophical-theology compatibilist counterfactuals of creaturely choices are contingently true because God is their truth makerand relevant states of affairs are not intrinsically or necessarily causal. Again, “God is free to determine that a fragrance or song from yesteryear causally produces a particular disposition to act freely. Yet the precise disposition of the will that would obtain is determined by God alone.” Whereas with Molinism, eternal self–existing facts(!)about creaturely freedom, although claimed to be contingent, are unalterably fixed in order that theymight be eternally true, so thatthey might be divinely known, apart from being determined by the only possible Source of eternal truth.(Again, implicit heresy)
For the Reformed, being a possible world is a sufficient condition for it being actualizable. That is not a tenet of Molinism. Yet if it is true (as Reformed thought claims) that possibility entails possible actualization, then there is something inconsistent with possible-infeasible worlds, which would disqualify them as possible worlds. That inconsistency is rooted in Molinism’s claim of contingent CCFs. What is claimed as metaphysically possible never would obtain in infinite trials. Yet molinism claims such possibilities could obtain. But if they could – yet never would obtain, then in what sense could they?!
Molinism cannot bridge the possible-actualizable chasm because Molinism posits possible-infeasibilities, which are ungrounded truths about facts that are impossible for God to believe as possible, let alone as actualized. Accordingly, such truths cannot exist. They are impossibilities because they have no source!
From a biblically informed philosophical-theology, only causal divine determinism can adequately account for and reconcile foreknowable contingent-truths that are of any moral consequence. Only Reformed theology upholds God’s freedom and man’s freedom. Only Reformed theology upholds the Creator-creature distinction.
5. To deny causal divine determinism is to (a) deny that God causes one to differ from another and (b) limit God’s and man’s free creativity!
All breakthroughs in medicine, science and the arts involve free choices. So, why did Sir James Paul McCartney compose Eleanor Rigby and not Davy Jones? Was Paul’s intention a result of God’s determination or does Paul merit glory? (No, that’s not a false dilemma when we fill in other biblical truths.)
If God wants his creatures to freely advance in medicine for the common good of society, within Molinism God might be restrained to fulfill only half his desire. We may gain the desired medicines God intends, though it might require making robots out of scientists because nobody would freely cooperate in a “praiseworthy” manner. Both God and man are limited by man’s libertarian freedom. Whereas Reformed theology teaches that man’s limits are dependent upon God’s limitlessness to do all his holy will. (In Reformed theology, God determines the free actions of his creatures.)
If we deny causal divine determinism, then we imply that God’s desire to bless us with good things is limited by uncooperative creatures. Sure, from a libertarian perspective God could turn a person into a robot by determining his will, but then what about true inspiration, covenantal relationship and responsibility?
The bottom line is, if causal divine determinism is false, then God’s creative purposes are subject to undetermined possibilities and creation.
6. Inconsistency regarding causality and responsibility:
It’s interesting that many libertarians subscribe to properly basic beliefs that are formed in us but not strictly by us, which they’d say we are nonetheless morally responsible to live by. But how can such incompatibilists consistently maintain that we can justly be held responsible for such unwilled beliefs if we may not be held responsible for causally determined intentions? After all, wouldn’t unwilled beliefs be causally formed in us beyond our ultimate control no less than any externally caused intention to choose? From an evangelical libertarian perspective, why would an infidel be responsible for a causally formed belief in God but not a causally formed intention to choose one sin over a lesser one? In fact, she heartily approves of the latter whereas the former is an inconvenience, which she suppresses because it doesn’t meet with her approval!
Time to wrap things up. How are we free, by the way?
We are free and morally responsible when in possession of certain cognitive capacities that produce different acts given different states of affairs. Freedom is accompanied by dispositional powers to try to choose according to our cognitive faculties. The capstone of our freedom comes in having been endowed with a “mesh” of first and second-order desires (desires to act and the ability to approve of such desires), which differentiate us from creatures of brute instinct, and perhaps those who act according to addictions and phobias too.
It’s difficult to imagine any sensible person thinking we need more than such compatibilist freedom to be held responsible. It’s seems intuitive enough that compatibilist freedom provides sufficient conditions for moral responsibility. I don’t think many Christians would look much further than to those general conditions for responsibility if determinism wasn’t part of the discussion. In other words, if we merely summarize the essence of freedom as the possession of certain cognitive capacities and dispositional powers that produce different willed and self-approved acts given different states of affairs, who’d object? Such freedom would seem to entail moral responsibility. Now introduce determinism and then people feel the need to scramble for something additional to save moral responsibility, but it’s not because compatibilist freedom is intuitively lacking in this regard. That God determines free choices doesn’t somehow take away what makes them free in the first place.
The idea of libertarian freedom is merely an attempt to break the chain of determinism for reasons that don’t impinge upon personal responsibility! After all, isn’t an ultimate cause compatible with a proximate cause? Who killed Saul? (1 Chronicles 10:4,6,14)
* Keister might be confusing WCF 9.2 with “the power of contrary choice”, which is libertarian freedom.
WCF 9.2: “Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom and power to will and to do that which is good and well-pleasing to God; but yet mutably, so that he might fall from it.”
With the fall, Adam lost moral ability to not sin. He did not loose something he never had, namely an ability to choose contrary to how (God knows) he would choose.
That Adam could fall does not imply that Adam could choose contrary to how he would choose. Yet if Adam had libertarian freedom, then he could have chosen contrary to how he did. And, if Adam could have chosen contrary to how he did, then Adam could have chosen contrary to God’s decree. The only question left is, could he have?
We can leave the fall out of it. If Adam had libertarian freedom, then prior to the fall he could have chosen to name the animals differently than he did – differently than God decreed he would! Freedom and power happily comply with compatibilist freedom as discussed above, whereas contrarychoice is the hallmark of libertarian freedom.
Before and after the fall, every time Adam freely chose he did so according to the decree by exercising dispositional powers to will. But far from affirming a principle of alternative possibilities that would undermine the exhaustive Divine decree, classical compatibilism of the day thought in terms of hypothetical and conditional terms. As I’ve written elsewhere: “Classical compatibilists have tried to work within the strictures of alternative possibilities. Although classical compatibilists don’t affirm a strict ability to do otherwise, they have traditionally affirmed a version of the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP) couched in hypothetical or conditional terms. Although Jane could not have done other than x; she could have done not-x had she willed.” Later compatibilists employed a different approach: “Rather than speaking in conditional terms: ‘Jane could have done not-x had she willed,’ it was considered advantageous to speak in terms of: ‘If Jane were feeding her baby, she would have married rather than remained single.’ The focus was no longer fixed on hypotheticals that change a fixed future by altering the past – e.g. I could have x’d had I willed to x. Instead the focus shifted to an agent’s power to act in a way that contemplates a different past.”
** I wrote: “if Adam could have freely chosen not to eat of the forbidden fruit, then God’s decree could have failed. God’s decree could not have failed. Therefore, Adam could not have freely chosen not to eat of the forbidden fruit.”
Of course Molinists can counter: although Adam could freely ~x, he would not freely ~x if God knows Adam would not freely ~x. (We can actually leave God’s knowledge out of it. Molinists can simply say: although Adam could freely ~x, he would not freely ~x if it is true that Adam would not freely ~x.)
Perhaps Molinists will gladly concede the philosophical possibility of God’s decree failing while maintaining the actualinfeasibility of the same. After all, the possible actualization of ~x would under such circumstances be sufficient for an infeasible world; whereas the contingent nature of the CCF makes such worlds no less possible.
I’m not suggesting that Molinism entails possible worlds that include as a feature that God’s decree does fail - as I don’t think we may impugn Molinism with the charge that possible worlds include the divine decree given that the decree occurs at a later logical moment than the evaluation of a possible world to actualize and, therefore, takes into account all circumstances and subsequent truth values of CCFs. In other words, some possible worlds God would not possibly try to actualize if he somehow knew which were the infeasible ones.
Notwithstanding, Molinist must offer a defense of how God’s decree cannot fail in any world he might actualize, even though Molinism entails that God’s decree would not fail. (This gets to the might vs would counterfactual loophole of Molinism.) Molinism must give an account as to how God’s beliefs about CCFs can rise to the level of foreknowledge given that the contingency of CCFs within their system defy grounded truth values.)
Appealing to God’s middle knowledge of would-counterfactuals begs the question and does not save God from possible fallibility in the context of libertarian freedom in any actualizable or decreed world. (We might note here that God’s foreknowledge would either seem to secure or else presuppose conditions for certainty that do not comport with libertarian freedom. Since knowledge is receptive of truth and not determinative of truth, how are we not strictly dealing with the latter? Foreknowledge presupposes causal conditions, which for causal divine determinists are contingent upon God’s free determination.)
The very notion of the Molinist employment of might-counterfactuals that are contrary to would-counterfactuals demands the philosophical possibility of the decree failing in any actualized world. Of course, that also defeats any legitimate philosophical claim upon the infallibility of the God of Molinism.
Again, given the order of logical moments, I’m happy to concede that no possible world includes the decree. Nonetheless, all possible worlds with true CCFs (i.e., feasible worlds) are subject to a mismatch relative to God’s “foreknowledge” not coming to pass as believed it would.
At the end of the day, how does infallible foreknowledge comport with indeterminism? (Again we can leave divine foreknowledge out of it. How does ungrounded contingent truth comport with truth, which is an object of knowledge?) If one might choose contrary to how God believes one will, why should it be true that one never would? What turns God’s mere belief into knowledge of true CCFs other than God’s free determination, which Molinism denies.
We live in a day in which personal testimony is considered more powerful than the ordinary means of grace. Many young men who are believed by profession to have entered through the narrow gate that leads to life have become indistinguishable from those that remain on the broad road to destruction. Because succumbing to internet temptation is now considered normative, the church has adopted a false view of the means and fruit of sanctification. Belief in a transformative gospel has given way to salvation by confession of guilt alone. Ungrounded accountability groups coupled withunbiblical candor about one’s darkest sins has replaced the biblical measure for salvation, which is non-delinquency in doctrine and lifestyle.
