Monthly Archives: August 2014

Week 3 of 8 in Bunyan: Looking Through a Mirror Dimly

There are many nuggets in this week’s assignment (paragraphs 86-127) in Grace Abounding, but paragraphs 117-120, and 125 have captured my attention the most.

After having endured a long onslaught of temptations which Bunyan described as a storm, he found much wisdom in Mr. Gifford’s counsel when it came to appropriating the truths of Scripture to one’s soul (emphasis added):

117. At this time, also, I sat under the ministry of holy Mr. Gifford, whose doctrine, by God’s grace, was much for my stability. This man made it much his business to deliver the people of God from all those faults and unsound rests that, by nature, we are prone to take and make to our souls. He pressed up to take special heed that we took not up any truth upon trust—as from this, or that, or any other man or men—but to cry mightily to God that He would convince us of the reality thereof, and set us down therein, by His own Spirit, in the holy Word; for, said he, if you do otherwise when temptations come, if strongly, you, not having received them with evidence from heaven, will find you want that help and strength now to resist as once you thought you had.

An important point to note here is that true, evangelical faith is grounded in the Word of God.  It cannot grow or hold firm in any other soil.  When I used to teach the WSC to fourth graders, I always brought Scripture to bear on every element of doctrine contained therein, because, as true as the catechism may be, the believer mustn’t believe the catechism because it is the catechism, but only insofar as the catechism aligns with the truths of Scripture.  In other words, our faith isn’t in the catechism, but in God, and we know Him as he has revealed himself to us through his inspired word.  The last sentence in paragraph 125 is especially poignant in this regard: “O friends! Cry to God to reveal Jesus Christ unto you; there is none teacheth like Him.”

Not having been raised in a confessional denomination, I can relate to the process Bunyan described in becoming convinced of the reality of a doctrine.  I came to believe the doctrines of grace by a sort of slow “ground war.”  I only came, for instance, to believe in particular atonement after praying for the Lord to reveal the truth of the matter to me, followed by roughly a year of diligent study of the Scriptures.  I conceded at the outset that God could have done whatever he chose to do in the matter, but I had to be grounded in what Scripture taught.  And I found the Lord to be an excellent teacher.  As Bunyan put it, there is, indeed, none that teaches like Him.

And yet, the teaching is never done in this life, because we look through a mirror dimly.  I used to think that Paul, there in 1 Cor. 13:12, was referring to a man seeing his own condition as he looked into the word.  I am indebted to Calvin for his insight on the passage, for he pointed out that it is through the Scriptures, chiefly, that we behold not our face, but God’s (Calvin’s Commentaries, available online, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom39.xx.iii.html):

In the first place, there can be no doubt that it is the ministry of the word, and the means that are required for the exercise of it, that he compares to a looking-glass For God, who is otherwise invisible, has appointed these means for discovering himself to us. At the same time, this may also be viewed as extending to the entire structure of the world, in which the glory of God shines forth to our view, in accordance with what is stated in Romans 1:16; and 2 Corinthians 3:18. In Romans 1:20 the Apostle speaks of the creatures as mirrors, in which God’s invisible majesty is to be seen; but as he treats here particularly of spiritual gifts, which are subservient to the ministry of the Church, and are its accompaniments, we shall not wander away from our present subject.

The ministry of the word, I say, is like a looking-glass For the angels have no need of preaching, or other inferior helps, nor of sacraments, for they enjoy a vision of God of another kind; and God does not give them a view of his face merely in a mirror, but openly manifests himself as present with them. We, who have not as yet reached that great height, behold the image of God as it is presented before us in the word, in the sacraments, and, in fine, in the whole of the service of the Church. This vision Paul here speaks of as partaking of obscurity — not as though it were doubtful or delusive, but because it is not so distinct as that which will be at last afforded on the final day. He teaches the same thing in other words, in the second Epistle — (2 Corinthians 5:7) — that, so long as we dwell in the body we are absent from the Lord; for we walk by faith, not by sight.

Our faith, therefore, at present beholds God as absent. How so? Because it sees not his face, but rests satisfied with the image in the mirror; but when we shall have left the world, and gone to him, it will behold him as near and before its eyes.

Hence we must understand it in this manner — that the knowledge of God, which we now have from his word, is indeed certain and true, and has nothing in it that is confused, or perplexed, or dark, but is spoken of as comparatively obscure, because it comes far short of that clear manifestation to which we look forward; for then we shall see face to face.  Thus this passage is not at all at variance with other passages, which speak of the clearness, at one time, of the law, at another time, of the entire Scripture, but more especially of the gospel. For we have in the word (in so far as is expedient for us) a naked and open revelation of God, and it has nothing intricate in it, to hold us in suspense, as wicked persons imagine; but how small a proportion does this bear to that vision, which we have in our eye!  Hence it is only in a comparative sense, that it is termed obscure.

The adverb then denotes the last day, rather than the time that is immediately subsequent to death. At the same time, although full vision will be deferred until the day of Christ, a nearer view of God will begin to be enjoyed immediately after death, when our souls, set free from the body, will have no more need of the outward ministry, or other inferior helps.