Perhaps more than ever since the time of the Protestant Reformation, the church needs to recapture a biblical understanding of salvation and quit allowing willful transgressors to shape our soteriology. More than ever, the reality of our standing in Christ, along with God’s covenant promises and warnings, must be understood, believed and relied upon, but first they must be articulated.
The ordinary means of grace:
Growing in the grace and knowledge of our union with Christ’s vicarious work on our behalf is no mere theological exercise for the mind. Indeed, when true theology penetrates the mind and is touched by the Holy Spirit, it is the very fountain of spiritual transformation. In the context of Word, sacrament and prayer, we are transformed only through the renewing of our minds after Christ, without which we do not, nor cannot, offer our bodies a living sacrifice in any way that is holy and acceptable to God. Apart from the transformative power of the ordinary means of grace, released by faith alone, we forever remain conformed to this world and a stranger to biblical sanctification. The Bible is clear, “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Galatians 6:8
Realities, promises and warnings:
Any attempt at personal holiness that is not according to faith in the realities, promises and warnings contained in Scripture is not transformative. For what is not of faith is sin. (Romans 12:1-2; 14:23) Conversely, our growth in holiness will be proportional to (a) believing on the authority of Scripture who we are in Christ, (b) trusting in the covenant promises of Christ and (c) heeding Christ’s warnings. These objects of faith are made real to us as we prayerfully receive the whole Christ in Word and sacrament by faith alone. It’s only through even a minimally conscious realization of our union with Christ that we begin to lay hold of God’s covenant promises and heed its warnings. That is what it is to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.We must believe who we are in Christ as we make conscious of God’s covenant blessings and cursings.
First and foremost, the realities (or indicatives):
What is often absent in a “preach yourself the gospel” approach to sanctification is the full orbed ordo salutis. Believers aren’t merely to remind themselves that they are forgiven and declared righteous for the sake of Christ. Although that is a precious reality, there is more sanctifying truth to embrace. We are to apprehend that our judicial pardon and alien righteousness comes with spiritual adoption and definitive sanctification in Christ. Even allowing for an understanding of our having been buried, baptized or hidden in Christ, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and our pardon in him is not without our having been definitively sanctified and declared sons in the Son. Victory over sin entails a heartfelt conviction of the forgiveness of sins, but there are still other gospel realties to receive by faith. These realities are not an addendum to faith but the very source of true Christian piety. When we see ourselves as God sees us, we begin to behave more as we truly are in Christ. This is why the apostle can say, “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1)
The incongruity of not living according to a contextual biblical reality:
Effectual calling does not merely result in gifts of repentance and faith that lead to justification but is accompanied by all other saving graces. Through faith in Christ we have not just died to the penalty of sins in Christ, but to sin itself. Contrary to common evangelical thought, the old man is no longer depraved but crucified with Christ once and for all, definitively releasing him from the power of sin in his life. Because we are justified and definitively sanctified, there is an incongruity of yielding our members to ungodliness. Christians are recreated with a position of dignity that makes sin not just incongruous but unsuitable due to our royal standing in Christ.
The penalty of sin, even the pangs of hell, awaited Christ until his earthly mission was finished. After the work of the cross, sin no longer had dominion over Christ. Having entered into Christ’s rest through the great exchange, sin no longer has dominion over the believer because it no longer has dominion over Christ!
An analogy might be helpful. It makes no sense to tell an imprisoned man to live as a free man. Yet it is most sensible to tell a free man to live as a free man! Similarly, the reason we are commanded not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies is because we are dead to sin’s penalty and power. Accordingly, works of righteousness begin with believing the reality of what Christ has accomplished in our stead and reckoning ourselves as we truly are in him, dead to the penalty and dominion of sin because Christ has been crucified and raised from the dead!
So, we are to reckon ourselves as dead to the penalty and power of sin because, in Christ, we are dead to the penalty and power of sin. We are not to obey the lusts of sin because sin is no longer our master. For we have not just died with Christ but by the Holy Spirt been raised with him so that we might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6; Ephesians 1) God would have us delight in the realities of our adoption as sons, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and our definitive break with sin. Taking pleasure in all the entailments of our hope of glory is what it is to walk in newness of life.
Our tendency toward legalism in sanctification:
The Scriptures do not teach we are justified through faith alone so that we might be perfected by works. There is far more good news for the poor in spirit, which crushes our self-righteousness even more than when we first believed. We are not just justified through faith alone but also progressively sanctified bythe grace of of faith. Our salvation is faith unto faith, for the righteous shall live by faith. (Romans 1:16-17)
Our sin of forgetting that we are pure and righteous in Christ will lead to immorality. If we live immorally, our election will justifiably become suspect. Without justifiable confidence in our union with Christ, we will become increasingly immoral. We can safely say, God has built into his system of sanctification a symbiotic relationship between assurance, faith and the practice of personal holiness. Similarly, if we confess our sins we will know God’s forgiveness and be cleansed anew. When we receive God’s cleansing, we walk as children of light and our sin will be increasingly abhorred. In that orbit we are more sensitive to our sin, quicker to confess, and more desirous to be cleansed. In the light we see more light, and we loathe the darkness. (2 Peter 1: 1 John 1)
The faith by which we live is not just a matter of believing God’s covenant promises and availing ourselves to the third use of the law, though those spiritual disciplines are essential to Christian living. Indeed, we are to be normed by the commandments of God as we embrace the promises in Christ. Surely, a proper use of the law when wrought by the Spirit can save us from the slavery of antinomianism and the bondage of legalism! Faith in the promises of God and love for the law of God will guide and shape the believer in the beauty of holiness, even as the Christian grows responsibly in liberty of conscience. Notwithstanding, the gospel of the cross must have preeminencein the life of the believer as he endeavors by grace to assimilate the whole counsel of God as he grows in Godliness, perfecting holiness.
Faith, a manner of life:
The conduit for our justification is the same for our sanctification. Again, the righteous shall live by faith. Accordingly, saving faith extends beyond justifying faith unto sanctifying faith. Faith envelops the entirety of the Christian life. We aren’t to receive Christ by faith alone only so that we might live our lives by sight. The Christ whom we have not yet seen is our sanctification. If we have received Christ by faith, it oughtn’t surprise that we are to walk in him by this very faith! “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” (Colossians 2:6) Simply stated, we were saved, are being saved, and will be saved by faith.
The Christian life is to be offensively marshalled according to deep meditation that gives way to conviction over the alreadyimplications of the reality of the Christ event. It is through embracing the indicatives, (in particular our having died, been raised and seated with the ascended Christ), that the holy commandments of God become a lamp of light rather than a source of discouragement and condemnation. In the hands of the Holy Spirt, the law is good, for it brought us death, but God does not leave his adopted children there. God is not our accuser but our liberator. By reckoning ourselves as having been united to Christ in his sin-bearing life-giving work, as justified sinners we can participate in Christ’s resurrected life in our union with him.
Our position in Christ is a reality whether we’ve begun to understand it or not! But it is only by understanding it more fully that we walk in true holiness, more powerfully and victoriously. Gethsemane and the cross no longer yawn before Christ and, therefore, neither does condemnation await the believer in Christ. Because of that reality, sin is contrary to who we are, for we are not under the judgement of guilt and shame in our union with Christ. Because we are holy and without blemish in Christ, it’s incongruous to live as we too often would. As God’s justified and adopted children, having been set apart, we are to go and sin no more!
Boots on the ground, the battleahead:
The gospel reality that we are to behold and receive by faith alone is the very foundation for the incongruity of walking in the paths of sin and death. It is in the context of all the entailments of our position in Christ that we seek to obey our Lord and Savior. We are to become who we are in Christ. It is only by faith in the contextual biblical reality that we can delight in the law of the Lord, even meditate on it day and night. With that, we turn to God’s instructions.
The best laid plans:
We’re all prayed up, we are embracing having been baptized into Christ and we are acutely aware of our being seated in heavenly places in Christ. Then we start our day in a fallen sin infested world! The abstract realities are no less there and to be drawn upon, but we need something more suitable in the fog of war. In our weakness, God accommodates us. In the context of our great salvation, the obedience of faith keeps the believer from the evil woman who would reduce the ungodly to a piece of bread. (Proverbs 6:23-27) If that were true for Old Testament saints, then how much more for us who love Christ, that the reproofs of instruction are to be the way of life?
The Bible has much to say about temptation in the moment. Sometimes those instructions are accompanied by explicit promises and warnings, and sometimes they’re just assumed as we presuppose the balance of Scripture. For instance, we are to resist the devil so that he would flee. We are to flee youthful lusts so we might pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace with the brethren. We are to put off sin and put on its counter virtue. We are to forget what is past and press-on in holiness. We are not to speak excessively about, or dwell upon, sinful practices – even in “accountability groups”! We are to yield our members to righteousness not uncleanness. We are to avail ourselves to God’s promise of a way of escape.
Suffice to say, all such precepts and promises can be catalogued under both tables of the law. They entail our relationship with God and our fellow man. The immediate point at hand, however, is that when temptation presses in, the believer who has by grace saturated his mind with biblical realities, principles and promises affords many points of conviction and deliverance by the Holy Spirit. Grace begets grace. In other words, consciously attending to the word of God is more powerful in resisting sin than conscience alone. God works through means of spiritual renewal, as we reap what we sow.
Putting this all together:
The apostle Peter tells us that in all diligence we are to pursue moral excellence, which gives way to knowledge, self-control, perseverance, Godliness, kindness and love. Three things of note – the chain of Godliness is triggered by the initial pursuit of moral excellence. Secondly, those who lack these qualities are blind, having forgotten their purification from past sins. Lastly, we are to be diligent to make certain we are God’s elect, for as long as we practice these things, we can be assured we’ve truly received Christ, if indeed we have escaped the corruption of the world on account of lust. (1 Peter 1:5-10)
If we must sin, let us sin with our eyes wide open:
The more spiritual truth we possess by grace, the more potential of being transformed by grace through the renewing of our minds. To deny the basic tenet that grace begets grace is to deny God’s gracious means of sanctifying sinners. When we are not in a moment of temptation, we might also consider reflecting deeply on the truths we sometimes deny when sin encroaches. With a deeper understanding of the workings of the heart and will, such denials might be brought to mind at moments of testing, even becoming our means of escape.
When we are tempted, let’s admit to ourselves:
1. Sins of commission are an act of the will. When we willfully sin, we desire at the moment of temptation to disobey more than we desire to obey.
2. When desire to sin is consummated, on a second order we approve not just of our sin but of our desire to sin.
3. When we entertain sin, we desire more to contemplate its pleasure than to flee with alacrity. We’re desiring to be tempted! (Romans 7 in no way undermines the workings and rationality of the will or the metaphysics of intentions. Consider also the principle of occasion as it relates to desiring to be tempted.)
4. On a third order, when we sin, wehave already desired to be self-deceived in order that we might sin without conviction. Indeed, sin is exceedingly sinful in its deception. We do well to understand the intricate workings of our hearts, even compatibilist freedom.
5. When it comes to biblical culpability, sin is not a matter of “I can’t resist” but a matter of “I refuse to resist.” Refusing the ministry of the Holy Spirt comes with the high price of will-formation, just as exercising ourselves unto Godliness comes with spiritual fortification and a promise for this life and the next. (1Timothy 4:7-8)
6. If one repeatedly commits the same sin over and over again, he would do well to liken himself to one in a ditch. Every additional willful transgression is akin to burrowing farther away from light and life. The deeper and more narrow the ditch, the more difficult it will become to escape with each passing jump on the step of the shovel. To continue to dig farther is to further endanger the me of tomorrow. After all, is it not true that “the me of today is reaping the bondage of all my yesterdays”? Hell is on the other side from where we began digging, not life. Quit digging!
7. To think to ourselves “I’ll confess after I’ve fulfilled my desire to sin” is to deny that contrition, repentance and faith is of grace alone. To play that game is to presume that we can muster up our own repentance. It’s to confuse the grace of Godly sorrow with the human effort of worldly sorrow. Tears of Esau come to mind. We recall that no repentance was found for him, though the tears were plenteous just the same.
8. When we willfully sin, we deny that the spiritual consequences of sin are more lasting than sin’s fleeting pleasures. We desire the lusts of the flesh more than God’s good pleasure and our own spiritual health.
9. If we refuse to take drastic measures to overcome bondage to pet sins, even if it requires forgoing technological devices and disqualifying oneself for school or certain careers, we are not yet serious about choosing life over death. Jesus couldn’t have been clearer. (Mark 9:45) (As one pastor friend of mine recently said, the addictive nature of such sins only raises the stakes. Maybe not just the hand but the entire arm needs to be severed from the body if we are to take Christ seriously.)
10. If we refuse to enter soberly into a lawful vow to forsake an enslaving sin, we cherish the sin and have no intention of forsaking it forever. We’re playing fast and loose with God and our soul.
Now one last thing. If we aren’t getting victory over some particular sin, yet all ten of those observations are true, then prayerfully ask God why he hasn’t seen fit to sanctify you in this area. (Biblical answers only, please.)
Without true holiness no man shall see the Lord. (WCF 13.1) Although there is remaining corruption such that may prevail for a time, the Spirit of Christ sanctifies the regenerate so that he not only overcomes but moves on to perfecting holiness in the fear of the God. (WCF 13:1-3; 2 Corinthians 7:2; Hebrews 12:4) Biblical sanctification must become bedrock for the church if we’re to see through this deception of the evil one together.
Somewhere along the line too many Christians have adopted the idea that those who were once in bondage to particular sins are thereby more qualified to minister in those areas of temptation than those who’ve not struggled due to God’s grace. At the very least, that’s to deny that Christ was the best possible counselor. Moreover, many who are sought for counsel are not only relatively young, but also have not proven themselves for very long! The wise man will seek counsel from those God has been pleased to make mighty in the Lord. (Appeals to King David aren’t calculated under the entailments of the New Covenant. They ignore the promises of Ezekiel 36; the ascension of the God-man; the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; the sacraments; and the completed canon.)
Therapy sessions and accountability groups are not for those who successfully resist temptation but for those who repeatedly and willfully succumb to temptation. Such groups can carve out a class of hyphenated Christian who believe a lie about their identity and besetting sin. That we live in a body of death does not deny the biblical nature of definitive and progressive sanctification in Christ.
Accountability groups can implicitly convey that the sin of focus is not damning. We’d never have a therapy group for murderers and child molesters. The thought of such ministries is patently absurd because of the urgency of the need for repentance and the simplicity of the solution, which is repent or perish. Yet, obviously, there is a perceived complexity and lack of urgency when it comes to internet sin, hence the supposed appropriateness of perpetual accountability groups. This is where I’m often reminded by group-sympathizers that this particular sin is unique in its addictive qualities. Alleged reasons for willful transgressions too easily become subtle excuses. As noted before, that only raises the stakes. Addiction is all the more reason to flee and not engage in prolonged discussion. Prolonged discussion lends credence to the notion that such sin must be normative among true believers and denies the patterns of life that mark the unconverted. Theapproachdenies the the simplicity of the antidote, which is fleeing in desperation to Christ, because it misunderstands the severity of the sin, even its ultimate penalty.
Furthermore, one who is utterly disgusted by particular sins of the past does not desire to talk about them. People desire to talk about their past sins when they are not yet repulsed by them. One “ministry” I recently learned of even sells self-identification gear! Such spiritual juvenility is utterly foreign to the teaching of Scripture.
It seems we assess certain sins with an axiom in place, that those who are enslaved by such sins are saved. That’s a biblically unsubstantiated given:
Transparency has become the new test of a credible profession of faith. If we preach that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God, let’s see what happens! Without such a confrontational ministry of the Word, how can we possibly distinguish, not infallibility but by biblical precept, (a) those whom God would be pleased to sanctify by such warnings, from (b) those who are dead in their sins and would not respond in repentance and faith to Christ’s warnings of eternal hell? Without such biblically warranted warnings, all we are left to go on is the subjective assessment of the sincerity of one’s candor, as opposed to the biblical bar of God’s sanctifying grace in the lives of professing believers.
In the final analysis, too many will be “saved as by fire“ because we’re not preaching hell fire indiscriminately to those who choose to live in darkness. We’re abandoning true believers to live as unbelievers, robbing them of the joy of their salvation and usefulness in the church, because we refuse to preach:
By not ministering covenant warnings and sanctions, how do we not put God to test? Let’s test God and see if he won’t save his people without the means of gospel threatenings! Our fear of speaking hard truth is too often born out of misguided self-preservation. We want a low bar to be judged by, so we offer a low bar to others. That’s not love but a cowardly perversion of the golden rule. How about hating our own sin first, then the sin of others? Why not remove specs and, in humility, logs too? One may not pronounce blessing who’s not willing to pronounce cursing. Praise God for the prophets of old!
It’s interesting that those who struggle with particular debilitating sins often seem to think they know better about how to get the victory, no matter how young and unsuccessful they are. Their mentors could’ve been those who still struggle without victory and were not biblically forthright with their approach, (perhaps because they too were coddled, or even wanted to be coddled). False teachers as these invariably believe that Christians needn’t be progressively sanctified in all areas of life. This contemporary message presents fresh application regarding those that “promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” (2 Peter 2:19) It’s like the self-identifying homosexual-Christian who claims that in thirty years God hasn’t seen fit to deliver him from same sex attraction. What if we get to heaven only to learn that many such men are in hell!
Scripture’s warnings, let God be true:
What do the Scriptures mean by the following passages? (Italics emphasis mine)
Outside [in hell] are the dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. Revelation 22:15
Or do you not know the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers…will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:9–11
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure… has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Ephesians 5:5
And some save, snatching them out of the fire…. Jude 1:23
Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly. Proverbs 26:11; 2 Peter 2:22
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Letno one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience… Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness but rather expose them. For it is shameful even speak of the things they do in secret. Ephesians 5:5-6, 11-12
No exegesis required.
Pattern of life speaks louder and more clearly than words:
Sometimes church members who say they’re sorry for their sins show no progression in personal holiness and sanctification. Any elder worth his salt understands that acknowledging guilt and saying words of repentance does not necessarily preclude ecclesiastical censure. After all, a thief isn’t always stealing; a gossip isn’t always talebearing; and a violent husbands isn’t always beating his wife. Patterns of life are relevant to the courts of the church.
Given the erroneous axiom that candor and group transparency is sufficient for salvation, we will never be able to tease out who would be sanctified by the warnings of Scripture. We will never distinguish the fruit of the saints from the fruit of the unconverted as long as we refuse to issue biblical warnings against sexual impurity. The means of grace is deposited primarily in the faithful ministry of the Word; too many believers are being abandoned to their sin and will be saved “as by fire“ because they were not given the warnings of sacred writ.
A pattern of struggle and repeated failure to overcome in Christ does not foster personal assurance of salvation, nor may it be ministered to with gospel assurance of salvation. Eventually, admonition for willful transgressions must be accompanied with warnings of hell fire and excommunication. Repent or perish is a biblical principle. To call that manipulation or salvation by works is antinomianism. It’s to keep true believers in bondage! (2 Peter 2)
We’re talking about a practice that did not exist decades ago. If what I’m being told is true, we’re losing the battle. The devil has come up with a device that the church of Christ is ill equipped to deal with by the ordinary means of grace. Well, I refuse to believe that!