 Corinth was well known for its mirrors, which makes Paul’s reference in 1 Cor. 13:12 all the more pertinent to his initial audience.  Those mirrors of polished metal didn’t give as true a reflection as modern ones do.  Similarly, as Calvin noted, the sight which saints behold in heaven is far more glorious than what we enjoy now through his word.  And yet what a joy it is to seek and find his face as he commands (Psa. 27:8)!  As we do so, we prepare ourselves for the putting off of this body so that we can finally see him face to face, and be satisfied:

“As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.”  (Psa. 17:15, ESV)

 

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Week 2 of 8 in Bunyan: A Similitude of Clean & Unclean

The similitude in Grace Abounding that Bunyan observed between clean and unclean beasts and professing Christians is both striking and insightful:

71. I was almost made, about this time, to see something concerning the beasts that Moses counted clean and unclean. I thought those beasts were types of men; the clean, types of them that were the people of God; but the unclean, types of such as were the children of the wicked one. Now, I read that the clean beasts chewed the cud; that is, thought I, they show us we must feed upon the Word of God. They also parted the hoof; I thought that signified we must part, if we would be saved, with the ways of ungodly men. And also, in further reading about them I found that though we did chew the cud as the hare, yet if we walked with claws like a dog, or if we did part the hoof like the swine, yet if we did not chew the cud as the sheep, we were still, for all that, but unclean; for I thought the hare to be a type of those that talk of the Word, yet walk in the ways of sin; and that the swine was like him that parted with his outward pollutions, but still wanteth the Word of faith, without which there could be no way of salvation, let a man be never so devout (Deut. 14). After this I found, by reading the Word, that those that must be glorified with Christ in another world must be called by Him here; called to the partaking of a share in His Word and righteousness, and to the comforts and first fruits of His Spirit, and to a peculiar interest in all those heavenly things which do indeed fore fit the soul for that rest and house of glory which is in heaven above.

In some Reformed circles today it is fashionable to refer to sanctification as nothing more than getting used to one’s justification.  To be an authentic Christian, you need to be in realistic about your sinfulness, and where sin abounds, it is said that grace does much more abound. This type of lifestyle, void of personal holiness but reveling in doctrinal precision, falls into Bunyan’s unclean category of those who chew the cud (feed upon the Word of God) but do not part the hoof (walk in the ways of sin).

The other situation may be found where the doctrines of grace are not so prominent.  Someone may be very faithful in church attendance and outwardly righteous (parting the hoof) but yet have no delight or faith in the Lord and in the end wind up seeking to be justified by personal merit (not chewing the cud).

Both situations share a common assessment: they are an abomination to the Lord (Deut. 14:3), because they are not of faith.  Saving faith is active, efficacious, and unfailingly evident, as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 14:

1. The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, (Heb. 10:39) is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, (2 Cor. 4:13, Eph. 1:17–19, Eph. 2:8) and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, (Rom. 10:14,17) by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened. (1 Pet. 2:2, Acts 20:32, Rom. 4:11, Luke 17:5, Rom. 1:16–17)

2. By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; (John 4:42, 1 Thess. 2:13, 1 John 5:10, Acts 24:14) and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, (Rom. 16:26) trembling at the threatenings, (Isa. 66:2) and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. (Heb. 11:13, 1 Tim. 4:8) But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace. (John 1:12, Acts 16:31, Gal. 2:20, Acts 15:11)

3. This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; (Heb. 5:13–14, Rom. 4:19–20, Matt. 6:30, Matt. 8:10) may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: (Luke 22:31–32, Eph. 6:16, 1 John 5:4–5) growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, (Heb. 6:11–12, Heb. 10:22) who is both the author and finisher of our faith. (Heb. 12:2)

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Week 1 of 8 in Bunyan’s Grace Abounding: Honey from the Carcass of a Lion

To have had so little formal education, Bunyan could certainly turn a memorable phrase using texts of scripture with great insight.  Addressing his children in the preface to Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan employed marvelously instructive imagery (bold emphases mine):

I have sent you here enclosed, a drop of that honey, that I have taken out of the carcase of a lion (Judg. 14.5-9). I have eaten thereof myself also, and am much refreshed thereby. (Temptations, when we meet them at first, are as the lion that roared upon Samson; but if we overcome them, the next time we see them, we shall find a nest of honey within them.) The Philistines understand me not.

In this discourse of mine you may see much; much, I say, of the grace of God towards me. I thank God I can count it much, for it was above my sins and Satan’s temptations too. I can remember my fears, and doubts, and sad months with comfort; they are as the head of Goliath in my hand. There was nothing to David like Goliath’s sword, even that sword that should have been sheathed in his bowels; for the very sight and remembrance of that did preach forth God’s deliverance to him. Oh, the remembrance of my great sins, of my great temptations, and of my great fears of perishing for ever! They bring afresh into my mind the remembrance of my great help, my great support from heaven, and the great grace that God extended to such a wretch as I.