We are sanctified by the means of grace. Preeminent is the ministry of the Word. It is the living and abiding Word that gives life to the sacraments and prayer, as we live according to the realities, promises and warnings revealed in Scripture. I am more inclined to believe that we are ministering the wrong message than such sin cannot be overcome. For I believe, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17 And I believe the principle that accompanies, “…you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” 1 John 4:4
We need to take the kingdom of God by force, and repent of the effeminate, defeatist Christianity of our day. The young man with a conquered attitude that is coddled rather than lovingly yet firmly instructed is being treated in an infamous manner foreign to biblical Christianity. We’re not training men to be men, but men to remain boys. Stop it, elders!
Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. 1 Cor 16:13-14
A final plea:
For those of you in bondage, who have not been willing enough to extricate yourselves, I plead with you to go to a Godly man, not necessarily a peer, who will point you to a loving and gracious Savior, yet understands the power of God to save to the uttermost. Do not seek counsel from those who do not see this sin as accompanied by death and condemnation if not forsaken. In other words, avoid those who deny “such were some of you” and “if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell.” Drastic measures are needed, not conferences and a life of small groups.
If God is one and all three persons of the Trinity are God, how does orthodox Christianity adequately deflect charges of modalism and polytheism? In other words, if the Father is God and the Son is God, how is the Son not merely an appearance of the Father if there is only one God (monotheism). Yet if the Father and the Son are not transitory manifestations of God but coexist as distinct divine persons, how is orthodox Christianity not another religion of the gods?
Before trying to address this conundrum, it might be helpful to consider some implications of an ancient Trinitarian creed.
We may distill these catholic claims from the Athanasian creed:
1. The Father is God 2. The Son is God 3. The Spirit is God 4. The Father is not the Son 5. The Father is not the Spirit 6. The Son is not the Spirit 7. There is only one God
An apparent contradiction is in view:
A. f = g (premise) B. s = g (premise) C. f ≠ g (premise) D. f = s (from 1 and 2, by the transitivity of identity)
Contradiction or Paradox?
Does Christianity entail the following paradox:
The Father is not the Son (from 4), but because the Father and Son are both God, the Father and Son are the same person (from D).
It seems to me that these conundrums can be dealt with adequately by supplementing additional biblically informed premises alongside the ambiguous ones. Simply augment some of the abbreviated premises with more biblical truth and paradox disappears, yet without being able to uncover the mysteries of the Trinity. (The solution is rational but ought not to be considered rationalistic.)
Is, =, and the law of identity:
It should be noted up front that there is a semantic difference between is and =, for x is y in common parlance does not necessarily imply y is x. Whereas x = y always is equivalent to y = x. For instance, Jim is human obviously does not mean the same thing as human is Jim. However, in some instances, the word is can imply a bidirectional truth or equivalent identity. For instance, there is an equivalence between Joe Biden is the 46th POTUS, and the 46th POTUS is Joe Biden. All that to say, we must be careful to discern what is intended by the verb is. Sometimes the meaning is one directional (e.g., Jim is human), and at other times the meaning is bidirectional (e.g., Joe Biden is the 46th POTUS). In the latter sense, is can be substituted with equals (=).
With that appreciation in place, we can now observe an undisclosed disconnect from what x is, (found in 1-7), to what x equals, (found in A-D). The basis for the inferences found in A-D is sufficiently vague, which I trust will become apparent below. In other words, what does it mean that the Father is God? Does it, also, mean that God is the Father?
Points 1-3 (which utilize “is”) may merely suggest that three distinct persons all share the one divine essence and occupy “the same divine space” (perichoresis). Moreover, there is a qualified difference between each of the three persons when they are individually identified as God. Accordingly, the word “is” ought not to be taken to implystrictphilosophical identity (in a creed no less!) without having first defined “God”.
Points A-D that follow (which utilize “=” instead of “is”) either creates, or uncovers, confusion (and possible paradox). Points 1-3 and A-D must be nuanced, for 1-3 does not imply the conclusion of A-D, which entails not only an apparent contradiction but rather, in light of 1-7, an ambiguity that keeps it (A-D) from being either coherent or contradictory. Because A-D suffers from an improper inference from 1-3, it needs clarification in light of the creed.
The creed is not saying anything like God is not God, or the Son is not the Son! Hence, we may with confidence accept 1-7 without assuming it entails the paradox or actual contradiction implied in A-D.
Vague terms lead to unreliable conclusions:
If by God we mean the triune God, then obviously it is false that any divine person is God (i.e., the triune God). For instance, the Holy Spirit is not the Holy Trinity. Consequently, 1-3 is clearly false if God as Trinity is in view.
If by God we mean a divine person among other distinct divine persons, as opposed to a notion of the divine person, then 1-7 is orthodox, and D’s: f = s is not implied, alleviating the paradox in view. In other words, if each person of the Trinity is a distinct divine person (e.g., D1, D2 and D3), qualifying each as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit respectively, then the personal properties of each person undermine the transitivity maintained in A-D.
Implicit modalism put to rest:
Not only can God mean Trinity, which the Son is not, God can also mean the person of the Holy Spirit, which the Son is not. Finally, God can mean the person of the Father, which the Son is not. Accordingly, to say that “the Son is God” and the “Father is God” without further qualification can be equivocal; if taken in light of the law of identity, (as inferred by A-D without defining God), it can imply modalism because identity is transitive. The Son and the Father would be one and the same person, which the creed does not imply.
We may say in a colloquial-theological sense the Father is God just as we may say the Son is God, as long as we have the biblical backing that an unshared and distinguishing personal property of the Father is that he is unbegotten while the Son is eternally begotten etc. Being distinct persons, there are differences of eternal origin among all three persons of the Trinity who are one in being. The Father is divine but doesn’t exist apart from his intra-Trinitarian begetting of the Son. That to say, the Father is not God apart from being a distinct divine person of the undivided Trinity. These Trinitarian relationships are necessary and eternal properties of personhood, not essence (lest the Father is the Son etc). They undermine any serious charge of modalism.
Eternal origin of necessary persons also lays the theological groundwork for monotheism, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves!
If we don’t distinguish personal properties in this way, we don’t do justice to the theology of the creed with respect to distinguishing divine persons. Indeed, it is true that f is g and s is g, and if that were the end of the story, we might be in trouble. Without further elaboration, f is g conjoined with s is g might imply modalism; so, we needn’t be surprised that such constructs, though true, must be interpreted through a biblically informed theological grid in order to avoid apparent contradiction if not implicit heresy.
Mystery and rationality:
Whether there are prima facie intuitive notions surrounding 1-7 that can lead to a conundrum, it can be maintained on the consistency of God, and his intent to communicate to his people, that such intuitive notions, which at first might appear logically problematic, can disappear when we presuppose additional revelation. That is not to say that mysteries can be solved! Logic cannot solve true mysteries, but biblically informed philosophical pursuit can demonstrate that certain doctrines are not actually contradictory. It’s when we think intuitively, which is to say apart from Scripture, we can get in trouble. As I’ve noted elsewhere, that’s an insight of Van Til’s apologetic, which may be carried into discussions around paradox. (For instance, when we use only experience unaided by further revelation we may think that one essence necessarily implies God is one person; when we presuppose Scripture we can know that proposition is false.)
Not to oversimplify or belabor, but to summarize: f is g and s is g can suggest f is s. If is implies =, then we must refine our definition of g. I think we have addressed that horn of the conundrum in a way that satisfies a charge of modalism, but perhaps not without inviting a charge of polytheism.
We’re not out of the woods yet. If each person of the Trinity is a divine person, how do we avoid tritheism? In other words, if the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, how aren’t there three Gods?
One in creation, providence and grace.
Each divine person is operative in the Trinity’s works of creation, providence and grace. The works of the triune God are harmoniously indivisible, a reflection of the ontological Trinity, which establishes the doctrine of inseparable operations.
One Being(including mind, will, consciousness), with no analogy:
The one pertains to the triune God subsisting, whereas the three, to thetripersonal divine being. Each mode of subsistence is divine and consubstantial (without personally identifying as another or as all). Each is one and the same in being, with due consideration given to the theological entailment of three personal modes of subsistence mutually indwelling each other. Mysterious, yes. Contradictory, absolutely not.
A doctrine of three distinct divine persons does not leave us with three gods, for there is numerically one divine essence, which contemplates one mind, will, and center of consciousness existing eternally in three ordered modes of subsistence or persons. The nature of God is disanalogous to the human nature and polytheism, for no two humans or deities have the identical mind etc. Furthermore, no false god or human being is essential to the existence of another. (Traducianism presents no problem).
Eternal origins and necessity of persons:
God is not one in the same manner in which God is three. God is one tripersonal being, whereas tritheism would not entail a Trinitarian conception of essence and all it contemplates, whichexceeds mere consubstantial generic unity. Again, the divine nature contemplates one mind, one center of consciousness, one will etc. in a plurality of persons. That’s not a feature of polytheism (or the humanity of, say, Peter, James and John). Related and perhaps more significant is that it is impossible for the Father to be himself apart from eternally and necessarily begetting the Son, which is not at all analogous to the disunity in plurality within a pantheon of independent Greek gods. In other words, polytheism does not contemplate ageneric unity of persons of one mind, center of consciousness and will, that eternally exist in an indivisible unity of ontological origins of relations (unbegottennes, begottenness and procession). Additionally, a plurality of gods definitionally and conceptually could exist without godlike equals. Not so with the modes of subsistence of the ontological Trinity. Consequently, for Christianity to be tritheistic, polytheism would have to be radically redefined in order to include a monotheistic doctrine of Trinity! In other words, even if Christianity were to appear paradoxically as a religion of three gods, it would have no relevant resemblance to polytheism. In the final analysis, a false charge of tritheism equivocates over the notion of polytheism.
Perhaps the most absorbing aspect of it all is that the personal properties that defend against the charge of modalism appear to be the same ontological realities that establish the philosophical-theology of Trinitarian monotheism. (The exegetical foundations are, of course, less controversial.) What distinguishes the divine persons are eternal origins of existence: unbegottennes of the Father; eternal generation of the Son; and procession of the Holy Spirit. Yet those same eternal origins contemplate the one divine substance! The three disclose the one and the one the three.
Back to our question above: If each person of the Trinity is a divine person, how do we avoid tritheism? In other words, if the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, how aren’t there three Gods?
That each person of the Godhead are divine doesn’t lead to three gods, for three gods would entail independent beings that aren’t numerically one in the way in which God is numerically one.
If modalism has been overcome, and the charge of polytheism does not stick due to all the entailments of divine essence (e.g., numerically one mind, conscience, will etc.), along with the eternally necessary inseparable-origins of personal properties that exist in perichoresis, then the coherence of Trinitarian orthodoxy is not affected. Of course, one can always dismiss the doctrine of the Trinity, but I don’t believe it may be justifiably dismissed on the grounds of contradictory doctrine.
Arne Verster of Apologetics Central and I discussed apologetics (last evening for me, this morning for Arne who lives in South Africa). This article of mine on the failure of classical apologetics was the impetus for our discussion.
The church will always have to war against false gospels. From the time of the Judaizers to this very day, the church has been bewitched by sacerdotalism, syncretism, decisional regeneration, social gospels, prosperity gospels, Lordship Salvation and many other false teachings.
Some of these deceptions are more obvious than others, depending upon the degree of marginalization of the person and work of Christ. All false gospels promise deliverance from one thing unto another. Things become a bit trickier when Christ remains at the center of the message.
While fundamentalists during the 1980s and ‘90s were on the lookout for anti-Christ, certain Reformed folk were setting their sights on Robert Schuller and then Joel Osteen, while still others were fighting the New Perspective on Paul and Federal Vision. During this time of disquiet, another false gospel not only received a wink but a motion toward a comfortable seat at the Reformed table. Lordship Salvation, promulgated by John MacArthur with endorsements by such notables as J.I. Packer and James Montgomery Boice, became a non-confessional doctrinal option in the broad tent of Reformed evangelicalism.
The MacArthur controversy wasn’t a fair fight. The Lordship gang of independently minded untouchables were picking on the theological weaklings within Arminian Antinomianism. Because the Reformed faith wasn’t under attack, many who grasped Reformed soteriology didn’t bother to take a side in the Lordship debate. Strictly speaking, there was no correct side to take! Both sides were wrong, though only one side positioned itself as historically Reformed. The prominent darlings within Reformed evangelicalism who weighed in on the debate were popularizers and preachers, not confessionally minded theologians. Although they took the Lordship side, the debate was largely dismissed as noise among Reformed academics because both sides were outside the tradition.
During the fog of war, a new starwas arising.
While MacArthur and company were flexing their independent muscles in the Reformed evangelical schoolyard, many on the fringe of Reformed confessional theology were spooked into confusing justifying faith with the fruit of progressive sanctification. Forsaking oneself and commitment of life replaced receiving and resting in Christ alone for justification. While certain crusaders falsely, yet confidently, claimed to be defending the faith once delivered unto the saints, a new star from the multi-cultural city of Manhattan was rising above the theological smog. This talented leader was not focused on the nature of saving faith, but on the evangelistic question of what the gospel offers sinners in a postmodern context.
With the stage presence and communication skills of a CEO of a multinational conglomerate, Tim Keller sought to identify and meet a legitimate need by trying to reach the nations for Christ in the dense 23 square miles of New York’s apple.
I know no Reformed pastor who has made more disciples in such a short period of time as Tim Keller. Even Keller’s disciples are already spawning disciples!
Fast forward to 2023. The new gospel eclipses the theology of the cross.
Instead of seeing the objective act of premarital relations as sin, our greatest need is to look away from self-centered romance in order to find life’s truest fulfillment in Christ alone (or so taught Keller). The offer of Christ is no longer an offer to receive God’s reconciliation, imputed righteousness and forgiveness for uncleanness, but rather is packaged as freedom from self-idolization and the vapid fulfillment of existential experience. Christ is offered to men and women as the door to freedom from the sin of self-imposed slavery. The world with all its social woes is our unmistakable object lesson. What unregenerate person could miss what is in plain sight! The world’s poverty, disunity and abusiveness is a result of a broken relationship with God. That’s the bad news. The good news is Jesus is the remedy for the unfulfilled life and all broken and abusive relationships. Christ will satisfy our needs if only we become satisfied with Christ. It is God who makes true worshippers through Jesus Christ. Herein we find a “take it to the streets” approach to Christian Hedonism.
The new gospel would be as attractive as it is relevant to the postmodern urbanite. Of course, hell too needed to be reworked a bit. Hell is no longer a place of eternal torment and punishment for sins against a loving yet wrathful God; and outer darkness is no longer accompanied by weeping and gnashing of teeth. Rather, hell is a reasoned trajectory of living one’s life without Christ at the center. It’s a dimension to be pondered more than a place to be feared. Hell is a philosophical extension of life lived without God. It’s a place where souls “shrivel up” and no longer a place of eternal torment. Hell contemplates the future eternality for disembodied spirits resulting from a meaningless temporal existence. It’s the expansion of this life, as opposed to the wages of sin. (Likewise, heaven isn’t an inheritance and sabbath rest from the battle against indwelling sin, as it is the transcendent spatial trajectory for the Christian after death.)
Does this gospel message sound familiar?
We live in a broken world in which we try to find meaning, acceptance and healing through material pleasures, careers, entertainment, community and intimate relationships. Perhaps we even try to find meaning by trying to be a good person. But no matter how hard we try, if we’re honest with ourselves we will admit that we cannot rid ourselves of emptiness. We always seem to suffer under abuse or broken relationships leading to further discontentment. No matter how often we become disillusioned with material things, ideologies and the relationships in which we entrust ourselves, we continue to turn to those idols for ultimate satisfaction and happiness even though they fail us without fail.
Our biggest problem is we are separated from God who made us to be in relationship with him. The good news is we can be restored to God who is the only one that can give our lives meaning. Jesus came to give us life abundant. But to be restored to God we must turn from self and believe Jesus paid for our sins. That is the only way our emptiness can be replaced with meaning. We need a relationship with God who is the author of all meaning. We need that relationship because God created us as relational beings.
The bad news is, if you continue to seek meaning apart from God, upon death you will enter into an eternal darkness void of all meaning and bliss. If you don’t seek in this life meaning from God, you’ll get your heart’s desire forever. You will reap for all eternity more of what you’re experiencing now, a meaningless life where self is at the center. Hell will be where you send yourself. Your punishment will be your unquenchable search to find fulfillment in created things, apart from God at the center. So, I urge you, come to Jesus for the forgiveness of sins so that you might find meaning now and forevermore. Only through Christ can God heal your brokenness and give your life the true meaning for which you were created and have been searching.
That’s basically a cocktail of gospel presentations I’ve read over the years. The problem isn’t that the word “sin” is utterly absent from the contemporary gospel presentation. Rather, sin is so ill-defined that the theology of the cross loses its context, and by that its relevance. If our greatest need may be motivated by a self-absorbed desire for meaning, then Christ crucified for sinners isn’t being offered.
Any gospel that denies the theology of the cross is another gospel. It’s also not very enticing!
If the “meaningless” of this life is life’s eternal penalty, I suppose most can accept that consequence without too much dread. But who will say they can embrace being cast into biblical hell? The stakes of the game of life aren’t terribly high if one actually enjoys his selfish life.
That man’s life outside Christ is meaningless is a minor point. Even Christians don’t always find fulfillment! Man has a sin problem. His very existence outside mystical union with Christ is an offense to God. The contemporary gospel isn’t that we can escape God’s wrath, gain a right standing to God’s law, and be adopted as sons of God in Christ. Today’s gospel exchanges life’s disappointments for meaning. The felt need we are to try to elicit with the gospel is one of purpose and fulfillment, not reconciliation through deliverance from the wages of sin, which is death.
The true meaning of the cross is contextualized not by purpose but by what is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.
What we know by nature is not that our lives are meaningless but that we are under God’s wrath for our transgressions. The cross deals with man’s ultimate problem as revealed to us in conscience. It is in the context of God’s revelation that a theologically informed gospel of reconciliation must be preached. God’s fury is upon the impenitent, whether there is hope of better meaning or not! The relevant-relational aspect of the cross is that hell-bound enemies can become friends with God through the one time propitiatory sacrifice of Christ for our sins.
The theology of the cross and the doctrine of justification unearth man’s need and by extension the biblical gospel.
Consider the multi-faceted import of the cross of Christ:
* Propitiation presupposes wrath.
* Satisfaction presupposes justice, which again presupposes wrath.
* Expiation presupposes the middle ground of enmity being removed through a propitiatory sacrifice that exhausts God’s wrath.
* Reconciliation presupposes alienation because of sins that deserve God’s wrath.
* Sacrifice presupposes an offering for sin that deserves God’s wrath.
* Redemption presupposes deliverance from bondage, and condemnation, which demands God’s wrath.
* Love is Jesus suffering the unmixed wrath of God for unjust sinners.
The theology of the cross is not one of restoring meaning to life. The cross is a symbol of love, mercy and grace, which finds its only expression in the context of the wages of sin, which is death, not want of purpose. Because today’s gospel is not theological, it’s not biblical.
There’s a wisdom to the cross that relates to theological justification.
How the cross brings meaning to life isn’t at all obvious. However, when we begin to understand our need for mediatory reconciliation through a perfect righteousness and satisfaction for sins, the cross is not just intelligible but can be seen as the profound wisdom of God.
As I taught my adult daughters since they were little children, sinners like us need two things to stand before a holy and righteous God – a perfect righteousness that’s not our own and God’s gracious pardon for our sins. What we need to stand in the judgement is accomplished only through the active and passive obedience of Christ. Accordingly, our greatest need is not for meaning in life but to be justified in Christ. The new gospel dilutes our sin problem, and, therefore, the gospel’s remedy.