If you are like me upon your first reading of Grace Abounding, you may grow anxious for Bunyan finally to obtain a settled hope.  I lost track, on my first pass, of the number of times he would note how long he continued in a certain state of doubt or anxiety: sometimes weeks, months, even a year or more!  In our instant-everything society today, how many of us have the stamina required to go toe-to-toe with such doubts for so long?  I know I didn’t endure such an ordeal when I came to Christ.

However, I can still identify with much of what Bunyan describes, but the timing is different.  I am immensely grateful for the insight Bunyan shared in this regard in yet another of his books, The Jerusalem Sinner Saved (bold emphasis mine):

The biggest sinners have usually great contests with the devil at their partings; and this is an help to saints; for ordinary saints find afterwards what the vile ones find at first, but when, at the opening of hearts, the one finds himself to be as the other – the one is a comfort to the other. The lesser sort of sinners find but little of this till after they have been some time in profession; but the vile man meets with this at the beginning.”

So think about this as you read through Grace Abounding.  If you haven’t been as great a sinner as Bunyan described himself to be, I wonder if, like me, you find you have struggled with many of the same issues since coming to faith in Christ.  I have heard some of the same things from Satan after conversion that Bunyan dealt with up front: you’ve committed the unpardonable sin, there’s no more grace for you, your situation is unique, etc.  But Satan is a liar, and the father of lies.  By grace through faith I have appropriated to my soul the truth of the words of the hymn by John Newton, Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat:

Bowed down beneath a load of sin, by Satan sorely pressed, by war without and fears within, I come to Thee for rest.

Be Thou my Shield and hiding Place, that, sheltered by Thy side, I may my fierce accuser face, and tell him Thou hast died!

O wondrous love! to bleed and die, to bear the cross and shame, that guilty sinners, such as I, might plead thy gracious name.

Poor tempest-tossed soul, be still; my promised grace receive; ’tis Jesus speaks — I must, I will, I can, I do believe.

 Praise be to Him for his unspeakable gift!

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Reading Schedule for John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners

Grace Abounding Reading Schedule

We are days away from starting our next selection: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan.  I think the group will find this a much easier read than Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity, and it will take us only about a fourth as long to finish it (should complete by October 9th).  The links have been updated to take those interested in using an online version.

 

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Week 24 (final) in Fisher: Judging the book . . .

The reference to Fisher’s tripartite view of the law by the “Marrow Brethren” in their response to query 11 in the appendix caught my attention such that I had to go back to the outline and table of contents to note what they were, as found in the Marrow, namely: 1) the law of works; 2) the law of faith, or the covenant of grace; and 3) the law of Christ.

Way back at the beginning of chapter three of part one of the Marrow is where we find Fisher’s definition of the law of Christ:

“The law of Christ, in regard of substance and matter, is all one with the law of works, or covenant of works. Which matter is scattered through the whole Bible, and summed up in the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, commonly called the moral law, containing such things as are agreeably to the mind and will of God, that is piety towards God, charity towards our neighbour, and sobriety towards ourselves. And therefore was it given of God to be a true and eternal rule of righteousness, for all men, of all nations, and at all times.”

Fisher’s definition and application of the law of Christ, at its core, simply showed the role of the Ten Commandments in the covenant of works and in the covenant of grace. I think this is why the Marrow Brethren said that this formulation by Fisher was orthodox, but not essential to their purposes since they only sought to maintain the distinction between the law of works and the covenant of grace. Fisher argued that a believer may not receive the Ten Commandments from the hand of Moses as a rule of life (seeking to be justified thereby as pertaining to the covenant of works) but only from the hand of Christ (thus saying “do this from life” as opposed to “do this and live”).

By asserting the “eternal rule of righteousness” of the just the moral law as found in the Old Testament, Fisher kept to the Reformed position which holds that the civil laws of the Mosaic economy are no longer in force, as seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 19, sections 2 and 3, and rightly avoided theonomy:

  1. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty towards God, and the other six our duty to man.
  2. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws containing several typical ordinances; partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the New Testament.

In retrospect, we should note that Fisher devoted over half (56%) of part one of the Marrow to chapter two on the covenant of grace alone, and second to that was chapter three on the law of Christ which made up another 31%. So chapters two and three taken together comprised 87% of part one! Hence it is no small amount of labor Fisher undertook to show the continuity and discontinuity between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace and how Christ fulfilled the covenant of works on behalf of his people, in chapter two. And then he came right back in chapter three and did a masterful job of showing how the moral law is still binding on believers today along with its role in sanctification and assurance, all the while avoiding salvation by works throughout. I suspect that the contents of chapters two and three of part one loomed large in Sinclair Ferguson’s appreciation for the Marrow. Those two chapters earned my esteem and appreciation for this fictional but wonderfully instructive and theologically rich dialogue contrived by a seventeenth century English barber, which goes to show that you can’t judge a book . . . by its cutter!

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