The contemporary gospel in light of the perceived need of postmodern sinners is way too creative:
Therefore, this approach:
Tim Keller has it backwards. One can be saved without understanding that sin is idolatry, but nobody can be saved without a self-awareness of “doing bad things”!
But aside from the obvious, the new gospel doesn’t live up to his own strictures. If confronting sexual lust is off limits to postmoderns due to idiosyncratic standards of subjectivity, then on what basis may we appeal to good and ultimate things when dealing with postmoderns? Don’t good and ultimate things presuppose God, his valuations, and ethical absolutes, no less than the guilt of sexual lust? Consequently, this new message is no less arbitrary than it is inconsistent. The gospel has become too clever by half!
If this technique is more effective, it’s not because it philosophically comports with postmodernism. Indeed, this technique is less confrontational, but that’s because it probes the non-offensive and speculative why, as opposed to declaring the objective fact of what. It shifts the focus from an uncomfortable discussion about the immediate and obvious acts of sin (that mustn’t be declared as sin!), and tries to map a want of true fulfillment to a contestable defect that’s general to all. This approach is too impersonal, not relevant and, therefore, contra-relational. (Oh, the irony!)
Jesus calls out the greedy for their greed, not for their lack of fulfillment. The woman at Sychar was confronted for her promiscuity, not her idolatrous reasons for it. Judgement will be according to deeds done in flesh, so why avoid a conversation about “doing bad things”? (Revelation 20:12) There’s no authoritative word from God that reduces the reason for fornication to misplaced fulfillment. In fact, idolatry is frequently listed as one sin among many, but not a source for any. (I Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19–21; Ephesians 5:5; Rev 22:14)
The new gospel trades in non-confrontational high talk by positing sins such as fornication as an extension of idolatry, a fruit of sorts. By trying to identify the root of sin instead of addressing concrete sin, (over which the Spirit convicts and exposes), our need for Christ becomes too abstract. Sin is redefined and consolidated into making good and finite things ultimate. Whereas people know fornication is sin, it is not so obvious that the reason for fornication is due to not being satisfied with God.
Not to belabor the point:
We can be assured that the Holy Spirit, for a time, will bring conviction upon the simplicity of fornication, but on what basis do we think that the Holy Spirit convicts sinners according to a complex derivation that concludes guilt for trying to find meaning and pleasure in self-centeredness?
Fornication is the corruption of something good for a myriad of complex reasons that are not necessarily clear to us. For instance, one might fornicate for a need for money, which could be due to expensive physical addictions that are no longer traceable to idolatry. Or, one might fornicate because of being turned over to sin because of idolatry. In other words, fornication can be punishment for idolatry but not due to an active pursuit of idolatry. One could even fornicate to get back at one’s parents, or to take vengeance on the spouse of their partner. One might commit such acts of the flesh to gain power over someone else, or because someone has gained power over her. One even might become increasingly idolatrous because he is a fornicator! One can develop physical dependence on fornication that no longer seeks the sin for idolatrous reasons. The pattern of sin can be circular rather linear. For instance, greed can be the source of increased idolatry by which increased idolatry gives way to more greed. In sum, the new gospel engages in a losing apologetic by getting into speculative analyses rather than sticking to sin and the offense of the cross.
The Spirit binds himself to revelation, not speculation:
The Spirit convicts according to the law of God. If one suppresses the pending judgment for fornication, then what hope is there that the alleged philosophical root of fornication will be any less suppressed? Would we plead with a postmodern serial killer on death row to confess his sin of murder, or would we ask him to search for the idolatrous intricate reasons for his sins so that he might repent of those?
How theologically abstract and removed from the immediate sin at hand do we really want to get, and which want of conformity to the law of God should take preeminence? By deifying created things (like fornication), we indeed manufacture idols of the heart. No Christian should question that. But isn’t idolatry often rooted in a lack of love for God, which can stem back even further to a lack of faith in God’s goodness? There’s a theological breadth and depth to sin that is eclipsed and trivialized by glossing it all over as idolatry.
It’s at best trite to map all sin to the one sin of idolatry. God gave us the Ten Commandments, not just the first of ten. Even if it were possible to trace all sin back to some broad understanding of idolatry, paradigmatic theology such as this ends up passing the granular particularity of sin through a filter so permeable that nothing specific to the individual is captured, while most everything passes through as indistinguishably irrelevant. Should we try to trace all sin back to pride, a lack of love, self-centeredness or any other root of evil? Or would a more biblical approach be to try to gently expose the sin that is obviously before us, in hope that God might be pleased to illuminate lost friends to other contributing sins, as we trust that in the light we might see light. (Psalm 36:9)
It’s beyond my pay grade to discern why a man would defile a women or why a women would ensnare a man. What I do know is one must repent of such sins and trust in Christ to be saved.
Perhaps the reason postmodernists don’t resist such gospel confrontation is because postmodernism has no place for the absolute truth of idolatry! Or perhaps it’s just because such an approach isn’t quick and powerful, or sharper than a two-edged sword. (It’s decidedly dull.) Yet even if our postmodernist friends, as they try to remain true to their worldview, were to acknowledge their subjective idolatry while trying to rid themselves of its fruits, then it wouldn’t be because idolatry is inherently and objectively sinful on God’s say-so, but because their anxiety is selfishly inconvenient, which itself is an idolatrous motivation!
Any offer of salvation that doesn’t offer the hope of forgiveness through the theology of the cross isn’t good news. It’s another gospel, which isn’t another. (Galatians 1:6,7)
As for the “gospel for the uncircumcised”, the Bible is clear.
When it comes to the question of the eternal state of those who’ve never heard of Jesus, at least three views have gained attention over the years, all of which entail Christ’s redemptive work.
1. Good works release Christ’s benefits.
2. The Holy Spirit baptizes people into Christ.
3. People will get a chance to receive Christ after death.
Let’s take a brief look at these views, though there are others.*
1. Good works release Christ’s benefits:
Evangelicals believe Christ’s redemptive work is the basis for man’s pardon and right standing before God. Notwithstanding, some evangelicals maintain that those who by no fault of their own never hear the gospel can be justified apart from faith in Christ. The work of Christ is necessary for salvation but because one cannot possibly believe in a Savior who remains unknown to them, there can be no faith by which the benefits of Christ’s saving work can be appropriated. Consequently, something other than faith in Christ is needed to release the benefits of the Christ. By framing one’s life according to the light of nature, it’s believed the un-evangelized can be saved. (Roman Catholicism teaches a similar view.)
There are many exegetical and theological problems with such a view, not the least of which is man’s depravity. Given that (a) without the grace of faith it is impossible to please God, and (b) unregenerate man can do no spiritual good – we are correct to infer that works of the flesh cannot be looked upon with divine favor. (Hebrews 11:6; WCF 16.7) Since the flesh profits nothing, we simply cannot righteously frame our lives according to the light of nature. (John 6:63) Apropos, even the good works unbelievers perform are a fruit of sinful passions that seek respectability and enlightened self-interest, not God’s glory and Fatherly approval. Consequently, framing our lives according to the light of nature apart from regeneration cannot result in divine favor and the reward of Christ’s redemption no matter how magnanimous the rewarder.
2. The Holy Spirit baptizes people into Christ:
This invites the question of whether regeneration unto union with Christ and all his saving benefits ever occurs apart from the ministry of the Word. In other words, since the works of the flesh can only accuse one who remains outside of Christ, might we expect that where the gospel has not been preached the Holy Spirit operatively unites some people to Christ and all his saving benefits without self-consciousness?
In response to this proposal, Scripture informs that we receive the rebirth through the living and abiding word of God. (1 Peter 1:23) Moreover, it is God’s will that fallen sinners are brought forth into the new creation by the word of truth. (James 1:18) Consequently, the Word-Spirit principle doesn’t bode well for hope of union with Christ apart from saving faith in Christ.
We’re not out of the woods yet. We must reconcile the promise to elect covenant children who die out of season with the promise to the elect who are afar off.
Although it is normative that the Holy Spirit works life by giving increase to the intelligible gospel, we may not dismiss salvific hope for the un-evangelized in a way that would undermine the salvation of elect infants dying in infancy. In other words, if elect infants dying in infancy are regenerate and united to Christ apart from cognizant faith, then why can’t unreached people groups be saved in the same way as infants? We must do justice to the hypothetical. May we expect that God sometimes unites to Christ those outside the covenant community apart from the ministry of the Word?
Given their cognitive limitations, infants of the faithful cannot be born again by means of the Spirit granting increase to a gospel message that is intelligible to them. Notwithstanding, we have biblical precedent to regard children of the faithful as God’s heritage in Christ. (CoD 1.17; WCF 10.3) Consequently, the Reformed tradition rightly maintains that God may be pleased to regenerate covenant children, those incapable of being called, and elect infants who die in infancy apart from them ever understanding the gospel and exercising saving faith. (2 Samuel 12:23; Psalm 103:17,18; Luke 1:15;41; CoD 1.17; WCF 10.3)
However, there is no biblical precedent whatsoever that suggests the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the cognitively mature that are providentially outside the orbit of gospel ministry. Moreover, it’s not merely pure speculation that some who abide in unreached lands ever live regenerate lives – the rhetorical force of Romans chapter ten would seem to settle the matter. Scripture alone must set our boundaries of expectation. God reaches the nations with the gospel. (Acts 18:10; Mt: 28:19,20)
3. People will get a chance to receive Christ after death:
Other evangelicals believe that faith in Christ alone is necessary for salvation but that those who of no fault of their own never hear the gospel can nonetheless be saved, but not by their good works! It is believed that Christ will be offered to the unreached after death. The rationale is grounded in God’s love for sinners and a subjective sense of fairness.
Such a position is decidedly undermined because it has been appointed for a man once to die and then the judgment. (Hebrews 9:27) And as before, the rhetorical force of Romans chapter ten precludes any other means of salvation for the nations other than God calling sinners to Christ through the preaching of the gospel between Christ’s two advents.
What’s behind such speculation?
What is perhaps most intriguing in all of this are the theological assumptions that seem to underpin such speculation. Since exegetical arguments don’t always persuade, we might want to consider briefly some of those assumptions in a more general way.
Would God be unjust or unloving to judge each one according to his works even if Christ is not preached to all?
Do all people deserve a salvific lifeline, or does the meaning of grace dispel such a notion?
Is there reason not to believe that God has seen fit to ensure that all who would believe (by grace) will be reached with the gospel in this life? My focus is on Calvinists. How biblically sensible is it to believe in unconditional election but not the ordained means of reaching those who have been chosen in Christ?
Let’s assume a free offer of the gospel after death. Would it make a difference?
To reject the gospel is to deny its prophetic validity. Those who do so, do so willfully. They suppress the impending judgment and scorn God’s redemptive love for sinners. They put off in disbelief their only hope in this life and the next. Whereas we who embrace the Savior are as unworthy as they. Some receive grace; others receive justice.
With our Calvinism in place, let’s push the mental reset button and imagine a depraved sinner who has never heard of Christ yet is offered salvation for the first time as he gazes into the fiery abyss, standing before Christ seated on a great white throne. Surely the truth of the gospel couldn’t be made plainer! Just imagine the scene. From the face of Christ both the earth and heaven have fled away. There is no place to hide. All men and women, boys and girls who were ever conceived are now at once standing before Christ on his throne. Imagine further all those who never heard of Jesus being given not an alter call but a call to the visible throne of God. Before the great white throne all who’ve never heard of Jesus are given a chance to receive the same Christ who was already freely offered in the gospel to all the rest.
If such a vivid and profound gospel invitation is warranted for those who for no fault of their own never heard the gospel, then given such an exceedingly more persuasive display of the message of repent or perish, would it not be “fair” for all to have a chance such as this? In other words, if it can be somehow deemed unfair, or out of character for God, not to give everyone a chance to receive Christ, how would it be fair not to give each person this same vivid offer and advantage to receive the Savior? In other words, would it be fair to grant some the sight of heaven and hell while others are only presented in this life the gospel in words, perhaps even badly through an impersonal gospel tract? Indeed, if the unreached are given such a chance as this to receive the Savior not by faith but by sight, then might it be more loving not to preach Christ at all so that all might benefit from such an extraordinary opportunity? After all, what would be more convincing, (a) Jesus on the throne and hell itself yawing before the unbeliever, or (b) the gospel declared by even the best of human preachers?
Back to our Calvinism:
Given the theology of electing grace, it’s up to God whether there is more persuasive power to save vis-à-vis the experiential visual of the final judgement than there is when redeemed sinners share the good news of Christ with far less urgency at a coffee shop. It’s God who persuades, not circumstances.
Are we even asking the right question?
The question at hand is will the gospel be offered after death? Let’s contextualize the question within biblical Calvinism.
There will be no more suppression of many gospel truths at the final judgement. The incarnation along with the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ will no longer be denied in unrighteousness. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus is Lord, all to the glory of God the Father. Moreover, we can expect that every person will cry out for mercy on that great and terrible day! Yet what I think is sometimes overlooked is that there’s a significant difference between crying out “have mercy on me” and contritely crying out “have mercy on me a sinner.” The first cry is of one who repudiates God’s just sentence against him. Whereas the second cry for mercy is from one who has been sovereignly granted the grace of repentance and faith.
So, with respect to those like Tim Keller and James Beilby who tenderly hold out hope for the unreached in this way, what do they think might occur? The only plea for mercy that will gain God’s attention is one in which God sovereignly grants repentance.So, the question we should be asking is not whether Christ will be offered at the judgement, but is there reason to believe that God will be pleased to convert at the judgment those who are still defying him? Perhaps more strikingly put, will God be drawing unconverted elect persons to himself after death while leaving other unconverted souls in their sin?
If the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus tells us anything, isn’t it that death is final and mankind will still try to instruct God even while in torment?
No matter how vivid – whether at the final judgement or through the preaching of one from the dead – no amount of chances to bend the knee and flee God’s wrath can soften the heart of fallen man. Enmity is a deep seated condition, while salvation through faith is the gift of God.
Some lose ends tied around the question of equitable punishment:
It is often wondered, how can a just payment for sin be everlasting given merely a lifetime of sin? The pat answer is that what seems disproportionate at first glance gains its proper proportion once we consider the infinitely holy and benevolent One who has been sinned against. That satisfies me. There’s a difference between sinning against one who has provoked us and sinning against One who is perfect and has only done good toward us. What also satisfies me is I see no reason to doubt that the damned will continue to store up an increase of wrath as they curse God forevermore. So, aside from properly proportioning our sins against an infinitely good and holy God, we have another answer for the professing atheists who have claimed along with annihilationists that it would be unjust to serve an infinite sentence for a mere lifetime of sin. Sin will continue throughout eternity, and those additional sins may be justly dealt with by God.
Lastly, nobody will have served an “infinite amount of time” in hell at any point throughout his entire sentence. Throughout eternity nobody will ever have suffered but a finite number of days. Eternity cannot be exhausted or traversed. So, the idea that a finite number of days oughtn’t deserve an infinite number of day’s penalty is a meritless complaint.
Hell is not a pleasurable contemplation. Those who’ve tried to find a “trap door” for those who’ve never heard of Jesus are, I believe, more keenly sensitive to the idea of eternal suffering than perhaps I. In a sense, I admire and respect such brothers and sisters in this regard. Just the same, we may not go beyond what Scripture teaches.
* Other views of Exclusivism include Universalism (everyone will be saved) and what I’ve labeled Counterfactual Inclusivism (those who would believe if offered the gospel will be granted salvation apart from the gospel).
In recent years the debates of the Reformation period have taken priority over the theology of the debates. Somehow possessing vast acquaintance with multiple sides of doctrinal disputes has in some circles become more academically impressive and pastorally relevant than possessing an intimate working-understanding of which doctrines are theologically Reformed and defensible. Consequently, there has not just been a blurring of Reformed confessional boundaries but, also, some churches and presbyteries have intentionally erased their doctrinal walls of protection. None of this is surprising once we consider that the formal teaching of systematic theology has at many institutions been relegated to historians rather than theologians. This phenomenon has opened the door to subjective and more novel takes on settled matters of theological intricacy. Stated differences and exceptions to confessional standards are not taken seriously. Pastors and ruling elders needn’t be acquainted with their confessions, let alone be theologians, as long as their views can be accompanied by a fragile appeal to confessional standards being a “consensus document” along with citing a scattered few seventeenth century theologians who held to sometimes esoteric views that did not win the confessional day. One can now earn an honorary degree of “Reformed orthodoxy” merely by possessing an air of historical understanding without actually subscribing to much of what was once upheld as Reformed theology.
A way back?
If we are to recapture objective confessional theology, we must stop confusing Reformed theology with Reformed theologians. The former is an objective consideration whereas the latter is a subjective matter of degree. A pastor can be more or less Reformed, but a doctrine either is or is not Reformed. Conflating the two leads to recasting “Reformed” theology in terms of a multitude of broadly based theologians rather than the particular Reformed confessions that were providentially produced by and through them.
From hereafter I’ll be referring to the Westminster standards as representative of confessional Reformed theology in the context of churches that on paper subscribe to it.
In ascertaining whether a particular doctrine is Reformed or not, we mustn’t fall prey to misleading slogans that deflect and obfuscate rather than define and defend. It is irrelevant that “good men have been on both sides of the issue” or that the doctrine under consideration is “not a test of orthodoxy.” It doesn’t even matter whether the doctrine in view is correct! When determining whether a particular doctrine is Reformed or not, the only question of relevance is whether the doctrine is contained in or necessitated by the confession of faith.
Reformed theology is just that, the theology of a Reformed confession. A doctrine is Reformed if it agrees with or is implied by confessional theology. Whether one’s professed theology is Reformed must be measured against an objective standard. Otherwise, what are we even talking about? Moreover, an acceptable doctrine might not be defined or implied by the confession. We may call such doctrine extra-confessional, but not all extra-confessional doctrines are un-confessional. Amillenialism and Postmillenialism are extra-confessional because the confession doesn’t take a position (implied or otherwise) on the triumph of the gospel in the world; whereas premillennialism is not only extra-confessional, it is also un-confessional because of the general resurrection and single judgement (WLC 87, 88). So, just because William Twisse was historical premillennial doesn’t mean he or his eschatology is Reformed in this regard. Similarly, the baptismal regeneration doctrine of Cornelius Burgess, which contemplates an infusion of grace for the elect at the font, is not Reformed because it’s un-confessional.
It should be apparent, if we were to allow the unfiltered theology of the Westminster Divines to define Reformed Theology for us, our confession would not be a fair representation of Reformed theology! Our confession could become contra-Reformed depending upon the particular theologian to which one might appeal for doctrinal precedent. Consequently, true Reformed theology cannot be defined by particular Divines but instead must be elucidated by the doctrinal standards they produced.
A “consensus” document does not preclude certain doctrines from having won the day. Certain Divines championed what is now settled un-confessional doctrine.
Regarding confessional status, any (a) direct contradiction of the confession or (b) extra-confessional teaching that leads to intra-confessional doctrinal contradiction may be confidently rejected for being un-confessional even if not explicitly refuted by the church’s standards (regardless if a delegate to the assembly held the view in question). Otherwise, we unnecessarily introduce incoherence and confusion into our system of doctrine. Also, any doctrine that is theologically derivable from other confessional doctrines must be considered no less confessional than the doctrines from which they come. Otherwise, we would not be able to refute on confessional grounds doctrinal claims that oppose the necessary implications of our own theology!
Let’s put some meat on the bones by making the abstract practical:
Any view of free will (e.g. libertarian freedom) that by implication entails that God is merely contingently infallible, not exhaustively omniscient, or undermines God’s independence and aseity, must be rejected as un-confessional. Conversely, if compatibilist type freedom is the only type of freedom that comports with confessional theology proper and the theological determinism of the divine decree (WCF 3.2), then such a doctrine of free will is Reformed and none other.
Even though the Divines didn’t have the advantage of the philosophical refinements of the past three hundred years, their system of doctrine requires the compatibility of free will, moral accountability and God’s determination of all things (including the free choices of men). Consequently, adherence to the Westminster standards in toto entails a rejection of libertarian Calvinism and, therefore, requires an affirmation of something else. (Richard Muller and Oliver Crisp are simply mistaken.)
So it is with John Davenant’s hypothetical universalism, which leads to intra-confessional doctrinal incoherence. If the salvation of the non-elect is not metaphysically possible, then hypothetical universalism’s most distinguishing feature (i.e., the possibility of the salvation of “vessels of wrath”) is false. After all, if it were truly possible that the non-elect might be saved, then God who believes all truth would believe contrary truths: (a) Smith might believe and (b) Smith won’t believe. Consequently, Davenant’s view of the atonement undermines a confessional understanding of God, and on that basis alone is un-confessional and must be rejected as being outside the Reformed tradition.
In addition to rejecting doctrine that would deny Reformed doctrine as plainly stated in the Confession, we must embrace other doctrines as no less Reformed than the Reformed teachings from which they derive. Things can get a bit more uncomfortable here, but that is what it is to do theology! Being Reformed entails a bit more than sipping peaty scotch from Islay while stroking our chins as we discuss the minutes and papers of the Westminster Assembly.
A few other Reformed doctrines that are no less confessional yet are derived by good and necessary inference:
By systemizing Reformed doctrine, we can infer other Reformed doctrines that the church does not always recognize as Reformed yet should.
With the recent enthusiasm over Thomas Aquinas and non-Reformed scholarship, attention has been directed away from Reformed doctrine and consequently away from necessary theological implications of that doctrine. The consequence has been that certain Reformed doctrines have been eclipsed either through ignorance, weakness, or our own deliberate fault.
For instance, it is plain vanilla Reformed doctrine to “disapprove of all false worship and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, along with all monuments of idolatry.” (WLC 108) It is also Reformed doctrine to consider the Roman Catholic mass a form of false worship and idolatrous. (WCF 25:5-6) Given that Reformed doctrine teaches that we are to pray that God’s kingdom come and that his precepts be done (WLC 191-192), it is derivable Reformed doctrine that Christians should desire the lawful removal of the centerpiece of Roman Catholic experience, the mass. But instead, rather than regarding the superstitious nature of transubstantiation as repugnant (Article 28 of 39), the unskilled in the Reformed tradition celebrate Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the chief apologist for the idolatry of the hocus pocus of the mass. It’s madness.
In the spirit of confessional fidelity, we may take no prisoners. When we combine the relatively well known confessional teaching about working on the sabbath with its counterpart teaching from WLC 99 pertaining to our moral duty toward those who do, we may validly deduce as Reformed theology that restaurants may not be patronized on Sundays. This is not a matter of subjective sabbath application that’s up for grabs, at least not by Reformed standards. It’s a good and necessary consequence of settled Reformed theology. Going to restaurants on Sunday entails sin by Reformed standards. One may reject that teaching, but let’s not pretend that to do so is not to reject a deducible tenet of Reformed confessional theology.
Given a Reformed understanding of marriage, divorce, covenant and vows, it’s easily derivable that divorce among professing believers for “abandonment” is to be accompanied by ecclesiastical censure.
By not “fencing the Table” the Reformed doctrine of the visible church is implicitly denied. (WCF 25:2,3; 26:2)
By intimating that children of professing believers join the church upon profession of faith is to deny the Reformed meaning of baptism and the doctrine of the visible church. (WCF 25:2; 28:1)
By not disciplining delinquent church members who depart and don’t in due time join another evangelical church, the doctrine of the visible church is violated. Also, the solemnity of lawful oaths and vows are compromised. (WCF 22:3,5; 25:2)
By condoning movies, books or nativities with images of Jesus, the Reformed teaching on the Second Commandment is denied. (WLC 109)
We could go on and on, but the point should be apparent. Pastors and elders are breaking their vows to uphold and defend their Confession. We’ve drifted.
The church and its darlings afford additional confusion:
A renowned Reformed theologian and popularizer-extraordinaire of Reformed theology denied certain Reformed doctrines such as the impeccability of Christ and the Christian sabbath. His view of the former unwittingly and unashamedly denied confessional Christology either by abstracting the human nature from the divine person or attributing personhood to the human nature. Either way, his doctrine of Christ had heretical underpinnings. (Who cared?) Whereas his view of the Christian sabbath entailed more explicit confessional denials. It’s relevant because it is widely believed by massive amounts of Christians and non-Christians alike that anything produced by his thriving ministry must be Reformed.
Conference speakers on Reformed theology often include pastors and leaders who are un-confessional in their convictions on the charismatic gifts, the sacraments and the return of Christ. The upshot is that those three doctrinal aberrations alone, if not of serious concern enough, entail further confessional conflict as they impinge upon the canon of Scripture; Christian liberty of conscience; the visible church; loving discipline of covenant children who fall away from the faith; the number of eschatological judgements; kingdom consummation; Israel and the church, and more. One of those speakers was for years wrong on the doctrines of justification and the eternal sonship of Christ, and to this day has not recanted of adding works to justifying faith! The relevance is, Reformed theology has consequently yet erroneously taken on broad meaning due to the church’s darlings.
Lastly, it is common practice to reduce Reformed theology to the “five points”. Obviously, that’s poor procedure. However, it is equally hazardous to think that TULIP does not put forth Reformed doctrine. Does TULIP sufficiently define Reformed thought? Of course not. But is it no longer necessary to subscribe to the soteriological doctrines of TULIP to be considered a Reformed theologian? A growing number are beginning to doubt the Reformed relevance of T and L, and I believe the trail of confusion can be traced back to a few church historians.
Needless to say, Reformed doctrine is intertwined, therefore, to deny one doctrine is to deny others. Notwithstanding, the main takeaway is that what traditionally defined the boundaries of Reformed orthodoxy has been exchanged for the individualistic theology of our favorite conference speaker, Twitter theologian or some historical theological figure who in God’s good providence failed to persuade his peers on failed doctrine. Such a mindset has led to Reformed doctrinal skepticism through unworkable inclusiveness. Consequently, the theology of our confession has become un-confessional depending on which Divine, darling or conference speaker defines “Reformed” for any given individual. We can do better. Indeed, we must do better(!), but pastors must begin leading their elders and congregations to a biblical theology that is not just “Reformed” but truly Reformed,which means confessional. May God be pleased to raise up leaders for a true modern reformation. Enough is enough.
Since the time of originally publishing the article, I’ve been asked about “Reformed Baptist” theology, and the alleged marginalization of other Reformed confessions.
The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith:
Although the Baptist Confession in large part tracks with the historical theology of the Reformed confessions in general (and the Westminster confession in particular), it nonetheless departs from Reformed doctrinal tradition (and catholic doctrine), most notably over the doctrines of the church and infant baptism.
If Reformed theology is to have a chance of internal consistency, then either the Westminster standards or the confession of 1689 must be representative of Reformed theology on those two points of theology.
The Westminster standards calls the Baptist practice of withholding baptism (and by implication the denial of infants their covenantal standing in the visible church) great sin. Consequently, if Reformed doctrine extends so far as to entail contrary positions, then persons and confessions cannot be Reformed without contradiction.
This isn’t at all like amillennialism vs. postmillenialism, which are extra-confessional considerations that aren’t un-confessional. Rather, given the explicitly stated doctrinal differences over baptism and ecclesiastical covenantal standing, at least one confession must be false and both cannot be Reformed.
If infant baptism is wrong, then Reformed baptism is wrong and the Reformed didn’t reform enough. The common assertion from Baptists is that the Reformed did not reform enough; yet that presupposes infant baptism is both wrong and Reformed! After all, wasn’t there a Reformed view of baptism prior to 1689? Well, what was it? That’s why one group is called Reformed and the other is called Reformed Baptist. “Reformed Paedo-Baptist” is simply redundant.
An exhaustive argument for infant baptism can be found here.
Other Reformed documents:
Regarding other Reformed doctrinal statements such as those that comprise the Three Forms of Unity (3FU), the same principle of reasoning applies. If there are contrary doctrines between 3FU and the Westminster standards, at least one set of documents must be false and both cannot be Reformed if being Reformed entails the possibility of no contradictions.
For ease of discussion and giventhe expansive nature of the Westminster standards, I noted toward the outset:
That’s hardly a novel concept, as we see it utilized by James Anderson an Paul Manata in their interaction with Oliver Crisp and Richard Muller: “Taking the Westminster Confession of Faith as representative of the Reformed tradition…”
Suggesting that one confession was exalted over another is not only false but also self-refuting if it’s thought that (a) there is no contradiction between the various sets of doctrine and (b) the Westminster standards are not missing any essential doctrine* of Reformed theology or adding anything contrary to the tradition. (*Is there a doctrine that is missing from the Westminster standards that precludes it from being an adequate representation of Reformed theology?)
To disagree with (a) leads us back to: “If there are contrary doctrines between 3FU and the Westminster standards, at least one set of documents must be false and both cannot be Reformed if being Reformed entails the possibility of no contradictions.”
Yet if the disagreement is with (b), then it’s curious why after multiple requests no attempt was made to show that the Westminster standards are lacking in any essential doctrine of Reformed theology or adding un-Reformed doctrine.
Perhaps the interlocutors realized at least on some psychological level that to have posited (a) or (b) would undermine either the consistency of the Reformed tradition or the adequacy of the Westminster standards as representing the tradition they claim as their own.
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